Brolin With the Homies is a Patreon-funded series wherein Kristen Lopez watches the final six Josh Brolin movies she’s yet to see.
I don’t know where I was April 16th, 2000 when this TV movie aired on CBS, but I doubt I would have appreciated it had I watched it as a precocious 12-year-old. I don’t mean that I’d have been unable to understand the original play by William Inge (which at that point I’d never read) or the 1955 adaptation starring Bill Holden and Kim Novak (which at that point I’d never seen). I mean that I wouldn’t have appreciated how stupid it thinks everyone is and thus probably would have bought what it was selling. I was a sucker for TV movies – something we don’t get enough of today – and I’ve given plenty of passes for TV movies that caught me at the right age. None of that for this attempt recreating Inge’s look at small-town living released during a kinder, simpler, pre-9/11 era.
Though this isn’t a movie, per se, I added this into the series because I just had to see how brassy Brolin’s balls were to think he could even reach the heights of everyone’s classic film love, William Holden. The 1955 movie version of Picnic is far from perfect; for starters, Holden was about 20 years too old to play washed-up football star Hal Carter. But despite the age gap Holden still had one thing: sex appeal. It also helped that he was a fantastic actor able to infuse Inge’s lines with munificence that, coupled with his sizzling chemistry with Kim Novak as Madge Owens, left audiences seeing Picnic as a gritty, B-level version of Tennessee Williams’ works.
The fundamentals of Inge’s play are still felt in Czech director Ivan Passer’s 2000 TV movie version. The small town is still there, prepping for the annual picnic where town beauty Madge Owens (Gretchen Mol) will be crowned….town princess, I guess? Let’s just call her the State Fair Butter Princess, to borrow from Jennifer’s Body. Fresh off the dusty road where he’s been hitchhiking is Hal Carter (the man of the hour, Josh Brolin), who catches the eye of Madge’s younger sister, Millie (Chad Morgan) before eventually seducing all the women in the Owens’ house with the exception of Madge’s mother (played by Holly Gennaro – I’m assuming post-divorce – aka Bonnie Bedelia). So, we have all the players set up, but Passer just doesn’t seem to know how to play the game.
For starters, this movie clocked in for me at 94 minutes despite IMDb listing a runtime of an hour and forty minutes. I doubt six additional minutes would have fixed anything, but where the 1955 version felt fleshed out, structured, this iteration is rushing to the next commercial break. Things happen and if I hadn’t seen the original materials I doubt I would have understood things, so i shudder at someone going in cold to this. For starters, Hal Carter comes into town and immediately meets the only 4 people who seemingly populate it. The female characters all wear their thoughts on their face so pointedly you wonder if Bedelia is going to vomit because she obviously hates him, while Mary Steenburgen, playing the thirsty old maid, Rosemary, looks at him with all the sexual potency of Blanche DuBois meeting the paperboy.
There’s a Cliffs Notes version to everything with several callbacks to the film, done with a quality reminiscent of the “Blockblister” sketches on The Amanda Show. Case in point, the dance sequence between Holden and Novak in the ’55 film. It’s a mating ritual for middle America, with Novak dreamily enchanted by Carter’s potent sexuality. They literally dance around their feelings for each other and some of their dance movies are silly but that’s because they don’t care about the movies, they care that they’re near each other. Absolutely none of that is in evidence here. The limitations of the budget don’t extend to just a picnic that seems to have invited about 6 people; the entirety of the film is hardly lit at all, leaving the real-time quality to make for a film where people should be running into each other. So when Hal and Madge dance, it’s hard to tell what they’re doing. Not to mention they’re dancing is just standard slow dancing reminiscent of a 7th grade dance. There’s nothing hyperbolic or sexual to it (or at least what you can see).
Maybe teleplay writer Shelley Evans – who work skews towards the Lifetime variety – didn’t understand what Inge was saying about his play. That’s not to say she misses the point completely. There’s a wonderful series of interactions between Bedelia and Mol as they discuss the differing trajectories of their lives. Bedelia’s Flo wants Madge to marry the wealthy Alan Benson (played by the dead-eyed Ben Caswell) as a means of rewriting her own past. It’s trite to see this relationship play out when so many other mother/daughter stories have told this plotline better, and in many ways it plays a community theater rehash of the discussion between Cybil Shepard and Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show, or Frances Fisher and Kate Winslet in Titanic. That’s the problem, the material just hasn’t dated well, and what isn’t dated is re-dated by the movie. Why does this film make a point of taking place in 1966? The costuming looks as if it’s from 2000, and outside of Millie’s constant repeating that Vietnam is on there’s no indication the time period is making a statement parallel to Inge’s point.
But, this is a series about Josh Brolin, so how was the man? Well, this is 2000 or what I call “peak Brolin hotness.” Seriously, watch this and Hollow Man and you’ll understand what I love about Brolin in this era; he was really, really proud of his body. I mean, he still is if you look at his Instagram, but there’s a running joke in my house that Brolin made it a stipulation in his contracts up until recently that he was required to take his shirt off at least twice in every feature. Look at all his movies up until about 2013. It’s totally true. And considering this movie wants to sell Hal Carter as an entitled guy who believes, to quote a Disney short, “the world owes me a living” and his good looks are all that sustains him….yeah that sounds appropriate. The camera loves to objectify him, not waiting for an excuse to have him change his shirt or hose himself down. In certain scenes the camera will focus on others, yet his ass is in the frame. No problems there.
At one point Alan asks Hal “how come you aren’t a bigger star” and it’s a pointed criticism of what Brolin was up to at this point in time. He’s definitely got enthusiasm for the role. He’s charming, casting an easy smile on everyone. He dances like a total goober, but he’s game. He’s just not Hal Carter. You can really say that about all the actors. Gretchen Mol is pretty, but she’s just pretty. Novak we were meant to see as a woman far too beautiful to live in a small town; she’d be rode hard and put away wet by 30. Here, Mol is just somnambulent the whole time, smiling and acting coquettish. Morgan doesn’t seem to know how to read the lines as Millie, a character I LOVED when Susan Strasberg played it in ’55. Morgan is in the limnal stage between teen and adult, so it’s creepy when she’s hanging out with Brolin yet she looks too old to be acting like a teenager. Mary Steenburgen is good, but she looks like she’s waiting for an adaptation of Streetcar to be filmed on the same set. When she leaves to get married, I just assumed she was going to find that streecar named Desire.
Honestly, I think Picnic is going to be the high point of this entire series. And even then that’s damning it with faint praise. If you want to watch Josh Brolin dance like it’s 1966 by way of 2000, rock tight jeans, and generally look good, it’s a solid 94-minute time-waster. But if you’re looking for a modern, for the time, interpretation of Inge’s play, this film is no picnic. (See what I did there?)