I had a very bad reaction to The Italian Job within the first few minutes. Donald Sutherland, playing a thief who’s tempted out of retirement by the prospect of boosting $35 million worth of gold bars in Venice, laments to Mark Wahlberg as the kid organizing the heist that he’s spent most of his adult life in jail. He’s not complaining that he was lowly enough to commit the crimes that put him there but that he had to be in jail, and the moviemakers play it soft, as if we’ll sympathize and really hope he gets away with this last job. At moments like this I turn into Republican Alan the way Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, and though I was alone I believe I said out loud, “You’re a thief! You belong in jail!”
Is there anything special about these felons that might justify the movie’s treating them as heroes? Sutherland gives Wahlberg advice on how to be the right kind of thief–the kind who steals in order to live a “rich life” rather than for the thievery itself–which we are apparently to take as precious wisdom. Then, as an example of the rich life, after the thieves have got the gold (by, among other things, painting an explosive substance over a Renaissance fresco in order to blow a ceiling out), they stand around a snowy mountain pass toasting their accomplishment by swigging Dom Perignon straight from the bottle. Considering how important your sense of smell is to your sense of taste, I wondered whether drinking it this way you could distinguish champagne from a crisp cider. (And no, the movie isn’t showing us they’re gorillas, it’s trying to impress us, and succeeds with the wine no better than it had earlier when one of the characters referred to Leonardo, whom he calls “da Vinci,” as if that were his surname.) The only reason I stayed was to see if the trailer had actually given away the entire plot, as Iris pointed out to Lily and me when we first saw it. (It did.) My only comfort was recalling that Sutherland, who has become so classy-custardy it’s impossible to find any traces in his acting of the intriguingly unforced lead he was in M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), and Don’t Look Now (1973), would be killed within minutes.
As anyone who saw that mini-movie of a trailer knows, Edward Norton is the rat within the pack who steals the stolen gold and leaves the gang for dead. That’s not much of a spoiler since most of the movie is about how Wahlberg and cronies plan to steal it back. They enlist Charlize Theron as Sutherland’s daughter who has used the safebreaking skills she inherited from her father for legal means. Her father’s criminal career broke her heart but she’s angry enough about his murder to join the crooks. She says she wants to see Norton’s face when he loses the gold, which she might have done by contacting the FBI. Alternatively, the movie might be a lot more interesting if she played an insider’s double game, mirroring Norton’s in the beginning but on the right side of the law. Otherwise, what’s the point of making her honest in the first place? The movie might even have gained some of the heartcracking sense of impossibility of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) (Theron’s pairing with Wahlberg certainly could use some tension). Instead she joins forces for this preposterous game and the brain-dead movie doesn’t see her turning to larceny as a form of corruption.
All this may seem irrelevant because it’s just a movie, and movies, as I know full well, offer illicit fantasies all the time. It’s part of their basic appeal. But this is different because the moviemakers don’t show any awareness of having crossed a line. I think it reflects generally how unaware moviemakers and audiences, and critics, too, are about narrative genres.
The plot of The Italian Job is a romance. In medieval chivalric romance, a direct ancestor of this and many, many other movie plots, a knight sets out on a quest. He’s instructed by older tutelary figures, wizards who confer powers on him and hermits who explain his dreamlike ordeals for him as manifestations of universal meaning, and he’s assisted by companion knights of valor second only to his. He sets out on his quest to aid or impress a virtuous lady, or he rescues a damsel in distress along the way who becomes his lady. In addition, he has comic servants, and he always has a faithful, spirited horse. On his adventures he is beset by inimical wizards as well as a world of hostile animals, most notably dragons, and knights who are his equal in valor and skill but on the opposite side, which means the side of evil, understood with full religious significance. He is also tempted by ladies who look fair but are foul inside, and resisting these temptations will often be the key to understanding the greater meaning of his quest.
The quest is always inherently good. That’s the point: the knight’s quest is an allegory of the Christian’s proper navigation of life. In a work such as the 13th-century Quest of the Holy Grail (a great, compact place to learn many of the basics, and available online) a knight will conveniently find a hermit after an encounter who makes the underlying meaning of it explicit for him (and us). To anyone who has studied literary genres, this discussion will be rudimentary; what’s surprising is how unfamiliar with even this much basic information people who regularly discuss movies are.
