Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie Analysis: The Brass Teapot

The Brass Teapot had a fun trailer, so when it came up on Netflix, I used it as my exercise movie for a while. (Choosing an exercise movie is as important as choosing exercise music: you need something exciting and fun without being too distracting.) Unfortunately, the movie doesn't entirely live up to the promise of the trailer (and all the reviews I've seen agree); and it took me a few extra exercise sessions to finish up.

Here's the premise: a young couple, Alice (Juno Temple) and John (Michael Angarano) have money trouble. Though Alice was voted "most likely to succeed" in high school, now that she has a degree in Art History, she can't find a job; while John's job as a telemarketer is a succession of minor failures and irritants. Then they find a magical teapot that will give them money when they hurt themselves. (Well, Alice steals it from an old woman.)

This discovery leads to a huge--and dumb--change in lifestyle. They move to a giant mansion; become friendly with the shallow rich folk Alice knew in high school; drop relations with her real but poor friends. And since Alice wants more and John is worried, their perfect marriage starts to develop rifts.

On top of all that, the brass teapot's original owner's children--two Hasidic Jews--come for the money that John and Alice made by hurting themselves. There's a wise Chinese man from a theosophical institution who warns them that they need to give the teapot up so he can destroy it. Also, there's their original landlord who suspects something is up and tries to steal the teapot.

And on top of all that, the teapot stops paying out so well for physical pain inflicted on themselves, so John and Alice start experimenting with emotional pain and with hurting others.

That's a pretty fun set-up, with enough moving parts to generate a lot of conflict and tension. And while it has a magical/fun premise (magic teapot), the core is something serious: how relationships weather through conflicts and change.

But the film still somewhat disappoints. Why? Well, there are some small details that are misfires: when we hear that Hitler owned the teapot, the implication is that the Holocaust was just a money-getting scheme, which is... not good. (Some reviewers have reacted poorly to the money-stealing Hasidic Jews and the wise Chinese side character.)

But it's really the big issues with the leads that keeps this movie back for me. John and Alice are very cute at the beginning; but when the teapot gets between them--Alice pushing for more and more pain in order to get more and more money, while John basically wants out--the movie reaches for conflict, but it mostly just makes these two characters unlikable. And it doesn't entirely explain that conflict; there's some hints that the teapot corrupts people, but that's a pretty dissatisfying motivation for a main character. I can accept some dumb moves--like moving to a big house--but others seem out of character: why do John and Alice dump their good friends?

Lastly, many reviewers object to the happy ending as a betrayal of the story; and while I don't disagree with them in theory--a happy ending could work here--in practice the switch from fighting all the time to working together doesn't work for these main characters.

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