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Is there a Madison curse for Hollywood movies? Almost every big-budget project filmed on location here is an artistic failure, even if it stars foolproof actors like Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer or Johnny Depp.
Madison's latest victim is Public Enemies, which brought Depp and Christian Bale to various Wisconsin locations last year. I watched director Michael Mann film at the Capitol and can attest that he poured tremendous resources into the tale of John Dillinger's 1930s crime spree. The Square teemed with vintage cars and dolled-up extras. Mann filmed for hours just to get a few seconds of footage that would be historically accurate and dramatically compelling. Sadly, he must not have known about the Madison curse.
On the eve of Public Enemies' Dec. 8 release on video, let's look at the bad movies Hollywood has made in Madison, along with the one unlikely exception.
Public Enemies (2009)
Watching for Madison locations is about the only thing that got me through Public Enemies' shapeless 2½ hours. The Capitol stands in for its D.C. counterpart, and we see glimpses of the interior and exterior. Kind of cool, but it would have been nice if director Mann had added coherent drama and characters to go with those images. Public Enemies is a blur of bank robberies and shootouts, with a bogus love story thrown in between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Johnny Depp's Dillinger looks good in his '30s duds - indeed, the whole movie looks good, including the Wisconsin images from Darlington, Columbus, Oshkosh and Manitowish Waters. Unfortunately, looking good is all Mann cares about. He's deeply concerned with keeping his camera moving, not in the least concerned with moving the story along. For all Dillinger's talk of living fast, the movie sits still, dramatically speaking. We can barely distinguish among Dillinger's partners in crime, to the point where Baby Face Nelson's death in a north-woods shootout makes no impression whatsoever.
Not even Dillinger makes an impression, as Depp is given little to do but squint through hard eyes and mutter gangster epigrams. Mann's take on his hero is as undeveloped as everything else in the film. I think we're supposed to believe that this brutal killer is a good guy, or at least no worse than Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis and the other G-men trying to protect the public.
And why would that be? Beats me. Public Enemies' moral viewpoint is as shaky as Michael Mann's handheld camera.
I Love Trouble (1994)
I watched Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts film a scene for this romantic comedy on King Street. When shooting finished, Roberts walked up Webster Street to her trailer on East Main. Onlookers trailed after her, slowly and surreptitiously. That didn't make any sense to me, so I took off running to catch up with her. I didn't know why, exactly, but I figured I'd deal with that when I got there.
Racing at top speed, I accidentally smashed into a big guy walking in the same direction on Webster. When he turned around to look at me, I saw that it was Nolte, on his way to his own trailer. Normally I'd stop to talk to a star of his magnitude, but not with Julia Roberts a few yards away. I just kept running.
Julia beat me to her trailer that day, but I know what I'll say if I ever do get a chance to meet her: What the heck happened with I Love Trouble? She uses all the weapons in her romantic-comedy arsenal - everything from the sarcastic smirk to the irresistible smile, with much cute eye-rolling in between. You'd think the cameraman would merely have to remove the lens cap and Roberts would take care of the rest. But even she can't save a dumb plot about dueling Chicago reporters who chase a story into Wisconsin, bickering until they inevitably fall in love.
The scene on King Street is as badly staged as anything I've seen in a major motion picture. Roberts and Nolte walk out of the "Capitol Steak House," a fake faade set up next to the Majestic Theatre. They cross the street and almost get run over by someone trying to scare them off their story. The editing is choppy, and the location barely registers - the shadowy Capitol in the background might as well be a matte painting. Did the production really need to come all the way to Madison for this 30 seconds' worth of generic footage?
The worst thing about I Love Trouble, though, is Nolte. He's cast as the rogue who's lovable in spite of his faults - the Clark Gable/Cary Grant role from screwball comedies. But there's nothing lovable about this performance. Nolte plays the character as coarse and lecherous, to the point where you see him more as a sex offender than a romantic lead.
I wish I'd smashed into him even harder on Webster Street.
The Last Kiss (2006)
Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) are a couple wondering whether to marry after Jenna gets pregnant. In the first scene, the camera pulls up from their car to show the Capitol perched atop Washington Avenue. They live right here in Mad City, hanging out at the Terrace and strolling down Bascom Hill. It's fun to see Hollywood stars posing as Madisonians, even though the trained eye can tell that some of the settings aren't local.
Aside from that cheap thrill, The Last Kiss has little to offer. Michael is supposed to be an appealing jerk who balks at the idea of settling down. The problem is that Braff doesn't have the screen presence to put over the "appealing" part. That just leaves "jerk," and you don't feel sorry for Michael when he gets sucked into a troubled affair with a cute UW student (Rachel Bilson).
You do feel sorry for Bilson, forced to play a character who's nothing more than a symbol of youth and freedom. All she does is bat her eyes and hand Michael a mix tape of "some really cool Madison bands."
Instead of renting The Last Kiss, I'd recommend going out to hear some really cool Madison bands.
The Deep End of the Ocean (1999)
This adaptation of the novel by local author Jacquelyn Mitchard begins with a promising title: "Madison, Wisconsin, 1988." But we don't see any stars cavorting on our streets, merely aerial views of John Nolen Drive, the Capitol and West Washington Avenue. Hollywood sent a unit here to film a few exteriors, leaving the actors behind.
