Monday, November 26, 2012

Catching Up with the Trailers: “The Cotton Club”

If you grew up with a VCR, you know practically by heart the trailers that come before your favorite movies, even if you never got around to seeing those particular “coming attractions.” But some of them probably intrigued you—for me, these were mostly films that I wasn’t allowed to see. I snuck some of my most well-worn tapes into my collection under the veil of independent or classic cinema that my parents either weren't familiar with or thought of as innocuous. But I always meant to get around to seeing movies like Nightwatch (a trailer before Trainspotting) and the film that is the subject of this review, The Cotton Club (before The Untouchables) after I turned 17.

The Untouchables being an obsession of mine since I heard about its homage to the “Odessa Steps” scene, I’ve seen the trailer for The Cotton Club roughly eleventy billion times. So it was quite a coup when I finally sat down to watch it on Netflix instant this fall. And, cheesy and stilted as The Untouchables often was (after all, Kevin Costner and Sean Connery were the leading men), that film is the Citizen Kane of mobster movies compared with the completely absurd, embarrassing The Cotton Club. This movie is so bad on so many levels, it would take way too long to write a properly scathing review. And frankly, it would almost be redundant. Res ipsa loquitur. So allow me to simply outline what I found compelling about the trailer and the top 10 reasons why this (inexplicably Francis Ford Coppola-helmed) film failed in such an epic fashion.

First, check out the trailer for yourself.

Aside from the damsel-in-distress themes that are so clear in the trailer but didn’t bother my teenage self, there are still several things the trailer has going for it. As evidenced by the many (more successful) movies they've done together, Diane Lane and Richard Gere have clear chemistry here. That natural spark is completely doused in the actual film—basically every line of dialogue that establishes the romantic connection between the two is in the trailer. I, of course, assumed the love story would get fleshed out. In addition to that tease, the costumes were awesome, young Lane seemed enigmatic and magnetic, the set design was unique (I love the look of the between-the-curtains backstage scene), the Harlem Renaissance is a compelling and underrepresented (in film) period of cultural history, there was tap dancing, and there was good music. It had the makings of a pretty good love story set in the totally enthralling jazz age. To be fair, the musical and dance numbers are terrific, but they just underscore how much the rest of the film functions as shoddy filler.

So unfortunately, the finished piece was no crystal stair, if you will. Here are just the top 10 reasons this movie is an insulting mess.

1. The main love story is something you couldn’t possibly care less about. Like I said, basically every scene that develops the story is in the trailer, and then by the time they do get together, you’re still wondering why. They are both kind of terrible.
2. The fact that this film can’t decide whether it’s an ensemble piece or not. It’s not hurting for stars: In addition to Lane and Gere, Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne appear in minor roles alongside several other folks you’d probably recognize. But the way that The Cotton Club illogically alternates among focusing on Gere’s cornet player/inadvertent actor, the bad guy mobster, Cage’s wannabe mobster, Gere’s tap dancing neighbor, and the bromance between the not-as-bad gangster and his second-in-command is not only dizzying but also shallow enough that we don’t end up caring about what happens to any of the bunch.
3. Lines like this (said from not-as-bad mobster to bad mobster and the other baddie he’s quarreling with—with a zoom in on the speaker for gravitas): “In the next room, gentlemen, is the best food, drink, and pussy available at any price in New York. I suggest you take a sample of these things and remember that this is why we work so hard.”
4. Lines like this, which are apparently supposed to convey a mysterious bad guy’s inexpressible evilness (over ominous music):

Gere's character: So, what do they call you?
Baddie: Nobody calls me nothing.
G: Not even your mother?
B: I didn't have a mother. They found me in a garbage pail.
5. Scenes like the one where slapping becomes a dance move. In one of their more disturbing exchanges, Gere and Lane’s mutual frustration (and Gere’s possessiveness) culminates while they’re dancing. She slaps him, and he slaps her back. The other folks on the dance floor are so amused that they start emulating the incident as a dance move, thereby initiating a totally absurd tonal shift in the scene while delegitimizing a clear instance of possessive intimate partner violence.
6. The fact that the film taught me yet another word for whore: moll. So happy to have yet another sexually charged word to insult women.
7. The completely unintimidating (and poorly dubbed?), mealy mouthed voice of the main bad guy mobster. I can’t find any evidence of this on the Internet, but the voice is so odd and mismatched to the actor and his apparent mouth movements that it seems impossible to me that they didn’t dub in another man’s voice in post-production—and change some of the lines to boot.
8. That they gave a really awesome tap dancer but terrible actor, Gregory Hines, a dramatic role and yet another underdeveloped love story. Honestly, I’d much rather see a fully explored version of this love story—between a biracial singer-dancer who is passing as white and a black tap dancer—but their story is left as shallow as Gere and Lane’s. Also, Lane may have been the one who won a Razzie for her performance in this film, but Hines is about the worst actor I’ve ever seen in a widely released motion picture.
9. The thrown-in themes addressing racial inequality. There could have been a lot to say about white audiences’ consumption of (and simultaneous taming of) black culture, but the The Cotton Club stops at remarking upon the fact that black folks can perform at but not sit in the audience of the club—at least until the end of the film—and that it’s wrongheaded to take up arms to defend their spaces from white terrorism.
10. Lines like this, from the little-seen Laurence Fishburne gangster: “When you get Owney Madden on your ass, you truly have somebody on your ass.”

I could go on, but there are so many good movies out there. Let's spend our time seeking them out instead of kicking this dead horse. Surely the old VHS trailers won't lead me so astray next time. 

Bechdel Test: Fail
Overall Grade: F
Feminist Grade: F