Quibi, to put it politely, got off to a shaky start, and for the worst of all possible reasons. Yes, it had the sheer bad luck to launch at the start of the pandemic — not exactly a moment when folks were clamoring to watch short films on their phones as they traveled to work. More than that, though, the concept itself was based on a fundamental miscalculation of the marketplace. Do people in 2020 watch a ton of short content? Sure they do. Is much of it — at least, by any civilized standard — cheesy, obnoxious, degraded, sensationalistic trash on YouTube? Absolutely. So Jeffrey Katzenberg, using leftover logic from the 20th century, figured that if people now consume entertainment in short bursts, and a great deal of it is “bad,” wouldn’t they flock to a video-streaming platform to seek out short-form content that’s good?
Uh, no. On YouTube, people like to watch trash. They’re not necessarily immune to something of quality, yet there’s a junk-food-junkie, “America’s Nastiest Home Videos” dimension to a great quantity of the stuff that now goes viral. The short films showcased by Quibi amount to a boutique selection of artisanal content. And while it would be nuts to say that there’s anything wrong with that, it may be folly to pretend that there’s a more voracious hunger for it than there is.
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But Quibi is now showcasing a bright shiny chunk of diversion that amounts to a bait-and-switch — and, just maybe, a paradigm that could point the way to the short-film app’s future. “The Princess Bride,” a celebrities-at-home DIY remake of the 1987 fantasy-adventure classic, shot by dozens of famous actors leaping in and out of the film’s iconic roles, all under the hands-off direction of Jason Reitman, may prove an ideal antidote to Quibi’s who-wants-to-watch-a-short-film? blues.
The new “Princess Bride” is that good old thing, a long film…but shown in short pieces. It’s a movie transformed into an insta-pop series, all based on the idea of accustomizing — and addicting — us to the short-film rhythm. “The Princess Bride” will come at its audience in bite-sized chapters, with a new one dropped every day for two weeks.
Can it help to rescue Quibi? It certainly won’t hurt. Is it any good?
Based on Chapter One, which premiered today, I’m hooked enough to want to keep going. Not that I’m in the business of judging a feature-length entertainment based on its opening four minutes, but here’s what you can already say about the Quibi “Princess Bride.” It takes something that we’ve seen during the coronavirus, starting with the “One World: Together at Home” benefit concert broadcast on April 18, and turns it into a makeshift art form. Stars, all dressed down, at home, against domestic backdrops that sometimes look posh but that usually just look like…home, clowning around in a casual way that’s at once “on” and not on, professional and after hours. In quarantine, these actors have never seemed more like us, though in a subtle shaggy way that lets us revel in all the things about them that aren’t like us.
“The Princess Bride” is the perfect vehicle for this pandemic aesthetic of celebrities letting their hair down (or, in the case of Jack Black, their medieval beards out), because the original film was itself an elaborate game of make-believe, in which the actors embraced the romantic innocence of their storybook roles and, at the same time, undercut them as if engaged in a sly vaudeville parody of old-movie sincerity.
In a weird way, the original “Princess Bride” had a home-movie aspect too. William Goldman’s novel was published in 1973, four years before “Star Wars,” and he spent the next decade trying to get the film made. By the time it all came together, Hollywood had entered the age of advanced visual effects. All of which made “The Princess Bride” play as a winking version of “Star Wars” minus the FX.
The set atop the Cliffs of Insanity, where Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, with his kitsch desperado accent and Musketeer hair, first challenges Cary Elwes’ masked man in black to a duel to the death, looks like it was built out of charcoal Styrofoam boulders that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1940s serial. Intentionally tacky? Hard to say. Yet part of the film’s frowzy idiosyncratic wonder is that the sets — or, at least, a lot of them — aren’t wizardly enough to transport us, and so we’re dependent on being transported by something else: the power of our imaginations. (That’s how a lot of studio-system movies worked. When you watch “The Wizard of Oz,” you know you’re not in a real forest — and as a result it seems more grandly spooky than any forest.)
The Quibi “Princess Bride” pushes this aesthetic to its logical extreme, to the point that the thing wouldn’t look out of place…on YouTube. In the first four minutes, here’s the stubbly Adam Sandler, doing a pretty good impersonation of Peter Falk’s storybook-reading grandfather, with Fred Savage — now 43 — reprising the role of the grandson, which then shifts over, moments later, to Josh Gad. Princess Buttercup and Westley are now Chris Pine and Annabelle Wallis, and a moment later they’re Tiffany Haddish and Common, and though this sounds flip and prankish and a bit postmodern, and kind of is, as soon as Haddish and Common come on, the two lock eyes with such ardent devotion that the flipness falls away and we’re…immersed.
Maybe not so completely in “the story” (at least, not yet — though this isn’t a bad level of immersion for three minutes), but in the other story the Quibi “Princess Bride” is telling: the story of why a lot of us love this movie so much, and how we love it — as a fairy tale for a world that no longer believe in fairy tales. When Hugh Jackman shows up as Prince Humperdinck, he’s wearing a dim-sum steamer as a crown.
Playing dress-up and pretending to be someone you’re not. That’s the definition of acting, it’s the definition of a great deal of childhood play, and it may be one of the key definitions of life. (Shakespeare thought so.) The Quibi “Princess Bride” looks to be a threadbare patchwork of role-playing of the most exuberantly exhibitionistic kind. But will it all add up to something? I’ll report back later on whether it looks like a one-time novelty or a form that can live happily ever after — or long enough, at least, to inject Quibi with life.