RIORI Vol 3, Installment 81: Greg Mattola’s “Paul” (2010)



The Players…

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, (and the endless voice of) Seth Rogen, with Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Dinner, Jeffery Tambor and Sigourney Weaver.


The Story…

A pair of dyed-in-wool British sci-fi geeks are taking holiday in the US southwest. Not just for attendance at the big deal Comic-Con, but also to scope out historic UFO sightings in the vast wilderness.

They get more than they bargain for.

Chugging along in their RV late at night on the highway they narrowly avoid a serious car crash. Feeling their civic duty to check on the driver, they’re beyond shocked to discover a for real alien behind the wheel.

Some smelling salts later, they learn his name is Paul, and he needs their help getting home.

It turns out for our trio, “home” is a relative term.


The Rant…

A while back I covered Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great And Powerful, a rompy prequel to the classic Victor Fleming opus, the third (and best) cinematic interpretation of L Frank Baum’s opus, The Wizard Of Oz. I also went on record that I was never keen to fantasy. Wasn’t interested in Tolkien’s film adaptations. Never saw (nor read) any of the Harry Potter series. Never even was barely curious about watching (or reading) Game Of Thrones. Beyond Fleming’s idea of Oz, the closest thing to fantasy films I ever dug was…well, Oz, The Great And Powerful. Mila Kunis made for a cool Wicked Witch Of The West. As well as Meg Griffin, just to play to the fanboys.

Speaking of fanboys, despite being meh on fantasy I’m big on science fiction. Last time I waxed nostalgic on being exposed to Ridley Scott’s signature flicks, namely Alien and Blade Runner. Sci-fi films in the barest sense. Sure, both flicks took place in the future, where malign tech and nasty, slobbering xenomorphs reigned supreme. I also spoke of my young poisoning of the mind catching both Star Wars: A New Hope and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater around age six.

However neither of those pairings really stuck. They piqued my interest, sure, about “out there, somewhere.” But the sci-fi gateway drug was (surprise) Star Trek. That and a few Arthur C Clarke books and Time magazine’s compendium of how the universe worked. For sure. Bless your local library. And put down the damned smartphone.

Yeah. Trek. A giver. I remember the very time I got into it. I was 14, and rolling on the couch like a desiccated hot dog back and forth on the lukewarm washboard at your local Sheetz. I had my wisdom teeth impacted, and my jaw felt like a strained jack holding up a Mack truck. I all I could eat was yogurt and all I could do was churn on the couch and watch TV. It sucked.

Cold compact pressed against my mandible, I surrendered to the idiot box. Didn’t want to read or listen to music. The NES controller grew dusty. The remote was sticky in my mitt (when I wasn’t groaning rubbing my on fire jaw) as I channel surfed. Saw the usual “Disney Afternoon;” (yes, I was in high school and still watching cartoons. I had yet to experience the oys and joys of p*ssy and beer. We could both do worse). I was a fan of the wry DuckTales, the silly Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and the very good superhero send-up Darkwing Duck. These pastiches ran from 3 PM to 5, where after the syndicated series’ reruns rerun.

Cutting to the chase, at clear 5 every afternoon the local cable affiliate aired both the previous and recent episodes of Star Trek: The Generation starring that lovable dork from PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton. More on that soon.

Sooner than later, I had idly caught an ep of TNG once and saw big bro Levar wearing a golden hair clip across his eyes, wearing tight red pajamas scouring the deck of a damaged starship deck.

The hell? But don’t take my word for it. Ha.

Even at 14 I also dug Reading Rainbow. Our host Levar was a piece of work, promoting literacy on PBS. He came across, convincingly, as the cool older brother who knew stuff. Seeing him with a banana clip over his face made me ask “What the crap?” So with aching missing teeth, I stayed tuned in after Darkwing ended. And gradually the scales fell from my eyes.

I enjoyed the drama. I liked the dialogue. I dug the character interplay. The Enterprise-D looked like a mall in space. Worf’s ever evolving face was funny. I slowly got hooked. Darkwing what?

