Barely is the 2009 original language version of Stieg Larsson's pulp procedural out of US art houses than here comes a bigger budget English language film distributed in the mainstream cineplexes. David Fincher's dragon tattoo girl isn't enough better than the not-so-good Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film (directed by the not-so-known Niels Arden Oplev) to get excited about. Obviously since Larsson's lurid tale of rich Nazis, perverts, and a brilliant, traumatized, tattooed and pierced bi-lesbian hacker-investigator aiding a macho crusading journalist discredited by a corrupt millionaire, etc., etc., has contained enough juicy page-turning material (with its disgusting violence and its woman's rights underpinnings) to sell millions of books worldwide, it didn't really require filmmaking brilliance to make a movie people would buy tickets to anyway. In fact while it fits in with Fincher's penchant for serial killers shown in his obsessive real-life feature Zodiac (by most assessments his best work yet) or with the earlier investigation of a creepy killelr, Se7en, this is not an exciting followup after the timely cleverness and stimulation of last time's The Social Network.
As a movie this is not a great disappointment; not really a disappointment at all. You won't go out of the cinema hanging your head. You even may leave looking forward to Part Two. If you're new to the Steig Larsson stories, you may be the perfect audience, but if you're not, you'd have to be a nutty fanboy to be howling with displeasure. It's a thoroughly polished film, and you'd expect it to be, coming from David Fincher. But the only question remains: Why? Why did he choose material whose slavish fans would howl if he altered it in an original way? (And don't worry: he didn't.)
This is the real disappointment, and it could turn out to be a more creeping, corrosive kind: that an American director as interesting as Fincher couldn't manage to choose something more challenging or inspiring to do than this. Fincher's Fight Club adaptation has assumed a kind of cult status. His obsessiveness over detail made Zodiac compulsively watchable and intense beyond the ordinary. His Aaron Sorkin collaboration gave us the witty and extraordinarily timely depiction of young computer assholes that was The Social Network. Why would such a director waste his time, his polish, his reputation, his Trent Reznor score, and his large and well-coordinated cast on copying material from a pulpy Swedish bestseller -- and ultimately not turn it into anything new?
Fincher is a good filmmaker and his Millennium Trilogy, Part One moves on smooth wheels. But Fincher's obsession with minutiae plays him wrong here. Instead of tightening up the tale, editing out some of Stieg Larsson's compulsive cheesy details to produce a neater, more suspenseful story, Fincher, collaborating with the Schindler's List and Moneyball writer Steven Zaillian (to name two of his Grade A adaptive successes), has given us unnecessary fat, slavish detail. Really, David Fincher is not only a better funded director than Niels Arden Oplev. He's a better director. But paradoxically the lack of fine polish seems to have given the Swedish movie a rough edge that helped -- the same kind of abrasiveness that makes Lisbeth Salander fascinating. A greater polish only shows up what trash this story is: compulsively readable or watchable trash, sures, but trash nonetheless. So why gild it? Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
When it was first announced there was to be a Hollywood version the first thing anybody thought of was: How will they find a girl as good as Noomi Rapace, the original Swedish movie Lisbeth Salander? They won't! Well, again the result, Rapace's replacement, isn't at all an out-and-out disappointment. Rooney Mara plays the part as if she knows very well who she's supposed to be, But this Lisbeth can't touch Noomi Rapace. She's impersonating Lisbeth. Rapace becomes her. Not Mara so much (though the act was too tough to follow) but the film's design and makeup people have taken too much of the punk out of Lisbeth, turned her edge into a mere shtick. They have literally toned down her punk accoutrements, in this first installment, anyway.
So what has this movie got going for it that Niels Arden Oplev's didn't? It's in English. And that's a huge difference. It means mainstream. It means popcorn. It means flashing smart phones in the dark. It means titters when the word "cunnilingus" is mentioned. It means a much bigger American audience. So the answer to the question, why do you need a remake of this entertaining pulp? The answer is, you don't. There is one reason for it: to make more money. And there is a huge market out there that the Swedish language version could not tap. Zaillian and Fincher didn't "adapt" the story to its new language. They simply rewrote it all in English, but shot all the exteriors in Sweden and kept all the details and names the same Swedish ones Stieg Larsson wrote. Well...that's okay, isn't it? Swedes all speak English, don't they? Yeah, but not to each other. Not way up north on an island. But despite the usual mixture of Swedish accents, unidentifiable accents, English accents, and American accents, this is not as jarring as when, say, French people or Italians, who often don't speak English at all well, are made anglophone on Hollywood screens. Just think of this as the most elaborate and sophisticated dubbing job ever.
Another difference -- a small one. Almost every scene takes place in near-darkness. That's our American picture of Sweden, I guess. The story does begin in the dead of winter, on a millionaire family's island four hours by train north of Stockholm. And sometimes I missed the subtitles because Rooney Mara's enunciation isn't the clearest. It sounded sometimes like she was having trouble talking through her piercings.
This film has wound up getting overall less enthusiastic reviews than its predecessor. That's because when it was done in Swedish it was fresh. Now it's warmed over.
©2011 Chris Knipp
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