Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Big Review: "Emperor"

This still is as exciting as it gets in "Emperor," unfortunately.

Matthew Fox is quickly becoming this decade's Dermot Mulroney. This is not how you build a career, unless you want to marry Catherine Keener. If that's the case, then go right ahead. 

This review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


Emperor’s greatest asset is also its biggest liability. Tommy Lee Jones, wielding his cantankerous charisma like a saber, plays Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He’s not the star. That designation goes to Matthew Fox (TV’s Lost, Speed Racer), whose professional clout mostly comes from his handsomeness.

Aside from being a tad stiff—perhaps a symptom of being confined to starchy WWII-era military garb—Fox gives an OK performance. But it still causes a constant state of confusion to hang over the movie. Why isn’t Jones in every scene, bringing crackling energy to a movie that’s perpetually running on empty? It makes as much sense as hiring the Black Keys and having them open for Maroon 5.

That’s par for the course in Emperor, a military procedure drama with little drama and a romance containing scant traces of romance. Director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) is working from a muted palette, and Jones is the only vivid color. You enjoy him when you can.

It’s August 1945. The United States has bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, turning Japan into a smoldering crater and leading to its surrender. After the U.S. military rounds up the country’s war criminals, there’s the matter of determining Emperor Hirohito’s role in the war. MacArthur assigns the task to General Bonner Fellers (Fox), who has 10 days to file a report.

That’s way too soon, Fetters says, but the venerable general doesn’t care. Fetters compiles a who’s-who of Japan’s political players. Interviewing these men is beyond difficult. Hirohito is considered a god in Japan, so the interview subjects aren’t exactly forthright. And there’s the small matter that anti-U.S. sentiment in Japan is sky high, so a negative report could lead to revolt.

Fetters’ intimacy with the country goes beyond his military obligations. In college, he fell in love with Aya, a Japanese student (Eriko Hatsune). While he hunts for more information about Hirohito, Fetters enlists his Japanese driver (Masayoshi Haneda) to pick up the trail of the grand romance that ended several years ago.

The romance and the investigation, the movie’s two big plotlines, both get bungled. What’s so surprising about Aya and Fetters’ romance is its limpness. Even their meet cute—she drops some papers, he picks them up—is boring. If war is hell, then the love arising from that period must save the soul. Where’s the sweaty bonding in a dumpy motel room, the vengeful tryst in the back of a Jeep? In real life, the rapport between these two wouldn’t make date three, most likely dying at a silent, awkward dinner in Ruby Tuesday’s. Here, it’s impossible to believe that Aya’s memory plagues Fetters’ every step.

Fox may be a Professional Handsome Guy but the lack of heat isn’t entirely his fault. Neither is the sluggish pacing of the investigation, which boils down to a series of conversations between Japanese government officials and a stoic Fox. It’s hard to build momentum—even in a “time is running out” scenario—around offices and conference rooms, so I’m curious why Webber and writers Vera Blasi and David Klass didn’t play around with the narrative. Include insider scenes from Washington, D.C. or more from the splintering Japanese government. Show MacArthur’s political aspirations instead of having someone telling Fetters that. The story proceeds in a straight line, and Fox doesn’t have the power to compel us to ignore the story’s faults.

Jones does. Emperor shakes off its stodginess whenever he’s around, whether he’s getting off a plane or wondering how in the world you talk to a god. The Oscar-winning actor is reaching the point where, like Sean Connery or Jack Nicholson, he can just play Tommy Lee Jones. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with a movie that asks us to invest our attention in a less interesting character played by a serviceable actor when two superior alternatives are right there. [PG-13]

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