Unrated because of all of the horribly scandalous stuff in it! This is the Xtreme edition of a film that you've been waiting for. (If you can't tell through my thick typed sarcasm, it's Buster Keaton. This movie is adorably innocent. The worst thing in it is worrying if the actual actor / director is going to die. He doesn't, but I don't know how he didn't die doing these stunts. SPOILER: He doesn't die. Also, there was no MPAA.)
DIRECTOR: Buster Keaton
I'm a bad film teacher and an overall bad film person. I suppose that just makes me a bad person in the long run. I started this movie, like, two years ago. It was on Netflix and I was jazzed. My wife was in the rare mood to watch something ancient and I had always wanted to watch Sherlock Jr. I hadn't seen any Buster Keaton at this point and I was ashamed. I should have been better than that, but since I established that I was a bad person, I guess that I shouldn't have been surprised. I watched the first ten minutes and loved loved LOVED it. But I think it was super late night and we started drifting. Either that or we wanted to turn off the TV in front of the kids. Regardless, we never came back to it. It is no long on Netflix so I YouTubed it. Yup, much of YouTube is comprised of really bad prints of great public domain movies. The version I watched had a contemporary soundtrack that made me groan pretty hard. I watched half of it with my class. And then I waited two weeks. Two weeks is inexcusable. But that's where I get my jollies apparently. I then finished it.
I will say that an appropriate soundtrack adds or detracts from a movie. Buster Keaton is a genius and a madman, but listening to some of the YouTube soundtrack may have murdered some of my goodwill towards the movie. I watched a chunk of it actually silent and it worked better. So even though I'm writing a review for a film that didn't actually commission that score, I have to acknowledge that wacky music detracts from a film. I think all composers should be aware: putting funny scores over a funny movie makes the movie unfunny. A goofy soundtrack is a mood killer.
I don't know how Buster Keaton did it. Maybe what's worse, is that I probably do. Buster Keaton filmed the most insane things that I've ever seen. Between my first attempt at watching Sherlock Jr. and finally completing it, I watched Steamboat Bill Jr. (I don't get the "junior" thing outside of what it tells at face value.) These movies shows a man who makes a living at adding spectacle to his slapstick. While I will always laugh at Chaplin's antics because they are remarkably well choreographed and paced, Keaton acts as the showman for these movies. His comedy is more death-defying. When I say, "I don't know how he did it," I really mean, "I can't believe he did that because he should have died performing that stunts." What makes Keaton a master at what he does is the idea that he times his entire production on risk-taking. In my MPAA bumper, I write about how there is such a heavy danger element to every stunt he takes. I honestly think that I'm about to watch someone die on camera, Faces of Death style. But that doesn't detract from his comedy. These moments are very funny. Keaton understands the balance of suspense and comedy. Chaplin does the same with his comedy, but much of that also balances emotional catharsis. Keaton's character, a variation of Chaplin's tramp, has a more "laugh at" attitude than "laugh with" attitude. This isn't to say that Chaplin's Tramp isn't laughed at, but Chaplin always brings an element of guilt to his mockery. There's a moment where I root for Chaplin, but Keaton narrative is less sympathetic. His flat affect is amusing, but dehumanizing. I think Keaton wants us to feel okay to be a little bit of a bully. That's not to say that Keaton's character should lose his objective. Keaton's character always has the overall win as opposed to Chaplin's occasional losses. With a character like Keaton's, he needs to have the win or else there would be a darkly tragic element to his antics. The ending, SPOILER, in particular has an element of disbelief to it because the choices he makes shouldn't be working. It would simply be a bummer to watch him rejected after the events of the film.
As a film guy though, the movie has a bit of resonance. I don't know if I necessarily like the plot as a plot itself, but it does have a love for the medium of cinema. Remember, this is in a time where film, particularly American film, is considered a novelty. We're a little bit past that period, but not by much. Yet, the movie itself seems to be a love letter to the format of film. It's odd that the movie is called Sherlock Jr. because it really doesn't meet the tone of the film. Yeah, I get it. Keaton imagines himself to be a suave detective. But the detective aspect of the narrative really takes a back seat to the entire commentary of film as a whole. The real element of the film is that a regular schlub can daydream that he is a part of something bigger than himself. I suppose that's what film was meant for. We can stop being engulfed in our everyday problems and enter worlds where we are the heroes. We become something bigger than ourselves and that's what makes cinema so appealing. I have to believe that Keaton is actively engaging this part of himself with the making of this film. Yes, the stunts are silly and the narrative of the film within the film is fairly lacking, but it does tie into many conventions that Keaton would have probably admired. I do find it interesting that, even in his reverie, he finds himself to be a flawed character. He is a genius when it comes to the big things, like the billiard ball sequence, but he is still the lovable goofball when it comes to riding the front of the motorcycle. Part of this is to make the character funny. A character who is constantly successful is hard to sympathize with. Keaton is still himself without completely Mary Sue-ing himself. It makes the movie a bit cuter than simply a look at the medium of film, but it works overall.
The weird thing about slagging off a movie like this is that it is really hard to be critical of it. Like I mentioned, there's a slightly P.T. Barnum element to the film as a whole. The movie is about spectacle and the narrative is really secondary to the vehicle he uses to tell jokes. The jokes really work, but there's no actual emotional investment in any of the characters. Like many of the silent slapsticks, there is a love interest who lacks any personality whatsoever. Again, she is there to have Buster Keaton bounce ridiculous premises across. These jokes really crush, like the "$4.00" chocolate box. It's funny and it works with the story, but the idea that Keaton is removed from her life through a frame job is such a secondary concept that I haven't seen that kind of dismissal of plot before. I think that's what really stops me from truly falling in love with these stories. I really like Buster Keaton because his movies are very funny and extremely watchable, but part of what draws me into the movie is the emotional investment and I don't know if that's the strongest part of Keaton's films. The other silent slapsticks get that. Heck, even the Marx brothers get that a little bit better than Keaton does. But they also don't go to the lengths he does to pull of his magic tricks. (That's what I was looking for. He does the most dangerous and elaborate magic tricks!) This leaves me in an interesting position as a reviewer because I don't know what to say about him when the dust clears. He's perhaps the most amazing stuntman / comedian that ever existed, but his movies sometimes leave a little depth to be desired. Yes, the beats are there, but I have a hard time sympathizing with his character, unlike Chaplin. Chaplin rips my heart out in each movie and then has me in stitches laughing. Chaplin is about balance vs. Keaton knows how to wow me but little else.
I loved this movie, but I'm never going to be in love with this movie. I want to watch all of Keaton's films, but that's because I want to see how far he'll go with everything he does. It's not a bad quest, but I also feel it might leave me a bit empty in the long run.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.