King Richard and CODA are, alas, inspirational, but not that bad
[The Oscar thing is on! I’ll be reviewing all the contenders between now and the show; here are links to reviews of Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, and Nightmare Alley, with more to come between now and March 27.]
I had to steel myself for CODA and King Richard. There are a few genres to which I just can’t relate. I can be convinced by excellence — Silence of the Lambs and Get Out were so good they overcame my natural resistance to horror and fantasy movies. But I’ve never been crazy about inspirational movies. Now, I like a lot of movies that happen to be inspirational, if we mean by that a depiction of adversity and triumph that is meant to give the viewer a bit of courage with which to face life. But by that definition Ordet and The Battle of Algiers qualify, and I know they aren’t what anyone means when they say inspirational. What they mean is something like Hoosiers, Chariots of Fire, or Julia — movies in which people the world might see as ordinary, or even less, accomplish the extraordinary — something the guy off the street with a mild case of the blues can easily relate to, and by which he might be uplifted.
Those pictures always seem like a bit of a con to me, at least, even when they’re based on a true story, even when they’re good, because all along I know I’m just getting teased with obstacles and reversals just so when the big uplift comes it’ll hit with maximum force. At intervals I can hear snippets of the pitch meeting — Then, his biggest setback yet! But he comes back harder! Maybe it’s just me. Most movies require the willing suspension of disbelief. With these I’m never able to completely do it.
King Richard is one such and to amplify the problem it’s based on living people — specifically Richard, the father and impresario of Venus and Serena Williams. You know this was vetted eight ways to Sunday, and with big lovable star Will Smith as Richard there was no way you were going to get a really interesting perspective. The guy might be shown to have minor faults, might even be a little crazy with the workouts in the rain, the 78-page plan, the spiritual-emotional dimension of his drills that come close to brainwashing and so on. (There is a moment when an interviewer asks teenage Venus what she wants from her career, meaning what she wants independently of what her spotlight-hogging father has been saying, and she seems for a split second to go blank, like there really is no answer but what he would give.) But the final answer is always: Look what he accomplished! Trust the plan!
It helps those of us who want more than uplift that we are allowed to see the forces behind Richard’s mania — his grim past, the brutalities of life in Compton, and especially the disrespect he has very sorely felt all his life not just for being black and poor but also for being just weird. As played by Smith, Richard is one of those ghetto autodidacts who can seem a little off even when they’re being absolutely sensible because they’re so used to being laughed off that they push extra hard to be understood. Richard has that but also, crucially, a sense of humor that not only keeps him (mostly) on the right side of madness, but also makes it possible for him to not only push but to persuade — which we can see right off the bat, when he’s pitching uninterested country-club types with his VCR tapes and pamphlets and a line of gab (“You makin’ a mistake but I’m gonna let you make it”) that suggests how hard he’s trained himself not to get mad.
Richard does get mad sometimes, though, when it comes to his kids. He reacts with sudden violence when the hoody-hood boys threaten them, and his good humor turns to coruscating sarcasm when the social worker comes to his house and even by implication questions his approach: “You need to be arresting them parents at them tennis matches.” That’s a crucial sidelight, by the way, the film makes sure we catch: Many of the kids Venus and Serena play in their rise to the top are fucked up by the insane pressures of pro tennis in different ways than what Compton threatens, and he’s on the lookout for that too. The makes his mania look more like clarity and love. If it’s not clear enough, the filmmakers occasionally have Richard and his wife Brandy talk about it, so we can see she’s not nuts and while she does believe in his plan, she is not going to let him go too far.
The girls themselves more or less fade into the background, and the tennis pros and coaches Richard manipulates are more or less sputtering stooges. But we get a full view of Brandy from Aunjanue Ellis, a good helpmeet but no patsy and very skilled at driving her point through Richard’s fog of resentments and ambitions. And Will Smith puts on a real show: He’s got the rural Louisiana dialect, walks with what his wife calls his “broke-down feet,” and is slightly muzzy like he’s coming at you out of a dream world, with flashes of insight as well as anger. They might give him an award for this. I should add that the tennis playing is very convincing, which is no small thing, and that Kris Bowers’ score is really effective at goosing the big moments without even seeming hammy, which is about the best you can do with a movie like this.
If we were living in the old world and I had gone to see CODA in a theater, I might have walked out. The set-up is calculated to set my teeth on edge: There’s a deaf family with a hearing high-school daughter, Ruby, who wants to sing — barf already! Plus the family is working-class salt-of-the-earth Gloucester fishermen (Ruby works a shift with them before school every day) and the parents are funny horndogs (dad even gives the daughter’s boyfriend a pantomime lecture on condom use), and the daughter’s friend is hot for her brother, who shares his Tinder browsing at the dinner table. Bring back the rapping granny!
Meanwhile Ruby tries out for the school choir because a boy she thinks is cute is doing it too, but she can’t seem to relax and let her voice out around people (stop) and the imperious music teacher (stop) not only gets her angry enough to open up (STOP) but discovers she has a gift and wants her to audition for Berklee (STAHHP!).
It does get better. Not fundamentally: CODA is still a piece of inspiration, Rise-Above-Your-Station model, and its devices are shopworn almost by definition. For example, Ruby (small spoiler) defiantly missing a fishing shift at just the wrong time is straight out of old melodrama, and the ensuing tug of war between duty to family and duty to self, with the heroine and her family (spoiler but you know already) working it all out, is strictly from Hallmark.
But there are some bits that rise above, and they’re mostly in the last act, or at least they hatch in the last act, which is right where they should happen. CODA plants an interesting fact about the clan early on: They’re resentful of hearing people, and this sometimes comes out as rejection of Ruby’s hearing-world activities and interests, most definitely including music. They soften toward the idea of her new life, and one night the father sits with Ruby on the back of their pick-up and asks her to sing to him, placing his hands on her head and neck for the vibrations so he might catch a little of what her music means. The result is simple and true and beautiful, and probably what got Troy Kotsur his Best Supporting Actor nomination. It makes you cry and softens you up for the big Berklee audition finish. That is, it made me cry and softened me up. Look, I just said I wasn’t crazy about this stuff, I’m not made of stone.