In “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” director Robert Zemeckis integrated real people and animated characters; in “Forrest Gump,” for which he won an Oscar, a fictional character infiltrated genuine newsreels. Zemeckis also made the “Back to the Future” trilogy. In his new movie, “Allied,” he returns to the past in an attempt to create a romantic, melodramatic thriller in the classic Hollywood style. The story begins in 1942, the year in which the film “Casablanca” was made: this was an iconic movie in terms of its style of filmmaking, not necessarily for its ultimate quality, perhaps, but certainly for its ongoing popularity.
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However, in contrast to earlier Zemeckis pictures – those mentioned above and others – whose aims were clear and were often of interest conceptually, “Allied” is a very peculiar piece of cinema. In fact, it’s been a long time since I saw a film in which so much production effort was put to so little purpose. The story itself is not tedious, and the viewer follows its development over the course of two hours with a certain interest, thanks to adequate doses of action and drama. But why is the story being told at all? What is it trying to tell us, and on what basis does it demand that we be excited by it?
“Allied” sets out to tell a “towering love story” fraught with emotional peaks and dramatic crises, and that’s precisely why its insipidness is so striking. There is a love story, but it’s far from towering. In its flowery way, the movie tries to take us back to the classic era of American cinema, though of course with the addition of sex scenes and use of the F word – two elements that old-time Hollywood filmmaking did not countenance. The problem is that the point of departure of Zemeckis and his scriptwriter, Steven Knight, is erroneous, with the result that the movie implodes conceptually.
Their underlying assumption is that classic Hollywood movies possessed only a story, which in the best cases bore no ideological implications – and certainly none are present in “Allied.” Thus it comes across more as a cinematic exercise with wrongheaded motivations than as a work of heft and validity.
Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer from Canada, who in the fine shot that opens the film parachutes into the expanses of the North African desert. There he is picked up by members of an underground organization that is operating against the Germans and the French (the latter collaborating with the Nazis through the Vichy regime). He is taken to – wait for it – Casablanca. There he meets with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a Resistance activist, with whom he is supposed to assassinate ranking Vichy personnel in the city. Their chances of survival are slim, and they have to pretend to be a married couple. To that end, Max poses as a Parisian, but as his Quebec accent is liable to give him away, Marianne gives him a quick lesson in how to speak French with a Parisian accent. The two also fall in love, of course. (As for those who think an opportunity to hear Brad Pitt speak French for a few minutes is sufficient reason to see the movie – more power to them.)
Naturally, and this is not a spoiler, Max and Marianne – he in a suit, she in an elegant evening dress of the kind worn by female stars of the past – emerge safely from the act of mass assassination they perpetrate, which is depicted somewhat heavy-handedly. In the wake of their success, they move to London, where they marry for real and have a daughter, who is born during the German Blitz of London (we’re talking drama, right?). But then, in the midst of their family happiness, the towering love story encounters a fateful crisis.
The movie’s chief problem is that the great love story between Max and Marianne simply doesn’t work, so its results leave us pretty indifferent. (According to one rumor, the reason for the breakup of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was an affair Pitt had with Cotillard during the shooting of “Allied,” but not an iota of romantic ardor is visible on the screen between the two stars. The rumor was denied.) Cotillard looks at Pitt as though he’s a piece of handsome furniture she’s come across, and Pitt seems to make an effort to ensure that no expression of any kind will jolt his face, which has undergone a weird transformation and become ageless.
Insipid is almost too easy a word to describe Zemeckis’ new movie. Indeed, for the icing on the cake, the director ends the picture with a gush of superfluous cloying sentimentality, which goes to show how dramatically and emotionally petrified was everything that went before.
This isn’t the first failed attempt to replicate the Hollywood classic style in the American cinematic present. (A notable predecessor in this regard is Sidney Pollack’s 1990 “Havana,” which tried to relocate the plot of “Casablanca” to Havana, and in which a Swedish actress, Lena Olin, played the female lead opposite Robert Redford, just like Ingrid Bergman in Michael Curtiz’s picture.)
But to recreate that style, if it needs recreating at all, a prerequisite is recognition of the complexity of classic Hollywood cinema, along with the ability to translate that awareness intelligently in the context of contemporary American filmmaking. Otherwise, you end up with just a copycat effort that is merely empty nostalgia. From this point of view, “Allied” is a complete failure, even if it sometimes seems that, through her highly expressive eyes, the French actress who is its star is aware of the cinematic void in which she is performing.