Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Jewish Like Me," Gentleman's Agreement Hits Its Mark (Repetitively)!

The Good: Great message
The Bad: Some very campy lines, Uses the medium poorly, Light on character development.
The Basics: Light on character development, leaving little for the actors to do, Gentleman's Agreement has a great message about the need to expose and fight anti-Semitism, but uses the medium poorly.

As I continue to review older films, I find myself surprised by how few films I have seen featuring the supposed greats of acting. So, for example, until Gentleman's Agreement, the only other film I had seen with Gregory Peck was To Kill A Mockingbird. And there is something amusing to those around me that my association with Jane Wyatt is "Journey To Babel" (reviewed here!), an episode of the classic Star Trek! And yet, before picking up Gentleman's Agreement, my experiences with both actors was quite limited. Come to think of it, my experiences with each is still pretty limited; now I just have more appreciation for how they earned their reputations.

Gentleman's Agreement is basically a one-concept film and it nails the point early on and then relentlessly pursues it for the duration of the film. The problem with Gentleman's Agreement is not that is has a bad or unworthy message, it is that the film is all about the message and only that. Unflinchingly tackling the apparent rash of anti-Semitism in the 1940s, Gentleman's Agreement is essentially Black Like Me for Jews. Just like the protagonist in Black Like Me was a white man, living as a black person, Gentleman's Agreement explores what happens when a Gentile tries to live as an outed Jew and the effect it has on every aspect of his life.

Phil Green is a writer who has just been hired in New York City by a prestigious publication and tasked by the editor to write a piece on anti-Semitism. Looking for a new angle that "breaks the problem wide open," Phil decides to start telling people he is Jewish in order to experience religious intolerance himself. Unfortunately for Phil, he has just met Kathy, a woman he instantly hits it off with, when the story begins. Soon, Phil is embroiled with discovering just how prevalent anti-Semitism actually is.

Almost immediately, Phil discovers that the publisher he works for has a human resource director who does not hire anyone who is Jewish and exposing him embarrasses the publisher, but Phil successfully changes the policy there. Soon, the carefree romance between Kathy and Phil runs into trouble as Kathy introduces Phil to more people in her life. Kathy wants to reveal to her family that Phil is not actually Jewish and Phil tries to keep his role in order to get the most pure reaction out of people he encounters. When his son is insulted at school and he is barred from staying at a hotel, Phil questions whether or not he has what it takes to complete the assignment.

Gentleman's Agreement is brilliant in that it explores the insidious nature of prejudice. Not looking to play the overplayed card - the one where obvious, blatant hate speech anti-Semitism is exposed again - the movie and the writing assignment try to look at how anti-Semitism is ingrained in American society. As a result, the elements like a "restricted" hotel and simply calling people out on how they talk about others, are what the movie seeks to expose. As a result, some of the movie seems like it is calling out little details of American society and it is. Gentleman's Agreement rails about the way banks, employers and common people differentiate between Jews and Gentiles.

The problem with Gentleman's Agreement is that it is only focused on the message. Not only is there very little in the way of character development - though there is some, just not with the protagonist - but the message is not one that uses the film medium incredibly well. The movie has a lot of people sitting around talking about anti-Semitism. There are very few scenes where people actually DO anything or even illustrate a level of discomfort. Instead, most of the movie is people sitting around talking and the movie exposes people talking more than it does people actually doing anything.

In a way, Gentleman's Agreement is like The Story Of Us; where that film is problematic because it is not terribly entertaining to watch the reality of two people fighting through the end of a relationship, Gentleman's Agreement is not very entertaining because it is a process story. The film belabors how one man stands up and uncovers the minute details of anti-Semitism in the U.S. As a result, most of the movie could effectively be boiled down to the last twenty minutes. In the final twenty minutes of the film there are two scenes, one between Kathy and Dave and one where Phil's mother reads a chunk of his article back to him.

These conclusions do more than most of the rest of the film and they are visually uninteresting, but make the statements the movie seeks to make better than the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the movie also cheaps out on using the medium well in these scenes. So, for example, Kathy relates the story of being at a party and a person telling an off-color joke. The film is not daring enough to make the audience squirm and have them experience the party, the joke and Kathy's reaction.

What the movie has is decent acting, though there is little character development. Phil is a man of principles who stands by his ideals and does not change or grow throughout the film. He starts as exactly what he is, an actual liberal and a man who is willing to courageously fight anti-Semitism. While he exposes just what that means, it is actually Kathy who has the character arc in the film. Through her attempts to navigate a relationship with Phil, she comes to understand how ingrained anti-Semitism is in her life and how it has seeped into the way she thinks. Kathy's character becomes the movie's call to action and it is a worthwhile one.

Gregory Peck is a solid performer and he has just the stiff-backed delivery to make the constant moralizing dialogue work. He and Dorothy McGuire play off one another masterfully and they flesh out the limited roles with real on-screen chemistry. But because so much of the dialogue is basically theme being disguised as conversation (poorly) they never have a chance to do anything truly stellar with their performance abilities.

On DVD, Gentleman's Agreement includes a commentary track and in addition to a film scholar putting the movie in a historical context, the two actresses who participate are a wealth of knowledge on how the on-set conditions were. There is an AMC featurette as well as two of the original newreels that preceded the movie when it was originally in theaters. As well, there is the theatrical trailer and this is an interesting historic collection, but there is nothing particularly amazing about any of the bonus features.

I don't know that I've ever done this, but here goes: read the book. I have not read Gentleman's Agreement, but it is based upon a book by the same name by Hobson. Given how poorly the film uses the medium, it seems like the book - just like the magazine article in the movie - would be a better medium for this type of social commentary. Because the film is not particularly daring in the way it presents the incidents of anti-Semitism (having people relay stories instead of actually showing them), Gentleman's Agreement ultimately uses the medium fairly poorly and viewers are likely to be more bored than truly enlightened.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, here! Please check it out!]

For other movies with a socially-progressive message, please check out my reviews of:
Easy A
The Blind Side


For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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