If you go to the movies this weekend, be it the multiplex, or your local art house, and you happen to see they are playing Head Full of Honey– run. Run as far away as possible. Use those precious hours to read a book, talk with loved ones, explore, or heck just see another movie.
I speak to you as a man who regrets all his decisions that led him to this point. Normally I am a practitioner of the philosophy, “As artists are encouraged to be fearless in their art so should we be fearless in our experiencing of it.” There are, I have discovered, exceptions and limits to this philosophy.
On the other hand, if you are the type of person who thinks they might enjoy a smarmy obnoxious comedy about an aging veterinarian with Alzheimer’s pompously named Amadeus (Nick Nolte) then do I have a movie for you. The plot, such as it is, concerns, Amadeus and the wacky antics he gets up to with his granddaughter Tilda (Sophia Lane Nolte), his son Nick (Matt Dillon) and his daughter-in-law Sarah (Emily Mortimer).
Head Full of Honey is a rarity in such that it is an American remake of a German film by the same director, Til Schweiger. I am no expert on German films. My knowledge consists of Wings of Desire, Run Lola Run, a handful of lesbian short films by Petra Clever, and varied other films I’m not recalling. However I have seen other movies before, and more importantly, I’ve talked with actual people before. While I acknowledge there might be a cultural divide, I think there’s a bigger issue at hand.
Schweiger is either an alien or a thief. The alien hypothesis comes from having sat through Head Full of Honey. I can safely say he has never met another human before in his life. Or if he has, he has observed nothing. Everything he understands about love, family, friendships, marriage, and basic human interaction seems to have been gleaned from other movies. But like a child assembling a model of a giraffe, he does not understand that Darth Vader’s head looks cool, but it does not belong in the spot underneath its tail.
The thief accusation comes from how it feels to sit and watch Head Full of Honey. The script was written by Schweiger, Jojo Moyes, and Lo Malinke. It is such a bland assortment of tropes and cliches it borders on psychotic. I could feel every minute being pulled out of my grasp as if the movie itself was literally sucking the life force from me.
So much of the drama would be solved if characters talked to each other instead of at each other. Instead, they speak and act as no human has ever done before. When Amadeus accidentally sets off the fireworks at a fourth of July gathering, thereby putting the guests and his family’s home in danger Dillon’s Nick stands idly by nursing a beer.
Granted he’s upset because his wife’s boss has shown up to the party. A boss she had an affair with. Nick has just punched him out in front of the entire party. Still, his house is being bombarded with explosives. Shouldn’t he care about the safety of his daughter, his wife, or I don’t know—his ailing father!?
For much of Head Full of Honey Nick refuses to admit anything is wrong with his grandfather. He attributes the odd behavior of Amadeus to his mourning his wife’s death. Except there’s being a little absent minded and then there’s opening the refrigerator and taking a whiz inside. Amadeus lumbers off leaving the door open. Nick calls out after him, “Hey Dad you want to close the bathroom door?”
Said scene happens just after Nick gets home to find out Amadeus had accidentally set the kitchen, and himself, on fire while trying to bake a pie for his dead wife. Incidentally, out on the porch is a table set for two with a picture of his dead wife in one of the chairs. Part of the sub-plot, and I use that word generously, is that Nick and Sarah’s marriage is on the rocks.
It seems Sarah had an affair with her boss and so Nick had an affair with his secretary. However, the only person who is ever humiliated, publicly shamed, and lectured about their infidelity is Mortimer’s Sarah. One could argue, quite successfully, that a better read of Head Full of Honey is not as the sweet touching family dramedy about the mystery of human relationships. But instead, it is about the unbearable emotional and psychological strain of being a woman.
Mortimer’s character is the only one to behave accordingly to the situations she’s put in. But because she is the only one to do so, she comes off as shrill, selfish, spoiled, mean, and overly emotional. She comes home to see Amadeus and her kitchen on fire. Understandably she is more than a little perturbed. She understands it is not Amadeus’ fault but she also understands that he needs care. Nick being the stand-up man that he is, points out that it is Sarah’s fault for not being there.
The movie, the literal movie, is gaslighting one of its own characters and it’s meant to be funny. It is not. If anything Head Full of Honey puts into nightmarish clarity the definition of the emotional labor of women. When Tilda whisks Amadeus away on a road trip to Venice, Nick and Sarah report their disappearance to the police. The police seem unconcerned. “So the child is on the train with her grandfather? What is the matter with that?”
Sarah all but comes apart. It’s hard to blame her considering eleven-year-old girls are hardly ideal for caring for people in the throes of dementia. But it is only when Nick speaks that they actually bother to explain anything. Sarah is mocked, ridiculed, and condescended to by the authorities. But Matt gets calm answers and is viewed as polite because he isn’t showing any signs of emotion. One is how a person reacts in a situation like this while the other is the sign of a sociopath.
The movie’s hatred of women goes even further than the repeatedly and exhaustive humiliation of Sarah. Amadeus flirts unrepentantly. While sitting at lunch, he makes kissing noises and winks at a portrait of Sarah’s mother, Jacqueline Bisset. Every pretty face is remarked upon by Amadeus as he leers, ogles, and in some cases gropes them. The women, of course, are appreciative of this doddering old geezer giving them such wonderful compliments.
During the road trip, Tilda and Amadeus are on a train. Lost and confused Amadeus gets up to use the bathroom and wanders back into the wrong compartment. The bed he gets into is occupied by a middle-aged woman. Amadeus immediately begins to feel her up. She screams. Amadeus flies back in terror, and Tilda runs to the rescue. She explains he has Alzheimer’s. Both the conductor and the woman understand.
