Feb 18, 2009

Batman Forever (1995) - Review

Cast: Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Drew Barrymore, Debi Mazar Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, Akiva Goldsman
Runtime: 2 hrs 2 mins
Genre: Science-Fiction/Fantasy
Rated PG-13

It's not that the Batman series has run out of ideas by this point, it's just that the makers of Batman Forever have no idea where to look for inspiration. Tim Burton gives up the directorial reins to become producer, and hands them over to Joel Shumacher, director of middling entertainment like D.C. Cab and The Lost Boys. It's not the only major change, as Val Kilmer (Tombstone, True Romance) takes over the lead role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, making the hero at once more studly and less personable. The real problem here is that rather than try to replicate the elements that made Batman a popular comic book hero, the Batman Forever team instead try to replicate what they think made the first two films in the series popular. Yes, it's costumes, fighting, gadgets, and over-the-top performances for two straight hours, and almost any semblance to the DC comic book is merely token cosmetics.
Forever sees Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, Eyes of Laura Mars) take the role of Gotham District attorney Harvey Dent, previously portrayed by Billy Dee Williams in the first two films. Half of Dent's face becomes disfigured in the courtroom, and when Batman tries to stop it, Dent incorrectly assumes that Batman is to blame for his injury. It also causes him to split personalities, and crack-up altogether, becoming a menace to Gotham known as Two-Face. Meanwhile, an inventor working for Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne, Edward Nygma (Carrey, Dumb & Dumber), is upset at being let go and unleashes his latest invention, a holographic device that has the side-effect of stealing brainwaves, and with a new costume and more power, The Riddler is born. Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman, Malice) is a psychologist who has a more-than-passing interest in learning about what makes Batman who he is, while millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is chasing Chase. Lastly, Batman finds he may have a new partner when Dick Grayson (O'Donnell, The Chamber) enters his life, and like Wayne, he is also an orphan who wants to fight crime to avenge those who would do harm to others.Of course, the last introduction in the plot summary should tell you that Batman's faithful companion Robin is finally emerging, and proves to be just one of many missteps conceived of in Batman Forever. Robin has always been seen as a major weakness to the Batman mythos, and with the first two films performing so well without him, there is no need to bring him about at this late date. Secondly, casting the 25-year-old Chris O'Donnell as Robin is confusing, as Robin is a teenager, and in no incarnation should he be physically larger than the man who plays Batman.
Chase Meridian is the film's one new addition to the Batman saga, not having previously existed in the comic book or television show. Nicole Kidman is a good choice to play the role, given that she must be intelligent and provocative, yet there is very little for her to do but make goo-goo eyes at Wayne, and later, become the obvious damsel-in-distress. It would have been interesting to give Batman someone to finally care about, but as is typical so far in the series, the romantic lead is expendable.

Like Batman Returns, Forever continues the trend to have Batman fight two villains, which I feel is another mistake. The collaboration between the enigmatic Riddler and the impulsive Two-Face is never very compelling, and in the end, only The Riddler emerges as a truly worthy adversary. Part of this comes from Jim Carrey's self-acknowledged over-the-top performance, as well as Riddler's much more interesting modus operandi. Tommy Lee Jones is a fine actor, but should never be allowed to play psychotic villains. This marks his second manic performance in a row, coming off of Natural Born Killers, and in both films, he is grating and largely unappealing.

Val Kilmer would seem like a natural for Batman, as long as you can overlook the less-dark features. He exemplifies the handsome, cultured man that Bruce Wayne is supposed to be, while also having a mysterious, stoic presence perfect for Batman. Yet, his performance is awkward at best, primarily due to the terrible lines he has to deliver. Outside of the television show, Batman is just not a wise-cracker, and using lines like, "The Bat-signal is not a beeper" and "Chicks love the car," and with Kilmer's dramatic delivery, these lines cause more wincing than laughter. If only the script could have been written to play to his strengths...

Batman Forever has only the high production values going for it, continuing the impressive special effects and gorgeous Danny Elfman scoring. I can't quite give the film credit for the art and set design, as it just isn't as convincing as it had been under Burton's sure hand. Batman Forever is now padded with excessive baggage, with performances and characterizations that make the comic book, and even the campy television show, seem reserved by comparison. Note to Joel Schumacher: playing everything as loud and obnoxious as possible does not create amusement and thrills...it just makes everything loud and obnoxious.

The Batman franchise may be lucrative for Warner Brothers but it's become too polluted for its own good. It's time to give the Batcave a cleaning before it drowns in its own guano.