The experiment seems healthy enough. Take 10 incredible performers from 2013, get random lines of dialogue from 10 other creatives, snag some shoot time with Janusz Kaminski and deliver something poetic for the end of the year. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the results of The New York Times Magazine “Making a Scene” project are an eyebrow-stretching blend of unintentional hilariousness and forced high art importance.
Make no mistake, Kaminski knows how to shoot. We’ve known that since (at least) Schindler’s List, and a reminder is always welcomed, but it’s disheartening to see so much talent utilized in the pursuit of whatever is going on here.
In one scene Cate Blanchett sits down to a delicious fish in a pristine setting, utters a line provided by mumblecore maven Andrew Bujalski, then throws herself back against the bench with Norma Desmond-esque gusto. In another, Bradley Cooper rage dances in a puddle. Thanks to Greta Gerwig and Adele Exarchopoulos there are two (two!) shorts where women act manically before saying something idiosyncratic and losing control. Bonus points go to Gerwig for saying her dialogue to a taxidermied bear.
There’s a core problem and there’s a cosmetic one that divide the shorts into two distinctive camps. The sans-context nature of the scenic ingredients ensures that zero drama can be built, and the music they’ve chosen is almost universally severe. Thus, you end up with attempts at drama without character and comic moments built exclusively from exaggeration. Funny strange versus Funny Ha Ha.
Oddly enough, the fatal flaw stems from the lines provided by filmmakers like Bujalski, Sarah Polley, J.C. Chandor, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They could literally be anything, and it’s interesting to wonder how long each spent on providing the project with their bits of language. Some show some real effort, while others feel off the cuff. The surprise? It’s the well-written dialogue that sinks the scene, while stuff like Polley’s “Yes, I’m wearing a wig,” becomes a delightful noir-twinged punchline delivered by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the Rogen/Goldberg offering “Actually I’ve never really liked tofu” caps a triumphantly epic bread-slicing session with Robert Redford.
The other issue is the level of cliche at work — dancing in water, solo freakout sessions, designer everything — that screams film school student punching above his intellect. However, it’s really the struggle to deliver an empty, dramatic-sounding line with a single actor in a random (non-dialogue-anchored) setting that demands pretense. It’s doubtful anyone could rise above that challenge other than to overtly point to how absurd, and therefore intrinsically funny, the disconnect is.
The only one that comes close (and deserves loud applause for the win) features Forest Whitaker and a line from Gerwig that benefits from Whitaker’s facial torment and the fact that the line itself has a sense of a story arc — a conflict and a resolution embedded in two sentences. It’s the only dramatic scene that feels complete and intrinsically interesting beyond its visual elements.
In other words, comedy wins the day. As do Kaminski’s (and the production design team’s) colors and textures. The rest feel like foreign cologne and cognac commercials that make famous actors blush when they wind up online. Gorgeously shot, but pointless (and mildly irritating).
Despite all of this, you may want to check them out for yourself (they’re only a minute each, to be fair), but for my money the only one’s worth the time are the scenes featuring Redford, Louis-Dreyfus and Whitaker. All of that talent, so few taxidermied bears.