‘You Can’t Take It With You’ and An Argument for a More Civil Society

“John Wick” is thrilling. It is nasty. But it manages to gain your sympathy for a cold-blooded killer. (Such is the power of a dog.) It is perhaps possible, I suppose, for a man to be shot and fall several stories from a roof, bouncing off fire escapes and whatnot, and survive, but I digress. Withal, the plot element that captures a lot of attention in the original 2014 film is a hotel where even cold-blooded killers are welcome and safe—apparently a civil environment in an uncivil world.

Interestingly, a collateral matter that has caught a fair amount of attention as well is that the star, Keanu Reeves, is an exceptionally civil human being who appreciates his co-workers enough to share some of the wealth their efforts have helped create. But again, I digress.

The outright success of the film destined it for replication. That is the nature of Hollywood. The fourth installment is now upon us. But it is also simple enough to understand how “John Wick” can speak to our present time, just as it is easy to comprehend how a film such as “You Can’t Take It With You” might speak to a previous generation.

For those who have not seen one or the other film, let me offer these precis: In “You Can’t Take It With You,” Grandpa Vanderhof has long since quit the business world to raise his family in a big house set in a Brooklyn-like setting that could be on the outskirts of a dozen cities in the America of the 1930s. He has eschewed the mechanized mindset of modernism in favor of addressing each person as an individual. He passes this philosophy on to any and all who care to listen, and acts accordingly. When the banker’s son falls for his daughter, he has some work to do. Meanwhile, his household has expanded to a wonderful bunch of eccentrics, drawn by the chance to express themselves, and who create their own problems. Hilarity ensues.

“John Wick” is about a retired assassin who has found some redemption in love only to have it snatched away again by his wife’s death. He is finally broken when the dog his wife gave him is killed by the son of a crime lord. This is, of course, very bad news for the crime lord and his son, but because the criminal world is an interconnected labyrinth of malice and forethought, one thing leads to another. Meanwhile, because even bad guys need a break, there is a hotel in New York where they can stay for a little downtime.

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To say that a film like “You Can’t Take It With You” couldn’t be made today is not only to state the obvious but, because it applies to almost every great film made before the turn of the millennium, it is not enlightening. Attempting to understand why this is true may be helpful, but not being a scholar of any sort, I wouldn’t take that challenge without first asking for forgiveness from the ghosts of the celluloid gods. I have enough transgressions on my head as it is.    

What strikes me every time I see the older film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, is the civility of it. True, civility is a hallmark of Capra films, but this one even more so. It is peopled by characters who care about each other as individuals. In fact, the bad guys in this, as in other Capra films, are those who show disrespect to their fellow human beings. Mr. Potter of “It’s a Wonderful Life” created the quintessential bad guy in that vein, but here there is no Mr. Potter. And it’s no accident that the hero of the film is played by none other than Lionel Barrymore, who would later give his soul to finally beat George Bailey. The bad guys here are more in the mold of that bank examiner who, when push comes to shove, throws a little cash into the George Bailey relief fund himself.

And this, in itself, begs one more important question of our oh-so-smart age. Are all the bad guys killers? Are we so limited in our imaginations that making cartoons out of evil is the best we can do? Doesn’t nuance count for something? A bad good guy is common enough. How about a good bad guy? The sort of characters once made real by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum in all those noir delights. Where is Raymond Chandler when we need him?

And this brings us back to Keanu Reeves and “John Wick.” Noir has been replaced here by the explicit. Shades of gray have been replaced by light and dark in fine detail. There is really no room for imagination because the world we are in has been so totally defined. The details are packed in by split second cuts and the action is relentless. Like the quintessential rollercoaster ride, you have no control over what is happening to you. Hold on.

It occurs to me that the differences between the two films, as between 1939 and 2014, are something akin to the differences between two alien societies. We could not be on the same planet. If our society prefers the Wick world to the one Capra defined, it makes sense that we are in the mess we have. With all its problems, the America of 1939 could win a war against an evil like Wick’s world. The America of today appears only able to complain while it lives off of the last of the fat left from the Capra era—even to the point of making fun of that older sensibility as mere corn.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Gabe Ginsberg/WireImage Getty Images