2021 Was the Year of the Directorial Double Feature

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2021 Was the Year of the Directorial Double Feature

Usually, it’s a rarefied activity, reserved for the ambitious and/or powerful likes of Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh: A director releasing two films in a single calendar year. Think of Soderbergh’s 2000, when he dominated most major Oscar categories via Traffic and Erin Brockovich; or Spielberg’s 1993, where he put out Jurassic Park in the summer and Schindler’s List in the winter, releasing the highest-grossing movie of the year and the Oscar winner for Best Picture, six months apart. Though Spielberg and Soderbergh both have 2021 releases, they’ve opted not to make it a double feature year this time around. But through the vagaries of a post-pandemic release calendar, plenty of other filmmakers have—and several of them have movies out this month. Ridley Scott, Reinaldo Marcus Green, Antoine Fuqua, Doug Liman, Edgar Wright and Joe Wright (no relation) are among the directors who have joined (or about to join) this bizarre club in 2021, affording the rare double bill of peeks into their psyches.

Ridley Scott is the old hand at the single-year double feature (see Hannibal/Black Hawk Down in 2001 and Alien: Covenant/All the Money in the World in 2017). He’s become so prolific that it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened more often. (Did he really never put out two Russell Crowe vehicles in the same year?) His latest double feature could potentially even screen that way: The Last Duel and House of Gucci are releasing mere weeks apart—and both starring Adam Driver to boot.

It’s a measure of the beating studio dramas have taken in recent years that movies as disparate as Duel (an account of medieval sexual assault in France) and Gucci (a true-crime story about the downfall of the fashion-branded family) feel sort of congruent just by virtue of being period-set dramas for adults that last in the vicinity of 150 minutes each. They’re both what I might have referred to in the past as Scott’s Boring Mode: That mix of ice-blue, gunmetal gray, and earthy browns that connote Scott’s historical dramas. It’s a happy surprise, then, that both movies are so entertaining, connected most strongly by their performances.

In the past, Scott’s actors have sometimes felt subsumed by these big productions: Weighed down by the fleeting heavy-osity, then swept away as the movie fades from memory. In these two movies, some of the actors fight off torpor through sheer overacting: Ben Affleck, smirking and preening his way through a scene-stealing supporting part in The Last Duel; Lady Gaga committing hard in Gucci as the woman who married into the fashionable family and wound up plotting mafia-level revenge; Adam Driver in both, taking different forms of male aggression disguised as family loyalty. Even Jared Leto, usually a ham without a cause, is effective in Gucci as an extravagantly tasteless failson, often paired with his disapproving but somehow still-loving father played by Al Pacino—the king of enlivening heavy drama with some rococo touches.

Having Scott and Driver reteam in such close proximity gives these movies a probably-false but still kicky sense of lineage. The tragic male brutality of The Last Duel gives way, many generations later, to a more polite form of abuse and avaricious power-grabbing in Gucci. Despite this, Duel probably has more to say about our current world than House of Gucci, and in Jodie Comer it finds a stronger emotional anchor. Gucci, despite its lack of medieval brawling, is the more spectacle-driven of the two; the most surprising thing about it is Scott’s sneaky affection for these characters, even when they turn into monsters, failures, or outright boobs. His sociological histories feel less shruggy in his old age, as if they’re further activating his curiosity about human nature.

But not every 2021 double feature feels quite so lofty. As mentioned, many of these double features came about because of some combination of pandemic delays and semi-quarantined inspiration. Doug Liman is the most extreme case on both counts: During the pandemic, he threw together the COVID-set rom-com-dram Locked Down, with Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejifor. By surprise-releasing it on HBO Max in January, he lapped his previous project, Chaos Walking, a long-delayed YA sci-fi adventure that Lionsgate dumped into a mid-pandemic marketplace in the spring. The two projects aren’t much alike, beyond the critical disdain they engendered, but put together they feel like attempts by Liman to tinker with his past mainstream successes: Locked Down is the seriocomic marital strife of Mr. and Mrs. Smith minus the punches and guns, while Chaos Walking is the high-concept sci-fi of Jumper with a little more chill. Liman has always made for an odd promotion into major-studio journeyman blockbusting; the nervous energy of Go and Swingers translates to a jazzed-up pace, but few of his bigger movies retain that sense of character. That’s exactly what pokes through both Locked Down and Chaos Walking, admittedly at odd, sometimes off-putting angles: They’re both strange acts of endearment, whether observing the actorly histrionics of Hathaway and Ejiofor or the puppy-dog flirtations of Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland. Liman is an unusually strong pandemic-era director because his movies always feel like they’ve been completed by the skin of their teeth.

