The problem with writing the Transformers: Dark of the Moon review I want to write is that moviegoers and critics seem to divide into two large, fundamentally opposed camps. In one, le cinéma du Michael Bay is nothing short of undiluted poison, for the eyes, the mind, and the soul. In the other, what critics say doesn’t matter, here’s 18 dollars I earned from working at my job for half a day, let’s do this. Neither faction is ever disappointed; neither is ambivalent in the least. And ambivalence toward Michael Bay is my problem, however, and in failing to yield my opinion completely to one or the other camp, I risk losing the readership of both.
Still, I’ll go on. It may be that Bay, if he lives to be as old as Manoel de Oliveira, will never make an altogether good movie, as his direction tends to celebrate cliché while fragmenting/undercutting anything that might show promise. While it’s true that, by all accounts, this behavior seems to extend directly from the ADD/overcompensation/showbiz-impresario persona he maintains in real life, that of a man who never outgrew directing Super Bowl commercials, it’s hard to imagine an argument for a good movie to emerge unscathed from this crippling set of liabilities.
On the obverse side of the same coin are the character traits that often make his films worthwhile. A director like this (all the money in the world, answering only to himself as executive producer) can’t help but imprint his material with a highly eccentric, often grotesque sensibility—one that I sometimes find pretty appealing. Between the bombast and the excess, what I enjoy most is Bay’s skittish, eager-to-please-abandoned-puppy sense of humor, exemplified best by the Transformers trilogy’s scenes with Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) TMI-prone parents. Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger must have noticed that amphetamine-fueled mugging tested well in Revenge of the Fallen, so the third film is graced with the brilliantly hyperactive Ken Jeong—perhaps the one actor in Bay’s 17-year directing career who perfectly embodies his outsized, everything-plus-half-again-as-much style—and John Malkovich. The surprising inclusion of Frances McDormand—perhaps the one actor in Bay’s 17-year directing career whose casual grace cannot be diminished or upstaged by any amount of chroma keying—betrays Burn After Reading ambitions that are best passed over without comment.
Rounding out the Coen Brothers Reunion is series regular Turturro, whose mugging seems more controlled since he has something of a dance partner in protégé Alan Tudyk. Reporting in from the “always nice to see you” wing of this mental ward, Tudyk is not so much channeling his Alpha character from Dollhouse as enjoying the same kind of fenceless, fuck-it-do-whatever freedom that that previous role allowed him. Alongside Jeong, he gives the funniest performance of any film this year, and, also like Jeong, he’s on screen all too briefly.
As with any auteur, there is, for better or worse, the question of the image. Therein lies the real challenge of Bay, since, in reflecting on the two opposing camps, one viewer will denounce Bay’s images as anathema, whereas the other will have no idea what you’re talking about, and regard such intellectual subjects with thinly veiled distrust. My ambivalence continues right through my consideration of Bay’s images, frequently within the same shot—sometimes in the same frame. Of one mind, the nagging suspicion that Bay watched what happened on 9/11 and whispered to himself “I can do that…better!” is not at all mitigated by the even stronger suspicion that he said the same thing during Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (running non-combatants get toasted from above) and Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield (civic landmarks wrecked by an animal-shaped alien invader). There’s also the matter of racial stereotypes; I could count on one hand how many ethnic caricatures Bay/Kruger omitted, and even then, they may have appeared while I blinked.
On the other hand, I enjoy both because neither is simply a matter of straightforward content presentation. Bay has a style—a weird one, certainly, a hybrid of a nose-picking jock and a slick ad man who shoots a can of Pepsi, a Chevy Camaro, and a leggy blonde with the same voyeur’s eye, and his bizarre gallery of ethnic sounds, voices, and faces is not without precedent (John Ford…hey, don’t shoot the messenger), and can even be justified by claiming that it’s all in the game, the game of extravagant, Bay-ian excess. Furthermore, while I still protest Bay’s too-hasty cutting (many shots are good enough to warrant a few extra seconds), his set pieces, and his sets, are magnificently entertaining, in particular the collapsing-office-tower sequence that appears in either the film’s fifth or sixth hour, I don’t remember.
The filtering aspect of a filmmaker’s strong personality has the redeeming power that committee-obedient, impersonal filmmakers can never hope to acquire: That’s why an eccentric, natural shooter like Gore Verbinski can be “rescued” from the blatant excess of the Pirates of the Caribbean series while Rob Marshall, with no cinema sense whatsoever, cannot. Bay is at his best, paradoxically, when he’s at his worst, if for no other reason than the fact that the most enjoyable and the most offensive parts of his films (which are often the same scenes and sequences) extend from the mind of a man with a very particular visual sense. As much as I may qualify my praise, this is something to which I will always hope to remain open.