stars: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw
writers: Damon Lindelof & Brad Bird
director: Brad Bird
MPAA: Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language
I’ll See You in My Dreams
stars: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, Malin Akerman
writers: Brett Haley & Marc Basch
director: Brett Haley
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug use and brief strong language
This week at the movies, we’ve got two stories about older recluses pulled from their isolation by inquisitive younger people who show up abruptly in their lives and motivate them to reengage with the worlds they’d abandoned. In Tomorrowland, the old crank in question is Frank (George Clooney, clad in shapeless khakis and lesbian flannels for maximum de-sexification). He’s a frustrated inventor who once wanted to change the world, but succumbed to bitterness when he was kicked out of the magical titular city—an alternate-realm utopia in which all the world’s top minds work on inventions to make the world a better place—to which he was invited when he invented a jetpack as a young boy. If you read that description of Tomorrowland and thought, “Gross, that’s how Google thinks of itself,” bear with me because I’ll be coming back to that.
In I’ll See You in My Dreams, Blythe Danner plays the first starring role of her nearly 50-year film career as Carol, a longtime widow who’s forced to reassess her reclusive circumstances when her lone companion, a 14-year-old dog named Hazel, falls ill and must be put to sleep. Carol’s daughter Katherine (Malin Akerman) lives long-distance, and the only regular human interaction she has is with a gang of rowdy game-night memaws, Rona (Mary Kay Place), Sally (Rhea Perlman), and Georgina (June Squibb, playing against type as the prim one), all of whom live at a nearby retirement community and are constantly pressuring Carol to sell her home and join them. Unfortunately, Carol never suggests the reverse for full-on Golden Girls realness, but maybe in the sequel.
Enter the young disruptors! In Tomorrowland, Frank’s gadget-strewn doomsday-prep HQ is intruded upon by teenager Casey (Britt Robertson, seemingly cast for her passing resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence and ability to resist any hint of sexual chemistry with Clooney despite being the ripe love-interest age of 25). She’s the kind of high-strung virginal nightmare who wears a baseball cap well into puberty and interrupts (senior high!) school lectures about climate change to chirp, “Can we fix it?” in a superficially upbeat but ultimately demanding and simplistic tone shared by the movie itself. Casey’s moxie has caught the eye of Tomorrowland recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an enigmatic and steely young English girl attempting to bring some fresh blood into what’s become a stale, unhelpful institution under the leadership of callow head bitch Nix (Hugh Laurie). Athena sends Casey to get Frank back onboard so they can fundamentally change things at Tomorrowland before it’s too late.
Back at Casa Carol, the sudden appearance of a black rat (why it gotta be black?) sends our heroine running out her garden doors to sleep on her patio instead of in her bed. It’s on the patio that she’s discovered the next morning by Lloyd (an impressively sensitive Martin Starr), the new pool guy, who hesitantly approaches her sleeping body in a manner that infuriates her when she awakes to find him somberly staring at her (“I’m not dead,” she bristles, the first overt sign that she’s coming back to life). But there’s something about Lloyd that disarms Carol: although he’s 40 years her junior, he has an old-soul quality that, combined with his plainspoken openness and dry sense of humor, endears him to her. Despite their age difference, Lloyd truly sees Carol; he looks in her eyes and listens when she speaks. They instantly recognize something of themselves in one another, and an authentic, surprising friendship emerges. Then, in a classic example of feast-or-famine, Carol’s 20-year drought (by choice) ends when she meets a second man, septuagenarian stud Bill (Sam Elliott); between these two new relationships, Carol experiences a transformative new vitality.
So, what we have here are two movies about protagonists who’d resigned themselves to a certain fate, but gradually learn to see the world in a new, more hopeful way. The difference is that I’ll See You in My Dreams allows the audience, like Carol herself, to come to this realization gently and organically, whereas Tomorrowland repeatedly and didactically beats the message into our brains like a rubber stamp that isn’t taking. To be fair, these are films for wildly different audiences; Tomorrowland is a children’s film to its core, while Dreams is a golden-years character study playing the speciality circuit. Still, there’s an insistent, relentless quality to Tomorrowland that feels precariously close to propaganda.
