Tuesday, July 27, 2021

“El Camino”: Too Much of a (Breaking) Bad Thing?

I recently spent months on my couch, catching up with Breaking Bad. This series (2008-2013) certainly deserves its accolades. Its characters are convincingly complicated; its storyline is riveting; its cinematography is endlessly inventive (the high desert of New Mexico has never looked so ominous, nor so beautiful). I’m a particular fan of those opening sequences that drop you into each week’s story from a skewed perspective (maybe a baffling flash-forward, possibly a wacky Spanish-language narco corrido in praise of that elusive drug lord, Señor Heisenberg).

 Perhaps the theme running through the entire series is how people react to change. When a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, his life slips into a different gear. Desperate for money to support his growing family, he discovers a lucrative new career as a maker of primo methamphetamine. His crossover onto the shady side of the law brings out personality traits that have previously remained hidden: like a lust for ever-increasing power. And his evolution soon transforms his family: his very pregnant wife, his straight-arrow brother-in-law, his loyal son who won’t let cerebral palsy get him down. Before long, a good swath of Albuquerque is somehow caught up in his rise and eventual fall.

 One character, a reckless young drug dealer who shows “Mr. White” the ropes of meth-peddling in season one, was supposed to be snuffed out early on. But Jesse Pinkman’s working relationship with his former high school teacher proved so potent that Jesse was turned into a series star. Impetuous and self-destructive, but also tender-hearted and smart, Jesse was shaped by the writers into the able-bodied son Walter never had. As Walt becomes more and more of a monster, Jesse haltingly moves in the other direction, trying to make up for the harm he’s caused. That’s why, in the series’ final moments, he’s the one character who (with a little help from his friend) escapes from a bloodbath, lighting out for the Territory with tears in his eyes.

 For all the havoc he causes, Jesse (played with deep conviction by Aaron Paul) is a character who’s easy to love., because he’s so quick to acknowledge his failings. That’s why I was eager to follow up on Jesse’s post-Walt story by way of 2019’s feature film, El Camino, produced by the Breaking Bad team as a sort of a sequel to the series.  

 El Camino, named for the automotive classic in which Jesse makes his escape from the house of death, starts with its protagonist in flight. But, perhaps to capitalize on viewers’ fond recollections of the series, it also flashes back to happier days of Jesse absorbing life-lessons from Walt, from fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, and even from the drug-addled Jane, his one-time girlfriend before her fatal overdose. What’s more, it wallows in Jesse’s suffering before that final shootout, giving us plenty of footage of Todd, a young, red-headed meth gangster who could alternately be called Jesse’s evil twin and Opie gone to seed. (He has just bumped off his cleaning woman, whom he repeatedly describes as “a very nice lady.”) This is all in the past, but the present-day story piles on the complications involved in Jesse drumming up the cash he needs to blow this popsicle stand and start a new life somewhere else. His goal is to find and reclaim the bad guys’ ill-gotten gains, which involves much deceit, many close calls, and (of course) loads of blood. Whereas the TV episodes all seemed cannily plotted, this full-length movie is both confusing and, ultimately, dull. Poor Jesse! Poor me!   


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