Wednesday, February 12, 2014

They Might Be Giants (1971)

Ever since the death of his wife, former socially minded lawyer and judge Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) has come to think himself to be Sherlock Holmes, ever attempting to catch his elusive Moriarty, which is to say, the thing that causes beloved wives to die in accidents, people to climb towers and begin to shoot, and so on, and so forth.

Unfortunately, Justin’s brother Blevins really needs to get at Justin’s money to pay off some unsavoury types hounding him, so he decides to drag Justin to the mental hospital of the money-grubbing Dr. Strauss (Ron Weyand) to be declared incurable (whatever that might be) and unfit to take care of his financial business, which would leave that business to Blevins. Strauss wants psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), possibly nominated for the title of loneliest person in New York for several years in a row, to write Justin off. Watson, though, is a rather more conscientious doctor than her boss, and won’t just sign any old stuff without a thorough examination.

Not surprisingly with this last name, Watson is at first fascinated by Justin, then decides to cure him, and will later even fall in love with him. For the time being, she lets herself being dragged through Justin’s half imaginary adventures that soon see the pair chased by the police, people in white coats, and Blevins’s unsavoury people who have decided that killing Justin and having his brother just inherit the money is an easier way to get it than letting Blevins commit him.

Anthony Harvey’s They Might Be Giants is an often whimsical, generally delightful movie that is quite a bit more complex and layered than it at first seems.

One one level, it is a comedy that is based in sad reality without ever becoming cynical, and somehow even manages not to annoy me despite using the generally annoying romantic trope of the mentally ill being somehow closer to some kind of woozy, tear-jerking reality of things. I suspect the film works for me without causing rolling of eyes and cursing of writers is thanks to the clear acknowledgment it gives of the humanly sad causes of Justin’s identity problem (while also suggesting some humanist nobility to it), the way it doesn’t pretend turning into Sherlock Holmes is just some nice thing Justin does for an mentally more stable audience to gawk at and feel better.

If you’re so inclined, you can of course still find copious amounts wrong with the film’s ideas about mental illness, or about the way a psychiatrist is supposed to act towards her patients (though I’d really rather have Watson who cares a bit too much and can’t separate herself completely from her patients even before she meets her Holmes than the more typical example of the profession who doesn’t give a crap yet still knows everything). I’d argue this just isn’t very relevant to the film at hand, because it does neither want its audience to think they’re better than the people on screen, nor that suffering from a mental illness is a fun adventure.

Rather, a part of the film’s argument is that there’s only a degree of separation between the “loonies” and everyone else, with the former’s reaction perhaps more appropriate to the world we live in, and therefor actually more appropriate to the definition of the word “normal”. Improbably, the way the film sells it, this is an uplifting thing to be told, a bit as if nihilist philosophy had started to negate itself.

The film realizes this argument with a sense of whimsy, a lot of broad human compassion with everyone – even Blevins(!) - except the gangsters who really are more a plot mechanism than characters, and through some truly fantastic performances. George C. Scott is as good and fragile as he ever was, and Joanne Woodward’s Watson projects a generosity of spirit and emotion that has been caged by loneliness but never destroyed it’s impossible not to admire. The character actors playing the strange and curious people these two meet on their adventures are just as wonderful, bringing to life what could be caricatures.

There’s a further level to this rather brilliant film, too, a meditation about the nature of reality and fantasy and the ways they interact, of the construction of tales and of reality as a tale, of the shifting of perspectives and roles (just look at the scene in the telephone information building as a clear example of the last one). As Scott’s character argues in another particularly brilliant moment, it would be insane to assume, like Don Quixote, that every windmill is a giant, but that doesn’t mean some of them might not still be giants. And how would we know if we never looked?

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