Snake Oil Indeed

Well, I finally got myself mentioned on Cinecast. I was one of many people who mentioned, in response to their review of Shopgirl, that they should see LA Story, which was my #1 film of 1991. That’s also my analogy they cite describing it as Steve Martin’s version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, though it got a bit garbled in the translation.

The episode where I got mentioned is also the one where they gave rave reviews to Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the guy who wrote Traffic (which looks to be about #16 in 2000). I just watched Syriana Monday night, and since I haven’t mentioned it here yet, I thought I’d copy the response I posted on the Cinecast website. As you can tell, I wasn’t a big fan of the film.

I have to disagree with you both on Syriana. While you’re right that the film is totally cold and unemotional, you’re giving it too much credit by calling it “intellectual” or “an intellectual exercise”. It’s hard to be intellectual when your one big insight is that governments at home and abroad are corruptly intertwined with the oil industry. As Prince Nasir says in one of the few good scenes in the film: tell me something I don’t know.

I could enjoy a movie that didn’t have anything new or insightful to tell me if it was at least interesting emotionally or viscerally; I could enjoy a movie that was emotionally stiff or stylistically dull if it had something exciting to say. Syriana fails on all three levels.

Beyond that, Gaghan seems to confuse obfuscation for complexity. Jeffery Wright’s character isn’t a mystery because he’s a complex character who we’ve never seen before, he’s a mystery because the writer has withheld information from us, or rather has misled us into thinking he’s a different generic type. By removing the backstory and context from his scenes, Gaghan creates the illusion of complexity without having to do the work necessary to make a truly intelligent film.

I’m not a big fan of Traffic, I thought a third of it was an after-school special, a third of it was mediocre and the third of it with Benicio Del Toro was outstanding. But Syriana doesn’t even have that kind of interesting character or performance to redeem it.

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