The Dark Knight Rises
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan

Hope Springs
Produced by Escape Artists and Mandate Pictures
Directed by David Frankel
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Christopher Nolan doesn’t do things by halves.  His third Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, pulls out all the stops.  It’s overproduced, overwrought, bombastic, and unswervingly serious—all symptoms of a grave irony deficiency.

Other superhero movies are forever winking at us to acknowledge they aspire to be nothing more than meaningless Barnum-like spectacles.  Not these: Nolan insists on meaning, and plenty of it.  In The Dark Knight (2008), his villain was the Joker, a man enamored of chaos for its own sake.  His signature question for Batman, “Why so serious?” was the one Nolan evidently was asking himself.  He answered with Batman’s manifest sense of urgency.  In the aftermath of his parents’ murders, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) begins to fashion himself into the Batman, a dark knight determined to take on a Stygian world.  His cause is more than revenge.  He wants to wipe the cynical smile from every joker’s face, the smile that encourages not only evil but also the indifference that allows evil to flourish.  There’s no room for levity in this mission.

With Batman Begins (2005), Nolan set out to transform a comic-book hero into a moral agent bent on cleansing society of its cowardly tolerance of evil—a tall order for a man who wears a cape and a cowl and drives a fire-breathing Batmobile.  Frankly, there’s something batty about the enterprise.  That’s why Nolan’s films are so loony with ambition and idealism.  And yet, I rather like them.  I think it encouraging that they’ve excited the imaginations of so many young people—young men, especially.  Batman’s fans are clearly engaged by the spectacle of a mortal man, not a superhero, who by dint of training himself physically and mentally strives to defeat the nihilists who have infected civilization with the disease of ironic indifference to moral issues.

In this, the final film of the trio, Nolan pits Batman against nihilism’s ultimate aim: self-destruction.  Having beaten back the Joker’s program of chaos that had threatened to engulf his beloved Gotham City, Wayne has retired to his manor.  He’s a broken man, battle worn and grief stricken by the murder of the woman he loved.  Meanwhile, Gotham is relatively crime free.  All is not well, however.  Ruling-class hot shots are sweeping up the profits to be made during peacetime, while those outside their magic circle struggle to support themselves on a shrinking piece of the economic pie.  The elite’s complacency has encouraged a monstrous adventurer named Bane (Tom Hardy) to enlist Gotham’s underclass in a revolution.  Here’s where the film becomes overly complicated to the point of near incoherence.  Suffice it to say that, besides preaching revolution, Bane has an obscure grudge to settle with Batman, whom he first beats senseless and then whisks to a prison somewhere in the Middle East (a familiar tactic in our officially terrorized America).  Then with the blow-’em-up-big tactics so dear to superhero films, Bane manages to cut Gotham off from the outside world, subjugate the police, and render the city’s populace supine to his wishes.  Addressing the people at large, he struts about, head thrown back, gripping his lapels, à la the famous photographs of Lenin haranguing the working class.  And like his revolutionary forebear, he promises to lift the oppression of the wealthy.  In no time at all, he’s set up a kangaroo court reminiscent of the French Revolution’s.  The city’s rich and powerful are hauled before a judge who peremptorily sentences them to death for the crime of being too successful.  But this is all by the way.  Bane has the puritan’s hankering for total annihilation and the means to satisfy his holy lust.  Meanwhile, Wayne does righteous pushups in his prison cell to prepare himself to return and, as Batman, restore Gotham to order.

There’s more, of course—much more.  The film is crammed with subplots and minor characters in an attempt to suggest the full range of political, social, and moral implications of the story’s trajectory.  There’s Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the Catwoman, who steals jewels from the rich as reprisal for their greed; Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who maintains order with useful lies about Batman’s supposed villainy; Peter Foley (Matthew Modine), the police lieutenant who abjectly turns his back on the struggle with Bane’s forces; Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the entrepreneur whose clean-energy fusion generator turns out to be a nuclear weapon—and the list goes on.  There are so many moving parts to the film that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them.  I’m sure they all fit together, but, despite the film’s nearly three-hour running time, many of them appear so fleetingly that I can’t possibly say how.  Nolan’s reach manifestly exceeds his grasp.

