Sometimes navel gazing is a good thing, if an artist looks truly and honestly inside him or herself for material. If they're truly gifted, and can tap into something universal or human, the result can be a masterwork. But if the artist finds himself too far removed from everyday life, or if their visions and ideas are too close to home to find a logical shape, the result can be something of a mess. Navel-gazing dramas are a dime a dozen, but it takes a special talent to try it with comedy. Judd Apatow's Funny People was the #1 movie in a very slow week, which shows that audiences were probably about as fond of it as critics were. I would bet the main complaint across the board was the same: it's too long. Either way, there's usually something interesting about these projects.
1. Elizabethtown (2005)
Though Apatow is catching up, Cameron Crowe is the #1 comedy navelgazer in the history of cinema. This rambling, sprawling thing was supposed to be a cute romantic comedy about a depressed schlub whose life is turned around by a cute airline stewardess. Unfortunately, too many useless subplots about funerals and forgotten bands get in the way, in addition to the fact that the male character is overwritten and underplayed by Orlando Bloom, and the female character is underwritten and overplayed by Kirsten Dunst. The whole thing culminates in a weird musical, mix-tape road trip odyssey that must have lit Crowe's fire, but didn't spark for anyone else.
2. Limelight (1952)
The aging Charlie Chaplin made this movie about an aging stage clown, drunk and lost and down, until he manages to save the life of a suicidal young dancer (Claire Bloom). He nurses her back to health and convinces her to dance again; she falls in love with him, but he knows that she really belongs with a handsome young composer (Sydney Chaplin). The film feels long and not very funny, but it's deceptive in that the humor is deliberately sad and out of date. This was Chaplin wrestling with some tough demons, and he even features his only onscreen death. Today, the film is best known for its legendary teaming of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but it's an unsung masterpiece, navel-gazing at its best.
3. Patch Adams (1998)
Many comedians succumb to crying-on-the-inside, navel-gazing pathos at some point, mainly because they long for attention and realize that they'll only get it when they stop smiling. But Robin Williams has been driven to more drivel than most. He sunk to a particularly dark period with films like Being Human (1993), Jack (1996), Bicentennial Man (1999) and Jakob the Liar (1999), with unchecked sentiment substituting for anything watchable. But Patch Adams was the legendary, infamous low point.
4. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman's screenplays for other directors have mostly resulted in amazing, tightly constructed, well-balanced films (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.). His directorial debut, on the other hand, is something else. It has a lot of fans, and a group of critics -- including our own former editor Karina Longworth -- have already rallied to its defense, declaring it an overlooked classic. But I find that Kaufman behind the camera lost control of his production just as his playwright hero Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) loses control of his. It's undeniably massive and impressive and imaginative, but there are too many leaps in time, too many neglected subplots and sub-themes, and for a descent into madness, it goes on too long.
5. Almost Famous (2000)
Crowe again. But whereas Elizabethtown was immediately identified as a stinker, Almost Famous was instantly declared a classic. I think critics saw a lot of themselves, or wished they saw a lot of themselves, in Crowe's passive journalist character William (Patrick Fugit) and his quest for love, friendship and a great story in Rolling Stone. But for a film based on Crowe's own life, it's astonishingly whitewashed and harmless. It's as if Crowe himself fell victim to his own fantasy. The film is also on my s---list because it briefly legitimized Kate Hudson by giving her an Oscar nomination. But I still give it credit for the brilliant bits with Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock critic Lester Bangs. If only those moments of acid ranting had taken over the rest of the vanilla mood.
6. Reign Over Me (2007)
I like this weird little movie which has as its core an unlikely men's friendship (an early "bromance"?) but sprinkles in too many other subplots, including one about 9/11, which automatically brings weight and depth to anything, even if it doesn't fit thematically. What's odd is how well Adam Sandler adapts to this kind of navel-gazing material, which might also include Spanglish and Funny People. He seems like a carefree, good-time guy, rude and crude and fearless, and that makes his need for acceptance a little more opaque and a little more interesting. Unlike Robin Williams, when he tries these more challenging roles, it seems like a step up for him, rather than a step down.
7. Avanti! (1972)
This was one of Crowe's inspirations for Elizabethtown, and at 144 minutes, it's one of Billy Wilder's longest films. (Only Irma La Douce, at 147 minutes, is longer.) It's hard not to wonder just how something like this came about, and why somebody didn't say something to Wilder. In it, Jack Lemmon stars as a nervous schlub who travels to Italy to retrieve the body of his dead father. He discovers that his father has been having an affair with a lady who has died in the same accident. He also meets and eventually falls for the free-spirited daughter (Juliet Mills) of his father's mistress. The movie has its defenders, but also many detractors, and everyone agrees that it's too long. It has some ugly spots and many truly odd moments, and it can get awfully high-pitched, but also spends a lot of time relaxing in the Italian vistas.