RIORI Vol 3, Installment 48: Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” (2005)


The Players…

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson (no relation) and William H Macy, with Glynn Turman and Delroy Lindo.

The Story…

While investigating the history of a lost Civil War treasure ship in Egypt, adventurer Dirk Pitt stumbles upon an epidemic that’s contaminating the water table. And the story goes ever deeper, with evil industrialists, power hungry warlords and even the desert itself hell-bent on keeping Pitt from his quarry and stemming the epidemic.

Just yer typical day at NUMA.

The Rant…

When I was li’l kid, VCRs were a big deal.

In the early to mid 80s these miraculous home video watching gizmos were (finally) sold at reasonable prices. A decent machine could set you back $400 in 80s dollars. Not everyone in your neighborhood to afford one though, despite all the video rentals popping up everywhere. There were videos a-plenty to be rented at Blockbuster, The Wall, Hollywood Video, your local supermarket, the veterinarian, Neptune, etc. But of course you still had to have the damned player. What to do? What to do?

One could rent a unit for an unreasonable price in questionable condition for maybe 24 hours. More if you were sly enough to rent one when Daylight Savings ended. But that was a crapshoot with an emphasis on crap. Back in the Stone Age my dad rented a machine and a bunch of flicks to watch for my tenth birthday party. I’ll spare you the details. My dad got the overheated thingamabob to work with a hack akin to jamming a matchbook in your car’s tape deck (and if that analogy doesn’t date me, no girl ever will). Not long after that we got our own VHS. Better safe and alla dat.

Another popular remedy for the video deprived was a neighborhood viewing party. The folks who had the VCR would invite friends over with a selection of rented tapes. Votes were taken, snacks were eaten, and a consensus was reached on to watch that night. Democracy in action. Warms your heart to be in these United States. Amen.

*Where the f*ck is he going with this? I swore I saw Penelope Cruz’ name up there. Get to it.*

Getting to it. It was at one of these particular parties that I first caught Raiders Of The Lost Ark. My buddies’ folks got a fresh machine and they invited my ‘rents, my sisters and me to hunker down in front of the boob tube for a night’s insanity. First time I got see Indy in action. The whip. The hat. The snakes. Boy howdy.

I didn’t get it.

Settle down. I was ten. I mean, I had a vague idea of what was going on well before the Nazis’ faces melted like chocolate bunnies in a blast furnace. I mostly wondered what Han Solo was up to in the desert there. The guy who made the film—Spiel-something. Maybe you’ve heard of him—did that flick I saw with the boy and his pet alien which I found funny and also made me fall in love with Drew Barrymore. I was six. Don’t judge me.

Anywho, that big rock thing was cool. The rest of Raiders failed me. I was ten then. I had bigger concerns regarding where’d I’d score more Nerds candy and when the local pool would open for the summer. Them Lego models ain’t gonna build themselves, neither.

So I saw it, mostly just to know I saw it. Bucket list entry number jillion in the can. But just because I didn’t “get” Raiders didn’t mean I didn’t dig it. Well, not in the traditional way. Either due to the ragtag video/audio quality of the movie, I got it into my sugar-deprived, pre-puber skull that action movies should look like this. I don’t mean how Raiders looked. I mean the aesthetic. Adventure movies should look grainy, ragtag and knockabout. It enhanced the rough-and-ready flavor of Raiders for me. I may not have gotten the movie, but I did like what I saw. Melting Nazis and all.

I guess it’s hindered my views on adventure flicks over the past three decades. I could’ve gotten behind a lot more films like Raiders if I wasn’t looking through a cracked TV screen. I have, but the weird bite I got from Indy’s first cinematic adventure (or The Thief Of Baghdad, or the live-action The Jungle Book, or the original Clash Of The Titans) left an indelible mark on my movie mind. Adventure movies should be scruffy, ramshackle, unpretentious and devoid of anything slick. They should be all about gee whiz bucky gizmo splash and dash and flair. No sweetening. Never sweetening. Never shine the corners. Keep it grubby. Make it earthy, chewy even. Indiana Jones was filthy and sweaty for the better part of Raiders (so was Marion if you thing about it). I liked the grime. Sure, the action was cool even if the plot eluded my juvenile mind, but I thought the whiz-bang was better for the quality of the video, audio and (now understood to be) DIY special effects.

Ain’t nostalgia great? And I never got beat up by bullies and had my GoBots stolen. Weep.

Keeping my palsied view on how adventure films should look and feel, I’ve kept my eyes out for some glints from the sun, regardless of when a film was released. Trying to combat my myopia I guess. Beyond that ten-year-old-kiddie bias I still am a sucker for silly swashbuckling. At heart, who isn’t that loves movies?

That being said, no surprise here that during my movie sifting, Raiders kindred spirit Sahara caught my attention. Story sounded cool. Exotic locations. 12st Century swashbuckling. Hell, Matt McConaughey starring as an action hero? With Steve Zahn no less as his derring-do sidekick no less (I’m as shocked as you are)? Into the queue with you, Sahara.

Did the flick match up with the hazy, grainy memory of yours truly’s rough-and-ready ideals?

Definitely sorta…

The Natural Underwater &  Marine Agency (or NAMBLA. Sorry, couldn’t resist), better known as NUMA, is the authority concerning undersea excavation for lost treasures and edifices from ancient civilizations. Underwater archaeologists is a simpler and more apt title for their elite crew. And the most elite—and most driven—diver is Dirk Pitt (McConaughey). Sure, uncovering lost history on the ocean floor is wonderful for science and scholars, but at heart Pitt is a treasure hunter, a modern day pirate. But instead of stealing elicit booty it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives him. It’s that rush that’s taken him and his NUMA crew to the Sahara in search of a lost treasure ship. The CSS Texas, a Civil War Confederate ironclad that disappeared from the historical record 130 years ago. As well as the planet.

Wait a minute. Ironclads weren’t designed for ocean-going travel. And to Africa no less? What’s up with that?

There’s the mystery. The Texas was laden with thousands of dollars in gold coinage, ostensibly minted to “fund” the CSA’s desperate armed forces. Locating such a score is too much for Pitt to resist, no matter how cockamamie the historical record is. There’s a lost ship packed to the gunwales with gold out there in the Sahara, and by God Pitt and the NUMA crew are going to find it!

It’s never that easy.

World Health Organization (not NAMBLA) Dr Eva Rojas (Cruz) has more pressing matters on her mind. Bigger than lost gold. A terrible plague has been ripping through Mali, leaving its victims blind, crazed and ultimately dead. She and her associate Dr Frank Hopper (Turman) suspect something more sinister is afoot with this epidemic. It’s spread too fast, too sudden to be considered a natural phenomenon. Rojas decides it’s necessary to travel deeper into Mali to better assess the damage. But Mali is war-torn, thanks to the charismatic and psychotic Major Kazim (James) who appears to have some personal stakes in keeping this plague—and any potential treatment—off any record.

When Dr Rojas digs a little too deeply Kazim’s thugs aim to take her out. Only by happenstance NUMA and Pitt come to her rescue. Eva finds herself on NUMA’s flagship and welcomed aboard by Pitt’s goofball aide-de-camp Algiers “Al” Giordano (Zahn). She explains her strange circumstances and Al figures that maybe his best bud Dirk and him might be able to lend a hand. Hell, they were going upriver anyway. Traveling into dangerous, fractured Mali to find a cure for a plague? No sweat.