The affiliate was burning through the fourth season at the time during the week I learned. Saturday evening was last week’s ep followed by the latest installment. I punished my parents before the big screen to tolerate my new addiction before Saturday primetime. And a small win there. Once Paul Sorvino was a guest star on a TNG so even my stalwart Dad set the remote down for that episode.

I swiftly nabbed every episode I could nab. The older sh*t I rented from my local library (remember the 20th Century?) TNG became a fast addiction. I later checked out the original series to compare notes. The drama/humor/intrigue dynamic failed to falter. I was seriously hooked. Not a bad way to go for a stone cold sci-fi fanboy. Now stone cold.

So what else to do, when one is a Trekkie, anathema to the opposite sex, hanging out after school with all-female friends who loved to re-watch Aliens over and over who had no interest in my flaccid…that.

Star Trek-Con!

We went to a handful back in the day, right outside Philly. My friend’s dad was patient in driving us out to the convo (we all had lisences, but no car. How we suffered), dropped us all off at the convention center and spun back to the homeland ASAP. Probably didn’t want to get contaminated. He suffered our endless afternoons carved into the latest MST3K installment enough. He hated tribbles, I guess.

So we were let loose at the Trek convention. It was cool. Really. I mean if you were into sci-fi in all its guises—be it movies, TV, comics or related curios—the whole Trek theme fell by the wayside. Lots of booths with their hawkers peddling the above goodies, not unlike a malign, stellar flea market akin to a space opera wall of a TGIFriday’s shot through a Waring blender.

It was a circus. Folks dressed as out of shape Klingons. Folks dressed as the forceable Borg (lots of dead aquarium paraphernalia put to good use there). Folks dressed as Starfleet Acadamy recruits who could never pass the physical. Also writers, artists, actors earning some beans schilling their former stage and/or screen glories.

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

Consider this. There have been TV shows that have ran far longer than Trek in all its iterations. The original Law & Order. The Simpsons. Even Gunsmoke, before God. MASH still maintains the highest ratings for its finale pales in comparison to the mere three seasons the original Trek graced the grey screen, and us Trekkers get our conventions. It is to wonder.

Three stories from the front, in degrees of artistic appreciation of sci-fi openness that Trek allowed me. From up to down.

First: Sir Patrick Stewart. Capt Picard himself. He wasn’t knighted then, but a was bright light for us dorks. He was the primary guest on the list that day. We all sat in attendance, and Stewart let most of the Trek questions roll off his back.

Stewart suffered our endless TNG questions well enough. The rest of the time he promoted his one-man show of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, a big deal thing back in the day, prob’ cuz it was very un-Trek and most likely what the man needed as a prophylactic to chatting with Number One for the umpeenth about what to do with the dang communication breakdowns with the pesky Romulans.

But Stewart was a stage actor first, born and bred. I recalled when I accidentally saw I, Claudius on PBS (was probably searching for the latest Reading Rainbow installment). I took note of the actor playing Sejanus. That voice. Now the body attached to the voice was voicing to all us geeks. I smelled an opportunity, perhaps once in a parsec. I raised my hand and Stewart called me out.

“Yes, young man?”

“Mr Stewart, I understand you were a student of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bard never wrote science fiction. I don’t think there was any context at the time—

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

—however, I seen you on TNG for years and often wondered how the Shakespearean Method has been imprinted on your Picard character. It can’t be denied the method, but the setting, the scenes on TNG don’t really permit Shakespeare. Drama, yes, but also this context makes me curious. What permitted Sejanus to wear the Captain’s uniform? And to what end?”

(boos from the zits)

Stewart set the mike at his hip and snickered. He raised the thing back up to his lips:

“Young man, you do know where you are right now, correct?”

I didn’t falter. “Yes. We’re here at a Star Trek convention appreciating your appearance. But also it’s also my opportunity to sweat a respected Shakespearean actor to how he’s applied his craft to a space opera, co-starring a guy who pushed books and had the hair clip at the wrong end.”

(groans)

Stewart giggled, then grinned, “Son, I’m glad you asked me that!”

