RIORI Vol 3, Installment 91: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009)



The Players…

Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey and a holy host of stand-up comics from the past 25 years.


The Story…

Ah, America’s Heartland. The Breadbasket, when most of the agriculture that sustains our fine nation is harvested for food, medicine and other vital consumer goods. And one of the most revered (and sometimes reviled) food production conglomerates Arthur Daniels Midland—ADM to you—is responsible from getting all that fresh corn to your tables. And cereal. And sodas. And Twinkies. And plastics. And so on.

But all is not well ADM. Vice President and corporate ladder climber Marc Whitacre smells a rat in his silo, and calls in the FBI to do their thing. Suddenly Marc is a whistleblower with dreams of rewards and promotions in protecting the interests of ADM.

Better wish him into the cornfield.


The Rant…

Out of general courtesy I’ll apologize for my long absence. I could tell you what I’ve been up to, but I know you don’t care. So let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we?

It’s funny. Steven Soderbergh evolved from art-house obscurity to award-wining director in only a few key strokes. Yeah, yeah. Lotsa directors get this left-handed complement. This guy named Spielberg jumps immediately to mind (though his oeuvre was never art-house; Night Gallery was as close as it got, but his ep starred Joan Crawford in her very twilight years. I guess that counts for something). This dude named Zemeckis went from slumming it with Used Cars to rocket to fame with the Back To The Future trilogy, not mention later on some commercial and critical goo-ga with a little film called Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan! Kurosawa wanted to be a painter; directing movies was a far flung second. Good thing he stunk at watercolors.

Considering the “meteoric” rise to fame and fortune of the esteemed above, most of their success laid in crafting films that both garner critical acknowledgment and a fun with a capital fun for audiences. Critical praise is easy to follow. The highbrow says what’s good and/or bad with a film and we grok them. What makes a person justify MoviePass’ existence is such a director getting the butts in the seats. Now, no one may argue that Saving Private Ryan is a critical delight, but it’s also a lot of fun. Harrowing fun, mind you, but entertainment is entertainment. And the box office results don’t lie. You did not need some PhD in film take their swipes. So there.

Soderbergh went from art-house whatever to major player in a few, mere steps. Out Of Sight and Traffic were terrific, bringing home the accolades and the profitable turnout. Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Elevenfor good and for ill—made remakes a viable commodity in Tinsel Town. Hell, his remake spawned an entire franchise, and don’t let Sandra Bullock turn you off, wildcat. The ticket sales didn’t lie. Soderbergh may be onto something in making his movies get rave reviews and audiences wetting their diapers with aplomb. In simpler terms, he made a splash.

(Don’t groan. That is the best pun you’ve ever heard all hour.)

To wit, I breathe a sigh of frustration. A good director should rest on that: good at directing movies. Spin the tale. Let the actors roam. Get Junkie XL to cut the soundtrack. That sort of thing. Critical acclaim and audience satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. Wait, actually the audience matters most than any shiny shiny from the front row. I’m willing to betcha audience hoo-ha is more potent than critical blah. Remember, I’m no critic, just an observer. Movie critics make money. I sell blood to pay the rent. Kidding. It wasn’t my blood.

That being said (not the blood thing, not yet), I feel that the rabble may influence the highbrows more than they’d like to admit. What do these dopes with their Big Gulps and Trump bumper stickers know about cinema? Precious little, and that’s okay. Soderbergh’s CV, to them, came fully formed like Zeus hatched from Cronos’ skull. Tight drama, tight action. It works for me, too. Good movies are good movies, no matter how wobbly the director finds themselves on the front row at a Stones’ concert. Shouting out requests. And being heard. The snots with their columns may often bow down not to the doyens of cinematic f*ckery: the fickle, salt-of-the-earth, flavor-in-Columbus crowd. Them’s with their faith in MoviePass, y’all. Butts squarely in the seats.

