RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 18: The Duplass Bros.’ “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2012)

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

The Players…

Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong and Susan Sarandon.

The Story…

Even though he had the right upbringing, Jeff had some life arrest in his teenage years…which is now entering its third decade. He never went to college. Never got a job. Never moved out of Mom’s basement. Never wanting anything more of life.

In a word: slacker.

But Jeff’s not a slacker despite what his family may think of him. Jeff knows that somewhere out in the world is his purpose, his one true calling and he’s simply waiting for the proper signs to light his way. He feels that if he listens hard enough, the Great Forces At Work will tell him what to do.

Like maybe go glue shopping.

The Rant…

In many of our outings here at RIORI I have pointed out (read: whined) about being a member of Generation X. The kids born of the Boomers and are the first generation to have it harder than blah blah blah and blah with a side of blah. I’ll spare you the sociopolitical doggerel.

No, I won’t.

Here’s the deal: I get to editorialize for about a jillion paragraphs regarding some sort of social deconstruction relevant to this week’s movie, and you stay put and squirm till the spittle dries on my keyboard. Thank you, and please try the veal.

I’ll streamline it though, just enough to make this installment’s yardstick relevant to maybe one-third of America’s white, middle-class, college educated, late 30s, regarding the death of Kurt Cobain as the total loss of art and music history and fashion in Western Civilization reluctant adults. I dwell here, too, honeybee. For those of you who can relate, there’s distinct likelihood of a flannel shirt and pair of Docs mouldering in the back of your closet, waiting for the perfect time to strike. That and a Color Me Badd LP stained with ancient teardrops. Ain’t nostalgia fun? Word.

Me? I was never a Nirvana fan. I know that kicks me off the back of the Gex X cool wagon. And trust me, we of that generation were very in tune to what “cool” was supposed to be. Mostly it came in the form of calculated indifference and cynicism tempered with the absolute assuredness that the grass was greener elsewhere, and likewise just out of reach. Like the Adverts sang, we’re just bored teenagers, seeing ourselves as strangers. We’re talkin’ high school in the 90s here, people, which doubtless wasn’t too different from high school in previous decades. However I’d like believe that teens of my generation were painfully more self-aware than kids slogging it out during the Reagan years. You know, when ketchup was deemed a vegetable.

In a certain way that self-awareness set us up for failure. Sure, all teens are painfully self-conscious about everything. Appearance, social status, their pet projects and whether or not Pop Rocks and beer will have the same effect as Pop Rocks and Coke (it doesn’t by the way. Another traveling tip). Such things make up the teenage MO for the better part of high school. Call it a survival tactic.

But being self-conscious isn’t the same as self-aware. I recall as a youth certain things that most folks older than I—not too much older. Friends’ older siblings mostly, those in college especially—weren’t in tune to. They didn’t have to be. This was in the early/mid-90s. The dawn of the Info Age where the Web was coming into prominence. The promise of Bush the First’s no new taxes didn’t pan out, and frankly the cost of everything went through the roof. The failure of Desert Storm, where a sense of patriotism died faster than lusting for a Sega Saturn. And all of it smeared 24/7 on inescapable cable news channels. So sure, Gen X had a lot to be suspicious about, and facing a wobbly future of gain and promise didn’t seem like a guarantee. Looked more like a game of roulette. Tell me, when a prez candidate hopes to woo the youth vote by honking Elvis tunes on a sax (badly), how sure could you be about the way the country might be headed?

We were all very self-aware. Keenly so that uncertainty abounded and the escape of college or a reasonable shot at employment was not necessarily in the cards. If we could even locate the deck. If you think about it, such navel-gazing would explain the pop culture scene in the 90s. Look at the touchstones we had to draw from. All those grunge bands with their relentless emotional examination. Culty TV shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files were big hits based partly on the left-of-center storytelling style (the whole uncertainty thing, as well as conspiratory undertones). Look at all the John Hughes movies. Those f*cking Chicken Soup for the Soulless Soul books. All of it self-aware with a mild streak of cynicism and irony running through it all, even those damned books (what maligned bunch of losers would even need a series like that? Right).

What I’m getting at is Gen X didn’t receive the world on a silver platter like the Boomers did (and in the process spilled the tea); we understood at an early age we’d have to earn it. Based against the boy-howdy, back-slappin’, ain’t we the gatekeepers of cool bullish*t the Boomers hung around X’s neck, we kinda had a pretty good idea that our ride into the future would be less slick than turds through a dyspeptic pitbull.

And we were right. Ask Kurt Cobain. If you can find him.

Not that I’m bitter. Well, okay. A little, but it can be justified to a degree. In all honesty, our parents did the best they could with what they had, like all decent parents ought. What they had though (toking their way through their teen years. Y’know, before it was illegal, then legal, then…who the f*ck knows what’s going on anymore? Maybe Alaskans do) was privilege, far greater and more insidious that what gifts X received. If you’re wondering about the generational dynamic delineating opportunity, it kinda goes something like this:

Greatest Generation: “Here. We survived the Depression and won WW2. Here’s what we earned. Take what you can, and may it serve you well.”

Baby Boomers: “Thanks. I’ll go invest this in weed and Dead tickets.”

Generation X: “College costs what now? And isn’t Jerry Garcia dead?”

Aging Boomers: “Shaddap. We got a yummy ice cream named after him, okay? Now help me upload my account into the Cloud. There’s no damn dial on my iPhone 3.”

Something like that.

But about that degree of bitterness. I was bombarded back in the 90s with pop news reports declaiming that my generation would be the first in the history of the nation to be less successful than the previous one. What with stagflation, Reaganomics, rampant outsourcing, environmental blight and even the advent of the Home Shopping Network, X faced a seemingly ever increasing uphill battle towards financial solvency. Sad but the lesson of history dictates true. Gen X has at least twice as many college degrees as the Boomers, yet most of us were barely hired enough to earn cab fare. Sure, I can go back and left-handedly blame Boomer easy privilege again, but we were raised behind such privilege. So what went all amok?

Not sure. But thanks to all that muckity-muck I spoke of, since the turn of the century well-educated, articulate, 20-turning-into-40-somethings were forced to return to the nest. Mom and Dad. The Deadheads. The ones who said if looked really carefully at Santana’s first album cover you could see the band member’s faces (what’s Skype?). Thousands of perfectly capable young adults unable to get out of the basement for lack of decent jobs and/or student loans that could only be paid off with a maturing interest on their savings account left alone for the time it takes a one-time Cobain lover to trek to Saturn and back by foot. Barring the hyperbole, this situation has been a real thing for both me and others of my generation. We were forced back to the womb, kicking and screaming like the first time, only in reverse.

A lot of Gen X found their way back into Mommy and Daddy’s basement while still holding down a full time job (some with actual benefits) let’s not forget. However, no matter how much was made and done to get ahead, some sort of malign fiscal force kept Gen X at bay. An example? A friend of mine—a professor of psychology at a local university, and her hubs a headhunter for a reputable commercial data firm—still lives at home with her parents. With her three kids. Why? Can’t afford a house. Plain and simple. With those credentials? Hi, we’re Generation X. Please pawn the Xbox One.

So it’s not uncommon that a large swath of my generation eventually stumbled back “home” for haven and free laundry. It’s too damned expensive out there, and the real estate game is a crapshoot (with an emphasis on crap). What jobs are available pay just above the fearful “lower middle class” range, and the fields are so cutthroat is doesn’t matter that you got a degree but rather where you got said degree. And how fast. With that kind of job market, debts piling up, no readily affordable housing, who wouldn’t kick down Mom and Dad’s door out of desperation and frustration?

Many, many self-aware, once cool kids with their advanced degrees (including me) are crashing on Mom’s couch in the basement, only to have to be up by six for job numero uno and an endless bowl of Top Ramen after the second shift ends. It’s a sad state of affairs, and ultimately dehumanizing. With all the promises given us, and the resources ripe for the plucking (this all during the Internet boom) there’s really no easy answer why so many of us had to return to the nest.

All these birds coming home to roost created a stereotype late in waning days of the 20th Century. Perfectly capable young adults, most of whom partially educated, clinging to menial jobs like the last lifejacket on the Titanic and engaging in recreational activities of a dubious nature (my friend with the kids showed me how to make a hash pipe out of an apple. She’s a psych prof, y’know). Are they disenfranchised? Undervalued? Underemployed?

