Happy Birthday, Paul Newman! Five films you would have made better

Categories: Film

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Improves everything.
Today is the birthday of Newman's Own best selling product, the late Paul Newman, everyone's favorite cool-eyed and irreverent actor/philanthropist. He can't so much celebrate his birthday, being deceased, but everyone else can -- and surely they will, running some retrospective of the man and his work. We, too, feel that clinging to the past is the easiest way to ignore the future, so here's some modern pieces of cinematic art that should have had Paul Newman in them, but sadly didn't.

Public Enemies

The Part: Melvis Purvis, originally played by Christian Bale.

The Movie: Michael Mann's Public Enemies was supposed to be Heat in the early 1930s, but the results were less Heat, more Righteous Kill. Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, criminal mastermind and outlaw folk hero, while Christian Bale plays the FBI agent tracking Dillinger to bring him to justice (kill him in the street).

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The Problem: Mann's movies are always an exercise in cold technicality, not unlike the sociopathic professionals he explores in his work. The way around this is to finally hire Johnny Depp, an actor so charismatic and lovable that the audience has no choice but to connect and relate to him and his desires. Bale, however, defines his character by his distant professionalism, and he'd rather shoot something than express his fears or doubts (or utter a contraction. He does not use contractions). Thus the film becomes desperately one-sided in Dillinger's favor, becoming a story of a very nice 1930s criminal rock star being brutally shot down by the FBI, instead of the cat-and-mouse who-do-I-root-for complexity of Mann's masterpiece, Heat. Which is probably why at the beginning you were like, "Dude, Melvin Purvis wasn't even a lead in Public Enemies."

How Newman Would Fix It: Newman had already played characters with Purvis' background -- his grew-up-a-poor-country-boy-but-look-at-how-capable-he-is-now role in the Young Philadelphians was an early success -- and his inherently rebellious persona never stopped him from making movies about accepting duty. In fact, it helped with his easy relatability. It would add credence to the idea that Purvis's mission was one he thought righteous -- here is a man that seems to have the capability, if not the tendency, to break the rules, but believing in Hoover's vision, he becomes an unstoppable agent of law, willing to kill to uphold the ideal, and perfectly aware that doing so would cast him as the villain in mainstream American culture. His slide into his own morally gray hell and eventual suicide would seem like the tragic inevitability of someone who had been duped into denying their very nature. Similar to the way Dillinger thought he was untouchable and discovered otherwise (bang bang), Purvis would be forced to realize that he's not always right.

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I Love You Phillip Morris

The Part: Steven Russel, originally played by Jim Carrey

The Movie: Based on a true story, Steven Russel, con artist, impostor, and thief falls in love with fellow prison inmate Phillip Morris, then breaks out of jail four times to be reunited with him.

The Problem: Jim Carrey plays the part kinda like an In Living Color sketch. While consistently better than he is in every large budget studio picture he makes, Carrey is never able to find the heart or humanity inside of Russel and connect to it the way he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, probably his finest performance to date. He goes big and he goes brash, leaving the emotional weight of the story to fall on the very capable shoulders of Ewan McGregor, who is inexplicably in love with someone that appears to be nothing more than a sociopath. McGregor more than delivers, making us feel the universal pain of being away from someone we love, despite that fact that his love is a lying criminal who appears to care only about his own desires, one of which happens to be the titular Phillip Morris.

How Newman Would Fix It: Take the calm confidence and capability of Newman in The Sting, the manipulative ambition of him in Slapshot, add a dose of flaming homosexual HUD and have him escape prison a lot, like Cool Hand Luke. Newman was one of the kings of expressing a backlog of completely introspective motivation, adding a human dimension to a whole mess of characters that would otherwise have been nothing more than callow and self-centered, sometimes without even expressing exactly what it is. Why does Cool Hand Luke HAVE to rebel? Is it a consequence of his relationship with his mother? The stifling southern society he existed in? It doesn't matter. Newman gives us a character who doesn't know his own motivations, but knows he has them -- and he's trying to fight against them. As each iconic moment comes up we can see in Newman's face, in his eyes, that the wheels are turning until he says, "Okay, but I just HAVE to."


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10 comments
John
John

This is the stupidest thing ive ever seen

Angela Johnson
Angela Johnson

i agree; the piece started out strongish but then unraveled when along the way the author turned it into an exercise to showcase his working knowledge of little seen celluloid oddities.

i think he would have kept the interest of the reader if he had stuck with recent flicks like the "do we go for campy or not?" film version of A-Team, Greed 2, Sex and the City 2 (duh), Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Julie and Julia, The Other Man, Boondock Saints (take your pick, I or II), Men Who Stare At Goats, Invictus, Zombieland and just for fun, Toy Story 3 - see, plenty to choose from without dredging up the obscure, lol!

Jessica Brick
Jessica Brick

Or this all just means that you need to see more movies, Angela. (Plus, Eastbound and Down? Obscure? What rock have you been hiding under?)

Angela Johnson
Angela Johnson

now why would you immediately determine eastbound and down was my pick for obscure? i love danny mcbride, probably one of the best comedic actors today and under-rated. sounds like you're just trying to nit pick rather than contribute to any discussion of merit regarding the article. and why the hostility? no cause for rudeness. so while i return to my rock, why don't you scurry back to your little dark corner.

Jessica Brick wrote, in response to Angela Johnson:

Or this all just means that you need to see more movies, Angela. (Plus, Eastbound and Down? Obscure? What rock have you been hiding under?)

Link to comment: http://disq.us/zu7is

Jessica Brick
Jessica Brick

Didn't intend to be rude, Angela. My apologies. I think I somehow lumped someone's response above yours ("lost me on the last 3") in with yours. Nevertheless, while the article may be celebrating his knowledge of "celluloid oddities" as you put it, I can't see how discussing most of the movies on your list would add anything to the conversation since most of them are...well...BAD. (And in my humble opinion, campy and bad are not the same things.) Not to mention that Paul Newman probably wouldn't have added much to any of them-- Zombieland and Boondock Saints might be my only exceptions-- which was the point of the exercise in the first place, wasn't it? I think the whole article could have been made better not by including "less obscure" or "more recent" movies, but by providing more evidence for his choices. Cool Hand Luke gets mentioned an inordinate amount of times, and very few of the other movies referenced provide solid support for the choices.

Rjb
Rjb

I think it would be just as interesting to consider how Clint Eastwood could improve on these movies.

Mjonesy2
Mjonesy2

The first two were great and then you lost me on the next 3...

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