Thursday, December 22, 2011

Old Sinner: Jim Carrey (2009)

Though there’s plenty to complain about in Disney and Robert Zemeckis’ 3D, motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol, there are some things it does right, too. One of them is the opening shot of a snowy, Victorian street through a window lit with a warm candle and festively decked with greenery and red berries. It immediately puts me in the Christmas mood without so much as a carol. In classic Disney fashion, the camera pans down to the window sill to reveal Dickens’ A Christmas Carol opening to its first page. It zooms to the phrase: “Marley was dead.”

The cheerful music turns sinister as the page quickly flips to reveal a woodcut of a dead man’s face; the jaw is tied shut with a kerchief and coins cover the eyes. As the woodcut morphs into the CGI corpse, it’s apparent that this version is following a similar tactic to Patrick Stewart’s by beginning at Marley’s death.

Jim Carrey’s performance as Scrooge is another thing the film gets right. He plays several characters in the movie and doesn’t do as well with any of the others, but Scrooge’s design and Carrey’s talent help disguise him in the lead role. Like Stewart, there’s sadness in Carrey’s eyes as he pronounces his friend dead. Unfortunately, the script doesn't support him very well. Pronouncing Marley dead isn’t really Scrooge's job, but for the purposes of the story we’re supposed to know that he knows Marley’s dead, so this is them getting that communicated. It’s a clunky way to do it though.

On the other hand, Scrooge’s look is another positive. It's sufficiently exaggerated and cartoonish that he doesn’t fall into the Uncanny Valley. He has a long, hooked nose and a pointed chin. There are unfortunate hairs on his nose to match the stubble on his blotchy face and the hair on his head is long and stringy. This is an ugly man, outside and in. Carrey accentuates that by playing him as having pulled completely inward. He doesn’t appear to care anymore what people think of him.

Unfortunately, most of the other characters aren’t just residents of the Uncanny Valley; they’re proud patriots of it. As soon as we see the undertaker and his apprentice, we’re reminded that this is the same filmmaker who brought us The Polar Express and Beowulf.

Scrooge signs the death certificate, but this isn’t a funeral. There’s no priest and no church; just Scrooge conducting business at the undertaker’s shop. Conducting it reluctantly too. He scowls at the undertaker when the man asks for payment and acts like a spoiled child being asked to surrender a toy to a playmate. It’s a funny bit of stinginess; not over the top like Scrooge McDuck’s, but I smiled. And I chuckled out loud when Scrooge then steals the coins from Marley’s eyes before the apprentice can seal the coffin.

On the street outside, Scrooge looks even more cartoonish. He’s impossibly thin, which works for him. He’s very much the stereotypical Scrooge, hunched and miserable with a perpetual, lonely glower. He doesn’t look sad about his partner’s death, but he does appear to be thinking. Probably about how he wants people on the street to leave him alone. He pushes through couples and when confronted with a group of carolers he stands and glares at them until they self-consciously give up their song. He grumbles about a couple of “delinquents” sliding behind a carriage (I mentioned all the sliding in these movies earlier, right?) and there’s a great instance of a blind man’s dog dragging its owner into an alley to escape Scrooge. As this goes on, music begins (an arrangement of “Good King Wenceslas”) and we get Jim Carrey’s name and the title of the movie before the camera lifts and takes us over the rooftops for a continuous shot that lasts the rest of the credits. St Paul’s makes its traditional appearance.

It’s an impressive sequence, making full use of the animation to take us inside buildings for peeks at holiday preparations or down alleys for a look at the city’s less fortunate residents. When the shot is from up high, it looks real enough that I forget I’m watching a fancy cartoon and marvel for a minute at the continuous shot and the camera’s ability to fly through the middle of a wreath. But then I see the people again and remember.

The sequence ends back on the street where Scrooge is scaring a couple of kids before entering his counting-house. The shot moves to the Scrooge & Marley sign that – again like Stewart’s – ages before our eyes. Still in its continuous shot, the camera moves down to Scrooge’s window and a caption reveals that it’s seven Christmas Eves later.

The film then cuts inside where Scrooge isn’t so much counting money as he is playing with it. Not merrily or anything; he’s just moving it around, picking it up, and holding it with the same sour expression that he’s had so far. In the adjoining office the clerk is trying to warm his hands on his candle.

He’s breathing heavily like you do when you’re freezing and you can see his breath. He takes a look at the padlocked coal scuttle and then the keys on Scrooge’s desk, but a glare from Scrooge stops him before he can even get up to try anything. It’s at this point that the door creaks open.


Ken O said...

I was suprised by how much I liked most of this movie. Near the end it feels like some clueless movie executive watched it and said they needed to make it more exciting. The more action-y sequences just seem jarringly tacked on.

Michael May said...

I agree. There's some stuff that just doesn't need to be there, but is obviously designed to appeal specifically to kids.

I also agree though that there are also some really nice moments. This version does some things that I've never seen before and that's pretty amazing as many times as this story's been done.


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