What I am ultimately driving at is that cagey directors like Soderbergh made his name by not giving a sh*t about critical praise. They want to serve their muse and get others to go on the trip (not necessarily in that order). If he got some, hooray. I don’t give a sh*t if he was the first director to shoot a film on Mars with the remaining Monty Python troupe members recreating a live-action musical version of Akira. It would be entertaining, even without heavy drugs. And why do I claim this silliness? Because Soderbergh knows how to create films that are both solidly entertaining and innovative. And please the popcorn munchers and the highbrows in equal measure. Only Spielberg has straddled that line so well, but it took him a bit longer. I mean it took 11 years of films for Soderbergh to win his Best Director Oscar. It took Spielberg 25 years. That says something about canny filmmaking like Soderbergh: critical and commercial delights. Not an easy task to accomplish ever in Hollyweird when the bottom line is the bottom line.

This isn’t fandom gushing here. It’s respect, a hard won commodity in the realm of movie making. Which is oddly almost a thankless job in Hollywood. Can we say “creative differences” anyone? Ask Richard Donner about his truncated work on the blockbuster Superman II. Considering Soderbergh’s canon is full of quirky and edgy undertones his films deliver. The money. Hollywood might say thank you and not call on Richard Lester for Ocean’s XVIII.

It’s not like Soderberg is one of those crazy taskmasters like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Ford were, nor is he one of those odious filmmakers that subscribe to auteur theory. He just wants to makes films that serve his muse (and often id) and hopes the audience takes his hand holding the clapperboard. This apparent, amiable not giving a sh*t execution of his movies can make Soderbergh seem like some roguish dooshnozzle to the cinematic elite. Praise is given, sometimes reluctantly, and just like with all our successful heroes we can wait for the opportunity to take them down a peg or two.

Which is why when a popular, respected director with all but praise to their profession drops a turd in the punchbowl, Variety is all over it like Oprah on a powdered doughnut. Not every director has a sterling record. For every Raging Bull a New York, New York creeps behind. Scorsese had string of winners before the stinkers, and when the hose came out the furor of the guy “losing his touch” eclipsed the relatively recent, “no duh” praise to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The snobs accused and blamed Scorsese for calling it in, or worse. And boy did they sh*t the bed for it. Especially after Raging Bull was released.

I do have a point coming. Relax. Lemme take a bathroom break first…

*zip*

That’s better. Better to pissed off than pissed on I say. What, heard that one before?

Sometimes an esteemed director “takes a risk.” Deviating from their usual bread and butter. Kinda like when horror porn enfant terrible Eli Roth to a break from stuff that bleeds all over stuff that bleeds and chose to be Halloween prankster and gave us the big adapt of The House With A Clock In Its Walls (starring Jack Black, no less). Eyebrows were raised. Was this some sort of joke? Yes, it was and I, for one, went along with it. Good movie. Lotsa creepy crawlies and frights and Black as the bumbling, chubby warlock. My kid thought it was too scary, and informed her of what kind of movies the director usually made. She said no thanks.

And no thanks to me either. I’ve seen a few of Roth’s output. I like scary, not vomit inducing. But him “taking a risk” directing a PG Halloween movie with magic and mayhem (“playing against part” if you will) well outside his comfort zone certainly got folks to take notice, of only for the wrong reason: how could Mr Hostel become Willy Wonka?

Granted, Roth isn’t really an esteemed director. Infamous and a grade A schlockmeister to be sure, but still the guy has a rep, a cachet. I think my above example rings true for those filmmakers are godheads to film geeks like you, me and them. Take Spielberg. For the first 15 years of his profession as director his stock in trade was in sci-fi and action/adventure flicks. When he strayed into the field of drama, people (and critics) went bugf*ck, to put it mildly. And based on a book! Written from the POV of a black woman! Quincy Jones did the soundtrack while John Williams cried in his beer! And introduced to the world to an edgy comic as a victim of domestic abuse!

World, meet Whoopi. Whoopi, meet the world and don’t let Oprah run you down.

Talking about taking a risk. The Color Purple must’ve invited more scrutiny about it was made (and by who) than the merits of the movie proper. What right does this 30-something, Jewish white boy have documenting the black experience? According to my fact checking department (of which I have none) the black community did scratch their heads as a collective whole as to what to make of this guy Spielberg taking such a “risk?” Well, even though I don’t give much credence to the AMPAS and its doctrine, Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars as well as cleaning up at the box office. Who wants some Selsun Blue?