Michelle Pfeiffer stars as a Madison woman whose son is kidnapped during a trip to Chicago. It's a thankless role, requiring all the expected histrionics. She cries, she screams, she lashes out, she wallows in guilt. A bulging vein on Pfeiffer's neck seems about ready to pop - and maybe if it had, she'd have won the Oscar she was clearly shooting for.
The movie does offer a moral for Madisonians: Never travel to Illinois.
Chain Reaction (1996)
Director Andrew Davis delighted audiences with 1993's The Fugitive, and Chain Reaction seemed like a natural follow-up: another tale of a wrongly accused hero (Keanu Reeves) on the run from law enforcement, with huge action set pieces sprinkled throughout. I watched a bit of Chain Reaction's Madison shoot in 1996, as Reeves was filmed skulking outside the Capitol.
Little did I realize that, in the finished movie, all he would do is skulk. Reeves is outrageously miscast as a floppy-haired Chicago scientist involved in a "hydrogen energy project" so important it will save the entire world. He's supposed to be smart (you can tell because he furrows his brow a lot), but he makes the boneheaded decision to flee the authorities when his boss is killed by shadowy evildoers.
Thus begins the skulking. Reeves and helpless damsel-in-distress Rachel Weisz sneak around Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., where Madison's Capitol is used to represent other white classical buildings. Reeves makes a strangely seamless transition from science geek to action hero who scales drawbridges, hijacks boats and knocks out bad guys. Pursued through a D.C. museum, he smashes a glass case, grabs a Neanderthal bone and bonks an adversary over the head.
A Neanderthal bone to the head would be a fitting punishment for director Davis as well.
For Keeps (1988)
For Keeps is probably the worst Hollywood production with a Madison connection, but it does feature a semi-fictionalized version of Isthmus. Darcy (Molly Ringwald), a high school senior from Kenosha, plans to study journalism at the UW-Madison. She comes to town for a visit (cue shot of Bascom Hill) and meets with the publisher of the hip weekly newspaper.
During the local shoot, the filmmakers asked real-life Isthmus publisher Vince O'Hern for permission to show a copy of the newspaper in this scene. The O'Hern figure is played by a square-jawed hunk, but I waited in vain to see myself portrayed onscreen. I guess Richard Gere must have been busy with another project.
The movie is all downhill from there, as Darcy gets pregnant by her Kenosha boyfriend (Randall Batinkoff). Their futures are derailed when Darcy has the baby, and their relationship is tested in various melodramatic ways. Just when you think they (and you) are doomed to eternal gloom, the couple plan a redemptive move to Madison. The hip weekly newspaper has inexplicably decided to publish Darcy's trite ramblings about teenage motherhood.
As bad as For Keeps is, I did tear up a little at a happy ending that hinges on a Madison weekly newspaper.
Back to School (1986)
If major movie stars like Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Keanu Reeves can't make an appealing film in Madison, who can?
The king of the one-liners produced a string of trashy comedies in the 1980s and '90s. Dangerfield himself came up with Back to School's thin story about an uneducated millionaire who wants to ensure a better life for his son. He sends junior off to Grand Lakes University (a.k.a. the University of Wisconsin-Madison), then decides to join in the fun himself as the world's oldest freshman. He clashes with a snobby business professor (Paxton Whitehead), romances a free-spirited English professor (Sally Kellerman) and emerges as the school hero in an extravagantly silly finale.
Back to School will never be mistaken for a quality film, but over two decades later, it still works on its own terms. Dangerfield earns his laughs the old-fashioned way: He works for them. He puts over the material with perfect timing, exuberant physicality and probably the funniest faces ever made in Madison.
And speaking of Madison, the city has never looked lovelier onscreen. The actors walk through campus in the fall, in luscious light, on a carpet of multicolored leaves. We see Bascom Hill, Lake Mendota, the Terrace, the Red Gym, Park Street, Library Mall, the Capitol, Observatory Hill, Helen C. White Hall and Science Hall - and for once, Madison feels like Madison, not just a fantasy location spliced together in the editing room.
It looks like a pretty decent place to live.
Set here, filmed elsewhere
Away We Go (2009): A couple (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) who are about to have a baby visit potential places to settle down, including Madison. The location doesn't look at all familiar. But the UW professor (Maggie Gyllenhaal) brimming with kooky theories? We've definitely seen her around these parts.
The Prince & Me (2004): A student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Julia Stiles) falls in love with a Danish prince (Luke Mably) who's attending college undercover. (You know the type.) The UW scenes were filmed at the University of Toronto, which makes you wonder why they didn't just set the movie there. Hollywood works in mysterious ways.
Starman (1984): An alien (Jeff Bridges) exploring Earth is shot down near Madison. It enters the house of a local widow (Karen Allen), touches a lock of her dead husband's hair, then turns into him in a matter of seconds, beginning at the infant stage and ending as a naked adult. I don't know how things work on the alien's home planet, but here in Madison, that kind of behavior is considered impolite.