News and Commentary – The Magic of the Movies

Finally catching up with Alan J. Pakula’s 1981 paranoid thriller Rollover has us thinking, once again, about the magic of the movies.  Another way of phrasing this question would be: “Why is Rollover so bad?”  But here at Mid Century Cinema, we’re extremely wary of the good/bad thing.  As we emphasized in our review of A. O. Scott’s book, Better Living through Criticism, we’re much more interested, to paraphrase Kasper Gutman in the Maltese Falcon, in talking about movies that are worth talking about.  Moreover, as commentators on the efforts of others, we are also very sensitive to the profound philosophical distance between actor and observer. Or as Lou Reed put it, perfectly, (and with reference to one of the greatest critics in the business), “could you imagine working for a year” making an album and then “you get a B+ from some asshole in the Village Voice?”

Still, the question – regarding Rollover, that is – is an interesting and almost mystical one.  Pakula was a master of this particular type of movie, best known for his “paranoid trilogy”: Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men—each a brilliant and compelling film.  And Rollover would seem to have it all: set in New York City (awesome) and taking on a big, bad institution (global finance), it stars Jane Fonda (under the auspices of her production company), Kris Kristofferson (an effortlessly reliable New Hollywood presence), and pro’s pro Hume Cronyn (who actually comes out of this enterprise unscathed).  There was also an abundance of talent behind the camera as well, including legendary cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and seventies luminaries Michael Small (music) and George Jenkins (production design)—figures associated with some of the best films of the decade. Yet when all was said and done (although parts of the second hour hold attention, and a handful of shots are quite fine), ultimately, as Janet Maslin observed, “the cleverness and proficiency of Mr. Pakula's other work are astonishingly absent here, as are the shrewdness of Miss Fonda's better performances and the easygoing charm of Mr. Kristofferson's.”

Why is that?  There is no answer to this question, and there never will be, and there never should be (though, sadly, I have colleagues who will try and model it formally).  But there are two lessons that are suggested by this particular case. The first has to do with story. Rollover is not well written. The dialogue is pedestrian at best, the story has more plot holes than you can drive proverbial trucks through, and the ending is more than a little silly. Ultimately, then, no matter how much talent is involved, you can’t make a good movie from a bad screenplay, any more than you can make a great wine from inferior grapes. The second has to do with magic. There simply is no spark in Rollover—the characters never come to life, individually, or in their relationships with each other. When a movie works, it works. And you'll never know, until it's up on the screen.    

Hume Cronyn

The Two Best Things in Rollover: Hume Cronyn and New York City