Soderbergh is also know for being “risky” when helming a film. I’m not talking outright subject matter (although it’s well-understood his muse straddles a line between intimacy and sexuality), or even the story. He’s just so very staunch in his belief of let the creator create, regardless of their endeavors. It’s called integrity, my fellow popcorn munchers and to be a successful filmmaker in an industry that is always in a hot hurry to sell the newest “it” requires two things: a vision and a maverick conduct. Whenever Soderbergh takes his risks, it often comes up in the dailies he challenged himself a tossed off feel. Soderbergh’s manna has always been intrigue and tenuous relationships in his work. Makes no diff if it’s with Ocean’s (insert number here), Oscar winner Traffic or his take on Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic, existential sci-fi Solaris. Whatever it takes and go with the flow or blow.

That being said, comedy? Um, terra incognita. Sure, the Ocean’s movies had some funny stuff, but it was a crime caper first and foremost. Already established by 2009 as a director of merit, whose films are dense, terse character studies (even his Solaris, quit groaning) to tackle a comedic story based on real events inspired by It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldWell, really?

Talk about “taking a risk” even though bowing down to a comedy is rarely regarded by the bent-nosed critics as such. For ardent fans of a director with a signature style it mostly requires extra Selsun Blue. For a director like Soderbergh who likes to challenge himself as his audience, going screwball might smell like career suicide. Especially casting a former captain of the proto Enterprise as a G-Man sans the holo avatar. But here we go.

Try not to notice Damon’s coif…


Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a rising star at ADM. He’s affable, knowledgeable and driven. He has his eyes on the stars, and maybe his head in the clouds.

Mark’s a rising star ADM. Good rep, astute, bright future awaits.  His boy scout mentlality and respect for his benefactors suddenly turns him into whistleblower when a rumor of ADM’s primary crop—read: corn—is being tampered with (maybe by Monsanto’s industrial operatives).

In hopes of gaining a lucrative promotion and becoming a hero of the common people, Mark inadvertently reveals his penchant for helping himself to the corporate coffers and threatens to derail the very investigation he helped to launch.

Well, what investigation? The FBI’s, of course. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) suspects that ADM is doing some price fixing, and because of Mark’s sterling record he might be the ideal—

Oh, you get it…


Hmm.

Soderbergh may make good, terse dramas and bouncy actioners. Comedy? Well, let’s just say the apple rolls away from the tree. And rolls.

Getting to the point Informant is screwy yet stiff. That odd combo seems to work here, but only to a degree. It feels kinda like an ep of “The Kids In The Hall.” Subtley surreal but not as overt. What am I watching? A comedy or sorts. It’s dry, mostly. I like dry humor. My humor is dry. The Informant is so dry it chafes. It gets a bit off-putting after a while.

I lay blame at the script. The story can’t make up its mind if the Informant! is a scrweball comedy, a manic caper when All The Presidents’ Men meets the Coen Bros circa The Big Lebowski (what else?), or a character study of a nice guy who wants to seen as nice and agrees to everything except using the common sense God gave Sylvester the cat. In short, the focus of the movie bounces back to the “A” plot, which is pretty straightforward after careening around in the B-plot, Mark’s fevered delusions of success. Informant! gets all scrambled, yet that may be the point. We’re looking at a man who is failing upwards but has convinced himself what he is doing working for the FBI (eg: climbing the corporate ladder, being an advocate on behalf of ADM, being a doting family man, etc) is the “right” thing, despite losing himself in his delusion.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is a decidely odd movie. Silly, really. It’s tough to follow the straight line towards what Soderbergh (tried) to get across here. Chuckles, sure. Maybe social commentary. Perhaps just an outlet for Damon to cut loose. Aye, that may be the rub.

Let’s talk about Damon for a moment. He’s the pinion upon which the whole wad spins, right? His Mark is an amalgam of Mr Slate from The Flintstones and Bud Abbott; superiority and insecurity’s hold on it personified. And what’s the most interesting— if not the most amusing—aspect of Informant! is the relation between how Mark’s grasp on the reality of his (self-inflicted) surroundings makes his “waking” life all the more surreal, which he does not acknowledge. With much force. His voice-overs are less random synapses of rationalization but rather a steam vent opening. Mark’s monologes are nothing but rationalizing, convincing himself if the right guy for the job. The “nice” guy.

