Those among you who, like myself, indulge in narcissism in much the same manner Kirstey Alley indulges in five course meals will at some stage presumably have whittled away idle hours with the Which Actor Will Play Me in the Undoubtedly Scintillating Movie of My Life game. Personally, I’ve often pictured Richard E. Grant in the title role. The man is not Olivier, no, but Grant is a fine and entertaining character actor, specialising in parts that require a certain amount of eccentricity and/or sneering; perfect for a vehicle like Jon: The Bastard who Blogged, which would hardly demand Stanislavskian rigour from its lead. That said, when it comes to selecting writers and directors for my epic, three-part bio-pic, Grant wouldn’t even be in the top fifty.
Via the usual concerted effort of lies and double-dealing, I managed to wheedle my way into a preview screening of Wah Wah - both auto-biography and Grant’s first foray into directing - last week, and afterwards had the opportunity of listening to him briefly outline some of the structural and thematic choices he made for the film. This is an advantage which later audiences will sadly lack: in taking the time to justify his thought processes, Grant was charming, witty and eloquent – everything his film was not – and went a long way towards validating his decisions as director – which by itself Wah Wah sadly does not manage to achieve.
Set in Swaziland on the eve of national independence, Wah Wah details the events of the adolescent Richard E’s life and his relationship with his parents (go on, who can pick the subtle allegorical comparison?). But while all the rudiments of a suitably dramatic and potentially moving story are present – adulterous mother driven to extremes by loneliness, beloved father turning to booze and violence, socially isolated community of Brits desperately clinging to fleeting scraps of un-earned privilege, fledgling nation finding it’s feet, redemptive power of love, etc, etc – it becomes clear soon after the opening refrains of the sonorously pompous score and a couple of exceedingly traditional tracking shots of the (admittedly quite beautiful) Swazi landscape that what follows will be pedestrian fare.
Wah Wah’s problems, I think, are two-fold. Firstly and most obvious is Grant’s lack of experience as a director. As a debut effort, and one made for only seven million dollars, it’s certainly not bad, but it does lack flair. True, there's the occasional interesting camera angle or an Altman-esque dolly, but these jar with the formulaic set-ups used in the greater majority of shots, and distracts rather than working to sustain interest or emotional impact. More problematic, though, is the slavish adherence to fact as Grant remembers it: the truth can be a powerful thing, but often as not it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting story. While history has been embellished on a couple of times (the date of Swaziland’s independence, Princess Margaret’s visit, and a few other instances of too-convenient plot contrivances, for example) in order to strengthen the narrative, this happens all too little. Just because something actually happened does not necessarily make it worth showing. As a result, a lot of weight is given to fairly redundant scenes, characters, and plot elements, and the movie becomes bogged down in a series of painfully earnest sequences that never succeed in grasping the emotional potency they obviously aspire to.
Take for instance the scene in which Grant charms his way into a screening of the then x-rated A Clockwork Orange. Seeing Kubrick’s powerful opening shot of Malcolm McDowell evilly watching the audience watching him is clearly supposed to not only establish Grant’s burgeoning love of acting, but instil in him a sense of rebelliousness that allows him to challenge his father’s alcoholism and the stifling, hypocritical constraints of the white community. Unfortunately, this manifests itself in the next scene as Grant putting on droogie eyeshadow, getting high, and falling over. I’m sure it probably did happen, but it’s completely ineffectual in terms of the plot. Moreover, it unfortunately highlights the ironic similarities between Grant and McDowell, neither of whose careers really took off despite iconic first roles.
Despite the lacklustre direction, Wah Wah never fails through the strength of its acting, and full marks should go to Grant for assembling a uniformly solid, occasionally brilliant cast and garnering from them performances which go a long way in holding the movie together. Which it needs. And this is unfortunate, because whilst it couldn’t sustain my interest, I can fully appreciate the importance of the story to Grant himself, both as a personal experience and in the telling. Perhaps if he’d handed the project to a more experienced director the result would have been rather more successful, but in the end, although Wah Wah is not a shining example of auteur cinema, it possibly wasn’t meant to be anything more than catharsis - an aim in which I hope it succeeded.
As for my own bio-pic, if anyone can give me the Sophia Coppola’s phone number, I think she’d make a fine director for Jon: The Bastard Who Blogged... my life story needs that gentle yet wry touch. It will be a heartwarming tear-jerker, no lie, but shall not lack in verisimilitude. Which is why she'll obviously need to get Sam Raimi in to help co-ordinate the fight between the samurai and the giant squid, but I'm already in talks on that front.