What to Watch This Weekend -- or Not

"Persuasion," "Where the Crawdads Sing," and “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.”

What to Watch This Weekend -- or Not

A weak week for new releases, with a tepid best-seller adaptation, a slightly bipolar rock documentary, and a Jane Austen movie that’s getting savaged by the critics. Maybe go hiking instead.

Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis in “Persuasion”

When the negative reviews are more fun to read than the movie is to watch, you know a movie is bad in a very special way. Everyone enjoys a good pile-on (see: “Cats”) and there’s been more than a tinge of merriment as the knives have come out for the woebegone new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (** stars out of ****). To wit:

“It appears to have lifted sentences from the novel and fed them through some kind of Instagram-filtering, catchphrase-generating, text-summarizing idiot bot.” – Justin Chang, L.A. Times

“Not only the worst Austen adaptation but one of the worst movies in recent memory” – Dana Stevens, Slate

“At no point during Carrie Cracknell’s directorial debut do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion.” – Clarissa Loughrey, The Independent

“Has more wrong notes than an inebriated squadron of harpists” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Is “Persuasion” really that bad? If you have any respect for the works of Jane Austen, it’s hard to argue otherwise. If you’re just thirsty and craving a Venti Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino approximation of Jane Austen, the movie’s breezy, high-fructose, and forgettable. It takes the “Bridgerton” approach of sticking to the period setting while casting for diversity and updating the dialogue – this is essentially a Netflix romcom with Regency waistlines and snarky one-liners. The most aggravating tic is having Dakota Johnson, as heroine Anne Elliot, glance at the camera, “Fleabag” style – and wink, and simper, and sigh — enlisting the audience in a shared complicity that turns forced and then actively annoying.

Is Johnson, with her languorous California chill, miscast here? Sure, but that’s the point, harebrained as it may be. Anne, a near-spinster mourning a love that got away eight years earlier, is an outsider among the veddy British characters swirling about her: Her fatuous social-climbing father (Richard E Grant, who does what he can but deserves better), her clueless sisters (Yolanda Kettle and Mia McKenna Bruce, downgraded to “Cinderella” levels of meanness), a devoted best friend (an enchanting Nia Towle). The film’s Wentworth, Cosmo Jarvis, is a bit of a Wet-Nap, and I found myself wishing the filmmakers had dispensed with Austen entirely and sent Anne off with Henry Golding’s dashing, opportunistic William Elliot – at least he’s fun.

Henry Golding in “Persuasion”

Some very smart people – co-adaptor Ron “Rain Man” Bass, director Carrie Cracknell from England’s Old Vic Theatre – have made the assumption that audiences must be very dumb and have modernized the dialogue accordingly: A sheaf of sheet music is a “playlist,” one character is called an “empath,” a woman “who is a 10 in Bath is a 5 in London.” It’s all quite playful and, if it matters to you that Austen’s final novel is her most serious, compassionate, and mature, quite insulting. The 1995 BBC “Persuasion,” released theatrically in America and starring Amanda Root and a young Ciarán Hinds, remains the benchmark. This version is something different: the end result of a process that began a few decades ago, when “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” both book and film, repurposed Austen into the tropes and conventions of modern movie romcoms. Netflix’s “Persuasion” just reverses the process: It’s the first Jane Austen adaptation that’s a remake of “Bridget Jones.”

Speaking of adaptations, the bestseller “Where the Crawdads Sing” (** stars out of ****) has been made into a movie that lands in theaters today. It is … acceptable. As with most screen versions of popular novels, the filmmakers deviate from the book’s storyline as little as possible other than intercutting between the backstory of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, above), the “Marsh Girl” of the book’s North Carolina coastal setting, and her trial for murder. Edgar-Jones is a British actress who was in “Normal People,” the 2020 Hulu series that did better by author Sally Rooney than “Crawdads” does by Delia Owens, and she’s very good here – she comes across as Anne Hathaway’s odder, more interesting sister. Any and all fans of David Strathairn – we are few but we are hardy – will be glad to see him in the sizable role of Kya’s foxy defense attorney, making like Atticus finch with a few miles on him. The Carolina coast is captured well by Suzie Lavelle’s and Kate McCullogh’s cinematography. And that’s about it, including an unsurprising twist ending and two romantic male leads, one kind (Taylor John Smith) and one dastardly (Harris Dickinson), who for the life of me I couldn’t tell apart.

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” (*** stars out of ****) opens theatrically this weekend – it comes to Boston on the 22nd – and it’s as scrambled as its title, a rock documentary that can’t decide whether to be a biographical celebration of the late singer or a history of how his most well-known song vaulted from obscurity (on an album Cohen’s label wouldn’t even release in the U.S.) to ubiquity (weddings, TV talent shows, and your cousin’s son’s bar mitzvah). If you’re a Cohen fan – I am – it’s worth a watch for the many archival interviews in which the singer feints and sidesteps with his trademark graveyard humor, and directors Daniel Gellar and Dayna Goldfine are good about presenting both sides of the legend, the Zen monk and the ladies’ man – the holy and the horny. If you’re a fan of Welsh rocker John Cale – I am – it’s good to see his early-1990s re-arrangement of “Hallelujah” given credit as the spark that lit the fuse. But, man, I do not need to hear that song again and I bet you don’t either, and the documentary lays it on thick with every version imaginable. Which is a shame, because it’s a fine piece of work that has been buried six feet deep by overexposure.

Additional openings: I missed the screening for Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (in theaters starting Friday), but reviews are kind, and Lesley Manville is well deserving of a full-on lead role. (Wouldn’t it be nice to see her “Phantom Thread” character, the brilliantly cold sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s couturier, get her own movie?)

A new Claire Denis film comes to Boston this weekend: Both Sides of the Blade,” a romantic triangle starring Juliette Binoche, Vincent London, and Grégoire Colin. It arrives on VOD August 23 and I’ll review it then, but know that Denis is a filmmaker who thinks of genre as just one more convention to be upended.

I’m serious, though. Get outside and go for a walk.

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