Tuesday, April 03, 2012

mirror mirror

Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror had a lot of potential to be more fun than it was. A Bollywood-like closing number captured the essence of what the film could have been — fanciful, colorful, silly — a cute update of Snow White. There was just one kink in its armor — Julia Roberts. In what must have seemed a coup at casting time, getting an A-list actress to pull in a big audience, unfortunately ended up being a huge miscasting that threatened to sink the film at every turn of the Queen's voluminous hoop skirts.

Julia Roberts, overwhelmed by costumes and character
Mirror Mirror apparently didn't even need to be made in the first place. According to New York Magazine's Vulture column,
“Relativity's decision not to co-finance Snow White and the Huntsman with Universal and instead make their own film to compete with [them] wasn't a wise decision.” Given the limited-to-youth appeal of the Mirror Mirror trailer when compared with Huntsman’s darker, racier, and visually stunning materials, “people are waiting for that ‘Snow White’ film.”
Snow White and the seven dwarves
It doesn't help Mirror Mirror that ABC's much-watched television series Once Upon A Time, with its Snow White/Evil Queen conflict at its heart, is much more compelling viewing than this Roberts vehicle. Why should folks rush out to see this movie? They shouldn't and didn't. The Hunger Games once again dominated the box office last weekend while Mirror Mirror took 3rd place and $19 million — not much considering its over $85 million budget.

As the film opens, Roberts intones in a strangely accented voiceover, that this story will be about the Queen, rather than Snow White. And therein lies the rub. Roberts has been a welcome presence in rom-coms in the past, but she is definitely a most contemporary actress. When she tries to act in a story that isn't set in the current day the results, like Mary Reilly, are disastrous. Mirror Mirror is a fairy tale, and Roberts is much too far out of her element. She lacks the arch delivery needed to make her Queen truly evil. She's just mean and bitchy and bored, and not much fun to watch, despite the fabulous costuming by the late Eiko Ishioka. What's worse, she knows she is not right for the part and telegraphs her discomfort in a series of lackluster line readings, each word delivered seriously, without a hint of irony or wicked glee. In two scenes she even desperately utilizes her trademark guffaw, but it is out of context and inappropriate.

All the costumes by Eiko Ishioka are exquisite, but the animal headdresses at a ball are especially fanciful
What a different film this could have been if Michelle Pfeiffer had been cast as the Queen. Or Uma Thurman or Meryl Streep or even Kim Cattrall.

But there are a few highlights. Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) brings his usual visual flair to scenes, playing with scale  and injecting a sense of the fantastical into the proceedings. There is a lovely animated opening sequence, a Beast that lurks in the forest, and some lethal puppets employed by the Queen that all add to the film's imagery. Mirror Mirror's best scenes include Snow (Lily Collins) with the seven dwarves, who are a combination of the usual cutesy personalities with a grittier approach, reminiscent of Time Bandits. Snow and the Prince, played by Armie Hammer (frequently shirtless, one of the other high points of the film), are also great together. Nathan Lane is always fun to watch, and tries to have fun with the banter in his scenes with Roberts, but you can tell he would have been beter paired with someone who could have bantered back. Sean Bean aso makes a brief but extremely welcome appearance as Snow's father, the King.

Sean Bean and Nathan Lane are welcome additions to the cast
I couldn't help thinking of Notting Hill, a film with Roberts that I like, where she plays the ultimate American movie star who falls in love with an English bookshop owner, played by Hugh Grant. During the course of the film there are clips of some of Roberts' fictional blockbusters, including a Joan of Arc-like science fiction space saga, and the filming of a version of a Henry James novel. It's one of the film's in-jokes that she is not really suited for these roles. It's not so funny that her career is now becoming this fiction. At some point Hollywood has got to give up on stunt casting with a big name to rake in a few bucks. If they simply aren't suited for the material it is bound to backfire. Like most everyone else, I'm holding out hope for the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman, which comes out on June 1, and looks like a more interesting twist on the Snow White fairy tale. Charlize Theron will play the Evil Queen, an actress who I have no doubt will not only be able to portray true wickedness, but more importantly, have fun doing so.
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