Sometimes when I’m at a must-see indie or a sold-out hipster/acoustic/tweed-vest concert or an acclaimed, deadly Broadway revival, I wish I were at home beneath my down-filled comforter and atop my heated mattress pad, watching The Good Wife or Girls or Built, my favorite new reality show where a crew of male models in matching black tank tops will rebuild someone’s deck or renovate their walk-in closet. Although I knew I was getting old when instead of thinking, ”Look at those hot, ripped studs!” I wondered, ”Could you trust them with a kitchen?”
TV, especially Enlightened on HBO or a pair of back-to-back 30 Rock reruns, has gotten so good that movies can feel obsolete, until I see something that makes me remember, Oh right, that’s what only a movie can do. For example, recently there was a dud called Broken City, an urban thriller with a script that felt patched together from film-school crib sheets and one of those box sets of noir DVDs. Mark Wahlberg plays a tough New York cop who gets dropped from the force after a completely noble vigilante shooting, and he becomes a private detective. Because Mark is one of the few male stars who’s believably both heterosexual and blue-collar, he’s awarded a stunning Latina girlfriend and an adoring blond assistant, as a backup.
Russell Crowe plays the mayor of New York City, although, with his waggly jowls and his Julius Caesar bangs, he’d be way better as the governor of New Jersey. Russell hires Mark to trail his cheating wife, who’s played by a smoldering Catherine Zeta-Jones in formfitting white dresses accessorized with bodyguards. The plot is hopeless, but here’s why I still had a great time: Broken City is so gorgeously directed, by Allen Hughes, that it supplies a genuine Hollywood tingle, the sort of high you can only get from watching swooping wide-screen images of Manhattan at night, or Catherine Zeta-Jones removing her oversize sunglasses. Without its stars and luxurious high style, Broken City would just be an average episode of Law & Order: SVU, although Mariska Hargitay is far more macho than Marky Mark, and I always wait for those final close-ups of Mariska, after the pedophile rapist has confessed, and Mariska looks stoic and distraught, as if she’s morally sickened and also has to pee.
Happily, Side Effects not only offers Hollywood oomph but it’s also sly and smart and somehow uses clinical depression for a Hitchcockian double-indemnity twist. Rooney Mara plays a fragile young woman with huge, lonely puppy-dog eyes; she’s the sort of upscale waif whom you want to either protect and medicate or clobber with a baseball bat. She’s like any not-so-close friend who’s ever told you far too much about her complicated relationship with her controlling mother, and who might wear a beret or a moth-eaten, oversize sweater or a trench coat at any moment.
Jude Law plays Rooney’s shrink, and Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up as a competing therapist, and God bless her, because Catherine is the breed of old-time star who knows that in order to play someone with a Ph.D. she needs to tug her hair back into a tight bun and wear eyeglasses. Side Effects is like Fatal Attraction on Zoloft, and there’s nothing more fun than watching gorgeous, sexy movie stars lie and sneer and betray one another. Everything’s just smaller and more ordinary on TV, even on the most addictive shows. After watching Side Effects, I wanted to stab my husband and get away with it, backed by a soaring, jittery soundtrack, but after watching a great episode of, say, American Horror Story or The Following, I just want to take a bathroom break, grab another handful of Honey Bunches of Oats, and then watch a few more DVR’d episodes. And when a movie stops making sense, if I’m having a blast I just go with it, but when the detectives on The Following miss some obvious clues, I want to yell, ”Why didn’t they just watch the first three episodes?!”
Here’s the basic difference between movies and TV: A great movie makes you want to live in a movie, while a great TV show makes you want to watch more TV, until you’re nodding off and your husband has to gently pry the remote out of your hand. The best TV belongs on TV: If you picture the finest episodes of anything from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Mary Tyler Moore, they’d still get a little lost at the cineplex. The best TV makes you feel like awarding a Nobel Prize to whoever invented the recliner and that episode of Built where one of the models has a serious discussion with his girlfriend about whether he should lose 10 pounds and transition from underwear modeling to high fashion. But a great movie can justify having to put on shoes and leave your house, which is why movies will never die, if you ask me.