"These two unrelated movies constitute a trend" is not by any stretch of the imagine my favorite bad habit in film criticism. Yet it seems awfully hard not to notice that December 2021 has borne witness to two different movies made by A-list Oscar-winning directors that are both technically new adaptations of non-movie media, but are both in effect remakes of beloved cinematic classics, and in both cases the A-list director in question has decided that the correct approach to take to freshening up the material for a 21st Century audience is to assume that we are illiterate baboons who cannot cope with even very obvious social or philosophical themes unless they're spelled out in tedious, pedantic detail. And this does, I think, speak to something that is grim and telling about filmmaking in the 2020s. The first of these film was the Steven Spielberg West Side Story, written by Tony Kushner; the second is a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 crime novel Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro from a script he co-wrote with Kim Morgan. The first filmed version of Nightmare Alley was a Tyrone Power vehicle released 1947, and I frankly think it puts the del Toro film at an almost unwinnable disadvantage; while there are imperfect elements and I can imagine a new film improving on it some respects (and this does), the core strengths are so pronounced - and so unmistakably stamped to the film production techniques of the late '40s - that I can't really imagine a new version actually improving upon it, or even giving it a face-lift that would to any extent benefit it.

I solemnly pledge to not spend all of the rest of the review comparing the 2021 film against the 1947 film, but it seemed fair to let you know that's where my head was at, because it's not unlikely that I'm literally incapable of giving the del Toro film a fair shake. I am, at least, capable of admitting that parts of this do work pretty terrifically well, and it's not hard to see what attracted the director to this material, even it superficially feels like the least-characteristic work of his career. In that light, it's perhaps not a coincidence that the much stronger material in Nightmare Alley is all frontloaded, containing all of the parts of the material where the director can indulge in his usual gothic horror-tinged period-set dreamscapes. Here, in 1939 (a year firmly established in dialogue that comes along somewhat deep into the first act, along the lines of "huh, says here that fella in Germany just invaded Poland!", which is somehow both unexpectedly subtle and pound-you-in-the-face-with-a-mallet obvious at one and the same time), Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) has just burned his house to the ground for reasons that are initially unclear, but clearly no good, given that his very next action is to go on the lam. He manages to talk his way into helping out at a traveling carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), quickly ingratiating himself into the lives of fortune teller Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), and her aging, alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Soon enough, he and Pete have filled the great emotional void in each other's life, so much that Stan becomes the older man's protégé, learning all the tricks of how to put over a good, harmless clairvoyance con. And just as soon as Stan has picked up what he needs, wow wouldn't you look at that, he skips out of the carny life, leaving some very miserable people in his wake, and taking with him Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), AKA Electra the electric girl, to be his lover and rather unhappy co-conspirator as he sets his sights on fleecing the well-to-do of high society.

This doesn't get us to the halfway point of the 150-minute film - not even extremely close to that point, actually - but I do think the film has mostly used up its best material by now. I would say "as well as del Toro's interest", but that can't be right; if he didn't care about the material of Nightmare Alley's second part, he wouldn't have needed to include so much of it. The '47 film managed to tell all of this exact same story (plus a gooey, we-have-to-make-the-Hays-Office-happy ending tacked on) in about 30 fewer minutes, and this film doesn't use that extra time to any particular distinction. This has a lot to do with the filmmakers' uncertain relationship to Stan Carlisle; they're obviously uncomfortable making him as comprehensively rotten as he was before, when he was the beneficiary of Power's career-best performance. I have a hard time imagining the argument that he's provoked Bradley Cooper's best performance; the film's wobbliness about how much to make Stan a cynical shit versus how much to make him a sympathetically broken figure trying to find firm ground to stand on, and not especially caring if it takes a lot of innocent victims to build it is manifest in his performance as well, which I would largely describe as muted. Literally, at first; Nightmare Alley goes quite a long stretch not letting Cooper speak, and when his first line of dialogue shows up, it doesn't seem to have been worth the effort, but it does at least establish Stan as someone who watches closely and thinks before acting. This gives Cooper a decent amount to work with, in the early going, but as the narrative accelerates into the second half, the script seems to lose its grip on who Stan is, as opposed to just what Stan does, and Cooper hasn't pinned down a strategy for coping with that, or even apparently realising that it's a concern.