That whole bit wasn’t conceived to be negative. After coming so far with RIORI I’ve learned how to write as a doosh without being a doosh. Well, still learning I guess. I’m not the biggest Damon fan. Sure, he’s a solid actor, reliable. And very predictble. Damon’s performance is so un-Damon it makes solid Damon almost unrecognizable. It’s a good thing. It allows young Jack Ryan (or even younger Illario) to go again his grain. Mark is the funniest thing about Informant! and he makes this flick ne big facepalm. Mark is insecurity incarnate, and also pulls of nerdy very well. Damon’s the only animated person here. Everyone else—including the much more earthy Bakula, who looks like he his head far from the clouds—are just dolts. Wallpaper. Makes Damon’s Mark all the more, well, marked. Is it a coincidence that stand-up comics comprise the supporting cast? They’re all laughing at him. I was. That was about it.

Again it was kinda tricky to follow where Soderbergh was going here. Right, comedy. But what kind? Was this some kind of corporate Three Stooges bit? Was it all about a fish out of the wrong water? A middle finger to the ardent Soderbergh audience? You can almost hear the dominos tumbling down. What adds to any comic unease is the incessant babble of Marc’s voiceovers, almost pleading for both sympathy for his plight as well as making a case for his criminal acts. Laughs in finger-pointing or you don’t know what else to do? Me? I caught the gig, but missed the show. A tight director like Soderbergh needs to be looser to pull of a giggle fest. Or a facepalm.

This movie is silly, and it’s hard to tell if that was on purpose. Knowing it was based on real events, were the real Mark’s escapades that hair-brained or was some sweetening spread across the script? Granted a lot of scenarists take liberty with the source material (eg: that pen trading thing in A Beautful Mind? Never happened, nor the ceremony ever existed. Sorry, Montblanc). I figured the writers of Informant!  did their darndest to make the film laughable. Under comedy-rube Soderbergh Informant! played out as laughble.

Like Bakula’s ‘do.

“Al? You there?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. This is a first. The Informant! (despite my grumpier, assured yammerings over lesser movies) is the first flick here that was just not my thing. It was a solid film, well cut, but had a hard time holding my attention or churning up laughter. Despite my steaming, I can still recognize what I recognize.


Stray Observations…

  • “What else is there?”
  • Corky?
  • Bakula sports an amazing hairstyle, akin to pro football coach crica 1976. Must’ve leapt there for ideas.
  • “This involves price fixing in the lycene business.” Hide the children.
  • “You let me know about it, and I’ll tell my Dad.”
  • Pay phones. Stupid things.
  • The way Mark’s brain is wired you can almost hear the fuses blowing.
  • Never trust a guy who says, “Trust me” holding a large glass of whisky.
  • Remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Yep.
  • “Well, I think maybe I should go back to the hospital.”

Next Installment…

Matt Damon (and Emily Blunt) is on the run from The Adjustment Bureau. Wow! So?!?


 

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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 89: Steve Pink’s “Accepted” (2006)



The Players…

Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Columbus Short, Maria Thayer, Blake Lively, Adam Herschman and Lewis Black, with Anthony Heald, Travis Van Winkle, Mark Derwin, Ann Cusack and Hannah Marks.


The Story…

Graduating high school senior Bartleby is blithely confident he’s gonna get into college. If not the one of choice than surely one of his backups. He’s sure of it. His folks are hoping on it. His little sis is doubtful of it.

Big ups to sis. Even his backup, backup schools said no thanks. According to his mom and dad if Bartleby doesn’t get his rear in gear his future is in beyond doubt. Hello minimum wage job at the Costco.

Not having any of that, Bartleby cooks up a scheme: invent his own college! All he needs are the right papers.

And curriculum.

And campus.

And mascot.

And you get the idea.


The Rant…

Getting into the college of your choice is hard.

Wait. No it’s not. Not anymore. At least not in the conventional way. Listen.

Hold it, I know I’ve regaled you here at RIORI about my collegiate misadventures. Not gonna do that this time out. Well, not much.

As you know, dear reader that I am a cook. I went through culinary school, yeah, but before these dark days I studied and eventually graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in English. Actually, the mouthful on the CV was a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. Looks good on a résumé, until you have to explain to the interviewer what the whole wad meant. I then went so far as pursuing a Masters’ in Secondary English Education. Needless to say things didn’t pan out. How do you want your steak?

