Culture

Gary Ross Flees Comfort Zone for Dave Barry's Peter and the Starcatchers

Gary Ross/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Gary Ross/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Of all the words one might deploy to describe writer-director Gary Ross' body of work, funny and irreverent probably wouldn't make the top ten. Earnest? Yep. Emotionally affecting? For sure. Reflective of the timeless circularity of our society's failures and resilience? Absolutely. Epic filmmaking cooked to order for Oscar voters (extra schmaltz; hold the spice)? Nobody does it better.

But lately Ross has been toppling expectations like a kid with his first bb gun and a pyramid of beer cans. First he dropped the neutron bomb when he backed out of his commitment to direct "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," the follow-up to his gazillion-grossing adaptation of The Hunger Games. Then, today, Ross continued bushwhacking away from terra cognita with the news that he'll follow up his blockbuster take on Suzanne Collins' allegory about the perils of  our media-saturated Darwinist society with an adaptation Peter and the Starcatchers, the first installation in Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's archly funny adventure saga, which  re-imagines Peter Pan as a wily charlatan in his pre-Neverland days.

This is not the domain of triumphant underdogs -- the kind of terrain in which Ross has traditionally planted his flag. In fact, we'd argue that this material is a perfect genetic opposite of Ross' particular brand of sentimentalized serious-issue filmmaking. But even more than the series of books themselves, Ross' creative sensibility seems particularly at odds with that of their creator, Dave Barry. For anyone unfamiliar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and essayist's vast body of work, he is a writer who makes it his business to make you laugh knowingly and genuinely about the absurd absence of order, reason, competence, and humanity in most sectors of society, high and low.

The world as Barry envisions it is not a place where perseverance and pluck prevail. Instead, Barry, we're simply flawed creatures living in a corrupt and unjust world where even the simplest tasks (like, say, how to be a man) take on the complexity of number theory. Fortunately Dave Barry has taken it upon himself to help ease the burden and protect us from our own self-defeating behavior, kind of like a volunteer fireman whose hose spews trenchant humor, the best of which can be life-alteringly enlightening.

And while Barry's fiction tends to follow more traditional narrative conventions, incorporating heroes and villains into the storyline, Ross still seems like a mismatch for Barry's wise-cracking irreverence. Perhaps Ross has been carrying around a recessive provocative comic gene that's now seeking expression. This seems like the latest in a recent string of examples of Hollywood's particular brand of quixotic behavior and creative self-delusion in which a filmmaker or actor is perilously mismatched with the material they've chosen. Perhaps a meditative pause (or straight-talking call from a trusted friend) would do some good for these folks. Tom Cruise might have received a jolt of self-awareness that might have steered him away from playing the hulking Jack Reacher.  Or maybe Brad Pitt might have thought twice about whether Mark Forster had a zombie apocalypse movie in his blood. Or, most recently: Does the guy behind TV's "Battlestar Galactica" have the right emotional stuff to capture the romantic nuances at the heart of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series?

All questions worth debating. And we encourage you do to so right here, right now, before it's too late.

  • John M

    I get the distinct sense that the author of this column has not read any part of the Peter and the Starcatchers book series. Yes, Dave Barry is the co-author, but he's only a co-author, and his irreverent humor is confined to clever details (e.g., Tubby Ted). While fun and not heavy in tone, the plot and events are treated earnestly (it's not a wink-wink affair), and Peter and his fellow orphans *are* plucky underdogs. Ross will be just fine with this material.