Friday, October 12, 2012

Taggart Trainwreck, Part I

Atlas Shrugged, Part I was never going to be a great movie or even a good one. But it just might have, under the proper circumstances, followed like The Fountainhead's lead and found its niche as a freakishly compelling curiosity. It could have at least had the dignity to be an interesting failure. As it is, it fails to even interest.

The story of how the movie came to be is more interesting than the movie itself, so let's stick with that for as long as possible. Basically, attempts have been made since Atlas Shrugged was published to bring the unwieldly tome to life on both the big and the small screen, with Faye Dunaway, Charlize Theron, Russell Crowe, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt all at one point attached to the project. Numerous offers on the property were made, but all were rejected or eventually fell through; Rand, as was her wont, demanded absolute creative control, still smarting as she was from Warner Brothers' temerity to cut a single line from her script for The Fountainhead twenty years before. She finished a script for a first part of a TV miniseries before she died. At that time she had expressed interest in Farrah Fawcet playing Dagny Taggart, so much did she appreciate Fawcett's work on Charlie's Angels.

After Rand's death the rights remained in control of her heir and sycophant Leonard Peikoff, who guarded the rights with a jealousy he hoped could match her own. After the rights had cycled through a number of options and producers, one John Aglialoro paid Peikoff a cool million for the production option and full creative control. Numerous scripts were written and rejected, including one by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, who was determined to condense the story into a single, two-hour feature.

If only.

The title alone, Atlas Shrugged *Part 1* is enough tipoff that things have gone wrong. Rand was both smart and, yes, skilled enough to cut The Fountainhead's 700+ pages down to feature length, and the same was well within possibility even with this famously stubborn work. But that did not happen under the auspices of director Paul Johansson (an actor whose previous claims to fame were parts in various network television shows and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day) and writers Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole (an indie horror film writer whose Wikipedia bio endearingly notes, "His script for Atlas Shrugged: Part I... did not prevent that film's failure").

So the movie is a sprawling mess, for basically two reasons. The first--and I speculate, but it's a reasonable speculation--is that the creative team, such as it is, was terrified of alienating Rand's fanbase, which was essentially the only audience a project like this could hope to attract. The second, very real reason, the reason this particular incarnation of Atlas Shrugged exists at all, is because Aglialoro's rights to the property were set to lapse. So not only was the thing rushed into production to meet an arbitrary deadline, but the splitting of it into three parts ensured that they would have time to get the rest of it "right" even if part one was a dud.

And oh, what a dud it is. The setting--what was the near future in 1958, in which trains could conceivably have still played a large role in transportation--has been "updated" to 2016; because American governance in 2011 is so socialistic, it only makes sense that air travel would have collapsed by then, right? Right? The story remains basically unchanged: America's smartest people are disappearing thanks to the "mysterious" (as in he wears a trenchcoat and is perpetually under-lit) John Galt (Paul Johansson. Yes, he actually cast himself for the walk-on role of Randian Superman), leaving railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and steel magnate Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) to save the world with their awesome train line and new metal--

And see, that's the problem right there. Business deals about building new rail lines and politics over stupid Soviet-style controlled economies are just not interesting. 

Neither for that matter are characters. Atlas featured by far Rand's weakest dramatis personae, so there was never going to be much for the actors to draw from. Only "billionaire playboy" Francisco d'Anconia (Jsu Garcia), something of an affable smartass in the book, showed anything resembling a sense of humor or personality (Garcia looks pretty but does nothing to enliven the character). Not that this was an exceptional ensemble anyway. Except for Jon Polito--here playing one of countless government slugs, who played a real strongman once upon a time in Miller's Crossing--the cast are unknowns with bit part credits scattered across film and TV. Rebecca Wisocky as harpy wife Lillian Rearden comes the closest to the kind of bitchy melodramatic villainy that Rand was angling for, but under Johansson's slack direction it fails to register. Even Rand's misanthropic philosophy, expressed in lines like "They're a bunch of miserable children, desperate to stay alive," is so dead on arrival I can't even muster the energy to get exercised about it.

The whole thing looks cheap because it is, all of it, right down to that obnoxious poster which turns Atlas into the AOL mascot holding up a fucking tennis ball--and it all just kind of sleepwalks from point to point without any underlying logic or spirit. Even at her most crappy and repellent one could at least respect Rand for pouring everything she had into her work. If hers was a heavy hand, at least it had a grasp of the material. The right kind of commitment and deadly seriousness could have at least pushed lines like "Find Mouch" into so-bad-it's-good territory, but most everybody here seems satisfied to have just shown up to get the damn thing made.

Critics shrugged, and audiences too, such that Atlas Shrugged Part I failed to make even a fourth of its paltry $20 million budget back in theaters. Aglialoro was so dispirited that he threatened to Go Galt and withhold his talents from the looters and moochers who didn't bother to see his shitty movie. And yet he didn't, he found the requisite financing, and now Atlas Shrugged Part II, with a completely new cast, opens today. And because I am no looter but masochist, I am going to pay real money--not in gold, alas--to see the dreadful Object. Let us consider it an act of that lowest of Objectivist vices: charity.

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