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The Matador is Bueno

October 10, 2006

I didn’t realize Greg Kinnear played the same part in every movie until I saw The Matador.

The Greg Kinnear persona is decent, optimistic and naive, a hard-working American family man who’s always the last one to get the joke. But when he does, he shakes his head and laughs that “you got me!” laugh. The Kinnear persona is clean-shaven, punctual and gregarious. His shirts are always tucked in.

On paper, this routine should be grating, but it’s not. I think it’s because Kinnear is so good at turning his Rotary Club smile into a look of genuine despair. In his characters, we get occasional glimpses of the anxieties that haunt the all-American dad: the bills he can’t pay, the lusts he secretly harbors, the fears of not being good enough. Sometimes, as in Auto Focus, the Boy Scout life disintegrates, and the Kinnear face becomes a disarming facade for sinister behavior.

In The Matador, Kinnear is Danny Wright, a joyously married businessman from Denver who’s gone to Mexico City to seal a deal that will save his struggling business. This is Kinnear at his most decent and hardworking, the Kinnear we’d all like our dads to be. His wife’s name is Bean.

Playing the anti-Kinnear (all movies with Kinnear have one, a sour to balance Kinnear’s occasionally cloying sweetness) is Pierce Brosnan, as Julian Noble, an amoral assassin. Brosnan is great, but in essence he’s playing James Bond on the verge of burnout. Like Bond, he travels the world, stays in luxurious hotels, drinks on a daily basis, has sex with exotic women and kills people with unflappable efficiency. The only difference between Bond and Noble is that Noble is self-aware. And that’s a big difference.

Unlike Bond, Noble realizes the emptiness of a life spent fucking, drinking and killing. Like Bond, Noble has no personal attachments beyond his superiors, but unlike Bond, Noble is bitterly depressed about that fact. When we meet Noble, he’s in Mexico City for a hit, and his handler (played by Philip Baker Hall with typically casual authority) wishes him “Happy Birthday.” Noble is so removed from a normal life that he doesn’t even remember it’s his birthday; that night, he calls everyone he can think of to celebrate with, and nobody remembers him or wants to speak with him. Like James Bond, he’s friendless.

Which brings us to the hotel bar, where Troopmaster Danny is celebrating a great business meeting over margaritas. Noble stumbles to the bar, hoping he finds enough alcohol or sex to stifle his loneliness. As we’ve come to expect from Kinnear, Danny asks Noble where he’s from and whether he’s in town for business. Everything we’ve learned about Noble up to this point makes us think he’ll tell Danny to fuck off, but Noble is hungry for social contact, and the two men get talking. All goes well until Danny starts talking about how he lost his only son in a schoolbus accident. Julian interrupts with a joke about a Mexican with a huge penis.

The next day, as a way to apologize for his behavior, Julian insists Danny join him on a trip to the bullfights. Julian enjoys the way a good matador goes about his business, dancing with the bull until he kills it with a single blow of the sword. Danny is at first uncomfortable, but seems excited by the foreignness of this brutally un-American spectactor sport.

While at the bullfight, Danny asks Julian what he does for a living. Julian tells him he doesn’t want to know. Danny asks him again, teasing him for being reticent. In the world of Greg Kinnear’s characters, there are no secrets that two guys can’t share over a beer at a ballgame. Julian again rebuffs him. But the third time Danny asks, Julian tells him. Danny of course doesn’t believe a word of it. So Julian shows him.
It’s a bit difficult to talk about the narrative of The Matador without giving away the plot twists, which are one of its primary pleasures. Suffice it to say, everything you expect to happen does happen–Danny and Julian become friends, Julian asks for Danny’s help on a hit, the pair end up lifelong friends. But the modest brilliance of The Matador is that nothing ever happens in the way you expect. Just as important, the events all happen organically and believably. Yes, Richard Shepard’s screenplay gets a lot of laughs from The Odd Couple pairing of hitman and salesman, but the laughs are always earned. Never did I feel like the two of them were hanging out together simply because the premise demanded it. That’s a rare thing in buddy comedies of this ilk.

Pierce Brosnan got a lot of attention–and an Oscar nom–for his performance, and I won’t argue with it. But the genius is more in the casting than the acting. No matter how depraved and disgusting Noble’s character gets–and he gets pretty disgusting, especially when he complains that Latin American school are “all blushy blushy, no sucky fucky”–we believe he’s a world-traveling killer and irresistible to women. Even with a porn mustache, Brosnan can’t hide his Brooks Brothers looks.

Julian eventually tracks Danny down in Denver, where he revels in Danny’s and Bean’s domestic bliss. The fun comic surprise is that Bean (Hope Davis) enjoys Julian’s company as much as Danny. “Did you bring your gun? May I see it?” she asks. Danny and Julian inevitably end up collaborating on a hit together, but the fun is seeing the unexpected ways their partnership happens.

