Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hidden Figures


Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Some Language

Biopics have become a genre, and their subjects have become brands.  Some have been amazing (I count "Schindler's List" as one of the greatest films ever made), while others aren't.  But like sequels, they're considered cash cows to bring in an easy buck.  "Hidden Figures" at least has its heart in the right place, but this is by-the-numbers filmmaking.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a brilliant mathematician.  Growing up a child prodigy, she ended up working for NASA.  With her co-workers Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae), we see them persevere through racism and sexism to become some of the most brilliant minds that NASA has ever seen.

The problem isn't with the story.  It's the manner in which it is assembled.  Every character has their own neat little arc, each scene fits in because it needs to for the plot to move forward in precisely the right fashion, and each character is given one thing they must accomplish by the end of the movie.  In other words, the film is hopelessly predictable and manufactured.  There's no sense of life or energy to it.  It's as bland as tofu.

The acting befits the way it has been made.  Lead actress Taraji P. Henson does what she can, but the pedestrian nature of the dialogue and the direction limit her hard work.  Octavia Spencer, who can pretty much write "scene stealer" as her job description, is similarly undermined.  She's simply there to add color and sass.  Ditto for Janelle Monae.  Their co-stars fare worse.  Kevin Costner exists only to set up the big emotional moments by recognizing Katherine's gifts and sticking up for her when racism gets in the way.  Kirsten Dunst is completely wasted as the bitch who grows a heart.  And Jim Parsons makes for a truly annoying (in a good way, I guess) racist.

I'm surprised at the reception that "Hidden Figures" has been getting.  It's a perfect January release; high hopes but a big miss.  That it was awarded several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) is surprising.  Not that the Academy hasn't made some boneheaded decisions in the past, but really?  This a textbook case of an underdog drama misfiring.  It fails at being inspirational or even manipulative.  I didn't care about anyone in this movie.  Except for perhaps John Glenn (Powell), because he's played with a likability that's missing from the rest of the movie.

If you want my opinion, leave this one for the discount DVD bin and watch "The Right Stuff" again.  It is better made, better acted and is far more intelligent and honest.

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