Now that I’ve gotten my unplanned mini-essay out of the way on what the last four years of this blog have meant, I want to do the thing that I always do on the anniversary of my blog (though I’m almost a week late this year) which is lay out my superlatives for the whole year. This whole spiel was more meaningful when I watched more films each year, but it’s okay. I watched a lot of really great movies in the last 365 days, and I’m looking forward to sharing my favorites with you all. As usual for my most recent superlative lists, I’ll link to a review/podcast if that exists. Otherwise, I’ll include a short spiel about why that piece made my list. Anyways, let’s head to the races.
Tag Archive: Comedy
And with my review of Blue, I’ve completed another 50 film circuit for this blog. This time, it took me way longer than it ever has before but that’s cause I got my first steady, paid professional writing gig, and there have been multiple weeks where I’ve essentially worked two full-time jobs at once. It can be exhausting but I’m also so happy to be getting paid a decent wage for my work. It feels really great. I’ve missed my goal (again) of reviewing all of the “A” and “A+” films that I watched for this 50 film block but before I put up my 50 film superlatives tonight, I wanted to give everybody a low down on the scores that I gave to each film that I watched. And, then, of course, stay tuned for my best of lists. (As always, links will be provided for the films I actually reviewed or a link to the podcast where we discussed said film if there’s a podcast conversation but no review)
One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.
It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.
If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.
My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.
Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.
The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.
If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.
But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.
And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.
Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.
Final Score: A
(A quick note before I write this review. I think [emphasis on think] that I watched this movie on Monday evening. I was going to review it when I came to work on Tuesday but I forgot to bring my laptop that day and I’ve been on the road since then because of an Arcade Fire concert in Pittsburgh Wednesday and then a Paul Simon/Sting concert in DC on Wednesday. So I ap0logize in advance for the possible weakened state of this review)
Towards the beginning of Heathers, Winona Ryder’s somewhat morally centered Veronica voices her hesitancy to one of the cruel pranks of the powerful Heather clique, and Queen Bee Heather Chandler drops one of the film’s many great throwaway lines, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” While I’m glad such absurd aphorisms would no longer sound natural in today’s world, language in the 1980s had character. That character was often garish and patently over-the-top, but it rarely felt dispensable or throw-away. 1984’s Sixteen Candles has not aged particularly well and it plays hop-scotch with being downright offensive at times, but it has more character and memorable style than any modern teen film that isn’t The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
This viewing of Sixteen Candles was my first since high school (when I was a vocal member of the church of John Hughes. For what it’s worth, I still think that Pretty in Pink is his best film), and after years of catching glimpses of the watered-down broadcast for TV version, I had forgotten how dark and raunchy elements of Sixteen Candles actually are. The film predates the PG-13 rating system, so this is likely one of the few PG films you’ll ever see with bare breasts, the word “fuck,” and more cursing and casual date rape jokes than you can throw a stick at.
The actual plot of Sixteen Candles is about as simple (and well-trod these days) as it gets. Wallflower high schooler Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is turning sixteen the day before her beautiful (and brainless) sister’s wedding, and in the chaos surrounding her sister’s wedding, including visiting grandparents and their insane Chinese exchange student, Sammie’s family forgets her birthday. To make matters worse for Sammie, she’s in love with gorgeous senior Jake Ryan (Mermaids‘ Michael Schoeffling), but she doesn’t think he knows that she exists, and all the while, a far too horny and overbearing nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) keeps trying to win Sammie’s heart for himself.
As I said, the plot of Sixteen Candles is simple to a fault, and it’s been done a million times since, and time hasn’t been kind to one of the original high school romantic comedies. Everything involving Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) is so racist and insensitive that it’s a wonder this movie was made by a major studio. He’s such a collection of awful Asian stereotypes (can’t drive, can’t speak English, yells “Bonsai” when dropping out of a tree despite being Chinese not Japanese) that I spent whole portions of the film cringing. Although to Gedde Watanabe’s credit, he rolls with the part and sells it for as many low-brow laughs as he can get.
