Culture

A Laddish Hero Earns His Crown in King Arthur

Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Warner Bros.)
A sensitive woman lives the good life in Paris Can Wait, and Amy Schumer disgusts in Snatched.

Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword first looks like a video game, then it borrows from assorted action-adventure films — Gladiator, 300, Lord of the Rings — as if genre imitation was necessary to hold the audience’s interest in British legend and history. This quite silly emphasis on fantasy confirms that most gamers and filmgoers today know as little about medieval history as they do about contemporary civics. Both disciplines are currently in disarray, so Ritchie’s King Arthur addresses the mess by making a cultural collage.

Modern politics — as well as essential, unchanging human personality — come into play in Ritchie’s historical, action-adventure extravaganza. After Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has fought his battles and just consolidated his governing council, he gives warning to the Norse envoy Greybeard (Mikael Persbrandt): “Why have enemies when you can have friends?” The surprisingly witty scene is entertainingly pertinent to our changing — and challenging — global moment.

Ritchie replaces the Arthurian romanticism handed down from Malory and T. H. White, Camelot and John Boorman’s Excalibur, with his own Laddish impudence. While the dialogue is modern, urban vulgate — dismissing with “Thous,” “arts,” and “forsooths” — the spirit is authentic. “Oi!” and “You big silly posh bastard!” are national history and modern civics as Brits are living it now. Given the woeful absence of credible political humor in pop culture, King Arthur’s impudent mirth fills the gap with topical parallels that work satirically. It honestly replicates crude, ignorant, uninspired, and non-committed behavior among our politicians and citizenry. Ritchie’s vision is comic — not nihilistic — recognition. It’s as authentic as a Monty Python skit but with a preferable Laddish tone.

King Arthur is precisely what Quentin Tarantino could not do with American history in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. When Arthur rescues a boy who has witnessed his father’s brutalization by the evil usurper Vortigern (Jude Law), the montage connecting savagery, screaming, silence, and escape specifically improves on the carnage of Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino’s sheer sadism lacks the sexy, game-playing frivolity of Ritchie’s violent jamborees. King Arthur ranks with Ritchie’s best antic japes.

We who have been waiting for Ritchie’s waggishly promised sequel to his sleek, stylish RocknRolla (2008) may have to content ourselves with King Arthur. It’s RocknRolla revised as Camelot: egalitarian and postcolonial (multiracial), a muddy, mystically murky, roughly formed society in which Arthur, like other Ritchie heroes, is tutored as a commoner but gains an ethical sense of duty. The redemptive, dreamlike image of Arthur receiving the weighty sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake — both suspended in time, both underwater — pays rightful homage to Boorman’s visually exquisite 1981 epic. It reimagines royalty as honor that is earned, respect that is acquired through virtue and courage.

This fantasy history might seem as remote as the Middle Ages are from today’s berserk political correctness, yet at its core it is a romantic ideal — impressively embodied by Hunnam (now liberated from the nonsense of The Lost Island of Z).

Arthur’s first use of the sword Excalibur might be the best battle scene in any Arthurian movie since Boorman’s — the sword vanquishes but it also vibrates, endowing its bearer with obligation. This weightiness refines Arthur’s rascality. There’s a natural resemblance to young Prince Hal carousing with Falstaff, just as Orson Welles dramatized in Chimes at Midnight. This appreciation of wild youth incubating in the British monarchy is key to Ritchie’s instinct that lad culture is connected to a Tory heritage — reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s cover image for Roxy Music’s timeless, chivalrous make-out album Avalon. All that, plus Hunnam — with his chin-up, goateed, regal profile — knows how to wear a crown.

*****

I once shocked readers by telling an interviewer that no one should make movies before age 40. Eleanor Coppola’s Paris Can Wait backs me up. At age 81, she dramatizes her own circumstance: Diane Lane plays Anna, the wife of a world-famous filmmaker, who submits to being escorted across Europe by one of her husband’s business associates, Jacques (the ardent Arnaud Viard). While holding her marriage together, Anna holds her own. This film also accounts for a woman’s underappreciated taste and sensitivity to the world, art, and life. Paris Can Wait is a testament to maternal patience, waiting to make a movie only when you know something about life.

The young Coppola filmmakers (Eleanor’s son Roman, daughter Sofia, and granddaughter Gia) either err or succeed with self-absorption. Privilege has given them a particular perspective on the big issues. Eleanor is detail-oriented about the small things (decorum), which implies wisdom if not great significance. (She’s interested in the world around her as the bored princess of Lost in Translation was not.)

Class privilege is the real subject of Paris Can Wait, typified when a chauffeur is completely cut out of Anna’s first lengthy scene inside a limousine. From there, Anna’s continental feast — stopping at fine hotels, great restaurants, markets, and the Lumière Museum in Lyon — is a tour of the high life. Lane’s best film performance ever features a woman’s subtle knowingness about fending off amatory male aggression.

Eleanor Coppola’s style is all about life comfortably viewed from the sidelines — a ruinous trait in young Sofia but quaintly indirect here. The privilege of privilege sees life in terms of art, as with Anna’s obsessive snapshots or in her effort to relate her own experiences to Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Danse à Bougival (1883) and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862).

The Coppolas en famille personalize their productions in an art-movie tradition. They’re not socially engaged like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s family of cineastes operating under the title Makhmalbaf Film House that produced such politically profound landmarks as The President, The Gardener, and The Day I Became a Woman. Eleanor Coppola’s first fiction feature doesn’t rise to the Makhmalbaf level, but it is a pleasant diversion that helps contextualize the recent movies by her offspring. It’s good to be a Coppola.

*****

Snatched, the new skanky-titled Amy Schumer film, is recommended to all Black Lives Matter lemmings. With their childish sense of racist oppression, they aren’t smart enough to recognize how their white liberal enablers — such media folk as comedienne Schumer — live, work, and prosper according to an unacknowledged social law. More than Netflix’s Dear White People series, Snatched offers BLM believers a chance for enlightenment about ethnic-political privilege.

In Snatched, Schumer plays Emily, daughter to Goldie Hawn’s Linda. Mother and child embark together on a bachelorette romp (consolation for Schumer’s recent dumping by an Asian boyfriend) that turns into an international incident. Their dilemma is less like Taken, more like Outrageous Fortune, the low-brow Bette Midler–Shelley Long vehicle from the ’80s.

But only Hawn and director Jonathan Levine impart a humane context. Hawn’s career blossomed at the cusp of feminism, before feminism became an excuse for obsessive personal selfishness of the type that Schumer celebrates this millennium. Not even Levine’s adolescent sensitivity is enough to undo Schumer’s obnoxiousness. Schumer has created a grating persona that lacks decency, trust, and charm. Like Lena Dunham, she verges on indulging the implicit misogyny of producers Paul Feig and Judd Apatow. Her shtick is part doormat, part douche.

Yet Schumer suffers no social stigma no matter how relentlessly she portrays spoiled, disgusting, self-involved, ignorant, blue-eyed, blonde, white girls — that’s the oppression Black Lives Matter kids cannot articulate. They need to learn that in today’s politicized popular culture — to paraphrase Mel Brooks’s satire of Western hegemony in History of the World, Part One — “It’s good to be a Schumer.”

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