BP Double Bill: Ice Age-Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)/Murphy’s Romance (1985)


Like TV dancing contests and Sarah Palin, dinosaurs score in all key demographic categories.

Son, in my day, all you need was a cowboy hat and a smile and the audience was with you.

Son, in my day, all you needed was a cowboy hat and a smile and the audience was yours.

First things first, never write a post that says the hiatus is over and then go on an even longer hiatus.

But there is one defense. Last month, my HDTV went belly up after just three years. (A Toshiba 42HP66 if you are curious) leaving me with little incentive to watch movies, except on my computer–which I find sort of excruciating. TV programs are one thing, movies are another. Even TV shows I love, such as 3o Rock, go down easy on a monitor–but movies, especially now, demand a bigger screen, some panorama, and quality sound.

These days, however, when I go to a real movie theater, it’s usually for my 4-year-old daughter. During the holiday, I took her to see the third Ice Age movie. I had wanted to take her to see Up–Pixar can do little wrong in my eyes–, but reviews on the net suggested it was too violent and somber for her. (And yet the film is called “Up.”)

Now, after 80 minutes of listening to Ray Romano and Queen Latifah play two Woolly Mammoths, I wish I had gone ahead and gambled on Pixar.

But getting to the heart of the matter: The inescapable fact that big-studio pictures are marketing vehicles first. (And if you ever had any doubt, this article in the New Yorker will vaporize it.) And that I am even bother to restate such an obvious notion shows that I am well on my way to becoming the kind of old coot I was always fearful I would become. It’s irresistible to claim that “in my day” things were better–and a true sign of age is when you truly, with all your critical heart, believe it. You’re convinced of it and of the belief that any objective analysis would bear that out. (I can claim the 1970s and the 1990s as “my day” but never mind….)

So movies, at their most cynical, are transactional. You pay your (now considerable) money for a guaranteed experience–one that provides as few surprises as possible. Movies are franchises now, “tentpoles,” chain restaurants.

And frenetic. Absolutely frenetic. The top movie of the year is likely to be the new Transformers movie, which literally, from what I have read, never stops to take a breath, explain itself or refill its tank.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a depressing experience. There’s no way around that. My daughter, who, I will admit, was probably too young for it, hardly laughed. But throughout the packed theatre, few people laughed. Most of them who did were adults–chuckling at some double entendre aimed at them. The kids, who ranged from the very young to teenagers, were silent through much of the movie.

But that doesn’t mean the movie didn’t “work.” Because it didn’t base itself solely on comedy. There’s enough “action”– if you want to call it that–to make Jack Bauer reach for some Five-Hour Energy. At times, it bordered on the exhausting and all of it premised on the idea that you cannot, for any reason, give the audience any time to become fidgety.

This is not a fatal symptom of all movies aimed at small children. As I said, Pixar rarely missteps. And even a movie such as Bolt, which had its frantic episodes, found time for humor, characterization, warmth and a few appreciated life lessons. But this thing was rolled out as product for quick consumption. The packed house spoke as much to the paucity of G-rated movies as anything.

So why pair it with creaky old Murphy’s Romance, a film from the bygone era of the 1980s, starring old-school B-class leading man James Garner and Sally Field, still in her full spunky mode? For whatever reason, it was a movie I saw several times, likely on HBO, during its early life and always found its understated story affecting.

Field plays a divorcee with a young son starting a new life in a small town  out West (yeah, like TV’s Alice). Do they even make movies about divorced, older single women anymore? It was a genre all its own back in the day. Garner is the crusty old town druggist who takes a shine to Field and her son (Corey Haim! What, you haven’t seen License to Drive?). When Field’s no-good ex (Lance Kerwin) reappears, a low-scale competition takes place. But instead of a climatic confrontation where Big Jim teaches the punk a thing or two about being a man, wise old Garner simply lets the ex implode and picks up the pieces at the end.

There are men. And women. And horses. And blue skies and barn dances. And again, that’s how you know you are old, when those things begin to appeal to you.

But the point is this: Murphy’s Romance takes FOREVER. It is a meandering film, a character study that is almost absent of drama. (Even the plot points pass almost under the radar.) It is built entirely around the likeability of its leads. If you like them, you’ll stick around.

In that sense, it’s old-fashioned. I guess that was its own kind of marketing–relying on star power to sell films. That really doesn’t happen anymore, even with the biggest of stars. They aren’t enough. (I always think about the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt film Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Such a wasted opportunity. Did it really need explosions every five minutes to keep us interested?)

Actually, there are commonalities between Ice Age and Murphy’s Romance. Both movies have at their core the message that unconventional families sometimes are preferable to standard ones. In the former case, it involves a sabre-tooth tiger and a sloth and in the latter, a 60-year-old liberal pharmacist.

And this is as far as I am going to go with that before the comparison crumbles beneath its own weight.


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