Dreamgirls

The buzz stops here. Dreamgirls, featuring a dream cast and a writer/director whom I greatly admire, is an over-rated, under-nourished melodrama. That’s heavy on the melo, light on the drama.

In a thinly-veiled parody of several Motown legends, Dreamgirls tells the story of the rise of three back-up singers to soulsista stardom. Anika Noni Rose’s character wants to lose her virginity, does, and the movie quickly forgets about her. Effie, the chunky diva with the pipes (played by American Idol aspirant Jennifer Hudson) has the big dreams. But Deena (Beyonce Knowles) has the looks. They fall out over a man, but come back together after Effie has earned some R-E-S-P-E-C-T as a solo artist. Yawn.

I’m not a fan of musicals, as a genre. But I know a good one means I’m humming the music as I leave the theatre. If my lips made a humming sound after the movie ended, it was a snore. Dreamgirls‘ biggest failing is that the songs don’t even approach the heart, funk and soul of the period’s real hits. Where a movie like Ray had a plot that was made thin by some heavy music, Dreamgirls‘ music is as anorexic as its plot is anemic. Neither an oil-slick turn by Jamie Foxx nor Eddie Murphy riffing on Jerry Lee Lewis then Stevie Wonder then James Brown can save the soul of this predictable picture.

Dreamgirls‘ one moment of genuine emotional and musical chills is when Jennifer Hudson is left alone at the midpoint to sing “I’m Telling You.” Her body shakes in paroxysms as if she were giving birth to an oracle. “You won’t leave me” she sings to her beau, and every other major character. But as the meltdown went on, and on, and on — to leave is exactly what I desired. Who could blame the other characters for leaving her? I stuck out the rest of the movie, but I wish I had ducked into Happy Feet instead. A CGI Antarctica would’ve warmed my heart more than the unearned finale of Dreamgirls.

I am sad that a writer/director of Bill Condon’s talent has followed the masterful Kinsey with such fluff, and even sadder that it has been acritically embraced by critics. The movie waits what seems like five songs to establish the traditional musical convention of characters breaking spontaneously into song. I think we are meant to be seduced into it, but the effect is just jarring. Oscar committee: do not be seduced!

Fast Food Nation

While cheeseburgers like Dreamgirls suck up the Oscar oxygen, organic greens like Fast Food Nation quietly wither. Featuring its own all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandina Moreno, Kris Kristofferson, Luiz Guzman), Fast Food Nation manages to have both rich characters and a healthy explanation of our modern food chain. It is not a preachy movie, but it doesn’t shrink from preaching. The climactic sequence, where we finally see the ‘kill floor’ of the meatpacking plant, made one of the few audience members at the local art house theater decorate a urinal in the men’s room with his dinner.

Fast Food Nation has a lot of flaws. Sub-plots, notably one about local robbers of fast food restaurants, and the whole main thread following Greg Kinnear’s marketing executive, go nowhere. Still, Linklater seems to have mastered meandering. We are treated to some great lines (“They’d cut your throat for a nickel. Nothing personal, they just want the extra nickel.” “Right now the most patriotic thing I can think of is to violate the Patriot Act.”) The characters all behave in ways that seems perfectly real, and that makes the whole grand tragedy the more tragic. I think of Fast Food Nation as the domestic obverse of last year’s Syriana: the first cinematic attempts to make a protagonist of industry since Eisenstein. As industry waxes they say, humanity wanes. To Linklater and co-writer Eric Schlosser, the invisible hand of the market has us all, rich and poor, in a choke-hold. Participant Films, who in a brief span of time have made cause movies a cause to celebrate, offer such helpful ways to participate as ‘post a photo of America Generica and rant about it.’

What the movie shows that its participate.net website ignores is that most action is at cross purposes to intent. When a group of passionate teenagers seek to unfence the cattle awaiting slaughter, the cattle haven’t the sense to run free. A metaphor for people too.