So long as they find some lost treasure along the way…

Right here’s a prime example why RIORI exists. Sahara was too big to fail, and yet it did. Financially, if not with the fun factor. It has nothing really to do with gaging the movie’s quality, but it did pique my interest. Here’s the numbers.

If we recall The Standard, any clunky movie that hovers into my view might have a poor (but not necessarily awful) box office turnout. Sahara did indeed fit the bill under that criterion. But here’s the weird thing—maybe another telling thing about Hollyweird’s ever-increasing sense of overblown entitlement to more money for less art, and f*ck you general public—by the numbers the movie did do well at the theaters. At least on the surface.

In 2005, Sahara opened at number one at the box office. Good for the cast and crew. Opening weekend yielded almost $20 million. Again, not bad. The overall takeaway when the sun set was approximately $120 million. Impressive. Where’s the whole “sh*tty turnout” argument? That big buck-twenty is a lot of cheddar. ‘Splain dat away, Mr Smartass Movie Guy!

This is where that damned devil math comes in. Despite Sahara faring pretty well here and abroad, its gargantuan budget of $130 million for production and over $80 million in distribution expenses the film barely recouped half of its original budget. Sahara lost about $105 million at the end of the day, and contested by various accounting firms as to what the ultimate fallout was. I think there was even some government oversight committee slapped together to get to the financial bottom as to what’s up with certain big-budget flicks’ production waltzing with box office failure.

You can at least credit Sahara for originality in that regard.

Okay. Back to me being judgmental and vicious.

Sahara did offer the epic sweep of a globetrotting adventure movie, replete with intrigue, action, cool toys, a dashing hero, a Costello to his Abbott, and a nasty villain we love to hate. All necessary things, BTW (and having Cruz aboard didn’t hurt none, neither). However, it wasn’t terribly original. But what the hell? Sure, treasure hunt movies are not a new thing. Hell, all of the Indiana Jones movies were about our titular archaeologist pursuing some ancient, valuable trinket, gewgaw and/or dangerous religious doohickey. Well worn ground here. Even Dirk Pitt’s alter ego, adventure writer Clive Cussler might be pointed out in a line up for being a fart away from Ian Fleming. And I ain’t talking in the Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang sense. He wrote the source material, by the way. Not Fleming. Focus, people.

So yeah, Sahara didn’t score any points in the originality department. There are only so many ways you can toss that pizza, really. It was fun, though. Kinda. Watching it I wasn’t actively thinking about Indy, nor my antediluvian VHS days either. In all honestly it was hard to do either, but more on that later. It’s that dang “kinda” qualifier that plagued my viewing experience. I wanted to get into Sahara, but I found it a challenge to get and/or keep engaged in the movie. Let alone follow the complicated, if not byzantine plot. Plots.

I coined a phrase in my noggin watching Sahara, mindful of my criteria regarding adventure movies (including the grainy, rough-and-ready stuff): the flick had a certain flair, sorta there. It wasn’t like Sahara was trying hard to be Indy turf or a Roger Moore-era 007 experience (yes, I said Moore and not Connery. Ever see The Man With The Golden Gun? Boom). In fact it moved along pretty nicely, thank you.

Just not consistently.

That’s a big uh-oh considering adventure movies. Sahara felt, well, constipated. Struggling under its own weight. Other adventure films have a pretty straight line to follow. A to B quest, and whatever hijinks ensue to give it some necessary flair. Again with Raiders (let’s just use that as our yardstick. Not sure if a lot of you ever caught Alan Quartermain serials), Indy and Marion are off to find the Ark. There was no real need for her bar burning down. Nor Indy slugging it out with the bruiser under the flying wing. There’s a school of thought that suggests even Indy himself wasn’t essential to the plot (but who else could deliver those high decibel, meaty punches?). But they added spice—flair—to an otherwise pretty run-of-the-mill actioner.

Sahara has some of that flair (the opening scenes, Eva stuck in the well, the raid on the solar farm, Dirk and Al jerryrigging that “skiff”) but due to sluggish pacing in fits and starts—including the chase scenes, of which there are many—it gets all bogged down. A lull in the breeze whispers at the corners, and a lot of that is straying from the tried-and-true and definitely unoriginal formula of decent adventure films: following that straight line.

Sahara‘s plotting is rather convoluted. I mean it’s easy to follow where the story is going, but there are so many jerks and jabs it’s akin to watching a UFC match on Valium. That looked cool. What was it? Whatever. Pass the Doritos.

The waters got rather muddied with Sahara. I think I’m not making much sense here, getting to the very nubbin of truth, but the whole plot was schizo. Sahara‘s promises of straight action and adventure got dashed with the “evil corporation” story. I mean the “ravaging warlord” story. No, it was the whole “Civil War legend/river-runs” story that popped up in and out of the main plot proper (if there really was one). It was all tad tricky to follow. Sahara didn’t have a throughput. It had a chess match. With camels. That much I was certain. There were camels. And that nebbish from The Office, too.

I’m also not sure if the heavy, micro-managed story sunk a lot of Sahara‘s flair and fun. Like I said, those things were there. But under the weight of the story’s delivery, a lot of the verve and urgeny got lost in the mix. Most of the humor fell flat, as well as being too broad. Our cast, although competent if not likable, felt held back (save Zahn, who’s a great character actor. Too bad he doesn’t catch a lot of work. He’s hilarious). If director Eisner was aiming for a 21st Century Raiders feel, he did it with a muted style. Some flair, sorta there. Blame the scenarists.

What I’m getting at is that Sahara was somewhat low-key for a supposedly rowdy action/adventure. I think think I know why, too. Boink, big surprise. The ostensible alpha plot of Pitt and Co searching for the lost treasure ship swiftly gets sidelined by the beta plot about the plague. With that, the whole adventure film feel slips into a socio-politco-eco meditation Trojan Horsed onto my TV. If an action flick has a message, it shouldn’t be overt. Gets in the way of the explosions, distressed damsels and dancing tigers on angel dust. The plot got convoluted, the treasure hunt thing got backburner’d and my attention drifted too often.

You get what I’m screaming now? If my childhood standard of how adventure films should look, sound and especially feel then Sahara grew not rough and tumble enough. It came across as ultimately overwrought and overproduced, like when George Lucas would not. Quit. F*cking around with the original Star Wars trilogy. That’s another thing. Sahara‘s big budget execution left nary a whit of character. All that cash made damn sure that all the bells and whistles were in full blare as the kitchen sink got tossed out the window and hopefully stuck. Sahara tried to have its cake. Tried to make too much sense. A lot of the adventure stuff got lost with the many diverging and converging plot threads, too much exposition, simultaneous languid and ADHD pacing (with the precious few scenes of serious action) and trying to convey a message, before God. In that vein, too much expo kills an action movie. It’s called an action movie, remember? Shut up and dance, already.

Where was the scruffiness? The feeling of adventure? The underlying lo-fi ethos that didn’t rely on CGI? The quirks and jokes and plausible denial that, yeah, Indy can cling to that sub’s conning tower all the way across the Mediterranean? It was there once and a while (and what was there was great), but the output was dizzying, and not it a whip-cracking kind of way. All the cool sh*t got hampered by the stuff I just mentioned. All of Sahara‘s clean and dense delivery didn’t leave a lot of room for unnecessary bits like shooting the swordsman to expedite matters. Hey, we all cross the median once in a while.