Jake Ryan is arguably the Ur-“Dreamy High School Crush” archetype, but I never realized prior to this viewing how much of a sociopath he actually is. Let’s put this into perspective: Jake Ryan’s fragile ego is stroked by a shy girl who constantly looks at him but he knows nothing about her. He only barely knows her name. So, he decides to go on an epic quest to meet this girl despite the fact that he has a gorgeous girlfriend. He abandons said girlfriend who is completely shitfaced, black-out drunk to try and call Sammie and meet her. And then, he abandons his girlfriend to the clutches of the horny nerd and tells her that the nerd is him, and then Jake makes a joke about how the girlfriend is so drunk he could “violate her ten different ways.” He’s a terrible person.
Despite those huge complaints, there’s a sincerity in Sixteen Candles lacking in the majority of modern teen comedies. When Sammie stares at herself in the mirror when she wakes up on her birthday and bemoans the size of her bust, that’s something many high school girls have had to deal with. When Sammie wallows in her seemingly unrequited crush on Jake Ryan (despite the fact that the two barely know each other), it feels real because everyone who was ever in high school has been there. And when she talks to her father, we recognize the real awkwardness of parents and children talking about romance.
And, most importantly of all, Sixteen Candles is legitimately funny. Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted/The Geek is the film’s unsung comic hero, and he and his friends (including a young and already charming enough to be a star John Cusack) provide many of the film’s best moments. Farmer Ted and his crew crash a senior party and not long after arriving, Ted leans against a beer can sculpture and knocks it over earning the ire of the jocks. And the payoff comes later as Farmer Ted’s friends are being driven home in the trunk of the jocks’ car, and they’re both convinced that they’ve made new friends. And the film has plenty of great little bits like that.
Sixteen Candles is an 80s classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film. And there are times where it’s outright bad (Jake Ryan is legitimately one of the most loathsome romantic leads in any rom-com ever), but with a subversive streak a mile wide and an honest ear for certain elements of teenage life, Sixteen Candles‘ shelf life is sure to last for years and years to come. One can only hope that future generations who discover this film move on to Hughes better features, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink as well.
Final Score: B
Since American Pie took over the box office in 1999, mainstream American teen comedies run on sex and raunch and little else. I’m not arguing that’s a huge problem. Raunchy teen sex comedies like Sex Drive are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I miss the day when teen comedies dared to be darker and more subversive (the closest we’ve come of late is the far more dramatic Perks of Being a Wallflower). And in today’s age of market-tested audiences and butter knife sharp satire, I can’t imagine a scenario where a teen comedy as pitch-black and razor sharp as Heathers could ever be made.
Cause let’s face it; if a studio head heard a pitch today about a comedy where a girl starts dating a psychopath and stages the murder of all of the popular kids at her high school, he would laugh the writer out of the conference room.But, somehow writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehman make all that and more work in their scathing satire of teen status, bullying, and the hell of growing up in the modern world (even if this movie’s complete 80s-ness dates the hell out of it).
The obvious spiritual predecessor to the modern (and less edgy) Mean Girls, Heathers charts the trials of Veronica Sawyer (Reality Bites‘s Winona Ryder), a bright and halfway decent girl that’s been sucked into the orbit of the popular “Heathers” clique at her school, where three beautiful and incredibly bitchy girls named Heather rule the school with Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) currently running the roost. They get their kicks from brutalizing the rest of the school and employ Veronica’s masterful handwriting mimicry skills to trick overweight losers into thinking jocks have written them sexually graphic love letters.
And Veronica’s life is upended with the arrival at Westerberg High of J.D. (Christian Slater), a mysterious loner who pulls a gun filled with blanks on two of the high school’s jock bullies on his first day of school. The roguish and mercurial J.D. is a breath of sincere, genuine air in Victoria’s artificial, plasticine existence. And though the pair get off on an immediate wave of young love, Veronica’s plans to prank the evil Heather Chandler spins out of control into murder when J.D. puts liquid drainer in her morning drink. And when Victoria agrees to write Heather’s suicide note, it sparks a string of murder-suicides that are beyond Veronica’s ability to control.
No one is spared from the barbed tongue that is Heathers‘ delicious wit. Although the film is clearly a condemnation of the clique-ish bully culture that has dominated American high schools for so long (I was fortunate to grow up in one of the few high schools in the country to legitimately not have a clique problem), it also spares no sympathy for those that think J.D.’s solution to the problem is the right one and paints them as the psychopaths they clearly are (even if their psychopathy is more sincere than the bullies’ sociopathy). But the movie’s harshest criticism are at the adult world’s attempts to commercialize and aestheticize the suffering and suicide of the young.
