A Genius for the Obvious

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Against all reason, I'm going to try to say some nice things about producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the man responsible for "Armageddon," "Coyote Ugly" and now "Pearl Harbor."

At least I think I am. When you sit down to write, you can never be quite sure how it will turn out. Which is definitely not the case with Jerry Bruckheimer's movies.

There I go again, needling Mr. B. I've even been known to do it over films not his own, like Lars von Trier's shamelessly contrived but ever so admired "Dancer in the Dark," which I wrote made Bruckheimer's output "look like the work of austere French director Robert Bresson," leaving the producer "justified in feeling that the only thing that separates his pictures from a Palme d'Or at Cannes and the prestigious opening-night slot at the New York Film Festival is grainy cinematography, a tragic ending and a von in the middle of his name." I can't help it, something about the man just brings out the imp in me.

Not surprisingly, this kind of behavior has not endeared me to the Bruckheimer camp. If memory serves, my files contain a letter from both the present and the former Mrs. Bruckheimer (or maybe it's two letters from one of them) strenuously suggesting I cease and desist from reviewing his films. Like right now.

Actually, I have given positive notices to several of Mr. B's films, from "Beverly Hills Cop" to the submarine drama "Crimson Tide" to the paranoid thriller "Enemy of the State." You could look it up. And, for the same variety of reasons that leads me to tweak him from time to time, I always look forward to the opportunity to deal with his films.

For one thing, Bruckheimer's works, both during and after his partnership with the late Don Simpson, have as much of an unmistakable personality as any director's. For another, the success they've had is unparalleled. As his reverential official bio puts it, "With worldwide revenues of over $11 billion in box office, video and recording receipts, more than any other producer in history, Jerry Bruckheimer continues to find and develop the films that will take him into the new millennium." All of which leads the man to take himself quite seriously: According to Premiere magazine, all radio spots for his films are mandated to mention his name at least twice, and that official bio, taking up three full pages, is the longest one for a producer I have ever seen.

All in all, then, Bruckheimer more or less epitomizes Hollywood today. No one is more completely a creature of the business, no one has put more bodies in the seats, and as such, his success tells us something about where commercial moviemaking is here and now. Like it or not, as Mrs. Loman says about poor Willie, attention must be paid.

Given that, I was sorry to have missed out on reviewing "Pearl Harbor." (I didn't take the Mrs. Bruckheimers' advice but rather a long-planned vacation.) Still, seeing this movie late, after it had been savaged in many quarters but had earned a tidy sum its opening weekend, made me think about the interconnections between why critics disparage his work (which I suspect Bruckheimer regards as something of a badge of honor) while audiences are attracted to it.

Although the producer's bread and butter has traditionally been the kind of 14-year-old-boy friendly action epics epitomized by the lamentable duo of "Con Air" and "Gone in 60 Seconds," connoisseurs of Bruckheimiana have sensed a recent change in focus. First came the Denzel Washington-starring "Remember the Titans," more or less a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which the producer claimed was part of a determination to develop "smaller films, cutting-edge stories that explore issues not generally seen in mainstream filmmaking." And now there's "Pearl Harbor."

Directed by Michael Bay, Bruckheimer's apparatchik of choice, "Pearl Harbor" is, as might be expected given its $140-million budget, impressive physically in its ability to re-create that early-morning attack. But the film has more in mind than being the most expensive war game-newsreel ever made. It wants to be taken seriously, wants its lumbering, ponderous love triangle involving flyboy buddies Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett and nurse Kate Beckinsale to rank with "Casablanca." It wants, as Bruckheimer films rarely have, to be thought of as something for the ages.

Unfortunately, this is not to be. No matter who does the directing or the writing (Randall Wallace in this case), Bruckheimer's films exhibit the same tendencies, things that simultaneously make them audience friendly but anathema for the critical community.

If Bruckheimer has a genius for anything (and it's hard to make $11 billion without having a genius for something), it's for the obvious. What almost all his pictures, very much including both "Remember the Titans" and "Pearl Harbor," have in common is a gift for the expected, for the unoriginal, the predictable. The key to his success is the relentless familiarity of his work, its eagerness to go where everyone else has gone. What a "Pearl Harbor" character says about James Doolittle's plan to bomb Tokyo--"It's risky but it's bold"--will never be said about a Bruckheimer film. These are the cinematic equivalents of comfort food, and getting mad at them is, finally, like getting angry at a bowl of oatmeal.

While audiences, often eager to simply lose themselves in something they've seen before and are consequently at ease with, don't mind these qualities, they work against some of "Pearl Harbor's" aims. When characters and situations are so cliched and formulaic as to be impersonal, it's difficult to evoke the kind of feelings that "Pearl Harbor" is after. Likewise, a proficient director of mayhem like Bay is not necessarily suited to create emotion; in fact, in today's Hollywood, people who can do one usually can't do the other.

Yet I have to confess to a fascination and maybe even a bit of awe for Bruckheimer's abilities as a promoter of both himself and his output. He's truly adroit as a showman, able to ensure that nothing his name is on is going to be forced to tiptoe into the marketplace on little cat's feet. While shamelessness doesn't play well as a creative touchstone, it is certainly an invaluable asset in promotion.

Take, for instance, his celebrated use of waves of expensive writers to rework projects. Bruckheimer is not alone in doing this, but while other producers have a tendency to try to hide the practice, he trumpets it. In what might have been an industry first, the "Armageddon" press kit boasted about and listed by name (Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg, Robert Towne) some of the high-profile uncredited writers who worked on the script.

Bruckheimer intrigues because showmanship has always been an essential part of what makes Hollywood Hollywood. While it's difficult not to shake your head at the waves of copy his antics call forth, it's equally true that without people like him and their ability to make everything an event, the movie business would both abandon part of its birthright and be a less lively enterprise to be around. One of the reasons I'll never stop reviewing Bruckheimer's films (sorry, Mrs. B) is that he creates an energy and excitement around them that makes them irresistible.

Still, there are showmen and there are showmen. Alfred Hitchcock, as his television series demonstrated, was a consummate self-promoter and manipulator of the media as well as a masterful filmmaker.

If it's true that successful entrepreneurs succeed because of how well they reflect the society they operate in, it's hard to escape the feeling that in Jerry Bruckheimer, we who dwell in today's glib, derivative and shallow Hollywood culture have gotten just the showman we deserve.

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