Last year, the number one movie at the domestic box office over the Thanksgiving holiday was The Cat in the Hat. This year, it was another really, really bad movie, National Treasure. This is not a jumping-off point for some kind of rant about how bad American movies are. Holiday movies are supposed to be bad. To put it nicely, they should be diverting, fun and have some sort of happy or optimistic ending. One shouldn’t be required to think too much after eating a pound of turkey and enduring the blank stares of despondent family members whom you have disappointed by not applying to law school.
But National Treasure is interesting in its own right, as a shining example of two prevalent cultural fascinations-—secrets (or, the Big Fat Secret, hereby referred to as BFS) and massive crises of heterosexual desire. On the subject of the former, you might have heard of a little pedestrian novel called The Da Vinci Code, which has given readers across the globe the Ultimate BFS, the BFS to end all BFS’s: Jesus had tons of babies and Catholics are crazy! The ensuing phenomenon has caused the unfortunate occurrence of a Ron Howard-directed movie adaptation, as well as the virtual spin-off that currently rules the box office.
In the film, Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) is some sort of Indiana Jones meets Urban Outfitters anthropologist obsessed with finding an ages-old treasure hidden by Old White Men (OWM). The clue to its whereabouts has been passed down through Gates’s family after an OWM entrusted his chariot driver (a Gates) with the information. Naturally, in true Da Vinci Code tradition, the OWM decided to be atrociously cryptic and left clues after clues after clues. Gates and his side-kick Riley meet hot, smart blonde Abigail, steal the Declaration of Independence (it’s a treasure map, duh), elude nasty baddies, and get lots of treasure and fame. Jon Voight joins the fray as elder Gates, sans large Amazonian reptiles and J-Lo.
In the age of Michael Moore, it’s curious that audiences want to sit through narratives about long-hidden secrets and OWM that clearly can’t trust the public with anything. Many moviegoers excited about seeing National Treasure would scoff at the suggestion that noble Bush could hide anything or engage in nasty OWM behavior. Perhaps it makes people more comfortable seeinag these narratives in a fantasy world. And this is surely a fantasy world. The BFS, which really is just the treasure itself (making the film far less exciting than the revelatory, guilty-pleasure wonders of Da Vinci), is hidden behind a sea of coincidences and impossible guesswork that would have even MacGyver spinning his head. The chance encounters, genius revelations and trap door plotting of National Treasure are so tired that Jerry Bruckheimer himself probably couldn’t stay awake watching the dailies. But somehow, the BFS keeps you going: the unveiling of the BFS, the mystery of the BFS, the cathartically erotic potential of the BFS.
So what’s going on with Paris Hilton? National Treasure is so formulaic that if Nicholas Cage asked hottie Abigail about hotel heiresses it would charge the film with an exciting postmodern meta-discourse (comparatively). But the film’s ho-hum shenanigans aren’t devoid of eye-opening sexual elements, particularly the masculinity crisis embodied in Cage’s ‘girly’ sidekick Riley. Throughout the film he whines and moans about all the danger Gates is getting him into, in between his moments of rocket scientist computer wizardry. Riley refers to Abigail as “that hot girl” while Gates pretends to be disinterested because we all know that they’ll make out in the end. In one scene, in which baddies are chasing the threesome, they are forced to split up. Gates tells Riley to “take care of her,” to which both Abigail (who thinks Gates is talking to her) and Riley reply, “I will.” Laughter ensues. In this moment and others the film so badly wants to supply Abigail with some sort of useful masculine agency. Unsurprisingly, she becomes a damsel in distress soon enough, and Cage pumps up the virility. Riley, of course, is left on the sidelines as a site of emasculation and phallic failure. The end of the film affirms these yawn-inducing gender politics when Riley complains that he only got a tiny bit of the reward because Gates was too noble to take any more of it. Riley becomes the stereotypical gay doppelganger—materialistic and annoying—while Gates comes off as selfless, noble, and dead sexy.
But what you really want to know is why Alexander was such a failure. Well, it sucks too. But Mr. Oliver Stone is probably right—we dumb Americans just don’t understand him. Take it to Western Europe, and give us more Jude Law movies.
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