And he went into a tear about his time with the Theatre, TNG never really hammered on. I was glad. My fellow dorks weren’t. C’mon, if you were alone in a looked room with your favorite writer, would you really ask about how they held a pencil? Doubts even here.

The next late of this trilogy isn’t mine, but too sweet a treat to deny you bored readers. Still makes me smile.

An old roomie of mine was a Trekkie, and once made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Banana Clip Levar Burton was a guest. Due to contractual obligations my crafty friend heard he wasn’t permitted to sign autographs. Pishaw. My buddy knew the secret knock. He cornered Burton after he left the bathroom and leapt on him.

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

He waved his hands. “I’m not allowed to give out autographs, sorry.”

“Well, could you sign this?”

My friend waggled a book in front of Burton. A Reading Rainbow book.

Burton grinned, snatched the picture book from him and said “Gimme that. What’s your name?” He pulled a pen out of nowhere.

“…Lucas.”

Burton scrawled on the cover page: To my friend Lucas, keep on reading. Your friend, Levar Burton.”

Cool right? Better than catching the pick after Keef’s third encore solo.

And finally, the reason why we sci-fi morons congregate the way we do. For the big game.

My last tale hems the pants of my convention days. High school was ending and assumed maturity of going to college after summer. One last night flight. That and another jillion Aliens viewings waiting. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but…

We all went, me and my trio of proto-Ani Difranco friends. It was sovereign this time. We’d already seen the sights at the convo a dozen times over. Same hotel, same sh*t. There were only so many lead soldier Geordis for sale one could pore over. This time it wasn’t about the goods. It was the goods.

The guest of honor was Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy. We were thrilled. Doy.

The man had done it all. An old hand. Nimoy was a star of stage, screen, photography, writing, music (for good or ill), directing and all things logical. When he took the mic—shocker—standing O. It was funny. For decades we watched Nimoy’s exploits on TV and later on the big screen. We scrutinized every twitch of the eyebrow or ear. We ingested his lines. We saw him get McCoy’s goat regularly.

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

Like I said, the guy was an old pro, and not just being an actor. He had been pounding the beat at Trek convos since their inception. Again, an old hand, and he had us all in the palm of his.

He came well prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation, flicking through outtakes of TOS, explaining the minutiae of how the show was put together. We were enraptured. Some were drooling.

The cherry on the sundae was how Nimoy as Spock invented the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper” and all that jazz. The screenshots he presented were from an episode where Spock returned to Vulcan with his human buddies Kirk and McCoy as witnesses to some ancient Vulcanian rite of passage. There was a quick scene of Spock addressing the “queen” with the salute. We well knew the episode. It was etched in our Clearasil-scarred brains.

Nimoy paused the scene and calmly explained the scene and the gesture all we Trekkies do rather than shake hands with one another’s sweaty, mealy palms. The Vulcan salute’s origin. It’s a cool story, really. Even if your not a Trekker. Pull up a seat.

When Nimoy was a kid in Brooklyn, he hailed from an orthodox Jewish family. Missing temple on Saturday was verboten. It was Talmudic law. Best not piss the Big Guy off. Like most Christian practices, there was a benediction at the end of the service. May God bless you and keep you and so on. The Benediction usually occurs at the narthex, where the prelate and acolytes praise the congregation for their audience. JC approved.

The Jews have something similar, but at the front of the altar. Nimoy and his father knew the routine. Close your eyes, kneel, pray and don’t open your eyes. We’re talking don’t look, Marion.

Of course Nimoy did. He said he was six. Seemed logical at the time.

He witnessed the cantor with armed outstretched and speaking is Hebrew. His hands were formed in the shape of a familiar alien greeting, thumb and fingers separated in the middle of the palms. According to Nimoy, the gesture was a representation of the Hebrew character shin, which is supposed to represent a wish for a fruitful life, and also practice actions that would help others find their way.

Sound familiar? Was to us nerds. Nimoy co-opted the gesture and meaning for the Vulcanian salute. “Live long and prosper.”

All of us in the enraptured audience in unison went, “Ohhhhh. Okay.” Grins all around.