As they leave Amadeus compliments the conductor on his wife’s “lovely soft breasts”. He laughs. At no point during any of this does anybody ask if the woman who was just groped in her own compartment in the middle of the night by a man who looks like Nick Nolte is okay. She doesn’t matter.
I’m not going to talk about Tilda, because Sophia Lande Nolte, Nolte’s youngest daughter, is a child and nothing that is wrong with Head Full of Honey is her fault. She tries and is earnest and sweet. It is not her fault that Schweiger, Moyes, and Malinke have written an eleven-year-old girl as if she is six. She is supposed to be a precocious and alert little girl but she comes off as oblivious and mean-spirited.
On the way to the train station, Tilda has Amadeus drive. Wacky antics ensue. As he drives down the wrong way of a one-way street, Schweiger cuts to her for reaction shots. Her reactions are more at home in a Little Rascals short than how an eleven-year-old girl would behave. She rolls her eyes, huffs, and after almost driving headlong into an oncoming car, merely shakes her head before resting it in her hands.
The tragedy in Head Full of Honey is seeing the waste of talents such as Nolte and Bissett. Bisset is reduced to a randy, turban wearing, mother-in-law stereotype who seems to barely like her daughter. She enables Nick’s coddling of Amadeus while berating Sarah for being so selfish. Sarah’s selfishness being unforgivable because she’s worried about the safety of her family.
Nolte is a staggering fierce talent who is given nothing to do or express. We see glimpses of the potential when he snaps and yells at another patient while he waits for his examination. It’s only a brief moment but when it happens we get a flash of the terrifying intensity Nolte is famous for. But he is also capable of much tenderness and sweetness as evident in such films as Lorenzo’s Oil and I’ll Do Anything.
Schweiger gives Nolte nothing to work with. The rare moments of genuine sweetness that do exist, come from the little moments of Lane and Nolte dropping the pretenses of the script and behaving like a father and daughter. But these moments are fleeting and only serve at the hollowness and stupidity of the script.
To show how clever Amadeus is Schweiger and company construct a scene so irritating and dull-witted I flailed about and screamed silently while I sat in the back of the theater. The doctor, played by Eric Stoltz, attempts to examine Amadeus. The conversation goes in fits and starts, partly due to Stoltz’s attempt to play the doctor with a Louisiana charm. The other part comes from Nolte’s attempt to play flustered which comes off as him morphing into a spittle fountain.
At one point Amadeus turns the tables. “What’s white and comes in a bottle?” Stoltz’s doctor is stumped but smiles. “Milk?” “What do cows drink?” Stoltz leans back into his chair, smiles studies Amadeus, and answers-after much deliberation, “Milk.” You can guess where the scene goes from there. Behold the Socratic wisdom of Head Full of Honey.
The script, believe it or not, is only partially the problem. Yes, it is an insufferable, misogynistic, schmaltzy, inartful, excruciating, warped mirror portrayal of basic everyday human interaction. In addition to all that, Head Full of Honey is unbearable to look at.
Schweiger has no understanding of the basic language of cinema. Or maybe he does and in some last minute hail mary attempt to salvage this mess he took a cue from Russ Meyer. Meyer was a sexploitation director, famous for, among other things, his harsh and unforgiving editing styles. He once said he did so because he hated to see his actors blink and so he would cut away as soon as possible.
But if you watch a Meyer film this is only half-true. There are rhythms and purposes to his rapid cuts. Schweiger, on the other hand, seems to be laboring under the illusion the faster he cuts the quicker the movie will be over and we can all go home. To be fair, a fraction of this comes from trying to “cut around a performance”.
Lane Nolte is only a child and, I’m guessing, not a trained actress. Cutting around a performance essentially means the director and editor realized that to maximize the effect of a performance they would have to minimize the actor’s screen time. It’s all compounded by the fact that looking at her scenes it becomes obvious her scenes were shot separately. This puts an unfair burden on Lane Nolte as she is forced to act on her own with no one to act off of.
The rest of it comes from an overzealous and blunt attempt to gin up a sense of zaniness. We can always tell when the Alzheimer’s “shenanigans” are about to start. The cuts in the scenes begin to become shorter and more rapid as they crescendo. But it never works, because there’s nothing funny about a man ridiculing his wife on the porch while his dad, clearly suffering from dementia, waves a moving truck into the wife’s car.
Leaving the theater I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Movies like Head Full of Honey anger because they feel as if the artists have not only picked our pockets but stolen something far more precious, our time. But the anger is tempered with an overwhelming loss of opportunity mixed with watching someone fail for over two hours.
I don’t enjoy beating up on movies. Though you may find it fun to read or talk about, I find it sad. Schweiger, his writers, and the actors involved didn’t set out to make a bad movie. Who knows what happened? I have no special insight into anything other than what I felt, thought, or witnessed.
On the train ride home I wondered about why bad movies, and in particular, reviews about bad movies are so popular. But then, much like Head Full of Honey, I became self-indulgent. Why is it easier for me to write a review about a movie I hated than a movie I loved? What inside me is so broken that I can more readily express and articulate my displeasure than I can express and articulate my love? Why do men hate women so much? Why do we respond so gleefully to hate?
These are not the questions Head Full of Honey meant to ask. But these are the questions that were borne from my experience of watching the movie.
Movies are art and different art means different things to different people. Sometimes a movie you wouldn’t expect can lead you down a path of introspection and cultural interrogation; despite its obvious flaws. Head Full of Honey is easily one of the worst films of the year. But unlike other failed movies it succeeded in making me look at myself and the world around me with clearer eyes. Any movie that does that can’t be a complete failure.