Vanya on 42nd Street
Posted by martinteller on April 13, 2012
Although reuniting Louis Malle, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, this is not My Dessert With Andre. For years, Gregory directed a troupe of actors in a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”… but in an abandoned theater, always “rehearsals” and never with an audience of more than a few people. Malle decided to film it, with an introductory scene (staged) of the actors arriving, along with a few select guests. There’s also a halftime break with refreshments, but for the most part the film is “Vanya” performed in street clothes with minimal props.
I will give Malle credit, once again he made a film that little resembles any of his other films. He didn’t merely work in different genres, but different styles. Few directors are so chameleon-like (Soderbergh comes to mind). But I struggled to make it through this one. In fact, I even used the midpoint break as an excuse to step away from the movie for a while, something I don’t like to do. But I didn’t want to be watching it. I wanted to quit at the 15-minute mark, the half hour mark, and the 90 minute mark. But I soldiered on, with just my brief break.
I may be overselling my distaste for the film, but the thing is this: I dislike theater. I just can’t get into it. I like my drama to be real or to be stylized, but I can’t abide something that seems to strive for realism and fails. Theater strikes me as the “uncanny valley” of acting. It almost feels natural, but is skewed just enough to be off-putting. In Criterion’s DVD essay and in reviews I read online, there is almost unanimous praise for the performances in this movie. What am I missing? It all feels so phony to me. I love Wallace Shawn, but even he is not quite right in this production. There’s an air of self-consciousness to everyone’s delivery. Worst of all is Brooke Smith (if the name rings a bell, she’s the one who put the lotion in the basket), most of her line readings made me cringe. The stripping away of theatrical devices doesn’t reveal how glorious the dialogue is, it makes it sound even more false. But how can I, a fan of film noir, criticize artificial performances? I guess it’s the implied intent. The characters in, say, Double Indemnity, are stylized, heightened versions of reality. The lines are written to sing with linguistic cleverness, not to resemble actual conversations.
And so, though I suspect this movie may be some sort of Holy Grail for theater nuts, it left me quite cold. Little did I care for Vanya and his miserable clan. There is one brilliant moment, right at the beginning, as the actors are seen casually shooting the shit and then they seamlessly slip into their roles. It’s a marvelous little trick, and I wished that more of the film’s experimentations with form had such lovely payoffs. To me, it was mostly a lot of dull blather by people smugly putting on their acting shoes. Rating: Poor