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December 26, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | December 26, 2007 |

Earlier this year, Salman Rushdie paid a self-effacing visit to my corner of the Bible Belt to give a lecture on the role of the writer in the 21st-century. Out of the author’s several tangential points was the issue of taste and criticism - Rushdie maintained that one cannot gorge solely on the best of everything and hope to have a realistic breadth for criticism. This isn’t hard to understand - imagine the kind of boor who only wants to watch Truffaut and Bresson whenever going to the movies, or the fop who only dines on swordfish and gargle Chablis every evening. Once in a while, said Rushdie, one has the natural urge to set aside fine-dining to wolf down some of the lipidous blobs served at McDonalds or Sonic, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

When this metaphor gets applied to film, it can be especially humbling for a critic who enjoys shitting on anything with the fairly meaningless buzz-words: “Hollywood,” “industry,” or even just “popular,” attached to them, films that have no greater pretense to be anything other than pleasant two-hour time-killers and money-makers. But it’s a hard line to toe, because movies with little to no pretense are incredibly context sensitive, relying on subjective interest and a lack of expectation in order to cast the deciding vote for worthwhile fun or meaningless crap. It’s difficult to find anything approaching consistency with things like this.

My point in bringing this up: I refused to see the first National Treasure movie on principle alone; can anyone blame me? I can’t stand Nicolas Cage and his pants-dropping indignity and shameless money-grubbing in choosing roles. Throw in a plot of hilariously improbable puzzle-hunting and dumbass pseudo-history and you end up with me screaming in my attempt to get away from the movie. So, imagine my shame when, at a friend’s behest, I sat on a couch and stared at a TV containing Cage’s simian fa├žade as he solved absurdly non-logical riddles and romped around the globe to dumb action set-pieces, and actually enjoyed myself. National Treasure was retarded…in the most entertaining of ways, making it hard to begrudge someone their ability to enjoy a movie by pointing out the obvious - that it sucks.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is the exact same crap you’ll either hate or love, depending on your mood and/or expectation, in a moviegoing experience: Fast-paced momentum, one-note characters, random action set pieces, absurd puzzles haphazardly scribbled on the world’s most famous monuments, and made-up history. But it mercifully lacks the kind of Bruckheimer profundity that takes itself so damned seriously, but for a few scenes where the characters openly fellate American nationalism.

Cage and company resume their roles as hapless do-gooders who revel in asinine quasi-history and conspiracy theories; this time Cage’s great-great-grandfather has been implicated in the assassination of Abe Lincoln, and Cage must rush to exonerate him, getting involved in a quest that somehow includes a Confederate plot, Queen Victoria, and El-fuckin’-Dorado (I hope no one actually thinks this is what historians and archaeologists actually do…trust me, you’re in for a world of disappointment). I guess it’s liberating in a lot of ways for the story to make no sense whatsoever, because no one stops to ponder it for a second - the film simply romps along from dumb to dumber with all the gleeful cheer of self-parody. If the film has to be stupid, at least it has a propulsive momentum and no apologies to make. So if you enjoyed your cheese and ham on the last go around, have at it again. I promise not to make fun this time…you’re just lucky you caught me on a good day.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and has somehow worked in museums and archives without having battled Nazis or Freemasons.

A Formal Banquet of French Fries and Bacon-Fried Croquettes

National Treasure: Book of Secrets / Phillip Stephens

Film | December 26, 2007 |

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