Friday, February 2, 2007

The Last King Of Scotland (Macdonald)

A lot of filmmakers think that if you make a movie on a serious subject, you have to be serious. Babel was a movie like that. It was still a pretty good movie, but I got the sense that a big neon sign was flashing the whole time saying "Tragedy! Tragedy!" The movie never really sucked me up into the story, because I only got to know what the characters were like when they were suffering, and never what they were like when they were happy. You see someone on the screen that's suffering and you think, "Damn, sucks to be them," but after a while it's hard to care. Like Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. I just wanted her to hang already.

On the other hand, if a weird, loopy approach to a serious subject is what you crave, then do I have the movie for you. The Last King of Scotland is about as much fun as a movie about a psychotic dictator could be. It's like some bizarre, left-field fairy tale in reverse. There's a lot of suffering in the movie, I guess, but it's smothered by darkly ironic chuckles. The characters in Babel are trying really hard to be good people. The characters in The Last King of Scotland just want to party.

The film's very title is a good indication of its slightly warped perspective. If the movie is, as you might have heard, about Idi Amin Dada, then why the fuck is it called "The Last King Of Scotland"? You know the filmmakers are up to something. The truth is that the protagonist of the story is not really Amin at all, but actually a young (and clueless) white doctor from Scotland named Nicholas. And when I say clueless, I mean clueless. My guess is that he's slightly under 30, but he has the political knowledge that I might have possessed when I was about...I don't know...16. He goes into his bedroom at the beginning of the movie (having just been toasted by his father for graduating med school), and he spins a globe to see where he'll go practice medicine. On his first spin his finger lands on...Canada. Naw, fuck that. He spins again and hits...Uganda! Yeah. He'll be a hit with all the ladies in Uganda. Young white doctor, are you kidding? You might ask yourself the question, "What kind of idiot would be so dumb as to just waltz into Uganda and become best buddies with Idi Amin Dada almost by accident?" The answer is "This guy."

But Nicholas' reckless stupidity is part of his charm, because he's only as aware of African politics as he was ever required to be. He's just an innocent product of his white middle-class upbringing, convinced that the world is his oyster. I've known people like him my whole life. He's like the cheerful rabbit who happened to stray into the wrong part of the woods. I spent half my time with my jaw on the floor, as Nicholas continued to hurl himself further and further into one blatantly dangerous situation after another. After a while you realize that the kid deserves whatever he gets. In some ways the movie is a dialectic about which character is worse: Amin or the white kid. I think it's a draw. At the very least it's a match made in hell.

Despite threatening to frame the struggles of Africa as a white guy's problems (an issue I'm too lazy to talk about right now), I think having Nicholas as the protagonist helps us appreciate the complexities of the historical situation much better than an alternate approach might have done. Because even though we know the historical facts about Amin, there's still a part of us that wants to believe that guys like him really weren't all that bad. I could almost picture Nicholas on the phone to his mom: "Once you get to know him, he's got a really great sense of humor." The film helps you see how these guys can actually get as far as they do, through the double-pronged combination of their own personal charm and other people's misplaced good faith.

But the first time(!) director Kevin Macdonald manages to raise all these issues without giving us a big fat lecture. On the contrary, he rocks the house down. The movie is kind of like Boogie Nights in Africa, not just in form - there's a lot of terrific 70s Afro-beat on the soundtrack (I only recognized one song, Hugh Masekela's instrument hit "Grazing In The Grass," but that's an awesome song) - but in structure as well, as the good times give way to the bad. But again, Macdonald knows that even the most tense situations have an element of humor; there's a scene where Nicholas walks into Amin's house wondering if he's going to be beaten to death for one indiscretion or another, and he finds Amin sitting in his living room watching Deep Throat. "Tell me Nicholas," he asks the kid, "I want your medical opinion: is it really possible for a woman to have a clitoris in her throat?"

All in all, there's a lot more to the movie than Forest Whitaker's performance, which is said to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar and which is pretty much the only thing that critics have been mentioning about the film. Sure, he kicks ass. I don't actually know anything about acting, of course, but he passes my general standard for good acting, which is: Did I forget he was acting and just simply start thinking of him as the character? The answer is a big fat yes. But the movie as a whole, I thought, was a lot better than some of the other, more celebrated movies of the awards season. Like Babel.

No, The Last King Of Scotland is not the world's most perfect movie. Sometimes the characters reiterate information with dialogue that was already obvious from the action. And once the film's central relationship takes a certain turn, it loses suspense. But at least the movie has the right idea. Lectures are fine once in a while. But better to make the viewer roll around wildly in the filth and the stench of sheer bizarreness.


yoggoth said...

I can't read the last half of this until I see the movie.

Little Earl said...

Should I put in a spoiler warning? I tried not to reveal anything too crucial, but still I know how you feel because if it's a movie I want to see myself, then I'll NEVER read the whole review until after I've seen the movie. Also, you can probably guess what happens anyway. It's like the time someone told me they'd seen Passion of the Christ and I said, "Don't tell me the ending."