Nightlife

Cocoon

by Jeremy C. Fox
Contributor
Tuesday Jun 1, 2004
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Cocoon takes a simple, pseudo-philosophical question—what price eternal youth?—and surrounds it with some lame “comedy” antics and now dated sci-fi effects and cheesy synthesizer music (the montage set to Michael Sembello’s “Gravity” is priceless kitsch). It’s not a very good movie, but, like its director, Ron Howard, it’s so benign and apple-cheeked that it seems churlish to complain. Howard is one of those audience-loving directors (Robert Zemickis is another) who excels at convincing us that we’re quite high-brow for responding to material that is lower-middle-brow at best.

The film’s setup is interminable. It’s fully an hour into the movie before any of the characters really develops beyond being merely a type. Given a short leash, though, the older actors really come alive, showing a vitality and spirit that many younger actors should envy. Don Ameche won the Oscar for his loveable lothario, but the two performances that really got to me were Jessica Tandy’s and Jack Gilford’s. A wrenching scene between Tandy and her real-life husband, Hume Cronyn, gives the viewer a snapshot of all the little hurts of a long marriage in a few brittle lines. Gilford’s Bernie Lefkowitz starts off as a tiresome Jewish stereotype, Woody Allen without the joie de vivre, but later comes vividly to life as the stalwart opposition to the central characters’ embrace of their newfound vitality.

The film’s younger cast members, Steve Guttenberg and Tahnee Welch, however, remain undeveloped. They just sit there on the screen, limp as a gutted fish, and we don’t laugh when they’re trying to be funny or get a charge when they’re trying to be sexy. Brian Dennehy underacts to the point of invisibility, a smart tactic, all things considered.

There are some worthwhile visual pleasures to be had among the sentimental mush. The underwater photography by cinematographer Donald Peterman is lush and moody, and there is a clever, perhaps unintentional, sight gag when the nursing home residents storm the poolhouse, running with the stiff, jerky strides of the zombies in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Howard does a full-length commentary track that, if you can get past his effusive praise of seemingly every person involved with the making of the film, reveals some interesting things about the direction it took. While I have some reservations about Howard as a director (that his gee-whiz, boy-next-door quality actually seems genuine is even more disturbing than if it were an obvious put-on), it seems clear that this is a much stronger film for his intervention. Though he credits his wife with getting him started fleshing out the older characters and Wilford Brimley with persuading him to allow the actors to improvise some of the more emotionally complex scenes, it’s clear that his instincts saved the film to whatever degree it was saved; almost none of the stuff that works came to him with the original script.

The disc recycles five fluffy behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film, Ron Howard’s career, the underwater filming, the cast, and the conceptualization of the alien characters, all made at the time of the film’s original release. There is a still photo gallery, three original TV ads, the theatrical teaser and trailer, and the trailer for the sequel.

Jeremy C. Fox writes about movies, books, and art. He is also a painter and graphic designer and is a board member of Project 10 East, a nonprofit that establishes and maintains gay-straight alliances in Boston-area high schools.

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