Historians will look back and say that 2008 was the year of the meta performance, the year that movies—and moviegoers—finally became so sophisticated that each film became an endless loop of self-commentary.
Let’s start with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Would that performance have been nearly as funny (assuming you thought it was funny to begin with) if it wasn’t FREAKIN’ Tom Cruise, a man who had gone from movie star to media punch line in a matter of months? That performance proved that Tom could, at the very least, laugh at himself, do a funny dance, pack on the pounds (or at least a fat suit), and chuck his vanity for a few minutes.
Next there was Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Would Rourke’s Randy the Ram have been as poignant (and slightly spooky) if the career of the aging, ’roided-up, has-been wrestler didn’t so closely resemble the career of one Mickey Rourke?
Following that, there was Kate and Leo as the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road. Their story of a disillusioned golden couple in the 1950s was made all the more gripping by the fact that the two actors had worked together in a certain “minor” film 10 years ago (hint: it involved an iceberg). Both were a little older, a little less beautiful, a little more world weary. Revolutionary Road was about the loss of innocence—the Wheelers, Kate and Leo’s, and our own.
Next, there’s Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As I said in my review, “One of the sly tricks of the film is that as Benjamin gets younger, he starts looking more and more like, well, Brad Pitt.” And then, even more disorienting: The CGI is so good in that film, director David Fincher is actually able to make Pitt look even younger, much like the sun-kissed golden god of A River Runs Through It. My audience gasped.
Even when cinema wasn’t trying to be post-modern, it ended up cannibalizing itself. I’m sure people would have responded to Heath Ledger’s Joker even if the young actor had not died of an accidental overdose. But one thing’s for sure, Ledger’s tragic death—and the endless speculation over whether his inhabitance of such a depraved character contributed to his overdose—added a new dimension of apocalyptical horror to the film.
Finally, we have Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. As Crawford, my new message board buddy on Slate’s The Fray put it: “Gran Torino is a film that Eastwood elevated into something interesting, in part by carrying his Dirty Harry and his Man With No Name subtext into it. Walt would have been a lot less interesting if anyone else had played him.”
So there you have it folks. A lousy movie (in my opinion) made into something deep (in Crawford and many others’ opinions) because of how it comments on Eastwood’s body of work.
Is all this meta stuff unavoidable in our media-saturated culture? Is it good for cinema? (Charlie Kauffman sort of anticipated trend in Synecdoche, New York, where Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden not only hired an actor to play himself, but then had to hire another actor to play the actor).
Or is it, as another The Fray smarty-pants noted, as old as film itself? (Since old fashioned movie stars often played the same part over and over again, wasn’t each new role merely a fresh commentary on the last?)
Frankly, I’m not sure, but when, through the magic of CGI, I see Anna Nicole Smith starring in The Anna Nicole Smith Story (“It’s more poignant because she’s . . .dead!”) we’ll know we really have problems.