The Kennedys is now on Global TV, finally making the jump to prime-time Canadian television and allowing all of us to marvel at the series and it's "stunning" portrayal of a family with "secrets" that "nobody really knows"... Oh, to be so lucky. But, there are problems...
Here the most dangerous kinds of TV shows to produce, simply for their exposure to criticism and also their natural ability to fail (all facts and stats are provided by me and my opinion).
1. The family dynasty show -- it's a show that starts at "the beginning," when the family is "just starting out," although a bunch of stuff has really happened in the past (it just wasn't important enough until now, but the producers let you know that stuff has happened/there's history here through flashbacks and creepy music that makes you wonder, "Is there something going on that I don't know here?").
These shows are often doomed to fail because they simply try to follow the formula that Scorsese put forth in Goodfellas. The last show that I can truly remember doing this correctly was The Black Donnellys, and that was wrongly cancelled after eight episodes. Modern Family pulls it off in spades, but... that's different.
2. The made-for-TV movie/miniseries -- it's a huge gamble and it often resembles something you've seen on a Hallmark card (which is probably why Hallmark has a "Movie of the Week"). The only way these can be successful are if it's something you don't know a lot about, or if it takes a well-known story and tells a different angle... I remember a couple good ones. There was a mini-series called Merlin from 1998 (HINT: it was about Merlin, the wizard) and there was Band of Brothers. Both told a famous tale with a bit of jump, vigor and pop, and both added something new to something you already knew. Plus, I'll watch anything with Sam Neill/"Dr. Grant" from Jurassic Park.
3. The famous people -- it's either gonna be the best thing you ever saw or it's going to be something you wished you never saw. Hey, guys, I can read Wikipedia, too. I realized how bad the "famous person" made-for-TV movie was when I saw the trailer for The Rudy Giuliani Story starring James Woods and thought, "No way in Hell am I watching that."
The problem? The Kennedys is all three and, to no fault of the actors or (probably) the director, writers, or producers, it fails. Hard. Like, Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff hard.
It's a family dynasty show that follows the formula I outlined above to a tee -- it starts with "young" and "handsome" John Kennedy (the quotations aren't to say that I disagree, they're just to acknowledge that those two words are probably said 140 times in the first two episodes) making the rounds as no more than Joe Kennedy's son before WWII and then after in the blue collar, Irish/Italian neighbourhoods of Charlestown, Mass.
As it starts, you think Joe Kennedy (Sr.) is going to be the main character... but, then it's John... oh, wait, and then it's Bobby.
For a while it really is Bobby and, if you recall what I said from point number two above, it probably should have stayed focused on Bobby. Tell me the story of the most famous family in American history through the eyes of the "second son" and I'm hooked. Barry Pepper does a good job and so does Katie Holmes, who probably jumped at the chance to play every woman's favourite woman, Jacqueline Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis.
And yet, Holmes' performance is overshadowed by a script/plot that feels lost and that covers her performance and charisma up. It's like they wanted to focus on the things that would make America cringe -- like, for example, that these Kennedys were not exactly morally superior creatures (who knew?) -- but then they got afraid to actually do that and they instead settled for things like re-creating Jack's inauguration speech.
(Really? I've seen the thing a million times and Jack nailed the real speech... so, why do I have to watch the guy from As Good as it Gets repeat it? It's like watching your buddy list off Family Guy quotes, or hearing your girlfriend "sing" along to Beyonce in the car. It's better when the professionals do it.)
Now, is there over-acting here? You bet. It's not necessarily that Kinnear can't do a good Jack Kennedy accent, it's that you KNOW it's not real, so it only sounds like something you'd hear him do at a party in front of his friends. "Hey guys, check out my sweet Kennedy impersonation..."
It's kind of like Frank Langella's performance in Frost/Nixon, where he made the impeached president sound like Animal from The Muppets and allowed Michael Sheen to really capture your attention (as David Frost).
In my opinion, Kinnear should have never been chosen to play Jack Kennedy because he's too famous already. When I'm watching this movie, I don't think I'm watching Jack. I think I'm watching Greg. When I watched Up in the Air, I didn't think I was watching Ryan Bingham, but I thought I was watching George Clooney.
The producers of The Kennedys had a real chance to take a lesser-known actor and give him his big break, like the made-for-TV-movie James Dean did for a then-unknown James Franco in 2001. I remember watching that film and thinking, "I have no idea who this kid is, but he's amazing." In that movie, you discovered James Franco and, better yet, he was allowed to play James Dean.
It didn't go that well in The Kennedys.
