‘Unbroken,’ ‘Still Alice,’ and the Desperate Pursuit of Oscar Gold

One of the many ingenious running gags in Ben Stiller’s scathing 2009 Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder is Simple Jack, a widely derided, financially disastrous attempt by Cruise-style action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) to be taken seriously as an actor by making a film that panders, with comic desperation, for Academy Award recognition. We see clips from Simple Jack, and the parody is dead-on: the faux-inspirational music, the sepia-tinged photography, the “tear-jerking” storytelling. We laugh, because the intentions are so transparent — and because we’ve seen films that clamor for that Oscar with no less sophistication. Now, I’m not saying that the inspirational drama Unbroken is a 137-minute version of Simple Jack, or that the Julianne Moore vehicle Still Alice is Moore’s Tugg Speedman moment. But let’s just say I’ve been thinking of the spoof movie a lot lately.

The sad part is how much genuine talent went to waste in these pursuits. Unbroken is drawn from the (reportedly very good!) bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand. The credits on the screenplay are mind-boggling: Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King, Living Out Loud), William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator), and Joel and Ethan Coen (you know). And the director is Angelina Jolie, an actor who, at her best, radiates intelligence and electricity (it’s her second feature as director, following 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey). Considering how many distinctive, unique voices are at work here, it’s a little stunning that the picture is so generic, so vanilla, so utterly lacking in personality.

It tells the true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a tough kid turned star athlete and Olympic hero turned bombardier. He and two of his fellow airmen are shot down by the Japanese and spend 47 days drifting on a raft before they’re picked up by the enemy for a two-and-a-half year stint in POW camps. In other words, it’s ideal fodder for the good ol’-fashioned moving picture treatment, a true (check) period story (check) of war heroism (check) and triumph over adversity (check).

Jack O'Connell in "Unbroken"

And let this be said: on the surface, Unbroken is a triumph. The photography, by the great Roger Deakins, is stunning. The scope is undeniably impressive; this is a handsomely mounted production. But it’s all surface. The costumes and sets are all shiny and brand-new — they haven’t been lived in, and that goes double for the scenes they inhabit. The actors are all impressively earnest, but they’re empty vessels; we have no emotional investment in the physical and emotional hardships that befall them. We flinch when Louis and his buddy (Frank’s Domhall Gleason), scarily thin, are stripped and doused with cold water, but it’s just a momentary cringe, because we don’t really know them. The same problem infects the picture’s big Olympic set piece, where Zamperini first seems set to lose badly, before roaring back for a stunning comeback. It’s an inspirational scene, in theory, but it lands with an empty thud — because we have no idea what’s in his head, either as he falls behind, or as he rallies to the lead. There’s no spontaneity to the sequence, no spark.

Most of the blame falls squarely on the script, which is the most puzzling problem, considering the kind of price tag that must’ve been attached to its all-star team of writers. It has none of the wit or ingenuity we expect of the Coens, or the intelligence typical of LaGravanese’s other work; it plays like an outline, filled with fortune-cookie platitudes (“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”) and on-the-nose overstating of oft-recurring inspirational messages, rendered all the more sledgehammer-subtle by the plinky, emotive music of Alexandre Desplat (turning in his second woefully miscalculated score of the year). The opening scenes are like Forrest Gump without the jokes; it then turns into Life of Pi, followed by Rescue Dawn. It’s like a mixtape of scenes from other, better movies.

However, that’s somewhat more honorable than Still Alice, which plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week. Julianne Moore plays the title character, a 50-year-old woman struck by an early-onset case of “sporadic memory impairment”; the first symptom, in an ironic twist that would get you thrown out of any respectable beginning screenwriter’s class, is that Alice can’t remember the words for things, even though she’s a linguistics professor, you see. Anyway, the film follows her rapid deterioration, from momentary confusion to awkward social interactions to eventually not recognizing her own children.

Julianne Moore in "Still Alice"

It’s all very sad, sure, but as directed by writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and (especially) as sad-face scored by Ilan Eshkeri, it’s as genuine as a phoned-in soap opera. It’s full of forced, false moments (including, God help us, a Big, Moving Public Speech) and boilerplate storytelling, and their desperation is particularly rancid at the end, when in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America. (I’m not making this up; they have a character read a closing speech from that play, chase it with two or three lines of their own, and cut to credits.)

Word is that Moore’s got a good shot at Best Actress this year, because she’s “overdue,” and this certainly wouldn’t be the first time an actor got an Oscar for the wrong damn film. And look, I know it’s an award for Best Actress, not Best Actress in a Great Movie. But there’s something deeply depressing about Moore being brilliant in Safe and Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Kids Are All Right and Far From Heaven and The End of the Affair and Vanya on 42nd Street and Short Cuts, and then getting an Oscar for this tripe. And her performance here, though skilled, is all calculated tradecraft — she’s good in spite of the movie, not because of it.

Unbroken has a few virtues as well, particularly when Jolie finally finds a pulse in Zamperini’s antagonistic relationship with sadistic camp commander Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played, quite well, by Japanese singer/songwriter Miyavi). But those scenes are too fleeting, and come too late, to do much good. The picture’s desperate solemnity — even Selma has flashes of humor, for goodness’ sake — and predictable circularity smother any hint of life. So what we have, in both Unbroken and Still Alice, are movies devised, executed, and marketed solely to win Oscars, and the craven obviousness of that aim infests every pretty, dull frame.

Unbroken is out Christmas Day. Still Alice is out January 16.