Friday, February 23, 2024

Sweets for the Sweet: “Wonka”

Timothée Chalamet, all of 28 years old, has certainly been around. In 2017, barely 21, he rose to international fame as a lovestruck Italian teenager discovering his gender preference in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The role brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with a raft of other honors, while he was also being feted as the “cool” boy who deflowers Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig..

 He has also portrayed a drug addict (Beautiful Boy, 2018), a young cannibal (Bones and All, 2022), a revolutionary student (in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, 2021), and—just for variety—the handsome young love interest in Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women (2019)  Very soon audiences will be able to see him as heroic Paul Atreides in Part II of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the science fiction classic, Dune.

 But at the moment he’s busy making chocolate. I’m talking about his starring role in the prequel to everyone’s childhood favorite, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I suspect many of us have fond memories of Gene Wilder playing a mature Willy with bright blue eyes, flyaway hair, and an impish sense of humor. (And I suspect most of us were turned off by Johnny Depp’s more sinister approach in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which bears the name of Roald Dahl’s original novel.)  Movie franchises being what they are, it wasn’t surprising that someone would decide the tale of Charlie Bucket’s visit to the Wonka factory required a prequel. And so we get to find out, via Chalamet’s performance, just how the young Willy founded that amazing factory in the first place.

 Roald Dahl, of course, was famous for being curmudgeonly. A specialist in creating monsters of various odious sorts, he tempered his sweet story about the magic of chocolate with some very sour characters. The new Wonka does something of the same, with none other that Olivia Colman playing an evil landlady who keeps Willy and a clutch of other unfortunates in thrall, once they’ve had the misfortune of spending a night in her seedy hotel. Her sardonic gloating over her victims is something of which I suspect Dahl would approve. I’m much less sure he would have liked the treacle in the story, like Willy regarding chocolate-making as the legacy passed down to him by his dear, departed mother.  (She’s played in several brief scenes by Sally Hawkins, always a genuinely delightful performer with a heartbreaking smile—but here asked to be part of a saccharine moment of magical beyond-the-grave reunion.)

 The  new film  benefits from lots of fizzy and phantasmagoric visuals (oh, that giraffe!), in a charming European setting. I’m not sure, though, that it needed to be a musical. The various pleasant but not memorable songs (sung well enough by Chalamet and others) simply make a longish film longer. There’s also lots of time spent on building the backstories of some of the lesser characters. A writer of my acquaintance wonders why, in today’s cinema, we can’t simply accept quirky characters for who they are, without giving them all past lives that might possibly lead to sequels, thus broadening the Wonka Universe. This comment made me think of a film with some similarities, Chocolat. In it, the past life of wandering candy-maker Juliette Binoche is left mysterious, and we’re none the worse for that.

 I can’t say enough, though, about Hugh Grant’s role as the drollest of Oompa-Loompas. Now that he’s too old for romantic roles, he’s sure enjoying letting his freak flag fly.


No comments:

Post a Comment