Wednesday, March 7, 2012

They Might Be Giants (1971)

I can't help but wonder how many people are going to initially see this article and think "I knew the band had been around for a while, but that long?" and I think that's a fair mistake.  In actuality this post is not about the band, but rather the film from which they took their name.  From what I can tell they chose it more because they liked the sound of it rather than having any particular fondness for the film, but I still couldn't help checking it out.

Its plot is really a set up I'm guaranteed to like:  In what is essentially a modern version of Don Quixote, the story follows millionaire and genius Justin Playfair who is thoroughly convinced he is Sherlock Holmes and that Moriarty is out there plotting against him.  His brother tries to get him committed, and the psychiatric hospital assigns a Dr. Mildred Watson to decide if he's sane or a hopeless case.  The film manages to be a Sherlock Holmes adventure, a Don Quixote adaptation, and a whimsical comedy all in one.  I also found it interesting that with all the talk of CBS's show Elementary currently in development that here we have a Sherlock Holmes set in New York City with a female Watson.

George C. Scott's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is so good that I felt the need to check his filmography to see if he had played him on the screen before.  He hadn't, in case you were wondering.  There are also a few moments in the film where he seems to realize that he's really not Sherlock, and he plays it with such confusion and despair that you truly feel sorry for him.  Joanne Woodward's Dr. Watson is a character I'm a little more conflicted about.  She starts off as a bit of a stereotypical spinster, a character that I think the writer might have thought was a strong woman but really just comes off more blustery and angry than needed.  However, much like Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson's feelings for her companion change over time, and she softens into someone much more real in the process.  By the end of it I was much more fond of her and of the relationship she and Justin/Sherlock shared.

I think there's something to the fact that I really want to keep referring to the main character as Sherlock even though he's technically not.  He can't play the violin (which is shown in a very funny brief moment), but he does have Sherlock's incredible ability for deduction.  He reads people easily, both Dr. Watson and a messenger who delivers a threatening letter to his home.  Sherlock decides the letter is a secret message from Moriarity, and he uses deduction to go on what seems like a wild goose chase but always ends up finding some sort of conflict for him to resolve anyway.  As such the film becomes a series of moments: a woman who goes to the phone company for information, and the worker who can't give it to her because she'll be fired but desperately wants to help, an old couple who have locked themselves inside their apartment since the Great Depression and built a beautiful garden to live off of, and so on.  The movie does its best to string all these moments together at  the end, though I find it a little ironic that it's completely lacking in logic when it does so.  However, I found myself with a rather large grin on my face in spite of it all. What it lacks in logic it definitely makes up for in charm.

That messenger I mentioned earlier is played by Al Lewis, best known as Grandpa Munster.  Justin's sister in law is played by Rue McClanahan, who we all know as Blanche from the Golden Girls.  Even Paul Benedict has a small part as a man selling chestnuts on the street.  The unknown actors are just as amusing as the known ones, and they compliment Justin as a group of eccentric characters that are adorable to watch, particularly in a zany scene that takes place in a grocery store toward the end of the film.

The name of the film is a Don Quixote reference, and is explained within the film itself.  Sherlock tells Dr. Watson that where Don Quixote got it wrong was that he assumed all windmills were giants.  However, we all need to think they might be from time to time.  If man didn't wonder or pretend, we would not have made the various discoveries in science and technology that have been made over the years.  It's the message of the entire film, begging us to come along and pretend with Justin for at least a little while and maybe learn something from it.

As such it is fitting that the end is left open to our imagination.  Is it really Moriarty approaching Holmes and Watson or just a coincidence?  It's up to you to decide.  What I found the most touching was that by the end Watson believed along with him, and even if they were both wrong, they would be wrong together from now on.

As you can probably tell, I highly recommend this film.  It's possible that some of its zaniness or saccharine sweet message to believe in the impossible might be too much for some, but for me that's exactly why I like it so much.  It can't hurt to give it a chance and see if it charms you as much as it did me.  Unfortunately,  you can't purchase it on DVD right now, let alone Bluray, but it is available to watch on Netflix Instant, possibly viewable on Youtube, or you might get really lucky and find an affordable VHS copy.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, I'll have to check it out. I like the idea behind the name of the film.


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