In other words, Sahara lacked charm. With all the potential, where was the charm here? Sahara didn’t have much, if any, that’s what. It lacked spark. It didn’t have that homespun quality that I enjoy, if not expect in adventure movies. Sahara was excessive, overly laden with expo and a rather heavy-handed message. It was too long, or at least felt that way. Too many intertwining plot threads. Too complex for your average, workaday adventure flick. Too much time demanding audiences to think. Death at the box office there. Sahara could’ve been so much more, if only it used less.

I’ll reel it back. Sahara had its fair share of obvious bright points. On the good side, Sahara‘s casting was impeccable. C’mon. Raiders had a super cast, from Ford to Black to Elliot for Pete’s sake. Despite the swamp our heroes had to muck through, at least Eisner knew how to assemble a great adventuring cast. I feel it was the best part of the movie.

Matt (I’ll refer to him as that because I have a bitch of a time spelling McConaughey) was a damn good maverick hero. He sure seemed to like being Dirk Pitt (even though his delivery was a lot like Wooderson only with money and a boat. Still trying to score that almost out-of-reach opportunity. All right, all right, all right). Matt’s glee was infectious, and a far cry from his more “serious” roles as of late. You couldn’t wait to hang out with this Dirk guy, either across the ocean or at your neighborhood cookout. Matt was cocky without being a doosh. He was sharp in a MacGuyver sense. He played the whole leading man/rogue thing to the hilt. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Now Steve Zahn’s Al was a stitch. The guy’s come a long way since Caroline In The City. Right, he’s supposed to be Pitt’s best bud and sidekick. Zahn’s Al is played like an even balance between clueless and the man behind the curtain. Batman couldn’t truly be Batman without trusty Robin. Or Bucky Barnes. Even Clifford the big, red dog. Zahn got all the best lines, and toed the line between dolt and savant equally well. Who knew how vital the right ballcap could be in social interactions?

Cruz, despite being the implied lady in need of a hero, held herself well. Both with character and devotion to the cause (message) without overplaying her hand. Maybe like you, I got acquainted with Cruz via psychodrama Vanilla Sky or the hard-edged Blow. The woman could never carry a movie, but pair her with the right actors? Box office gold. She’s a very good supporting actress, protean in all her roles. Her Eva is no different. If you consider it, she is the impetus that gets Sahara off and running, not some lost Confederate gold. Despite the pregnant plot, Cruz’ Rojas was the most effervescent element to keep the movie afloat despite its own weight.

So needless to say, I loved Sahara‘s cast. Macy was fun. James was menacing. Lambert was slime. Wilson was the resident dork. Despite all the hallmarks of a straight ahead adventure film getting hot and heavy with Sahara, Eisner sure was a whiz when it came to working his chess board. It kept the film on track—albeit against the sandy grain of the story—which in turn allowed that vital flair now and again. Gave me enough hope to keep watching the thing.

It’s that kind of smarts that made Sahara so disappointing to me. I had to watch the movie twice (never a good sign) to both “get” the plot and see if I missed any flashes in the pan. I did and I didn’t. Overall, neglecting my myopic view regarding watching adventure flicks via sh*tty magnetic tape equating quality, Sahara was a good, bloated, overreaching flick with a great cast and a plot as thick as molasses in January with too big a budget to demand urgency. Like I said, schizo. Frustrating.

So thank you. This installment was brought to you courtesy of a little smear of Vaseline on the lens of memory. VHS sucks on toast against DVDs, Blu-Rays, YouTube feeds and bedeviled childhood wonder. Be kind, rewind.

*whip crack*

“I am so tired of being shot at!”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Sahara tried hard to be fun. But it tried. Half the time it was fun, then that pesky plot kept rearing its head. Mind the mixture. It’s good it fits and starts, but then that’s what I’ve heard about smack. Party at the Moon Tower then.

Stray Observations…

  • “Hey, my dad collects coins.”
  • I do love the 70s soundtrack.
  • That was the silliest chase scene ever.
  • That whole “Dirk Pitt Adventure” tag in the opening credits: was Sahara supposed to launch a franchise? For those not paying attention, it didn’t.
  • “You should put the money to better use…”
  • Breck? Isn’t that a kind of shampoo?
  • “I have some bad news about your boat…”
  • “Nobody cares about Africa!” All too true.
  • I gotta admit, the improvised windjammer scene made me smile.
  • “I’ll get the bomb. You get the girl.” “Deal.” Go! Team! Venture!
  • “Hi! How are ya?”

Next Installment…

You can’t keep anything quiet in a small down, be it an affair, a crime or an insistent need to abscond with millions of dollars to get the f*ck out of said small town. The Ice Harvest is on deck, folks. I’ll think of a more clever tagline the next time out. Peace and chicken grease, bitches.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 47: Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)


The Players…

Annette Bening, Juilianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowaska and Josh Hutcherson.

The Story…

Joni and Laser (Laser?) are the children of same-sex parents Nic and Jules. Their home is a happy one. But the kids become curious about their sperm-donor dad, so they set out to make him part of their family unit.

His arrival…complicates things. Well beyond remembering to put the toilet seat down.

The Rant…

We all have prejudices. We all have families. I think one precedes the other.

For the first, we all are biased in some way towards (or against) some school of thought. Whether it be fave baseball teams, certain writers, vanilla or chocolate. Hell, even who your favorite Beatle was (mine’s George, the quiet one. Ironic?). I’ve also heard such could be said about movies, but I ain’t buying.

Folks still get in a twist over race relations and same-sex marriages and all the baggage that entails. People still get all antsy and agitated over differences in skin color and who should bump uglies with whom. Even if you’re the most left-leaning lefty this side of viewing Caitlin Jenner as a feminist icon, admit it, you like and hate things for no logical reason. Yankee of Red Sock? Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? Uh, vanilla or chocolate? We all have our favorites, and some based on not considering an alternative important—if not vital—in making an educated decision.

Yeah, including me. Surprise, surprise yours truly’s got issues too when it comes to this over that. Like I said we all do. I’m not talking literally rent it or relent it either. I’ve got scads of issues with both pop culture and human nature alike based only on emotion, opinion and nary a whit of logic to be found. Son in the spirit of an open forum—which blogs are ostensibly supposed to be, regardless of annoying ads in the margins—I’ll spill so you can feel self-satisfied, safe in the belief that you never notice skin color, two guys kissing is sweet, Jews and Muslims can play a pick-up game of basketball on a Friday and all of the Fab Four were equally talented. You know all this because you crank “Honey Pie” up to eleven every time you’re going for a drive, much to the protests of your passengers.

You, and I, are full of sh*t. Let’s get that out in the air, shall we?

Like the wise folks of Avenue Q sang, everyone’s a little bit racist. Me? I get anxious around people not of my race in fear of blurting out something offensive and getting a beat down. Same for people of differing religious views (thought I think most Christians would quickly heed the lesson of Jesus about turning the other cheek, but this is ‘Murica, after all). I don’t believe in organized religion, and even that could get me into a scrape. By me now saying that the Boston Red Sox are my favorite MLB franchise runs the risk of every Yankee fan out there possibly rescinding their feed to RIORI. Social faux pas abound. And future beat downs.

