July 07, 2010

Believe it or not, it’s worth comparing a current box office smash—The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, a Mormon teen vampire romance—to a dud—Knight and Day, an expensive Cameron Diaz-Tom Cruise thriller parody.

Knight and Day is expertly made and consistently entertaining, while the Twilight episode is talky and amateurish. Yet, the public’s preference makes sense, because Eclipse‘s bizarre ambitions and common passions makes it more memorable than Knight and Day‘s facile technique.

Both movies revolve around a young woman’s struggle to choose the man who will protect her in a savage world.

Eclipse is the adaptation of the third of Mormon housewife Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, the biggest bestsellers since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Bella (pretty Kristen Stewart from last year’s

Adventureland) is a human schoolgirl whose (follow me closely here) especially tasty-smelling blood drives vampires wild with bloodlust. Her lively scent has won the heart of the undead Edward (tween heartthrob Robert Pattinson), a gentlemanly vampire who strives manfully to keep his lusts under control. When a less civilized vampire army from Seattle comes hunting for her, however, the icy Edward realizes that he must ask for help in protecting Bella from his warm-blooded rival for her heart, Jacob, a weightlifting American Indian werewolf.

I realize that this previous paragraph will likely strike you either as old news (if you are a 9 to 17-year-old girl) or as gibberish (if you aren”€™t). And I must admit to being baffled for long stretches of Eclipse.

A weaker novelist than Rowling, Meyer less understands the adolescent girl’s mind than shares it. Her Bella epitomizes teen self-obsession, the ambition to have every boy fight over you and every girl hate you for it.

Unlike Harry Potter‘s world, which is so crisply-imagined that it’s a little limiting as metaphor, Meyer’s hazy imagination created a vampire cosmos where everything can symbolize anything. Sex, death, growing up, marriage, religion, race, family, whatever interests you, it will fit into Twilight‘s cloudy cosmos.

“Female moviegoers don”€™t seem to care as much as males do about empowered heroines.”

For years, everybody thought Tom Cruise was the world’s greatest guy. Then, he nepotistically replaced his pit bull publicist Pat Kingsley with his sister. Soon, the hypomanic Scientologist was universally despised.

Nonetheless, no other star’s films are as consistently quick-witted. Of his last ten films, only Lions and Lambs was bad, while Minority Report and Mission Impossible: III were excellent. Cruise’s track record at picking scripts is so good that you might wonder if he’s indeed getting good career advice down at the Scientology Celebrity Centre International, at least until you ponder the screenplay choices of fellow cultist John Travolta.

It’s hard to market a movie in which Tom Cruise turns out to be the object rather than the subject. In Knight and Day, an expertly made and consistently entertaining soufflé of an action comedy, Diaz’s ditsy blonde has to decide whether Cruise’s character, an intensely competent and unflappably upbeat Eagle Scout turned master spy, is a terrorist maniac (like his ex-colleagues at CIA claim) or the man of her dreams, or both.

If only, during their preposterously lethal globe-spanning chase, he wouldn”€™t keep asking her to help him out in the countless fights. Contrary to all the butt-kicking babe movies, such as, say, Charlie’s Angels (which starred Diaz as one of the three martial arts mistresses), in Knight and Day it turns out that 110-pound blondes don”€™t make good unstoppable killing machines. Diaz mostly winds up shrieking comically.

Granted, no genre is more ripe for parody. Today’s butt-kicking babe films are particularly odd because current audiences also prefer girlier leading ladies than back in the Golden Age of such formidable femme fatales as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn.

Still, the public apparently doesn”€™t like to see its taste in movies spoofed. The tepid reaction to Knight and Day is reminiscent of the complaints about Kate Capshaw’s performance in Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom as a nightclub singer whose only contribution to the roaring action is to squeal. I can”€™t recall how many nerdy guys complained to me that Capshaw was a poor feminist role model compared to Karen Allen, who beat up bad guys in Raiders of the Lost Ark. All the fanboys hated Capshaw (although her director, Steven Spielberg, married her).

Female moviegoers, in contrast, don”€™t seem to care as much as males do about empowered heroines. In Eclipse‘s funniest scene, Bella is livid after beefcake Jacob tries to kiss her, even though Jacob knows perfectly well that she loves Edward. So, like an Angelina Jolie heroine, Bella hauls back and socks Jacob on his square jaw. Jacob, whose neck is wider than his head, doesn”€™t even flinch, but Bella sprains her own wrist, leaving her whimpering in pain.

But that’s okay because everybody is soon fighting over Bella again, which she likes more than fighting herself.


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