Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ebbing, Missouri. One more reason Hollywood is ebbing into irrelevance

I used to enjoy going to the movies but I rarely go these days. It’s not that I don’t like the experience. I actually enjoy sitting in a big dark room in a reclining leather chair eating cold popcorn from a cardboard container the size of a galvanized steel tub.  

It’s because 99 percent of the movies that come out of Hollywood are drek. The writers, directors and actors who inhabit it have lost contact with the people who buy the tickets and make their comfy lifestyles possible, the 99 percent of Americans who live in the wasteland between JFK and LAX.

I can’t remember the last time I came out of a movie knowing I had been entertained rather than having had my intelligence insulted.

That is why I didn’t run to my local multiplex when the much-touted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was released last fall. Based on glowing reviews from critics whose judgment I’ve come to doubt, I suspected it would represent too much of a commitment in terms of time and money and would ultimately disappoint, so I waited until it was available on Amazon. My wife and I watched it last night.

The plot in one sentence: A woman (Frances McDormand) is at wit’s end because the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the man who raped and murdered her daughter, so she buys three billboards demanding to know why.

Critics hailed Billboards as a black comedy. The comedy, if you can call it that, is at the expense of the local yokels including a racist deputy who makes Barney Fife look like Stephen Hawking; a dwarf used car salesman; a dentist who attempts to torture McDormand as punishment for buying the billboards (think Laurence Olivier drilling Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man); and McDormand’s ex who is shacked up with a 19-year-old bimbette. The directors gratuitously threw in two African-American characters who, unlike the white residents of Ebbing, are wise and good. 

Having read the premise, I had no expectations that the script would satisfy. My sole interest in Ebbing was to see how Hollywood portrayed a small Missouri town because I grew up in one.

Ebbing, it turns out, is surrounded by mountains. Missouri doesn’t have mountains. Yes, there’s a region known as the Ozark Mountains but those aren’t really mountains, they’re just hills and not particularly high hills at that. Five minutes into the movie I hit “pause” to look up where it was shot. It was actually filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains which are honest-to-God mountains.

If the director felt strongly about using that particular setting, he could have changed the name to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, North Carolina or, for that matter, West Virginia. One would think that, at some point in the location-scouting process, someone – a summer intern perhaps – would have been assigned to find out if Missouri has mountains but that, clearly, never occurred to anyone.

As a boy, I loved Gunsmoke, a TV series set in Dodge City, Kansas, a state as flat as a pancake. Gunsmoke frequently featured Sheriff Matt Dillon as he pursued bad guys into the nearly mountains. At eight years old, I knew from studying maps that there wasn’t a mountain within 300 miles of Dodge and it bothered me. At least the plots of Gunsmoke were satisfying.

The plot of Ebbing, Missouri isn’t. Like so many creatively bankrupt movies that simply run out of steam at which point the director yells “cut,” it doesn’t even have a proper ending. In the final scene McDormand and the idiot deputy are in a car headed to Idaho to kill a guy the deputy thinks may have had something to do with the murder. But then they admit they don’t even know if they want to continue the journey. At that point the screen fades to black and the credits roll.

The credits are the only reason I can even give Ebbing one star because at least the typography is nice.

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