Shepard, who has been writing and directing undistinguished, mostly straight-to-video features since the late ’80s, is a find as a screenwriter. He gives Brosnan killer line after killer line; when Julian leaves Danny in Mexico City, he says, “Just consider me the best cocktail story you’ve ever met.” Begging for Danny’s help in Denver, Julian tells him, “An assassin without confidence is a horrible thing to behold. It’s like a relief pitcher who fumbles the ball.” That line beautifully captures Julian’s character: he’s charming and eloquent, but utterly clueless about anything outside the world of international intrigue.

The movie’s only misstep comes towards the end, when Julian reveals something to Danny that catches the audience off-guard. It works to enrich the viewer’s experience but it doesn’t really make sense that Julian would withhold this particular piece of information from Danny. By revealing to Danny that he’s a killer, hasn’t he already shared the biggest secret he could possibly share?

But this minor lapse in credibility doesn’t detract from the pleasures of The Matador, which is that rare Hollywood animal: an action comedy that is funny, believable and occasionally touching.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 10, 2006 2:24 pm

    I’m right with you on this one. I found this a sad case of a well-made film handled poorly by the studio/distributor system.

    While it got some Oscar attention, I think it’s a shame that this film didn’t have wider distribution and, more importantly, a bigger and more effective marketing campaign. It only did $12.5 million at the domestic box office. Granted, it was a fairly low-budget indy, so I’m sure it made money once foreign box office and DVD are figured in, but I felt while watching it that it was not only a good film but one that should have had wide appeal: a good buddy team made up of two marketable (if not absolutely bankable) stars, strong comedy and the assassin element handled in an intriguing way without being dark.

    Of the many business mistakes prevelant in Hollywood, one of the most egregious to my mind is that marketing decisions are often made based on production costs and not the quality of the finished product. In this sense, I ‘m not even using “quality” to denote a well-made film but rather one that is likely to be appealing to the movie-going public. I’m not even knocking them for spending millions to promote crap like “War of the Worlds.” Rather, where they really make their mistake is in rarely realizing that a film like this one (with an estimated budget 1/13th that of “WotW”) could have made them some pretty amazing return on their advertising investment.

    Sorry for the digression. I had just really taken notice of the numbers on this one around Oscar time, and you opened it up for me to vent.

  2. October 10, 2006 3:50 pm

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. Not only was there nothing particularly marketable about this movie–no stars, no controversy, no big director or best-selling book behind it–there’s nothing particularly sticky about it. It’s the kind of movie that could have gotten a wider initial release, but it never would have caught on; its virtues are too subtle to produce the kind of word of mouth that leads people to see movies their friends have seen.

    I’m pretty sure that the studio that made this movie picked it up at Sundance, and they probably knew its potential: an OK run as an indie comedy in the theaters, a possible stretch for an Oscar nom to give it a longer shelflife and a comfortable afterlife in DVD, On-Demand and cable.

    If anything, its poor earning power has more to do with the fact that nobody knows how to market original material anymore. If it’s not based on a popular book, movie, TV show or real-life figure, it might as well not exist. There’s no “hook” for the Sunday movie sections or Entertainment Weekly.

  3. bro permalink
    October 10, 2006 7:29 pm

    my comment has very little to with the matador, which i havent seen, although it does touch on the prevalent stupidity in hollywood. i just read that they’re making a sequel to bruce almighty which will be the most expensive comedy ever made- 250 million. how many people are guaranteed to get fired for participating in any way in this inevitable fiasco? the first bruce was not particularly funny, and i dont believe it was all that sucessful, and now they’re going to break the bank for a sequel, and this time star steve carrell, who is a terrific comic actor but is in no way ready to carry a blockbuster? much like bill simmons is certain he could run an NBA team better than half of the GM’s out there, i have no doubt that any of the regular readers of this site could do a better job greenlighting movies than the current studio system

  4. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 10, 2006 9:57 pm

    Micah, we seem to disagree on the marketability of the movie. I would contend that Brosnan is a marketable star and that the premise could’ve had broad appeal, if marketed more effectively/extensively. You seem to disagree, which is fine.

    Where I think you are incorrect, though, is in your emphasis on the importance of word of mouth. When movies stayed in theaters for months, word of mouth was a very important factor. In today’s environment, when movies live or die based on the first three weekends (at most) it is a much smaller factor than it once was. This quick cycling makes movie different from most other products, because as much as people trust the advice of certain friends and acquaintances, the vast majority will not rush to see a movie (or buy a product.) Most of the relevant marketing studies I’ve read indicate that where word of mouth now has an effect is in the DVD market (particularly rentals) and not at the box office. Therefore the studio/distributor marketing efforts on behalf of a film are proportionately more important than they once were.

