Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rosemary's Baby Part 1 - "Could It Be...Hmmm...SATAN?"

Okay, I'll acknowledge that's an old reference, but trust me, it's not without reason here.

First, I should explain something. Lately, I've been trying to be more lenient towards recent updates of things. Yeah, a lot of them can be painful. At the same time, I do acknowledge I can sometimes be unfair to some of these right out of the gate. This particular piece was in part inspired by the fact I recently got into watching (Thanks to your incredibly persistent girlfriend- Editor) Bryan Fuller's Hannibal - a televised reboot of the characters from Thomas Harris's novels. For a show that I was initially INCREDIBLY skeptical about, it's now one of the better shows I've seen on television in a while, and its recent renewal was a big plus for me.

However, when NBC announced its plans to do a miniseries version of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, my initial response was...shall we say less than enthusiastic.

Anyway, I started to wonder if maybe I wasn't being fair to this update. So, despite my many reservations, I decided to sit down and give this a go. I even went ahead with revisiting the original novel just to gauge how this one would fare compared to the source (which was kind of a practice in futility. Polanski's version really is an almost 1:1 lift of the novel, so for this to do the same would be about as logical as Gus van Sant's approach to Psycho.)

Anyway, I finally sat down with this doing my damnedest to keep an open mind. On the plus side, I can now honestly say my problems with this movie really aren't just personal bias talking.

Before I go into this one, I do want to say this: the more I think about it, the more I can honestly say I'm not opposed to the idea of updating Rosemary's Baby as a general rule. There are certainly elements of the original story that wouldn't translate well to modern day - things like the religious and political aspects in the setting,  but there are also themes in it that still speak well to modern audiences: most notably the theme of loss of agency and autonomy during pregnancy, which is still disturbingly relevant. I can see the case for wanting to deviate from the text - even beyond the fact the story's already been given as faithful a lift as it's going to get already - and honestly would even welcome an update that kept with that core theme (especially given how religiously motivated a lot of the issue of women's rights can be.)

Unfortunately, if part 1 of this new version is any indication, exploring those themes through a modern filter isn't high on the priorities list - though I could be wrong, as the first part ended with the infamous 'date raped by the devil' moment.

But we'll get back to the themes. Otherwise, let me just say, as an adaptation, this is almost an entirely different story so far. I mean, at the center is the VERY loose thread of plot - Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are the fresh-faced young couple trying to make it, Guy gets a chance at the big leagues, and all at the low, low cost of renting out his wife's uterus for nine months to grow the spawn of the Prince of Darkness - and oh, she has no idea about this deal, so she has no idea why everyone's suddenly so protective of her child. know, that chapter that got edited out of later editions of What To Expect When You're Expecting.

Back when it was getting published with this cover art.

Anyway, outside of a couple of character names (in fact, outside of the Woodhouses, the only two characters to really carry over to this version are the Castevets, although that's more in name than character) there's really very little of Levin's original story in this version. I can kind of get the sense of logic behind a couple of the choices - trading out New York for Paris does still allow the story to maintain that feeling of 'the outsider' that colors a lot of Rosemary's initial interactions, and likewise, changing Guy's profession from acting to teaching does make it a little more plausible for them TO be sent to Paris in the first place.

Unfortunately, there are several other changes that really don't add much to this version - one of the most glaring being within the first five minutes of part one, where we're introduced to another Parisian couple who had previously tried to take up the 'surrogate parents of the Antichrist' deal; a point that ultimately blows one of the story's big twists rather early - ESPECIALLY if you already know about it. Probably one of the strangest for me was their choice of reworking for Roman and Minnie (now Margaux) Castevet. In the original book/film, we see them as just a pair of overly friendly and doting to the point of annoyance elderly people. In fact, it's very easy to sympathize with Rosemary and Guy's initial irritation with them. In this version, rather than being a seemingly benign older couple, the Castevets are the embodiment of 'the beautiful people' - younger, wealthier, and much more openly connected with all of society's elite. This is done, in part, to help set up Roman's being able to make the deal with Guy (who gets a lot more plot to himself this time, as this version does away with telling the story from Rosemary's perspective) and is something of a side effect of the change in career, but otherwise it feels like it undermines the whole point of the Castevets. As an initial concept, Roman and Minnie are two characters who are supposed to seem like the LEAST likely people to be involved in a Satanic coven. By comparison, looking at the new version (played by Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet) they come across as already seeming suspicious from the outset. In fact, with the change in location and role, there's moments of this adaptation that feel like the filmmakers rented the wrong Polanski adaptation for reference and started remaking The Ninth Gate by accident.

It also doesn't help that they're naturally in 'just as planned' expression.

The suspicious nature of the Castevets, and this is where this review's subtitle comes into play, is part of what's arguably the biggest problem this version has - it announces its evil with a full marching band. Besides how faithful Polanski's vision is to Levin's story, it has otherwise aged quite well as a thriller for one big reason - it runs on the rule of 'less is more.' I realize it's hard to really play up the mystery in Rosemary's Baby nowadays, given its big twist, like such other thrillers as Psycho and The Usual Suspects is now part of pop culture common knowledge. Yet once you disregard that, the earlier film does a good job of downplaying the supernatural elements of the storyline. In fact, before the ending confirms it, a lot of the way the movie presents things is done in such a fashion that one could just as easily read it as paranoia on Rosemary's part that is only confirmed at the very end as the big reveal. This new version makes the same mistake the 2006 remake of The Omen did, and wears its supernatural elements on its sleeve, with no real interest or concern for leaving audiences to ponder these things. This is probably most overtly handled in how Guy gets his big promotion in this version - Levin's initial version makes it come across as a freak accident: the actor he competes with goes blind. In the new version, his competition hallucinates wildly in a job interview, snaps, stabs the interviewer with a letter opener, and then uses it to slit her own throat.

