The Count of Monte Cristo (review)

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Dumas for Dummies

The key thing to remember when you’re adapting a classic novel for Hollywood is this: Take any moral complexities, any shades of gray, and make ’em black or white. You don’t want to make anyone think, after all, or make anyone uncomfortable. This is Entertainment. Fer gawd’s sake, don’t tax your audience.

So, for example, if you were to transfer to the big screen, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, you would be sure to iron out its protagonist, make him nice and flat and uninteresting and heroic in that bland, boring Hollywood way. If, in the novel — and I offer this only as an example, an illustration — the protagonist, let’s call him, oh, Edmond Dantes, is a man so obsessed with revenge that it consumes him, makes him as ruthless as those he wishes to exact vengeance upon, then you must transform him into something so noble and admirable and remarkable and good that even centering his life around cold, black revenge would not be enough to warp him. The Hollywood Dantes must be utterly above reproach, thoroughly perfect, and morally unambiguous.
Oh, and also: You must append the name of the author of that classic book to the title of your movie to get back some of the literary cachet you just threw away.

And so — surprise! — we have The Count of Monte Cristo, or, as we’re informed in the opening credits. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Where Dumas is in all of this is a bit of a mystery, though. The very basic outlines of his story are here — Edmond, a 19th-century French sailor, wrongfully imprisoned by those jealous of his success, escapes after a dozen years in clink, plots his revenge, and carries it out — but I doubt Dumas would be happy with what got hung on that outline.

Hollywood’s Edmond (James Caviezel: Ride with the Devil, Pay It Forward, who gets less appealing the bigger his roles get) is unbelievably naive, a perfect dupe, and so who can blame the bad guys for duping him? He’s is a “righteous little ponce,” one of the bad guys calls him, and ya can’t help but agree. We’re supposed to believe it’s his good heart and trusting nature that trips him up, that delivers him into the hands of those who would do him wrong, but he’s just a twit. An annoying, stupid, goodie-goodie twit. Not so goodie-goodie that he doesn’t romp on the beach with his gal — to whom he is not married — and give her some of the old in-out, in-out before he gets hauled away to prison. But c’mon, this is Hollywood: not only did they have to do the nasty simply because sex is an absolute requirement for a Hollywood movie, but it was biologically necessary for the complete Hollywoodization of the story. I won’t spoil things any more, but here’s a hint: it has to do with that ironing out of gray areas that might cause discomfort. (If you’ve read the book, you might guess what I mean.)

Edmond’s fiancee, Mercedes (the simply terrible Dagmara Dominczyk: Rock Star), waits a whole month after his imprisonment before giving up on him and marrying his “best friend,” Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce: Memento, L.A. Confidential), which was exactly Fernand’s plan. You’d think Edmond might have copped on to Fernand’s evil intent, because Pearce skulks around with his cheeks sucked in — a sure sign of evilness — but that’s just how stupid Edmond is. But prison is good for him: The warden (Michael Wincott: Alien Resurrection, who saw this script for what it is and played it like a comedy) may be a sadist, but his next-door cellmate, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Gladiator), gives the illiterate Edmond a university education. And Edmond has that kind of robust Hollywood constitution that allows him to survive a dozen years on one meal of slop per day, plus the occasional rat, and not become malnourished at all, retaining plenty of strength to practice swordfighting with Faria.

Edmond escapes and transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo. There is much bad swordfighting, a truly awful melange of pretend-European accents, and the worst attempt at a catchphrase ever: “I’m a count, not a saint.” (Which really belies the fact that this Edmond, unlike Dumas’, is still just the same old righteous little ponce he ever was.) And Edmond takes his revenge: an absurd, hilariously overblown, Hollywoodized revenge. Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo is the classic revenge story, and it wasn’t good enough for Hollywood? They had to ratchet it up, make it bigger and badder and nastier and more obvious than Dumas thought it had to be? What about subtlety? What about revenge being a dish best served cold? Don’t these people know what “to the pain” means?

I hope Dumas is plotting his revenge against Hollywood from beyond the grave. I’d pay good money to see that.

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