    Now, there are some interesting way to try to bridge this gap. In the campaigns for Snakes on a Plane and Borat, we have seen companies take a page from Blair Witch’s book, in using viral marketing techniques to promote the films. In the case of Snakes, the results were underwhelming. The Borat approach is somewhat different, with a huge number of advance screenings as part of the marketing mix, and it will be interesting to see if this can help to generate word of mouth that is meaningful at the box office.

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 10, 2006 10:10 pm

    The Bruce Almighty sequel does seem to be a spectacularly terrible idea. It will be dissapointing if this kills Carrell’s career as a lead, which I could see happenning.

    I think it’s good that you specified that “readers” of this site could do a better job greenlighting movies, as we all know that if the “author” of the site was given such a role, we would have to endure Dazed and Confused II through Dazed and Confused XXXVII, detailing the entire life stories of every character, including the beer delivery guy, the “here’s some more money for your pocket” clerk, and the possibly brain damaged guy who runs through the parking lot.

  6. October 10, 2006 11:55 pm

    I’ll be honest, I haven’t read any studies on the value of top-down marketing vs. word-of-mouth, but it seems to me that after the opening weekend, word-of-mouth has a huge effect on a movie’s durability. Because opening weekends are such a huge chunk of most movie’s revenue, however, I imagine they distort the results of said studies to make it seem that word-of-mouth has no effect on a movie’s success.

    But if it doesn’t, then why do some blockbusters stay in the theaters for 10, 12 weeks after their opening dates and some movies are gone after five? If top-down marketing was the only reason, then all big Hollywood movies should follow the same box office pattern, but clearly they don’t. A very recent set of examples is Pirates of the Caribbean and Superman Returns. Both had big opening weekends (although we all know Pirates’ opening was absolutely spectacular) and both had big declines in Week 2, but Pirates stuck around in the top 10 box office movies a lot longer than Superman Returns, which was only released a week earlier. Everyone I knew who saw Pirates liked it, while most people I know (with the exception of myself, who sometimes feels like a stranger to me) who saw Superman Returns didn’t like it.

    That’s purely anecdotal of course, but it seems to me that the pattern holds up over time.

    I don’t think it’s that word-of-mouth is irrelevant; it’s just that the studios do everything in their power to minimize its impact on a movie’s box office profitability. They have less control over the DVD market because it’s hard to spin a movie’s DVD release into an “event” unless it’s Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

    And for the record, I would have stopped making Dazed and Confused sequels at Dazed and Confused IV: Slater Finds Jesus.

  7. October 10, 2006 11:56 pm

    Random thought, Brad: Besides the James Bond movies–which I think we can agree are marketed around a character, not a star–can you name me a Pierce Brosnan movie that’s done really good business? I’m guessing the biggest one was The Thomas Crown Affair, but it was no blockbuster.

  8. October 11, 2006 12:00 am

    Just looked it up: $69 mil domestic for the TC Affair, on a budget of $48 mil. The additional $55 mil international certainly helped, though.

    No other non-Bond, non-disaster movie Brosnan starrer has done more than $30 mil domestic.

    And Mrs. Doubtfire doesn’t count.

  9. Brad Glaser permalink
    October 11, 2006 4:36 am

    You may have me on Brosnan. I remembered Thomas Crown having been a hit. I guess the fact that I both like him and consider him a star clouded my judgment because the numbers of his post-Bond work have not been strong.

    I didn’t say that word-of-mouth is completely irrelevent, but that it is a much smaller factor, in the movie world, than it once was. For a movie like “Pirates,” with appeal accross a broad age range, an incredible amount of long-term gross is based on repeat business. This can run hand-in-hand with word-of-mouth (I’m such a hack,) as people may attend multiple showings with different groups of friends or family. There also is much of the later audience that has initial interest in the film but is in a more casual interest sphere than the hardcore devotees of a film or franchise. The size of this broader group, still largely created by pre-release marketing, is key to a movie’s success in the weeks after the opening.

    I would also argue that in the example you gave, there was simply much more initial interest in “Pirates” than “Superman” for a few reasons. The original “Pirates” was much beloved (and recent,) featured three legitimate stars and was bolstered by ads that did (in my opinion) a fine job of promising the audience more action comedy in the same vein as the first.

    “Superman,” on the other hand, featured unkowns in two of the three priniciple roles, and Kevin Spacey isn’t a particular draw for the key teen demo. The bad marketing for this one started with the very title. “Superman Returns” begs the question of what he is returning from and sets it up in the public’s mind as a sequel to a series of movies that petered out nearly two decades earlier. It’s ads left me confused as to where the movie fit in the Superman continuim, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that thought. This problem was likely even worse for a somewhat younger audience who may not be familiar with the original. It opened strong, of course, because there were enough core fans to fill theaters that first weekend but not enough general interest to provide a further, casual audience.

    As a bit of an aside, compare the title of the latest entry in the another major comic-based franchise. “Batman Begins” tells me right away that this is something new, a movie for which I don’t need the context of the other recent Batman films.

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