Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Wobbly "Walk"

Robert Zemeckis took a long break from live-action filmmaking when he made a trio of motion-capture animation films, including "Polar Express," but seemed to be making some good headway on getting back into the game with 2012's "Flight."  That's why his latest film, "The Walk," is so frustrating to watch.  It's an ambitious film, recreating the daring 1974 tightrope performance of Philippe Petit at the World Trade Center towers to wonderful effect.  Unfortunately, everything else in the film is so ill-conceived, it's almost embarrassing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, the fabulous French funambulist who takes us from the streets of Paris to the towering heights of the Manhattan skyline.  Petit is originally a street performer, who learns the art of walking a tightrope from circus veteran Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and wins the affections of a fellow performer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon).  After learning about the Twin Towers from a magazine article, Petit becomes obsessed with staging a tightrope walk across the tops of the two buildings, hundreds of feet in the air.  Such a performance, would be illegal and highly dangerous, so Petit gathers accomplices to help him pull off the artistic coup of the century.

Now, on paper "The Wire" looks like a winner.  You have a spectacular recreation of Petit's famous walk filmed for IMAX screens for maximum immersiveness, and couch it in a feel-good story of artistic daring and nostalgia for the Twin Towers.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an appealing rising star, and was personally trained by the real Philippe Petit to play the starring role.  And the project seems like a perfect fit for director Robert Zemeckis, who has close ties to the effects house ImageMovers. The film cost a relatively cheap $35 million to make, but it looks like the filmmakers spared no expense.  The tightrope performance in particular is a remarkable achievement, creating one of the most thrilling cinematic sequences in any film this year  Reportedly, some moviegoers experienced vertigo during screenings.  Unfortunately, the walk is only about seventeen minutes out of an interminable two hour movie.

Where do I start?  As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and admire everything he went through to prepare for the part, his performance as Philippe Petit borders on cartoonish.  The Parisian accent desperately needs to be toned down a few degrees.  The real Petit is very theatrical and exuberant, but Gordon-Levitt overdoes it.  His passion for his art seems genuine enough, but it's hard to keep a straight face when he's forced to expound on it endlessly in several monologues and constant narration.  There is actually a framing device with Gordon-Levitt as Petit standing on top of the Statue of Liberty, providing introductions, exposition, and commentary.  At times I felt like I was watching a travelogue film, or one of those educational programs for young children with a smiley host on hand to help with difficult words.

Really, the biggest trouble is that Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne fail to get us invested in Philippe Petit's journey.  The meet-cute and subsequent romance with Annie are depressingly banal.  Dependable Ben Kingsley is barely onscreen long enough to register as the most interesting character in the movie.  The planning and preparation for the coup creates some excitement, but it's difficult to care much about secondary characters who have barely been developed beyond their accents and professions.  Petit's constant exhortations to speak in English are a particularly grating and transparent ploy to play to the intended target audience - Americans who love cinema spectacle.

If you have any interest at all in "The Walk," I highly suggest watching "Man on Wire," the Oscar winning 2008 documentary that covered the same events.  It's about thirty minutes shorter than "The Walk," much better paced, and considerably more entertaining.  The real Philippe Petit is quite a character.  And clearly, the only reason why "The Walk" exists at all is because "Man on Wire" was so well-received.  Now, the one thing that "Man on Wire" doesn't have is any footage of the actual walk, because none exists of the event.  If you could somehow edit together the recreation from "The Walk" into "Man on Wire," that would be something worth seeing.


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