“He makes Hollywood feel better about itself.” – David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
I think that Thomson means this not just in the sense that Howard makes life-affirming and profitable commercial films, but in that he is also proves Hollywood can produce a child actor who eases gracefully into adulthood without pit stops of criminality, extreme neurosis, and self-destruction. Howard came of age as a ubiquitous screen presence in an industry that essentially practices child slavery, but unlike, say, Lindsay Lohan or Judy Garland, he seems pretty OK with it. What a sport! He has been a successful actor, director, and producer, and also gives the impression that he might be a genuinely happy person. This combination apparently makes for bland movies.
His films have largely been financially viable and validated by awards and industry esteem. He might just be the Norman Jewison of our day, and like Jewison, he is capable of producing quality, albeit inevitably compromised, mainstream entertainments in a multitude of genres. Also like Jewison, his movies are either less than or equal to the sum of their parts, never more.
I have nostalgic affection for 1980’s cable-TV staples Splash and Gung Ho. They’re not great films, but they certainly point out the extreme difference between what was and what is now considered comedy fluff. Howard started out making decent high-concept comedies, but quickly became a Robert Wise-ian genre-hopper, trying his hand at sentimental sci-fi (Cocoon); fantasy adventure (Willow, a film that provided seminal roles for Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, which I’m sure makes Howard Hawks and Sergei Eisenstein very happy up there in heaven); social satire (EdTV); a western (The Missing); an irredeemable pile of utter shit (How the Grinch Stole Christmas); a romantic epic (Far and Away); a domestic dramedy (Parenthood); and even an old-fashioned newspaper picture (The Paper). Most were entertaining on some level, but the net result was a string of faceless mediocrities.
Howard has shepherded several “prestige” properties to the screen – he was snubbed out of a Best Director nomination for 1995’s Apollo 13, but won the statue for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. I think that Apollo 13 is Howard’s best film, and like Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, a good example of what Howard can do with a can’t-miss property and all the right pieces in place. Apollo 13 is dictionary-definition solid Hollywood entertainment – big, plot-driven, emotionally involving, and action-packed, with one of Hanks’ least sentimental performances and the usual saves-the-movie supporting work from Ed Harris. Still, it’s not great. A Beautiful Mind is even less, but it’s still good, quasi-adult entertainment. Russell Crowe sells a difficult character despite the efforts of Akiva Goldsman’s contrived screenplay, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s that guy Ed Harris saving the movie again.
Howard beat out such piddling neophytes as Robert Altman, Peter Jackson, and David Lynch to win the 2001 Best Director Oscar, and it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him. His last three films have been dreadful, each one of them imbued with the benumbed tastefulness of a “major filmmaker” who possesses mild ambitions and middlebrow taste. The Missing could have worked with a stronger hand, but Howard is too timid to deal with the sticky racial implications of the screenplay. Cinderella Man is one of the great abominations of this decade; naturally, it was nominated for countless awards. If nauseating sentimentality determines the gold standard, then this is one of the all-time great boxing movies. One need only compare the Max Baer character in Cinderella Man with the John L. Sullivan character in Raoul Walsh’s similarly themed Gentleman Jim to realize how condescending and prim mainstream American film has become in recent decades.
The Da Vinci Code was what it was – long and boring…and an enormous payday for everyone involved. In these last three films, Howard appears to have lost his most precious, Jewison-like talent – the ability to showcase his lead actors. Oscar-validated talents Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, and Tom Hanks all stumbled through awful lead performances.
I don’t hate most of Ron Howard’s films, but I genuinely like only a few of them, and even then there are always reservations. Spielberg and Zemeckis share many of his bad tendencies, but they also have classics to present in their defense. Howard has done some producing, and did great TV voiceover work as himself on The Simpsons and as the narrator on Arrested Development. But this isn’t a TV voiceover blog, it’s a movie blog, and if I’m going to bump someone, it will have to be for a legacy of cinematic quality (if not outright greatness). I don’t see a legacy of quality in Howard…I see a legacy of mediocrity.
Things have hardly improved since that 2007 assessment, and even Apollo 13 looks moldy and disgustingly sentimental now. Howard has continued to genre hop, directing a prestige stage adaptation (Frost/Nixon); his first sequel (Angels and Demons); a bawdy comedy (The Dilemma); and a sports biopic (Rush). Howard’s next film is Heart of the Sea, which appears to be a hybrid of a costume drama and a Gravity/All is Lost-style man-against the-elements actioner. Say this about the guy – he’s not too full of himself to desperately chase established trends.
Howard continues to direct towards the lowest common denominator, and you get the impression that he stays up nights worrying that someone somewhere will watch a frame of his films and not know exactly how they’re supposed to feel. With Frank Langella and Michael Sheen kept intact from the stage play, Frost/Nixon was as close to un-fuckup-able as a movie could get, but don’t think Howard didn’t give it his best effort. Angels and Demons was absurd, but at least lacked the wretched self-seriousness of The Da Vinci Code. The Dilemma starred Vince Vaughn…say no more! Last year’s Rush was generally well-reviewed, but aside from a strong performance by Daniel Bruhl, I felt it was just more of Howard’s heavyhanded anonymity.
Howard’s continued lack of directorial personality is glaring, and he essentially employs whatever stereotypical style the genre he’s working in calls for. Rush uses slash-cut editing because it’s a racing movie; The Dilemma has high-key lighting because its a comedy; Far & Away has sweeping crane shots because its a historical romance; the Depression-era Cinderella Man uses muted hues to signify Serious Intentions. His defenders would argue that old Hollywood directors under contract had to practice that same sort of adaptability and anonymity, and that Howard’s ability to reach everyone in the audience is proof of a classic touch. I would argue that those studio-era directors were forced to subjugate their artistic ambitions, and yet the great ones still managed to forge a discernible personality over the course of many films.
There’s only one word for Howard, and it’s not “classic”. It’s “hack”. The Dump stands.