My Chickapea!

What’s Wrong with the ’90s?

I just watched Nell, where Jodie Foster plays a “wild woman,” an almost feral child who was raised in Squalor, West Virginia. She gives an amazing performance, in and out of the nude. At times it is as smarmy as Gump, but I truly enjoyed this movie. Liam Neeson Plays a local doctor who discovers her when he goes to check on one of his elderly lady patients who lives out in the sticks, but she’s passed away and he finds Nell, her secret daughter.

Nell has never learned to speak properly because the old woman had palsy; I won’t tell more, because the story that unfolds is what will keep you gripped to the screen. Admittedly, I’ve always been fond of stories in Appalachia, and while this does have the ’90s taint of the feel-good movie, and an insipid soundtrack, it’s a rewarding film to view. Maybe a bit long, maybe a tad predictable, but Neeson and Foster give enjoyable performances that make it time well spent. And from a pervy point of view, if you think Jodie Foster is hot, you get to see her au naturel and in her prime here. If John Hinckley saw this film, he’d explode.

What’s Wrong with the ’90s: Chaplin

What’s Wrong With the ’90s?

And yes, one more feature is born: What’s Wrong with the ’90s. I started thinking about it when I popped in Men at Work, that somewhat enjoyable garbage man comedy with Keith David, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez for an ’80s Trash of the Week. It felt … off. And I realized why. And this minor feature came to be. There are plenty of great movies from the ’90s, but the early part of the decade embraced the smarminess born in the reaction to Reaganomics, and the movies all had to be mini Comic Relief-a-thons, where it was only okay to laugh if 10% of someone’s profits were going to help the homeless.
Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. made a big splash and then disappeared, perhaps because the media was more interested in Downey’s drug problems at the time. This review has been sitting around since June, waiting for me to be inspired to write more about this movie, but unfortunately it deserves to be remembered only for Downey’s performance. It really is a bit of a mess, and epitomizes that early ’90s fear of offending anybody, love of madcap nostalgia without understanding why we loved it, and so on.

It plays like a much older film, and I’m sure that’s the intention. The credits open over Downey removing the famous Tramp make-up slowly, to show us the legend of Charlie Chaplin being unmasked. The rest of the script is just as clumsy, and Downey’s performance is the real meat of the film. In the first few minutes we see young Charlie outshine his mother at a stage show, which breaks her spirit so she never sings again; this leads to eviction and the boys being sent to workhouses (England has always been rather barbaric) where Charlie evades the guards in a Keystone Kops style chase, and digs a boot out of the muck, foreshadowing the famous scene in The Gold Rush. All voiced over by George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) as he works with Chaplin on his autobiography.

We don’t see Downey’s excellent performance until 18 minutes in, when his brother gets him a job doing slapstick in a burlesque show. And finally, the film draws us in. Most memorable is Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, falling from grace as former partner Mary Pickford becomes the richest woman in America; less appealing are sloppy subplots where Chaplin insults J. Edgar Hoover, inspiring the man’s vendetta against him, Charlie saying that talkies “will never catch on” while he and Fairbanks play on the Hollywood(land) sign, his first divorce inspiring his first hit The Kid with Jackie Cooper. The movie lingers on his young skirt-chasing habits, and Milla Jovovich plays one of them in an early role.
The film is really a big mess held together by Downey’s excellent performance and that of several supporting players. The bookends of Charlie dictating his biography, leaving out things he feels are uninteresting, is simply bad screenwriting. Attenborough repeatedly mimics Chaplin’s slapstick to add some liveliness to a dreary long film where he stumbles from one underage ingenue to another, while his brother continually warns him to be a good Jew and not anger the gentiles during America’s early flirtations with fascism before WW2. It’s very episodic and seems made by committee, and never captures the sentimentality of the man’s great films. Instead, it gives us brief snippets of moments in his life that supposedly inspired his films.
I expected to love this and write a huge glowing review of an underappreciated ’90s gem, but watching made me realize why it was forgotten. It fails as an epic, and Downey’s excellent performance would have been better served in a much smaller film that didn’t re-enact Chaplin’s classics, but tried to show us the man, or concentrated on just part of his life. His influence on film and popular culture is incalculable, and his courage in spitting in Hitler’s eye and that of the Red Scare witch hunts was heroic; sure he liked young tail, but that doesn’t make him a tragic hero. This is a movie best viewed with a stack of Chaplin DVDs afterward.

To give an idea of how popular Fairbanks and Chaplin were, this is a photo of them shilling for war bonds during the Great War.