Saturday, January 23, 2010

Spoileriffic Movie Review: Bedazzled

I recently watched the original Bedazzled, as you may have guessed from yesterday's post. (Hyperlinked to help those of you too lazy to scroll down.) Bedazzled is one of those Hollywood movies that have been through a remake when there was no obvious reason for doing a remake in the first place. And, like many of my generation, I saw the Brenden Fraser version before I saw Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's version. It pains me to say this, since I actually have a soft spot for Fraser, but comparing the two is less like apples and oranges and more like apples and apples made out of wax. (That's the review in a nutshell, by the way. You can stick around for the history lesson, or scroll down to the movie clips, as you see fit.)

Of course, the original movie itself is an adaptation of a story that can be traced back to at least the 17th century; it's a twist on the Faust formula, whereby the protagonist sells his soul to the devil in exchange for his heart's desire. In Christopher Marlowe's original play, Faustus sold his soul in the name of knowledge, with the idea that there is actually a trace of nobility in seeking the last bits of forbidden knowledge that God denied Man. The irony of the play was that once he receives this knowledge, Faustus uses it only for the simplest, lowest purposes: to attract women from the annals of history, and to play cheap pranks on his neighbors. And since he's subsequently damned for it, the moral seems to be that eternal salvation is worth not knowing a thing or two.

The other historically significant version of the Faust play is Goethe's version, composed over his lifetime in the 19th century. The play starts off in the same manner, but Faust quickly falls in love with Gretchen, his simple neighbor. The purity of his love for her eventually overcomes his desire for knowledge and power, and he is, in the end, saved and goes to heaven. (At least, I think that's how it turns out. I read it for a class half a decade ago, and sort of started skimming around page 300, so...) The difference in plot reflects a difference in culture. Marlowe's version was a case of heavenly salvation versus earthly temptation; Goethee's version was true love triumphing over all. Guess which version Hollywood went with?

Actually, I'm skipping ahead slightly, because there was one more important narrative work that informs both Bedazzled: the 1092 short story by William Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw." In both the Faust versions I named, the Mephisto/devil character plays it straight--he gives Faust exactly what he asks for. But after "Monkey's Paw," (which has its own roots in the genies of Middle Eastern mythology)any deal with the devil involves some sort of ironic outcome. I'm not sure why this irony is so appealing; it could be a product of capitalist satisfaction that no one gets a free pass. Or maybe it's a postmodern appreciation of being able to see the twist coming, on a meta level. Or maybe it's a growing recognition on the importance of words in a verbal contract.

Anyway, from that long digression, you can probably pick out the key plot. A dweeb character (Elliot Richards in the Fraser, Stanley Moon in the Cook-Moore) with a dull life has a boring job, and the only shining hope in it is the presence of the girl he can't bring himself to approach. His despair reaches a peak moment, and the devil appears in front of him and offers him a deal: seven wishes to get the girl of his dreams, and in return, the devil gets his soul. From the beginning, then, teh goal is not knowledge, but true love; the end of Goethe has no become the beginning of the story. Each wish goes awry in a comical fashion, and the protagonist quickly finds himself at the end of his wishes no closer to his goal, but he manages to get out of the eternal damnation thing in the end, and maybe find some happiness. Both versions, then, follow the same plot. So why is the original so superior? Well, the devil's in the details.

I could do an individual wish-by-wish comparison, which would highlight the differences between the two films soon enough. But I'd rather do a detailed comparison of three other elements: setting, character, and ending. First, setting. Stanley is a short order cook, and his Beloved is a waitress. This is not important to the plot. Elliot, however, works at a nameless desk job. He is virtually unnoticed by everyone except three coworkers he can't bring himself to stand up to. I'd argue that the change was pretty deliberate; at the time of film's 2000 release, we were at the height of Dilbert's popularity, and the previous year had seen the release of the cult-classic company worker film, Office Space. The office was (and maybe is) a quick short-hand for hell. While Stanley's life is clearly dreary, it is dreary because he doesn't have the one thing he wants most; Elliot's life is miserable on every level.

