Culture

Making Art or Making Hate?

Boss Baby (20th Century Fox)
The Boss Baby shows the growing pains of an infantile political culture.

Alec Baldwin takes the charm out of the animated film The Boss Baby. Doing the voice of the title character, a newborn infant whose insistent demands challenge the family life of his young parents, Baldwin plays to type: court jester for the angry Hillary mob. He no longer has the mellow calm that established a tone of resigned poignancy for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Now, Baldwin’s overbearing insistence on politics creates a problem that, very likely, will keep some viewers away from The Boss Baby, a surprisingly imaginative animated movie.

The Boss Baby epitomizes the snowflake phenomenon that is snowballing and putting our desire to enjoy popular culture at risk. (Even singers and rappers go beyond the pale in voicing political antagonism.) When the Boss Baby’s delivery inspires envy in his older brother, Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi, with adult narration by Tobey Maguire), the situation should be immediately relatable and make for likable entertainment. But Baldwin’s own political voice — resonating with his public professional nastiness — gets in the way of the filmmakers’ best efforts.

Director Tom McGrath adapts Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book about sibling rivalry. One can enjoy the movie’s exemplary animation style for its innocent expression of what film scholar Lotte Eisner would call our pre-conscious will. The Boss Baby starts out looking like Pixar — a clean-scrubbed appearance that remakes life into a too-sleek product. But, from there, it shifts into inventive psychological expressionism. The film’s point of view actually comes from Tim, the jealous brother who is freaking out: Nursery-room pastels are used for an effervescent nightmare. Unlike the Toy Story films, McGrath explores a child’s heightened emotional state, using surreal, constantly scene-shifting modes.

 

As The Boss Baby morphs in and out of assorted illustration styles (goofy, scary, even downright cartoony skits), it demonstrates the resourceful resilience of Tim’s imagination. At one point, figures move with levers attached like pull-and-tug children’s books. Much more than a digital-animation jamboree, this stylistic range is key to Tim’s development; he achieves zany empathy with his baby brother (a reminder of his own recent infancy) and thus realizes his role in the family’s dynamic.

Yes, there’s a political parallel in this plot, and here is why Baldwin’s casting is destructive: The obnoxious, domineering character of the Boss Baby (depicted as a big-bottomed suit-and-tie business executive) is so similar to Baldwin’s persona in the TV series 30 Rock that, like his recent odious impersonations of President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, it is impossible to separate the actor’s art from the actor’s hate.

Baldwin’s tabloid exploits are outside my purview, but the aversion that many people (including some NRO readers) have to Baldwin’s repellent Saturday Night Live “political satire” can be legitimately justified as intellectual and aesthetic disgust. Baldwin’s snarling, slobbering routines overshoot any political point and then sink into ad hominem malice. The mainstream media’s dutiful re-broadcasts of these SNL smear tactics each week, as if they were “breaking news,” not only confirms media bias but hastens the perverse transformation of reporting into editorializing.

During the Bush II era, Baldwin rescued his faltering career by shifting from handsome rake to plucky comic, but now his one-sided, “unpresidential” political stunts discredit his craft. (Where’s the “empathy” that actors so often claim?) Going from court jester to hitman is a different kind of shape-shifting than the kaleidoscopic mood changes that portray Tim Templeton’s domestic fright. Note how director McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers replace those old storks-and-cabbage-patch folk myths for Pixar-shiny metaphor with a dark side: Boss Baby is not “made from love,” as Stevie Wonder sang, but comes from an exaggerated combination of corporate manufacturing and capitalist marketing. Yet the spoof of middle-class consumerist cynicism has not been thought through. This year’s animated French film My Life as a Zucchini went even deeper into the private needs of family life than did The Royal Tenenbaums. By comparison, The Boss Baby is shallow.

A conceptual fantasy about a grasping, needy child suggests some aspect of postpartum panic; it’s not so far from the selfish, mean-spirited bawling of post-election crybabies. And our awareness of Baldwin’s SNL scurrility stinks up the film’s genial family humor. Thus, The Boss Baby suffers from the cultural crisis in which celebrities take sides — petitioning one political group while showing contempt for another. This anti-democratic gamesmanship makes even shallow entertainment difficult to abide.

Fortunately, few major artists besides Spielberg and De Niro strain our tolerance for such brazen political petulance; Baldwin is among the vapid upstarts like Jimmy Kimmel who, here, voices Tim’s father (the animation of that doofus character looks like MSNBC court jester Joe Scarborough). These celebrities jeopardize their potential as effective performers. They make enemies instead of making art. Even animated films were more fun when we didn’t know the actors’ political prejudices — and their prejudices weren’t so hateful.

*****

Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker go from irony to irony in Karl Marx City, a “conspirative” documentary full of interviews plus deliberately reenacted filmmaking gestures. They research the mysterious suicide of Epperlein’s father in the German town that Soviets named after Marx, but they also seek to resolve that tragic mystery in the history of the Stasi, the secret police of the German Democratic Republic whose surveillance of its own people created a culture of total paranoia. The peak irony is the film’s release at this moment of American history, when government surveillance is revealed as a tool used by proponents of the progressive and Socialist principles that entrapped Germany since its partition in 1949. Will patrons of this fascinating and exasperating film note this ultimate irony, or will they continue believing the uniquely American political fantasy that only the enemy insists on power and control?

 

Epperlein and Tucker, the married duo who made the 2004 Iraq War film Gunner Palace, expand nonfiction techniques into showy ruminations. Real surveillance material mixed with their own black-and-white footage, including the overdone motif of Epperlein roaming her hometown carrying a large microphone as if it were a divining rod, makes for thin history but becomes commentary on itself. Epperlein and Tucker lament a people “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.” The definitive irony is Karl Marx City’s evocation of the great b&w silent films of Fritz Lang (Spies, Metropolis, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), which were themselves divining rods of German paranoia between the world wars. Lang’s underappreciated masterpieces also predicted the fear and suspicion that contemporary filmmakers haven’t yet grasped, except as irony.

— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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