January 4, 2009

The Reader (01/04/09)

Lettergrade: D

After 40 minutes which contain enough Kate Winslet nudity to keep the editors of MrSkin.com busy for a solid week, The Reader really bottoms out fast. Around the 90 minute mark, I found myself struggling to keep from laughing: It's almost like a conglomerated parody of For-Your-Consideration movies rather than something that's making an honest attempt for an award or two itself. It's not that movies shouldn't try to deal with important historical events or matters of sexual awakening, intimacy and self-betterment, but this movie kind of puts several of those concepts in a blender together, and the result is that the whole thing just gets silly fast.

The picture starts in post WWII Germany, where 15 year-old Michael Berg strikes up a sexual relationship with an emotionally distant bus-worker played by Winslet, who is nearly twice his age. Each time before they do the nasty, she asks him to read to her, which of course he does. All throughout history, even in 1945 Deutschland, the prospect of sex is a powerful motivator.

Years later, long after the affair has come to an abrupt and mysterious end, Berg's law class attends a Nazi war-crimes trial where it is alleged that Winslet committed horrible acts while working as an S.S. officer before they met. A key claim is that Winslet falsified certain documents, but Berg quickly reviews a series of flashbacks from earlier in the movie and comes to the realization that it cannot be true as she is unable to read or write! Normally, I'd feel bad giving that away, but the film's early scenes hint at her illiteracy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to a watermelon, and there's no way that even the most casual of viewers can miss it. Will he reveal to Winslet that he's been at the trial the whole time and/or tell the court her vindicating secret? No, he choses to do nothing, and she goes to the slammer.

Only a few years after that, Michael inexplicably goes from being played by David Kross (who greatly resembles a young Yakov Smirnoff) to Ralph Fiennes, who is gradually looking more and more like Voldemort, even when not appearing in Harry Potter movies. Consumed by complex feelings and unable to truly love as an adult, he starts sending Winslet recordings of himself reading various books. No letters or explanations, nor does he go to visit... just crude home-made versions of books-on-tape -- lots of them.

Although the movie had already started to fizzle at this point, the cheese of credulity truly slid off the cracker of reality for me during an elaborate sequence where the imprisoned Winslet, now in goofy old-age make-up, begins to teach herself to read using Michael's recordings and books from the prison library. Suddenly, I found myself seriously contemplating what the hell this movie was supposed to be about. There's maybe a less ridiculous scenario that can be made from these plot elements, but I don't know what it is and director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliott) sure doesn't either.

I think my big problem, though, is that the movie is very heavy on inaction. She's on trial... he could go visit her, but he doesn't. She's about to be sentenced... he could give his vital information to the court, but he doesn't. She's in the joint... might he go visit so they can talk about what's going through his mind? Nope, he doesn't. What the hell? Why does he even need to be in the second half of the movie? The wrongness of their age difference, and the fucked-up'dness of her having worked in the concentration camps is never really addressed either. In fact, their sexual relationship seems to have been largely pleasant and mutually beneficial. So ultimately, I guess his deal is that he never got over his first girlfriend, who years later turned out to be a sadistic, pedophiliac Nazi who wrestled with illiteracy. That's too bad, but movie doesn't seem to have much else up its sleeve.

I know I should be grateful that it's awards season - meaning it's the time of year where movies are less about stuff blowing up and more about characters. Nevertheless, I gotta label The Reader as a big chunk of Oscar-needy shit.

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