That, I think, leads directly into the main difference of the films: one is a solo act, and one is a buddy-comedy. In the original Bedazzled, the devil is a character as fully fleshed as Stanley, if not more so; Peter Cook's role as Satan and his rapport with Stanley absolutely makes the film. In the later version, the Devil is played by Elizabeth Hurley. She provides the sweltering sex appeal that, in the original, was provided by the love interest, there played by Raquel Welsh. Hurley has essentially two appealing qualities: her aforementioned sweltering, and her ability to sound British. Beyond that, she doesn't really bring a lot to the role. She torments Elliot, smirks when he fails, and smolders quietly (and often not so quietly) in the background.

Cook's Satan (who, by the way, prefers to be called George Spiggott) is an infinitely more interesting character. You see, he's not really happy with the way things turned out. Via God's punishment, he's compelled to play petty pranks on the human race, rather than do anything useful with his power (much like Marlowe's Faust). He tears the bottoms out of shopping bags, and convinces pigeons to poop on people's heads. He has to do it all himself, because his help is terrible; all he has are the seven deadly sins. Envy just glares at him, Sloth sleeps all day, and Anger picks fights. But, as he confides in Stanley, he has a plan. Centuries ago, he made a deal with God: if he can corrupt one billion souls, then Earth has reached a terminal point where people are so rotten they don't need him any more. And then, he says, happily, he can go back to Heaven. There's been a lot of portrayals of the Devil as a superficially suave character that snaps at some point, and you see the diabolical underneath. In Cook's Devil, there is diabolical; it's superficiality all the way down. He's generally ashamed of his work, and really wishes he could grant Stanley a good wish, but his hands are tied.

That, I'd argue, is the chief difference between the two movies. Fraser's Bedazzled is a fairly straightforward, one character against the world; everyone else is a backdrop for Fraser's character to reach his emotional epiphany, such as it is. The Cook-Moore version, the bond between the two characters adds an extra level to a fairly straightforward story. It harkens back to the original material--the Faust/Mephisto relationship is one of the most interesting parts, especially in Goethe's version. The buddy-dynamic also informs the difference in the two films' endings. I actually think that the Fraser version has a superior ending for the dweeb character. Elliott uses his last wish to make his Beloved happy, and gets his soul back for making a selfless wish, which is actually stereotypical Hollywood drivel. But the better part of the ending is that Elliott gets up the courage to ask out his Beloved--and is turned down, because she has a boyfriend. He mopes a little, then moves on, and meets a new girl entirely when someone new moves in next door. End film. I like that Elliott explicitly did NOT get the character he was obsessed with; with such a level of obsession, they never would have had a healthy relationship to begin with. And it caters better to the point of the film: it's not about Elliott and the girl, who was woefully underdeveloped, but about Elliott learning to rely on himself.

The original film's ending, in comparison, is bizarre. Stanley asks out the waitress, and it turns out she's busy that night--so he'll try again another night. That ends his part. But what, I hear you ask, happens to Satan? Well, the devil reaches his mark of a billion souls early, and decides that he doesn't need Stanley's soul. So he gives it back, and hops upstairs to Heaven. Once there, he brags to God that he not only won, but did an act of goodness. He brags about the look on Stanley's face. God points out that he did it not out of goodness, but for the personal satisfaction of seeing Stanley's response. The devil shrugs, and agrees to go back to Earth, ask for soul back, and then return it, without the satisfaction this time. But Stanley destroys the contract before the devil gets to him, and when he tries to get back to heaven, he learns God locked the door behind him. Enraged for the first time ever in the film, the Devil vows to continue ruining the Earth, and making it so bad no one ever gets to heaven again. Which is fair enough; it's practically a super-villain origin story in that it firmly establishes Satan's motivation for being evil for evil's sake. The really theologically troubling part is that all through his vowing speech and through the first half of the credits, God is laughing mockingly. It's pretty terrifying, actually. And something of an odd way to end a comedy.

Final note: I'd recommend the original Bedazzled over the later version. Not for the superior plot, or the better characters, which it certainly has, but for the rapport between Stanley and Satan. Whether they're discussing death bed repentance, entertaining God, or scamming old ladies, the straight back-and-forth is what makes the movie. Satan's not just the guy who takes your soul; he's your best friend.

And now, as promised, clips. Here's the 2000 version:

And the original:

Honestly, I think those two clips may show the difference between them better than any amount of words. (I hope you scrolled to the bottom first. You may have saved yourself some time.)

Later Days.

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