Two of the film’s many elements call for closer attention.  The first is Nolan’s use of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  The film’s revolutionary court sequences are filled with ordinary citizens egging on the corrupt proceedings as if they were latter-day versions of Dickens’ Madame Defarge.  Their class hatred blinds them to the moral horror in which they are so enthusiastically participating.  This, Nolan suggests, is the nature of the society Batman wants to save: vindictive, squalid, and shameless.  Rather like ours on a bad day.  Then there’s Gordon’s reading of Sydney Carton’s speech upon going to the guillotine, which closes Dickens’ novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,” Carton declaims, resolved to suffer the blade in another man’s stead.  The parallel with Wayne’s sacrifice speaks for itself.  In the end, Nolan is retelling an ancient story that has never grown old and, one hopes, never will.

Second, there’s Wayne’s memory of being brought to Gordon’s police station after his parents were killed.  He recalls that Gordon had tried to comfort him, a gesture that has convinced him that “a hero can be anyone.  Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulder to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”  It’s a small, lovely moment in an otherwise overly busy, sometimes strident film.

In Hope Springs, director David Frankel serves up what I’m sure he considers a lovely moment.  You may disagree.  It’s the scene in which Kay (Meryl Streep) gets on her knees in a movie theater back row and tries to give her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), a blowjob.

The poor woman hasn’t lost her sense of decency, mind you.  She’s merely carrying out orders her marriage counselor, Dr. Feld (a professionally smarmy Steve Carell), issued earlier in the day.  It’s supposed to revive the couple’s flagging sex life.  And you thought movies never showed 60-somethings doing it.  Here they’re not only doing it, but they’re doing it in public!  Now that’s progress.

This depiction of sexual daring between geezers isn’t as surprising as it might at first seem.  Now that the baby boomers have reached their 60’s, they have become a new market opportunity for Hollywood.  While adolescents will doubtlessly continue to be served numberless iterations of American Pie, seniors will be lured to theaters to gaze on the bedtime contortions of the Celebrex set attempting to leverage their aging limbs to achieve truly thumping orgasms.  Money, after all, is money, whether it comes from young or old pockets.

Frankel and his screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, haven’t stopped at giving their audience some vicarious pleasure.  They’ve provided some homework for geezers determined to join the fun.  It’s the book Dr. Feld assigns Kay to read: Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man.  This is an honest-to-god book you can buy or, if you’re as cheap as I am, read online.  You’ll find Chapter 6 provides a blow-by-blow description of how to perform fellatio, an exercise every sensible woman really must master.  Besides its glowing advocacy of oral sex, the book enthusiastically recommends anal.  Perhaps from a misplaced sense of delicacy, the anal discussion doesn’t make it into the film.

We can readily understand why Dr. Feld would urge homosexual techniques on his patients: Look at how well such practices have worked out for the homosexual community!  You would think audiences would loudly guffaw at such stupidity.  Not so the audience I was with.  They did no more than giggle politely.  This didn’t surprise me.  Television and movies have trained Americans never to scorn homosexuals.  They’re either superior beings or cuddly munchkins.

At the risk of destroying the mood, I think we should consider a few facts.  Oral and anal sex practices are not the innocuous activities the film suggests.  They’re a great way to transmit herpes, hepatitis, parasites, and, of course, HIV.  And recent findings implicate oral sex in transmitting the human papillomavirus that causes throat cancer.  I don’t mean to question Frankel’s and Taylor’s sincerity, but are there any Dr. Felds still endorsing the activities Steve Carell does in the film?  Unconditionally?  I doubt it.  Over the years, professional sexperts have become quite allergic to lawsuits.

Americans, of course, do not like to have their pleasures curtailed.  Sex is natural; sex is good—isn’t it?  Indeed it is.  So is swimming.  But as Diana Nyad discovered once again this summer, some waters are inhospitable to enjoying the sport.  The waters between Florida and Cuba are crammed with painfully poisonous jellyfish.  Similarly, those who choose to swim in the currents of risky sex expose themselves to exotic and sometimes deadly bacteria and viruses.  A nuisance, certainly, but there it is.  You pays your money and takes your choice.

I object to Frankel’s film on one of two possible grounds: It’s either hopelessly witless or cynically dishonest.  It expects us to believe that a 62-year-old American woman would not know about the sexual practice William Jefferson Clinton advertised so winningly during his presidency.  It further expects us to accept that a dour Omaha accountant such as Arnold would, when quizzed by Dr. Feld, volunteer in front of his wife that he longs to have a threesome with her and their comely neighbor.  Worst of all, Frankel wants us to believe that his couple would remedy their decade-long marriage blanc in a week’s time with nothing more than what used to be thought a brothel specialty.