Happy Birthday, Paul Newman! Five films you would have made better

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Public Enemies

The Part: Melvis Purvis, originally played by Christian Bale.

The Movie: Michael Mann's Public Enemies was supposed to be Heat in the early 1930s, but the results were less Heat, more Righteous Kill. Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, criminal mastermind and outlaw folk hero, while Christian Bale plays the FBI agent tracking Dillinger to bring him to justice (kill him in the street).

The Problem: Mann's movies are always an exercise in cold technicality, not unlike the sociopathic professionals he explores in his work. The way around this is to finally hire Johnny Depp, an actor so charismatic and lovable that the audience has no choice but to connect and relate to him and his desires. Bale, however, defines his character by his distant professionalism, and he'd rather shoot something than express his fears or doubts (or utter a contraction. He does not use contractions). Thus the film becomes desperately one-sided in Dillinger's favor, becoming a story of a very nice 1930s criminal rock star being brutally shot down by the FBI, instead of the cat-and-mouse who-do-I-root-for complexity of Mann's masterpiece, Heat. Which is probably why at the beginning you were like, "Dude, Melvin Purvis wasn't even a lead in Public Enemies."

How Newman Would Fix It: Newman had already played characters with Purvis' background -- his grew-up-a-poor-country-boy-but-look-at-how-capable-he-is-now role in the Young Philadelphians was an early success -- and his inherently rebellious persona never stopped him from making movies about accepting duty. In fact, it helped with his easy relatability. It would add credence to the idea that Purvis's mission was one he thought righteous -- here is a man that seems to have the capability, if not the tendency, to break the rules, but believing in Hoover's vision, he becomes an unstoppable agent of law, willing to kill to uphold the ideal, and perfectly aware that doing so would cast him as the villain in mainstream American culture. His slide into his own morally gray hell and eventual suicide would seem like the tragic inevitability of someone who had been duped into denying their very nature. Similar to the way Dillinger thought he was untouchable and discovered otherwise (bang bang), Purvis would be forced to realize that he's not always right.

I Love You Phillip Morris

The Part: Steven Russel, originally played by Jim Carrey

The Movie: Based on a true story, Steven Russel, con artist, impostor, and thief falls in love with fellow prison inmate Phillip Morris, then breaks out of jail four times to be reunited with him.

The Problem: Jim Carrey plays the part kinda like an In Living Color sketch. While consistently better than he is in every large budget studio picture he makes, Carrey is never able to find the heart or humanity inside of Russel and connect to it the way he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, probably his finest performance to date. He goes big and he goes brash, leaving the emotional weight of the story to fall on the very capable shoulders of Ewan McGregor, who is inexplicably in love with someone that appears to be nothing more than a sociopath. McGregor more than delivers, making us feel the universal pain of being away from someone we love, despite that fact that his love is a lying criminal who appears to care only about his own desires, one of which happens to be the titular Phillip Morris.

How Newman Would Fix It: Take the calm confidence and capability of Newman in The Sting, the manipulative ambition of him in Slapshot, add a dose of flaming homosexual HUD and have him escape prison a lot, like Cool Hand Luke. Newman was one of the kings of expressing a backlog of completely introspective motivation, adding a human dimension to a whole mess of characters that would otherwise have been nothing more than callow and self-centered, sometimes without even expressing exactly what it is. Why does Cool Hand Luke HAVE to rebel? Is it a consequence of his relationship with his mother? The stifling southern society he existed in? It doesn't matter. Newman gives us a character who doesn't know his own motivations, but knows he has them -- and he's trying to fight against them. As each iconic moment comes up we can see in Newman's face, in his eyes, that the wheels are turning until he says, "Okay, but I just HAVE to."



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Tim Davids