Tuesday, September 30, 2014

GONE GIRL... (thoughts before the movie)

There is no hero of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's popular potboiler from last year that is soon to be released as a movie. The two main characters are Nick and Amy Dunne. He's a handsome wimp. She's a conniving psychopath. They deserve each other. I'm not sure I deserved to sit with them for 550 pages.

In the opening chapters of Gone Girl, Flynn makes it clear that these two are a couple of navel gazing, self-absorbed yuppie leftovers from the 1980s. He was a magazine writer, she was the daughter of a pair of psychologist turned authors, so that gives Flynn the readymade excuse to have this pair over analyze their personal lives and writing their thoughts down for...who? For us? Flynn's gimmick is to have one chapter written by Nick, usually in a thoughtful, slightly cynical voice, and the next by Amy, chipper, nervy, and full of herself. We sense the marriage is troubled.  They've left her beloved New York to live in his old Missouri hometown where he opens a bar, has an affair, and generally sits around hating himself. Amy hates him, too. They hate each other. Eventually, Amy disappears,  and Nick looks mighty suspicious.

By the middle of the story you're feeling for Nick. He's innocent, but the police and the media think he's got something to hide. Things look bad for him. Part of the problem is that he just doesn't know how to behave while the cameras are on him. He feels as if he's trapped in a bad television crime show, the sort where the handsome husband turns out to be creep. He's definitely stuck in a sort of Lifetime network vortex, possibly because Flynn is a former Entertainment Weekly writer who has probably watched her share of Lifetime dramas.

Full disclosure:  I love supermarket books. I don't need Amazon, or the clerks at my local book seller to suggest titles. The bookrack at my local supermarket is where I buy most of my fiction. That's the heartbeat of America, right there near the checkout line  as I'm paying for my frozen dinners and Sunkist diet soda. I won't hesitate to chuck in a fat, stupid paperback novel  with my groceries. More often than not, they're pretty good.  Even the ones I don't like, such as Gone Girl, are quite readable.  That shows you how far gone I am; maybe the chemicals in the frozen dinners have rotted my brain. In a way, Gone Girl is the ultimate supermarket novel.

The story gets cooking when Nick grows desperate to clear himself. Flynn throws in a few red herrings, such as a bunch of homeless drug addicts who have moved into an abandoned shopping mall. They seem pretty seedy, and likely to have abducted a young woman. There's also Nick's dad, a woman hating brute who sits in a nursing home, rattled by Alzheimer's, occasionally escaping to lurk around Nick's house and shout obscenities at imaginary women. Amy also had some friends from the past who seemed to stalk her, just like one of those poor women from the Lifetime channel.    
Nevertheless,   what really happens isn't quite as interesting as the possibilities Flynn uses to distract us.    She teases us that the book could be a heady reflection on the economic downturn, where people actually disappear into the growing hole at the center of the country.  Instead, she creates a turgid essay about marriage, and the phoniness that serves as the glue that binds most relationships.    

From the middle of the book on, we are subjected to a highly implausible tale of frame ups, bumbling cops,   and the tiresome switching of narrators for every chapter.   There is no payoff. There is no climax. Within 20 minutes of finishing, I had forgotten how it ended.  My guess is that the ending is weak because there had also been no beginning or middle of which to speak, just a series of twists and turns, cleverness being the substitute for a real story.                     
What the novel boils down to, I think, is less about crime and punishment and more about  a married couple bitching about each other. It's about as compelling as those TV shows where couples sit and insult each other in front of a studio audience.   

And yet, like Nick finding himself yearning for Amy even though she's a harpy, one continues reading despite knowing the book is junk.  Flynn's characters are one dimensional, her ideas are rehashed from other, better novels, and her comments about police investigations and media coverage are  routine. Yet, there's a liveliness, an enthusiasm in Flynn's writing that is hard to resist. She's like a feisty kid showing you that drawing of a pony she did at school, and you can't help but share in her excitement.

The main problem with the story, though, is Nick and Amy. I never quite believed Nick was a male. Flynn describes him as a hunk, but imbues him with decidedly female traits. At various times we read about him crying in a bathtub, and he's constantly commenting on d├ęcor; he's less a full-bodied male, than a kind of lumbering older sister figure in the guise of a man. The story could've been about two sisters, but I suppose Flynn had some thoughts on marriage that that she wanted to hammer out.  Besides, lifting the veil on a marriage, even a false one in a tedious novel, sells.   As a villain, Amy is the sort of over-the-top character that novelists of cheap fiction create because they're easy.   I never once thought she was a real person, just a stick figure fitted with a garden variety psycho mask.  
Still, if the story is stripped down, I think it could be an entertaining movie. David Fincher is directing, and the trailer looks intense. Some of the dialog that wasn't particularly funny in the book might pass for a kind of dark comedy in the movie. I also think Fincher can  take Flynn's schoolgirl vision of violence and turn it into something truly nasty.  Fifty years ago, Nick would be played by Robert Wagner.  Now he'll be played by Ben Affleck. By directing a trio of fine films, Affleck has proven himself to be more than big-chinned doofus, but he still looks strange to me, like a grown man who still has his baby teeth.  He's not a particularly supple, or subtle actor; he always looks stiff and a little dumb onscreen. Then again,  that might work for the role of Nick. 
Ultimately, I hope the movie is a hit. I want something to click in Hollywood that doesn't involve comic book heroes.                    

If Fincher's Gone Girl can change the tide of idiotic movies, even temporarily, I'll buy all of Gillian Flynn's future books. Provided, of course, they're carried in supermarkets.

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