Thirteen’sValley Girl Vileness, Dressed as Teen Commentary

Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen , from a screenplay by Ms. Hardwicke and Nikki Reed, has been rapturously received by most of my esteemed colleagues, and I can’t fathom why. The adventures and misadventures of two nubile, mischief-making middle-school teenagers in Los Angeles is a case of too much and, at the same time, simply not enough. This is to say that there’s a lot of manipulative exhibitionism on display, and not enough grounding in any recognizable social reality.

On the one hand, we see the intensely detailed contemplations of such modern-girlhood rites of passage as the piercing of tongues and navels-defiant displays of decorative self-mutilation. And then there’s Tracy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who slashes her wrists and arms in a bout of self-loathing that is hardly convincing compared to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s obsessive self-harming in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002). The protagonist in Secretary , an emotionally blocked young woman who gets a small measure of emotional relief by hurting herself in secret ways, is entirely believable. By contrast, Tracy expends so much energy screaming at her hapless mother, Melanie (Holly Hunter), that it’s amazing she has any energy left to draw blood from her veins.

Indeed, I got the feeling that Tracy and her bad-influence gal pal, Evie (Nikki Reed), were putting on a show-less for their peers in the PG-13 audience (this R-rated vehicle is off limits for those impressionable teens) than for those middle-aged critics and parents alarmed by every well-publicized media manifestation of presumed juvenile joie de vivre . Certainly, the mature Upper West Side audience I sat with seemed a little bit baffled by all the critical hoopla for this aesthetically skimpy effort. When I asked one patron how she’d liked the movie, she made a face and confessed that she’d been led to expect a three-and-a-half-star picture, and all she’d gotten was a two-and-a-half-star effort instead.

Ms. Reed is also credited with the screenplay, which is reportedly based on her own experiences as a troubled teenager. Truth is stranger (and messier) than fiction and all that, but it also often lacks the artistic structure and logic of the best fiction.

To put it simply, Thirteen just didn’t make much sense to me. Here you have Tracy, a quiet, sensitive A student with a budding writing talent, suddenly seized by an obsession to hang with the “in” crowd, a culturally mixed and mixed-up gang of shoplifters, druggies and vaguely defined sex-orgy types. To demonstrate her delinquent credentials, Tracy filches an older woman’s handbag while its owner is talking on her cell phone, and then presents it like a trophy to Evie and her girlfriends. Their ill-gotten gains fund a reckless shopping spree; one vice leads to another, and soon Tracy is so zonked out in class that she fails her classes and is left back in school.

Meanwhile, we’re granted hallucinatory glimpses of the chaotic home lives of Tracy and Evie, whose two divorced mothers seem to be teetering on the brink of simultaneous nervous breakdowns. Tracy’s father pops up intermittently full of guilt and futile good intentions, while Melanie’s current lover is too busy battling his own drug addiction to be of much help. With schools, houses and neighborhoods lacking any structural sociological consistency, there is simply no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said-and she was talking about Oakland, Calif., not La-La Land.

This is Ms. Hardwicke’s directorial debut, and her cinematographer, Elliot Davis, photographs almost everything in a swirling, subjective haze to evoke Tracy’s descent into near-delirium. Then, in a bizarre plot twist, Evie the “bad girl” turns golden as she runs sobbing to her heretofore catty mother Brooke (played by the almost unrecognizable, usually strong character type, the redoubtable Deborah Kara Unger). Mysteriously, Brooke is abruptly transformed into a concerned parent as she warns Tracy to stop corrupting Evie with her dissolute ways. This touch of melodramatic contrivance struck me as a tad amateurish in the context of all the feigned “realism” that preceded it.

I can’t see the point of a movie like Thirteen . The subculture to which it refers would never accept all the gloom-and-doom about ultimate consequences, and the rest of us are not given enough sociological information to make any judgment on the various characters. By making everyone muddled and distracted, it’s hard to see any alternative to all the confusion. There’s a kind of expressive fallacy at work here that seems to be designed to exploit the prevailing paranoia of our debauched, media-polluted times. And behind all the playacting in this film is the unspoken suggestion that we’re all responsible for causing this kind of adolescent self-destruction in the first place.

Of course, Thirteen wouldn’t have been taken half so seriously if it had drifted into genre territory by bringing mortal violence into the not-so-pretty picture. I’m not saying that the movie would have been improved by dragging in death and the gendarmes, but as it stands, Thirteen is neither one thing or the other-neither an in-depth, dialogue-driven character study nor an enjoyable teen-noir melodrama. Instead, it’s a pretentious piece of Valley Girl vileness masquerading as social commentary. Finally, I wasn’t much impressed by the highly touted performance of Ms. Wood, whose portrayal of Tracy starts out much too nice and ends up much too shrill, with very little gradation in between. As the bad girl Evie, Ms. Reed is too one-note all the way through, while Ms. Hunter, as the stressed-out Melanie, does a fine job of demonstrating why it’s so wrong to try to look as young as your teenage children.

