Film Fund-amentals: Redoing the Reboot Before the Remake

Some people can’t stand the word “reboot.” For example, my wife has restricted the word’s usage to only its computer application (and even then in limited amounts). I only use it when I really want to annoy people. Then I go reboot crazy.

So obviously I would be happiest working in Hollywood. I could spend lots of time annoying people and all the reboot chatter would pass for profound business insight. It’s win-win.

Especially since the current list of productions slated for 2012/2013 is mostly sequels (many of which are actually redos of the original movie) and reboots of older films (though these days older simply means that they were made before 3D). And yes, these links are taking you to a web site called Movie Moron, a pretty cool name that totally sums it all up.

We already know that this speaks volumes about the current sorry state of Hollywood. They say they want fresh blood and new ideas but what they are really looking for is an updated version of Father Knows Best. The whole town is stuck in a time loop and it will probably take the Mayan Apocalypse to break the cycle.

It’s all a reminder of what Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This certainly applies to such titles on the current roster of reboots such as Fantastic Four: Reborn. The first film was an extremely modest success (released during a slow period and barely held its own against a noticeable lack of competition). The second one didn’t even make it that far. To be honest, neither of the modern films have the solid but fun “bad cinema” value of the cheap and cheesy 1994 version. The lesson to be learned: If it didn’t work the first couple of times, then there’s no reason to think that it is going to work now.

The other hot idea is to redo old classics. To be honest, this has been a standard Hollywood approach since before there were any old classics (for example, the three different versions of The Maltese Falcon churned out by Warner Brothers back in the 1930s). Sometimes this process works, as was the case with the recent production of True Grit. Mostly, it doesn’t. But some of the proposed redos are simply mind-boggling by any estimate. Take for example the new version of Cleopatra. The 1963 version was best known for its out-of-control budget (that nearly broke its own studio); oodles of cheap gossip as Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton carried on like crazy horn dogs; an excessively long running time best described once by a TV movie host as: “You don’t time this baby with a clock — you use a calender.”

So obviously producer Scott Rudin (who often knows what he is doing) has a really swell idea. Oh yeah, we need a new run-through of this turkey. Why, this is almost as good of an idea as the threatened redo of Scarface. Of course the original 1983 movie was a remake to begin with (though the 1932 flick was more of a parody) and it didn’t fare all that well when it first came out. But it has since earned a surprisingly strong place in pop culture. I realized that the first time in the late 1980s when I saw a drug dealer driving through town with a bumper sticker saying: “Tony Montana Lives.” Guess everybody needs a role model.

The 1983 movie worked because of a near perfect combination of performance (Al Pacino at his rabid best), major levels of social ruptures in the 1980s that made the main characters both repulsive and half appealing, and a crazy operatic directorial style that is both gross and perversely fascinating (sort of like disco music rewritten by Verdi). It’s a rare mix and not likely to happen again. Same is true of such other threatened remakes as The Dirty Dozen and The Godfather. Movies are not like cooking. You cannot redo the same recipe twice.

This is even more so when the recipe is older than King Tut’s tomb. The only thing in favor of The Thin Man reboot is the curious box office allure of Johnny Depp. The original MGM mystery series was made so long ago that today’s youthful demographic market won’t have a clue. Also the old films had a special combination thanks to their time period (the Great Depression), the vigorous heyday of a particular genre (in this case, both mystery and screwball comedy), and solid teamwork (both cast — William Powell and Myrna Loy — and screenwriters — Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich).

So far, The Thin Man remake only has Johnny Depp (and for all I know, he may intend to play both Nick and Nora — actually I could see him doing it but I’m not sure how many folks will pay to watch). TV is the main zone for old-style mysteries and the screwball comedy form vanished ages ago. There is simply no place for this film (with or without Depp). The makers would almost be advised to skip the old movies and instead go for the novel (the book by Dashiell Hammett was a surprisingly dark and very noirish reflection of the relationship between himself and Lillian Hellman).

Besides, I thought that adapting novels was passé in modern Hollywood. Anything is possible, but I suspect that the new production of The Great Gatsby will be the final nail in the coffin of literary adaption. The book by F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous for being less a novel and more of a dream, written in an illusionary manner that invokes poetry more than cinema. Because of this, the book is largely unfilmable. This has never stopped anyone from trying (five previous attempts have been made since the silent era) but the attempts have never worked.

The upside for the new Great Gatsby is Leonardo DiCaprio (who is curiously made up to look like Alan Ladd, who bombed in the role back in 1949). The downside is everything else.

Which brings us back to Albert Einstein. The man did a lot of work with the US government and military. He even taught at Princeton University. So the guy had a first-hand feel for insanity. I think he had a point.