I’m no saint; I got issues. Hell, I got the goddam lifetime subscription. But for all my social flaws and backwards views on society and the human factor at large, I know I’m not a homophobe. For real. Never gave it a second thought about who wants to shack up with whom. Even in high school I figured if I caught one guy kissing another it meant two more chicks for me. That way of thinking explains my relative indifference to same-sex marriages becoming legal in these our United States. On a personal level? Couldn’t give a f*ck. It was going to happen anyway. It’s all nice and good that same-sex couples could come out of the closet and profess their love and commitment to one another without moronic Bible beaters screaming hellfire and sin. By the way, the Good Book has maybe three admonishments against homosexuality and hundreds of admonishments against straight people. Just sayin’.

So besides some relevant political flap to make Congress cringe—millions of dollars in tax breaks for thousands of newly married couples in a tidewater surge. Guess the upgrade on the Capital’s snack bar is gonna have to wait—I do not care who f*cks whom. And for the record to any of you gay-bashers out there, your humble host has a wife, a daughter and a step-daughter. He has had nothing but female companionship in bed. In high school two of my good friends—a boy and a girl—were gay. Didn’t matter to me. My male bud was one of the first up us pimple cases to have Internet access. Of course we looked up porn. We were teenagers. We took turns between sites. I made the popcorn. I even crashed at his place on multiple weekends. And no, nothing every happened, except maybe too much Natty Ice, Paul Simon and Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Christ that stuff was addictive. So was the beer. Rhythm Of The Saints not so much. The closest thing I ever got to homophobia was when Bob Mould stepped out of the closet. I was surprised, then I flipped the record to side B.

There’s nothing wrong with being gay and you know it. Same-sex couples make a lot of sense when you think about it. Guys understand guys. Girls understand girls. When the opposites mix we get wine coolers, Dr Phil and Coldplay. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Pass the Zima.

On the second thing, even before we make up our muddled minds over what’s greener we gotta have some yutz sow the seeds. That’s when it begins. Mom and Dad. You got to have a foundation. Most of the time it works. The ‘rents do their best to instill concepts of social justice, morals and decent musical tastes into your mind from the outset. Then again there are kids in expansive Polaroids wearing hunting gear emblazoned with more American flag patches than your average Rear Admiral haunched over a fresh kill, usually a buck with the Star of David spray painted on his flank. That kid is three.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Please don’t beat me up.

But it’s true. Moms and Dads everywhere on the planet mould their kids minds and hearts, for good or for ill. No surprise there at all. Then again there that whole “nature vs nurture” argument that’s been raging since one of our ancestor kids asked, “Where did I come from?”

It’s a tough/tricky question when you think about it. Beyond the whole sexual tab A/slot B dynamic, where do we come from? Not our genes so much as our personalities, fears, loves, successes and woes. Where do we come from. Parents have a say, naturally (or any guardian for that matter) but is there some weirdly wonderful chemistry a-cookin’ that makes us us? And beyond that, why is it we feel compelled to learn more about us? And our families, for that matter? Curiosity? An inner drive? The need to understand—nay, comprehend (if that’s possible)—our relatives and how we fit into the big picture, hunting trip or no?

I figure it doesn’t really depend from which bolt of cloth you were cut from. Peoples is peoples. And you gotta admit—briefly ignoring the “nature/nurture” thing—who you are reflects who raised you.

Or maybe for the case of Joni and Laser (again: Laser?) it’s who didn’t raise you…

After years of happy antagonism, sibs Joni (uh…Mia) and Laser (Hutcherson) have been bitten by the curiosity bug pretty damn fierce. Well, maybe not Joni, but when you’re the only guy awash in a sea of estrogen it’s natural to want to get to better know your dad. Wherever he is.

Look, Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) have done the best they could to raise two somewhat normal and mostly functioning kids. Mostly happily married and holding down decent jobs (well, Nic anyway), they’ve made a pretty happy home. Laser figures having two moms is cool and actually having a blood sister to bounce off of is pretty okay, too. Nic and Jules were even thoughtful enough to maintain the “typical American family” model that when they wanted children, they were inseminated by the same donor. Therefore the circle would be complete.

It doesn’t feel complete for Laser (that name, jeez).

Since he’s only 17, Laser tasks Joni to do a little Internet sifting. Her being a legal adult gives her a bit more freedom in Laser’s hunt, since most matters involved needs adult clearance. You must be tall enough to ride this ride. And what a ride it is.

Laser (never Laze, mind you) wants to know who his dad is. He came from somewhere; there were two parties involved into his coming into being, and both Nic and Jules are not square pegs. What to do? Scour sperm banks in the greater LA area. Locate records. Find dad. And with Joni’s smarts, Laser knows it’ll only be a matter of time before his dad wiggles his tail. So to speak.

Beating the bushes eventually pays off. Again, so to speak.

Paul (Ruffalo) is a raffish, scruffy, poetic restauranteur living across town. He’s kinda hipster—rides a motorcycle, organic foods, eclectic musical taste, prerequisite beard—and as far away a father could be. Imagine Paul’s surprise when Joni and Laser show up at his restaurant out of the blue. It’s awkward to say the least, but the kids are determined. They want their dad as an active role in their lives. Hopefully give them some insight that their moms can’t on life, love and leaving. Maybe stop by their house, have dinner, meet Nic and Jules. Bring wine.

Paul admits outright that he never wanted to be a father. The only reason he made a donation back in the day was to score some fast cash. Sure he was aware of what his…um, legacy would be, but never did expect his mystery progeny to crash his eatery. Still, the kids seem cool and Paul is a bit curious about his erstwhile moms. And it would be the “fatherly” thing to do.

So unsure of his newfound kids and in-laws intentions, wine in tow, Paul ventures forth with Joni and Laser into to dark terra incognito of the modern, 21st Century blended family. He figures that maybe he could dispense some paternal guidance (if he knew any) to Joni and particularly Laser. Maybe bond a little with the moms, hands where they can see them. Perhaps find a family his vagabond lifestyle has denied him.

Or may be the greatest spanner in the works of the most passive-agressive same-sex marriage dynamic this side of Caligula’s Rome.

Here’s hoping…

Well, well, well. What we got ourselves here is your little ol’, same-sex family comedy-drama here. A first for RIORI. Probably a last as Hollywood deems. No matter.

For a blended family, Kids’ dynamic seems pretty typical. I guess that’s the point. I figured out right quick that the focus, the Maguffin here is not that Nic and Jules are lesbians, married and are raising two kids. No. Their relationship is just a vehicle to bring Paul into the picture. To permit hijinks to ensue. That’s what’s what. Chances are that you know a family like Nic and Jules’. Hell, chances are better that you are in a family like Nic and Jules’. The whole comi-tragic give and take in Kids reflects all of our families, even the ones we never met. I mean, Nic and Jules are my mom, one and the same. This family could be just as normal as yours, if they tried to. The Cosby Show this ain’t. This feels like a “real” family. God help us all.

That bringing us to ground level, and forgetting the ultimately disposable lesbian thing, Kids is all about what I blathered over with the “where did I come from?” quest. First and foremost, Kids is a character study, and running the risk of a beat down I say the lesbian marriage is a gimmick. Now maybe director Chodolenko is gay and simply reflecting her ideas inspired by the gay community (not sure if she is, but regardless she’s pretty astute in her observations. Sonic 2 and all that). Or she was the child of a same-sex couple and Kids reflects years in the trenches. In any case, Kids is about the characters’ interplay. If you consider it, the plot is pretty stock and has been done before (e.g. Flirting With Disaster, Made In America, hell even the dippy 80s sitcom My Two Dads). What holds Kids together is our holy host of characters, because ultimately they are which the story (derivative as it is) hangs.