Cool Hand Spock suffered our questions well, with much patience and humor. I reiterate, guy was an old pro. Talked about goofing around on the set. What a card Shatner was, always pranking him. And DeForest “Bones” Kelley was really a sweetheart, miles away from cantankerous Dr McCoy. It was revealing. Not just hearing about how the sausage was made, but how communal the cast was. A family. Shat, Bones and Nimoy were buddies as well as co-workers. So were the rest of the cast of TOS.

It was not unlike us Trekkies. Most strangers to be sure, but not unlike rowdy Philadelphia “Fly Eagles Fly” football fans, vintage vinyl collectors and online gamers. It’s a community, often congregating in their chosen forums to revel and high-five over their culty, pet hobbies. It enables camaraderie that, let’s face it, outsiders wouldn’t “get.”

I believe that is the appeal of both Star Trek cons and Birds’ tailgating alike. Like-minded folks immersing themselves in their fetish, where strange, disparate weirdoes can make friends. Among others who “get it.”

Like with sci-fi cons, fast friendships can be formed, forged in the arcana of Star Trek, Warhammer and the rioting that followed the Cubs winning the series. Bonds formed with people who get it, and snubbing the poor schlubs that don’t. Their loss. Resistance is futile.

Well okay, one more: a prime example of this is a tale from one of my bar buddies, also a Trek enthusiast. He attended a con where James “Scotty” Doohan was the guest of honor. He was in ill-health, kinda dinged in the head, recovering from a stroke (which left him speechless. Literally) and stuck in a wheelchair. There was a lightyear long queue for getting his autograph. According to my bud, the stroke rendered his penmanship a bit wobbly. Read: inscrutable.

My pal patiently waited in line. He noticed that Doohan could barely hold his Sharpie and basically scrawled a blur across the fanboys well-worn copies of Mr Scott’s Guide To The Enterprise. My friend wasn’t interested in scribblings. He wanted to chat with The Man.

His turn came and with no pretense he greeted him in a tone that could wake the lame and the halt (which was kinda the point):

“Jimmy! Lookin’ good! Hey, what do ya say we ditch this joint? Got a great bar upstairs, How ’bout we do some shots of whisky?”

Doohan’s droopy face lightened up. Grinning, he craned his head up to look at his daughter who was escorting him and smiled. She shook her head no. Scotty frowned.

“That’s okay, Jimmy. When yer kid has to hit the head we can skeedadle!”

Again the grin, again the frown.

“Anyway, heard you were signing stuff?” He held out a well-worn VHS jacket of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Doohan got the role on TOS based on his rep for being a skilled voice actor. Doohan was Scotty as well as Arex as well as all the ancillary voices voices on both series.

“Do me the honor?”

Smiles again. Doohan raised a shaky, outstretched hand and accepted the case. He held the Sharpie in both hands and slowly, carefully wrote on it in very clean script, “For my friend, George.” Clear as a sunny day. Too bad shots didn’t later ensue in celebration. A few months later Doohan passed away, but my bud has his “real” autograph to remember him by.

That’s kind of family feeling Trek cons create. As do tailgates and the SXSW festival. We get it. And so sorry if you don’t and then scoff. Your loss.

So now, let’s fall down the sci-fi geek wormhole with a pair of unwitting pals accidentally finding their “thing” out in the real world.

Well, “surreal” world might be a more apt description…


Two sci-fi geeks in blood from Britain, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost, respectively) take holiday to attend a big deal Comic-Con on the West Coast (and we ain’t talking Wales here). But that’s just the cherry on the sundae. They’ve rented an RV for a road trip across the American southwest to check out all the alleged alien activity over the past century (and we ain’t talking rogue migrants here).

When their boat gets all waylaid near Nevada’s forbidden Area 51 by what first appears to be a DUI driver, well there goes the voyage for truth and fun. Until the driver scrabbles out of the scrub and introduces himself.

His name is Paul (Rogen).

He’s a Grey, a casual term for a space alien. From outer space. Outer. Alien. The contact of is the holy grail for these two twits.

He needs help getting home, not to mention sanctuary from the gun happy agents who need to get him back to the lab.

