Listen to this article
What do Notes on a Scandal and Dreamgirls have in common? Three things. Both have Oscar nominations, both have arrived on screen after bumpy journeys from other art forms, and both are high-class trash. Note the qualifying epithet. Some bad films are so confident and well-finished, and simultaneously so deranged, that they make you almost purr with pleasure. They are, in a word, camp. Or in two words, high camp.
Notes on a Scandal justifies its existence by the mere marvel of Judi Dench’s performance. At last, a starring role rather than eyeblink cameo for the regal acting dame who isn’t the other regal acting dame. (Guide for the needy: Dame Judi got her Oscar for Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love, while also racking up an acclaimed Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. Dame Helen is about to get her Oscar for Elizabeth II, though also renowned for her TV Elizabeth I.)
In this Zoë Heller novel, done over by the screenwriter Patrick Marber and the director Richard Eyre, Dench plays an abominable schoolmarm. She has assembled the pluperfect accessories. The draggly hairdo dyed russet-brown with white roots; the unmade-up face like a crumbling cliff; the rheumy Dench voice with its beautiful cracks, delivering the killer voiceovers. “Is she a sphinx, or simply stupid?” she ruminates, with just the right malicious airiness, of Cate Blanchett’s newly arrived blonde art teacher.
The younger woman inspires a love-hate fascination in the older, and a Blanchett peccadillo with a male pupil soon inspires the possibility of emotional blackmail. The tug of war begins, with Dench and Blanchett’s husband (excellent Bill Nighy) pulling opposite ways as the blonde in the middle all but comes apart.
It is distinctly loony and by final reel over-the-top. (Was the story cooler and more sensible as a Booker-shortlisted novel?) But who cares about art when kitsch is served this hot and flavoursome? We hum with pleasure, as at a cordon bleu tasting, whenever Dench serves another dishy zinger or straight-from-the-oven scalding look. Sometimes we giggle anticipatingly when she comes on screen, although she can also set us right like a stern teacher and makes us quail. The surrounding talent – Eyre, Marber, Blanchett, Nighy, composer Philip Glass – comes to seem mainly irrelevant. This is a one-woman show. It wouldn’t matter if Dame Judi, on this form, were reading the telephone book. She would do it so well that the telephone book would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Imagine a scrunched-up ball of glitzy gift-wrapping that comes to life before your eyes, as such things sometimes do late on a festive day. Stir, crackle, hiss – it’s alive! Such is Dreamgirls. Instantly identifiable as tosh, the plot about three girl singers in 1960s Motown whose despotic manager (Jamie Foxx) chucks out the fat member with the big voice (Jennifer Hudson) and replaces her with a third and leading Diana Ross clone (Beyoncé Knowles), only for time to takes its vengeance and –
and so on and so on. Take a pestle and mortar and just grind together Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany and The Five Heartbeats.
There are romances and pregnancies. There are spats and songs. There is Eddie Murphy in an Oscar-nominated turn as a self-destructing blues singer. Murphy, hopped up, jet-engined and turning each number into a high-frenzy solo, is a bit of a revelation. Has he been helped by the sound-recording boffins? Or can he really sing like this?
The director Bill Condon, whose last tribute to le temps perdu of showbiz was the more cerebrally camp Gods and Monsters (about the filmmaker James Frankenstein Whale), adapted this Tony-winning Broadway stage musical. No expense is spared, nor any moviegoer. The staging of songs is fevered and garish; the lighting in set-pieces looks as if it was by Albert Speer; the acting creates visions of giant Academy Awards from the air’s very molecules. Since much of the musical is “through-sung” – meaning that characters keep going even when they step off a stage or out of a recording studio – you have to be impressed by the overspill élan of Knowles and, even more, Hudson. The latter is Afro-America’s answer to Ethel Merman, supplied to us by the life force of cinema in collaboration with TV’s American Idol. She will reward anyone putting a shirt on her, or a whole wardrobe, for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Running with Scissors cuts two hours out of your life and runs away with them, like a fly-by-night tailor. We protest, but to no avail. We fear we may end up as part of the debut feature-maker Ryan Murphy’s next post-ironic patch quilt. This one is unbearable, unwearable, and based on the new-to-me memoirs of Augusten Burroughs. As a gay lad, he had a neurotic poet mother (Annette Bening) who apparently parcelled him out – the fractionated image suits the archly kaleidoscopic film – to her New Age psychotherapist (Brian Cox) and his overextended family (wife Jill Clayburgh, daughters Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood).
The starry cast comes at us like Stars in their Eyes contestants. One crazy turn is deemed to deserve another, so Clayburgh does the downtrodden spouse with permanent bad-hair day, Paltrow is pie-eyed and evangelical, Wood kinky and sexy, Cox pompously oracular. Few scenes cohere with any other. Ironies come in bold print. (“Why can’t we just be a normal family?”) And when every character in a comedy drama is dysfunctional, where are the white notes to set off the black?
On this evidence Murphy, a prizewinning TV director (Nip/Tuck), has no idea what to do with a large screen. Everything is choppy, ostentatious and inconsequential. The saddest waste is of Annette Bening, who acts as if her life depended on it, rounding into humanity every facetious excrescence in her written character and proving (what we suspected) that there is no better screen actress right now in America. She should be given the Molly Brown Oscar for unsinkable services to a shipwreck movie.
The likeable, low-budget Old Joy stars the singer-songwriter turned actor Will Oldham as a hippyish singleton who tempts a married pal (Daniel London) into a wilderness park for one last boys-together hiking weekend. The two men are losing their youth, but a trip to a hot spring in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains may restore it. Either that or both will hand in their existential notices, mutely acknowledging that freedom is for the young, age brings abdication.
Kelly Reichert, directing and co-writing (with the original story author Jon Raymond), wowed Sundance with her film. How could she not? It is just the thing for all those ageing stoners who gather in Utah each January to go rectangle-eyed. But don’t let’s be mean. The film’s friendship is delicately limned, the riffs of awkward reunion are precisely caught – the tongue-tied nonsense talk that ranges between cosmology and personal confession – and the scenery makes you want to pack your rucksack and grab the first Hippy Charter Airlines flight to the American north west.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published