By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 21, 2008 at 4:41AM
"A folly." "A mess." "Great." These words came from critics coming out of Steven Soderbergh's four-hour 18 minute Spanish-language Che Wednesday night. At the end there was slight applause; no boos. My own description: noble failure. Click here to read Todd McCarthy's review.
The global press corps jammed into the Debussy for the 6:30 PM screening. After two hours and nine minutes of The Argentine of the double feature, the press tucked into tasteless white-bread sandwiches in brown paper bags labeled "Che" and started dissecting part one. If you left the hall, you couldn't come back-- some took off. (After all, there was a major soccer match under way.) But many stayed for part two--which was even less dramatic.
Benecio del Toro gives a great performance, but Soderbergh's roving HD camera keeps its distance as Che trains guerillas in the jungle, leads his troops through various skirmishes and the takeover of Santa Clara, talks to TV interviewers and gives moving speeches at the U.N. The movie is well made and watchable. I was utterly inside it. I wasn't bored with the the first half, which offers plenty of narrative cut-backs and diversity; some periods are shot in black and white, some in color. There are ideas and dialogue galore.
But the second--which is also two hours and nine minutes--becomes a focused cinema verite account of Che's doomed adventures in Bolivia, the point of which becomes clear and inevitable. As my pal Larry Gross put it, the film is about "process." Soderbergh isn't interested in the things that compel moviegoers to engage with characters: drama, psychology, motivation. He doesn't dwell on the relationship between Che and Castro. He doesn't tell you how "Ernesto" turned into "Che." He doesn't share the inside of Che's relationship with the woman who becomes his second wife. He doesn't let you see the iconic photo being taken. He withholds the takeover of Havana.
Soderbergh didn't think he could finish the film in time for Cannes. Why don't these guys ever learn? Remember Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, Wong Kar Wai's 2046, Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, and Edward Norton-starrer Down in the Valley? DON'T TAKE AN UNFINISHED MOVIE TO CANNES!!!! Wait. Give the film the time you need.
The good news: there is plenty of fine material here to be edited into one releasable long dramatic feature and hopefully French producer/sales co. Wild Bunch, which paid for 75 % of the $61 million film, and Telecinco, which came up with 25%, will give the filmmaker the time he needs to find this promising film's final form.
One thing is likely: it will not be released stateside as it was seen here. And it will not sell overnight--unless a distrib promises to help Soderbergh to find his movie. It seems that Peter Rice of Fox Searchlight, Daniel Battsek of Miramax and James Schamus of Focus knew that they didn't need to see Che before they left town.
UPDATE: I saw Harvey Weinstein after the screening at the Hotel du Cap; he says he neither placed a bid nor saw the movie in advance; he loved it and supports Soderbergh. Whether he will go after it is a matter on which he was not willing to comment.