The Shellfish Heart
What to watch this weekend: Reviews of "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" and "Mr. Malcolm's List." Plus: Recent theatrical releases on VOD.
The Nut Graf: “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (in theaters, *** stars out of ****) turns viral-video whimsy into an unexpectedly moving snail-out-of-water tale. Generic Jane Austen, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” (in theaters, ** out of ****) is an acceptable diversion for audiences suffering “Bridgerton” withdrawal.
First, though, here’s a heads up about some theatrical movies I’ve enjoyed over the past few months that are now available for streaming, either at temporary “premium on-demand” prices ($19.99, still cheaper than two multiplex tickets) or at standard rental rates of $1.99 to $5.99. Link in title is to my original review.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” — One of 2022’s very best movies to date and a semi-crazed love letter to Michelle Yeoh, it’s so far available online only to buy at $19.99 — look for that to change in coming weeks — but I can’t think of a movie this year that better rewards repeat viewings.
And for those seeking the most schizophrenic double-bill of all time, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is available at premium VOD prices, as is David Cronenberg’s darkly kinky “Crimes of the Future.” Past comfort and future shock — enjoy.
For a stop-motion mollusk with a googly eye and a piece of pet lint on a string, Marcel the Shell has shown staying power. That goes double in an online culture at 7,000 rpm, jettisoning yesterday’s viral sensation as soon as it wakes up to check the phone for today’s. So it’s with some surprise and pleasure that I report that the feature-film version of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” not only retains the wifty charm of the 2010 YouTube short from which it grew but takes on rich additional shades of grace and melancholy. Even at 89 minutes the movie’s overlong, but in its gentle humor and wistfulness for a world of reconnection, it’s a genuine tonic.
And it gives us an unexpected comedy team in Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini, both giving voice to wee shell-creatures (above) that live in in the crevices and corners of an AirBnB rented out by Dean Fleischer-Camp, who directed “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and in the film’s little meta-world is making a documentary about these creatures he found residing there. Marcel once had an entire extended family of sentient bivalves, but they’ve been dispersed to the winds and the tides; only Grandma Connie (Rossellini) is left, and she hasn’t been the same since she fell and cracked her shell. The movie addresses themes of loneliness and belonging, the families we lose and the families we make, with a deft pastel wonder that somehow avoids cloying over the long haul. It’s also sweetly funny, in large part because of Slate’s nuanced vocal performance. Marcel was born in the aftermath of the comedian getting axed from “Saturday Night Live,” when she tried to dispel the doldrums by coming up with a teeny-weeny voice to make then-boyfriend Fleischer-Camp laugh. The voice became embodied in a shell, the shell became the star of a short film, then two more, and now, after 12 years of promises, we have a feature. (In the interim, Slate and Fleischer-Camp were married and divorced. Thankfully, they’ve remained on good terms and have continued to share joint custody of Marcel.)
Another critic has called “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” a “thinking-child’s movie” – a small but resilient genre that includes Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and the films of Hayao Miyazaki – and while that’s as good a description as any, I’d also observe that the film speaks to the thinking child in any feeling adult. Marcel reminds us of when we were small – or when it seemed that way – and saw our families dispersing, and the film, gossamer as it is, leaves space to listen to the wind in the trees with an appreciation of what leaves and what stays. Against all odds, it’s a little piece of magic.
Another theatrical premiere this weekend, “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” is the latest ersatz “Pride and Prejudice” to be wheeled out for your consumption: Call it Jane Faux-sten and maybe call the lawyers. It’s not as bad as “Sanditon,” the 2019 BBC/PBS series that was actually based on Austen’s unfinished final novel but was as chowderheaded a piece of pledge-week bait as ever got greenlit. Instead, “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” adapted by Suzanne Allain from her novel and directed by Emma Holly Jones, is as agreeably bad as Netflix’s popular series “Bridgerton,” which is a prime-time soap in Empire dress-up but at least knows it and is thus available to be enjoyed for what it is. Like “Bridgerton,” the new film comes with non-traditional casting, which is fine – a lot of good actors get opportunities they might not have otherwise, and the tactic dispenses with the issue of historical accuracy right out of the gate, freeing “List” to take place in a well-appointed fantasy version of 1818 England – Austenland (itself the title of a pretty terrible 2013 satire).
The early scenes of “Mr. Malcolm’s List” are dreadful: Stiff acting and forced period banter while the filmmakers fill the screen with production design: Hats! Finery! Feathers! Hansoms! Then the plot machinery takes over and you strap in just to see how everything turns out in the end. It’s the story of a country mouse and a city pussycat: The latter, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), is a London society queen, vain and not terribly bright, and she can’t win over the town’s most eligible bachelor, Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), whose pride (nudge, nudge) is evident in the list he keeps of the ten qualifications any future Mrs. Malcolm must possess. Aiming to humble him, Julia brings her old boarding school friend Selena Dalton (Freida Pinto) from out of the countryside up to London, and enlists her in a plan to check off every item on Mr. Malcolm’s List and then spurn him. The twist is that the gentle, intelligent Selena already fills the bill, and the first scenes between Pinto and Dirisu are charged with a shy heat that’s rather delightful — it’s nice to see Pinto as more than romantic support for once, and in a role that’s in her narrow but empathetic range. Complications must intervene or the movie would be over in 30 minutes, and enter Theo James, wiping his brow in relief from escaping “Sanditon,” as a rascally officer and rival for Selena’s affections. And so on.
The movie warms itself into a decent guilty pleasure, and if you’re a hard-core “Bridgerton” fan, this will almost certainly be your plate of stuffed partridges. My issue with Jane Faux-sten movies and TV shows is that they lack – nor are they really interested in – Austen’s actual comedy of manners, with its multi-leveled dialogue in which wisdom is imparted under the guise of innocence and fools can be disemboweled with a smile. They’re all text and little subtext and even less of the tough-minded moral clarity – the valuing of kindness in an unkind world – that makes the novels so profound. Instead, these productions are selling romance novels with high waistlines, and why not? Everyone’s buying.
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