With The Italian Job it’s a matter of filling in the blanks: Wahlberg is the white knight, Norton the black; Sutherland is both the wizard and the sage; the gold is the object of the quest; the noble steeds are now the Mini Coopers they use in L.A. to drive in tight, unexpected places; and living the rich life is what gives meaning to it all. Theron is at once the damsel and a female knight (not a modern phenomenon: they show up in the Aeneid, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, and The Faerie Queene), and Seth Green, Mos Def, and Jason Statham combine the comic function of servants with the skills of companion knights.
Romance is a sturdy and flexible serial form, allowing for a theoretically endless series of encounters (which explains its usefulness in superhero comic books and why the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies “naturally” produce sequels). Romance doesn’t have to be set in the middle ages, it doesn’t have to contain all of the elements (and the chivalric form isn’t the only configuration of them), and it doesn’t have to be Christian. Interestingly, it doesn’t even have to feature righteous characters engaged in noble action. There is also ironic romance, one in which the values are inverted.
Arguably the greatest example in American movies is Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver (1976), from Paul Schrader’s script, in which Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner, develops an evangelical disgust for the daily dirt and corruption of New York. To assuage his feelings he tries to assassinate a presidential candidate but fails and so turns his energies to rescuing a 12-year-old prostitute instead. Romance, while the genre most openly hospitable to the supernatural, doesn’t even have to be fantastic–Taxi Driver, based in part on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace, shows with naturalistic detail how Travis fills his empty days and ends up in the headlines, a hero to the papers (which is part of the irony). Though he does save the girl (who doesn’t, however, want to be saved), we know he’s doing it for more wrong reasons than right ones.
Romance is how Travis shapes his boiling frustration and blocked sexual feelings into a course of action. Schrader and Scorsese understand the enormous difficulty of conveying the story of someone like Travis and so use the romance form almost against itself, suggesting how that highly stylized genre can distort the narrative it’s telling. That’s why it’s so appealing to Travis in the first place, it turns the nothingness of his life into a quest. The cinematography is at times hallucinatory but the movie remains lucid: we can see things from Travis’s perspective without thinking we’re meant to adopt it.
A simpler and more common form of ironic romance would be heist pictures and most film noirs–anything in which black has been substituted for white in the moral scheme. Yeah, we identify with the people pulling off the crime, but all the movie has to do is acknowledge somehow its reliance on our suspension of disapproval, so that we always know which way is up. The formal way of doing it in underworld settings is by having the criminals fail–in John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950) we see them killed or arrested one by one; in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) the money blows away in the wind. Failure is usually combined with an air of fatalism, as in the adaptations of James M. Cain books, Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), an air that by itself tells you no good can come of these sociopathic shenanigans. You could say that these movies appease our disapproval after having served their own ends by making us root for the criminals. But they also let us get close to humans whose ways of life we probably wouldn’t want to know about first hand. In that sense they enlarge the audience’s experience.
There’s also the comic mode of amoral romance, in movies like Ernst Lubitsch’s Art Deco frolic Trouble in Paradise (1932), in which Miriam Hopkins gets so mad at her jewel thief lover when she thinks he’s fallen for the rich widow they intend to rob she hollers, “I wouldn’t fall for another man if he were the biggest crook on earth!” as she breaks into the woman’s safe; or The Pink Panther (1964), in which the suave thieves amusingly set up the clumsy inspector to serve out their jail sentence; or the playfully sinister British classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which an arch, exquisitely poised young nobleman kills off the eight relations (all played by Alec Guinness) who stand between him and the dukedom he feels is his by right. (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) combines the two types: the conversations among hitmen play like vaudeville and the violent action like cartoons.)
The dramatic pictures and the comedies both have an air of unreality (to which the comedies add frivolity and wit), which serves as license to our enjoyment, whether we’re being made uneasy or being enticed, teased. We don’t need movies to lecture us about morality. We don’t even need a virtuous protagonist. All it takes is the stylistic control to let us know that Sunday school’s out, we’re on holiday. One of the virtues of irony is that it permits identification with characters whose actions we don’t approve of, often ones who work as heroically for dubious, if not outright objectionable, ends as good guys work for noble ends. It has been, in fact, about the only way to get a reasonably complex protagonist in a dramatic American movie.
