Beverly Hills Cop, Before Sunrise, Ocean’s Eleven. What do these three movies have in common?
They all delighted me.
Watching these three movies in the past week was an interesting study in the different ways that a movie can be “effective” (one of those nonsense movie-critic words that doesn’t mean anything, but don’t worry, I’ll elaborate). Before Sunrise charmed me with its simplicity and directness, while Beverly Hills Cop had me giggling from the moment Eddie Murphy, as the singular cop Axel Foley, opened his mouth to speak. The pleasures of Ocean’s Eleven came from the contrast between its relaxed superstar actors and the intricate plotting of its narrative.
This is why I love movies. No two are alike – the good ones, anyway.
In Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine, who meet by coincidence on a train bound for Paris. After chatting for a few minutes, Hawke’s character invites Delpy’s character to join him for an evening in Vienna before he catches a plane back to the United States the next morning. Already, the dialogue is uncommonly imperfect (and truthful) for a romantic movie – the characters act with as much as hesitation as we would expect from two real-life strangers. And yet, director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater takes care to immediately present these two as compatible. The movie’s central question isn’t “Will they get together?” but “What will they do together?”
From there, Before Sunrise becomes a movie about conversation, contrast and compatibility. Hawke and Delpy quiz each other about their lives and philosophies, and intermittently they stumble upon a colorful resident of the Vienna landscape. There’s no plot complication to pull the two apart, no contrived argument to send us speculating. As they made their way around the city, I found myself not caring even a little bit whether they got together in the end – from the minute they lay eyes on each other, they already have. How romantic, and how un-movie-like.
While Beverly Hills Cop might seem far more conventional in its approach to the action comedy than “Before Sunrise” is to the romantic comedy, the story is grounded in a core of drama that most movies of this nature seem keen on avoiding. Axel Foley assumes the title role after a gang of thugs (including Mike from Breaking Bad!) arrives outside his apartment and murders his best friend. The movie naturally doesn’t let matters get too serious, but even as other characters express their skepticism about Axel Foley’s methods, we understand that he’s acting this way out of a real desire to avenge his friend’s death. Beverly Hills Cop is a comedy of understanding, not ridicule. There’s slapstick aplenty, but it belongs.
As for Ocean’s Eleven, few movies I’ve seen contain a more pleasurable mixture of charming star power (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck) and high-energy caper plotting. I never believed that Danny Ocean’s plan to rob three major casinos in Las Vegas would ever work in real life, but I didn’t need to; the movie makes it seem too much fun for me to be bothered by the plausibility issues. Here too, as in the other two films, the dialogue is key to the movie’s appeal: swift and rich with swagger, funny but not outlandish, smooth. Ocean’s Eleven is lightweight, unchallenging, effortless and suave. It’s a breezy lunch on a sunny afternoon – it goes down easy.
All of this to say: I don’t go to movies for one kind of pleasure. I don’t have a checklist or an algorithim to determine a movie’s worth. I like freshness, originality, creativity, imagination, innovation – all of those intangible, vague, subjective qualities. I go to the movies because I want them transport me to another world, or to at least show me the world in a new way. Science tells us the universe is forever expanding in scope. I’d like to believe the same goes for movies.