The key word here is nuance. Despite all of our cast are ciphers (the A-type stern career woman, her freewheeling partner, the nerdy girl, the awkward boy and the rakish interloper “dad”) through subtlety they make their presence known. Cholodenko makes it all work by not emphasizing the cut-and-paste aspects of our motley crew. It’s the dialogue that makes Kids flow. Moreover it’s what’s not said that makes the story go down easily. The director is keenly aware that her pawns lie perilously close to the queen’s gambit, so she plays up audiences’ expectations of their motives by popping their bubbles.

Kids is rife with examples of such subversion. The humor is prickly, like you feel bad for snickering (not laughing, snickering). Paul has this Bowie soundtrack going on whenever he shows up at Nic and Jules’ place (doubtless stinking of Ziggy Stardust androgyny and outsider status, which makes for a cool soundtrack, BTW). And nobody is wearing makeup. I’m not talking rouge and pancake #5. No one is wearing makeup. Suggesting all being naked to the world maybe. Probably the last time this was the case in film was for Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. It’s likely understood (by way of assumption here. Fear of beat downs, remember?) that most lesbians eschew getting dolled up. Stereotype? True. But like I said, quicker. What’s quicker still is the assumption that all of rogue’s gallery is naked to the world. Hearts on sleeves. Having a sh*tastic time keeping their emotions in check. Dance on the coals, folks. It makes for better tension, cringing we can all relate to. We all came from a family, remember? Most likely akin to Nic and Jules and Paul’s. If you didn’t, you’re a liar and you’re boring. Cholodenko taps into this, so squirm.

So. Here’s our characters as I saw them. I’ll try to be brief. I’m aware that I tend to go on and on and onandon about who’s doing what how in these installments. Again, all the cast are cut-outs, so no real need to go into any depth. However they do play their roles very sharply and the awkward chemistry is there to make sense of a dysfunctional, modern day family. Like blackish. or Modern Family. Hell, even The Simpsons. What I’m saying is that there was a reason Married…With Children survived for a decade on the air. We all come from a family and we all love to look at the car wreck.

Nic is your typical alpha-female control freak, trying to corral and keep order at all costs so her family is “safe.” Jules is free-spirited, impulsive and more than a bit ditzy. Small wonder these two get on so well. Or so it seems. Again no surprise that Joni and Laser reflect their moms’ personalities. It’s funny that the two kids spar in nearly the same way their folks do, but their interaction seem more civil and mature than mom times two.

Again it’s no wonder when Paul enters the picture—the outsider/irritant—that things go off kilter. It’s what drives the story. What’s worse is Ruffalo is such a likable, rakish rogue, what with his motorbike and free range chickens he also comes across as kind of sleazy. The whole route of the story is Paul trying to insinuate himself into his extended family in a hip “father knows best” kinda mode. It becomes fast apparent that Paul is out of his depth, and fumbles along trying to do the wrong things for the right reasons. His would-be sage advice and easy going spirit belies a lot of insecurity and opportunism. Paul’s not a bad guy, he just doesn’t realize it.

There is a subtle allusion towards the kids being gay, too, if only to reflect their moms’ sensibilities. Laser and his passive/aggressive friendship with his burgeoning psychopath friend Clay, afraid to bail on him. Joni and her being pressured by her slut-buddy Sasha to make a move on her buddy Jai. Not sure if my suspicions are correct, but I’d be hard-pressed to ignore my previous statements on how families shape as well as corrupt us. Maybe that’s what the director was getting at. Truth be told, been there, done that, will come around for a second helping.

Kids is a pretty good flick. Not great, mind you. It’s a bit predictable. Meaning it’s not that it will work out in the end, it’s how. There’s enough surprises and cracked dialogue to keep you watching, but I didn’t think it bore a second viewing. Once you’ve seen one dysfunctional lesbian movie with the Hulk pushing organic kale, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all.

People are alike all over, regardless of who you shack up with and lower the boom when the kiddies set off bottle rockets in the guest bathroom. I still feel that Kids same-sex marriage was kind of a gimmick. Heck, this plot would’ve worked if it were a hetero couple with a vacant mom/sterile dad. But thanks  to Cholodenko’s personal contributions and spin to the tale, it made for a rather interesting gimmick. That does count for something.

Now where did I put that Paul Simon disc? And my Sega Genesis? My old bud never calls back. Probably too busy dealing with his dad.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Like I said, the sturm und drang in Kids could’ve (and probably did) played out in another film. Still entertaining though, but the movie might’ve benefited from a little late night Sonic 2 binge.

Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, you’re windshield wiping.”
  • Ruffalo’s style is all about the mumbling.
  • “I love lesbians.”
  • Uh Huh Her. Cute, that.
  • “Take your time.”
  • ‘World’s Greatest Mom.’ Cute, too.
  • “I bought you some cigarettes.”
  • This is Moore at her most neurotic. Damn funny.
  • “To your unconventional family.” Clink.
  • You think Jules might’ve gotten knocked up? Well, sequels are en vogue lately.
  • “If I read more Russian novels…” Never solves anything.

Next Installment…

We explore the mysteries the Sahara may hold with Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, the budget Indiana Jones. And Steve Zahn, too. The Poor Man’s Short Round.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 46: Jon Amiel’s “The Core” (2003)

The Core

The Players…

Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood, with DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo and Alfre Woodard.

The Story…

The Earth’s inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes with his fellow maverick seismologists must discover why before the planet literally falls apart. So by burrowing into the planet’s center in an elite vessel they might dig deep enough to get to (wait for it) the core of the crisis.

I warned you.

The Rant…

A funny thing happened on the way to the Blu-Ray player.

I initially meant to open this week’s salvo with a treatise on the ways and means of a proper disaster film. Then insomnia intervened and the 9-year old woke up multiple times to interrupt dad’s questionable movie watching practices.

It was late. Later than usual for me to hunker down in front of the screen with the disc, the notebook, the essential libations and my pen clutched in my hot little hand. Time for another evening of Press Your Luck via Netflix. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or nightmares of a frustrated wifey who’d rather  canoodle that accept the vital nature of this blogger’s ongoing opus. Either way, I had beer and a lack of Pop-Tarts.


Midnight was nigh, and I was beat as well as falling behind with my chosen duties. Good thing I had the day off tomorrow; the flick was over two hours long! Could see the sun cracking the horizon by my timetable, including all the pretzels, bathroom breaks and cracking open more truth elixir. Let me tell you, with my nutty watching habits a 90 minute flick can stretch into three hours easily. I have to go outside to smoke, well into the next county it feels. And you can kill a guy anywhere. Go fig.

But twenty minutes into The Core I was interrupted in the worst way. We’re not talking power outages, scratches in the disc (which did happen once or twice truth be told. More on that sh*t later for those cinephiles who can’t afford streaming), or the neighbor kids jacked up on the Mountain Dew and wailing on their guitars for an impromptu garage band practice consisting of and only of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” remixed by Moby.

No. Worse. A nine-year old girl with insomnia. And dad one-third through the movie and halfway in the bag to boot. Not a Pop-Tart to be seen.

