January 15, 2008

Stardust


Neil Gaiman wrote Stardust as a "fairy tale for adults." I'm not sure he's added something that substantial to the literary and cultural canon (unlike--and I shall return to this later--William Goldman's The Princess Bride). But he has certainly concocted a refreshingly sweet and thoroughly uncynical love story. A rare enough thing these days.

The story begins in the town of Wall in England, which happens to share a literal wall with the magical, other-dimensional village of Wall. After a brief introduction establishing Tristan Thorn's genealogical roots on both sides, we fast-forward two decades to his futile attempts to woo the pretty but vapid Victoria.

Meanwhile, the king of the world on the magical side of the wall (Peter O'Toole) lies on his deathbed. Apparently, succession in this world is a last-man-standing affair. With his dying breath, he flings the crown jewel into the heavens and promises the kingdom to the first of his fratricidal sons to retrieve it.

In short order, Secundus (Rupert Everett) gets pushed out a window. The rest of bump each other off in short order, until it's down to Septimus (Mark Strong). Despite the high body count, the violence retains a Saturday-morning cartoon flavor throughout, with all the dead princes hang around as wisecracking ghosts for the rest of the movie.

Meanwhile, careening through the sky, that crown jewel knocks a star out of orbit, which falls to Earth in the form of an annoyed Claire Danes. Seeing the shooting star (from the other wide of the wall), the still vapid (and conniving) Victoria promises to consider (only consider) Tristan as her beau if he retrieves the meteorite for her.

And meanwhile, a seriously aging witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her two harpy sisters set off after the star as well, because consuming the heart of a star bestows eternal youth.

This trio of shaggy dogs commence chasing each other all over the gorgeous British Isles and Iceland, at one point running into the captain of a flying schooner (Robert De Niro) who catches and cages lightening in bottles.

De Niro strikes the one clunky note. Except that he throws himself at the role so hard his leaden performance becomes entertaining in its own right. Based on my reading of Gaiman's novel, I did have questions about Claire Danes, imagining the role going to an actress with a more Audrey Hepburn kind of whispiness.

Danes, though, completely won me over. So did newcomer Charlie Cox as Tristan. Pfeiffer is pitch-perfect throughout. Extra kudos to her for being willing to play a bitter, cranky rhymes-with-witch. It's not hard to see in her character a metaphor for Hollywood's lusting after eternal youth at any price.

Once the premise is established, the story develops pretty much as you'd expect it to. Fairy tales of this sort, after all, belong to the "same only different" genre. A good love story doesn't make us wonder who's going to fall in love with whom, but how. And how they navigate the mine fields designed to keep them apart.

By the second half of the movie, though, it becomes clear that at least the theatrical version of Stardust desperately wants to be The Princess Bride. Charlie Cox has turned into Cary Elwes' younger brother, and De Niro's Captain Shakespeare essentially provides the off-screen backstory for the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Hence, while Stardust is very good, the question I found myself asking myself was why it's not great. Why it's not The Princess Bride.

The easy answer is that though Neil Gaiman is a fine writer, he's no William Goldman. More specifically, the reason is Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya. This part is filled in Stardust by Septimus. Except that we've already established that the princes are an unsavory, expendable lot, so we don't root for him.

To be sure, the showdown between Pfeiffer and Cox (echoing that between Prince Humperdinck and Westley) lacks for nothing in the big climax category. Except that vanquishing a wicked witch by itself can't equal the dramatic tension created between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

So Stardust ends up being what The Princess Bride would be sans Inigo Montoya and Mandy Patinkin. Like I said, pretty darned good. Without the Montoya subplot it becomes a "purer" and more straightforward love story. Just not another modern classic.

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