Have you ever watched a movie that felt like it was created by soulless robots? That was the overwhelming feeling I had with Ghosted, a supposed “romantic” “comedy” and spy thriller debuting on Apple Plus with big stars and a big budget and lacking anything that feels recognizably human. 2023 has been a year of exciting and precarious technological advances, and the emergence of A.I.-assisted chat and performative generators, from art to stories, is a Pandora’s Box that will not go away, especially for an industry looking to cut corners wherever possible to save a buck. Super producer Joe Russo has bleakly predicted it’s only a matter of time before studios lean into A.I. programs to help them write bankable screenplays. When that dark day arrives, if we haven’t already crossed that Rubicon, I imagine those A.I. ghostwritten scripts will feel a lot like Ghosted, a movie that feels like it was constructed from imperfect observers.
It all begins when boy meets girl at a farmer’s market. Cole (Chris Evans) refuses to sell a potted plant to Sadie (Ana de Armas) because her job keeps her away for up to months at a time. He cannot, in good conscience, sell this woman a plant he knows will be neglected. From there, they spend a whirlwind first date getting to know one another in and out of the bedroom. Then Sadie never returns Cole’s messages and calls again. He frets that he’s yet another modern dating victim of being ghosted when strange men kidnap him and ask him scary questions about things he has no clue about. He’s rescued from this interrogation by none other than a gun-toting Sadie. She reveals she’s really a secret C.I.A. agent and somehow her enemies have mistaken Cole for “The Tax Man,” a dangerous and mysterious assassin that’s actually Sadie. Now they’re on the run and Cole has to learn the ropes of spy business or else, and maybe he can get a second date while he’s at it.
The premise alone is a workable high-concept we’ve seen comedy variations of before, from Charade to Knight and Day to The Spy Who Dumped Me (remember that movie, anyone?). It’s the perspective of the novice being plunged into the chaotic and overwhelming world of spy-craft and having to rapidly adjust to a world they thought was just the stuff of movies and beach reads. It’s the kind of story that pokes fun at spy movies while embracing them as well, and it posits what would happen if one of us normies ever accidentally found ourselves in this high-stakes world. Where Ghosted doesn’t work is that the characters are both awful versions of the Novice and the Expert. There’s a slight amusement watching Evans plays out of his depth in action contexts, running counter to a decade of Marvel heroics, but this is short-lived. He eventually begins to be a capable partner for Sadie as she learns to trust another, which is the most expected and basic character arc for each of these people. However, Sadie is also boring, and even when the truth about her profession is revealed, it doesn’t make her that much more interesting. I was already doubtful when we opened with her talking to her therapist over her car’s phone and this was the first scene. She’s been slotted as Killing Machine with Trust Issues, and he’s been slotted as Too Afraid to Seek His Dreams, and so their conclusions are predictable and bland. There’s even a lack of a technique that Sadie teaches Cole that comes into play at a pivotal moment. That’s the most basic thing and they miss that.
There is also a notable absence of chemistry between the leads. While de Armas and Evans have co-starred in two prior films, they were opposed in 2019’s Knives Out and 2022’s The Grey Man. Actor chemistry is one of those ineffable qualities that you can tell pretty quickly whether it’s evident or lacking, and within minutes of the tortured house plant meet-cute, I sensed a gaping black hole of palpable chemistry. It’s even more obnoxious when MULTIPLE characters in MULTIPLE scenes implore the two to “get a room” because their supposed sexual tension is off the charts. Sure thing, movie.
Another quality that becomes very apparent is how forced everything in Ghosted feels. The romance feels forced but the comedy especially feels forced. The four screenwriters include the writers behind the Deadpool, Zombieland, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and recent Jumanji movies, so we know these credited writers have a keen understanding of comedy. It makes the results on screen all the more mystifying and disappointing. The jokes generally feel off (“He expected a hottie not Mata Hari,” womp womp), the rhythm and tone feel a little too much, too forced, like the actors are desperately trying to compensate. It comes across like they were instructed to speak at a more fast-paced and clipped rate to attempt to emulate screwball comedy patter, but the material isn’t there to match the hyperactive verbal presentation. The music is also another factor in trying to better compensate. It’s trying to provide a jaunty, breezy energy level that isn’t sustained in the movie by its comedy, action, or romance. The number of needle drop song selections can also be insufferable and dumbfounding. The characters will start a gun fight and then “My Sharona” will crank up or, even more inexplicably, “Uptown Funk.” The relentless fallback of familiar pop and rock ditties intruding over the action doesn’t so much elevate the moment as make you realize just what would be missing without the song. I’m all for the clever use of music to jazz up a scene, but the final action sequence shouldn’t have to rely on Bruno Mars for any nascent fun.
There are a handful of moments and ideas here that could have worked in a better movie. I enjoyed a stretch in the middle where Sadie and Cole are ambushed by one bounty hunter with an absurd name after another, and each is a cameo from a familiar face and each gets dispatched swiftly. The movie also takes pains to make fun of Cole’s smothering qualities, including his snapping a picture of Sadie while she slept in his arms post-coitus and unaware. I wish this line of criticism would pick up more momentum but there’s only so much heat that Cole will take when he still needs to be the handsome and appealing lead. I also liked the idea of a villain, played by Adrien Brody like his copy of the screenplay didn’t have a single joke inside it, who is simply trying not to be revealed to be incompetent. I think there was especially more room to mine with the confusion over which character was the infamous Tax Man. The assumption that it must be a man could have opened up a broader and interesting subplot over sexist gender assumptions, with nobody believing that a g-g-g-girl could be such an accomplished trained killer (alas, the “girls can do it too” message seems to be all the movie offers in response).
Ghosted is not a good action movie, as it’s poorly sourced and edited, it’s not a good comedy, as the jokes are iffy and delivered in such an exaggerated and clunky manner, and it’s not a good romance, with two bland and under-developed genre character cliches portrayed by two actors who have a startling lack of chemistry together. The music is obnoxious and trying to compensate for the flagging energy level and forced comedy, the movie runs too long at almost two hours, and director Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) has no feel for action or romance. It’s the comedy that made me most depressed, as no character talked like a semblance of a real human being, nor was their fast-paced, quippy dialogue truly zingy and entertaining. t was like watching a desperate person try and prove they are not, in fact desperate, but with every word only proving more and more their desperation. I’m sure some people out there will find this movie passably breezy or charming or at least inoffensive for two hours of inattention. It all felt so forced and inauthentic and tired to me. It’s best to just ghost this film in real life.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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