Sunday, December 13, 2009

Keep the Precious Cast, But Push The Rest Away

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—As most people know by now, it's that time of year: the season when Hollywood studios bring out their big prestige-pic guns for awards consideration. Over the years, I've pretty much learned to not put any traction in the increasingly irrelevant taste of the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the other awards-giving groups of its ilk; nevertheless, as much as I may cluck my tongue at these glorified popularity contests, I usually find myself getting rather caught up in movie-awards season, if only to see just how much my taste departs from the films getting all the awards hype. Here's one case, among others surely to come:

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009; Dir.: Lee Daniels)

Truth be told, I was rather dreading this movie. It was bad enough when Slumdog Millionaire won a whole slew of awards, including the big Oscar Best Picture prize, earlier this year for insensitively using the plight of the poor in India as a mere backdrop for a gaudy, clichéd, stylistically tricked-up Hollywood (or, er, Bollywood) fairy tale. Based on its trailer, Precious looked to possibly be worse: just as much of an over-the-top fantasy of poverty, but meant to be more gritty and realistic in manner. At least Slumdog was stylistically upfront about its being a fantasy, with handheld jiggling, quick edits and canted camera angles providing all sorts of distracting surface activity. Going into Precious, I was ready to be disgusted by a surfeit of sensationalism masquerading as "the way things are for these poor black folk."

Not so fast. Precious turns out to be, oh, maybe only half as offensive as its trailers make it out to be. The objectionable half mostly involves the unbelievably grotesque scenes of main character Precious's (Gabourey Sidibe) home life with her monstrously lazy and abusive mother (Mo'Nique). A montage of fatherly incest intercut with images of frying eggs...images of Precious being forced by Mom to eat cooked pig's feet...Mom throwing a TV down a bunch of stairs aiming for Precious's head, moments after she throws her baby on the floor like a plastic doll...Precious being forced to steal (I kid you not) fried chicken, and later seen walking around with her stolen bucket, wiping her greasy fingers on her pants and shirt. Believe me, there's plenty more—and all I have to say about this parade of stereotypes is, didn't Dave Chappelle lampoon this kind of stuff years ago on his late, lamented "Chappelle's Show"? (Remember Chappelle's Tiger Woods and his "Goodbye fried rice, hello fried chicken"?) And yet here we are in Precious, with director Lee Daniels apparently taking all of this with utmost seriousness of purpose (as well as with a whole bag of gratuitous stylistic visual tricks that are almost never deployed effectively in the film). Um, seriously?

Of course, Precious is also meant to be an uplifting tale of how this wronged young girl finds her way out of her hellhole of abuse and poverty. And you know what? Some of the more hopeful moments do come off fairly effectively, providing a sometimes genuinely inspiring contrast to the Jerry Springer-tinted domestic freak-show scenes. The classroom scenes in particular—in which the barely literate Precious tries to wade her way through alternative education after being thrown out of public school—are by turns funny and warmly emotional, with one particularly wrenching scene in which Precious breaks down in class and gives voice to all her insecurities in front of her teacher (Paula Patton).

If nothing else, Precious is proof positive of just how much great acting can elevate even the most ridiculous of scripts. Much has already been written about Mo'Nique's imposing performance as the shameless welfare-queen mother; I'd be more enthusiastic about her acting here if she wasn't saddled with such a risible role. Sidibe is a real find, however: she affects a kind of mumble in her vocal manner that feels almost poetic in the way it locates the wounded heart of her character. By all accounts, Sidibe herself is the polar opposite of the locked-in, barely articulate Precious; how she manages to portray such a locked-in character so empathetically is just one of those cherishable mysteries of the acting field. However she does it, she seems to have inspired the rest of the cast—yes, including Mariah Carey—to rise to her level. (I, for one, am excited at the prospect of seeing what wonders she may have inside of her in future performances.)

It's too bad their soulfulness is wasted on such an overwrought, silly, condescending movie. But hey, at least Precious isn't entirely flat-out laughable and dignity-free like last year's Frozen River.

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