Swift kick in the pants

Gulliver’s Travels

It probably would have been better if they’d just left him there.

It probably would have been better if they’d just left him there.

Rated 2.0

The new Jack Black movie, Gulliver’s Travels, gives no screen credit to author Jonathan Swift. That might seem an injustice, but it’s actually a kindness to the old boy. And it’s fitting: No one connected with the picture—least of all screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, director Rob Letterman, or producer Black—seems ever to have read the novel. Maybe they didn’t know who wrote it.

To be fair, the movie serves a purpose in spite of itself. There’s something bracing, in a way, about closing out the movie year with a quick, undemanding piece of subliterate junk. It clears the palate.

Jack Black plays a character named Lemuel Gulliver (which suggests that Stillman and Stoller may have glanced at Swift’s title page after all), but he’s not a surgeon. He’s an obnoxiously inept mailroom slacker at a New York City newspaper. Gulliver is a braggart whose posings would be delusions of grandeur, except that he hardly pretends to believe them himself. His face seems permanently fixed in a knowing, nodding grin that conceals a profound lack of depth. He is, in short, a Jack Black type.

And he has a debilitating crush on Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), the paper’s travel editor. Desperate to chat her up, he blurts out one of his many spontaneous lies: He’s always wanted to be a travel writer. She encourages him to bring in some samples of his writing, he spends a night cut-and-pasting from online magazines, and Darcy falls for it—making her look like the stupidest editor in the history of journalism.

The setup is halfhearted, but enough to get Gulliver what looks like a softball assignment interviewing a man who claims to have discovered “the meaning of the Bermuda Triangle.” Gulliver will hop a quick flight to Bermuda, cruise around the islands drinking rum cocktails, write about it, then come home tanned and refreshed.

But since Gulliver has also lied about being able to operate the boat he charters, and he’s alone, he gets lost in a storm and shipwrecked, waking up in the land of Lilliput, whose inhabitants are only 6 inches tall.

You knew this was coming, because like Stillman, Stoller and director Rob Letterman, you’ve also heard of Gulliver’s Travels, and besides, you saw the movie’s poster on your way in. At first there’s the mild novelty of seeing Black’s Gulliver interact with the inhabitants of Lilliput on some stately old sets (mostly National Heritage sites in England, like Winston Churchill’s Blenheim Palace). But before long—say, a quarter of the way through the movie’s 83 minutes—your mind may stray to other matters, like wondering if you left anything on the seat of your car that might attract vandals in the parking lot, or whether you should swing by Safeway on the way home and grab a gallon of milk.

Here’s what my mind wandered to: Why doesn’t the movie make Gulliver a real travel writer? He could still get lost in the Bermuda Triangle and end up in Lilliput. Why make him such a buffoon, striking air-guitar poses as if they were personal statements? The answer I came up with—and I could be wrong—is simple: Because he’s played by Jack Black. This is what Jack Black does. It’s all he does.

It may be all he can do, but I doubt it; he was awfully funny in Tropic Thunder, where he wasn’t playing a “Jack Black type” at all. But he so often recycles his School of Rock performance (which was really his High Fidelity performance, and his Saving Silverman performance, and later became his King Kong and Year One performances) that he’s beginning to look as lazy in real life as Gulliver is in the movie.

There are others in the cast—Billy Connolly as the king of Lilliput, Emily Blunt as a princess, Chris O’Dowd as a preening general, Jason Segel as a commoner in love with the princess—and they work earnestly enough to deserve a mention. But the script is slapdash with little in it for them to do. Besides, in a movie where everyone except Jack Black is only 6 inches tall, what chance do they have? Laurence Olivier couldn’t have pulled it off.