CRITICS WORRY ABOUT OSCAR’S TAINT

Senior Editor
02.22.08 76 Comments

From a Reuters article titled Snubs, omissions taint Oscar foreign film award [hee hee, they said "taint" -Ed.] :

The most conspicuous absence is Romanian abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" which Scott Foundas, film editor for the LA Weekly newspaper, called "the foreign film of the year by unanimous acclaim." It won top honors at the Cannes film festival in May and numerous critics awards.  "It taints the whole race so that no matter who wins, people will always wonder ‘What if "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" or "Persepolis" or other noteworthy omissions had been in the race."’ Foundas said. [Source]

In response, I’d like to present the FilmDrunk review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I saw last Saturday after reading articles like the one above:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an awful title, but it’s an accurate description of how long the movie feels. 

Currently tracking 97% recommended and higher on review aggregator sites like RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, the critics who acclaimed it should be forced to watch it a few times.  They might discover that a nebulous plot is not “subtlety,” a movie that’s no fun is not “powerful”, and ten-minute stationary cam shots in which nothing much happens do not constitute an “unflinching look” at something – at least not for the audience, who’ll be twitching out of boredom.

The plot of 4 Months, set in 1980s Romania, concerns college roommates Gabita and Otilia, whom we join during preparations for an outing of some sort.  The film centers mostly on braless wonder Otilia, who handles the majority of the plans, and we soon learn that the outing in question is a trip to a seedy hotel for a rendezvous with a physician who’s agreed to perform an illegal abortion on pregnant Gabita.  Trouble is, Gabita’s much further along than she admitted (the title supposedly refers to the time elapsed since her child’s conception), and the doctor proposes his compensation for services rendered be indecent, rather than monetary. 

It’s not a bad premise, but premise is all you get.  No plot twists, no character development, no point of view – just enough inane details to fill two hours of screen time.

The magic of filmmaking is that you can cut straight from a two-second shot of a guy in a towel with bedhead turning on the shower to a two-second shot of the same guy standing in front of a mirror in a top hat and dinner jacket, and in four seconds of screen time, you’ve successfully communicated the concept that he has dressed for a party – a process that would’ve taken hours in “real” time.  4 Months director Cristian Mungiu either isn’t aware or doesn’t approve of the time-compression trick, so if his script calls for Otilia to walk up 30 flights of stairs, that’s what he films. Each. And. Every. Step. clop clop clop clop…   

In fact, it feels like three quarters of this movie is Otilia walking up stairs. Or taking the bus.  Or hailing a taxi.  Or standing in line.  Or making reservations… Ugh, congratulations on the realistic (presumably) portrayal of life in a communist socialist* dictatorship, but can we ditch this downer and grab a burger now?  You could eat a popcorn-sized bucket of Ritalin during this Iron Man test of attention span and by the end you’ll still be rushing to your laptop for an antidote of three-second YouTube clips of a monkey peeing in its own mouth or a guy getting hit in the nuts with a fish.   

But even assuming you could view it with a pre-internet attention span, 4 Months would still leave you cold.  In Wonder Boys (based on Michael Chabon’s book, which was much better) writing professor Grady Tripp’s star pupil critiques his unpublished manuscript by saying, “Professor Tripp, you know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices? Here it sort of reads in places like you didn’t make any choices.”  Ditto for 4 Months

There are so many strands to this story – why is Gabita so sullen and helpless? Why does she rely on Otilia to do all her dirty work?  What’s up with this doctor guy – I mean, performing illegal abortions seems like a complicated way to get your ya-yas out, doesn’t it?  And why does Otilia go to such great lengths to help a friend who treats her like shit?  The film leaves you with a bunch of unanswered questions, because for all its strands, there’s no yarn.  

Critical acclaim for a film like this does a disservice to all the truly praiseworthy foreign and arthouse flicks released every year (The Lives of Others, City of God, Pan’s Labyrinth…).  It’s that much harder to drag your friends to something like Y Tú Mamá Tambien when they’ve been burned by a snoozer like 4 Months

Sure, it’s a departure from your average Hollywood fare, but it’s more unfinished than innovative.  When Mungiu leaves a stationary shot of the aborted fetus onscreen for a good 30 seconds, or films a 20-minute dinner party with a single, stationary camera shot, it doesn’t feel cinematic – it feels like he’s accidentally left the camera rolling while he goes for a cigarette, or stands in a bread line. 

4 Months is about two girls doing something for which they could be convicted of murder, and yet it never feels dangerous.  And that’s its central problem – it’s a movie that’s far more boring than the story it’s trying to tell.

*I wouldn’t correct something after the fact if I didn’t think it was important – I had assumed Romania was part of the U.S.S.R. when it was not.  These are the kinds of things I hate screwing up, so if you find something like this that’s not an obvious joke or sarcastic reference, please let me know.  Or, you know, you can just continue sending me hate mail about how I’m a racist or an ignorant American because I misspelled the name of your home town.

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