Maybe the people making The Italian Job got lost because the contest isn’t between criminals and cops, but between former criminal accomplices. Morally it’s a battle drawn in two shades of black. Such a formula requires an extra measure of sophistication, whereas the director F. Gary Gray appears to fall short of the minimum. Though the material is sporty, Gray directs as if we’ll shed a tear that poor Sutherland didn’t get to spend more time with his daughter, and cheer as the gang causes mayhem in Los Angeles in order to get that gold back. (The movie doesn’t even bother with the usual salve to our conscience that the person from whom they stole it in Venice came by it illicitly, or was a bad person, or was insured.) “Touching” leads straight to “depraved”: at the end Norton isn’t just killed, we’re informed he’s going to be tortured to death. Yay for our side! (Will the DVD include footage of it?) Where I differ from Dan Quayle Republicans on this issue is that I don’t think people get their morals from the movies or TV, so I know that something like The Italian Job can be morally despicable in an insignificant way.
At times it’s quite entertaining–the cast overall is unassuming and attractive, including three male pin-ups (that’s not Republican Alan talking), and Seth Green is particularly funny, especially when watching Statham pick up a woman. (This scene will remind you that Gray directed Friday (1995), one of the best comedies of the 1990s.) I’m not too priggish to enjoy the good parts just because I hated the rest. (Though even the most entertaining characters are based on weary stereotypes: the Jew is the brainy nerd who can’t get girls; it’s supposed to be amusing that the black guy wants to collect first editions.) But, boy, did I hate the rest. At the end we get a “cute” coda in which we’re told what the thieves bought with their money. “Bought”? With money? Why should such personable daredevils have to pay for anything?
If you want to know about genre in movies, a grasp of the narrative structures of romance and melodrama will tell you most of what you need to know for 90% of the dramatic movies Hollywood turns out. (The best place to start laying down a foundational understanding of literary genres is Northrop Frye‘s 1957 classic Anatomy of Criticism.) Universities teach courses called Novel into Film, but despite superficially realistic treatment, American movies do not generally model their narrative structure on novels. I think the common ignorance about romance and melodrama, to say nothing of irony, may account for the AFI’s recently released list of the greatest 100 Heroes and Villains in American movies. Jim Carruthers’s insightful comment at the bottom of this post by Eric Olsen at Blogcritics.org gets at the problem. But I think the larger problem is a failure to understand genre.
“Villain” is a term from melodrama, a theatrical genre that features a streamlined struggle between good and evil, personified (and absolutely polarized) in hero and villain. There’s a lot of overlap between romance and melodrama in terms of the struggle of good and evil, as Carruthers suggests, but in romance the evil figure can be larger than a (merely human) villain–more directly connected to the principle of evil, and, often enough, the prime mover of evil himself. (Think of the difference between John Grisham legal melodramas and that feverish, paranoid-liberal romance The Devil’s Advocate (1997).)
Thus, Carruthers is right that the town officials who keep the beaches open are the composite villain in Jaws (1975), but only with respect to the melodramatic structure of the plot. Bruce the Shark, however, is also a force of evil, but within the romance structure rather than the melodrama. In The Exorcist (1973) Regan isn’t a villain because the movie isn’t a melodrama at all. It doesn’t have the storyline of chivalric romance but it does have many of the elements: Regan is a damsel in distress (what kind of psychotics could watch that movie, in which welts spelling “Help Me” arise on the little girl’s body, and think of her as a villain?); the demon Pazuzu who possesses her is a combination of an evil wizard, a dragon, and the source of all evil; the young priest is the white knight; the old priest the good wizard, etc.
The AFI list shows more serious failures of understanding, alas: Travis Bickle isn’t the villain of Taxi Driver, for God’s sake, he’s the protagonist of an ironic romance, as are Bonnie and Clyde. As for Michael Corleone, he’s a tragic protagonist, one who borders on an ironic protagonist, as do Richard III and Macbeth–the melodramatic concept of villainy is utterly foreign to something as complex as The Godfather, Part II (1974). Even Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931) is closer to being a tragic protagonist than he is to being a villain.
These aren’t failures of taste, as is the AFI List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, it’s a matter of ignorance in the field the AFI claims as its special domain. I have a plastic, non-motorized, non-battery-operated coin sorter at home that’s capable of finer distinctions than the AFI in their list–it recognizes four categories. This group is the custodian of our national film culture?
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.