Now that we’re fully into the swing of the awards season, with Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe winners already announced, it’s clearly past time for the most important and definitive account of the past year in movies: the Jentleman’s analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what to take away from the year in cinema. As with last year, I’m kicking off with my ‘Worst Of’ list, mostly because it’s reliably my favorite essay to write in the year. Here at JFJ, the focus is usually on the thoughtful, constructive analysis of cinema, meaning there’s little room for vitriol and bloviating (though who knows how my readers construe the Journal in general…) Still, if there’s anything more pleasurable than the thoroughgoing love of a great film, it’s the experience of pure, unadulterated contempt for the depths of the cinematically inane.
I saw Man on a Ledge at the Hollywood ArcLight movie theater – probably the best cinema in Los Angeles – and walked out with more to say about the presentation of the movie than the movie itself. The ArcLight Dome is an old Cinerama screen that’s been repurposed for normal projection; if the term ‘Cinerama’ doesn’t mean anything to you, the important thing is that the projection space is enormous. It’s impossible to not be impressed by what you’re watching. That’s good for Man on a Ledge, because I ended up really enjoying it, and I’m not sure that I would have if I’d seen it on a normal screen. Because, frankly, there’s nothing about this movie that isn’t preposterous, from Sam Worthington’s belabored American accent to a heist sequence that was ripped directly from Mission: Impossible, the one without any Roman numerals after the name.
Like last year’s Tower Heist, which managed it a bit more effectively, Man on a Ledge is broadly about an unscrupulous rich man (David Englander, played with a scowl and a grimace by Ed Harris) who robs from the poor to enrich himself. Here, though, that theft is measured in human terms rather than in monetary ones: his victim is former cop Nick Cassidy (Worthington), who, prior to the action of the film, he has set up as the thief of an immense diamond, his intention being to keep the diamond and still collect on the insurance. Nick escapes from prison, and the film documents his elaborate scheme to prove that the diamond is still in Englander’s hands – by stealing it for real. That plan involves, yes, standing on a ledge twenty-one storeys up and threatening to commit suicide.
Think that doesn’t make any sense? You’re right! It’s all explained, of course, but fundamentally the reason that he’s up on that ledge appears to be that the writer (Pablo Fenjves, aka the ghostwriter of O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It) wants to illustrate that Nick is willing to die to prove his innocence. The problem is that you never believe that he might actually go over the edge, and even the movie admits this when the policewoman trying to talk him down (Elizabeth Banks, cementing her career move to go-to supporting actress in B-minus movies) points out that he’s nowhere near jumping. There’s always the danger that he’s going to slip, I guess, but you’d never know it from the way Nick prances around on his ledge like it’s a catwalk.
The more fundamental issue, though, is that there are about five too many moving parts in this film. The successful heist flick relies for some of its power on the protagonists’ always being one step ahead of the audience, so that each reveal increases our appreciation for just how clever they are. In Man on a Ledge, though, even the setbacks that look real turn out to have been planned for, making Nick and those helping him seem more or less prescient. It’s not just that it never seems like they might not succeed: there’s barely a moment in the movie where it’s the case that they might not succeed. There’s no risk of failure. And without the risk of failure, what do we care about what they’re doing?