On Kinnear's performance... listen, I like Greg Kinnear. Everyone likes Greg Kinnear. Why? Because he's sympathetic, he's emotional, he's the puppy dog. Think of all his best roles -- roles that he played to a tee: the gay artist who got beat to pulp and robbed in As Good as it Gets, the dad bordering on unemployment who's trying to win his family's (and the world's) approval in Little Miss Sunshine, and the failing businessman who is forced into a brief tenure as an unwilling hitman in The Matador.
In EVERY ONE of these roles, Kinnear is a little weak, a little feeble, and a little vulnerable. He's always scared, always lacking the confidence that his counterparts in these movies ooze without effort -- Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, and Pierce Brosnan in The Matador.
So, why then, would I want to watch him play Jack Kennedy, one of the world's all-time "coolest" men, the guy that practically gave GQ it's reason to exist?
There's always this sense that the other characters are making reference to Kennedy's charisma, his flair, and his confidence -- all the things that America and the world saw when the real Jack Kennedy was running for and acting as president of the United States of America -- but we never see it in the show. We see him go after women with a look on his face like, "Wow, do they actually like ME?" We see him and Bobby approach their father Joe for counseling in a way that you think dad's going to reach over the desk and clunk their heads together like Moe. We see him deliver his inauguration speech, a landmark moment in 20th century American history, with the kind of sheepishness and frailty that looks as if he peed his pants.
This isn't Kinnear's fault, but it's the fault of his previous roles. Oddly, his performance as the cocky, sex-addicted banker in What Planet Are You From? would have perfectly suited the Jack Kennedy that this show was going for.
Was I bothered that the show makes Jack look bad? No. I love Jack Kennedy and everything his image stands for, but I don't mind a show taking a strip off somebody, or off a family -- and, believe me, as much as the producers will deny it, this show does rip the Kennedys apart. But, hell, if the show was more critical of them, it would have been better. It's not revealing or exposing, it's just lame and limp.
They take a strip off of Frank Sinatra, too, and I'm the world's biggest Sinatra fan. Did that bother me? No. What bothered me, however, was that the guy playing him looked nothing like him, but that's the hallmark of the "Hallmark" effect.
What bothers me is that, while they expose the early Jack Kennedy for being young and inexperienced and shy (which he was), they never change his character. He supposedly becomes the all-American man of everyone's dreams, but we only know this because other characters say it or because we just know it already.
(That is, of course, the biggest problem with a mini-series like this. Why watch a bad re-creation when I can watch the real documentary on the History channel?)
If I was a real film critic, the list of reasons why The Kennedys misses the mark is pretty much what you'd expect: shallow, dry, and lacking balls. But, it's so much more than that.
Nobody is going to make an eight-episode mini-series about the most famous family in American history and properly pull it off. There is far too much content there and far too much history. You're left, like me, wondering why some things were missed while, at the same time, I'm criticizing it for including obvious things like his inauguration speech and the Bay of Pigs disaster (which is, again, one of those scenes where you think Kinnear's/Kennedy's advisors will grab him by the corral and shake him until he agrees with them).
I've also never highly valued actors who play well-known personalities and simply come off mocking them. There are exceptions -- like Jamie Foxx in Ray and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote -- but those are few and far between. Remember that scene in Entourage where Richard Roeper critiques Vincent Chase's performance in Medellin?
"Hey, Vince. Al Pacino called and he wants his Scarface accent back."
That's exactly how I feel watching actors stumble their way through their portrayals of historic personalities, and much like how I feel watching Pepper and Kinnear stumble through the dialogue in this one.
"Hey, guys. Mayor Quinby from the "The Simpsons" called, and he wants his accent back."
As good as Foxx and Seymour Hoffman were in their films, I'd way rather marvel at Sean Penn's performance in "Mystic River" or Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as anybody he's ever played. I think that's the real talent of acting -- not to mimic, but to create.
I once heard a buddy say about Al Pacino, "He does a better Cuban accent than most Cubans." Harsh, but well-said.
I know I'm laying it on pretty thick, and I apologize, TV.
This show can't win, and I know that. I'm basically flogging a dead horse at this point, but it has to be said.
It has to be said so we can stop this stuff -- so we can stop making movies and TV shows just so these actors can say, "Look what I can do, Mom! No hands!"
Why don't you have to watch The Kennedys? Because, you've already seen it in some way or another, whether you were alive in 1963, or whether you were like me and you read about it over and over in social studies classes. Somehow, you know this story, so save your time and watch these fine actors in another movie, on a better day.
That said, I obviously watched it... so, maybe the show still won.
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