Friday, October 4, 2013
"Rush" is the new film by Ron Howard detailing the Formula 1 racing rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the two best racers of the mid-1970s. Its a classic sports battle: the goof-off natural talent facing the straight-lace serious tech junkie. Brains vs. Brawn. Jocks vs. Nerds. Plucky British hotspur vs. strict Germanic perfection. You can see an entire universe of world-views on the stake, even down to this being a battle between McLaren and Farrari for the racing championship. This is extremely interesting to me because my part of the world is basically entirely blocked out of the world Formula 1 sport* thanks to the absolute domination of NASCAR. I've never heard of any of these racers before, and thus unlike pretty much the rest of Western Civilization, didn't know where the story was going.
If anything, "Rush" might have ignited some interest in Formula 1 racing. Car racing in America is a huge desert, dominated by turning left 2,000 times in endless repetitive boredom. I think all NASCAR fans secretly just want to see all of the racers die horribly, because there simply cannot be a better reason for the fascination in something so criminally boring. If you've ever gotten bored at the fifth inning of a Mets game, try enduring a NASCAR race. Ron Howard, however, makes the racing look exciting and interesting, with actual stakes and right turns. I'm going to have to burn this movie out of my brain before I decide I'm James Hunt the Second and kill myself by weaving through the lanes on the Garden State Parkway.
But I must regrettably point out that "Rush" is far from a great movie. Ron Howard builds a fairly paint-by-number biopic here, basically glossing his way through the story.with barely enough focus on anything. This is essentially the biography of two people, even if focused on just the most exciting years of their lives, but there's still a lot of ground to cover and I feel like "Rush" goes over it too quickly. The women in these riders' lives are major figures in the story, but minor figures in the film, which is a pandemic problem with every person in this movie who isn't Hunt or Lauda. The director here knows how to make a competent movie that will please any crowd, but I really think we fell short of the ultimate mark.
With a story as compelling as that of Lauda vs. Hunt, even if obviously simplified for cinematic brevity, I don't think there was a way that "Rush" ever could have failed. That's not to say that the movie simply fell in Howard's lap. There is very impressive casting, with Thor being a dead ringer for James Hunt, and the Niki Lauda being played by Daniel Brühl with a small prosthetic to recreate Lauda's rat-like teeth. Howard films the movie in a slight color correction to recreate the grainy film quality of the Seventies, but uses it with more intelligence than simply turning everything blue and orange. Its a well-made movie, clearly, but something of an airy and weightless one.
Niki Lauda and James Hunt really are the only characters of any consequence in this movie. "Rush" opens with Chris Hemsworth wooing over an unnamed nurse (played by Natalie Dormer) who follows him to his first race, then disappears without comment afterwards. Obviously, yes, James Hunt is a womanizer who disposes of women constantly, but even his brief wife, played by Olivia Wilde, gets exactly three scenes. Niki Lauda's love life has more consequence, but his wife basically spends the movie looking teary-eyed. Characters bounce in and out of the film without arcs. Lauda has an elder racer at the Ferrari Team, they get into an argument, and this guy never receives another line in the movie, except he shows up several more times just to show his face.
This isn't helped, I think, by the movie's curious separation between the two racers. Niki Lauda and James Hunt meet only three or four times, I think, and the only time the film really let's them have a long conversation is at the very end. Otherwise its simply brief taunting to fuel a rivalry that is curiously detached. The characters seem to make every decision because they hear the other driver's name, but there's no solid connection here. At one point Lauda is about to take a girl out for a date, but then is told she used to be James Hunt's girlfriend. I was expecting this to lead to some kind of a love triangle, which probably would have been pure Hollywood fantasy, but actually it leads nowhere. The girl disappears, the date never seems to happen, whatever sexual jealousy that might have existed is simply gone without explanation.
And weirdly, there just isn't enough racing. The movie jumps around so much, we never get a nice long segment where the characters shut up and we see the cars run around. It really says something about how well Ron Howard directs the racing scenes that I wanted to see more of the cars. There's a lot of POV shots right up in your face, its some of the most exciting car action footage I've seen in years. But there isn't enough of it.
More positively, the central leads really do carry the film. Lauda is so serious with his driving that he claims he doesn't particularly like racing, he just does it because he didn't see a better way to make money. And James Hunt is basically drunk the entire film. These are archetypical rivals, basically the templates for the heroes of "Macross Plus" (an anime film which is actually far superior to this, but also less historical). "Rush" is far from a bad movie, it will please its crowds, I certainly enjoyed watching it. But again, its an imperfect film.
* Because if a sport is beloved all around the world and legitimately brings humanity together to enjoy it, America will most likely ignore it. We still tolerate the Olympics, but as for soccer, formula 1, rugby, we couldn't care less. Interest in soccer is growing in this country, but its deeply overshadowed by our own football.
By the way, the BRONCOS ARE KICKING ASS THIS SEASON, WOOOOOOOO. PAYTON IS GOD.