She was stressed out. Happens to kids of all ages. Mom started a new job and was gone most of the night. I clocked out late, too, but Grammy and Pop Pop were gracious enough to hold down the fort until I scooped her up. But Mom wasn’t around as she usually was. No one to chit chat with while Dad’s toiling away in the Seventh Level. Chicken nuggets for dinner again (and again). The general household dynamic torn asunder (and her stepsister kept away from yet another weekend visit by her dooshy daddy, but that’s another story). So yeah, kid’s stressed and therefore cannot seek slumber.

She’s vaguely aware of Dad’s clandestine movie habits and plopped down on the couch to both talk about her lousy sleep and wonder what the f*ck Daddy is watching. I explained to her the gist of the movie and asked (for the hell of it) if she’d join me. By that time the flick was on pause for an eternity, blaring a frozen shot of our heroes trying to extricate their high tech tunneling machine from within an enormous geode. For real. After I explained what a geode was I resumed the film. She watched for about ten minutes (The Core is PG-13 BTW, but I’m over 13 and figured it was okay for the kid to follow along. Don’t judge me) before abrupt protestations.

“It’s too loud! It’s too scary! I don’t know what’s going on!”

Through simple serendipity, a nine-year old girl with insomnia summed up the best mindset regarding a good disaster movie beyond any half-baked blather I could muster. Sure, she didn’t “get” the flick (PG-13 mind you. And shaddap) but her reaction purely illustrates how we should all watch a movie like The Core. In simpler terms, get bewildered and bamboozled. Then find more beer. It helps, believe me. Burp.

But in all seriousness, a good disaster flick should be loud, sometimes scary and make you unsure as to which way is up. A healthy dose of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to let your brain be scrambled into submission both help. Go along with it. Follow stupid down the rabbit hole. Allow some (partial) credence for Michael Bay’s oeuvre for a bit. Check your coat at the front desk. Eat the Oreo’s frosting first. Enjoy the bombast and the dumb, if only for two hours. Then you can get back to the Lars Von Trier binge watch. Don’t forget the Cheetos and the Dustbuster.

That being said, riddle me this. Did The Core takes nods from the pyrotechnics that came before? Was the same demented structure of chaos and creation take hold? Did Gene Hackman let go of that valve at the right time?

Perhaps. First, let’s dig a bit deeper…

Ill winds are blowing through Earth’s ionosphere. Solar winds.

Peculiar environmental phenomena have been popping up around the globe as of late. Auroras over Washington. Birds losing their ability to navigate. Earthquakes nowhere near tectonic activity. What’s worse Wi-Fi keeps crapping out everywhere. What the hell’s going on?

Dr John Keyes (Eckhart) has a theory. Being a seismologist, he’s pretty in touch with how the Earth eats, breathes and occasionally farts. By all the disparate chaos suddenly plaguing the planet, he has a theory. The outer core of the Earth, the part that controls its EMF, has stopped its rotation. That means in three months everything on Earth that is powered by electricity will halt. Within a year, the sun’s radiation will burn our world to a crisp. Ouch.

What to do to avoid this calamity? Well first, don’t panic. Second, convince the powers that be that this is an apocalyptic threat. Third, don’t panic, for surely there are a collective of science geeks out there who are sharp enough and nuts enough to correct the problem. Namely, and essentially jump-starting an entire planet. No sweat, right?

Keyes (with his maverick theories) gets indoctrinated into a military cabal—which is never a good sign—to initiate a mission to delve into Earth’s inner core to “reactivate” its rotation. Among Keyes’ rogue’s gallery, we have assembled quite the unique crew. We have Conrad Zinksy (Tucci), the preeminent seismologist on the planet to guide the insane mission to tunnel into the Earth (backed up with his supreme arrogance). His former, alienated genius Watson to his Holmes, Dr “Brazz” Brazelton (Lindo) has devised a means to travel into the Earth’s mantle—a nigh indestructible machine—and hopefully intervene with the globe’s eminent failure. And lastly, but not most leastly former space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) to guide Brazz’ experiment home.

So we got the know-how, we got the tech and we got the mission. Get Earth’s core a-swirling again. But it’s never that easy, is it? ‘Course not. We gotta toss in some MIC intrigue and a giggling robot for the kiddies.

Wait. No giggling robot? Well is is a PG-13 flick after all. Movie sign!…

What I was rambling about earlier with my reluctant, sleepless sidekick holds true regarding disaster films. Too loud. To perilous. Confusion is scads. Believe it or not these are good things to have with such films. Suspension of belief is paramount.

If you were young enough to remember them (and sure as sh*t I wasn’t), TV mogul Irwin Allen of Lost In Space fame got a wild hair up his ass and got into the motion picture action. His notable contributions were The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno and to a lesser extent The Swarm (hell, at least that muckity-muck got Henry Fonda some work). All were a melange of let’s throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks, hopefully running down to the floor in a gooey mess. A mess the audiences would love to slop around in.

To wit, Allen’s cinema schlockfests were dappled with a cast of thousands (often with name stars like Gene Hackman, the aforementioned Henry Fonda and even Paul Newman for pity’s sake), all put in perilous positions of penultimate tragedy with a lot of splash and dash in between to culminate in a satisfying ending. Lotsa pyrotechnics and histrionics in there for good measure, too. Plus a lot of cheesy dialogue to boot. Y’know, to lighten the load. Hoorahs all around.

All Allen’s potboilers are fun so long as you don’t think too much about you willingly subjected yourself to. That’s the key, and director Amiel tapped into this philosophy very keenly with The Core. Keep it fun, keep it fast, keep it dumb. In that order. Works well, which is why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich has endured for almost a century. Please trim off the crust. We don’t require anything that resembles substance here. It’s barely an afterthought.

Okay now. Where to begin? Allen’s cheesewheels always starred a mishmash of prominent actors (of their time) pitted against/collaborating with lesser knowns. Again, Amiel took notes. We have the notoriously reliable unreliable Aaron Eckhart as our reluctant hero. I have no love lost on Eckhart. Virtually every film he’s been in he seems out of place. Worse, like bewildered he’s even in a movie to begin with. How the hell did I end up here? Well, in Core, that flappable nature finally comes to good use. What I mean is that you ever catch Battle: Los Angeles? Right. I ain’t supposed to be here. Based on that, Core presents us with Eckhart’s best, most accessible acting until The Dark Knight got released. His skittish, nerdy scientist might be the go to for geek freak as soon as Jeff Goldblum retires. Eckhart here never overplays his hand. Read: he doesn’t ham it up, despite the fact that there are plenty of chances to chew the drywall. His Dr Keyes is the only solid voice of reason—therefore the pinion—which the movie turns. It’s almost as if Eckhart is aware that Core is an Allen rip-off, so he plays the part right. He’s our Dr John Robinson, minus a spine. Underdogs always play well at the ticket taker, don’cha know. Worked for me. I found his acting fun.

And fun is the watchword towards our remaining cast members. Be mindful that The Core‘s plot is ludicrous, so the actors better shape up to carry this farce to the bitter end with elan or at least  marginal competence. Overall, they’re likable. No, I mean it. For the film’s contexts the cast and crew of the Virgil are all enjoyable (even Tucci’s snot. I enjoyed his smarm). The key to this is stereotyping. I know, I was just as surprised as you are. If The Core is a nod to Allen disaster flicks, then there better be a disparate mishmash of oddballs and heroes at the ready, all of which possess that certain something that makes it all click. What is this magic ingredient?

