I saw Don Hertzfeldt’s first movie, Rejected, a nine-minute short after some stoner recommended it to me in a photography class I took back in high school. It was amusing especially at the end where it shows the cartoon characters’ world getting destroyed via the paper they’re drawn on being violently crumpled. It’s a funny short, but I didn’t get why all the acclaim (it was nominated for an Oscar). Hertzfeldt’s most recent film, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is, likewise, a very solid, well-made movie; it’s innovative visually and has a number of good moments, but there’s just something about it that prevents me from calling it a “great film.” Is it a bad film? Hecks no! It just seems like critics clamor over anything that is remotely “new” or “deep,” thus ascending an otherwise good, albeit flawed, movie about a stickman’s life and its deterioration (an internal destruction as opposed to an external one like in Rejected) to a level that is only bound to disappoint.
The movie centers on Bill, a stick figure whose only distinguishing feature is that he wears a hat that is merely a square with a line below it. The movie is divided into three chapters. The first begins with a few vignettes that set the overall tone of the film as they follow Bill through a few banal moments that include him going to the grocery store, talking to his ex-girlfriend in the park, etc. The vignettes are dropped next to each other and seem pointless, but narratively they are tied together as they show Bill as someone who is neurotic, confused and at a strange distance between himself and his average and anonymous existence. However, the “real” film begins when Bill is suddenly treated for a disease which starts to tear at his psyche. Bill’s relationship with his mortality becomes the thrust of the film as well as a vessel to which deeper, philosophical queries are carried.
The film has some major positives: for one thing, despite its short running-length the movie manages to contain numerous details without becoming too overwhelming. There’s a seemingly 0ff-the-cuff detail that is among the movie’s best. When Bill is rummaging through his recently deceased mother’s belongings he comes across a sheet of paper where she practiced her handwriting; earlier we found out that his mother would place a note in every lunch she made for Bill for school. It’s a nice detail for it reveals much about not just their relationship, but also the mother in her obsessiveness and in her love for her son. Another positive: the movie, in part because of the animation style, but also the writing, almost never falls into melodrama. In one part we get the story of Bill’s family, a hillbilly clan where mental illness and train-related deaths are abound; it’s both funny and tragic, but then the movie becomes irreverent instead of melodramatic by following it up with an odd story about a seal. There are moments where Bill tries to deep with someone else, whether it’s a coworker or his ex, only for the moment to be subverted and twisted on itself. Like when Bill tries to discuss with his coworker the nature of time, but the coworker responds by attempting to tell Bill a joke.
However, the movie is not a great one for it’s simply too narrow and one-note. There is also a sense of monotony as the movie seems to run through the same ideas over and over. This sense is also propagated by Hertzfeldt’s narration. There is virtually no dialogue and spoken words, except from some nurses and doctors, aside from his narration. This is a good technique for it helps the movie stray away from melodrama, but at the same time one wishes there was a bit more variety in the narration. But the main problem is that the script, despite it dealing with deeper ideas, don’t treat those ideas with a lot of depth. Simply, if you’ve seen movies where the main character deals with modernity, alienation and purpose, then Beautiful Day is going to seem like deja vu. The visuals help make the movie more memorable and different from other films following the same ideas, but the visuals don’t help deepen the film’s approach to those ideas. The ending is good as Bill, in a near-death hallucination, a manifestation of the narrator’s guilt, or something that literally happens, transcends his mortality and wanders alongside the lifetime of humanity and the universe, but even then there’s a sense of familiarity, as if this is something we’ve all seen before, that undermines it, if only slightly.
If I used a grading scale I would probably give this movie a 7 out of 10, making it one of the better films I’ve seen in the past few weeks. The problem with overpraising something, even if the movie deserves some praise, is that it ultimately levels everything: a mediocrity and a masterpiece are treated equally, thus discouraging great artists from trying for there is no longer any reason to. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a good film, but it’s not an apotheosis; an aspiring filmmaker should be able to see its strengths, but also see how it falls short and attempt to shoot farther. That’s how art progresses. I’m not knocking this film, if anything I’m recognizing its possible import as a stepping-stone for higher things. Or, I’m just a cynical asshole who shudders in the presence of nice things. Your choice.