Nope. They’re slackers.

That’s a term of derision I can’t stand. Sure, there are a lot water-headed f*cks of my generation whiling away their days with endless hours of Clash of Clans and having to keep recharging that vaporizer every fifteen minutes. Their lives are like those in the Linklater movie of the same name. I’m not so bleary-eyed to ignore this sad demographic. Hell, I was part of it for a time.

You know the type. Thirty-something, living in Mommy and Daddy’s basement, wasting their days in a beater shirt with some rock band’s logo on it (mine was Yes, and don’t you judge me), Funyon wrappers strewn about while molesting the Internet and/or PS4 for hours, if not entire afternoons. There’s usually booze, energy drinks and pot mixed up in there, too. This is what we have as the vessel for all that’s good and profitable in our culture. We have a guy (and it’s always a dude) with a three-day growth, a diploma in a cracked frame in his bureau somewhere, ignorant of life arrest and, well Funyon wrappers everywhere.

The curious part of slackerism is that its worldview is still a very self-aware one. Myopia is not a slacker affliction. Resignation, maybe, but the average lackadaisical man-child in the loft over the garage is not ignorant of his situation. Most likely he hates it. The hand he was dealt, or dealt out was not a winning one and the “rewards” reaped keep him stuck, inert, feeling like a failure and trying to feel out the one true thing that’ll make all of it switch around for the better. Get a (better) job. Lay off the pipe some. Understanding that World of Warcraft will wait for you and you can always DVR that Walking Dead marathon for future viewings. Like for after work.

It helps if you get out of the basement once in a while, too (Wake up, Jeff. That’s your cue)…

A gilded cage is still a cage, even if it merely has but faux cherry paneling.

It’s what’s been mellow Jeff’s (Segel) world for years. If not decades. Mom’s basement, with all its rent-free, cushy isolation. He’s been free to noodle around with endless video games, keep his bong in good, working order and neglect bathing on a daily basis, as well as commune with his muse: nonstop deconstruction of M Night Shayalaman’s opus, Signs.

Yes, Jeff firmly believes there are signs abounding in the Universe. Surely one will come to him if he’s patient enough, diligent enough and wise enough to figure which is the “right” one.

In the meantime, there’s that matter of the shutter being fixed.

Jeff’s beleaguered mom (Sarandon) has but one task for him to complete before she gets home: get glue to fix the busted shutter. Jeff balks at first; that weed ain’t gonna smoke itself. But mom’s threatened eviction again so Jeff figures he’s got no choice. And so it’s off to the hardware store, Abby Breslin’s plight always weighing heavily on his mind.

On the other side of town lives Jeff’s bro Pat (Helms), the polar opposite of Jeff in every way but disposition. He’s a go-getter. On the up-and-up. Nursing a potential drinking problem and is married unhappily ever after. But he’s got a Porsche! Whatever. Jeff accidentally runs into his brother en route to that all-elusive glue and scores a ride. As usual, Pat has no reservations about boasting his moderate success in tandem with criticizing his slacker brother. Jeff protests as always. He’s just looking for the proper opportunity to fly right.

Pat could easily jabber jaw and argue with Jeff all day about people’s station in life, if it weren’t for that car speeding by with Pat’s wife Linda (Greer) aboard with another man. That’s what brakes are for. Sure, Pat’s life might be the opposite of Jeff’s Zen-like non-life, but there are more important things in this world than overanalyzing Signs. Like sniffing out a possible affair.

And so it goes. Jeff looks for spiritual enlightenment from a alien movie. Pat goes looking for potential adultery. And Mom’s just looking for some glue.

Such signs yield the ties that bind.

Had a hard time with this one. A lot of themes hit real close to home, and not in any fun way. Despite Jeff being a comedy—and it was pretty funny—it was a bittersweet story to watch.

Jeff hit The Standard’s net mostly out of surprise. Sure, it was kind of an indie film (it fell under the banner of Paramount’s Vantage imprint) so the idea of big bucks raked in was at best a pipe dream. There goes the whole “mediocre returns” thing, so no real shocker there. It got relatively fair reviews, although shouldered against the Duplass’s first film Cyrus, it came across more like, “Jeff was okay, but Cyrus…” So strike two.

What I mean by surprise is that how the heck with cast, that very eclectic cast full of name stars performed in a solid movie and so few people were interested. Sure, Jeff didn’t have a wide release (we’ve understood how that goes with indie releases. This movie got shown in over a little more than 500 theaters), but we had the stars of How I Met Your Mother, The Hangover series and an Academy award winner all on board. One would think this would drum up a bit more curiosity. Blame the limited release, I guess. Remember what happened with A Most Violent Year? There you go.

I guess the whole “sophomore slump” could also be blamed for Jeff‘s lack of muscle. This is another symptom all too common with debut films from a critical darling director (or in this case, directors). Their first film is so noteworthy that any ensuing projects are almost always immediately held up against some accidental gold standard. It happened with Vincent Gallo, the Hughes Brothers, Jan de Bont, and to a lesser degree (you guessed it) M Night Shayamalan (all right, I know The Sixth Sense wasn’t his debut film. It might’ve well had been, and I wanted to tie the Signs bit in here somehow. Now get off me).

What I’m saying about the whole slump thing is that once a filmmaker cuts a remarkable film—debut or otherwise—it becomes a tender trap. Every new movie by them will never be as good as their first, and what comes later will always be considered hackwork on some level. It’s kinda like the Harper Lee conundrum. She wrote the brilliant To Kill A Mockingbird and vanished, her entire literary legacy resting on a single book. A very good book, mind you, enough so she didn’t need to write another novel for 50-odd years. Then Mockingbird‘s sequel, Go Set A Watchman was eventually released. Bookworms rejoiced. Then when they actually read the thing, critics and fans alike were all meh. It wasn’t nearly as good as the first book. Considering the gulf between publications, and Lee’s debut novel so entrenched in the cultural tapestry, no duh.

I never saw the Duplass’ first film, Cyrus, but I learned of its praise. And that movie reached a wider audience (relatively speaking again) with even a smaller theatrical release than Jeff. As if you haven’t figured it out yet, the Duplass’ sophomore effort got snubbed by fans and snobs for being, well, not Cyrus.

And that’s a shame, because Jeff was a sturdy little film.

What I respected most from Jeff‘s execution was it being low on the quirk scale. Why does it seem that for the past twenty years an indie comedy can’t be a comedy without some tongue-in-cheek, hipster, pseudo-ironic (read: misusing the term “ironic”) commentary or have painfully left-of-center, self-aware characters? It feels to me that the kinda mish-mash that was once so potent in an indie film like, say, Clerks is now de rigeur—and no longer ironical—for any would-be camera monkey that’s streamed one to many Wes Anderson movies. And I like Wes Anderson, but Bill Murray can only be so deadpan so much.

I’m not denying Jeff was quirky at all. Sure it was, but it was subtle about it. There wasn’t a lot of mugging the camera, off-the-cuff one liners, bizarrely threaded plot lines and, most importantly, not a musical number to be found. Kidding, but Jeff was pretty low key (until it wasn’t), despite the awkward characters and stilted dialogue, which was meant to enhance the storyline, not distract us from it. I found this refreshing. And Owen Wilson nowhere to be found.

Again, kidding. The feeling I walked away with from Jeff was slightly surreal. No, that’s it. Slightly surreal. The movies crawls along in a kind of dreamlike pace. It reflects Jeff’s idiot savant/slacker existence. So the guy’s looking for the ultimate sign, huh? What better way to illustrate this than have our anti-hero all sleepy-eyed and have his head in the clouds? Segel affects this faraway look in his eyes, as well as drowning in memories. The guy’s so damned mellow, almost ruefully so. You get a fast impression (the only really fast thing about the movie) that Jeff was meant for better things—or at least some thing—and there’s a tear of regret in his misbegotten circumstances (remember was I said earlier about slackerdom? Uh-huh). The scene of the pick-up b-ball game shows shades of lost potential, especially mirrored against the REDACTED. Still, on his current level, Jeff doesn’t seem to mind his wastrel status. Or perhaps just totally resigned to it. Segel does a good job remaining within type, but without a spine. He seems damaged, rather. Wounded puppy.