Like it’s bomb-throwing anti-hero, Heathers takes no prisoners and doesn’t know when to stop. When it’s on point, exploring the seemingly bottomless depths of cruelty that high schoolers commit on one another or the way that hippie-dippie adults exploit youth culture to its own means, Heathers is one of the most insightful and piercing films of the 80s. But, when it comes to the actions of J.D. and Veronica, Heathers isn’t quite as apt at handling the balancing act of showing us why Veronica would fall under J.D.’s homicidal spell but also why the film thinks he’s stark raving mad (and that Veronica has her guilt for the role she played in all of these proceedings).
I’ve often wondered why Winona Ryder never had a bigger career. In countless films in the 80s and early 90s, she was the perfect incarnation of rebellious teenage/young adult angst, and she had a presence and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that is sorely missing in today’s many homogenous and easily replaceable starlets. It could be her kleptomania but I suspect there’s more there. Regardless, Heathers is one of her most iconic roles, and when Veronica says she wants her friends dead (but doesn’t really), Winona captures all of the complexity of teenage rage.
Christian Slater’s performance is just one cocaine-tinged Jack Nicholson impersonation, but it’s one hell of a Jack Nicholson impersonation. There is no other character in the American cinematic canon quite like Slater’s homicidal and increasingly deranged J.D. To this day, my sister is creeped out by any (even later) Slater roles because he so thoroughly embodies the nihilistic rage and desperation of J.D. J.D. might not be the most fully realized comedy in a satire chock full of caricature (excepting perhaps Veronica), but Slater’s psychotic turn can’t be missed.
The film is overflowing with memorable throwaway dialogue and to this day, I’ll yell out “I love my dead gay son!” for seemingly no reason other than the fact that I laugh my ass off every time it’s uttered in this film. Without question, elements of the film’s quintessentially 80s dialogue and fashion have dated it to its severe detriment. The film’s consistent usage of the word “very” as some synonym for “excellent” or “good” began to grate. But, they don’t make comedies like Heathers anymore, and for fans of satire that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, it’s still worth a watch 25 years later (sweet Jesus, I was born in 1989. Christ, I’m getting old).
Final Score: B+
I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.
If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.
What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.
The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.
Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.
Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.
I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.
Final score: A
This is going to be possibly the most contradictory and conflicting review I’ve ever written. On every intellectual level that I can muster, I know that the 2006 Happy Madison production Grandma’s Boy is exquisitely awful. It’s low-brow to the extreme and a consistent affront to good taste and smart comedy at every turn. But, and it’s difficult to express how much it pains me to admit this, I love this movie. Part of a cadre of films that I used to watch religiously whenever they were on HBO when I was younger (others include Beerfest and Anchorman), Grandma’s Boy makes me laugh louder and harder than it has any right to, and there are days when I think there’s something wrong with me for how much I love this film.
Grandma’s Boy is steeped firmly in the stoner/slacker tradition of the Cheech & Chong films but with a decidedly modern bent and a fixation with video games (which explains in part my love of the film as something of an avid gamer). And it isn’t afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for jokes, but for God knows what reason, those “bottom of the barrel” gags work here when they never work for me in any of the other modern Happy Madison films (like That’s My Boy). Because let’s face it. Any film that has Shirley “Mrs. Partridge” Jones talking about giving a hand job to Charlie Chaplin speaks to me on some odd, inexplicable level.
Alex (Allen Covert) is a stoner wasting his life away as a video game tester for a game design studio when he really wants to make his own games and not mindlessly test the games of his obnoxious, robot-obsessed boss J.P. (Avatar‘s Joel David Moore). But, when the company brings in the beautiful and charming Samantha (Brokeback Mountain‘s Linda Cardellini) to ensure that their current game gets finished on time, she may be the motivation Alex needs to finally try and do something with his life. However, Alex has just been thrown out of his apartment (because his roommate spent their rent money on hookers) and he has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends which Alex is too ashamed to explain to Samantha and his best friend Jeff (Nick Swardson).
Alexander Payne this is not. In fact, it’s not even Judd Apatow. The jokes in Grandma’s Boy are as crass and disgusting as you can possibly imagine. At one point, before he lives with his grandmother, Alex stays at Jeff’s for the evening. Alex can’t sleep so he attempts to masturbate to one of Jeff’s female action figures (which he pretends is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft) and winds up ejaculating on Jeff’s mom when she walks in on him. At one point, Jonah Hill (Academy Award nominee for Moneyball) sucks on a breast (he literally appears to be suckling on a nipple at one point) for hours on end. And fart jokes abound.