The film's softer second half isn't just about Cooper and Stan, though. The first half has some very obvious places to anchor the story and the filmmakers' work in filling it with a world and people, and the second half simply doesn't; its most obvious saving grace is Cate Blanchett's impeccable neo-noir performance as a carnivorous, practically demonic psychiatrist (one of the bigger charms of the film is that it perfectly captures the postwar American fascination with psychotherapy, mingled with confusion, terror, and disgust; organically capturing a sense of time isn't one of the strong suits here, and this is one of the stronger specific examples of it working). But almost all of the other strengths are frontloaded. These include Collette, Strathairn, and Dafoe's outstanding trio of performances, mixing coarse pragmatism with a sentimental streak for the nomadic life of a carny, and in Strathairn's case (he's the film's strongest castmember, not for want of competition), an unmistakable tragic dimension, a palpable awareness of his complicity in orchestrating his own downfall and the waste of his unmistakable talents, disreputable as they are. Certainly, the include the design of the carnival itself: production designer Tamara Deverell, art director Brandt Gordon, and set decorator Shane Vieau have provided us with a first-rate movie world, one that has all the details of a real grubby little sideshow carnival, but "plussed" in a way, making the thing feel larger and spookier than life, grand in its macabre elements (Clem has a treasured collection of pickled fetuses and other specimens, and del Toro has made it clear that this was the heart of his interest in the project; that would have been unmistakble just from the way he frames it). It has a noticeable child's-eye view as the carnival as splendid and grotesque; the camera is literally dropped down to a kiddie-friendly height scraping along the ground for several shots. I am not at all certain if I think that Dan Lausten's shadowy, murky cinematography benefits the film or just makes it look garish, but there's no mistaking the tentative, creeped-out awe he and del Toro apply to the images.

None of what makes this lively and fascinating is necessarily built around Stan, mind you, and Nightmare Alley ultimately is a cynical, sordid character study, and not a splendid nightmare about carnivals. And this just... flatlines. It's not that it's "bad" so much as that it's drawn out and relatively uninteresting. And it is spectacularly obvious: right from the moment that Stan drifts into a funhouse themed to the Seven Deadly Sin and spots a mirror asking him to confront his own past behavior, the film's symbolism errs on the side of the grotesquely blatant. And, I mean, sure: '40s crime drama, they did blatant like nobody's business. But they did it with a flair for melodrama, and sweaty, overcooked, deeply tragic antiheroes; this film's vision of Stan just doesn't have the raw bleeding guts to carry off how campy it gets in all of its on-the-nose imagery and dialogue. And this literally never ends; the film's last shot consists of a terrific, pointed line delivery that is then followed by a good 10 or 15 seconds of "so, did you GET THAT?" pandering as the actor in question is obliged to break that moment by extending their reaction into a tedious bit of emotional telegraphing.

So at best a bit strained and flawed; but when it works, it is so damn good. And the production design flawlessly navigates the pivot to WWII-era high society, even if nothing else does. Nightmare Alley isn't showing off any of del Toro's strengths, and it indulges a bit too much in what he's quickly demonstrating, between this and his last film, 2017's The Shape of Water, to be some newfound weakness. Romanticism and cynicism are tough to intertwine the way he's trying to do here, and the result just feels like film noir that has gotten too polished up and prestigious and "year end awards bait", and is so pulling its punches. But not all of them, and especially in that first hour, and when Collette and Strathairn are letting their accrued melancholy permeate their bodies and voices, some of those punches land pretty hard.