The Band Played On

Iztván Szabó’s Taking Sides , from the play and subsequent screenplay by Ronald Harwood, tries to go against the polemical tendencies of its after-the-Holocaust theme through the character of Major Steve Arnold, played by Harvey Keitel. Major Arnold is an interrogator for the American De-Nazification Committee, on the hunt for evidence of pro-Nazi complicity against Wilhelm Furtwängler, the world-famous conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra during the Third Reich. But Mr. Keitel’s character is so abrasive in manner that he functions more as an inquisitor than an official investigator: In fact, Major Arnold has been given instructions to prosecute “Hitler’s bandleader” ruthlessly. True to his mandate, he treats Furtwängler (Stellån Skarsgard) as if he were guilty until proven even guiltier.

The theatrical origin of Taking Sides is obvious. Major Arnold’s relentlessly dialectical rhetoric intends to transmute facts into truths, and Furtwängler’s alleged inaction in the face of evil translates into criminal culpability for all the corpses in the death camps. The paradoxes of Mr. Harwood’s allegorical arguments are embodied in Arnold’s assistants: David (Moritz Bleibtreu), a German Jew whose parents died in the Holocaust, and Emmi (Birgit Minichmayr), whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler. Despite their real grievances against the Nazis, these two witnesses to horror are driven by the American’s self-righteousness to be more tolerant of Furtwängler.

Taking Sides has been kicking around the film-festival circuit for a couple of years, and rumor has it that it’s finally been released now only because Mr. Harwood recently won an Oscar for the screenplay of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist . Whatever the case, the complexities of the subject matter are deftly and intelligently handled.

Kate and Bob’s Big Adventure

I never met either Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) or Bob Hope (1903-2003) face-to-face, although I did catch a glimpse of Hepburn late in her life, through an illuminated window in her Turtle Bay townhouse, as she ate a solitary dinner. Still, I felt closer to Hope: He was a welcome guest in our house on the radio from early childhood on. The only Hepburn movies I saw back then were Mary of Scotland (1936), in which she was woefully miscast in the title role, and Stage Door (1937), in which she was less appealing than Ginger Rogers. Over the years, she was never my favorite actress, which is to say that I didn’t love her as I have loved some others. But I liked, respected and even admired her. She was somewhat underrated as an actress until she got older and less threatening to her detractors. Who remembers Morning Glory (1933), but who is allowed to forget The African Queen (1951)? In her memory, here’s my list of her 10 best pictures:

1. Holiday (1938)

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

3. Woman of the Year (1942)

4. Alice Adams (1935)

5. Little Women (1933)

6. Morning Glory (1933)

7. Love Among the Ruins (TV, 1975)

8. Summertime (1955)

9. Stage Door (1937)

10. Pat and Mike (1952).

Among my guilty Hepburn pleasures are the somewhat underrated Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Break of Hearts (1935) and Keeper of the Flame (1942). Her most overrated vehicles are The Philadelphia Story (1940), The African Queen (1951) and On Golden Pond (1981).

As for Bob Hope, he was a man for all media. Movies were only one arrow in his quiver. I know it’s fashionable to say that he outlived his vogue, and even at the time of the Vietnam War, he was reportedly booed by some of the troops he had come to entertain. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone in showbiz today choosing to get in harm’s way in Iraq to entertain the troops; it’s hard enough to get the current breed of celebrities to a film festival when the terrorists are growling. Yet Hope’s marginal movie career was always hampered by the tendency to stereotype him as a laughable-coward type. He was among the rare comedians who, like the very talented Red Skelton, could project a serious straight-man quality when given half a chance.

The fact remains that Hope didn’t enter feature films from the Broadway stage until he was in his mid-30’s. Alongside Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938), he warbled “Thanks for the Memory,” a rueful ode to a failed marriage. From that still-memorable beginning, he went on to make more than 50 movies (not counting cameo appearances), until he was pushing 70. His film career is a mixed bag at most, but it had more than a few interesting moments here and there: The Cat and the Canary (1939), Never Say Die (co-written by Preston Sturges, 1939), The Paleface (1948), Sorrowful Jones (a Damon Runyon subject, 1949), My Favorite Blonde (with Madeleine Carroll, 1942), Son of Paleface (a second comic turn with Jane Russell, 1952), Beau James (with a leggy Vera Miles, 1957) and The Facts of Life (with comic equal Lucille Ball, 1960). Road to Utopia (1946) is the best of the Road series, followed by Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Singapore (1940) and Road to Zanzibar (1941). Thanks for the memories, Bob.