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Oldboy and The Book Thief

Josh Brolin in Spike Lee's "Oldboy."
Julian Lehmann, Sophie Nelisse, and Emily Watson in "The Book Thief.

20 years a thief

Oldboy and The Book Thief

As a rule of thumb, when a movie opens without having been previewed for the press, it’s because the distributor has no faith in it. Usually that’s with good reason: They know it’s a dog, so why let the public find out any sooner than necessary?

In the case of Oldboy, Spike Lee’s remake (well, he prefers “reinterpretation”) of the 2003 cult classic Korean film of the same name, it may well be that distributor FilmDistrict had no faith in it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a dog. Properly promoted, it could well have been Lee’s biggest mainstream success since Inside Job.

Oldboy is a story of revenge centered on Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a hard-drinking ad man. Whether or not his name is intended to make you think “douche,” it’s not inappropriate: He is, by any gauge, one miserable son of a bitch. After losing an important client because he made a crude pass at his wife, Joe goes on an all-night bender in Manhattan’s Chinatown. He wakes up in what at first appears to be a cheap hotel room. Turns out it’s his new home for the next 20 years. Worse, the room’s television reports that he has been framed for the murder of his ex-wife.

His release is just as sudden and unexpected. Joe wakes up in a trunk in the middle of a football field, with a wallet full of cash, a cell phone, and two goals: to find his daughter, and to find who imprisoned him and why.

The way FilmDistrict handled Oldboy is a textbook example of bad promotion. They released this violent, gruesome, and adult (in every sense of the word) film during Thanksgiving weekend, a period given to family films and arthouse dramas. The field of those was especially crowded this year. Whether by choice or because of that crowding, they put it on a small number of screens nationally. They did little if anything that I’m aware of to publicize it. And when it tanked, coming in 17th in the box office listings, the ensuing bad publicity means people will assume it’s a big fat Thanksgiving turkey.

And all this after they cut the movie from its original length of three hours to one hour and 45 minutes. It’s no wonder FilmDistrict is about to get out of the distribution business; it’s even less of a loss.

Most of the reviews of Oldboy I’ve read spend a lot of time comparing it to Park Chan-wook’s original film, which I’ve never seen. It came out at a time when I was learning that films widely described as “extreme” had moved past my zone of tolerance for images I don’t want to have inside my head.

Lee’s version is not lacking in strong violence and a bit of gruesome torture, but while you wouldn’t want to take Grandma to see it, it’s nothing unbearable. The story becomes more entertaining as it grows more cartoonish, especially with the introduction of a character (played by Sharlto Copley) who is a tribute to every effete uber-evil bad guy in film history. I would love to have heard the conversations he had with Lee, a noted classic movie buff, in devising the guy: “Think of Vincent Price as a Bond villain, but creepier.”

Oldboy is one of the movies Lee made for hire rather than out of any personal commitment to the story. I always find those enjoyable because he uses them to indulge his TCM-addicted side. The score (by Roque Baños, with solo piano pieces by Bruce Hornsby) is pure Bernard Herrmann, adding to the flavor of a movie Hitchcock might have made had he ever got into a really foul mood. And there’s a brilliant sequence in which Joe (who studied martial arts from kung fu movies while he was in captivity) takes on a half-dozen attackers. If you’re like me you always groan at those because they’re so obviously fake. But Lee actually makes it look plausible, primarily by shooting it as a single shot—and then repeats it with a new bunch of attackers. That alone is worth the cost of admission.

On the other hand, some movies are kept from the press because the studios know they’re going to be badly reviewed, and The Book Thief is one of those. Adapted from a popular young adult novel about a young German girl whose love of books helps get her through the horrors of World War II, the movie proceeds formulaically, looking pretty when it can afford to be and grim when it needs to be. But the 550-page book surely held many details that have been trimmed here, leaving nagging questions about history and motivation. The director is Brian Percival, who has done numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, and the film looks like the work of a television director, where the bulk of the effort goes into writing the script. In a film the director needs to tease the story out, making sure it comes alive onscreen, something this movie never does.

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