No shocker here, but Helms’ character, Jeff’s big bro Pat—blustery, snotty, prickly and much more successful that Jeff, whom he has no qualms about rubbing this in his face—has the mirror opposite of his little bro’s mopey sagacity. In short, Helms is excellent as a smarmy doosh. We all know someone like Pat. Hell, we probably work with—or, perish the thought, for—some knucklehead like Pat. Scene after scene when Pat, with his false sense of entitlement, does some fast-talking jive or passive-aggresively strong-arms Jeff into some cockamamie situation (in the case of the movie, sleuthing out the possibility of Linda fooling around on Pat), you have to laugh at his pompous absurdity and how f*cking well Jeff takes it. Not just takes it, goes along with it. After all, Pat is everything Jeff isn’t. At second glance, we find that to be a good thing. Needless to say, Helms was a stitch, and his whole caper that Jeff got hogtied into made for some weird, funny brotherly bonding.

The bonding thing. It becomes fast apparent how different Jeff and Pat are. Also, with both of their issues (or multiple issues. Christ, as far as I was concerned, both had the lifetime f*cking subscriptions) and despite their differences, they had a lot more in common than either wanted to admit. This comes to the fore during the driving scenes (in Pat’s newly acquired and against Linda’s wishes Porsche). Jeff could be regarded as the shortest, most dysfunctional road trip movie ever. A bastardized Bob and Bing road movie. It’s a good thing. I mean, what better way to generate tension that within the confines of a tiny, overpowered sports car? The eventual connection Jeff and Pat make is forged in adolescent fisticuffs, metaphorically speaking. You spend that much time in close quarters with a person you don’t get along with, let alone understand, some Stockholm Syndrome comes a-creeping. The dynamic of Jeff comes across as My Dinner With Andre for the 21st Century stupid crowd, and it gets damned funny.

Now Sarandon as mom Sharon is the wild card here. At first her motivation seems to be just impatient and harried, what with dopey Jeff and her claustrophobic job at her heels. She’s strident and beleaguered. When a “secret admirer” comes calling via instant messenger, she finally has a sense of purpose. Someone out there likes her! It’s almost reflective of why Linda may or may not be canoodling around Pat. It later becomes evident that Sharon is the litmus test for loneliness that’s been an undercurrent of Jeff since scene one. Sharon is the fulcrum. Just look at it. Jeff is lonely by ineffectual design. Pat is lonely—alienated from Linda—also by design, but doesn’t realize it until it bites him in the ass. Linda is lonely, wishing for her husband to “come back.” Jeff‘s baseline is all about personal suffering at the hands of fate, preordained or created. It’s the stuff Jeff’s been on guard for all his life. It’s all a drag, but couched in witty dialogue and screwy circumstances, you can laugh at it. I did. It’s like everyone is adolescent here, life arrested in high school. Only Jeff is sharp enough to follow this through, Signs or no.

There’s only one word to describe Jeff‘s kind of comedy: wry. Everything’s all off kilter here, and very little is just what it seems. It’s existential, bookended by wisecracks and loose cannon acting. Sure, there’s some nice, touching moments revolving around the ties that bind (glue, family ties. Get it?), but they’re mostly ancillary plot points to enhance the humor and the irony—which service is actually properly used here—that grinds the dysfunction and ultimate expression into snort-worthy powder. Yeah, quirky. I know. With Jeff, you’re soaking in it! You just don’t feel the film on you.

So to speak.

Kinda deep subtext for a movie about the misadventures of a slacker and an assh*le, I know. With an over-analysis of a middling Shayalaman movie as motivation to boot. Then again, and I once babbled on at length here, Gen X is awash in useless pop culture knowledge. Who’s to say that what Jeff was looking for as a sign in deconstructing a movie is no less foolish that strategizing with fantasy football or amassing every Radiohead bootleg in Christendom just to say you have it? There might be meaning somewhere in all that. For folks like Jeff—maybe all of us slackers—that might be all we need to hang on to.

Just keep watching the skies. Rewatching Unbreakable again might help, too.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Sure, Jeff‘s got quite a bit going for it here, as far as low-level quirky, family drama, slacker comedies go. But really, all that’s for a matter of taste, and mine is generally questionable. Hell, you’ve read these reviews, right? Insert witty retort here:

Stray Observations…

  • Siegel got kinda pudgy for this role.
  • “That’s the mindset I’m talking about!”
  • Did Pat park the Porsche in a handicap spot? I think he did. Awesome!
  • “I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
  • Kinda felt the same way about Signs actually, but not in that way. We’re just friends.
  • “I like weed.” “Yeah, I can see that.”
  • Spin Doctors. Smile and/or wince at your own peril.
  • “You’re having a business meeting at Hooters?”
  • Was the lesbo thing really necessary?
  • “Anyone else in here?”
  • So they got the glue.

Next Installment…

Where will you be The Day After Tomorrow? Let’s hope not in New York, battling frostbite.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 17: Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (2002)

25th Hour

The Players…

Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.

The Story…

After years of making a mint in the drug trade, Monty Brogan’s luck has run out. The cops were tipped off to his crimes, and now Monty’s facing a stint for seven years up river. With only one day of freedom left, Monty wants to reconnect with his estranged friends for one last night on the town.

The Rant…

Sometimes I get the feeling that Spike Lee gets a bad rap, and for the life of me I can’t understand why.

I say “feeling,” being based on his years in the industry, Lee’s personality tends to override his artistic credentials. That and I think his terse, naked, in-yo-face directorial style makes folks uncomfortable. This isn’t because Lee’s films are no-holds-barred social commentary (which they often are), but more the tenor of his films makes the general public look inside themselves in trying to identify with Lee’s characters. And Lee’s characters are seldom flat, easy to understand stereotypes. Almost his entire dramatis personae are hard-edged, conflicted, very real people with very real issues, both emotional and situational. Lee’s work has always held up a mirror for America’s audiences, and sometimes America doesn’t like what it sees. At least, what they see in themselves.

For example—probably the primary one—take Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing (duh, of course I’m gonna start there). That volatile, long, hot summer day of antagonism and racial prejudice really smacked people around back in the 80s. These days the film might come across a little preachy for today’s audiences, and at times may been seen as comical, sometimes delving perilously close into self-parody.

Regardless of how Thing was or might be perceived, it can’t be denied that the movie struck a chord with audiences of all stripes, and not in some squishy, Forrest Gump kind of way. That subtle-as-a-flying-mallet delivery Lee’s been engaging in for over a quarter century is his stock in trade. Like I said, perhaps audiences and Hollywood alike attach his confrontational nature and perceived vitriol directly with his public image and/or dire filmography. It’s no secret that Lee is outspoken, sometimes brash and very opinionated (for all the right reasons), but beyond that he’s a storyteller with something to say, and obviously a man with a lot on his mind.

I think Lee’s rep is yet another example of both Hollywood’s mill-churning, entertainment media’s less than objective marketing or image and a hostile, ignorant audience who can’t face the man in the mirror. I’ve watched a lot of Lee’s movies—not all. There are only so many hours in a life—and what I’ve walked away with from all of them is being entertained (granted in a discomforting way), having some thoughts provoked, some really 3D character acting and the feeling the guy never gets his due. Sure, Lee’s respected in the film world, but not so much within the glitzy Hollywood club. In fact, Lee’s CV reads as anti-Hollywood, especially since almost all his work is set in and around NYC. Being removed from Tinsel Town’s ethos of bigger, better, faster, shinier, more Lee’s carved out a unique voice in the filmmaking community. And all that being outspoken has done him good as well as earned some derision.

I want to talk about that in specific. Okay, I said that Lee’s adept in holding up the mirror. Also the general public doesn’t like that too much; they’d rather sit in their comfy couches of ignorance and judgment and not have their coats tugged on. I think that’s where the often naked hostility towards Lee’s films in general and Lee in specific comes into play. As the media hypes it, we’re being told to confuse the artist with the art. Again, Lee’s obstinate and firm in his beliefs, and his movies illustrate that, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that whenever he gets in front of the camera to talk at—not to, at—ET or Hollywood Insider two faces are being shown. One of the man and his muse, and the other the social mirror. Lee’s canny in this light; the whole “no such thing as bad press” bullish*t. Give the buzzards what they want to hear and give the plovers the chance to hear what he has to say.

