Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed: JUMP TOMORROW

(Note: I originally published this over at Mobius Home Video Forum in 2004, for a column I used to do there called An Incomplete Education, whose archive got wiped out in one of Mobius's transitions. It came up on Twitter recently, so I thought I'd dust off the column. If anyone cares, I might dig more of these out.)

Niagara Falls is the love capital of America, and it's also the suicide capital. It's a place where unlikely, extraordinary, banal, and horrible things happen. If a screenwriter wrote a climactic scene where the character jumped off of Niagara Falls, unaided, and lived, they'd be laughed out of the room when they presented the script. Except, of course, that it happened in real life. Extremes, implausibilities: these are the currency of Niagara Falls.

JUMP TOMORROW is a road trip movie to Niagara Falls, and fully embodies the spirit of its destination, in the deepest sense. I've read people who criticized the film - scathingly, even - for its failures in realism and over-the-top caricatures of characterization. No doubt, JUMP TOMORROW is replete with unlikely turns of plot based on coincidence and characters who so fully embody cultural stereotypes as to seem fully implausible.

But such a criticism misses the point. Yes, we do have a crazy Frenchman who falls in love at the drop of a hat, creates elaborate wedding proposals, and even has an Eiffel Tower statuette on his dashboard. Is this lazy characterization? Not to the end it's used: without giving anything away, the ending for this character is simultaneously happy and non-obvious. More pointedly, it's what happens when a man living in a myth must firmly, finally, deal reality. (Not unlike the shot, late in the film, where the characters drive by a seemingly abandoned amusement park, left to the elements.)

The themes of myths (and by this I mean contemporary romantic myths - see the frequent references to Telemundo in the film for other examples) hitting hard up against reality are the bread and butter of this film, in fact. An early central scene plays out in a "love hotel" of sorts, where every room is absurdly decked out with everything from vibrating beds to champagne-glass bubble baths. It's the sort of room where one's fantasies are supposed to play out.

What happens instead, of course, is simultaneously amusing and painfully accurate. Our fantasies never play out the way we imagine them, and while there's some cheap laughs extracted from the way they don't play out, the larger point shouldn't be missed, either. Magic is supposed to happen here, and it doesn't.

(The next two paragraphs give away the ending, albeit in vague terms, though a lot of this movie is about the quest rather than the destination, so you decide whether you want to deal with said SPOILER.) The jaded viewer, of course, will see this as an obvious and cheap feint towards an end where true, uncommercialized love comes to the fore. While it could be characterized that way, the ending is not what we'd really expect from such a story. At first, everything goes the way we expect it, and then we wait for what we know has to happen, how we're sure this movie will end, the true romantic catharsis. And then the movie ends, depriving us entirely of what we've come to expect.

Instead, personally, I got something more richer: I got something that felt real. The myth of love is that a film ends with a romantic embrace "happily ever after", and we imagine our couple in perpetual bliss forever. The reality is much less elegant. It's clumsy, and it's uncertain. It's difficult and messy and rarely truly successful, no matter how glorious and achingly romantic that kiss in front of Niagara Falls may have been, and if your eyes are open to the decay behind you, at first you may feel cognitive dissonance. But if you come to realize that that's the flip side of the coin, that you don't get the beautiful myth without the messy reality that goes with it, you're in better shape than most, and maybe that's why the superficially disappointing ending of this film leaves me happier and more optimistic than any number of soft-focus dissolves to "THE END" ever could. Or, for that matter, any plot twist we might see on Telemundo.

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