Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A Cinematic Cheeseburger

Film: CODA
Format: Streaming video from Apple+ on basement television.

Years ago, I was a fan of the HBO show Mr. Show. One of the many skits on that show was about a guy named Bob Lamonta. In the skit, Bob is frequently teased at school because his parents are, bluntly, developmentally challenged. And so Bob takes up running and becomes a famous track athlete. We then learn that all of this is a lie—Bob’s parents are mentally normal and he was never that successful in track. What’s amazing about this, though, is that a couple of decades before the fact, it predicted CODA.

CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adults,” is the story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), who, unlike her parents and brother, can hear. Her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) work a fishing vessel off the coast of Massachusetts. Ruby frequently fishes with them and then falls asleep in high school classes. Her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) does the books. Naturally, the family is struggling, because what would be the point of this if there weren’t money troubles?

We soon discover that Ruby can sing, and can sing really well. Because she’s nursing a crush on Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and hears him signing up for choir, she joins as well. And, because this is a movie, she’s going to get paired up with Miles for the upcoming show and the two of them are going to have to practice together. Also, because she really is talented, she’s going to get extra attention from the school’s choir director Barnardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). The two will butt heads a lot because he demands her time to prepare for an audition to go to Berklee, and she is needed in the family business.

You can see the plot taking shape, right? The daughter of a deaf couple is a talented singer, something they can't possibly understand. They desperately need her in the family business, because Frank and Leo get in trouble for not hearing Coast Guard sirens because they don’t have a hearing person on board their boat. And, the family is trying to start their own collective to sell their fish at better prices, and Ruby is the only one in the family who can talk to hearing people—and they can’t afford someone else. Right now, you’re thinking about how certain aspects of this are going to play out. You’re concocting key scenes in your mind—the fight with her parents, the struggle with her sibling who fights for her and with her because he understands in a different way, the anger and reconciliation with her mentor, the eventual realization from one of her parents about realizing her dream.

The reason you can do that is that you’ve seen CODA in one form or another a bunch of times already. This is a calmer version of Whiplash, a singing version of Billy Elliot, a non-bicycle take on Breaking Away, a bit of Brassed Off, Children of a Lesser God, King Richard, School of Rock, Running on Empty, Sound of Metal, and certainly more than a dozen more. I get it. It’s a natural underdog story plot where the kid from the “weird” family has a skill that her parents don’t understand. All of the beats that you expect to be here are here, and exactly where you expect them.

There are moments that really bother me because of how predictable they are. For instance, when Ruby tells her mother that she loves singing, her mother’s reaction is to ask her essentially why she should care. “If I were blind, would you paint?” This is such an obvious ploy to get the audience on Ruby’s side that it feels ridiculous that I have to write it out.

There two things that really bother me about CODA. The first is that this is actually a remake of a Belgian film called La Famille Belier. There’s nothing wrong with a remake, but seriously? It somehow feels cheap that the film that won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay got its screenplay from a decade-old film with the minor change of turning the family farm into a family boat.

Second? The fact that it’s really well made. CODA is a really good film. It’s genuinely well-made and well-cast. The cast is really good, and Troy Kotsur especially is excellent in this role. It’s impossible not to like this, and yet it feels like something so derivative that I should be angry about it.

Look, I get it. Sometimes you want the meal you’ve had before. Sometimes what you really want is a very good cheeseburger. You want something simple and easy and good and not too complicated and challenging. As someone who loves horror movies as much as I do, I fully embrace that idea. But a cheeseburger is ultimately just a cheeseburger, and a cheeseburger no matter how good should never be Best Picture.

Why to watch CODA: It’s a very well made movie.
Why not to watch: You need all of your fingers and toes to count how many times you’ve seen it.

CODA, drama, musical, Sian Heder, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay


  1. Well the title of this review certainly grabbed my attention! lol. I agree with you though. I really liked this movie, but I don't think it's a strong Best Picture winner. Especially against The Power of the Dog and even Dune.

    1. It's just so...average. It's a fine movie, but there's no way it belongs even nominated, let alone winning.

  2. I don't have an issue with this film winning Best Picture as I thought it was a really good film. My only qualm is that there were better movies that should've won Best Picture. Still, I enjoyed it but my mother really liked it a lot.

    1. It's a really good example of this basic story, but there was not a beat of the film that I didn't anticipate by a good 10 minutes. I find that frustrating.

  3. OK, I saw that Mr. Bob skit yesterday and.... goddamn.... that fucking made me laugh my ass off. Anyone who is offended by this... well... FUCK THEM!!!!!

    1. I genuinely loved Mr. Show--it's a much raunchier American Monty Python in a lot of ways.

      There's a sequel series of sorts called With Bob and David on NetFlix.