Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The full Monte

Every so often I feel guilty about giving a movie a pretty average grade—even though the rating I most often give is, by definition, average.

Let’s face it. Moviemaking is a business and, while the industry is full of creative, talented and motivated people who certainly care deeply about the product they are working on, each movie is indeed a product—designed, produced and marketed to make money. So, despite all the sincere hard work and heart that goes into most movies, most are destined to appear just “average” to us viewers because they are going to share so much with most other movies we have seen.

What got me thinking about all this was the family-aimed romantic comedy Monte Carlo, which I saw over the weekend. For the record, it wasn’t my choice to see this movie. There is a Selena Gomez fan in our house and, no, it isn’t me. There is so much that is unremarkable about this movie, and yet…

If you are having trouble placing this movie, it may be because it came and went in the U.S.—where it did a bit better financially than break even—nearly four months ago. It has only just opened in the British Isles.

Harsher critics than I could (and have) easily savaged the movie for being fairly predictable and formulaic. I’m not sure there was a minor plot development, let alone a major one, that wasn’t telegraphed well in advance. The acting performances were adequate but never made us forget we were watching a movie. The writing was just okay, and there was no line that stuck in my memory.

Well, actually, there was one line that stuck in my memory. Toward the big climax, there is a potentially disastrous development as a distracted Katie Cassidy lets Gomez (in her spoiled British heiress role) slip out of a hotel room. When Cassidy opens her mouth, we know exactly what she is going to say, but instead she says, “Shoot!” That’s an exclamation we haven’t heard in a romantic comedy—or even a teen-oriented movie—in a good long while. I’m not sure if the main reason is that every movie aimed primarily at teens includes four-letter words to avoid the dreaded G rating or whether the culture has simply changed since my own childhood, but euphemisms like “Shoot!” now stick out more than what used to be considered a cuss word.

But here’s what makes me realize that I’ve turned into my parents. It was a nice feeling to be able to go to cinema with my wife and daughter and not be bored by juvenile entertainment and yet not have to be worrying about exposing my child to something inappropriate. It’s not that I am trying to shelter my daughter from the real world. She is a mature 11 years old and regularly sees movies rated (under the Irish system) as 12A, meaning those under 12 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Sometimes I let her watch films rated 15 if I think she can handle it. I don’t worry about her hearing the occasional swear word or sexual reference or simulated violence—even though it always bothers me anyway (must be a genetically coded parent thing). But I am aware that there is cumulative effect when movie after movie portrays certain attitudes or ways of speaking or behaving as normal. It’s nice once in a while to see a movie where grown-up people act and speak in a way that is consistent with how we behave in our own family.

Monte Carlo invokes (some would say “rips off”) some classic films. Its opening scenes take place in a small Texas town that has just a touch of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Before long, we are whisked off to the French Riviera and, if the story itself does not exactly invoke Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, we get a brief clip of that classic anyway, as a shorthand for the idealized glamour the location holds. Not coincidentally, Gomez’s character is named Grace. The plot is one of those mistaken-identity farces (brimming with coincidences that really test our willingness to suspend disbelief), with echoes of 1950s adventuress comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire—although our heroines’ aim is not to find husbands but merely to broaden themselves.

The director, Thomas Bechuza (who co-wrote with April Blair and Maria Maggenti from Kelly Bowe’s story adapted from Jules Bass’s novel Headhunters) previously made a movie I liked quite a bit: the fighting-family-holiday romcom The Family Stone. But it is worth noting that in that film as well, Bechuza relied heavily on warm memories of other people’s movies (notably Meet Me in St. Louis) to inject emotion into the proceedings.

I nearly wanted to give Monte Carlo an extra star just for providing decent entertainment to people who don’t want their entertainment edgy. The frustrating thing is that, while it provides reasonable (if forgettable) entertainment as it is, with a bit more creative effort, it could have been a whole lot better. And it wouldn’t have required adding dirty words or a flash of nudity.

Symbolic of the film’s missed opportunities is the (always welcome) inclusion of Catherine Tate. Viewers of UK television (not the least we Doctor Who fans) know her comedic gifts well. So it is frustrating when she keeps getting cast in small roles in American movies and always as someone posh (cf. Gulliver’s Travels)—apparently for no other reason than she is English. If they could have built up her role, instead of focusing so much on French characters with clownish expressions, this could have really been a nifty little movie.

Still, I’m happy that there are people making movies like this. We already have enough directors trying to be Quentin Tarantino.

-S.L., 27 October 2011

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