What’s Up With the Cult of Michel Gondry?

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Michel Gondry

Sony Pictures got the online masses talking when they released the first trailer from the upcoming Seth Rogen/Michel Gondry flick, The Green Hornet based on the 1960s television series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee. To say the trailer was polarizing would be an understatement. People either loved it or they hated it and if online forums were any indication there were far more haters than people who loved it.

Typical was this post from the colorfully named Leadbelly Schoenberg on IMDB:

Just saw the trailer, and man, if the film manages to capture just one-tenth of the wretchedness in that, we will truly be baring witness to a new era in Hollywood. For no longer will people be talking about John Travolta and Battlefield Earth or Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate. Michael Gondry and Seth Rogen will have eclipsed them all with this piece of mind-numbing trash.

There has been a lot of bad juju and second guessing regarding the Seth Rogen vehicle ever since the Canadian-born actor was tapped to write, produce and star as the dashing Britt Reid. The Green Hornet has been pushed back twice and there are rumors the brass at Sony Pictures are trying to bury the film. A January 2011 release doesn’t exactly speak to the contrary.

The one thing the defenders of the film point to is the involvement of Michel Gondry. According to this line of thinking the Gallic helmer’s involvement alone will make the whole venture worthwhile.

The problem is the trailer didn’t look like the kind of groundbreaking film these rabid Gondry fans promised everyone they’d get when he signed on to direct. I’m not sure what a Gondry film is supposed to look like, but apparently the Green Hornet trailer isn’t it.

Jay Chou and Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet
Photo: Columbia Pictures

There were two threads running in the online forums regarding Gondry this week. One made the point this was the first trailer and didn’t accurately demonstrate what the film will look like when it’s released. There is some merit to this argument. Most early trailers are cut from material that may not even make the final cut. And in this case the filmmakers are still working out some of the special FX; including the much discussed Kato-vision and a conversion to 3D.

The other thread argued the studio didn’t let Gondry do “his thing” and that’s why the trailer looked so flat. Those suits at Sony are holding Gondry back. They’re not allowing this visionary artist to do his best work. They’re keeping the man down!

I had another thought. I think the trailer looks flat because it’s a Michel Gondry film. It looks pedestrian because Gondry isn’t a very good filmmaker. I believe the Green Hornet will tank precisely because it is directed by Michel Gondry.

I know. I know. How could I say such a thing? Gondry’s not just good. “He’s brilliant!” the fans will say. They’ll point to his music videos as a validation of his immense talent. He’s a visual genius they say. I agree. Gondry’s music videos are small gems. He makes great short films comparable to the work of any video artist showing at the Whitney Biennial.

But what about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Wasn’t that a wonderful film?

To be honest I’m not the biggest fan of Eternal Sunshine. I thought it was a basic rom-com dressed up with a lot of hocus pocus to make it seem deeper than it really was. It’s Bridget Jones’ Diary for the hipster crowd. It was well made, however, and connected with its intended audience.

But what about Gondry’s other films?

I question whether any of these so-called Gondry fans have even seen his other flicks. You certainly couldn’t tell from his box-office totals. According to Box Office Mojo Gondry’s biggest film to date is Eternal Sunshine with a whopping $34 million domestic and $38 million foreign. That might seem like a lot of money until you consider Jim Carrey was a major star at the time. Gondry’s other films have scored considerably less than that. Including films starring Jack Black and Dave Chappelle.

I have seen Gondry’s feature films. I’m one of the few people that actually saw Human Nature in a theater. I went to see it because it had a Charlie Kaufman script and it starred the former lead singer from Super Furry Animals. How bad could it be? I’ll tell you how bad. It was excruciatingly bad. One of the worst film experiences I have ever had in a theater and I go to a lot of movies. I saw both Honey and Crossroads at the two-dollar theater near my house.

I know bad films.

Alain Chabat and Gael Garcia Bernal in The Science of Sleep
Photo: Warner Independent Pictures

The Science of Sleep. How about Put Me To Sleep? And I’m a huge Charlotte Gainsbourg fan. I fell in love with her in the Cement Garden and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her father was a god for crying out loud. But I couldn’t get through it.

Then there’s Be Kind Rewind. What can I say about Be Kind Rewind? Sixth graders using a Hi-8 camera have made better films. That movie was simply unwatchable. I know because I was trapped on a plane flying back from Europe and I had to shut it off. I watched a “Cheers” rerun instead.

People criticize Sofia Coppola for Marie Antoinette but that film is Citizen Kane compared to some of Gondry’s films. Plus Sofia made Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides. Other people attack Wes Anderson and say he’s played out. But I would argue Fantastic Mr. Fox was more visually inventive than anything Gondry’s done in the feature film arena.

Heck, I’ll go farther and defend Michael Bay’s oeuvre when compared to Monsieur Gondry. The first Transformers movie was far more believable than anything I witnessed in Be Kind Rewind. Plus he got a better performance out of Megan Fox than Gondry did out of Jack Black. That’s no mean feat.

I don’t understand all the fuss. I really don’t. Perhaps it’s simply a vocal minority I’ve been listening to, but it still seems anytime I turn around and a Gondry project is mentioned unadulterated praise is quick to follow.

When I saw the Green Hornet trailer this week I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. I wasn’t under whelmed or disappointed. It was exactly the film I thought it would be. A Michel Gondry movie.