While this may be a film for children, it’s got plenty of messages for adults—namely, “If the world does end, it’ll be because you’re all lazy, apathetic assholes.” As with his thematically similar The Incredibles, Brad Bird puts a premium on exceptionalism and greatness while heaping scorn on anything that might inhibit such virtues. Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof get in the majority of their potshots on this subject in a scathing monologue delivered by Laurie in the film’s final act, which takes aim at everything from people who “won’t accept a future that asks something of them today” to the obese (“This is a world that manages to have epidemics of both obesity and starvation at the same time!” Laurie fumes, because those are definitely the same thing).
Bird and Lindelof want to have their cake and eat it too by having their villain deliver these lines, but they carry an unmistakable conviction to them, representing the less optimistic reading of the world proffered by this film. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult—at least in the Bay Area—to watch the depiction of an anything-goes collective of endlessly well-funded invention without thinking of companies like Google (or, if you watch Silicon Valley, Hooli). Tomorrowland is a rallying cry to celebrate and encourage the dreamer class, but here in the Bay Area, the dreamer class is also the oppressor class, steadily obliterating the middle- and working-class citizens who’ve long called these cities home, with their heads too high in the clouds to even notice because they’re busy unnecessarily inventing ways to wear your computer on your face. Granted, this might be a strictly San Franciscan reading of the film, but it’s damn hard not to see it (let alone to root for its dreamer-inventors). Economic brokenness is just one of many complexities in which Tomorrowland is either disinterested or believes can be smiled away with a positive attitude. It equates the survival of our planet with the time-honored Disney tradition applied to Tinkerbell in Pinocchio—”All it needs is for us to believe in it!”
Ahem. Clearly this one is bringing out my pessimist/realist side, but maybe that’s because the whole movie feels like a troll on film critics, as if to criticize it would be to prove its point. But frankly, I don’t give a shit what this movie thinks about me, so I’ll proceed. In addition to its wild-eyed proselytizing and oblivious sense of privilege, Tomorrowland is also just uneven as a movie. It has a circuitous and immensely lopsided plot, runs 30 minutes too long, and feels too bogged down by its philosophy to ever really ascend to that sense of magic and wonder that marks the best family films. If I had to praise one thing about it, it would be the remarkable performance of young Raffey Cassidy, who’s far and away its most fascinating and intriguing asset. And while Tomorrowland does deserve credit as a non-adaptation, non-sequel, non-remake with cultural messages as its currency, it’s ultimately messages (and judgment) without many ideas.
If you want to talk about a movie that’s actually making the world a better place, let’s go back to I’ll See You in My Dreams. This is the kind of representation that’s sorely lacking from film and TV; building a film around the perspective of a woman in her ’70s who isn’t defined as a wife or grandmother feels nothing less than revolutionary. Danner has always been one of our finest and most dependable character actresses, and here—at the age of 72—she displays for the first time how beautifully she can carry an entire film. She imbues Carol with her trademark elegance and warmth, while giving the character enough of a frayed edge to keep things interesting. And can we just talk about Martin Starr for a minute? If, like me, you’re only familiar with Starr from his similar roles as glaring, nerdy misanthropes on Party Down and Silicon Valley, you’ll need a minute to acclimate to the sight of him clean-cut and glasses-free, clad in a blue polo shirt and khaki shorts. The chemistry he has with Danner is an unlikely as his casting at first seems; and like his casting, you gradually realize how flawless it is.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is not a perfect film (despite the great actresses playing them, Carol’s scenes with her girlfriends come off uniformly forced in their humor and bonhomie), but it’s a lovely, insightful one, filled with thoughtfully observed little moments that ring true—such as Carol curtly chasing out an unexpected overnight visitor the next morning so she can begin her daily routine, or her awed delight upon discovering appletinis when she accompanies Lloyd, who looks on bemusedly, to a bar. This is a resonant, nuanced gem of a film. If I were in charge of Tomorrowland, I’d organize a task force dedicated to make sure there were more like it.
Tomorrowland and I’ll See You in My Dreams open in San Francisco theaters today.