After a while the plots of all these movies begin to melt and then run together; all of them are superficially similar to Paige's story--that is, if she had the cognitive powers of, say, a retarded child. There was Adam Sandler and Henry Winkler struggling in The Waterboy to overcome self-doubt and vindictive loved ones to win the game. There was Brad Pitt and his awkward screen-girlfriend (Claire Forlani) daring to suck the Golden Bozo of true love in Meet Joe Black. There was Robin Williams soul-hugging his demons in order to create his own paradise--a Maxfield Parrish-world where anything can happen if you endure enough therapy. And, finally, there were the brave folks of Pleasantville, who learn to ball the jack with their own inner Negroes. (The latter two films, by the way, have nearly identical endings, with our couples staring out at a Technicolor world and asking each other, "What happens now?" The audience might wonder the same.)
Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those high-minded cinephiles who thinks sad endings are inherently better than happy ones. Frankly, I'll take an intelligent happy ending any day. (Think of Harold and Maude, for example, whose superficially sad ending screams, "Up with people!") Hell, I'll gladly swallow a dumb happy ending at times (say, The Wedding Singer). But after a 10-hour transfusion of positive messaging for bourgeois white folk, I felt like I'd gotten on the wrong train and been dumped in pre-integration Pleasantville. Instead of inspired, I was troubled.
So many of these movies tie themselves in knots reassuring us that everything's going to be all right if we just ask our hearts--or the black people, or the children, or the talking animals--to show the way. At a certain point, the filmmakers appear to be more interested in convincing themselves of their own moral supremacy than in creating art. And though it sounds like a stretch, I began to feel more than ever that Lakeville Theater does serve as a psychological bunker, even a sort of church, stacked with celluloid sandbags to protect us from the forces of chaos known commonly as real life.
Are we so spiritually burned that we must be reminded constantly of the power of optimism? Probably. Does that mean virtually every movie playing at Lakeville should wave the flag of individualism and personal ambition? Hell, no. First of all, in spite of these films' "apolitical" worldviews (yeah, right), personal ambition isn't the only source of happiness. Affordable rent and dental care alone would do wonders for this writer, and for Paige, too.
But what bothers me more than the subtle anti-political indoctrination of these "You Can Do It" films is the way they circumscribe artists' expression. What if the funders had told Quentin Tarantino he had to make Reservoir Dogs more hopeful? Or forced Ridley Scott to save Thelma and Louise from the cops? Or told Terry Gilliam to give Brazil a happy ending? (In fact, they did--but Gilliam fought back.) Would we be any better off for it?
By the time I left the theater, approaching a state of Gilliamesque delirium, the lobby had gone from ghostly train station to all-ages nightclub, with fleshy packs of kids in colorful parkas playing video games and standing around scattered high tables. For all the Friday-night bonhomie, you'd think they had all just been on a sleigh ride together. My friendly ticket taker and all the other workers had been replaced by the next shift, and I could easily have sneaked into yet another screening room for yet another treatment. But instead I left. (Apologies to my editors.)
The wind outside was wicked, and I shuddered in the car, smoking a jiggling cigarette while the frost melted on the windshield. I thought of that scene in Fargo where William H. Macy is scraping his windshield and cursing. I'll always remember that moment; especially if I move to the dirty town, because it will always symbolize an important part of life here. How many moments like that did I get in Lakeville? Maybe one--but it happened at the gas station, not the theater.
So I sat there in the cold car, giddy from Fargo, from feeling young and alone, from shivering and drinking too much Coke, from laughing at Brad Pitt's terrible "acting," and from seeing Paige on the big screen. But mostly I was goofy with the knowledge that I'd finally gone AWOL from the dreariest war in town. And that, if I hurried, I might even make it back to reality in time for last call.