Used to be
I never saw this film before, and I'm not surprised. The mystique of the film - its tradition and the renowned optimism of the outcome bring out a certain cynicism in me. But I am also remain the eternal optimist and will give a movie perhaps more of a chance than it deserves.
Interestingly, It's a Wonderful Life shares this same combination of the cynic and the optimist. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) lives in a harsh world, a town dominated by a greedy businessman where events leave him treading water rather than pursuing his dreams. In the face of these hardships, Bailey puts the best face on it he can, ever the optimist, and a practical one at that. He sacrifices much of himself in an effort to keep open a "Building and Loan" for the sake of the community that would be otherwise oppressed by company housing. He's a good man, but when everything falls apart come Christmastime, he finds himself on a bridge, considering death the best option.
The question becomes one of George's survival: will he or won't he? The script flinches and goes the supernatural route with the ultimate Deus Ex Machina. In a way, it's fine, the film stakes out its resolution from the start, and this seems to be the kind of world these characters live in. There's no question that the film is well written, well performed, and just all around well done, but as a message movie, the presentation is too black and white (pardon the pun) to have much meaning for me.
Any reading of the film must take into account the world that bore it - immediately following World War II, where many Americans had made deep sacrifices in the war effort. Values of community and the greater good drip from each frame. George Bailey is a little like Forest Gump - he might hit some problems, but the simple-natured goodness gets him through. The subtleties were lost by audiences of its day - they found the film too dark, and was considered a bomb at the box office. It took some time for the film to be accepted, a reflection of deepening national cynicism, and perhaps now - for me, at least - it's swung the other direction, and It's a Wonderful Life seems too light and simplistic. In a way, the staying power of the film is a tribute to its ability to hold in both so much optimism and pessimism at the same time, but there'll always be people, like me, out of sync with what it's trying to say.
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