Pennies From Heaven (1981)
I find music to be far more subjective than film, simply because for me music can be and often is even more of an emotional reaction product than film. Musicals are much the same, because so much of their focus is on the music it often doesnít matter whether a film is well made in every way, your emotional reaction guides your feelings on said film. Pennies From Heaven takes this even a step further by modifying its musical aesthetic to the point where it is a take it or leave it situation. From the moment Steve Martin started ďsingingĒ I fell into the latter category and I never stopped wanting to leave Pennies From Heaven behind.
Going back to the idea of music and emotion for a second, I have very strong feelings on music and what it means to me. That isnít to say that I am stuck in my ways, simply that I feel very strongly about music and the affect it can have on people, particularly this guy. The best kind of music leaves me feeling like something has been put into my soul, a thought, an idea, a feeling, whatever that ďsomethingĒ may be, there is definitely a new entry in my soul cistern. Conversely the worst kind of music is the kind that leaves me feeling empty or flat, the music that doesnít move me or involve me in any fashion. Before I go any further let me reveal what this has to do with Pennies From Heaven, it left me very, very empty. The music was so produced that it failed to do anything for me time after time, to the point where near the middle of the movie the musical numbers were like another slap in the face after the continuous slaps from the woefully ridiculous and underdeveloped story.
Before I wrap this up, one small thing that really, really bugged me, I found Pennies From Heaven to be terribly misogynistic. I usually donít like to point that out in a film because if anyone wants to they can find misogyny in any film. However, with Pennies From Heaven I feel the need to point out just how misogynistic it was. Steve Martinís character is the main offender, the camera often tries to paint him in a ďoh man, his life sucks, feel sorry for himĒ light, but it does this by portraying him as a hypocrite and a cheater while portraying his women as a pair of idiots. I know a certain someone who would have a field day with the misogyny in Pennies From Heaven, but I am not that guy.
I donít think I want to go on any longer with this review, it seems pretty pointless to me. I donít like being pessimistic or a Debbie Downer, and if I were to write my usual length review for Pennies From Heaven thatís all you would get, negative comment after negative comment. Hey, wait, I forgot, the Christopher Walken tap dance sequence is an epic win. Itís Walken with an awesome ístache tap dancing like a crazy fool, you canít beat that, you just canít. But thatís all Pennies From Heaven has going for it, as I was alternately bored and disgusted with the rest of the picture and more than happy when the end credits finally came along. If you are ever going to take my word on anything, I beg and plead that you listen to me now, avoid Pennies From Heaven, donít even give it the time of the day, your life will be better for it.
As a portrait of the times, Reds is most definitely an astounding success. The film moves quickly from setting to setting, yet it stays long enough at each entry in its travelogue that I constantly felt that I was present during important moments in history. The fault in Reds isnít its length or its attempts to be an epic film, it manages both of those quite well, rather the fault with Reds resides in its cumbersome and uninteresting love story between Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton. If that love story had stayed as a simple backdrop to the painting of the times that was taking place then it wouldnít be an issue, but it becomes the focal point of the movie far too often and leaves Reds a well made and engaging but ultimately uneven film.
The moments spent with the IWW, the Socialist Party or the Bolshevik Revolution are wonderful little bits of film making from Beatty. Not only does he recreate the era of the early 1900ís visually as well as through dialogue and the mannerisms of his actors, but he manages to capture the feeling of that particular place and time perfectly. When Beatty storms into a Socialist Party meeting in Chicago in 1919 I believe that meeting is actually taking place, I believe he ends up in a Finnish prison, I believe in every setting, place, costume and character. That amount of belief isnít easy for a film to produce and in many ways the ability of Reds to completely engross me in its setting is its greatest asset.
On the flip side of the coin there is the aforementioned romance between Keaton and Beatty, a romance that I never quite cared about because I wanted more of the Bolsheviks, the Socialists, more of history and less of a romance that I didnít find worth my time. The characters of John Reed and Louis Bryant are hard to relate to from the start, at least as far as romantic ideas are concerned, and they never cross that line to where their relationship is one I want to succeed, fail or see play out in shape or form. Thatís not to say I need an on-screen couple to adhere to my romantics ideals, but I do need their relationship to be interesting and that wasnít the case with the relationship in Reds.
The film remains tethered to that relationship, much to its detriment, especially in the last hour or so. At various times it breaks from its historical setting to handle relationship issues and this results in the flow of the film becoming fractured. Narrative flow is an important part of a film, at least in my eyes, and in that realm Reds fails in a very big way. Reds is two distinctly different films, two films that never quite work together, one film that is interesting and another that is highly forgettable. If the romantic angle had been dropped I am confident that Reds would have been a much better picture.
I think what Iíve written so far lays out my feelings on Reds in adequate fashion. Warren Beatty made the film he wanted to make, and half of it was a film I really wanted to see. The other half I could have done without, but Beatty included the love story and there isnít anything I can do about that. For its amazing depiction of the early 1900ís Communist movement in America, and abroad, Reds is a film that is worth seeing, I merely wish it hadnít tied itself down with such a woefully inept love story.
Verdict:Reds certainly isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is vastly superior to Pennies From Heaven and easily moves on.