But, and there’s no logical explanation for this, there are moments in Grandma’s Boy that carry some type of moronic genius where the film becomes so stupid, it’s brilliant. Alex’s burnt out pot dealer Dante (Patrick Dante) drags Alex into situations so surreal that they capture some of the absurdist magic of the old Happy Madison films like Billy Madison. And Shirley Jones steals virtually ever scene she’s in as the grandmother’s trampy roommate Grace. And, maybe it’s because I was born and bred on Freaks and Geeks, but watching a drunken Linda Cardellini make a fool of herself to “Push It” is hilarious. Although, Linda Cardellini is way too good of an actress for the material she’s given in this film.
Grandma’s Boy is a bad film. Although, it’s a bad film that I wholeheartedly enjoy (and though it was a disastrous critical flop when it was released, it has become something of a cult classic in intervening years). The movie doesn’t have a sophisticated bone in its body, and when I’m not trying to think about the film critically (as I was forced to during this viewing), that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If you require your comedy to have brains, avoid Grandma’s Boy like the plague because it smoked all of its brain cells away. But if you can enjoy a stupid but occasionally brilliant stoner comedy, Grandma’s Boy can be a great trip.
Final Score: C+
Absurdist humor is not easy to pull off. For every Wet Hot American Summer or The Big Lebowski that birth surrealist brilliance, you have a million half-baked comedies that think they can replace jokes with randomness and still derive real humor. What makes those two classic films (well Lebowski is a classic, WHAS is just a really funny cult film) work despite their seeming utter absurdity is that every absurd or “random” moment is actually a brilliantly executed gag. And less absurdist comedies lose sight of the power of gags. They don’t understand that everything in a film has to have some purpose (even if that purpose is to draw attention to its own meaninglessness, read: the entire plot of The Big Lebowski). And, sadly, for its first half, Martin & Orloff doesn’t understand the power of gags and actual humor which is ultimately a disappointment because it climaxes in a manic, nearly brilliant final act.
Although, similarly to Wet Hot American Summer, 2002’s Martin & Orloff features some hilarious minor turns from comedic actors before they became stars in their own right. And, much like Wet Hot American Summer (which was a project of sketch comedy group, The State), Martin & Orloff is the product of another prestigious comedy group, the Upright Citizens’ Brigade which was home at one or time or another to many of today’s most promising comedic writers/performers. But while Wet Hot American Summer suffered from its share of hit-or-miss jokes, it seems like an astonishingly even film in comparison to the much, much, much spottier Martin & Orloff. A lot of comedy is predicated on throwing out as many jokes as possible and hoping that enough stick to score ample laughs, but for nearly the first hour of this indie comedy, the laughs simply never arrive.
After a failed suicide attempt, Martin Flam (Ian Roberts) seeks solace and advice from his new psychotherapist, Dr. Eric Orloff (Old School‘s Matt Walsh). Martin Flam designs mascot costumes for a marketing company and after a vague incident involving an evil Chinese food company, Martin is struggling both at work and in his personal life and he hopes Dr. Orloff will help him sort things out. Unfortunately for Martin, Dr. Orloff is even crazier than he is, and all of Orloff’s friends and patients are an order of magnitude higher on the crazy train. During Martin’s first session alone, Orloff ends it minutes into the meeting to play in a softball game that he forgot about, and he drags Martin with him where Martin proceeds to get his ass kicked when he’s forced to play umpire. And over the next day or two, Martin’s life spirals even further out of control as Orloff’s unconventional therapy methods seem to cause more harm than good.
I get what they were attempting in this film. Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the State and all of these other sketch comedy groups are born-and-bred on improv theater. And, Martin & Orloff is no exception to this. The whole film feels as if it was the product of improvisation. Even if there actually was a real script (I don’t know for sure), there were many moments where it seemed like Ian Roberts was trying to figure out what his line should be (that may be because he’s not a very good actor of either the dramatic or comedic variety). And that sense of improvisation explains why so much of the film feels tacked-on and without meaning or context. Most of the first half feels like little thought was put into what should happen and the jokes fail on that score. It isn’t until the final 30-40 minutes or so where any of the jokes finally begin to have any bite or actual humor, and some of the bits by the end become almost brilliant.
