Haven’t We Seen This One Before?

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland took around a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. A hit, undoubtedly. Yet it is very rare to come across anyone who enjoyed it. Bloated, overlong and banal, it left you with that jaded feeling of boredom which tends to follow exposure to a surfeit of style. So how come it sold so many tickets?

In a word: hype. Hype is the engine which currently runs and disfigures the best part of our cultural output. Like numerous other big releases, Alice in Wonderland was endlessly previewed, analysed and effectively promoted by a 24-hour print and broadcast media desperate — as it always is — for content to fill the vistas of time and empty supplement space.

So it is hardly surprising that the average punter, after exposure to all of this, forms the opinion that the thing in question has indeed been reviewed and found to be brilliant. I’ve lost count of the times I have overhead the excited line, “oh yeah, I really want to see that, it’s meant to be great.” Well, who has told them it’s “great”? Certainly not we critics. For starters, most of us don’t get to see the new releases until the tail-end of the publicity tsunami. No, it is a kind of media group-think — a mixture of bottom-line commercial interests and sycophantic hacks — which has told them it is “great” and worth their time and money. And they are, more often than not, being set up for disappointment.

In such a context, critics are increasingly regarded as minor irritants, an annoying distraction. It is not difficult to foresee a time when criticism as a meaningful and valid vocation is considered obsolete. Critics are already falling like ninepins in America, so we’ll doubtless follow suit here. Not that this should be seen purely as the result of the march of commercial interests, steamrolling finer considerations and higher sensibilities, although that certainly plays a part. The de-intellectualising of our culture, the obsession with not appearing to exercise judgment and, of course, our old friend cultural relativism have all played a part in undermining the critic’s role.

But, in this Golden Age of Hype, never was it more needed. So we cling on. Which brings me to Burton’s latest offering, Dark Shadows, a film version of a cult American TV series from way back when, about a 200-year-old vampire who finds himself resuscitated in counter-cultural, hippy-dippy 1972. Burton’s stalwart leading man, Johnny Depp, plays the creature, Barnabas Collins, who returns just in time (he hopes) to save his descendants from economic ruin at the hands of the very witch (Eva Green) who cast him into blood-sucking darkness all those years before.

You’re probably asking, even on the basis of this skimpy outline, how she has managed to survive for 200 years and adapt perfectly well to ever changing fashions and ways while our hero has had to languish in a coffin six feet under. To this question, we get no answer. In fact there are so many narrative loose ends in this film you could be forgiven for thinking the script was the result of one of those party games of Chinese whispers, where everybody adds a little bit to a story without knowing what comes before or after.

 Instead of plot, we have a host of characters, who have lines but no discernible point. Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Burton) plays the family’s in-house shrink but is given nothing of any consequence to do, and certainly nothing funny to say, which surely would be the only point in having her there in the first place. As the family matriarch, Michelle Pfeiffer makes an extremely rare movie appearance but, again, is barely used. Once a leading lady of quite extraordinary beauty, Pfeiffer is still in remarkable shape, although here she doesn’t so much move as position herself, as though she were nervous that too rapid a movement would reveal the cruel passing of the years.

Like Alice, this film has all the Burton trademarks: crumbling houses, hollowed-out eyes on pale faces, a pseudo-gothic musical score by Danny Elfman. But that really is all there is. It’s a big load of nothing: no laughter, no frights, no wit. Even Barnabas’s reactions to the modern world are underplayed and sporadic: he marvels at the television yet never mentions the way people around him are dressed. And the famed Burton “darkness” is little more than a stylistic tic nowadays, which tends to make you question whether it was ever anything else. Dark Shadows will probably make a mint, but it’s terrible, and it really shouldn’t.

 When the word on a forthcoming film is bad, studios will sometimes dispense altogether with screenings for critics. Perhaps this was the case with The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy, because the bulk of us were denied a preview. Instead, a “select” group of critics were invited to the much-coveted premiere, an unusual development but one which, sadly, rather chimes with my pessimism about our future. And in this case, it was an odd move, because the film is good.

I wrote last month that it was some time since I’d heard an audience laugh as one. Well, I did in the packed West End cinema where I saw this satire on third-world dictatorships — great gales of laughter, which had about them a sense of relief, of pressure being let out. 

Baron Cohen makes a point of mocking the various strictures and platitudes of political correctness, so those who live to be offended on behalf of others will find plenty of sustenance here. Few groups, races or creeds are let off the hook, although here he is especially funny at skewering happy-clappy victim-fixated liberals.   

Borat and Bruno, his two earlier efforts, made you wince and squirm at their Candid Camera approach, but recoil too from their cruelty and crudeness. His latest movie has a more straightforward, scripted approach, and actually works better.

It is too even-handed to be politically partisan, and this is sometimes irritating: there are some prolonged digs at America, which you sense have been added so as not to appear too right-wing or racist, and they’re also some of the weaker gags.

 But it is not required of satire to be “balanced” — indeed it would be the death of it. Rather than mocking everybody, Baron Cohen would be most effective if he chose one target and stuck to it. Meanwhile, however, he remains one of the few really watchable comic actors on screen.

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