Antoine Fuqua also backed sci-fi spectacle with an intimate, lockdown-friendly production: Infinite got the Paramount+ treatment as an alternate summer movie, and The Guilty turned up on Netflix this fall. They’re both star vehicles: Infinite has Mark Wahlberg as an endlessly reincarnated neo-superhero (yes, The Matrix is ripped off copiously), while Jake Gyllenhaal’s cop-turned-911-dispatcher in The Guilty is noticeably more compromised. Fuqua came into prominence via the ‘90s music-video-to-cinema pipeline and has made star vehicles for a variety of performers (always dudes): Chow Yun-Fat, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis and, of course, Denzel Washington, whom he’s worked with four times. His two 2021 films split his strengths: The Guilty zeroes in on Gyllenhaal’s muscular twitchiness and stays out of its way with unobtrusive filmmaking. As a similar star text, Infinite is ridiculous—a movie that answers the unasked question, “Why does Mark Wahlberg seem like a natural-born genius?” But as a splashy big-studio sci-fi adventure, it is enjoyably ludicrous, the best-looking movie Fuqua has made in years. Though both movies could use a little of what the other has, they also make a strong case for Fuqua as a versatile genre-hopper.

Reinaldo Marcus Green also logged a Mark Wahlberg star vehicle this year, with the disastrous Joe Bell, wherein Wahlberg plays a real-life dad walking across the United States to advocate for an anti-bullying platform. Going to extremes for your children via a superstar avatar obviously speaks to Green, who also directs Will Smith as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard. In some ways, King Richard feels like a flipside to Joe Bell: In the latter, the title character frets that he’s been an insufficiently supportive dad to his ostracized gay son, while in the former, the title character exudes drive and confidence in pushing two of his daughters toward athletic greatness. Richard flirts with ambiguities about its subject before committing full-on to inspirational uplift (Venus and Serena exec-produced and have not, unsurprisingly, ordered a hit piece on their dad), but Green’s earlier film can only help his newer one. That is to say, Joe Bell goes so spectacularly wrong in so many ways that Richard appears all the more competent by comparison. Despite their complementary nature, they’re less companion pieces than a bizarre case of instant corrective: Green seems hellbent on making a movie about unconventional #DadGoals, and King Richard is imbued with that dogged spirit. Yes, Green made an inspirational tearjerker that blithely informs the audience that its hero got hit by a car and died right before the credits roll. Get back up, dust yourself off, and try again.

This particular group of double features is rooted in a similar ethos. Regardless of their output, these directors are laboring within the current incarnation of the studio system, lacking (as almost everyone does) the freedom afforded to a Spielberg (by virtue of his untouchable status) or a Soderbergh (by virtue of his wily work ethic). Edgar Wright, who had Last Night in Soho the same year as The Sparks Brothers, has a little bit of that auteur juice, but the stakes for his horror thriller and music-doc passion projects feel like they fall on the lower side. Even the beloved Scott and the acclaimed Joe Wright (whose romantic musical Cyrano I have not yet seen, but whose Woman in the Window is an old-fashioned thriller programmer, albeit unsuccessful) are more high-end journeymen than unfettered visionaries. These two-for-ones exist in large part because of content churn; only Scott has avoided premiering on at least one streamer, and The Last Duel caused plenty of do-adults-even-go-to-theaters-for-this-anymore handwringing. All of these double features make the included films more interesting—even an utter misfire like Joe Bell or a between-the-cracks blockbuster wannabe like Chaos Walking. Taken together, though, they feel more like a big-studio slate left out in the cold, playing to empty theaters or viewers folding laundry while half-watching whatever. No wonder Scott is so interested in the fall of the house of Gucci: He’s seen firsthand how easily rarified luxury can become cheap consumer goods.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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