The generic title and mythic-female-empowerment posters for Brave don’t prepare you for the rollicking Pixar comedy to come, a slapstick mother-daughter-rivalry farce that’s at its most moving in mid-mayhem. Has Pixar’s association with Disney softened its spine? The first act is misleadingly humdrum, as the flame-haired princess Merida strives to do what medieval Scottish lassies mustn’t, like shooting arrows and letting her mass of curls flow free. As the girl gallops past wild crags, Julie Fowlis sings a song called “Touch the Sky”: “I will ride! I will fly! Chase the wind and touch the sky” and so on. It looks to be a long, Disneyish haul. But then the good comic bits come thick and fast, among them the noisy arrival of three suitors from rival clans, each more hilariously unprepossessing than the last, and the pranks of the heroine’s three little brothers, who whack off half the mustache of a snoozing guard with an ax. Finally—rather late—comes the delightful main arc (which the film’s publicists insist is a spoiler, so if you want to remain ignorant, skip the rest of this and the next paragraph). Obtaining a spell from a witch to change her repressive mother’s mind about marrying her off to one of the chuckleheads, Merida changes her mother into a large and discombobulated bear, the very creature that drives her husband, the lord (who lost a leg to an especially nasty one years earlier), into a frenzy of bloodlust. So Merida must use her physical resources and wiles to keep her mum from being killed and having her head mounted over her own throne.
The film has three directors—Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell—and whoever was in charge of the scenes between Merida and her mother the bear deserves a celebratory blast of the pig-head horn that heralds the coming of the clans. For a while, the ursine Queen Elinor attempts to maintain her ladylike dignity, to the point where her daughter has to teach her how to catch salmon from a rushing stream, the bear then insisting it be cooked and properly plated. Sadly, the emergence of Elinor’s bear-dexterity means a lessening in her human-motherly instincts, to the point where it’s unclear if she’ll coddle or consume her traumatized daughter.
Kelly Macdonald is an inspired choice to voice Merida, having a tone that is at once dulcet and exasperated. You can see the Miyazaki influence in the glowing will-o’-the-wisps that lead the girl in the direction of her destiny, and in the longed-for transformation of a parent that turns almost instantly into a disaster to be overcome. But this is Pixar-ellated Miyazaki, rich in riotous incongruities, and building to a scene in a banquet hall in which all the movie’s disparate elements—farce, sentiment, and wicked suspense—come together, the brutal Scotsmen poised to interrupt a sacred mother-daughter reconciliation with a hail of arrows.
In addition to being fast, funny, and unpretentious, Brave is a happy antidote to all the recent films in which women triumph by besting men at their own macho games, as if the history of male dominance is one of patriarchs suppressing females’ essential warlike nature. Merida wants nothing more than to control her own fate, her rage provoked by the refusal of her mother—for whom duty and subservience are paramount—to see the world through her eyes. Why surrender her will to silly, drunken, endlessly combative men when there’s so much to see and do? Her boo-boo at least has the effect of giving her and her mother a common cause, which is certainly a more direct route to mutual understanding than tens of thousands of dollars of therapy.
At times it looked as likely as squeezing blood from a stone, but Woody Allen’s creative juices can still flow—and flow freely, without fussiness or solemnity, as in his wonderfully buoyant, overlapping omnibus comedy To Rome With Love. At 76, he’s working compulsively fast, death ever closer on his heels, and cutting through the inessentials, flouting naturalism and following his always-great absurdist instincts to their illogical (but resonant) ends. He portrays Rome as a city of roundabouts, from the traffic circle that opens the film to the Coliseum to the piazzas with their seemingly endless points of entry. It’s a city that’s ancient and sublime and yet farce is intrinsic to it. And it’s the perfect stage for Allen’s peculiar inner world—a place where men will always long for women they can’t have, where the women they do have undermine them, where paparazzi swarm out of nowhere on the latest undeserving celebrities, where fame is both a blessing and a curse.
Kudos to Allen’s casting directors, Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto, Beatrice Kruger, and longtime associate Juliet Taylor for once more getting him the hippest actors of the day, all evidently thrilled to work for near scale. The always-winning stammerer Jesse Eisenberg is an American who thinks he’s fine and dandy with a girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) who’s just too stable, at which point her actress friend (Ellen Page) arrives to hypnotize him with her hyperliterate stream of references and stories about sexual escapades—another tantalizing neurotic shiksa goddess, borderline untouchable the way girlfriends’ gal pals or sisters will be. Allen provides him with a fantasy companion, a suave older man (Alec Baldwin) who warns him he’s “walking into a propeller.” But walk this boy-man does because in Allen’s sex-charged dreams he has to. What’s wonderfully surreal about Baldwin’s scenes is that Allen doesn’t bother to make him invisible to other characters. They listen to his acid commentary and continue on their ridiculous tracks.
Eisenberg is standing in for the young Allen, of course, and Baldwin for the middle-aged Allen, and lo and behold Allen himself is on hand as a man his own age: a retired semi-successful opera director married to a killjoy played by Judy Davis, in Rome to see his fresh-faced daughter (Alison Pill) and meet her Italian beau (Flavio Parenti). Like much of To Rome With Love, the Allen subplot has a stream-of-consciousness quality, as if outlandish ideas just jumped out of his pen. His character hears the beau’s mortician father (tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing opera—gloriously—in the shower and becomes dead-set on building a production around this hesitant man with his discouraging wife. To tell you where this leads would be criminal, but the sequence builds to the perfect preposterous punch line and with the added benefit of thrilling music.
I never thought I could bear to watch Roberto Benigni again, but Allen has cast him as a painfully ordinary man, a non-exhibitionist who becomes a celebrity literally at random. Benigni’s rubber face is a hoot when stricken, pure commedia dell’arte, and he uses his loose-limbed body to recoil from the hordes with a clown’s grace. A plot that features a husband, his lost young wife, his pious family that has never met her, a luscious prostitute (Penélope Cruz) in the wrong place, a movie star, and a burglar is full of stock characters, yet Allen’s juggling of them is so assured and his plotting so intricate it’s hard not to marvel at it. I marveled.
I was blissed out during much of To Rome With Love, but I have to acknowledge its creepy side. Allen’s actresses are open-faced and nubile and costumed and shot to make them ripe sexual objects—he wants them, boy he wants them, and he can’t have them. His men get off the hook, but the denouements are defeatist, curdled. It’s not the dark, pessimistic core of Allen’s comedy I object to. It’s the casualness of the hopelessness, the complacency of it, the buildup to a shrug. But I’m in awe of the fact that he can hold that view and still have surprises in him.