By Nina Heyn — Your Culture Scout
During WWII, Hollywood turned away from hard-hitting dramas toward lighter fare—mysteries, comedies, and musicals—resulting in such classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me in St. Louis, and His Girl Friday.
Perhaps the pandemic offers a similar explanation for the current revival of a genre that was a rarity during a lengthy period dominated by hard-hitting action movies, superhero stories, and gritty dramas. That genre—a sort of warm-feeling movie that disappeared almost entirely for the first two decades of the 21st century—is suddenly reemerging, with a few “cozier” movies appearing in theaters. People of all generations seem to be seeking low-stress entertainment more so than during the hard-charging, but more optimistic 2000–2020 period. Or at least this is my explanation for some new movies that I would dub “cozy entertainment”—a genre that seemed to have left the big screens for streaming services.
The main characteristic of such a movie is that regardless of whether it is a crime mystery or a comedy, it evokes a totally fictional world in which people are sweetly naïve or dastardly wicked; colors are often technicolor, costumes are elaborate (and often reminiscent of the well-dressed fashion styles of the 1930s to 1960s), sets are theatrical on purpose, and the plot is in the style of “whodunit” novels. Everything is slightly old-fashioned, full of winks to the audience, and comfortingly low-stress. These films are, at the same time, quality entertainment, cast with outstanding actors who are often Oscar winners, and made by filmmakers with the highest credentials. The trend may have been signaled by the 2019 release of Knives Out, a charming, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that starred Daniel Craig at the height of his Bond fame, surrounded by a celebrity cast. Here are a few examples of recent and upcoming releases.
MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS
This was a summer movie in U.S. theaters and is still in release throughout the fall in international markets. It is ultimately destined to be a perennial favorite on streaming sites, thanks to a lightweight story revolving around a humble house cleaner whose dream is to buy an authentic Dior dress. It is set in the 1950s, when Paris haute couture was still being sold at salon showings and featured exquisite dresses. Lesley Manville (who also appeared in another fashion yarn called Phantom Thread in 2017) carries here the fairy-tale fantasy of a wartime widow who decides to treat herself to a seemingly inaccessible article of luxury. While male audiences will be less attracted by this sweet tale, this story can easily resonate with women of all ages who understand very well the idea of retail therapy, here pushed to the very limit in a fictional if gorgeous Paris setting.
SEE HOW THEY RUN
This is a mystery with a wink to the longest-running play ever—The Mousetrap—which opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March 16, 2020, finally succumbing to the pandemic closures. The plot of this movie takes place in 1953, a year into the play’s triumphant presence on stage. Adrian Brody delivers an acting tour de force as an American director who plans to turn this play into a Hollywood movie, but who meets his untimely end on stage. From then onward, we are propelled through a Christie-style plot, led into the story by a taciturn inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his overeager sidekick constable, subtly played by Saoirse Ronan. Nods to the original play, to Hitchcockian movies, as well as to the tradition of an English murder mystery are numerous and clever.
While this is not exactly a cozy English mystery but rather a crazy action movie, it is still worth mentioning. Its genre of a violent action movie could belong to the John Wick or Taken franchises, if not for the fact that it is a comedy. Its non-stop violence (warning: there is abundant spurting of fake blood and lots of foul language) has more in common with Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong comedies than anything seriously gruesome. Brad Pitt brilliantly entertains as a replacement assassin, pitted against colorful and totally off-the-wall hitmen, all stuck on a high-speed train from Tokyo. Pitt’s co-stars are Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and Benito “Bad Bunny” Martinez Ocasio—perhaps not exactly household names in action movies, but after this one, they should be. The three of them carry out one stunt extravaganza after another, all the way to an improbable ending. While this is, admittedly, an assassin revenge story instead of a countryside murder mystery, it has the same quality of light entertainment. After all, it is directed by David Leitch, an action director whose previous credits include Deadpool 2 and the original John Wick. As of this writing the film has hit a sweet spot of $100 Million in the domestic box office — a rarity for non-franchise film.
GLASS ONION: KNIVES OUT MYSTERY
The original Knives Out film needs little introduction—the movie made over $165 million in the U.S. and over $311 million in the global box office. The closed-room murder mystery was an instant hit, largely thanks to Rian Johnson’s inspired direction and the stellar cast, led by Daniel Craig in the role of suave detective Benoit Blanc whose impenetrable accent and careful dressing are a homage to Hercules Poirot in the same way the plot is a direct nod to Christie’s novels. Glass Onion has a new mystery to solve and new characters, but the common thread is the detective extraordinaire, which allows Daniel Craig to entertain us on-screen as a recurring character, albeit with much less gravitas than his steely-eyed Bond persona. This time, Blanc spends time on a billionaire’s island in Greece. The plot is entirely contemporary since Edward Norton plays a space travel mogul in the vein of Elon Musk, Kate Hudson plays an airhead model who tends to tweet inappropriate one-liners, and Dave Bautista is a men’s rights advocate with millions of followers on social media. There is only one catch for audiences—while the first movie in this delightful new franchise was a theatrical release, this one, shot during the pandemic, is a Netflix release. Times are changing….
While Glass Onion is already destined for the small screen, some of the other current and upcoming “cozy” movies still have a chance to lure viewers back to theaters, especially the older crowd who tends to skip trips to the theater. If they do not, the younger generations who consume entertainment mainly on their personal devices might not fill seats in sufficient numbers to stall the decline of theatrical exhibition that is taking place in the global marketplace.
The “cozy” trend is also evident in such recent TV shows as Emily in Paris (American production, Netflix) and A Private Affair (Spanish production, Amazon). I hesitate to recommend both shows due to their diminished intellectual reach, but they do reflect the direction of filmed entertainment—with hard-hitting, grim dramas making room for lighter storytelling. Since this historically happens in movies when times are hard, this is perhaps not a very encouraging trend.