Do I have to explain the “plover” metaphor? It’s a positive one. Let’s leave it at that. You go f*ck around on Wikipedia on your own time.

At the end of the day, discounting all the media muck that gets shoveled Lee’s way, his work is vital, seminal, intriguing and always well-shot and well-acted. It’s also ugly, but in a good way. People need the mirror now and again, and Lee is adept at polishing it.

Part of the skill is directly related to where he shoots most of all his movies: NYC. Growing up in Brooklyn you can be sure as eggs is eggs that Lee quickly gained a significant view on the City’s ebbing and flowing, the millions of souls. There is no other city on Earth where such a diverse, disparate population converge and, more often, collide. Do The Right Thing was the penultimate sentiment regarding this dynamic, and the film’s outcome was all too common, the message all too biting.

There is a bitter, brittle undercurrent to Lee’s films. Despite the City being a melange of cultures, ostensibly trying to cohabitate with one another, it seldom works out that way. With all those differences, things just don’t seem to want to iron out. The endgame is more often conflict and further aggression than “Kumbaya.” But that’s how it goes. No pity in the big City.

This bitterness seems to be all well and good for Lee’s films that primarily star black characters. Here we go with the mirror again. It’s all too easy for Middle America to accept black characters as aggressive, fractured and torn. I mean, that’s how its been for centuries in the good ol’ USA, right? Blacks are marginalized and naturally are pissed off and unafraid to make their voices heard (at least within the past 50 years). More or less, this has been Lee’s oeuvre, for good and for ill. Despite all the feathers ruffled from Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X—his best movie, IMHO. Awesome—Jungle Fever, and Bamboolzed (okay, that was one deliberate ruffling, with ridges), folks have grown to accept, albeit not completely by any means, Lee’s characters being disenfranchised. It’s as if average white audiences who take in Lee’s films are either doing so out of curiosity, bleeding heart liberal guilt or the movies’ reputation.

That itself is curious, because whenever Lee’s flips the coin and has a primarily white cast, there’s an uproar from the other side of the fence. Even if all of Lee’s trademarks are present, no matter how well the movie is executed, no matter how f*cking good it is, the guy can’t win (although he never comes across as wanting it both ways). In such a case, that outspoken social critic takes even more flak now for having fractured, alienated white characters face struggles and prejudices within their own ranks.

It’s probably an open secret that black audiences have embraced Lee’s work as their own. And just their own. After years of Lee filming stories of inner city blacks with all the strife and triumph so keenly, to cast a bunch of white folks in a Lee movie may be perceived as betrayal, as well as more passive fuel for a fire. Same goes for the entertainment media. What business does Lee have in filming a movie about whites’ issues? He ain’t white. So says most of his black fans, too, I’ll bet.

When Lee’s urban historical Summer Of Sam dropped in 1999 there came this unnecessary foofaraw about, “Hey, where are all the black people?” This came from audiences and reporters alike, like Lee was unqualified to shoot a film about a very real piece of immediate history in his hometown (one which he lived through). I guess the whole race thing got stuck to Lee’s ass like an infected carbuncle so much he shouldn’t be allowed to “branch out.”

It’s not as if Sam deviated so far from Lee’s style as to be an affront. For those who haven’t seen the movie here’s a simple synopsis: a docudrama illustrating the social climate and paranoia in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the murder spree by the serial killer the Son Of Sam. It had a predominantly white cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, John Leguizamo and Jennifer Esposito. And Lee got grief for this.

Why? The movie was pointed and great, with all Lee’s hallmarks of social commentary and culture clash. It still rolled like a Lee film, and with all great directors, don’t they usually have an élan that reeks of a signature style? I mean, Scorsese didn’t get much friction for The Age Of Innocence (a film about classism) and critical acclaim for Taxi Driver (a film with quite a few racial undertones). It’s not like he took a lefty and cut a Sandler lowbrow comedy (I know, redundant). So why did Lee get grief?

He went and held the mirror directly in front of white people, and white people only. And him being a black man? The nerve! Just when you think you understood Spike Lee—whoops!—he goes and turns the tables. But not really; you just had your attention elsewhere.

Without going too far into it (that’s what the later gnashing is for), 25th Hour saw the same bullish*t. It’s why it fell under The Standard. That and the low score at the box office. Here were have another New York Story, featuring troubled white folks. But this is Spike Lee, and the cast doesn’t overall matter. Hour, like Sam (like Do The Right Thing, etc) is about NYC, the people who live there and what they must do to survive, race and class serving as the wallpaper. It’s still signature Lee commentary and story all the way, regardless of who starred in it.

All in all it really doesn’t matter; the race relations, the urban blight, the classism, etc. Lee’s been all about the City first, and whatever social issues he wants to address rides on the five boroughs’ back. Black or white (or Asian of Latino or Muslim or what have you), Lee’s muse has always been the people of New York and how they (try to) relate to one another. Seems to me that’s Lee’s whole raison d’être, regardless of what his audiences—the media or the ticket holders—feel. Lee’s main character has always been the City.

Not some drug dealer losing his freedom. Not really…


Monty Brogan (Norton) has led a pretty good life. Nice apartment. Cool car. Loyal pooch. And his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Naturelle (Dawson), has been nothing but loving and committed for years.


Monty’s lived the good life at his own peril. Dealing drugs to make a living can do that. Someone tipped off the cops, and after a raid on Monty’s apartment—yielding a discovery of a crazy stash of heroin and an even crazier amount of laundered money—the smooth operator gets dragged downtown.


“Don’t even think of leaving town,” comes the order. Monty’s now facing at least seven years for his misdeeds. At least that. The evidence is damning, and the likelihood of Monty throwing himself at the mercy of the court for a wrist slap is not looking too good. With all that dope and cash? Pipe dream.

So now looking down the barrel of pulling hard time—and with his soft looks and cocky personality—losing his freedom for his crimes might be the easier thing about being incarcerated. The possibility of Monty ending up being married to the man with the most cigarettes seems more likely. The whole notion of “not leaving town” feels increasingly more laughable.

Monty chooses the only sensible thing to do with his last day of freedom. He rounds up his buddies Jake (Hoffman) and Frank (Pepper) for one last night on the town. Monty and his childhood friends’ lives diverged in very different ways, to say the least. Jake is a respected, albeit milquetoast English teacher with a Lolita complex. Frank is a manic, smarmy day trader who routinely mainlines Red Bull into his femoral artery and ego. Well aware of Monty’s fate, both feel it proper—nay, necessary—to pay a kind of favor to Monty. Call it for old times’ sake. Perhaps the last time.

Beyond this final boys’ night out Monty has a few, final loose ends to tie up. Show his wingmen the perks of an exclusive, underworld nightclub. Make some sort of amends with his brittle Pop (Cox) who tried and failed to steer Monty right. Most importantly, figure out who the f*ck ratted him out.

It’s gonna feel like a short night for Monty Brogan, but not long enough…

Feels like I got a bit too academic with the intro. I mean, there’s a lot to dig into regarding Spike Lee’s moviemaking. A lot to break down. Still, I needn’t throw one of Ebert’s many, many books at your face. But you gotta admit, with Lee’s stuff there’s a lot to plumb, even with his less than even hand at storytelling.

Lee’s got this knack—or curse, deepening on whom you ask—for being blunt. His sledgehammer-like delivery is what knocks audiences to the floor. Now I know I quail on and off and on again about my favorite aspect about a movie’s narrative (and no, I’m actually not talking about pacing for once) a lot, but here it really matters. As far as Lee’s style goes.

Subtlety. The kind of stuff in a movie like a Highlights For Children‘s “Hidden Pictures” segment. You know, pictures within pictures. I know that sounds like a Rush lyric, but noodle it out. Lee’s work is always up in your grill, next to no subtlety. It’s all there for you. In Hour, Lee affects a sort of Hitchcock-esque method of dropping the dime without placing the call. Hour is rife with obvious bits and pieces alluding to the undercurrents of the story, but delivered in an, “Oh, I get it” kind of way.

Call it “overt subtlety.” Yeah, I know. A contradiction in terms. Shut it. The devils in Hour are not just the details, but like chess pieces, how they are placed. Played.

