Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Princess Bride (1987)

When I was a little Rebecca, I sang in the children's choir at church, less out of piety than hunger for a captive audience (these days it's less church choir and more Rocky Horror performances at the local gay club, but the basic principle is the same). There was an hour-long break between choir practice and the actual service, which choristers' parents were called upon in their turn to fill with movies and Timbits. One mom brought The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987) for us to watch every time her turn rolled around. It was like she didn't own any other movies (or maybe just none that were fit to be shown in church?). Anyhow, that's how I saw the first half of The Princess Bride about thirty times before I turned 13. Unfortunately, the hour-long break wasn't quite long enough to finish the movie, and for over a decade, I wondered whether the vengeful swordsman would finally find his six-fingered nemesis. A few weeks ago I caved and bought the DVD, and that six-fingered asshole finally got what was coming to him. Now at last I have peace (and a new review to do).

Two hands, ten fingers, one charmingly cleft chin.
Peasants Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) are in love. (You know right away that they're in love because they're both so blonde and pretty. Either in love or siblings). Westley ventures off to seek their fortune and is unfortunately killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Meanwhile, Buttercup is summoned to wed the Prince of Florin, wicked Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), but the wedding is put on hold when she's kidnapped by brigands Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, short), Fezzik (Andre the Giant, tall), and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin, Spanish). Buttercup is shortly rescued by none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts, who turns out to be Westley in disguise! Blissfully reunited, Westley and Buttercup fight some giant rats, get rid of her new fiance, and conquer death itself. It's all relatively smooth going and at last they ride away into the sunset (on white fucking horses no less).

The Princess Bride is adapted from a book by William Goldman, and as you might expect when Spinal Tap's director films a work by Marathon Man's screenwriter, the film never verges on sentimental or cloying despite its title and premise. It's eminently quotable high adventure that knows when to stick to fairy-tale conventions and when to send them packing. Also, it's not in the least dated -- sometimes 80s fantasy betrays itself through haircuts and makeup (Labyrinth, Ladyhawke), but the mise en scene here is Germanic medieval goodness all the way, which makes it doubly funny when the characters break their mythic shackles to comment with modern cynicism on their circumstances ("never get involved in a land war in Asia", Vizzini warns Westley grimly). The very best thing about this movie is that every performance is a standout. There's not a weak link in the bunch. Even Billy Crystal's cameo -- he's a withered gnome with a New Yawker accent -- somehow works (with emphasis on the somehow).

I'm not so mired in nostalgia for The Princess Bride to ignore the fact that the film is decidedly uneven after Westley conquers Buttercup's captors. The half-hour showdown between pirate and brigands is such perfect movie-making that everything afterwards is a bit of a letdown. Still, the quality of the rest of the movie ranges from "excellent" to "pretty good", so I wouldn't call time spent watching it wasted.

The only other thing that irks me about The Princess Bride is its love story. Not because it's too sweet, which is a complaint I've heard. The opposite, in fact. When Westley shows up to rescue Buttercup, he's stolen the Dread Pirate Roberts' identity -- complete with Roberts' "leave no man alive" mission statement. That means that, for all intents and purposes, Westley returns to Buttercup a serial killer. This never bothers her or, apparently, anyone else. Westley is also just kind of a jerk to her: he continues to let her believe her beloved is dead much longer than he has to, insulting her fidelity long after she's demonstrated that her marriage to Humperdinck is a sham and she still loves her vanished fiance. I guess it's all meant to be a test of her loyalty or something, but it just comes off as dickish and kind of makes me wish Buttercup had gone off with Inigo Montoya instead.

Be that as it may, I give a 4/5 to The Princess Bride. The waters of 80s fantasy can be treacherous (killer eels, don't you know) but Reiner navigates them successfully, and his gorgeous film is still enjoyable today.

Ladies, remember to moisturize.
SCENE STEALER: "BOOOOO! BOOOOOO!" This lady, Margery Mason, appears in one of Buttercup's nightmares for about five seconds to catcall the Princess. Mason is credited as the Ancient Booer. I bet there are movie extras who go their whole lives wishing for a role like the Ancient Booer. "BOOOOOOOO!" An actress friend of mine pointed out that the audition for this role must have been epic. "BOOOOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOOOOO!" If you're an actress without the cookie-cutter good looks required of the fairy tale princess, you should go for roles like this. At least you'll be remembered.

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