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Cinemalphabet: Q is for Quiz Show (1994)

February 17, 2011

In the early 90s all of my friends were in hearts with Ralph Fiennes; I didn’t get it. He seemed so ordinary. This might explain why Mr. Ordinary People himself – Bob Redford – chose to cast him in his 1994 loosey goosey factually “creative” retelling of the rigging scandal of the game show Twenty One.

(If it’s Spinx; it stinks)

For those who don’t know: here’s the deal with this game show rigging sitch. Charles Van Doren was a pretty WASPy type who the networks felt folks at home would swoon and root for from the comfort of their affordable, mid century seating solutions. And the networks were right; people did. This was bad news for Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), the nebbish Jewish man who previously enjoyed a lengthy and supposedly dubious run at the top. Stempel is told to throw the game so the pretty WASP can win and the networks can get better ratings. Eventually, someone gets wind of the fraud – that guy from Northern Exposure, handpicked by Bob (who knew Bob watched TV!) – causing investigations and hilarity to ensue.

Okay, maybe not hilarity.

I was not particularly interested in Quiz Show upon its original theatrical release because really, Xena did not put a face that hot on earth to be tucked behind a camera. Redford would later piss me off for unleashing Bagger Vance on an unsuspecting populace and thus making, “Magical Negro” a household term. Anyhoo. I was also uninterested in the film because I didn’t “get” the Fiennes thing.

I feel terrible about all this spilled hateraid because the film is enjoyable the way splashy made-for-tv movie events of days gone by were. Despite a much tighter construction in terms of plot, character arc and narrative prowess than demonstrated in his Oscar-winning directorial effort (Ordinary People, for those playing the home version) it just didn’t amount to all that much. When the ending to your movie is wildly know, the journey needs compensate for the deficit. The way most films seek to circumvent this problem involves taking some seriously questionable liberties with the source material and trying to cultivate narrative interest there. This is usually a mistake. Even if you make it out of the tunnel the light at the end is usually the harsh beam of backlash.

In addition, once again, similar Pollack (whose influence is quite evident in this film and Redford’s Lions for Lambs), Redford’s direction is riddled with glossy – albeit delightful – flourishes that elevate this corny material (trust me if Rob Morrow is tapped your film, the shit ought to be playing in heavy rotation on Lifetime. What, was Steven Webber unavailable?) and exposing all its shortcomings; like elevating a sofa and exposing all the previously hidden dust bunnies. That’s the best way I can describe Quiz Show – Lifetime-y. It is melodramatic, showcasing a host of folks shouting their lines as though they were acting out their scenes over a really bad phone connection. Sometimes high volume is conflated for intensity. This is one of those times. If your characters have to shout all their lines they need better lines. Ron Howard would have been a better director for this film because he doesn’t seek to position his work in a “lofty” context. The intensity, deft direction and tension observed in Frost/Nixon is the kind of craft needed to bring richness to Quiz Show.

Oh yeah, and the movie poster gives me the creeps too.

Having said all that, you know I love me some Redford forever and ever.

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