On physical comedy and comic poetry from Keaton to Paddington, goodness as an inspirational force, and Brendan Gleeson falling in love with marmalade
Paddington 2 Warner Bros.
Director: Paul King
Screenplay: Paul King and Simon Farnaby, based on characters created by Michael Bond
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Samuel Joslin, Madeleine Harris and Jim Broadbent
Rated PG / 1 hour, 44 minutes / 2.35:1
January 12, 2018
(out of four)
It would be no stretch at all to suggest that cinema's finest physical comedian at this moment is none other than Paddington the bear. I suppose before the robots take over and surpass us in every category, it's only sensible that a computer-animated creation first get the chance to take the throne once occupied by the likes of Buster Keaton*, Harpo Marx, Donald O'Connor, Lucille Ball, Steve Martin, Stephen Chow, John Cleese, Jackie Chan, Bruce Campbell, Peter Sellers, Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis. I mean, unless Leonardo DiCaprio is going to make more of a habit of that magic he gave us in the Quaaludes scene from The Wolf of Wall Street, the title is Paddington's, fair and square.
* Sorry, Charlie.
I want to make sure I fully appreciate what Paul King and his team of collaborators have given us with Paddington and Paddington 2, which is, among other things, a great comic hero whose elaborate adventures are the closest thing we have, in spirit, to the exploits of the silent comedians of the 1920s. That Paddington is such a uniquely expressive physical "performer" is a minor miracle in and of itself, but what can I say - he's a natural. The way he responds to his environment - human, animal, or otherwise - is a master class in timing and restraint.
I've gotten so used to seeing dead-eyed computer-generated characters over the years that it's practically a shock to see what a valuable component Paddington's eyes are to his overall facial expressiveness. Those eyes are the frozen, anticipatory sideways glance that tends to precede his pratfalls. They are his wide-eyed pause, his inimitable reaction-shot face, his patented "hard stare" that he deploys only on rare occasions. But eyes and otherwise, he is a consistently energetic and even poetic visual presence, as unpredictable as a great improviser, nimbly rearranging the mood and disposition of his surroundings, sweeping everyone and everything along with his every escapade, mishap and whim like a lovable force of nature.
Though you can point to specific characteristics and scenarios that call to mind various silent comics (there's plenty of Chaplin here, too), Paddington seems to be more a spiritual descendant of Keaton than any of his contemporaries. There's a straight line from the "dogs must be carried" bit from the first Paddington back to, say, the "punch clock" gag from Keaton's great short The Playhouse, two moments that exemplify the inherently trusting nature of their protagonists. But beyond that, Paddington embodies the courage, decency and physical indomitability that made Keaton's characters not just memorable but brilliant centerpieces for the unfair, unlucky and often absurd world that enveloped them.
The effectiveness of this CGI bear - as performer, as prop, as running visual commentary - is surely a byproduct of the fact that King is such a great visual communicator. His exquisitely formed compositions - with individual characters often center-framed for comic effect - contain more visual storytelling by themselves than many whole movies.
And that's to say nothing of what he can do when things are in motion. It's possible that the two best-directed chase scenes of the last few years (non-Mad Max: Fury Road division) are both from Paddington movies. In the 2015 original, it was Paddington's pursuit - by foot, by skateboard, by trolley, by umbrella - of a wallet thief; second time around, King matches it with yet another chase of yet another thief, this time highlighted by Paddington flagging down a mangy dog and riding it in hot pursuit of the disguised mystery man who will be his nemesis for the duration of the film. (The chase, needless to say, is unsuccessful; and to add injury to insult, King punctuates the gag with a classic, triumphant, hind-leg rearing Hero Shot ... with Paddington proving to be not such a natural cowboy after all, promptly falling off the back of his canine steed after a perfectly timed delay.)
Those are two examples among many that demonstrate what an outstanding visual-comic artist King is. The sequences he devises often have a dizzying complexity to them, yet seem so simple, so intuitive, in execution. The choreography is convoluted but sensible. His setpieces' boisterous wit briskly transforms into a sense of mischievous, farcical glee. He shows an uncanny ability to use every possible tool at his disposal - all the space within each frame, every object he (or Paddington) can get his hands on, every mode of transportation, every absurd obstacle - and with maximum impact. The similarities to, and almost certain influence of, Wes Anderson is clear - particularly, in this case, The Grand Budapest Hotel - with the two filmmakers sharing a certain storybook quality as well as visual grammar that directly recalls the silent era. (As if to put a fine point on the Keaton parallels, Paddington 2 also features a climactic setpiece set on a train.)
As he did the first time - pitting Paddington against a sexy, embittered taxidermist - King has found the perfect narrative balance between jeopardy and absurdity. Here, the villain is a washed-up actor who's after the same vintage pop-up book that our hero wants to buy for his dear Aunt Lucy. The pop-up book, you see, actually leads to a buried fortune. On account of Phoenix Buchanan's (Hugh Grant) being able to disguise his identity thanks to a career's worth of elaborate costumes, Paddington himself is framed for the crime and lands in jail, where he eventually winds up befriending ... well, just about everyone, but especially the prickly and unapproachable Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the prison chef who takes an unexpected liking to Paddington's marmalade sandwiches.
First of all, I cannot emphasize enough how great Gleeson is in this role. That may go without saying - Gleeson is one of the best on the planet - but the way he commits to this cartoon tough-guy prisoner is really something. He uses every grouchy ounce of his burly, scratchy, scowling, grizzled, singular defense mechanism of a physical frame - he's delightfully terrifying when he's angry - and yet there's that warm sparkle in his eye, that place where you can get into his heart.
That's where Paddington comes in. That's where Paddington always comes in. What may make these movies most unusual and unique among modern movies - and this point is especially underlined in Paddington 2 - is that they're based on the premise that the pure goodness of someone can be infectious. Can change lives for the better. Paddington is that goodness; he's the cheerful, optimistic, endlessly endearing inspiration for betterment and virtue for everyone in his adopted family, his adopted neighborhood, and even his new (temporary) neighbors behind bars.
My only real gripe with Paddington 2 is the title. This is a character and a franchise that should be able to sustain movie after movie, adventure after adventure. It's uniquely equipped to do so (and would be most welcome, so long as King remains at the helm). Can't just go sticking a number at the end of all of them. The studio should lean in to the franchise's episodic roots. Clearly, this one should have been called Paddington Goes to Jail. And there should be more where that came from. Paddington Returns. Paddington Goes to College. Paddington Takes Manhattan. Paddington Gets Lost in the Woods. Paddington Goes Undercover. Paddington in Space. On Her Paddington's Secret Service. Air Paddington. Paddington Goes on a Road Trip. Paddington Goes to White Castle. Paddington Goes to War and Returns a Disheveled Hollowed-Out Shell of Himself and Comes to Terms with the Remorseless Nature of a Violent World and the Dehumanizing Futility of Armed Conflict. Son of Paddington.
I'd see every one of those. And look, I'm not saying that if you don't enjoy the Paddington franchise, you're a bad person ... but I'm not not saying that.