Friday, May 27, 2022


Opening today:

Top Gun: Maverick--When the original Top Gun was released in 1986, I quickly came to regard it as an embodiment of everything that was wrong with American pop culture, and maybe of American culture in general. Setting aside whatever annoyance we can assign to it for turning Tom Cruise into a superstar, Top Gun's mindless, swaggering triumphalism and fetishizing of empty recklessness struck me as a symptom, maybe even a partial cause, of a generational toxicity from which we're still suffering.

Three and a half decades later, on the occasion of this very belated sequel, I'm not sure I see any rational basis for revising the opinion of my pompous 24-year-old self, or of attributing a healthier mentality to the new film. But I will say this: Top Gun: Maverick is much more enjoyable than the original.

The '86 film has become one of the seminal movie texts of our time, but in case there are a few fortunate souls who remain benighted: It's the story of Navy fighter pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) and his time at the Fighter Weapons School at Miramar near San Diego, known as TOPGUN. Maverick--all the pilots have cute nicknames--is a brilliant flyer but is given to ignoring authority and making his own rules.

In the new film, Maverick is still a Captain after all these years because he's just too darn rebellious to advance. He's still ruffling the feathers of authority figures (huffily played by the likes of Ed Harris and Jon Hamm). He gets called back to the TOPGUN school at the insistence of its commander, his old rival Ice (Val Kilmer, who has one touching scene).

Maverick's job this time is to instruct a batch of young officers with cute nicknames--except for one simply called Bob (the endearing Lewis Pullman)--in preparation for a secret bombing run against a uranium-enrichment facility in a judiciously unidentified hostile country. Among his pupils is Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Maverick's beloved co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards), killed during the first film. Rooster bears Maverick a longstanding grudge. There's a bit of love interest, too; Maverick re-meets barkeep Penny (Jennifer Connelly); his previous leading lady Kelly McGillis, though briefly glimpsed in a flashback, goes unmentioned.

Now, let me be clear: Top Gun: Maverick is every bit as insipid and predictable as Top Gun the first, and Tom Cruise seems like just as much of pipsqueak. Cruise can be good, even very good, when he's playing manic and out-of-his-depth, as in Rain Man, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, but when he's in hypercompetent man-of-action mode I've never been able to take him seriously. Even at nearly 60, he still comes across like a boy dressed up in his dad's clothes.

But that doesn't much matter here. Two factors combined to pull the stick out of my butt and allow me to enjoy this movie. One is that technical filmmaking has advanced exponentially since 1986, and the flight scenes have greater clarity and flamboyance than the original's. It's useless to try to claim that the last 30 or 40 minutes of this movie isn't exciting. It's propulsive and spellbinding, even as you see every plot point coming at you as plainly as if it was on a radar screen.

The other factor, especially for those of us who were regular moviegoers when the original came out, is simple nostalgia. The director, Joseph Kosinski, really captures the '80s-movie montage-to-montage vibe, starting right at the beginning with brooding synthesizer tones leading into the most irksome (albeit catchy) song of the estimable Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone," all of it backing up a full opening credit sequence, not just a quick flash of the title. In this way, Top Gun: Maverick can be like that odd and common phenomenon of encountering somebody you disliked back in the day, and feeling an unaccountable surge of affection.

The Bob's Burgers Movie--Bravely facing off against Tom Cruise's fighter squadron this weekend is the story of a family struggling to keep their burger joint going when a huge sinkhole opens in the sidewalk and completely blocks access to their storefront. It's the feature version of an animated Fox TV series.

Bob is Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), the depressive dad; his wife Linda (John Roberts) is more upbeat. They live in the apartment above the restaurant with their kids, boy-crazy oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz); nebbishy, well-intentioned rock star wannabe middle son Gene (Eugene Mirman) and rabbit-ear-wearing, aspirational youngest Louise (Kristen Schaal). Louise is deeply offended when a girl at school calls her a "baby"; to prove this untrue she descends into the sinkhole.

This leads to a mystery involving everyone from the burger joint's rich landlords to carnies from the nearby amusement park. Other characters enter the story, some performed by name actors: Kevin Kline and Zach Galifianakis as the landlords; Gary Cole as a police detective with an inferiority complex. There are some very peculiar musical numbers, and it all culminates in a suspenseful and action-packed finale. 

This movie is funny even if you've never seen the show. I can attest to this, because I've never seen the show, and I thought this movie was funny. The comedy derives from the Belcher family's flat, affectless manner, contrasted with the convoluted gothic plot and wild action. But there's also a humane warmth to the Belchers that keeps the joke from going sour. If I lived in that town, I'd eat at that place.

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