Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An American In Paris: Uncomfortably Obvious, Only Moments Outside The Average.

The Good: Decent music, Moments of performance
The Bad: Obvious plot and character development, Melodramatic acting, Print issues, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: Mediocre in every way, save the filming and creativity, An American In Paris is too tough a sell to recommend.

For those who might not follow my reviews, musicals seldom do anything for me. Before I began going through every film that won the Best Picture Oscar, I am fairly certain I had no idea how many musicals had won that coveted award. So, lately, I have been watching a number of movies I am in no way predisposed toward. In fact, my wife despises old musicals such that I had to wait for her to leave for work to take in An American In Paris.

An American In Paris is a fairly typical musical film from the 1950s, filmed in Technicolor, filled with songs and dances and the title says it all. Actually, the film is about more than one American living in Paris after World War II. And while the movie has its moments, it is painfully obvious, even for a musical and there are only a few moments in the movie where the viewer is surprised or engaged. Similarly, there are only a few moments when the director uses the film medium well - in a way that makes the movie more than just a stage play on screen. Unfortunately, one of those moments comes up early in the movie and the viewer is left fairly underwhelmed for the remainder of the film.

Jerry Mulligan is a former soldier who opted to stay in Paris after the war in order to try to become the best possible painter he can. There, he associates with an ornery pianist, Adam, and his singing buddy Henri, and he keeps thralls of French children amused by giving them American bubblegum. One day, the wealthy Milo enters Jerry's life and buys some of his paintings. And while Milo is eager to advance his career and keep him from his prior poverty, Jerry is struck with love at first sight when he lays eyes on Lise.

Lise, though, takes some time to warm up to Jerry, though she does begin to care for him. Lise is Henri's girlfriend and while Milo sponsors Jerry's career, Jerry and Lise fall in love. But when the time comes for Jerry to make his move, Henri is offered a grand opportunity in the U.S., which prompts him to propose to Lise. Lise, being a pragmatist, accepts and Jerry is compelled to move on. Will their hearts win out or will pragmatism?

Who cares? The problem with An American In Paris is that when it is not preoccupied with the flash of style, it is utterly predictable. None of the characters, save the melancholy concert pianist Adam, are particularly empathetic and the societal notes about changing gender roles are hardly shocking today. Instead, An American In Paris is more a worthwhile historical document, a sign of the times from when it was made as opposed to an enduing love story. There are movies that manage to be both, like Casablanca (reviewed here!).

This is not to say that An American In Paris is all bad. Despite many of the lines being melodramatic, the lines are good. No, the writing is not exceptional and the characters are not in any way interesting enough to captivate viewers, but the lines and phrases are well-written and interesting. This, unfortunately, becomes like the cinematic equivalent of a fortune cookie with lines being clever, but not stringing together to build something substantial.

Director Vincente Minnelli uses the medium fairly well, though. Instead of simply translating something that seems like it could be an adequate stage play onto the screen, Minnelli uses the advantages of cinema over stage well. So, for example, to create the characterization of Lise, Henri sits and "tells" Adam about her. Henri speaks a line and Minnelli cuts away to Leslie Caron as Lise in a distinct costume doing a dance to portray a certain personality trait. Henri then lists another characteristic and Caron's outfit and style of dance both change.

Minnelli similarly uses the medium well to explore Adam's dream, when he creates a trippy sequence where Adam imagines presenting a concert as every member of an orchestra. Outside using masks, it is hard to imagine how this could be portrayed as well on stage and Minnelli actually makes the sequence quite delightful. As well, the event that made my partner declare in no uncertain terms that she was not watching this film with me, a seventeen minute ballet at the film's climax, was surprisingly engaging and it is an ambitious film moment for the complexity of the sets, costumes and dance routines. But for those who are not predisposed toward ballet, theater or musicals, this final sequence is not going to make one part of the converted. Instead, it plays to the expected conceits of tap, dance and theatrical performance. Minnelli does a decent job translating it to the screen, but it still is what it is and nothing more.

Unfortunately, the conventions of the musical take precedence over any true sense of storytelling sensibility. As a result, Jerry ends up singing and dancing to entertain a gang of children after he sells his first few paintings. Then, he sings the classic song "I've Got Rhythm." But the song makes no sense as Jerry has just revealed that he does not, in fact, have a squeeze. So, when he sings that he's got his gal, it leaves the attentive viewer feeling cheated. Instead, almost ten minutes of the movie are wasted from storytelling with a pointless and extended song and dance that does nothing but show off Gene Kelly's dancing ability.

On DVD, the print is sadly erratic. For example, in the musical number after Jerry meets Lise at the perfume store, the song progresses and all of a sudden the dancing Jerry and the piano-playing Adam are suddenly washed out. The color goes from being a very crisp, obviously restored print to a much grainier image that is not as color rich or vivid. The movie goes back to the restored for DVD version and continues, but the minute or two lapse is noticeable and troubling. As well, during Jerry's painting montage, the backgrounds are not cleaned up and when Adam has his fantasy orchestra performance, that too is not cleaned up in a way that the medium glorifies. In other words, matte lines and fading between film layers is evident.

As well, on DVD, An American In Paris is remarkably devoid of worthwhile DVD bonus features. The basic one-disc version (which is what I had access to) only had the movie's theatrical trailer. And interactive menus . . . ooh.

But for a film that is supposedly considered great, An American In Paris has a lot to live up to and given how obvious the character developments and plot are, this is a disappointing movie. Minnelli gets a lot of credit for style and Caron and Gene Kelly do great in the dance numbers and the music is even memorable. But the characters are more archetypes than actual characters and it is easy to forget this rather insubstantial film after one is done watching it.

Worth a single viewing, An American In Paris is trippy and stylish, but low on substance, making it hard to recommend for those creating a permanent library of DVDs.

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

For other musicals, please check out my reviews of:
The Little Mermaid
Repo! The Genetic Opera
The Muppet Christmas Carol


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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