I have to admit that when I read the back of the box for The Reader, I was a bit taken aback by the general one-paragraph synopsis that the distributor tried to use to sell the DVD. Now, I understand that movies are a medium to tell a story and I am fully aware after watching thousands of films that VERY rarely do they start with “Michael was just a normal teenager living a normal life with normal problems until one day he found himself with a problem worth making a movie out of.” What I wasn’t quite sure I was expecting was “Michael was just a teenager who found himself in a love affair with a woman twice his age whose turn-ons included people that could read and boys that came over to say ‘thank you for washing away my puke off the street.’” As a lover of film, my response is simply “sure. Let’s roll with that for a bit and see where it leads.”
Where it leads is a steamy, compassionate, uncomfortably sweet romance that doesn’t actually know what the fuck to do with itself after it reaches that point where “something has to get bad or it doesn’t mean anything.” The Reader takes great pride in using controversial subjects to push its story: sexual exploration, the Holocaust, and suicide all come into play as it tells the story of the relationship between Hanna and Michael (Kate Winslet and some dipshit kid) from Michael’s teenage years to college years to fatherhood.
Though, by merit alone, these topics always inspire some internal outrage and disgust, The Reader never seems to give you a good enough reason that it chose THESE topics specifically except to perhaps ignite the fuel of anger or despair or woe inside of you as a viewer so being taken on the same ride as that characters on screen was just easier to accomplish and that more powerful, but when you think about it…it’s really not that deep. Smoke and mirrors to cloud a simple story: Guy falls in love with girl, guy has chance to save girl’s freedom and chooses not to, guy feels bad for rest of life and decides to do something to make her days a little more bearable, overdone ending wrapped to unenthused feeling of redemption. The longer the movie went on, the more the simplicity came into perspective so whereas this was on pace to be one of the best in The BackLOG, it sunk quickly to the depths of mediocrity.
It is possible for a movie to just try to do too much and The Reader could have honestly stopped a half hour before it did, left us on an emotional cliffhanger pondering the everlasting effects of a steamy affair on this teenage kid and I would have been happier asking those questions than reacting to washed up solutions. Though what older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) did for Hanna as she rotted away in prison was incredibly sweet, his entire role just seemed like it was attached with that Hollywood Brand Plot-Tape I keep going on about. Like a monster movie where the scariest monsters are the ones you can’t see and are forced to use your imagination, as are dramas where the most captivating stories are the ones you’re left to interpret on your own, but no, you pretty much walk away with all the answers you need. You can write a book on why Michael chose to let Hanna rot away instead of reveal a piece of evidence in her trial that would have saved her, but no, it’s simply told to you on the next page after “A is for Apple.”
This movie was powerful, but most of that power came from situations that are powerful by default, when really that thunder would have rumbled better through the cracking of the spirits of these two characters as they broke their own moral boundaries in various different ways for love, desire, longing, compassion, and fear. I can see the sequel being two unemployed, Republican, homosexuals during 9/11 fighting about where they are going to move to so they can have a wedding. Smoke and mirrors. Smoke and mirrors.
The Reader was on pace for a 9 in the early stages because I was just amazed at how well this relationship worked and everything clicked into place despite the constant headache the mere idea of it all had on my conscience. Then it just kept going and going and going and throwing in extra parts of story that didn’t need to be a part of it, like it was just unconfident that if it didn’t justify one controversial subject, we would look at the entire experience with contempt. After all was said and down, The Reader dipped to standard 7 dustbusters out of 10.