I’ve been on a kick for the last couple days where I’ve craved watching old movies from the ’90s that I remember being good when I first saw them. It’s a nice way to spend an evening after reading the internet all day, and after considering what I noticed in my Fifth Element review, it’s also a good way to check my tastes and assumptions about movies and stories in general.
So I’ve recently watched The Usual Suspects and A League of Their Own. The first I saw when I was in college, and it blew my mind then because the movie has a great twist ending that I didn’t see coming (I’m not sure it’s possible to see the twist coming, considering it’s predicated on an unreliable narrator); the second I saw when I was a kid, and I remember enjoying it.
These are two very different movies in terms of tone, composition, and purpose. The Usual Suspects is built as a crime thriller with an element of mystery (the whole premise, for anyone not familiar with the film, is that a drug deal went bad and resulted in about thirty dead crooks, and the one survivor from the deal spends the movie explaining events that led up to the situation we see in the beginning). It’s just trying to tell a compelling story (which also happens to be entirely male oriented with only a single female character who works as more of a plot point than someone with whom the protagonist interacts). And for what it is, The Usual Suspects works very well. I still love the turns that the narrative takes, and all the characters are memorably sketched (I’m no expert on Kevin Spacey’s filmography, but between this and House of Cards I can’t remember ever seeing him be bad in something). It’s simply a good story.
Then there’s A League of Their Own, which I honestly didn’t expect to age very well. This one’s a drama about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (which really happened, even though the events of the movie are fictionalized). I’m not sure why I was thinking that this one wouldn’t be as good when revisiting it as an adult, but I suspect part of it might lie in the fact that this is a sports melodrama. Sports movies have this weird feel about them, mostly because they rely so much on making the audience feel invested in the sport that’s being depicted (because I don’t have any strong feelings about sports in general, though I can admire the athleticism they require, I’m always surprised when I enjoy sports movies so much; I suspect this is due to the fact that most sports movies aren’t really about their sports so much as they’re using the sport as a backdrop for what’s typically an inspirational story). Anyway, it’s an odd film because it seems to be straddling a line between a stylized 1940s delivery (the peripheral characters, like Jon Lovitz’s talent scout, all feel more like caricatures of the period than actual people) and the saccharine sentimentality of the early ’90s (see the entire frame story with our protagonist Dottie going to an AAGPBL reunion as an old woman). Unfortunately I don’t have any real experience of the 1940s (I was born about four decades too late), so I can’t speak to the authenticity of that style, but the ’90s aesthetic doesn’t really work for me. Honestly, I feel like the whole thing would be stronger without the frame story, but that’s a minor quibble when the frame only takes up about ten to fifteen minutes of the run time (if that). More importantly, as a feminist text I find it surprisingly palatable. Even though Tom Hanks gets prominent billing on the movie poster, his character plays more of a supporting role in comparison to the women on the baseball team. There’s bits that comment on the absurdity of asking women to engage in athletics while wearing dresses, and the whole ridiculous problem of acting like women who play baseball can’t be feminine, and the whole subtext of Dottie’s arc, where she loves playing ball but also has the dream of settling down with her husband and raising a family after the war’s ended, delves into questions of what’s right for an individual (I think the film leans a little hard on Dottie’s regret at choosing to walk away from baseball, although maybe that’s necessary in depicting a social climate where her own desires would be so necessarily clouded by the natural expectations of everyone around her).
Anyway, I enjoyed both movies. I think it’s probably telling about my own biases that I expected to still like The Usual Suspects with its compelling, but ideologically unambitious plot, while I thought that A League of Their Own would be an experience in sexist film-making or ’90s glurge. Still, I was pleased to find that I did enjoy both films. It’s certainly less dismaying than that whole experience with The Fifth Element.