(And we ain’t talking Alexa home here. We’re talking “phone…” Oh, you get it, tosser.)


I’ve read that when it comes to very Albion, very dry comedy Simon Pegg (also Scotty!) and Nick Frost can do no wrong. From Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, they are Britain’s answer to a Millenial Laurel and Hardy. Us moviegoers can’t wait to see what another fine mess they get themselves into.

After seeing Paul I think the secret to their success is staying in the UK. Their rapport may be regarded as a novelty to us Yanks. But take these two goofs across The Pond and set up camp in Vegas? Erm.

Make no mistake, Pegg paired with Frost is very funny. But taking them out of English context render them cannon fodder. Namely, ain’t these limeys cute? Especially in the Nevada desert? Does England have a desert? Haw haw.

That speaks that their’s is a very palpable awkwardness for our wonder twins hamming it up as strangers in a strange land. That schtick is like a sliver or popcorn wedged in one’s gums. Pegg and Frost don’t belong in America, let alone the community their fave sci-fi con environments provide sanctuary from the ugly, real world. It’s kind of a cheap joke, fish out of water and all that implies. It’s been done before, and done better.

To the point, Pegg and Frost are poorly fit for Paul. Their interplay is based more on finger-pointing than hands across bellies. It’s kinda mean. And redolent of the unfun stereotypes that fanboy geekiness invites. The “innocents abroad” gig only goes so far.

That’s really the shame of Paul. It’s rather one note when there was comedy gold to mine. Instead we get sci-fi geekdom in its stereotypical bad light (which ain’t hard come to think of it), drug jokes and sh*tty chemistry between all the Yank players; save Bateman (and surprisingly not Weaver), Paul suffers what I’ll call “joke cramming.” Namely, there are so many funny cast members all pitted against each other to be the funniest. It plays like a fridge door with way to much elemenary school art: hard to compare, but necessary completeing the whole. Whatever that is. Try to get a nine year old to cough up her postmodern muse, which is likely a melding of Care Bares and Melanie Martinez. In short, Paul tries to be cohesive, but the kid ate up all the paste.

Beyond Pegg and Frost, Paul does have a great, eclectic cast. It’s too bad they all were reading different scripts (which I suspect was mostly improv). Our two blokes, despite being the stars, are quite underused. They’re both underused, especially in light of the background rogue’s gallery backing up the story. Sorta more on that later.

I think the lick of salt you take with Paul is that it’s kinda like a funny X-Files/ET send up. Maybe outright parody. However the thing about parodies is that they are deliberate send ups of war horse movie tropes. Think Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and the rest of Mel Brooks’ CV. Not to mention the Police Squad movies, the Airplane! movies and practically the entirety of the ZAZ movies (save Ghost, which later was sweet parody fodder in other parodies, like The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Hey, wait a minute). Parodies are winking and let audiences in on the joke. Bad parodies resort to Family Guy-esque non-stop pop culture name dropping to blur the corners. If parodies require Google, they’re lame. It’s one thing to be let in on the joke. It’s another to be overloaded and force to surrender to a critical mass. Keyword being “critical.”

Paul tries to be sweeping in skewering anything and everything sci-fi geek/classic sci-fi film it’s like shopping at a flea market for used electrical sh*t. It plays like this:

“Hey look! A used Sega Saturn! For just a buck!”

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

“No big! Previous owner musta got pissed at f*cking up nights Into Dreams too much.”

“Those look like cordite burns.”

“Ah, it’s a buck. I’ll take it home, clean it up and we’ll be in PTO land faster than you can call 911!”

Then you call 911 as your mancave descends into the Seventh Level. All that wasted beer. Tsk tsk.

In other words, this flick could’ve been great. A real find. Then it leaves you dumb. And hard to figure if that was intentional. That’s the trouble with poor parodies, you eventually can’t differentiate the inside jokes from the outside, name-dropping ones. It’s gets boring. As Steve Martin claimed: comedy is not pretty. True, but it should defiantly bore as Paul did for me.

We’re sorta get into the above now. I keep my promises.