At the opening of the film (hell, even before the movie properly starts) we see the Touchstone logo backed by the sounds of a dog being pummeled. The opening scene? Monty rescues said dog who later becomes his pet. Not sure of the symbolism, but it’s there. Maybe it relates to the whole post-9/11 NYC seam that wends its way in and out of the ensuing movie. Maybe. I dunno.

Other bits of Lee’s overt subtlety; his approach at restraint? Well, we all probably remember the symbolic spotlights strategically placed and shining where WTC 1 and 2 once stood. There’s the scene where Monty’s sitting on a bench denying one of his “customers” a fix while we see out protag staring balefully out at the river, the bars of the railing framing his face. Bars? Hmm. Also the trophy scene, towards the rear. The way out, Monty. You took it. It’s all excellent framing, and it’s maintained throughout the duration of the film. It’s a tad chewier than any trash can thrown through a window.

All such scenes are delicious wallpaper—bookends, rather—to the acting. No one in the world of Hour is an empty shell, waiting for the audience to pour all their pathos into the actors like some sort of emotional canteen. They’re all solidly, fully-formed people right out of the gate. Norton’s portrayal of Monty, despite all shiny on the outside is showing signs of tarnish, wears his heart on his sleeve regardless of his trashy circumstances (slick drug dealer and a guy trying to be decent alike). He knows his life’s been sh*t, but he keeps his cool. Until he can’t.

The late Hoffman as Jake. God, he was a good actor, what with his honest, melty face. Very versatile, despite the roles he got dealt (either louts or effete snobs. Sometimes both). Here in Hour, he excels at playing the innocent, even in a winking manner. His Jake is Humbert Humbert, minus the outright perviness yet still broken and creepy (despite the object of his misplaced affection, Paquin’s Mary, his modern day bipolar Lolita). Jake should be the kind of guy within Monty’s circle that has earned the most esteem. But for all his image of scholarly reticence, Jake is desperate, fragile and quite f*cked up. He wears that ball cap as a shroud. You want to put your arm around him, reassure him everything’s gonna be okay. Jake needs a few stiff drinks in him, but you know just one’s gonna make him toss his cookies.

It’s the unexpected opposite of what you’d get out of Pepper’s Frank. Within the first 30 seconds of his appearance, Pepper is totally forgiven for playing a part in Battlefield: Earth. His fast-talking, greasy, unshaven Frank is the proper emotional crutch Monty leans on. Despite his whiplash delivery (and strung-out temperament), Frank plays d’Artagnan to Jake’s schlumpy Porthos, always Monty’s biggest booster no matter what’s gone down in the past, for better or worse. His sharp features with that glare illustrates the realist (his make-up job is crucial), and is at times not so subtle about reminding Monty of what’s at stake. Been at stake. For better or worse? Feels like worse here, but it’s never going to be truly over with this guy. All these guys.

Frank’s role here may also be part of the post 9/11 undercurrent I mentioned earlier. Sure, he’s slicker than snot, but look where his apartment’s located. Overlooking Ground Zero (that little chat he has with Jake burns, and all the more crucial for it). Seems like Frank’s edginess is deliberately forced, a carefully assumed stance. It was the World Trade Centers that were knocked down. Is the stricken trader the post-9/11 straw man? Is the allegory in overdrive, despite the time frame? You decide.

Amongst Monty, Frank and Jake we get the classic balance of id/ego/superego. Think Star Trek. Frank is irascible Dr McCoy, Jake is the thoughtful Spock and Monty is our relatable everyman Kirk. I’m not aware of many movies that work this triad so well as is done with Hour. We had Ferris, Cameron and Sloane, Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. Even Harry, Ron and Hermoine. All good examples of movie trios bouncing their personalities off one another creating great tension, humor and unity. Monty, Jake and Frank is another fine example. Despite their obvious differences, and where the paths of their lives took them, these guys are friends.

This friendship is like a fresh dartboard. All the shots are clean. Sure, Monty’s frayed friendships feel like their failing further (especially when Jake and Frank become passive sounding boards), but putting Monty’s plight and his interactions on the back burner, Hour‘s alpha plot is really just a vehicle to drive through Lee’s true muse here: New York. Like I said earlier, this film isn’t really about Monty’s waning freedom. It’s about the City, a character in and of itself trying to deal with the wounds inflicted in the fall of 2001. Hour is a post-9/11 snapshot, plain and simple. Sure, there’s a lot of great pathos and intriguing characters, but all that is merely a device for Lee to convey his signature social commentary. And his commentary is always about “us.” In this case, the us isn’t just Monty and Co. It’s the tapestry of people, a microcosm of the planet as a whole, that is New York in relation to “them.” It’s the intangible them that upset the balance of the City and the country? No, it’s always been us according to Lee. And he may be right.

I’m gonna segue into the tech stuff of Hour now (I know you’ve been wringing your greasy, little hands in anticipation). Lee’s always been adept in using cinematography. Hour‘s no less exceptional, and we’re not just talking the skyline here. All the close-ups and face time are wonderfully framed. It’s like every conversation had let’s us in on a secret, being it intimate details, heartfelt hands on the shoulder or screeching rants.

Speaking of rants—which serve as Lee’s aforementioned social critique and plea for understanding—Monty’s (infamous) racist soliloquy in the mirror deriding every single minority group in the City (and perhaps outside of it, too) is reminiscent of Do The Right Thing‘s endless racial criticism. Hour‘s tirade-cum-montage is another piece of Lee’s post-9/11 deconstruction. The City is fractured, but it needs everyone to make it right again. Or at least tolerable.

However Lee isn’t without a reflective side here (for once). The opposite of Monty’s screed comes in the form of his Pop’s homily towards the end of the film regarding REDACTED. Like the City, the rest of the country is a crazy quilt of humanity, and by Lee’s lens the answers don’t necessarily lie outside New York, but maybe an idea does (by the way, I feel Brian Cox is a highly underrated character actor. Hey, if the guy was the first to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen doesn’t count for something, I can’t say what would).

Other cool technical flourishes I dug about Hour are many, but since we’re heading into a length that would give Tolstoy a run for his rubles I’ll try and reel it back. This film has some of the best flashback editing I haven’t seen since the original Highlander. That’s a complement. Most of the time in movies, the need to show backstory rather than tell it can be abrupt if not jarring. No so with Hour. In fact, scene moves from scene so deftly it takes a moment or two to understand we’ve shifted the story back a few years (or forward in some cases). All of it enriches Monty’s tale of rising and falling and perhaps heading towards redemption. There’s a definite trail of breadcrumbs here, but where it leads is uncertain. I like that.

We got some smart music going on here. I’m a Terence Blanchard fan, so sue me. The opening theme is menacing as well as insinuating. Let’s prime the pump for our ensuing voyage into the belly of the broken beast that is post-9/11 New York. The soundtrack creeps and crawls in and out of the scenes, almost a character unto itself. Sure, sometimes the music gets cranked up to 11 needlessly (barring club scenes and antisocial activities), but overall Blanchard’s score, well, scores the goal of wry grunge that accompanies the movie’s heavy story.

There are some aspects of the story that even Lee couldn’t resist pressing his thumbs into. Like all the small social interactions. It was kind of hard to separate the everyday things from happening anywhere else but New York. Maybe it’s Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve again. I don’t know, but I got the suspicion that a lot of the more intimate dialogue in the movie (e.g.: the excellent bar chat, the strategic humor, etc) could only have happened in the City. Lee’s got a keen ear for New York patois, and it’s adding to the ambience just reinforces the director’s entrenched affinity for his hometown. Call it soft Spike, and it’s a balm to the near relentless stress of the alpha plot. It’s where the humanity comes through, which is the sub-theme of the story proper.

The final act of Hour (save the mirror rant) was considered the most controversial by the general public (as far I know from Twitter feeds). There were the three crucial scenes strung together. First, Monty uncovering who the stooge was and discovers his lost humor and honor in the process; second, the “rescue brawl” between Frank and Monty, and; third, Pop’s montage. All three are intense, and all three fail to wrap up the story. This is a good thing, if not the inevitable.

