Niceland by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson (Review)

Niceland is not a bad movie, but it fails simply because it doesn’t seem to trust the audience at all.
Niceland - Friðrik Þór Friðriksson

Friðrik Þór Friðriksson wrote and directed what is probably one my favorite movies of all time, and certainly one of the most stirring movies I’ve ever seen, 1991’s Children of Nature. So when I found out that the festival would be the North American premier of his new film, I was naturally quite excited. Sadly, the show was all sold out, which meant an hour or two in the rush line. But that’s where fortune smiled on me. Whilst talking in line with a couple of on-line acquaintances, a man came up to me and asked if I wanted a $10 ticket to Niceland. Score!

And having had time to dwell on Niceland, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is that fortune did indeed smile on me; I would’ve hated to have paid full price for this movie. That sounds pretty harsh, I know, and I don’t mean it that way. However, it’d be dishonest to label the film as anything other than a disappointment.

Jed and Chloe work together in a manufacturing plant. Despite being incredibly young and naive, they are nevertheless very much in love and plan to get married despite their mental handicaps. That is, until Chloe’s beloved cat dies and she sinks into a deep depression. Hoping to save her before she wastes away, Jed sets out to find the meaning of life. However, noone seems to have any idea: not his co-workers, and certainly not his TV-obsessed parents.

One day, however, he sees a TV interview with a hermit named Max who lives in a junkyard outside of town, and who claims to know the answers to life’s big questions. Hoping to learn it from him, Jed moves out there as well, only to find his guru isn’t the enlightened individual he thought. He’s surly, threatens and terrifies Jed, and is apparently estranged from his daughter, who hates him. Ever optimistic, Jed keeps pressing him for the answer. Meanwhile, Chloe gets worse and worse, and the film slowly begins to buckle under the weight of its own overwrought-ness.

First off, I just have to say that I was incredibly disappointed by Friðriksson’s choice for the musical score. In the past, Friðriksson worked with composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson to great effect. Indeed, one of the things that made Children of Nature (itself a very overwrought and not-so-subtle film) so powerful was Hilmarsson’s soaring score, which lent the movie much of its emotional heft and fairy tale-esque tone.

Although Hilmarsson had originally worked on Niceland’s music, Friðriksson ended up going with an Icelandic performer named Mugison, whose more conventional songwriting is just that: conventional, and sometimes quite disruptive. There were several times during the movie where I found myself thinking that even a few seconds of Hilmarsson’s string arrangements would vastly improve this or that scene.

Music aside, the main problem with Niceland is that it’s unrelentingly sappy and sentimental, almost sickeningly so. This is a film that so wants you to believe that it’s full of depth and meaning that it practically begs. One need look no further than its characters for evidence of that.

Jed is so completely innocent and naive, so wide-eyed and guileless that his pleadings with Max take on a very cloying and saccharine tone. Friðriksson is clearly trying to contrast the innocence of Jed, Chloe, and their outsider friends (all of them mentally retarded) with the cynicism and corruption of the world, as typified by Max and Jed’s parents. However, his attempt is so heavy-handed that one’s cynicism kicks in merely as a self-defense mechanism. As such, the film’s “moving” and “meaningful” climax comes up rather trite and empty, and the meaning of life that Jed eventually discovers feels like it was cribbed from rejected Hallmark greeting cards.

Niceland is not a bad movie, but it fails simply because it doesn’t seem to trust the audience at all. Our hands are held every single step of the way, and we’re practically told what to feel every time Jed has a big tearful confrontation with Max, or some new tragic development occurs with Chloe, or some other crisis appears. The film certainly wears its heart on its sleeve, but it practically screams at you to notice.

If I sound a bit harsh, it’s only because I was expecting so much more from Friðriksson. Children of Nature remains of my favorite films, and certainly one of the most beautiful and haunting films I’ve ever seen (though Lord only knows when it’ll be released on DVD). Although it’s clearly a sentimental film as well, there’s a lushness and mythic-ness to it, an integrity that’s sorely lacking from Niceland.

There’s one scene in Niceland where Jed and Chloe go to the movies, and though we can’t see what they’re watching, it’s obvious from the music that it’s Children of Nature. Afterwards, they comment that it was the best film they’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile at that comment, but somewhat sadly. Even that brief encounter with Friðriksson’s previous film served only to emphasize how far Niceland was from even comparing to it.