DVD: Bring it on, Joan

Contender, The rating: Badly flawed

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 5, 2001 in Las Vegas CityLife.

Oscar nominee Joan Allen waves her cheerleader's pompoms for Rod Lurie's contrived political drama The Contender

At their best, DVDs allow us to know films better and to consider provocative issues. At their worst, DVDs essentially are puffpieces. The Contender is one of the latter.

Viewers might be genuinely excited by the prospect of the film's star Joan Allen evaluating her challenging but flawed role, on a commentary track with writer-director Rod Lurie. It's an opportunity for this esteemed actress to interpret her Oscar-nominated performance and, maybe, explain what she thinks about a movie in which her character was softened abruptly.

Instead Allen should have been issued pompoms, because she behaves like a cheerleader, or a very agreeable parrot. On the commentary track, she says "Yes!" more than 140 times, "Yeah!" over 115 times, and "Exactly!" 50 times. She and Lurie love everything about the film: their only disagreement being about a character in "Scooby Doo," though to be fair, if Allen's a cheerleader, Lurie is an entire brass band of self-appreciation.

Lurie's film raises several controversial questions, but shies away from all of them. His most hard-hitting point, that turns flaccid, is whether the protagonist's sexual history is anybody's business but her own.

Allen plays Laine Hanson, a respected senator who, following the sudden death of the vice president, is named as his successor by lame-duck-Democrat President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). To destroy her reputation, political opponents, led by GOP Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) accuse Laine of willingly taking part in a lurid gang-bang, during her college days, and some grainy old skin-flick footage is unearthed that apparently proves it. Hanson refuses to comment on the allegations, on the interesting principle that the personal life, even of a public figure, should remain private.

But after a wildly unbelievable, deus-ex-cliche climax, Laine reveals to Bridges that the girl photographed in the sexual encounter wasn't her, Runyon is publicly humiliated, and all ends happily. At this point if viewers haven't gagged, they're gag-proof.

So what does Allen really think about the revelation that appears to undercut her role? We never find out from her. Instead Lurie simply tells us that Hanson was more heroic because she didn't do what she was accused of. More heroic, no; more commercial, yes.

The Contender is another of those films that softsoap their more disturbing elements -- a result of the fact that movies today are dependent on market research surveys and focus groups that gang-bang their integrity into submission.

Seven was taken away from director David Fincher and a more upbeat ending was tacked on; American Beauty was changed so that the Kevin Spacey character no longer had sex with the young girl; and in The Contender, it turns out that Laine wasn't really a naughty girl after all.

Lurie trots out the old canard of pretentious filmmakers when he says of the soft ending, "At some point you have to decide whether to make the film for critics or the audience: I was making it for the audience." This is especially coy coming from a filmmaker who himself used to be a critic. Lurie knows that most great films -- such as his own all-time favorite All the President's Men -- succeed with both critics and audiences.

He adds, "We could have made it more depressing. Who needs to be depressed?" But it's not a question of being depressing. Political films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dave, and The American President are all hopeful. None of them ends with the loss of nerve, and credibility, of The Contender.

The DVD offers the film in 1:85:1 aspect ratio, and includes a short HBO making-of documentary, plus deleted scenes. But it stands, or falls, on Allen and Lurie's running and stumbling commentary. Like Brando's On the Waterfront character Terry Malloy, The Contender coulda been a contender -- an important film -- instead of just a contrived potboiler. The DVD coulda been an enlightening evaluation -- instead of just a pretentious puffpiece. Like the film itself, it's a Pretender. Yeah! Yes! Exactly!


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