Around the World in 80 Days
This is Hollywood's second try at filming the Jules Verne story of the bet that takes Phileas Fogg and his faithful retainer Passepartout on a circumnavigation filled with adventures and comic mishaps. The 1956 film made the two (David Niven and Cantinflas, the Mexican comic) into foils for endless cameos by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Noel Coward to John Gielgud. Whatever might have been amusing with that concept was lost because the script was bad.
This time there's a different problem, and I'll get to it in a minute. First, though, the story is still serviceable: It is the end of the 19th century. Crackpot inventor Fogg (Steve Coogan) makes a bet with the smug head of Britain's National Academy of Science, Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent) that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. At the same time Jackie Chan has just stolen a precious jade figure of the Buddha from the British Museum in order to return it to his native village, from which it had been plundered. To escape from the police Chan makes himself into Fogg's valet Passepartout, and the two take off on their adventure. As in the 1956 film, there are cameos by famous visitors, the best and most extended of them by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish bey who invites the travelers - now accompanied by the lovely Monique (Cecile De France) - to stay with him. We will also meet Luke and Owen Wilson as the Wright brothers and Kathy Bates as Queen Victoria, among others.
And now to the problem. Because the film stars Chan, who is a great physical comedian (and who is credited with choreographing the action here), director Frank Coraci ("The Waterboy," "The Wedding Singer") should have taken a look at the Hong Kong films Chan directed himself, before he came to the United States. He would have learned that physical comedy on film is different from the character comedy of Adam Sandler. In physical comedy the camera must be a passive observer of the action. It must be the eyes of the audience; it must not intrude itself into the scene, either by moving from one spot to another, or by short edits that break up the momentum of the action. It takes great restraint to direct the camera placement for physical comedy, and to resist the tendency to overcut the film. Unfortunately, Coraci insists that his camera be active, as though he doesn't trust his actors to carry the scene without his help; he rides right over their work and throws away the wit and excitement that should be in each of Chan's comic set-pieces.
So what amusement is left for us in "Around the World in 80 Days" must come from the dialogue and not the action. And yet the film has spent enormous resources on the action set-pieces, from Fogg's back yard to a railroad car in India to a warehouse in New York where the pieces of the Statue of Liberty are awaiting placement on the pedestal in the harbor. In every case the director has made exactly the wrong decisions, turning what might have been a delicious voyage into an interminable drag. Why can't film schools offer courses in directing comedy? When I taught at the School of Visual Arts we worked as hard at slapstick as we did at directing dialogue. It's time to go back to basics; we'd all be better off if we did.