Simple. Stereotyping.

Why do we stereotype? Because it’s easier and it’s quicker. With the rapid fire pace The Core delivers, really deep character study is superfluous. Just go along with the reluctant hero-moustache twirling rapscallion-maverick scientist-plotting MIC types. And a girl. Gotta have a girl. Helps if she’s pretty, and carrying around an Oscar adds a bit of street cred, too. The Core‘s casting is straight out of a John Hughes reunion, chockablock with all the dopey sci-fi stereotypes you can shake a stick at. And all of them reassuringly cheesy with faceplam-worthy dialogue to boot. Makes the mission go down a bit easier overall. So to speak.

Still with all the B-movie histrionics, wonky characters and implausible…everything, The Core is lacking in a few basic, first grade elements that could’ve elevated it to Irwin Allen fractured glory. I’m always talking about pacing here at RIORI. How it’s absolutely essential to drive the plot. Now The Core does have decent pacing, but there is some noticeable sputtering throughout the thing. To wit, is there such a thing as reserved urgency? If so, then this movie has it. Right, right, we know the Earth is doomed. The thinktank is working on a rescue plan. Things seem very dire. Then why are all these folks so damned rational about it? I know our crew is composed of steely military types and MIT misfits known to be more mindful that emotional. But this is a movie, too. If this were the ideal disaster flick, there’d be sufficient freak-outs countered by urgent emotional face-slapping to quell the rantings (“Forget him! He’s gone!” “No he’s not!” – Hicks and Vasquez from Aliens, BTW). Nope. Some shouting, but that’s about it.

An aside: despite the dynamite casting, we have a glaring issue. I don’t care about her Oscars. Hilary Swank seems really out of place here. Even if she got her start as The Next Karate Kid, action apparently isn’t her strong suit. Most of the film Beck seems wobbly, detached and wooden. The look on her face most of the time says, “Stupid agent.” Even Alfre Woodard—one of my fave actresses—who is on par with Swank’s dramatic chops snarls a lot better that Hilary does. Other than Swank, as I’ve pounded on, the rest of the cast was great.

One more thing for the bitch board: Amiel may have been trying to honor Allen’s disaster flicks with The Core, but overall his work came across as “Poor Man’s Emmerich.” Noodle that one. Sure, the action plays out smooth, but the direction was also kinda tame. It was as if Amiel was playing it safe, holding back. I know that sounds hard to believe after my glowing shiny shiny, but there’s this feeling of drawing the whole thing out (at 2 plus hours running time, this isn’t such a stretch. So to speak). A little too much roominess for all the ensuing pyrotechnics. It can make for a sort of uneven viewing experience, a la that “reserved urgency.” Emmerich throws everything and the kitchen sink out the freakin’ window with his bread and circuses. Amiel should’ve cranked up the nutty a bit more is all. Just sayin’.

Despite the dumb and corn (or perhaps because of it), I dug The Core. So to speak. I’ll stop that now. It’s a complete waste of time. The acting is silly. The story is demented. The F/X were awesome. Just toss the remote over your shoulder—after you’ve grabbed a cold six first—watch and let your cranium fill with Oreo filling. Some action movies are dramatic. Some are violent. And some are just unapologetically stupid. That being said, Irwin Allen would’ve approved of The Core.

Now if it only had a Leslie Nielsen cameo. Box office gold.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Its flaws make it great. Like with Pacific Rim, don’t think too hard about it. Just go with it. Better get two sixers for optimal viewing pleasure. Play it safe.

Stray Observations…

  • “There’s nothing on the other side of the equal sign.” I suck at math, too.
  • “Unobtainium?” Isn’t that the crap the bad guys were mining for in Avatar? Cameron, first the Harlan Ellison swipe and now this?
  • “God, I hate this sky.” F*cking smog I tell ya.
  • This must be the first disaster movie ever that has a simulator of an imaginary machine. Told you Amiel was kind of playing it safe.
  • “All right. I’m hitting him again.”
  • Wouldn’t Journey To The Center Of The Earth be a better title? Ah, right. Been done and has too many words for modern Pokemon Go audiences.
  • “After that it gets bad.”

Next Installment…

“Better leave her behind with The Kids Are All Right.”

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 45: David Wain’s “Wanderlust” (2012)


The Players…

Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Malin Ackerman and Alan Alda, with half the cast of Reno 911! (and all of Stella to boot).

The Story…

Yuppie couple George and Linda have to abandon their flash Manhattan lifestyle due to his being fired  (thus losing their apartment. They reluctantly choose to travel to Georgia to lay up with George’s little bro until they find their footing again.

But on the way, George and Linda get lost, crashing into a hippie commune offering a simpler, more easy-going lifestyle that their over-caffeinated one. A better life beckons maybe?

The Rant…

Not sure where to start with this one. I’ll get there. Patience, Grasshopper.

It’s my custom to open my screeds with either personal stories, social commentary or outright bile. All three on a good night. The most I can muster up this week are thoughts of summers long gone. Camp. Been there. So might’ve you. Summer getaways from the dirt and dross of your childhood in town to some bucolic jaunt into the woods and/or on the beach to learn the wonders of swimming, fishing and macrame. Contraband Marvel Comics and weed might be in the mix there, too. Sometimes even pruno. Healthy summertime activities all around.

The cool thing about going to camp—beyond the pot mixed with pencil shavings and the X-Men—was you got some time to be yourself without leaving your personality behind. Back home you had some dippy routine, mostly revolving around what school shoved down your gullet five days a week. Gone for 90 days for such an idyll. No more teachers, no more books, no more swirlies, no more chalk dust enemas. Something that rhymes with books.

All that gone for a while. At camp, if you’re lucky, you can be yourself. But a different self, divorced from the September to May slog. Let loose. Chase that butterfly. Get some different structure but with the freedom of opportunity to get your knees scabby and have sand stuck eternally in your shorts (and if you’re lucky getting that chalk dust out of your yeeeeah).

Time to find yourself. Escape. When I was set loose at camp a millennium ago, notebooks and noogies got subverted into archery, swimming and noogies via driftwood instead. Got to muck about, slop around in the ocean, stay up late and stare at the cabin rafters, wondering what the next day might bring. Hopefully fewer noogies.

At heart, it was to get away from it all. This permitted a lot of personal growth (even at the age of 10), reflecting on the time away. Camp was much better than school, no doubt. You might’ve hoped and prayed that summer wouldn’t ever end. Right then, here was the place to be. It was home.

But the dread end was always at your heels. Summer would eventually go away, and your satori would be ruined by bells, blackboards and f*cking chalk dust. No more beach, no more archery, no more macrame (no big loss there really). What? No more room for pre-pube soul searching. Nope. Milk cartons and cooties awaited.

Hey! What about self-awakening! What about bonding with a nature beyond the curb and clattering bike pedals? What about Nintendo (camp can’t cure all ills)? Fleeting. No matter what you made of yourself at camp, reality always beckoned come September. And sure as sh*t you didn’t want to go back there. And leave all this?

Being away from yourself is always better than being within yourself. If only for a summer.

But wait. What if there was no scholastic routine to go home to?

Cue the burnt pencil shavings…

It’s kind of out of Green Acres.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are the preeminent power yuppie couple. George is on the up and up at his firm, due for a big promotion. Linda…does things. Both are on the prowl for their ultimate apartment, near work and the ideal cup of coffee. Priorities, right?