One last time, the underlying message of Hour is about how the City and its denizens are trying to recover from 9/11. All is uncertain. When Monty finally learns who the stooge is, it doesn’t rectify his impending prison sentence. Sure, he rediscovers a sense of humor about things, and maybe some sense of honor lost along the way, but it don’t get him any closer to regaining a life. It’s a tad obvious if you pay attention.

When Monty begs Frank to beat the stuffing out of him so to appear “hard” to his future inmates (good make-up artist. Blech), how’s that for a direct punch (sorry) about a wounded city? I’d like to think we all have a bit of fight in them like Frank: reluctant but was always brewing. When we are hurt, we want to lash out, swing at ghosts, but it never leads to anything. Only desperation and a feeling of emptiness and futility. Especially so when even after you release it all that’s left is a lingering sense of hurt.

I adored the final montage. It’s the opposite en toto of the mirror scene. Pop’s bittersweet monologue paints a picture of hope to be found within the future; the possibilities that could be in moving forward and getting on with life, even if that life isn’t “yours.” It’s a beautifully etched notion of “life goes on.” And it does, but sometimes painfully and reluctantly.

Downbeat, I know. But Lee’s snapshot does not lend a silver lining. Nor should it. Sometimes his brusque, outspoken, mirror-holding style works wonders, especially for a painfully real illustration of a broken man, broken friendships and a broken city. I guess at the end of the day, Hour tells not only a story of loss but also of possible recovery. Lee’s mirror is still reflecting, but this time out there’s a little grime smeared on its surface. Not unlike the view from Frank’s apartment.

Let’s leave it at that. I’ve already gone on too long with this installment. I think all the bases were covered, and maybe re-covered three times over. Sorry. I guess I did too much navel-gazing dissecting Hour, but there was a lot going on here. The movie was engaging, thought-provoking and more than a little disturbing. And all for the better.

One more thing. It was hard to take apart Hour while being a smartass. I know my trademark snark was all but absent this time out. Too bad.

I didn’t feel the movie deserved it.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Big shocker, there. Despite the heavy atmosphere, Hour had an engaging story, great acting and all the hard-angled, poignant hallmarks of a Spike Lee film. With or without black people.

Stray Observations…

  • “Just curious…”
  • What was with the double shot embrace thing? I mean, I took apart virtually every nut and bolt in Hour, yet this obvious bloop escaped me.
  • “I wanna be that girl in the X-Men.” She’ll be by in the next scene.
  • BTW, Paquin does not look 17.
  • “You got all kinds of nights.”
  • Two phones.
  • “Look out for your field trip.”
  • This film illustrates all the proper scenarios for taking a drink. Some things are a dying art.
  • “You’re not gonna be there tomorrow, and there’s only tomorrow.”
  • There was something about the bathroom scene in the club, besides the obvious Hitchcock element.
  • “The leash is yours.” Enjoy your life.
  • First saw this movie as part of my wife’s Ed Norton binge years ago. He’s her have actor.
  • “Cool dog.”

Next Installment…

We pay a visit to Jeff, Who Lives At Home with his Mom. Still.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 16: Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” (2011)

The Beaver

The Players…

Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence and Riley Stewart.

The Story…

When depression consumes former business magnate Walter Black, it takes a truckload of booze, an unplugged TV and a Dumpster dove beaver puppet to pull him out of the blackness. At last Walter finds a mouthpiece for his troubles via a puppet’s toothy yap. But his estranged family wonders: who’s doing the talking here? Walter or the Beaver? Seems no one can be certain, least of all Walter. But hell, this mutual relationship sure beats excessive sleep and disaffection. Welcome to a new normal. With buck teeth.

The Rant…

Aeons ago RIORI covered Silver Linings Playbook, a good movie that handled a rather prickly subject: bipolar disorder, often dubbed by the laymen and Jimi Hendrix as manic depression. Leading man Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of bipolar was very accurate, and the film cannily handled the day-to-day struggles a guy like that had to deal with just to get on with life. To say that Cooper’s acting conveyed a manic depressive’s storm and stress quite well is akin to suggesting that the Petronas Towers are a kinda tall. And that kind of understatement is not dissimilar to how the gentry often views someone in the grips of a bipolar episode: freakish or not truly sick since you can’t see any Band-Aids. Snap out of it!

Playbook, though entertaining, was at times a difficult watch. Sure, Cooper’s character Pat was going through personal upheaval (he lost his wife, home and job), but that disorder was only made worse by how Pat was treated by both his family and the community. He was regarded as fragile, unstable or just plain nuts. Damaged goods. There was a sharp note of alienation running through the movie, like others would either rile Pat and/or get his crazy all over them like with an exploding can of Coke. And the alienation wasn’t limited to just Pat’s inner turmoil, either.

I’m not an expert—but I’ve seen one on TV—however I believe that despite the trepidation and judgmental attitude polite society has towards individuals suffering from “mild” mental illnesses, they like to rubberneck. They want to see the car wreck. It’s done either out of sheer curiosity, or reassurance in the vein of, “Whoa, sure glad I ain’t that guy!”

But seriously, we all do crazy stuff now and again.

I don’t think the above attitude is too far removed towards celebs like Mel Gibson, what with his infamous car accident and ensuing drunken, anti-Semitic tirade. A literal car wreck this time. The aftermath was Gibson’s Hollywood career shot to sh*t and all the good, Oscar-winning work got tossed in the trash. Some would say rightly so. But this happened almost a decade ago, and other Hollywood types have done and said a lot of shameful things that hurt their careers only to bounce back later on (e.g. Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr and to a lesser degree, Mike Tyson) over a longer span of time. So why does Mel have to wear ashes and sackcloth for this long? I mean, Tyson, a champion boxer, beat up his wife. Then he gets a cameo in The Hangover.

Again, no expert here, but I think it might’ve had something to do with Mel having bipolar disorder. That and him making a very public announcement of it, too.

Yeah, Mad Max has gone on record as being a manic depressive. It might explain a few of his acting roles in the past (hard to believe seeing how well put together Martin Riggs was, not to mention how the cracked Mr Rockatansky carried himself in the face of family tragedy) in addition to his fevered directorial projects. A more cynical view could be taken, merely sniffing at Gibson claiming his illness had a direct effect on his undoing, therefore making him exempt from being such a doosh. Sure, his end run was highly publicized, and if all the media vultures picking at his (alleged) f*cked up psyche did any good I’d be first in line for the lab results (“Good news, Mr Gibson! We can rule out trichinosis!”). But sh*tty behavior is sh*tty behavior, and Mel’s antics have stuck to his career like a barnacle on a mid-19th Century ocean going schooner. And it’s drowned him.

Call me a sympathetic fool—or simply, fool—but I can get beyond such media-inflated bullsh*t. I myself a manic depressive can be vouchsafe in giving a Gibson a small pass. Small, mind you. When I get a manic episode, I’m quick to rile, lash out, scream and yell and verbally attack people who get too close to me. I really blow my stack, then crash like hours after emptying the fifth mug of coffee. It’s a typical scenario for a lot of manic depressives, doubtless Mel got that way, too. So I hear ya, Max. I hear ya.

But having the always objective entertainment news crews coming down on you for your trespasses which may have been the result of a bipolar episode doesn’t make the scene seem very sympathic to the plight of a sick man. Or a narcissist assh*le Hollywood type like Mel Gibson. There have been oodles of cases like Gibson’s; he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. With a chopper in the air and half empty bottle of vodka in his crotch. It’s the car wreck thing again, and boy do we lap it up, chew on it and spit it out as soon as the next celeb kicks over a box of kitties. We love the gory details, seeing our Olympians fall, kick ’em a while and then move on to the next victim. We sit away from the action, totally removed from the context and sit all safe and smug in front of a screen assured that he would never be me. Change the channel.

Another take on Gibson’s case could be one of caution. Let’s face it: mental illness is scary. It’s slippery. It’s not like a broken leg, heart attack or cancer treatment. It’s just under the surface, and anyone could be suffering from a holy host of ailments that are not immediately overt and often simply dismissed as personality flaws. Gibson’s drunken, hateful, incoherent babbling could’ve come from anyone’s mouth. You witness behavior like that and you might tell yourself, with only a whit of self-assurednesss, “sure am glad that I’m not like that! In the immortal words of Wallace “Vinizzi” Shawn, “Incontheebable!”

