Here’s the thing about filming a great big book of capitalist science fiction. If you’re enslaved to its every idea, one movie will never do. You might need two or three or 13. It’s a safe assumption that the people responsible for “Atlas Shrugged Part II” will require only one more installment to leave us alone. But who knows? (The copy I dragged around for six months was 1,200 pages.) They could be following that math principle in which a number is under constant division without ever reaching zero. Maybe we should be bracing for “Atlas Shrugged Part .044564: The Shruggening.”
Until then Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Ayn Rand’s soapy supernovel played in this movie by a power-walking Samantha Mathis, is trying to keep her privatized mega-railroad from being taken over and therefore ruined by a stupid, short-sighted government obsessed with sharing everything with the people. That is pretty much “Part II.” In a parallel America whose citizens look the way we look now but whose economy looks the way it did when my grandmother was a girl, the hero magnates have begun sabotaging their industries or abandoning them. That’s how regulatory and redistributey Washington is: It’s destroying America in an attempt to make everyone equal.
Everything the steel titan Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe) earns and produces has to be . . . shared. He refuses to walk spitefully away from his empire, like his peers. He wants to stand up to the Fair Share law, like Dagny, his mistress, who wants to know who John Galt is. She’ll have to wait for yet another installment to meet him and discover that he’s the Norma Rae of the 1 percent. In the meantime, she’s putting up with the assortment of catty women in her men’s lives. When her new sister-in-law approaches her at the wedding of her useless philanthropy-oriented brother and tells her, “I’m the woman in this family,” Dagny retorts, “Oh, that’s quite all right. I’m the man.”
That wedding party is like watching someone with an MBA pretend to be George Cukor, and it proves that even Cukor courtesy of Wharton is a decent imitation. I didn’t hate this movie. The first one was far worse — mercifully, the cast and director have all been replaced. If Cliffs Notes had a dirt-cheap special-effects budget (for jet chases, tunnel explosions, steel-plant meltdowns, new sources of energy, and all of Dagny’s crypto-architectural jewelry), it would be “Atlas Shrugged Part II.” I watched it on a Friday morning in a not-empty theater. We all laughed during the wedding sequence, but when I cracked up at the cardboard acting, chintzy sets, and pixelated fires, when I laughed at Beghe’s masculinity (he really is the manliest man in the history of manliness) or at how wimpy or nebbishy or bald the government stooges are, when I laughed that one of the stooges is still named Wesley Mouch, I felt embarrassed for myself, like I was picking my nose in church.
According to at least one poll, “Atlas Shrugged” was the second most influential book in America after the Bible. It’s given lots of politicians their philosophical ideas, including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. So sitting there and cracking up at how all Mathis does is stomp into and out of offices and across lobbies, at the way the science in the movie is made to seem scientific just by having the scientists wear glasses, at how much smooth gratuitous professionalism Esai Morales brings to this pamphlet of a screenplay misses the point of why some people have to be there at the first show on the day a movie opens based on a book almost as important as the Bible. For some, “Atlas Shrugged Part II” is a ridiculous movie. For others, it’s scripture.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_ morris.