When Martin & Orloff works, it nearly reaches a sense of madcap genius. A (astonishingly early) sequence has a strip club where some of the dancers themes are Goya or the Chuck Yeager biopic The Right Stuff. A recurring gag about a minor character’s comically large penis returns as a near deus ex machina in the film’s climax. The evil leader of the Chinese food conglomerate momentarily becomes a villain straight out of a John Woo film at the end. When the jokes are focused and aimed squarely at something, they work. And sadly that isn’t always the case. I can’t heartily recommend Martin & Orloff because the film is a chore and tedious for so long. But, if you’re patient and a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, the end doesn’t necessarily make things worthwhile but it becomes a laugh riot in its own right.
Final Score: C
After the Steven Soderbergh disaster known as Bubble back at the beginning of September, I was hoping that it would be a while before I was forced to watch another complete trainwreck of a movie. Apparently, the blog gods hate me more than I suspected (after a surprisingly strong go around for my current 50 film block). Because 1989’s Shag is a strong contender to be the most unintentionally abrasive and tedious films that I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog. Recently earmarked by Buzzfeed as a film from the 80s that all kids should see, let’s just say that I disagree heartily with that assessment. With absolutely reprehensible behavior rewarded in both its male and female characters, Shag is a loathsome moral lesson that indulges in the worst kinds of casual misogyny despite being a buddy comedy for women.
I sat through the kitschy schlock known as Forrest Gump, The Help, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without letting my attention wander too greatly. Despite my immense dislike for those films, I sat through their entirety while giving them my total attention. But, like How to Marry a Millionaire, it took around an hour or so before I realized I had devoted all the mental energy that I possibly could. And even though it seemed like maybe the movie was finally finding something resembling direction or meaning for it’s last thirty minutes, the damage done by the film’s first two-thirds was irreparable and Shag had lost its ability to make me care. That’s a tried and true axiom of film-making. If you can’t grab your audience in the first ten minutes, you’ve lost. Shag failed to make any positive impact whatsoever for the first hour and was mostly insufferably bad.
In the summer of 1963, four Southern Belle best friends straight out of high school, straight-laced Luanne (Page Hannah), wild child Melaina (Bridget Fonda), self-conscious Pudge (Annabeth Gish), and engaged Carson (Phoebe Cates), whisk themselves away for one last weekend of fun before they become adults once and for all. Luanne and Pudge are off to college, Carson is set to marry the dull Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), and Melaina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. And, so the girls head off to Myrtle Beach to spend time together one last time, meet boys, and have the last hurrah of youth. And at Myrtle Beach, they meet Buzz (Robert Rusler) and Chip (Scott Coffey) who begin to woo the engaged and hesitant Carson and the overly shy Pudge respectively. And, the whole time, you wish you were enjoying this movie 1% as much as these girls were enjoying their beach weekend.
I made the joke on twitter last night that Shag was the kind of thing the U.S. government might show to prisoners of war in order to get them to divulge military secrets, and while the movie may not actually qualify as torture, I’m probably going to regret the 98 minutes I lost to this movie for the rest of my life. There were three aspects of this film that weren’t utter failures. The soundtrack is actually really spectacular with lots of great early 60s/late 50s numbers and classic beach tunes. The soundtrack was easily the best part. Also, it featured Bridget Fonda at the peak of her undeniable attractiveness (she was even better looking than her aunt Jane in Jane Fonda’s heyday). And, Annabeth Gish (related to silent film darling Lillian Gish) was adequately relatable as the insecure Pudge.
Everything else about the film was an abject failure. From its focus on absurdly self-involved Southerners (an aesthetic that is sure to drive me away) to its total misunderstanding of how bohemians actually acted (apparently, in Shag, they’re just cut-out copies of Rizzo from Grease) that it’s alright for a man to more or less sexually harass a girl until she falls for him, everything about the first hour or so of Shag drove me absolutely nuts. And, even if it looked like the final act was making things better, it wasn’t enough for me to suddenly start caring about this film. Roger Ebert gave this movie three stars out of four, and I have no idea what crack pipe the otherwise esteemed critic was smoking because this movie is bad, and unless you long for this fantasy world presented in this film, I can’t imagine any reason to ever watch it.
Final Score: D