Monday, April 4, 2011

So... "Sucker Punch"

I think I'd have felt more kindly toward "Sucker Punch" if it weren't so desperately trying to sell itself as a female empowerment story. Clearly, the primary concern here is not female empowerment - it's male titillation. Hence the petite, scantily clad female characters who are all of age but visually read as adolescents. Hence the fetish costuming, the sickly-sweet nicknames, and the fantasy sequences full of common video game tropes. A period heroine like Baby Doll would have no frame of reference for an inner fantasy world full of seedy bordellos, killer robots, and samurai warriors. Instead, if I had to guess, the inside of her head would probably look more like Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," a film with a far more female-friendly fantasy aesthetic that much of the target audience of "Sucker Punch" reviled on principle.

Honestly, I don't mind a fanservice-heavy film like this on a fundamental level. Guys have no reason to be ashamed of what they enjoy (within legal limits), and lord knows, girls have their own fantasy kinks that anyone familiar with the "Twilight" series can attest to. It's the laziness of the story and the hypocrisy of the sales pitch that drives me crazy. Nobody involved with the film seems to be able to admit that "Sucker Punch" is just a shiny, explode-y, campy burlesque show to make the fanboys happy. Zack Snyder's insistence on grafting a heavy moralistic message to the works feels like a desperate attempt to justify all the excess that has gone before. It's not necessary. It makes things worse.

What really surprised me was how badly the film's narrative is constructed. The story presents us with three levels of reality. In the first, we have a young woman of twenty (Emily Mortimer), who is framed for the murder of her sister by a loathsome stepfather, and shipped off to an insane asylum. The stepfather slips money to an orderly (Oscar Isaac) to forge the signature of a doctor (Carla Gugino) and ensure the girl is lobotomized. She has five days to escape before the lobotomist (Jon Hamm) arrives. Doesn't sound like a bad setup so far, does it?

The trouble is that all this happens in the opening five minutes, and we don't get to see any of the events between the girl's arrival at the asylum and the trip to the lobotomy chair. Instead, right before Don Draper is about to pound a spike into her brain, the film takes us into the girl's fantasy world, where the asylum is a brothel, and all the patients are imprisoned burlesque performers. In this world, the girl's name is Baby Doll, the orderly is the sadistic brothel owner, Blue, the doctor is a dancing instructor, Madame Gorski, and the lobotomist is a mysterious High Roller, coming in five days to deflower Baby. She plots her escape, with the help of fellow captives Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung).

The third level of reality comes into play when it is discovered that Baby Doll's dancing hypnotizes and distracts any man who watches her. The girls take advantage of this by collecting items - a map, a knife, a lighter - for their escape during Baby's performances. But the audience never gets to see the dancing or anything else that's going on, because every time Baby dances, we switch to a highly stylized fantasy sequence where she and the other girls are heavily armed combatants fighting dragons and robots and steampunk zombie Nazis. Baby Doll also gets the help of a mysterious guru figure (Scott Glenn), who gives out fortune cookie wisdoms with the parameters of each mission.

These multiple levels of reality are badly tied together and end up undercutting each other. None of the heroines are well defined, and their attitudes and behaviors vary from level to level, so it's not clear how much of the truth we're actually seeing through these fantasy filters. No time is spent on characterization in the combat level. And since we only get abstract representations of what's really going on during many tense moments in the brothel, that story feels disjointed and missing key material. The pacing is terrible, falling into a predictable pattern of hyperkinetic action followed by increasingly unpleasant scenes of subjugation and abuse in the brothel. And of course, since the entire brothel fantasy is itself taking place in the mind of the real, nameless girl in the mental hospital, there's always a sense that none of these other characters are real or worth caring about.

I give Zack Snyder full credit for presenting some fancy visuals here, especially in the fighting scenes, but that's about all that works. The script is a mess, crammed full of every possible kind of nerd-bait with little rhyme or reason as to why it's being included. The characters are barely more than repurposed stock types from video games and exploitation flicks. I like many of the actors that appear, and I have to say it's gratifying to see Jena Malone not playing some troubled teenage boy's winsome love interest for once, but this feels like such a waste of their potential. Vanessa Hudgens and Carla Gugino are usually quite attractive, but you could hardly find them under the bad wigs and thick mascara. Malone and Abbie Cornish, who was so wonderful in "Bright Star," manage to occasionally pretend that they're in another, much better movie. As for Emily Browning, Baby Doll is such a collection of common fetish tropes, it feels like the costume designer and makeup artists deserve more credit for the character than the actress.

I haven't even gotten into the multiple contradictory messages about female sexuality and gender politics, but plenty of other bloggers have been taking those elements apart, and I think I've made my point that "Sucker Punch" was never really about girl power in the first place. It acknowledges the problems with the portrayals of women in these kinds of films, and gets meta about it a few times, but does little beyond that. I suppose that admitting your faults is the first step to correcting them, but the movie is a long way from being as progressive as Snyder thinks it is. If he hadn't hijacked the empowerment narrative and indulged in so much heavy-handed moralizing, I don't think "Sucker Punch" would have been a better film, but it wouldn't be in the middle of the critical firestorm it's weathering now.

Because if you're going to make a fanboy film, which "Sucker Punch" undeniably is from start to finish, there's no point in feeling guilty about it or pretending that it's anything else.

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