Milk review by Rosie


Alright … I’ll admit it – I don’t get it. Seriously, I don’t get it. What the hell is everyone talking about? I just watched a movie nominated for EIGHT Oscars and the best thing I can say about it is that maybe if someone dosed me with a ground up hockey puck’s worth of ecstasy I might possibly feel generous enough to call it average. This movie didn’t even stink, it was just nothing. It started, it happened, and then it ended. And if it weren’t for my own naïve conviction that something Oscar-worthy had to be about to happen, I probably wouldn’t have even kept paying attention enough to remember that. But I suppose since it’s going to be me against everyone else everywhere with any sort of forum about this movie, I’ll try to make my case based on whatever shreds of evidence I can remember.

First off, let’s start with the acting. Boo. And more importantly, to the SAG Award voters and whoever’s in charge of nominating for the Academy Awards: BOOOOOO. Sean Penn wasn’t even the best actor in this movie, let alone out of every other movie made this year. The only actor in this movie who should have even sniffed Oscar consideration was James Franco who, instead, got nothing but the double-barrel fingers and bag of wet chips from the Academy for his efforts. As Harvey Milk’s long-time, on-again, off-again love interest in the story, Franco is the only actor whose character (a) has any depth beyond a one-dimensional caricature, (b) actually develops and changes in both appearance and outward maturity over the course of the ten years this movie is supposed to span, and (c) is not prone to stereotypically flamboyant or melodramatic fits of queenery every other scene. Thanks for coming, James – don’t let the door hit you in gap of your chaps on the way out. But back to Penn. Why is no one calling him out on the fact that he’s just rehashing a slightly watered-down version of his character from I Am Sam? Are we not supposed to mention that Sean Penn seems to think gay and retarded are two sides of the same coin? I know he has range, I’ve seen him go from Spicoli (even though he won’t admit it anymore) to a well-deserved Oscar for Mystic River, so what else are we supposed to conclude? It’s almost like he signed up to do the biopic of a revered gay martyr and spent the entire film just daring the Academy to not to nominate him for it, knowing full well that they would be practically required by law to nominate him for anything short of portraying Milk as a ragingly anti-Semitic pedophile. And, of course, they rolled over on command as soon as they saw the first trailer.

What makes the similarities between Penn’s two transparent Oscar grabs (Sam and Milk) even more egregious is the fact that within the last decade and a half, we have the direct comparison available of an actor who played almost the exact same characteristics in much more distinctive styles. Tom Hanks won his Oscars back to back for his portrayals of the gay hero of Philadelphia and the mentally-challenged protagonist of Forrest Gump. In neither character were there traces of the other. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about Penn’s characters. Even the person I was watching this movie with, who – by her own admission – doesn’t generally pick up on many of the nuances in either movie plots or performances, turned to me at one point and asked (quote): “Why is he acting retarded?” Why indeed.

And more importantly, why is the committee in charge of Best Picture nominations following his lead? I saw this movie in a little art house theatre that only carries two films at a time and it wasn’t even the best picture in that building. Most of the subplots are either too forced or unfulfilled, there’s practically no back story or follow through on the most important relationship in the film (between Penn and Franco), and the whole ending is given away in the first scene. I know it’s a biopic so that last complaint could be just considered a debatable style choice, since anyone familiar with the life of Harvey Milk would already know going into it how it ends, but still – it just felt like it was handled in an unsatisfying way considering how many other parts of his life were so clearly condensed and dramatized for the sake of storytelling. Like the very roughly shoe-horned in story of Paul from Minnesota, who reads about Milk in the newspapers and calls him because he was thinking about killing himself for being gay. I won’t spoil what happens for anyone who still wants to see this emotionally manipulative pile of random scenes for themselves, but I think I’m pretty safe in guessing that “Paul” was supposed to represent a composite of people who reached out to Milk throughout his time in office, distilled down to one easy example. And unless we’re supposed to believe that two gay men can’t physically cross paths within ten feet of each other without being involuntarily drawn into magnetic collision of anonymous sex and sassy talk, then I have to guess that some dramatic license was taken in moving the plot forward from one relationship to the next.

Perhaps in no angle was such dramatic license more unapologetically lathered on than the film’s (Oscar-nominated, of course) portrayal of Harvey Milk’s assassin, Dan White. Just to be clear, I have no love lost for White or what he did. I’m not defending or sympathizing with him in any way, other than to point out that the film makes no bones about dismissing any dimensions of his life that don’t make for good demonizing and have no qualms about tacking on a few unfounded speculations for no other reason than poetic irony. Don’t believe me, just ask Milk’s own longtime (gay) friend and lawyer, or the film’s own producers who, on the subject of White’s portrayal, note that biographical films are “an interpretive art form”, and that “historical shorthand is often used in an attempt to achieve a ‘greater truth’ that eclipses mere facts”. Again, I personally don’t even care that much if they want to portray White as a panda cub-eating pornographer who shoots up nursing home brunches with paintball guns for fun and Milk as a flying robot god with cancer-curing laser eyes, I’m just saying that you can’t hide the shortcomings of this film’s sequence and storyline behind the excuse that they were just telling the true story of a man’s life.

To be a little fair, I should note that I probably wouldn’t be so incredulous about this movie if it hadn’t been tagged with eight Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards. Had I just seen this dry, with no expectations, I would probably have just said “Eh …clear Oscar grab by Penn and about half a dozen supporting actors looking for some of that Brokeback prestige, but nothing worth getting out of bed for.” But having gone into it expecting greatness, I’m left dumbfounded for an explanation. All I can really come up with is that this movie is about to keep riding a wave of Prop 8 guilt and inauguration afterglow to a haul of “statement” awards that no one will remember why it got when they watch this movie again two years from now.

4 out of 10 Jackasses
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