It's one of the problems that comes with trying to remake a story when everyone knows the big reveal. It winds up being made with the assumption that the audience already knows what's happening, so why try and hide it? While I could somewhat sympathize with the filmmakers for handling that challenge, there's a part of me that is still disappointed they didn't at least try to maintain the element of mystery, instead embracing more overt horrific imagery, much more blatant foreshadowing, and much more blatant deaths. By the time this version got to a scene where Rosemary learns the history of her new apartment - an account previously related by an old friend and author, which gave the stories something of a loose possibility of exaggeration - here learned from a priest, who makes it very clear the devil has influence in her building, I could tell it was all downhill from here. When said priest later met his demise, it came as no shock. Rather than being Rosemary's Baby, this version is technically asking "What if we did The Omen with the Woodhouses in place of the Thornes?"

Ironically, for as overt as other things are, THIS is their vision of Satan.
...Yeah. I was at least hoping for as much as they were playing things up here, they'd put a bit more thought into this.

I do kind of feel bad about coming down on this adaptation as hard as I am, and if it were at least still a good film on its own, I could at least fall back on that. Unfortunately, if this first night is any indication, it's gonna take a lot to salvage this. The cast are largely just functional, with the two big names of the cast - Isaacs and Zoe Saldana in the title role - alternating between being decent in certain scenes and completely underwhelming in others. In the case of the former, I can get why he was picked for the role  - in this version, Roman is the polished salesman for the life of the upper crust that he's trying to use to bait Guy into making his wife the devil's incubator, and Isaacs does try to put on the charm for the part. Unfortunately, thanks to the number of 'evil' roles, he's been cast in at this point, his sales pitch here makes it clear he's a corrupting influence. The bigger challenge would have been to cast someone who the viewer wouldn't expect to be so overtly evil. Meanwhile, Saldana's Rosemary starts as an interesting update on the character - where the original is written as a passive housewife from Omaha adjusting to life in the big city, here Rosemary is depicted as more of an equal to Guy - we learn from the get-go she partially stopped working so they could have a child, only for it to miscarry. In terms of giving her a bit more of an equal footing, Saldana plays this well enough. The problems arise as the movie starts to turn over the cards on its sinister elements. Saldana has developed something of a reputation at this point for playing the tougher characters in film, so seeing her in the role of the uncertain and concerned is a chance for her to branch out and show some range. In a couple of moments, it hits, but in others, it feels rather flat. Probably the most damning moment here being at the very end of the first part - the above mentioned 'demonic date rape' scene. This version chooses to leave off on her fleeting moment of just what's actually happening, with the fateful line "This is not a dream." It's a moment that's really supposed to help sell the sense that something is awry here. The problem is, because this version has already established that something is awry from the get go, the moment is already at lower impact, then add Saldana's rather half-hearted line read, and what's supposed to be a sinister note to end the first part of simply just sputters.

Besides the two big names, Patrick J. Adams as Guy is rather limited in what he gets to do - which, given how much more story he has this time, seems a bit strange. Even more so given this version isn't exactly being subtle about the nature of the way the Castevets work, one would think Adams would be allowed a few scenes of internal conflict before signing over his wife's womb space to the forces of Hell. Yeah, we don't really see that much from Guy in the original version either, but again, that's because that story is being told exclusively from Rosemary's perspective - so it makes sense she wouldn't be getting any wind of that or the whole deal falls apart. By this version switching to more of a third person omniscient style of telling the story, they have a chance to really explore that angle more, but instead Adams mostly just sits there and listens to Jason Isaacs tell him about all the kicks that come from renting out your wife's EZ-bake oven to Beelzebub. [...I should probably stop with those, huh?] Bouquet, meanwhile, plays into similar problems as Isaacs, albeit less overtly so. She does play the ingratiating side well, being accommodating to a fault while being less openly sinister by comparison. At the same time, where the earlier Mrs. Castevet reads as mostly just nosy, Bouquet's Margaux feels much more intrusive, complete with the film working in not one but two scenes of her locking lips with Rosemary. No. That's not a typo. In both cases, it really is kind of random for the scene as well. Like they felt like they needed to do something that said 'personal space? Bah!' and that was their choice.

and Guy...well...Guy's just getting things warmed up for his new boss.
...there's no way to NOT make this one creepy.

With the end of the first part, Rosemary is now officially pregnant. So maybe part two will prove me wrong and this miniseries will actually have something to say for the themes of loss of agency with pregnancy after all. They certainly were claiming to attempt a more sophisticated take on the themes than the original (their words, not mine.) So now that we're up to that point, the time will come to see if they are gonna put their money where their mouths are.

As of this first part, however, I am not optimistic. Outside of some polished production values, I'm not really seeing much that this version offers that wasn't already covered - well, unless the idea of a story in the 1960s is THAT off-putting to a viewer. Taking a story of uncertainty and some loose mystery, this version instead embraces a more graphic and direct approach, deciding not to bother with the slow burn since the secret's out there. As a result, we get a version that telegraphs a lot of its twists without really building any suspense for itself.

I will continue to give them a chance to see if part two can turn this around. But at this point, I'm gonna be honest, while this hasn't soured me on updates - I do plan to try and be more open to them in the future - this one DID help to remind that, yeah, sometimes it just doesn't work is all.

Better luck next time, guys.

On the plus side, the credits also mention parts of this are adapted from Levin's sequel Son of Rosemary, so maybe part two will see the completely insane finale.

Time will tell.

Till next time, folks.

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