When co-writer/producer Judd Apatow and co-writer/director Jake Kasdan released Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story back in 2007, it would’ve been easy to think their spot-on satire had not only stopped the musical legend drama in its tracks, but had precluded the need for any further spoofs of the Troubled Genius Biopic—they’d done it so well, and so savagely, that it was hard to imagine mining any further laughs. And yet here were are, a mere eight years later, with another, equally uproarious send-up in the form of Pawn Sacrifice, the sharpest satire of biopic clichés in many a moon.
And the timing couldn’t be better — after all, we are in the midst of a real glut of these dead-serious examinations of brilliant yet difficult men (always men, usually white ones), with The End of the Tour and Love and Mercy in the rearview and Steve Jobs, Miles Ahead, The Walk, Trumbo, Snowden, I Saw the Light, Truth, and Genius all on the horizon. You know the drill: portraiture that flirts with “warts and all” depiction but usually lands on hagiography; archival news footage, music, and historical indicators up the wazoo; barely there women’s roles; and many, many scenes of our accomplished yet difficult protagonist thundering at the peons who don’t understand the requirements of his gifts.
The comic genius of Pawn Sacrifice is how it takes all of those tropes and cranks them up to 11, far past the barometers of either believable human behavior or credible filmmaking. I must admit some hesitancy that a director like Edward Zwick was up to the task; after all, his work to date has mostly been of the dramatic and historical ilk (most notably Glory, The Last Samurai, and Legends of the Fall), and though he’s shown some comic ability with rom-coms like About Last Night and Love & Other Drugs, I’d have never guessed there was another Mel Brooks lurking within his dour filmography.
His subject is Bobby Fischer, the legendary chess prodigy and equally legendary delusional asshole — certainly an impossible pick for a straightforward treatment, as he seems to have been an insufferable prick whose descent into anti-Semitism and madness would’ve challenged even the most gifted filmmakers within the rise-fall-triumph formulation that’s required by these films. But Zwick, writer Steven Knight, and star Tobey Maguire realize his prickliness is a comic gold mine, from the scene of tween-age Fischer screaming “I WANT SILENCE” at his saintly mother to his later scenes of demanding ridiculous requirements and obscene perks and payment for simply playing chess. (The picture also kids the subservience of women in these narratives by only creating three female roles with more than one line: his mother, his sister, and a hooker. Very clever!)
In a 2007 interview promoting Walk Hard, Kasdan told Terry Gross one of the most satire-ready elements of the biopic is “a dialogue style where there’s absolutely no subtext, and people are constantly announcing the significance of the moment they’re depicting — they say, like, ‘You gotta understand Dewey, this is the ‘60s! Things are changing! It’s a different time!’” I can’t be sure if the makers of Pawn Sacrifice heard that interview, but when you hear the dialogue describing Fischer’s match-up with Boris Spassky — “World War III on a chessboard. We lost China. We’re losing Vietnam. We have to win this one” — well, I’d like to think they did, and chuckled as they topped even lines like Walk Hard’s “The ‘60s are an important and exciting time!”
But clanging expositional dialogue doesn’t do the job alone. These movies also have to overwhelm us with their historical place-markers, in the form of vintage footage, obvious music cues, and TV clips. One of the easiest go-to clichés of the period piece is the talking-head news anchor, explaining what we’ve seen or the context it’s in; this is where Pawn Sacrifice really takes on the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker approach, with every single turn of the story explained and over-explained by a montage of TV suits behind their desks, sternly and explicitly laying out exactly what we’ve just seen, and what it means. In a dramatic picture, such inert and monotonous storytelling could stop the movie dead in its tracks; here, it’s yet another razor-sharp jab at the condescending way in which such movies presume the utter ignorance of their audiences.
And they don’t stop with the anchor-athon; the music choices are hilariously overt, expertly slicing at the way unimaginative cues thuddingly telegraph time and place (my two favorites: Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice” as Bobby becomes unhinged, and Credence’s “Travelin’ Band” when they’re — oh, this is priceless — traveling), and the archival footage is so on-the-nose it’s side-splitting (the best: a “this is the mid-‘60s” montage that cuts from a pre-Ali Cassius Clay to JFK Jr. saluting at the funeral to the Beatles coming down the airstars in America. So obvious!). In scene after scene, Zwick can be relied upon to make the most comically unsubtle choices, though he never quite tops having a character announce, “Let’s go to California,” and then cutting to girls on the beach and the strains of surf rock. Droll perfection, that.
And that goes for the whole movie, which masterfully quotes and then demolishes the clichés of an increasingly tired sub-genre. Move over, Trainwreck; Pawn Sacrifice is the funniest movie of the year.
Pawn Sacrifice is in theaters tomorrow.
[Editor’s note: It has come to our attention that Pawn Sacrifice was not intended as a satire of biopics, but as a serious drama and part of that tradition. We regret the error.]