Summer is here and not a moment too soon for the studios, if reports by the trades are reliable. Every spring for the last decade, the movies’ dismal returns are parsed for explanations ranging from marketing to demographics, with the possibility that maybe the movies are just bad never taken into account—until this year, when the executives finally blamed the movies by default, having exhausted the other excuses. As it happens, this spring the movies were pretty good if not entirely successful, which Hollywood regards as an oxymoron. The season was marked by a number of sleek and smart thrillers like Source Code and The Lincoln Lawyer, many of them arguments for the unquantifiable nature of stardom: If not the revelation that Matt Damon proved to be in the Bourne trilogy, Matthew McConaughey unveiled an actual screen personality as Lincoln’s flamboyant attorney; and shrewdly assessing that her leading lady days may be past, given the expiration date Hollywood puts on a woman’s career at the advanced age of 42, Cate Blanchett in Hanna was the most memorable female villain since Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton. For that matter, The Adjustment Bureau demonstrated that Damon, as a disenchanted politico battling the designs of fate for Emily Blunt’s love, may grow up to be Gene Hackman, who’s never bad and makes any picture better. Then there was Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
Cooper has a new movie out for summer, The Hangover Part II, in which he bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bradley Cooper of The Hangover, which is to say the Bradley Cooper none of us can stand. Cooper is good-looking in that impossibly well-tended way, as though a computer assembled him—not merely shallow but aggressively vapid, narcissism bubbling up as nihilism. He first came to attention some years ago in the spy show Alias, where the women ran all over him (to be fair, his character was supposed to be out of his depth), then was almost too perfectly cast in Wedding Crashers by a director who clearly couldn’t stand him either, no matter what he might say otherwise. Cooper’s loathsomeness as an evil, overgrown frat boy trying to marry his way into a powerful political family and emotionally abusing his betrothed in the process was indelible enough that it’s a wonder he’s gotten to play anyone likable since, assuming The Hangover counts (not to mention The A-Team)—though as far as I can tell, the guy in The Hangover is the same guy from Wedding Crashers, albeit a few curveballs in life later.
In such circumstances when an actor’s type seems fixed, a turn like Cooper’s in Limitless can’t help having a star-is-born quality about it. One of the year’s best performances so far, it’s a good example (Natalie Portman in Black Swan is another) of how the right actor surprising us in the right role can lift pulp to another level, in this case rather ironically because again Cooper has been typecast: A struggling writer takes a drug that allows him to access all the brain’s unoccupied real estate and thereby become as slick, smug, and arrogant as Cooper has always seemed. But Cooper effectively conveys the cracked panic that sets in once the drug wears off, and more impressive, you believe him as a guy who’s smarter than the five smartest people you know combined; high finance, geopolitical complexities, and Mandarin roll off the tongue of someone who didn’t just work really hard memorizing his lines but understands everything he’s saying. He also holds his own against Robert De Niro. Cooper may be back to vapidity in The Hangover Part II, but after Limitless, it doesn’t have the same conviction. He’s hit the reset button of our perceptions, and suddenly his career has veered to the interesting, even the unpredictable.
What’s happened to HBO? More than any network, it was responsible for the showbiz maxim du jour that if film is a director’s medium, television has become the writer’s, with few better cases in point than its hat trick of Davids: The Sopranos’ Chase, Deadwood’s Milch, and The Wire’s Simon. I have no idea how the network spends its money, but HBO’s energies these past few years seem in the service of concepts, production values, and the license to get away with what it can. I’m all for getting away with what one can in art; not only the libertine in me but the aesthete believes that True Blood’s wall-to-wall copulation is a good thing for TV specifically and popular culture generally, even as it’s become True Blood’s lazy way of holding our attention, with concept—the vampire story’s 200 years of implicit sex made explicit—trumping narrative. But we saw the same principle at work last year in Boardwalk Empire, where the concept was The Sopranos as a period drama, providing Steve Buscemi a lavish setting in which to be an unlikely leading man, while plotting and dialogue felt lifted from superior precedents like The Godfather, GoodFellas, and Miller’s Crossing.