So they score their dream, luxury studio apartment. All mod cons absent. No matter. Here’s where they’re meant to be. Thanks to George’s big come up, they can finally carve out their own little niche in society.

Only Geroge’s big come up doesn’t come up. Instead he gets sh*tcanned, and his and Linda’s dreams go up in smoke. Time to regroup. George opts against Linda’s pleas to relocate to his bro’s place in Georgia. Get things sorted out. Find a new, new life. Sing a lot of Doobie Brothers tunes along the way.

If things weren’t bad enough (that and George losing his job), he and Linda crash land at Elysium along the way. All they wanted was a place to crash for the night. Instead they awake inside a hippie dippy commune, where all is yours and all is theirs. Cash means nothing. Eggs come from actual chickens. A nudist with a big wang stomps grapes into wine. What’s worse is there’s no Wi-Fi to be found!

Still, Elysium has its charms. Resident shaman Seth (Theroux) knows the ways of nature, as well as communing with nature, promoting free love and playing a mean six-string. He preaches a convincing sermon about why George and Linda should stay in Elysium and forsake their material ways. The place seems to work, but only barely beyond burnt-out patriarch Hawkeye—er, Carvin (Alda) who does his best to keep Elysium on the map despite his acid-tripped philosophy.

It almost sounds inviting to stressed out George and Linda. Why bounce to Atlanta when they could set down roots here?

Well, for one, no espresso…

The first thing I grabbed from watching Wanderlust was, “Dang, David Wain has come a long way.”

I caught one of his previous efforts, Role Models, in the theater a lifetime ago. I wasn’t impressed. Sure, it was funny, but nothing you’d be really chuckling about after the credits rolled. It was dumb, on purpose. It was derivative, probably also on purpose. Not enough dick jokes, hopefully not on purpose. The flick had all the flavor of a Stella skit (of which Wain was a part of said troupe), with a warmed-over scent of an early Kilborn ep of The Daily Show. You know? The one about the hick who created a fresh set of choppers via his driveway gravel? It is to wonder.

Then I caught Wet Hot American Summer (a sort of dry run for Wanderlust), and I thought twice.

Now I saw Wanderlust. I get it now. Wain’s sh*t is smart disguised as dumb. Sorry it took so long.

I kinda felt a Monty Python vibe here with Wanderlust (especially after that coffee swilling fly scene). But rather than that crew’s outright absurdity, Wain’s direction is quietly demented. His is not laugh out loud, but instead snicker worthy. Admittedly, Wain relies on a lot of sight gags (lotsa dickshots, lotsa physical comedy, lotsa dickshots), but it’s the madcap banter that really draws you in. The jokes are rapid fire, and take a microsecond to register if you let them. I figure you get a lot more giggles with an absurdist comedy that way than a Scandinavian ode to Spam. Sure, that bit sticks with you, but using non sequitir quotes on the sly makes folks who get it get it.

An aspect of funny I really enjoyed with Wanderlust was my inability to tell what was improvised and what wasn’t. No shock Wain being a comic

Rudd’s delivery is a key example of Wain’s misbegotten muse for mirth (best alliteration you’ll ever hear). His sh*t always feels improvised. Maybe it is. His bit seems to come so easliy for him. It’s what makes his George—most of Rudd’s résumé, actually—so enjoyable. His character is hapless, out of his element and naive enough to make the guy relatable. Not Average Joe relatable, but in fits and starts like, “Yeah. Been there. Am that.” His bewilderment with the alt-lifestyle at Elysium doesn’t quite make for a typical fish-out-of-water dynamic. Instead we get an easy blend of “I’m in the wrong place” braced by “I have found my people.” People he didn’t know he wanted. Or needed. All and of that rigamarole is tied together by Rudd’s signature “just (try and) go with it” situational humor. Pretty satisfying stuff.

And here’s the ticket: it’s nice to have a screwy comedy populated with characters you can have an emotional investment in. Granted that all of Wanderlust‘s misfits are nothing but caricatures amped up on KickStart, acid and a blatant casual disregard for any originality with their hand dealt. No matter. None of these dweebs seemed forced or stilted. They’re all in on the joke, and if you dare take anything serious of the antics, it’s the foreword to Huckleberry Finn. The folks at Elysium are good people. Annoying, dippy and maybe have a few extra chromosomes floating around, but overall relatable. You may be one of them. Or quickly on your way. Shudder. Ha.

Now for the fly in the Vaseline, Scott. It’s known that I have no love lost for Jennifer Aniston as an actress. Don’t misunderstand me, she tries her best to be funny. In fact, she’s very trying. Yeah, yeah. She has great hair and is amusing when pissed now and again. But the girl’s always so f*cking wooden. Being funny is an effort. Laborious. Wanderlust gives her opportunities a plenty to freak out and get silly. She tries, but it’s all so damned forced here. Even the bad trip scene. It’s hollow. It’s practiced. It begs for Ross to set things right. Not every role demands the cachet of an episode of Friends circa 1997. And all Matt Perry needed was hooking up with a single actor from Reno 911! to get back in the swing of things. Aniston had two and Ray Liotta and still stumbled.

You get it. She’s off my Kwanzaa list.

Despite all of Wanderlust‘s scatological and druggy humor (both essential to life itself I may say), it’s a light-hearted affair. No heavy sh*tI only mention this because for all their stickiness, Role Models and Wet Hot seemed to have a message/moral to them. Not Wanderlust. The story is as old as celluloid, and simply a way to convey a happy hatred of hippies (okay, the earlier alliteration was better), drug use gone quite well and potential f*ck scenes over the next hill. No real redeeming social criticism. Not front and center. It’s there, but it don’t matter. Smart stuff buttered with dumb, remember?

Is Wanderlust original? Nah. Don’t matter. Is it obvious? Duh. You get the joke? Hopefully if you drop the iPhone down the toilet (please refer to my advice in my I, Robot installment. You’ll thank me), you might. Wanna take a walk in the woods where cracked-out wolves are snorting angel dust off the tails of virgin sheep?

Uh, go read your Brothers Grimm drunk again. Instead watch Wain’s usual brew of improv, dick jokes, Rudd hamming it up and a bilious dislike of hippies. It’s what’s for dinner.

Oh, don’t forget about the Doobie Brothers. Can’t forget Skunk Baxter. Key.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Old tale told before? Yeah. But funny? Yep. Hippies, wine, Stella and Alan Alda, too. I love Alan Alda.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey! It’s Todd Barry!
  • “F*ck the penguins!” Take that, Morgan Freeman.
  • It’s all fun and games then out comes the digeridoo.
  • “We’ll deal with those withholding father issues another time.”
  • Hey! It’s Keenan Michael-Key!
  • Nickelback. Telling.
  • “You like Spin Doctors?” Oh, yeah.
  • The mirror scene highlights Rudd’s comic talent.
  • Hey! It’s David Wain! Hang on…
  • “What exactly did Mom do to you that she didn’t do to me?”
  • I hate hippies. I hate hipsters. I am a man without a country.
  • “That was a little crazy.”

Next Installment…

Earth is in peril! Erratic tectonic activity threatens to tear the planet asunder! It’s up to Aaron Eckhart and his crackerjack crew of science geeks to get to The Core of the matter!