Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ed Wood Provides A Thoughtful Ode To The Man Behind Plan 9 From Outer Space

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is a filmmaker. Or at least he will be. Right now, in the year 1952, he just writes and directs plays that barely anyone sees, but nobody has a can-do spirit like Ed Wood, yes sir. He's constantly pitching his ideas for movies to anyone in Hollywood who will listen to him and, wouldn't you know it, he's finally got his shot! He's supposed to direct a movie that will eventually turn into Glen or Glenda and it's the feature that establishes the precedent for what kind of films Ed Wood will direct throughout his entire career: cheaply made, full of continuity errors and full of creative passion. Maybe people don't like his movies, but Ed Woods love making them and that's what drives him as an artist.

Director Tim Burton loves his stories about societal outcasts and Ed Wood is certainly no exception to that pattern. But Burton typically explores such characters through heightened means, Edward Scissorhands, for instance, is an obviously unrealistic figure meant to be a stand-in for those who feel different. With Ed Wood, Burton makes perhaps his most grounded film as a filmmaker and in doing so, strips away the symbolism and explores real-life individuals and communities that are actually ostracized by people at large in the real world, most notably cross-dressers. Though it's far outside of his typical comfort zone as a director, this sort of realistic space is one that allows him to deliver something truly extraordinary.

Ed Wood, as a character, doesn't stand out because of, say, his proclivity for women's clothing, rather, screenwriting duo Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski have made the brilliant decision to have Ed Wood constantly speak and behave in a manner that embodies broad caricatures of old-timey optimism that immediately sets him apart from the rest of the cast who are all acting like normal people. Ed Wood has got such youthful gumption and buoyancy to him that you half-expect him to either open each and every sentence with "Gee willickers!" or constantly coming up with a brilliant idea to save the rec center. Ed Wood, as depicted here, is a highly idiosyncratic creation that would stand out even if everyone else in the story, including people, like Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) who play over-the-top creations for a living, weren't explicitly depicted as all too real human beings.

The juxtaposition between Ed Wood and all the more down-to-Earth individuals around him provides plenty of great comedy, including the first meeting between a starstruck Ed Wood and a morose Bela Lugosi who is preparing for his own demise by way of coffin shopping. But generating comedy from Ed Wood's disposition clashing against reality doesn't mean the movie takes a mocking approach to the iconic filmmaker, on the contrary, one of the film's best features is how genuinely it seems to like the artistic drive that motivated Ed Wood. Instead of using his critically derided movies as a source of mockery, there's a genuinely sweet spirit underpinning Ed Wood's depiction of its titular lead's dedication to making his vision a reality.

Ed Wood the movie see's Ed Wood the director as a scrappy underdog you can't help but root for and root for him you do. This thoughtful and delightful approach to depicting Ed Wood the person, complete with surprisingly deft handling of his penchant for cross-dressing, makes this feature film one that you can get emotionally invested in as well as find plenty of moments of memorable comedy in. Much of the best comedy comes from the hefty amount of sublime supporting performances in the cast, which see the likes of Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray and even a lovely cameo appearance from Orson Welles, here depicted by Vincent D'Onofrio physically and Maurice LaMarche (who else?) vocally.

The best of the supporting performances, without question, is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in a turn that lends beautifully-realized humanity to this depiction of a tormented icon. Meanwhile, our lead performer, Johnny Depp, with nary a funny hat in sight, turns in some of his finest work as a performer in the role of Ed Wood. From his first line of dialogue, Depp takes the endlessly chipper demeanor of his character, a side of Ed Wood that could be impossible to take seriously in the wrong hands, and makes it completely believable. Depp takes the character of Ed Wood and manages the feat of making him both a realistic warts-and-all person and also the human personification of genuine untainted creative passion.

All of the warmth coming through in Depp's take on Ed Wood makes his character richly entertaining to watch, especially since he delivers some incredibly memorable line deliveries that get delightful comedy out of juxtaposing Wood's assured vocals with some truly outrageous creative demands. Depp's lead performance is matched in overall quality by Stefan Czapsky's luscious looking black-and-white cinematography as well as a score by Howard Shore that strikes a fine balance between homaging music of the 1950s and creating its own unique sound. Shore doing the score here also makes this the rare Tim Burton directorial effort to not be scored by Danny Elfman, another way Ed Wood differentiates itself from the majority of the director's filmography. Taking such unorthodox creative steps serves both Burton and the utterly remarkable Ed Wood oh so well, this is an endlessly charming ode to the humanity and creativity of a, for better and for worse, one-of-a-kind filmmaker.

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