Film within a Film in Seven Psychopaths and Argo

Currently in cinemas across the nation two films take on the old “film within a film” schtick – one going absurd while the other playing it straight.  Both have garnered critical acclaim but only one has seen box office success and is being bandied about with awards buzz.  Seven Psychopaths and Argo couldn’t be more different in style, substance and intent – yet they both hang (and in one case, hang themself) on the central conceit of a film within a film.

First up is Seven Psychopaths.  Boring title and lousy marketing aside, I had high hopes for award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh’s second feature film as his first, In Bruges, is one of my favorite films from the past five years.  The plot of Seven Psychopaths sounded darkly madcap enough – a hapless bunch of dog thieves (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell) kidnap the dog of a gangster (Woody Harrelson) and hilarious melee ensues.  Sadly, what might have made a good short-story is trapped amongst other not-so-good stories as one of the friends of these dog-nappers is a struggling, alcoholic writer (Colin Farrell) working on a terrible screenplay called Seven Psychopaths that he intends to use to eschew the typical psychopathic thriller.  We get introduced to these psychopaths as he makes them up and some are more interesting than the rest, though as Walken’s character puts it so succinctly at one point, “It all gets a little tiresome after a while.” 

Despite some scathing pieces of darkly comic dialogue (a McDonagh hallmark), a few over-the-top bits and a cast making the most of the absurd meta-narrative…Seven Psychopaths goes nowhere.  There’s no character to care about (even in the world of the film I wasn’t sure which one was real or not) and the drunk, struggling writer bit has been done to death…as has this particular brand of violent comedy.  In Bruges had endearing characters, tons of heart and a uniquely beautiful locale to go with the obscenity laced dialogue, cruel observational humor, philosophical pondering and “fairy-tale” violence.  Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, takes place in Hollywood and has no soul. This makes it a major chore to sit through, though apparently some people liked it.

A toast to Ben Affleck’s resurrected career as a director.

Argo, on the hand, is a movie a lot of people like…really, really like.  And it’s one of those workmanlike based-on-a-true-story thrillers that’s hard to find fault with, though I don’t know if it’s exactly a “standing ovation” type of film.  Argo refers to a fabricated 1980 Star Wars rip-off that the US government sanctioned the CIA and Hollywood to pretend to make as a cover for extracting six US embassy workers hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.  It’s one of those “truth is crazier than fiction” stories, and director and star Ben Affleck (when not appearing emotionless and wooden on-screen in the lead role) does a nice job of recreating with authentic period detail and plenty of playful jabs at both Hollywood and Washington.

Like Apollo 13 and Quiz Show before it, there’s really not much suspense here in a story whose recent history is well-documented, but Affleck creates an intense climax centering on the fake film crew getting out of Tehran by way of a Swiss plane reliant on some perfectly timed phone calls.  Also like those previous two films, it’s an admirable and well-made project…but is it really THAT good?  I don’t know.

Argo also throws a little bit of Wag the Dog lite the audience’s way when Affleck’s character asks John Goodman’s award-winning make-up man how the new film production is going and Goodman’s character replies something to the effect of, “I don’t think the target audience will like it.”  To which Affleck’s character asks, “Who’s the target audience?”

Goodman says completely self-effacing, “Anyone with eyes.”

You could say that about a lot of what Hollywood puts out these days, and that one straight line in Argo was funnier than any of that over-cooked meta-mess from Seven Psychopaths.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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4 comments on “Film within a Film in Seven Psychopaths and Argo

  1. I’ve been waiting for Seven Psychopaths for so long, I can’t believe Martin McDonagh made a bad movie. This is like really bad news. I’ll watch it anyways, though, just to extract whatever little it has to offer.

  2. ccyager says:

    Hi, David,

    I saw “Argo” yesterday. I’m wondering what you remember about the Iranian hostage crisis and 1979-80 to have you commenting on this movie the way you have. Affleck and his team did a beyond-excellent job of making this period piece truly of that period, and capturing the tension in Tehran. He worked with the real Tony Mendez on the details — the Savak and Revolutionary Guards really did chase the plane on the runway as it was taking off. Plus the tension between the State Dept., the White House and the CIA. There weren’t any well-timed phone calls in the “Argo” I saw — in fact, I’d say there were 2 late-barely-made-it type phone calls that happen in reality as well as in fantasy. I remember waiting for plane ticket confirmations to come through, just as Mendez waited. The computer system at that time was pretty primitive compared with now. I had not known that Mendez’ operation had been pulled the night before, and everything shut down except the production offices in LA. This made for incredible tension and suspense when Mendez decides not to obey the order and take them out. It made perfect sense that there’d be frantic phone calls (no computers back then as good as now, or text messaging, etc.) to get all the support pieces back together for them.

    As for Affleck’s acting, I found it understated and restrained and very believable. A CIA agent in the process of sneaking six people out of a hostile country is not going to do anything to call attention to himself, first, and second, he needs to be the anchor, the steel nerves, the quiet confidence that those 6 people need him to be. Exfiltration is an extremely dangerous job and definitely not for wimps or party people, people who cannot control their emotions, and people who cannot think on their feet. He showed the 6 as much compassion and understanding as he could, but he still needed to be that guy who could get them out. How do you come to trust someone who walks into the room and you know nothing about him? Plus as CIA, he was prohibited from telling them very much about himself. He told them what he could.

    The big emotion — a brilliant moment, too — came when he’s facing his wife and asks if he can come in. He’s afraid to look at her. As she hugs him, he collapses into her. Hardly wooden acting, my friend.

    Yes, I loved this movie, would give it an A-, and recommend it to friends who like suspense movies or stories based on true historical stories. If you think Iran is nasty now, it’s kindergarten compared to what it was in 1979-80….(smile)

    Cinda

    • Cinda – ummmm, I’m a bit puzzled here by your comment. I liked the film and thought they did a good job of capturing the time period. And I thought the closing moments were very tense….however we knew they were getting out as this is based in history…so it could only be suspenseful to a point. I give the film a rock solid “B”, meaning it was really good but not earth shatteringly great. I guess where we do really disagree is on Affleck’s performance. He’s a good director but an ok actor at best.

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