October 29, 2009

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Amelia (PG)
Hilary Swank dresses up like Amelia Earhart — or maybe Snoopy’s Red Baron — for Halloween but uses Katherine Hepburn’s accent in Amelia, a pompous biopic.

Amelia, which covers roughly the period from when Amelia first becomes noticed by the flying community to the time when she disappears over the Pacific/is abducted by aliens (depending on your world view), commits every sin of the bad biopic:

1. Amelia Earhart’s name — first and last — is repeated constantly, as though we might forget who we’re watching a movie about. As though we might think it was Amelia Van Helsing, Dracula hunter. (If only.)

2. In addition to the repetition of Amelia’s name, we get a little “ta da!” any time the movie introduces a historical person, a sort of lingering close-up as though it’s waiting for us all to applaud. We get the “ta da!” when we first meet George Putnam (Richard Gere), the man who will eventually become her loyal but annoying husband. We get the “ta da!” again when we meet Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), a magnetism-free man who eventually becomes Amelia’s lover, despite their painful lack of chemistry. The movie is particularly proud of itself when Gene introduces his son Gore (William Cuddy) to Amelia. Oh poor little Gore Vidal — scared by jungle-print wallpaper, aren’t we just a fly on the wall of history?

3. As so excellently parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, there is nothing to take you out of a story faster than having characters in the story make sweeping statements about the historical times they live in. (Though faux newsreel narration — another Amelia sin — is also pretty good at smacking you right out of the moment.) Oh, look at the black and white breadlines outside the car window. Gosh, it’s the Depression. Can Franklin D. come sing us a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again” or maybe “Tomorrow”? No, but here’s an Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) cameo to remind us that even that can-do dame could learn a thing from our spunky little Amelia.

4. The Speech. You know the one — the impassioned speech containing the character’s mission statement. The one they use at the Oscar ceremony to show what a tour-de-force performance they’re about to award. Almost every biopic has one; some have a couple. In Amelia, nearly every scene feels chock-a-block with “I have to fly”s and “there’s more to life than being a passenger” and other “I am woman”-y speeches, all delivered with full “I’ll never be hungry again” fist-clenching gusto and all raking our ears with the same weird accent.

Amelia seems so busy building that Oscar campaign that it forgot to give us an Oscar-worthy movie. Well, with one exception — the cinematography, which is the clichéd thing to praise when a big-budget movie turns out to be a real fart-in-church embarrassment, is actually quite lovely. (Even in its successes the movie is doggy-paddling about in cliché.) If shots of giraffes running on a golden-toned savannah translated into box office dollars, this movie would be the next Titanic.

Oh but there’s so much else to grind your teeth and twist your Goobers box over here. There’s the fact that we never ever pierce the shield of period clothes and aviator outerwear to learn one single lindy-hopping thing about Earhart. She’s a woman who can only barely bring herself to bend to the convention of marriage, a woman who encouraged other women to fly and to have careers, a woman who put up with an initial Atlantic-crossing flight that was more stunt than achievement so she could get the fame (and subsequently the money) to fly again. What motivates her? What struggles did she have to go through when the spotlight wasn’t on her? What gave her the confidence and world view that was so ahead of her time? Why does she talk like that, where does that accent come from? The movie Amelia gives you no greater insight into the woman than a poster for the movie would. D+

Rated PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking. Directed by Mira Nair and written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (from East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell), Amelia is an hour and 51 minutes long and distributed by Fox Searchlight.