Judge Brendan Babish was disappointed to learn there was no CGI woolly mammoth.
Perfection is never what it seems.
One of the underrated great cinematic pleasures is watching a movie you know virtually nothing about. With the proliferation of trailers and entertainment reporting, it's rare that I see a new film where I don't know at least two or three major plot developments (or, in the case of comedies, about a dozen good jokes). That is why I was so eager to watch Mammoth, the new film from Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodyssoon (Together). Not only did I know nothing about it, but it also stars two of my favorite actors: Gael García Bernal (The King) and Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy). However, while watching Mammoth, my eagerness slowly morphed into impatience, then annoyance, and finally detachment. This is because Mammoth is a film with little plot, and what little there is is largely manipulative melodrama.
Leo (Bernal) and Ellen (Williams) are a hip, wealthy New York City couple with a young daughter (Sophie Nyweide) who is cared for by Gloria (Marife Necesito), their overworked nanny. While Leo jet-sets to Thailand for the sole purpose of signing a lucrative business contract, Ellen and Gloria struggle with their respective children. Ellen feels distant from her daughter, who prefers spending time with her nanny. Gloria misses the two young children she left behind in the Philippines, and they desperately want her to come home. Meanwhile, Leo flees glitzy downtown Bangkok to stay in a modest bungalow near the beach, where he can commune with nature and meet the locals. If one of those locals just happens to be a prostitute, so be it.
While Mammoth is a story of three well-meaning adults all striving to resolve their inner turmoil, one of its foundational problems is that not all turmoil is created equal. Leo and Ellen are ludicrously wealthy and live in a beautiful apartment in New York City's SoHo neighborhood. While I'm sure wealthy people have problems, to present their vague feelings of longing as anyway comparable to a women who has to reconcile abandoning her two children for a job of servitude halfway around the world is preposterous.
Exacerbating the uneven dichotomy, I'm not even sure what's bugging Leo and Ellen. Ellen is stressed by her daughter's close relationship with the nanny, and by her own position as a doctor in an emergency room, but she comes off as someone who just needs to prioritize her life. Still, Leo's "crisis" is far more inscrutable. He is in love with his wife, has a good relationship with his daughter, and is flying around the world on private planes. He also has a ludicrously well-paying job doing something he loves. Why should we be concerned about his vague search for authenticity on the beaches of Thailand—especially when this search leads him into the arms of a manipulative prostitute?
While Gloria is clearly the character with most substance, her subplot exists only as a weapon to emotionally clobber the audience. From the demonstrative phone conversations with her children to the devastating resolution of her predicament, it's almost humorous how much her story is contrived for maximum pathos, like an hourlong Sally Struthers commercial for starving children.
Obviously, there is a thin line between affecting drama and meaningless bathos. Sadly, Mammoth falls far on the wrong side of it. Certainly, the problems of rich people are fertile ground for drama, but this film not only fails to do eloquently demonstrate this, but compounds the vapidity of its story by contrasting it with a truly tragic subplot. However, even that story lacks the subtlety or context it deserves. Mammoth is an intense, earnest film, but one that will only appeal to emotional masochists.
As misguided as this movie often is, one of its strengths is beautiful cinematography in a variety of environments (rural Philippines, downtown Bangkok, New York City). Though this was likely a small-budget movie, its picture quality is immaculate. The jungles, the cities, and the slums are all shown in vibrant, sometimes unforgiving, colors. This is an impressive-looking film with an impressive transfer. The soundtrack is surprisingly lively, with several bass-heavy music cues that will give your sound system a workout. While the audio presentation is good, my only quibble is the selection of squealing indie rock that litters the movie. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
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