Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now on DVD: Monte Carlo

Posted By on 11.30.11 at 12:00 PM

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No American movie of 2011 exceeded my expectations more than Monte Carlo, an escapist comedy that was marketed primarily to preteen girls. While the film certainly works as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s also an object lesson in the art of movie direction, demonstrating how a sensitive filmmaker can elicit universal meaning from trite material. I found a lot of it more poignant and perceptive than a lot of wish-fulfillment fantasies marketed to adults—such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which was released around the same time. What distinguishes Monte Carlo is that it encourages the viewer to take all of the characters’ feelings seriously, instead of identifying with one person at the expense of those around her. It’s a surprisingly mature vision, implicitly arguing that happiness should be shared by everyone.

The movie reveals it’s up to something different in the very first scene. While introducing the heroine Grace (Selena Gomez) at her part-time job as a waitress, director Thomas Bezucha gracefully pans to her best friend, Emma (Katie Cassidy), who’s working the cash register. Emma’s boyfriend Owen enters and coyly pretends not to know her before leaning in for a kiss. Bezucha presents the entire interaction with a single shot, savoring their flirtation, then concludes with an unpretentious zoom-in to the smooch. This sets the tone for the rest of Monte Carlo: whenever he can, Bezucha will linger on a moment like this, letting his affection for the characters determine the shape of the film.

Grace and Emma have made plans to visit Paris to celebrate Grace’s high school graduation, but her stepfather complicates things by demanding that her stepsister Meg (Leighton Meester) accompany them. Meg’s a high-strung college student who’s been mourning her mother’s death for some time—she and Grace don’t get along well, and she’s openly contemptuous of Emma, a high school dropout with delusions of becoming a model. Yet Bezucha doesn’t present Meg as a bitch or a scold—instead, she’s a fragile young woman whose cold persona hides a real sadness.

Perhaps she learned about evasion from her father. In his one major scene of the film, Robert (Brett Cullen, a television actor with the blandly assuring demeanor of a Hanes underwear model) springs the idea of Meg joining Grace and Emma’s trip the way a lot of suburban dads would: by pretending that spending money will solve deep-seated problems. Before presenting Grace and Meg with fancy luggage and telling them he’s upgraded their airfare to business class, he says, “I thought you two would go to France together and . . . kick this sisterhood thing into high gear!” It’s a plausible mix of cluelessness and concern, the sort of detail a lesser movie wouldn’t recognize.

Brett Cullen
  • Brett Cullen

It’s obvious from the setup that Meg will loosen up and make friends with Grace and Emma, and Bezucha doesn’t try to suggest otherwise. He exploits Meester and Cassidy’s natural chemistry, directing them to behave warmly with each other even when their characters are arguing. As a result, Monte Carlo often conveys one of the oldest gratifications of movies: evidence of the pleasure that went into its own making. Even the perfunctory scenes contain some inflection of performance that gives the moment genuine character. The girls’ stay in Paris rarely feels like a tourism poster (though they do visit the Eiffel Tower) or an extended shopping spree.

When Grace is mistaken for a British heiress and all three leads are taken to a resort in Monte Carlo, Bezucha does something interesting: he cuts to a scene of Owen back in Texas, just as he’s realizing how much he loves Emma. (This will inspire him to fly to Paris to propose to her and end up getting lost on his way to Monte Carlo—another complication reminiscent of 30s movie comedy.) This interruption complicates the narrative, suggesting that the girls’ happiness isn’t complete if someone close to them remains unhappy. (Compare this to Midnight in Paris’ derisive portrait of Owen Wilson’s fiancee and future in-laws, which renders Wilson’s pursuit of happiness relatively uncomplicated and selfish.)

The editing is especially elegant as the movie continues, as Bezucha uses crosscutting to spread sympathy evenly across the characters. Meg gradually learns to love life (in the form of a hunky Australian backpacker) as Grace achieves her goal of philanthropy (exploiting the heiress’s public profile to advocate for literacy programs in developing nations). This parallel structure suggests their experiences reinforce one another, producing a greater happiness that extends to the people around them.

We get a sense of what this happiness might look like at the film’s emotional climax, which cuts between Meg, Grace, and Emma on separate dates. Meg goes dancing with her backpacker and Grace manages to arrange a quiet mountain walk with a sensitive budding philanthropist (this being foremost a fantasy for adolescent girls, we know these boys are winners from the get-go because they have the best haircuts), while Emma strikes out with a snob who takes her to a dinner party and promptly ignores her. Bezucha reunites the girls through a fireworks display that all three stop to admire—Meg and Grace on their dates, Emma alone on the beach. It’s a bittersweet moment in a movie surprisingly full of them (Emma first decides to improve her life, for instance, after Meg wounds her pride with a classist insult), as Emma’s loneliness coexists with the other girls’ romances. Yet Emma’s rejection of the snob (and the luxurious life he represents) betrays a growing self-respect, which is made to seem as important as finding a soul mate.

As a recording of Louis Armstrong singing “La Vie en Rose” rises on the soundtrack, Bezucha cuts all the diegetic sound. This is the first time the film has used music to convey the characters’ internal development. (It will do so one more time, leadenly, when Emma and Owen reunite at the conclusion.) For the most part Bezucha trusts the emotional content of Monte Carlo to his actors, whom he allows to relax into their roles. This makes the film ideal for the relaxed environment of home viewing, where it might belatedly find the audience it deserves.

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