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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Magnificent Obsession

“Brightburn” and “The Hustle” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

To call Douglas Sirk’s far-fetched 1954 movie “Magnificent Obsession” a melodrama is an understatement. It’s beyond melodrama. Still it doesn’t quite get to the point of soap opera—though it comes close. The movie nests itself somewhere in the middle of melodrama and soap opera, with a heavy leaning toward the latter.

What saves “Magnificent Obsession” from straight up soap opera is the character arc of the male lead, played by Rock Hudson. His name is Bob Merrick, a millionaire (back when having four million dollars meant a lot) motor company heir, philanderer, and thrill-seeker. The movie opens with Merrick recklessly racing a boat on a lake. To call that thing a boat is another understatement—it’s a hydroplane. That is, it’s single engine jet plane that happens to go on water. Even by 2019 standards it’s pretty cool—and very dangerous.

The inevitable happens—the boat capsizes. Merrick is rescued only through the use of a resuscitator, borrowed from the well-liked and well-respected Dr. Phillips, who we never see. We just know that he runs the local hospital and has the only resuscitator in town. As bad luck and awful timing would have it, as the resuscitator is out saving the reckless Merrick, the good doctor has a heart attack and dies because the resuscitator is not there to save him. Phillips’ wife Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) have the appropriate mixed reaction—anger at Merrick and grief at the loss of their loved one.

Here’s where the movie saves itself with the start of great character development. When Merrick hears the news, he’s horrified. His “live life like there is no tomorrow” philosophy was only supposed to affect him. He had no intention of hurting anyone else. Still the journey is not a quick one for Merrick. Given who he is, he thinks that he can just write a check to make problems go away. But Helen, who took over administration of the hospital after her husband’s passing, is not so easily bought off.

Then Merrick--after getting drunk and wrecking his car—has a chance encounter with a local artist named Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger). Randolph was a friend of Dr. Phillips, and they both shared a philosophy of selflessness and philanthropy, with the understanding that doing such good will bring about great rewards for the person doing them. Over the course of an evening and the next morning, Randolph imparts this wisdom on to Merrick. He cautions, however, that this philosophy can be dangerous and that the first one to try it went to the cross at the age of thirty-three.

This sequence with Randolph takes up six to seven minutes of screen time, yet it is vital to the rest of the story and the character development of Merrick. Randolph’s role in the rest of the movie is more of a cameo one, but his importance to the plot cannot be understated. His ideas are always present even when he is not on screen, and when he is on screen, he is influential in propelling Merrick to do the right thing no matter how difficult. A brilliant camera move toward the end of the movie shows Randolph looking through a window, arms outstretched to make himself look bigger, staring down at Merrick, who has a tough decision to make. This visual conveys the grandness and importance of Randolph’s character, and paints him as a watchful guardian angel.

It is this symbolism from Sirk and the great character arc of Merrick that allows “Magnificent Obsession” to rise above being characterized as overly dramatic pablum. Though admittedly, the movie has those moments too, complete with a film score that is very intrusive at times. The fact that a romance story takes center stage over the more interesting story of a man seeking to right the wrongs and correct, as best as he can, the harm he has caused others is what makes the movie melodramatic and leaning toward soap opera. But just before the drama gets too heavy, we’re pulled back into a great character developing moment with Merrick and realize how far he—and we—have come along in this multi-years spanning journey. Rent it.

Also New This Week

Brightburn

A good movie could be made out of the premise of “Brightburn,” but not with the direction taken by director David Yarovesky from a screenplay by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn. The heart of the movie essentially asks, “What if Superman was a villain?” For comic fans out there, let’s ignore the fact that this question is already answered by DC Comics in their expansive multiverse.

It’s an interesting idea, worth exploring. A Kansas farmer (David Denman) and his wife (Elizabeth Banks) are having difficulty conceiving—the orgy of evidence toward this fact in the opening shot of the movie makes it abundantly clear. Then one night during one of their attempts, a meteor lands in their yard. Except it’s no ordinary meteor—a baby is inside of it. We then flash forward as the baby grows up, enters puberty, becomes a sullen, hormonal teenager played by Jackson A. Dunn, and discovers his powers.

The skeletal structure of an anti-superhero or villain origin story is there. The natural questions of who he really is, why he was sent, and where he comes from could be explored. Instead, “Brightburn” goes the horror route and answers none of these questions. The only hint we get to where he comes from are via voices in his head, which speak to him in a strange language that he can somehow naturally understand. It’s these voices that influence him to do the dark and destructive things he does.

Ultimately, “Brightburn” does itself a disservice by straddling two genres whose fans have such wildly different expectations. Fans of superhero movies who expect something a bit more character driven and action packed will be disappointed at the small scale action, and some may even be horrified by the grisly gore effects. On the other hand, horror fans may love the gore (a scene in which a character removes a shard of glass from her own eye is not for the squeamish) but be turned off by the standard superhero elements of discovering and testing out one’s superpowers. I appreciate that Yarovesky was trying to do something new and innovative with the idea of superheroes with “Brighburn,” and I think the superhero/horror mix can work. However, he can’t have it both ways and would have been better if he’d picked a dominant genre for the movie rather than going 50-50 like he did here. In trying to please everyone, he winds up pleasing no one. Most folks should probably Skip it, but for those with an equal appreciation of superheroes and of horror, it is worthwhile to Stream it.

The Hustle

It’s no secret that “The Hustle” is a remake of Frank Oz’s classic 1988 movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” but with the genders reversed. So instead of Michael Caine and Steve Martin as con artists preying upon wealthy women in the French Riviera, we get Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as con artists preying upon wealthy men in the French Riviera. It’s essentially the same movie beat for beat, though “The Hustle” moves along a bit quicker at 93 minutes as opposed to the 1988 movie’s 100 minutes. Nothing beats the original, but “The Hustle” is cute and funny enough to warrant a Stream it if nothing else interesting is available.

More New Releases: “I Trapped the Devil,” about a man who believes he has the devil trapped in his basement, starring  AJ Bowen, Susan Burke, and Scott Poythress; and “A Dog’s Journey,” about a dog that finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he meets, starring Josh Gad, Marg Helgenberger, and Dennis Quaid.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.