Truth be told, it most likely is both. Because we’re all a bit dotty in head. Whether it’s pro athletes refusing to change their socks during a winning streak to simply crossing your fingers to ensure positive results, we all do illogical sh*t with absolute assurance daily. When was the last time you checked to see if the refrigerator light really went out after you closed the door? I’ll wait.

*upset to see the last can of Crystal Pepsi was snatched up*

Okay. I guess this is a longwinded rant (what? From me? Naw) about judge not lest thee be sumpin’ or other pass the ammo. All the above codswallop was just a setup to the movie meat, y’know. With this week’s send-up, its virtually impossible to separate the artist from the art. We know Mel pulled a colossal f*ck up with his career, which may or may not have been a direct result from not being properly medicated. But the guy’s been in the movies since the late 70s; it’s what he knows. The notion of purging onscreen and really stretching The Method to clean out his closet must’ve really appealed to Gibson’s fractured state of mind. It might’ve also been considered that director Jodie Foster knows a way about how psychologically abused characters tick based on her CV (e.g.: Taxi Driver, The Accused, The One About Fava Beans And Chianti, etc) and might know a trick or three to make such a screwy premise work. There were most likely miles of cracking knuckles knotted into crossed fingers (you kooks, one and all) to see if this cinematic encounter group might gain traction.

An argument could be made that The Beaver was vicarious group therapy for Mel, as well as a half-ass apology for his multiple incidents of very public douchebaggery. Again, we all do crazy sh*t. Shameful, nasty, stupid crazy sh*t. It’s part of what makes us human. Now utilizing the voyeuristic aspect of watching movies in the dark—say like with a film about a distraught Mel Gibson battling depression with suicidal ideations—perhaps The Beaver was designed, in part, to get the hoi polloi to ask a question about themselves:

“Hey. Could become like Gibson?”

Relax. Deep breaths. There, there.

Looks like you could use a puppet…

Walter Black (Gibson) once had a life. He was loving family man, caring husband and successful businessman. He had the ideal white picket fence existence. Crushing clinical depression took all that away.

Walter’s gone now. The man he once was has disappeared. His family doesn’t recognize him anymore. His employees no longer respect nor understand Walter’s checking out. He’s gotten therapy and the proper medications, but nothing’s working. All he seems to do to cope is sleep. A lot. It’s his only escape. And his chosen escape is cutting himself off from his wife and kids. His ever-patient—some may claim overly patient—wife Meredith (Foster) eventually has her fill of her moping, disaffected husband and shows him the door. His sickness is hurting the whole family, and as an act of preservation she gives Walter the boot in hopes he’ll return with his sh*t together someday.

That someday happens right quick. Not long after his eviction, Walter decides to end it all. But not before a cocktail! Many cocktails. Like a box of vodka cocktail. He clears out the trunk of his car to make room for that evening’s going away present and chuck any crap into a Dumpster. Inside the bin he finds a curious thing: a dingy beaver hand puppet. Without thinking about it too much, he scoops up the puppet, puts it on and drives off to oblivion in the form of a cheap motel room with basic cable. Don’t forget the booze.

It might’ve been the vodka mixing with his pills. I might’ve been Walter was so distraught at losing all sense of self. It might’ve been the eventual botched suicide attempt. Hell, it might’ve been the bonk on the head when the TV fell over on him. Whatever the reason, when Walter wakes from his stupor, the puppet is talking to him. To him. The Beaver. And what the Beaver has to say to Walter makes some good sense.

So Walter wants to escape his funk, reconnect with his family and get his business back on its feet? The Beaver tells him that what’s been working has not been working and some drastic changes are in order. You have a wife, kids and employees to connect with, and your voice has been muted by your blackness, Black. So why not let the Beaver speak for Walter, get across all his concerns and fears and maybe be a mouthpiece simply to voice…Walter’s voice. His true, long lost voice. So crazy it just might work; nothing else has.

“Whaddya say, sport…?”

It’s of public record that Mel Gibson is mentally ill—bipolar disorder, to be specific—which may or may not excuse his very public acts of antisocial behavior over the past few years. While watching The Beaver it is virtually impossible to separate Gibson’s f*ck-ups and the f*cked-up-ness of Walter Black’s turbid life. One could make a very valid argument that The Beaver was made as an apology from Gibson for his bad behavior. Also, his performance as Walter/Beaver might also be construed as an attempt towards recovery. Public therapy, if you will. Illustrate to the curious rubberneckers that, hey, I f*cked up. I’m f*cked up. And it looks like this.

That being said, maintaining objectivity watching The Beaver—separating the actor from the role—is a Herculean task. This movie dropped not longer after Mel’s failing to play well with others, and the whole show is shrouded by this turn of events. This was the major grumble surrounding this flick. At first glance, The Beaver could rightly be seen as an obvious cover/exposé towards Gibson’s troubles made manifest in cinemas around the country. I however think that this mass exercise in schadenfreude reflected audiences’ already wobbly notions about mental illness. There’s this irrational—one may say crazy—fear that mental illness is contagious, like the flu. You don’t wanna get any of that on ya. Yet folks still slow down to see the car wreck. So how much of The Beaver‘s maligned rep was based on it being a lackluster film, Mel’s open letter to America or very small bamboo shoots under well-heeled American fingernails?

Not sure. But keep in mind: The Beaver is a movie first.

All right. Had to get that out there. Thanks for your patience. Now…

Once you’ve shaken away the cobwebs and unpopped kernels from your skull (there you go), we can get to the meat of the matter: The Beaver as film. I gotta say, after 70-plus installments here at RIORI, and good chunk of them comedies, The Beaver is far and away the darkest comedy I’ve ever reported on. It’s black comedy, almost charcoal. C’mon, when the opening montage is a harrowing day-to-day take on the misfirings of a clinical depressive ending in two botched suicide attempts only to have Bucky Beaver as newly appointed life coach, you understand where the writer wanted to take you. And it only gets more bizarre from there on out.

Now I’ll admit my mindset going about watching this pastiche was not unlike the unwashed masses’. I’m a fan of the Mad Max movies, and the first two Lethal Weapon installments were a lot of goofy fun. And let’s not forget the epic Braveheart, best pic for 1995 (Oscars matter for some, but not me really. Minus the statue, Braveheart is a kick-ass film, so much so it inspired Scotland in earning its independence. Really). But I was also curious to see how Gibson was going to pick up the shattered fragments of his career. I wasn’t anticipating him to screw the pooch; he’d done that well enough in real life. I wanted to see how post-assh*le Gibson carried a new movie.

He did it quite well.

The Beaver might’ve been released a little too soon for a public image, but it was rather canny on Gibson’s part to tackle this kind of role with his rep still mired in a swamp of bad publicity. Doubtless this was still weighing on the audiences’ collective minds, too. Regardless, Gibson’s acting prowess has never been better. Unquestionably for his Walter, Mel had a very deep well to dip from. Of course he was drawing from recent events, but in the film his actions and executions are never so blunt. You can actually drum up sympathy for a charter portrayed by an (alleged) anti-Semite. And you don’t feel dirty for it. I know, it takes a compassionate, empathetic mind to go with that. I have my bias. I fessed up back in the Silver Linings Playbook installment that I have bipolar disorder, so I guess I already have the proper frame of mind ready to watch and understand a movie like The Beaver.

Going with the car wreck analogy, watching Walter fumble through the film with a goddam plushie on his arm—the voice of reason, no less—demands attention. It’s so damned weird you can’t help but watch, and I ain’t talking about just the movie, either. I’d like to believe that some aspect of The Beaver’s appeal stems from the audience just waiting for Mel to crack up again. I know I did. And how ludicrous is that anyway? The whole thing is scripted and directed to make Walter walk the plank, not William Wallace. It’s kind of like with the movie Apollo 13; you know the astronauts get home safely, but the film is cut in such a way that you can’t help suspend your beliefs.

The Beaver works on that level, too, but in reverse. We know Mel’s f*cked up aboveboard. We don’t know Walter’s ultimate fate. You gotta believe that director Foster (who did a pretty good job all things considered) used Mel’s scrapes to push the story along. It might have been a little too deliberate, and any allusion comes across with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon (yes, a Gallagher reference. If you can think of a better metaphor call my agent. Just let me get one first). Still, couched in Gibson’s performance, and not necessarily his public fallout, The Beaver manages to hold its own pretty well. The whole damn thing would tear apart at the seams without Mel and his furry alter-ego riding point. Thanks to his conviction, The Beaver could either be extremely belittling to depressive or complete, f*cking genius.

