Director Matthew Vaughn is about as far away from his previous film as he can get. 2005’s Layer Cake is about as far from princesses and unicorns and pixie dust as can be expected. He turned down X-Men 3 to helm this adaptation of famed comic scribe Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, Stardust. In style with one of the film’s characters, allow me to say to Vaughn, well played, sir.
In turn of the century England, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is trying to woo Victoria (Sienna Miller), the haughty town hottie in the small village of Wall. The town is called such because there is a winding stonewall that runs alongside that people are forbidden to cross. He’s given seven days to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria to prove his affection for her. In order to do so, he needs to venture beyond the wall, and beyond the wall is another world altogether. The fallen star is a result of an dying king (Peter O’Toole) hurling his enchanted necklace to the heavens. The jewelry collides with a star and causes it to crash to earth. But it’s no smoldering rock taking refuge in that crater; the star has actually taken the form of a slender, long-haired blonde woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). I can only hope other astral bodies that crash into this planet will result in the same lucky outcome. But Tristan is not the only one after the fallen star. Three very old witches have taken notice and seek to cut out the star’s heart and consume it, which will grant them youth once again. The oldest witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) uses the last bit from the previous star to shed her wrinkles, but every time she uses a speck of magic she loses part of her much-desired youth. Also on the hunt for the star are the king’s ruthless sons, each trying to retrieve their father’s necklace and declare themselves the next king, and each trying to bump off their family competition.
Stardust is very much in the fractured fairy tale style of The Princess Bride, complete with nudges and winks. The movie works more with the macabre, but this only seems to heighten its magical qualities. I loved the ongoing wisecrack-filled commentary from the increasing number of ghost princes (“Well played”), and I loved that each was stuck in limbo Beetlejuice-style looking as they did when they died. Stardust is stuffed with hocus pocus hokum but it never seems foolish; the movie takes great steps to present the rules and characters of its universe, and as all of the assorted creatures race toward a showdown, Stardust makes total sense. It doesn’t betray the logistic parameters it establishes for such a fantastical parallel world. It means that if you can accept the opening 20 minutes than you should be fine for the duration of Stardust. The film spins a familiar tale of hidden princesses, races against time, battles over a throne, and wicked witches, but it handles the material with aplomb. Stardust‘s biggest asset, beyond the cheeky sense of humor Vaughn instills, is that literally anything could happen next. Suddenly there’s a flying pirate ship out to harness lightning, or a goat-turned-inn keeper, and it’s all so exciting what could be waiting around the corner next.
Vaughn assembles a lot of pieces and then keeps the momentum strong. He makes judicious use of special effects and keeps the audience involved with all the story’s moving pieces. Vaughn has taken the usual fantasy quest framework and channeled the imagination and dry wit of Gaiman. Not every moment runs as smooth as possible, and some are downright awkward, but Stardust stokes a nice balance between high-flying adventure and doodle-on-your-notebook romanticized love. Vaughn’s steady control and vision allow the material to really shine because the audience can open themselves to the magic of the movie.
The acting ensemble brings a lot of enjoyment to this enchanted tale. Pfeiffer is a bewitching villain and relishes her bad girl role; she’s a devious delight but is even better when dealing with the physical comedy of her increasingly aging body. De Niro is immeasurably enjoyable thanks to a role that conflicts with audience expectations for the famous force of movie masculinity. I was howling with laughter watching him cross-dress, swish, and become a giant exaggerated gay stereotype. It might seem trite or offensive to some had it not been for the setup and the film’s tolerant philosophy. Danes delivers a performance that seems to teeter on camp. She ramps up her vocal inflections thanks to her hyper English accent and seems to perform like she’s in front of a mirror and testing out all of her facial muscles. A bit odd. Cox fits snugly into the Hollywood slot of bland male lead.
The one main drawback for the film is that the screwball bickering between Tristan and Yvaine never really works. The constant arguing rarely comes across as funny and is too poorly veiled to camouflage the film’s romantic intentions. The romantic setup is pretty formulaic. The audience will know right away that Tristan is not meant for his conceited and high-maintenance village girl, and that true love is staring him in the face along the course of his most fantastic voyage. We know from the first second of their meeting that their combative relationship will in time transform into a romantic relationship. But that’s not to say Stardust isn’t a romantic fable. Its heart is simple but it is genuine. While its path is predestined and unshakable, this does not stop the audience from feeling something between Tristan and Yvaine and their eventual coupling. I may be going soft, or perhaps Stardust just won me over completely, but I found myself even slightly moved by the romantic climax.
Stardust is assembled, like most fairy tales, from the working parts of other tales. It’s rather predictable with its big moments (boy meets star girl, boy loses star girl, boy regains star girl), but oh what a fun time the film has from point to point. Stardust is vibrantly alive and cheerfully creative and watching the film almost becomes a dizzying experience. It has a sweet and gentle romance at heart, and its knowing whimsy and charms are hard to resist. You’ll never look at Robert De Niro the same way again.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Madonna and Rupert are the best of buds, but he’s gay. So of course it’s only nature and a matter of time before they sleep together and get pregnant. They decide to disclose the identity of the daddy and raise the child together. Why they never went with the virgin birth angle is beyond me. So they raise it. And they do. Then the Material Girl wants said child for herself and it pretty much veers further into absurd soap opera from there on out.
The premise is a rip-off of the earlier The Object of My Affection, which in turn was a rip-off of Chasing Amy. Get prepared for countless scenes of Madonna and Rupert gallivanting about like they’re in a perpetual slumber party. Rarely has a more awkward film been so preachy. It’s a never-ending soapbox of sermons about family values and gay rights. Wonderful but if I’m not mistaken wasn’t there supposed to be a story somewhere?
The movie resides as one half comedy (?) then one half drama, neither of which is consistent let alone entertaining. Somewhere there’s a violent jolt into an out-of-place Kramer vs. Kramer courtroom battle royale. If the audience is supposed to feel for Madonna’s character then nothing like a selfish child custody battle to win the hearts of everyone. Who’s the victim in this? Not the child. It’s the audience.
Rupert Everett may be the only redeeming part of this uneven and mushy dramedy of lapsed judgement. His charm is evident and his leading-man ability carries the film as long as he can until it implodes on itself. I could clearly hear sighs around me of “If only he weren’t gay.” in the theater.
Madonna is clearly the biggest hindrance in The Next Best Thing. Whenever she speaks it’s like she’s reciting lines into a mirror. Madonna has some mysterious British accent she seems to have picked up and is as wooden as a board. If you call what she does in this movie “acting” then you’ll have to register some national parks with the Screen Actors Guild.
If The Next Best Thing really is the next best thing for Madonna’s struggling film career, I’d suggest reconsider her options. And pray to the other Madonna while doing it. At least she would have enough sense not to do a silly remake of “American Pie.”
Nate’s Grade: C-