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Escapism? And Why Not?

Every so often I go to see a movie that’s very “low-probability,” one about which I’m really pessimistic. Sometimes the bet pays off – and the new movie Inferno is a good example.

I was highly skeptical about it, for two reasons: 1) I don’t like Ron Howard’s movies generally. 2) This particular Ron Howard movie is getting abysmal reviews – the Rotten Tomatoes average rating is 20 percent, a low level not often reached except by films that are deliberately schlocky.

But Inferno is actually a competent thriller. Its plot is similar to that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the good guys are working against the clock to prevent the unleashing of a global plague – and the not-so-incidental pleasures are also reminiscent of the James Bond series. The film is set in three very beautiful cities – Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. Part of the joy of movies, even in the 21st century, is travelogue, and this one takes full advantage of its great locations. The art history in the film is intellectually interesting without being very “difficult”; Tom Hanks is his reliably Jimmy Stewart-ish self; and the female characters, even the villains, are intriguing and likable (Felicity Jones and Sidse Babett Knudsen are good in the lead female roles, and Ana Ularu manages to be cute as, basically, an assassin). Irrfan Khan is charming as a bad guy–turned–good guy. And Ben Foster is effective as the main villain, in a very unusual way for screen actors – he underplays the part.* As a result, the audience manages to understand the bad guy, and sympathize with him to some extent, while never being in doubt that his plan is actually evil and insane.

I’ve never been to Florence, Venice, or Istanbul, and I feel richer for what I’ve seen of them in this film. There’s an unrealistic plot twist, but it’s undeniably a surprising one. Overall, Inferno is a great way to spend a couple of hours.

* Actors love to play villains because of the opportunities for scenery-chewing. One of my all-time favorite experiences as a viewer/critic was – no joke – seeing an old rerun of the TV show NCIS in which the villain was a woman who had engineered a brilliant murder conspiracy. The actress was laugh-out-loud funny in her over-the-top portrayal. She wasn’t famous then, and isn’t now; I found her e-mail address and sent her a note about the fun she appeared to be having. She confirmed my suspicion – it had been a great experience. I love that stuff, but I have to give credit where credit is due: Ben Foster doesn’t look like he’s “having fun” as the villain in Inferno, but his performance is a success in an entirely different way.

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