Enough woolgathering. Let’s screw the nuts and bolts together. Big surprise but this is yet another character study, then again not really. Kinda hard to spin a tale about someone suffering from depression without examining their character. And boy is Walter a character. But not really. The first act establishes Walter’s predicament, and briskly rolls along into his new role, or what looks like his new psychosis. We see the Beaver as the “new Walter,” but really it’s the old Walter with a fresh coat of paint. We’re led to believe that the Beaver represents Walter’s true inner psyche, but since we’re given very little backstory (by the Beaver, no less) about Walter’s downward spiral, all we know is the Beaver outright. We have a character playing a character playing a character. But despite all this circular illogic, Gibson’s acting has never been better. Sure, post-puppet he doesn’t play like a depressive. Instead Walter seems to manifesting a split personality. But that personality is vibrant, funny and compelling. Scary even. And Gibson spins it with equal parts humanity, vulnerability and enough verve to make the hardened racist-Mel hater allow pause.


Again, a lot Walter’s plight is too deliberate. Mel might be good, but he only makes the best of what he’s given. Now keep in mind his backstory against the movie, which might raised a cocked brow as to the sincerity of his acting proper; The Beaver could be viewed as Mel’s public apology, or possibly the best mental illness PSA ever cut (e.g.: the Today show scene). With that there’s a lot of opportunities for obvious symbolism cloaked in being clever. There’s lot of pushing the issues beyond Walter’s coping mechanism. His failing marriage, his checking out as a dad and his crumbling toy empire. There are waaay to many touchés; too many internal barbs poking at Walter’s past failings. Twisting the dagger, downplaying Walter’s issues. All of these points in the storyline have this before-and-after dynamic between scenes so you get kind of a multiple “icebox moments” (the whole kitchen table/ TV scene is a good example). It’s a lot of subtle hand-holding, like director Foster had an overly sensitive grasp on the story. As if the audience either needed training wheels to be made aware how tenuous Walter’s grip is on his “new life” with his family. It’s a little insulting.

And to use the term “insulting” regarding Foster’s steady hand is mildly fitting and a bit confusing. Inappropriate even. Foster’s not ignorant of how to shoot a film about “a mind out of joint.” Her directorial debut was a small film called Little Man Tate. Maybe you’ve seen it. In the film Foster portrayed a single mom whose son was a prodigy. You know the kind. Accelerated in school yet still a boy with all the growing up issues that bookend that. Brains before maturity and all it offers of denies.

The Beaver is the other side of the fence. Chemically imbalanced rather than advanced intellectually. Yeah, we know the general public is fascinated with genius, as much they are repelled by emotional problems. Tate was thoughtful, sober and had more than a few warm fuzzes. The Beaver by contrast is nettlesome (look it up; I’m running low on adjectives), and its sparse warmth is hard-won and fragile. It’s like Foster wanted it both ways here; sweet and sour. Too bad The Beaver is more the latter than the former. The whole kid gloves thing.

Beyond Foster’s unaware prejudice, what I personally found engaging about The Beaver was its spin on the whole “crazy is contagious” undercurrent. Here the prejudice was put to good use, as far as driving the plot. To me, the star of the show was Anton Yelchin’s Porter. Him keeping tabs on his dad’s crazy, logging all his issues and making damn sure not to go down that route. And all the time banging his head against a wall. Literally. Across the span of 90 minutes, we watch Porter categorically dismiss his nutty father, yet himself manifest symptoms (beyond the head banging sans a Quiet Riot soundtrack) of bipolar disorder. The clipped speech, the lashing out, making impulsive decisions, rapid cycling. And the whole head banging thing. Did I mention that? Such behavior echoes the whole “sins of the father” dynamic. Curiously enough, it’s the one piece of symbolism in The Beaver that isn’t written out for the audience since it crawls across the duration of the movie.

What makes this parallel work is thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s character Norah, the supposed unattainable girl. Over the course of the story, another parallel’s established. In contrast to Walter and Meredith’s fragile and frigid marriage, Porter and Norah’s relationship (although platonic at first) possessed the emotional give-and-take that has been so lacking in the former. There’s genuine warmth here, doubtless due to Lawrence’s magnetism as an actor. To use a cliche, Norah brings out the best in Porter, which he naturally botches due to his implied antisocial tendencies. And BTW, doesn’t “porter” mean “carrier?” Like he’s got the potential crazy gene just under the surface?

So it’s implied there’s a yin/yang analogy between Walter and Porter. Unlike Porter and Norah’s burgeoning relationship—and this movie’s all about relationships, warped as they may get. A beaver puppet gaffer-taped to Mel Gibson’s arm being the most obvious—what Walter and Meredith has is a very strained couplehood. The troubles are only magnified by the obvious fact that Gibson and Foster have weak chemistry. On a technical side, it feels like Foster would rather be behind the camera for The Beaver. For a good portion of the movie, her Meredith’s renewing relationship with Walter gets sidelined for Porter’s sub story, which is a tad more palatable than their struggling to pick up the pieces. That line, “Black, party of two” speaks volumes.

Even though I’ve given The Beaver an overall positive (though sterile) review, it’s the final act of the show I took a real issue with. We go down the rabbit hole. Hard. This might’ve been the stuff that sent the movie straight into the pooper and out unclean for Standard material.

After 75 minutes of depression, displacement, mania and wounded family disfunction, we get fed just plain bizarre. What I alluded to earlier comes to the fore here. Jarring questions slap the audiences’ brainpan. Is Walter merely depressed? Does he have some sort of personality displacement? Or is he REDACTED? The fallout is disturbing and clubs us over the head so suddenly, so strangely we are left to question that was what we saw what we saw? The heavy-handed humor about mental illness we got served gets clipped off so sharply it went against the whole message of the movie, convoluted that it ended up becoming. This was the only real pooch-screw in an otherwise compelling and at times enjoyable movie. I’d like to say more, but my dislike of spoilers means REDACTED Deal.

I think I’ll cut it off here. I’ve already chewed The Beaver into wood chips at a metaphysical level to death. Just two more things about how polite America may or may have not chewed on The Beaver, so to speak.

It’s no surprise that the masses did not “get” nor wanted to “get” this movie. The screed from AllMovie was less than charitable and might’ve been viewed to reinforce the insensitivity the nation has towards people suffering from “issues.” Read it. I refer to that site all the time when considering weighing opinions. I found it cold, harsh and had nary a whit of anything remotely positive regarding The Beaver. They gave it two stars out of five. What’s curious is that the personal reviews’ accumulated points earned the movie three-and-half. This could be the car wreck theory in action, but I don’t know.

Second, if all my bullish*t sounds like some reactionary defense of Mel Gibson, it’s not. C’mon. Drunk driving? Racist epithets? I may be liberal in thought and action, but even I have limits (a few, but some). In the final analysis, manic depression or not, Mel was behaving like yet another over-privileged, ego-driven, Hollywood shill who felt that the rules didn’t blah blah blah. Whatever. I’m in no place to judge. Mel’s really not up the cross.

He just filmed it.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. There’s half a good (however flawed) movie here. The other half—and don’t take my word for it this time here—is a rather interesting way of cleaning out one’s closet. Now let it go and watch The Road Warrior again for Mel wreaking some real damage.

Stray Observations…

  • “She got me out of the Dumpster.”
  • Cute metaphor with the leak. Empty pillow, absent wife, house going to sh*t. Okay, sometimes the obvious crap works.
  • “It’s very big in Sweden.”
  • It’s oddly comforting to hear the grumbling of Max Rockatansky again, even if he’s all fuzzy.
  • “I’ve been doing yoga…”
  • Didja notice the bit wid’ da insulation, mate?
  • “I don’t want to celebrate 20 years of marriage with a puppet.” Not outside the bedroom anyway. Zing!
  • Walter? Walker? Mad Max allusion? The most lightweight installment of the original series? Right, I’m reaching.
  • “People seem to love a train wreck…when it’s not happening to them.”

Next Installment…

Edward Norton has one more day before hard time beckons at the 25th Hour.