THERE ARE TWO KINDS of bad movies — innocuously bad and infuriatingly bad. Rob Letterman’s adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is an emblematic example of the latter. Not least of all because it takes a complex masterpiece and turns it into a crass bathroom-humour slacker comedy.
Offering nothing but a one-man show starring Jack Black in a basketball tee stomping around little people, the film could easily have been called Black’s Travels. Except, even Black has been to more exciting places in his career. Fans of the star from the time he made promises with the instant classic School of Rock, need to brace up. This reduction of Black has him baring his beer belly and butt crack and making faces in the name of acting. Its flimsy packaging as a visual spectacle doesn’t hold. The shots and special effects are predictable and listless where they are not plain clumsy.
Swift’s original tale is superiorly crafted with words. It unfolds as an exciting adventure, vividly imagined, but is also richly satirical and philosophical. In the allegorical voyages, Swift contemplates forms of government and nature of man to try and explain war. He also makes jibes at the genre of travel writing of the times. Ironically, one can imagine if he were around today, he’d have satirised the attitude this movie wears.
JACK BLACK BARES HIS BEER BELLY AND BUTT CRACK AND MAKES FACES IN THE NAME OF ACTING
Planned as a big grosser to capitalise on the ‘holiday season’ with star power and cheap gimmicks, this is a loser-gets-out-of-league-girl-and-job-he-badlywants story. A fantasy, sure, not the kind Swift imagined but quintessentially American. Black’s Gulliver wins over Lilliput by being a friendly, vulgar giant and engages its working population to build a supersized replica of his American life replete with representations of the pop culture he cannot live without. If the film was trying to take a shot at what America is, here it is lost by its own typically American failure — understanding other civilisations only through the limited perspective of its own culture and appointing itself the saviour of ‘inferior exotic’ people world over. In this fantasy, Gulliver fights a robot in the climax and wins. In reality, Swift’s cautionary poetry fought against Hollywood’s studio androids and lost — the minute Apple’s first product was placed garishly in the frame. In this fantasy, Black fools the Lilliputian General into believing that lame-ass means generous and courageous at heart. In reality, we know it is American slang for pathetic. This film is also an emblematic example of that.
Originally published in Tehelka.