If this spring’s splendid Mildred Pierce was the exception proving the rule, Game of Thrones is the rule that renders Pierce an exception. Thrones’ concept is The Lord of the Rings for grown-ups with a dash of True Blood, overgrown and undergrown elves getting it on at least two or three times an hour. The storytelling is confounding, however, with things you don’t care about being too complicated and things you do care about not being complicated enough, and after six hours I can’t say with certainty that I have a clue what’s going on, beyond a general sense of who wears the white cowls and who wears the black. The fusillade of talk doesn’t clear up much or bring poetry to the proceedings or transcend the overwrought (when one of the characters becomes pregnant, she’s been “blessed by the Great Stallion”). The series is scripted by David Benioff, who wrote Spike Lee’s most underrated movie, The 25th Hour, and D.B. Weiss, author of the smart cult novel Lucky Wander Boy, and they’ve negotiated as well as anyone could the labyrinthine terrain of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire on which the show is based. But all the great stallions of the Seven Kingdoms can’t make it resonant, and ambition steamrolls first comprehension, then engagement.
Taking place in some Nordic-looking hinterland where all the seasons are out of whack, Game of Thrones is the most aggressive example since Battlestar Galactica of a genre that’s perceived as adolescent aspiring to be fully adult. When I got to the four-naked-hookers-and-a-dwarf scene 20 minutes in, I knew that, fantasy or not, the series isn’t for my 13-year-old, though I can’t swear it’s nothing he’s seen before. Over on another network, another boys’ fable, Camelot, got another reboot, pushing as far as it could an envelope that more than a decade ago HBO became notorious for shredding. But merits and flaws aside, I find myself wondering whether adults are resistant to historical fantasy by nature; Game of Thrones is HBO’s series of yore, Rome, with a shot of the supernatural, and the superior Rome barely lasted two seasons. Vampires are one thing—they always were a metaphor for grown-up lust until the Twilight movies claimed them in the name of adolescent yearning—but so-called sword and sorcery, including Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian novels and Frank Frazetta’s lush and libidinous paintings of Tarzan and Vampirella that distill the genre’s spirit better than any text, always has been for people my son’s age. If Tolkien is fantasy at its most literate, the conflicts still are mythic, which is to say archetypal, which is to say childlike in their moral innocence if not necessarily childish.
A modern fascination with the fantastic seems to come along every couple of generations, usually at a point when we’re future saturated. Fantasy is to literature what religion is to philosophy, and in the tumult of the ’60s, Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels, written a couple of decades earlier during World War II, were embraced by a hippie counterculture for whom the 20th century’s machinations represented oppression. What’s interesting about the new adult fantasy, if in fact such a genre is at hand, is how it’s at once a response to new technology and a manifestation of the libertarian anarchy the same technology represents, bypassing the streets and beaming right into our houses. The Dionysus of Game of Thrones is persuasive but not the Apollo; and the idealism inherent in fantasy from the fairyland of The Wizard of Oz to the spacecapades of Star Wars has so given way to brutish sensuality that, as with True Blood’s erotica, Thrones should surrender to its exploitative nature and stop bothering us with all this stuff about warring medieval families. More dwarf orgies, please.
Halfway through Thrones it’s not clear if it will be for Peter Dink-lage the star-making opportunity that Limitless was for Bradley Cooper, but while we wait to find out, Dink-lage steals the series and then picks it clean. In the face of fantasy’s aversion to the psychological contradictions that distinguish great characters—from Ahab to Tony Soprano—paradoxically Dinklage, the raging little person of 2003’s The Station Agent and Thrones’ so-called imp, is the one thing that feels mature. We’re never sure what he’s up to and we’re not sure he’s sure, but we see him sorting his way through the moral implications of his intrigues and self-loathing, nature’s great joke at the expense of his physiology, and perhaps a barely suspected capacity for nobility, maybe even heroism. The show comes so much to life when Dinklage appears in all his wit, doubt, and charisma that his absences become more conspicuous. Damned if I may not have to watch the rest of Thrones just to find out what he does. Besides, beyond the shores of Westeros lie the stupefying cineplexes of a new movie season, with Thor (Marvel’s worst character), Captain America, Green Lantern, X-Men, Transformers, Caribbean pirates, and Conan himself. Look at the bright side: It’s only three months. In Game of Thrones, summer lasts a decade.
Photograph courtesy Warner Bros.