At its core, Paul is a buddy/road trip comedy. Almost always a good thing to waste time with. Think Rush Hour, Rain Man and all those classic team-ups with Bob and Bing. The key to such flicks are surefire gold chemistry between the leads. Or course Pegg and Frost have that spark, duh. However the supporting cast has a vital purpose also: to bounce off our bumbling heroes. Despite the awesome supporting cast bombarding Pegg and Frost with limitless comedy fodder, our limey dolts are too passive. Way too passive. They only react to the inanity, not respond. Pegg and Frost made their mark in zany comedy by interacting with absurdity that plagues them (e.g.: remember the record throwing scene in Shaun Of The Dead? Yeah, like that). In Paul, they are the records, bombarded with insanity and Frost just sits in the RV’s passenger seat while Pegg traipses off to the bathroom. Sorry, I meant loo.

I understand that Paul is another frenetic comedy directed by Mattola, but there stinks of a of rehashed Superbad schtick lurking beneath the Area 51 gags. The buddy comedy. A quest to complete. Jon Hader as a “cop.” What worked once doesn’t always work again, and Superbad is one of the wifey’s fave films. I could not in all honesty suggest we watch Paul together. There’d be too many sci-fi, pop culture refs to punch up. And down the toilet we go.

I feel the ultimate fault in Paul‘s execution is a lot of stilted dialogue. Not what is said, per se but how it’s delivered. Senta, RinaldiSenta. Letting Rogen run his motormouth for 90 minutes does not automatically equal funny. We need some time to breathe. Instead we choke on the bullet-time gags about drugs, sex, sexy drugs and drugging Kristen Wiig with too much truth (there was a gag that could’ve gained traction. Instead it fell into a short-bus version of Tyson’s Cosmos. Coulda worked).

That’s a pretty apt way to send off Paul: it could’ve worked. There were some bright spots, like Weaver winkingly chewing scenery in the final act. Or Tambor’s wry cameos. Of the sense of belonging between our fanboy/hereos in the final scene to share. Hell, even the heartwarmer (kindly slower scene) between Paul and Danner. Everything else was shot through like poop through a goose. Too much pant pant. You gotta lay off the relentless silly in order to take time to giggle. And taking time to see a Grey suck REDACTED don’t count. Sorry.

Based against those bright spots, there was still a lot of wasted potential with Paul. Was it funny? Sure, it fits and starts. Were Pegg and Frost at the top of their game? Nope. And nope. Was the cast awesome? Approaching. Did Paul require, nay, demand pop-culture name-dropping to push the plot along? Uh-huh.

It was a mish-mash of one-liners, winking jokes, tired Hollywood tropes whipped up in a Cuisinart? You just won a prize. Still—believe it or not—I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. Call it my soft spot for the SF cons of youth. Or Frost and Pegg, together again. Or that shared guilty pleasure sense of being one with the cosmos reveling in one’s culty fetish, and the welcoming outstretched arms from fellow freaks.

I guess my real, buried soft spot for Paul was the (admittedly flawed) tribute to guys like Clive and Graeme. Brothers in arms. Loving tales about illicit autographs, contraband booze just out of reach (when one could really need it) and a venerable Shakespean actor suprised and then respecting an honest question.

Sh*t like that never seems to happen watching The Simpsons. Or Firefly.

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

What? Too obscure? No more than debating the life-saving value of Prince’s Batman soundtrack.

Geek.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I didn’t hate Paul, but I was sorely let down. Still, there were enough winks to keep me smiling and watching. Only logical I gave it a “mild.”


Stray Observations…

  • Are comic-cons really like this? Yes, yes they are.
  • “Pizza!”
  • Cute Raiders nod.
  • “You know you’re grown men, right?”
  • Who’d’ve thought Bateman could ever have such a great flat affect?
  • “Get away from her, you bitch!” A very meta ha!
  • Is this whole flick a tourist trap? Ha!
  • “Seems rather fitting.”

Next Installment…

Cate Blanchette must reunite with Tommy Lee Jones in an uneasy alliance in order to find The Missing  family they both have lost.


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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)



The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.


The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*


The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.

Alien.

It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”

“…Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.

*burp*

Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…


Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…


Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.


Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.