Now. Let’s set the wayback machine to, oh, 100 years ago. Back then, only the well-heeled could afford to send their spawn to college. It was as prestigious as it was expensive. Graduate and head out into the working world and said world was your oyster. Even more so if it was a “name school.” You’d have it made, and make your folks would be proud. Return on investment.

Post WW2, with America’s expanding middle class, average families could better afford their kiddies the opportunities Mom and Dad wanted at their age. It grew easier to find the college of your choice: the GI bill, scholarships (both academic and athletic. Sometimes both), student loan programs, all sorts of gateways to golden educations that would demand careers.

Then came the 60s, the Baby Boomers. Them and their weed and Grateful Dead LPs and vainglorious notions of shaping the future. Getting into college became mainstream. The workforce and the armed forces were no longer the only places to go post-high school (especially when the draft came calling. Saint Stephen with his rose and all). The skies were as high as they were. Opportunity would come knocking with a degree. A world in the making for the Boomers and later their privileged progeny. Right?

Um. I smell grease.

Enter Gen X. College was not an option. It was a directive. The factories and trolling for unexploded ordinances in some rice pattie Dad defended were for the rabble. You are going to college. Why? Good job, steering clear of time clocks and twitchy napalm. We, the parents, are going to be either bled dry or horns-waggled by the nice lady at the student loan citadel. Anything, anything but “do you want fries with that?”.

At the butt-end of the 20th Century, getting into college was no longer precious. It was ironclad; high school grads would go to college, or else. No longer an overt privilege. Dad would call it marching orders, waving a stump he put to best use at the now closed John Deere factory. We saved up for years to have you get to college, against the odds of risking another pattie and having to keep up with the Jones. And the Smiths. Maybe the Millers, too. You call this a report card? How the hell could you flunk lunch? Let’s hope the boards overlook that. And stay away from that manure spreader.

Don’t get stumped (no apologies there). Getting into college these days can be a real boondoggle. Lots of choices, lots of reasons, lots and lots of paperwork. Forget earning the golden ticket to the ideal job. Simply getting accepted is a real job. A chore. And don’t think the Millenials have it any easier. F*cking FaceBook posts have merit now, even if they only consist of videos of cute cats robbing banks, anime style. It went from once tricky and for the rich to the average getting tricky, if not tricked. My folks recently covered my student loan debt. I graduated with that long-winded shingle decades ago. The bill was paid in full in my early 40s, me now as a divorcee, single dad and a lot of cool recipes. None of them concocted based on the musings of Sartre.

I view it this way: back in the day, college was for the privileged, therefore a degree earned was not just accreditation, but esteemed in select, special circles. By mid-century, college screamed opportunity for every young adult! A good job awaits, not the sh*thole GI Dad had to endure at that age. Go get ’em, kid!

Into the 1980s, where college was de riguer for any high school grad and post-grad it was out into the working world and, well, so what? You went to college? And made it through? Fine. What else can you offer?

By the turn of the 21st Century—say, 100 years after the Armistice, with all yer silly iPhones, Nintendo Switches and a sh*tty grasp on proper grammar—you’ve been to college, right? Okay. So what? Where?

Name recognition. Branding. What kind of product are you? That’s not such a new worldview; it goes back aways. You want to be a lawyer? You attend Yale. You want to be an atomic physicist? You attend MIT. You want to be the next Yo Yo Ma? You lug your battered cello to Juilliard. You want to be a cook? You attend Syracuse University and graduate with a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. You want your steak how? Go Gen X!

Let’s face facts here. Finishing college lost its spark during the Clinton years. Getting accepted somewhere was no longer significant. Earning a sheepskin was akin to having a valid drivers’ license. You drove here so you’re hired. Get this validated. No, the other bit.

Here’s the real truth about college ultimately teaches you. I learned this from a nice girl I dated at SU. She was so nice I had a hard time absorbing her brutal, cynical truth. That being claimed, she had a bruh crush on Leo DiCaprio and spend more time analyzing Titanic than Cameron did post-production. She was a stitch.

She told me that the only thing college really teaches you is how to work a system. You give them what they want, they’ll give you what you want. It’s a business.

My scales fell. I understood she was cute, but also right. And slyly devious as well as practical. And I slept with her. I knew everything then. I was king of the world!

*klonk klonk klonk*

Needed that, thanks.

Wrapping up here before wrapping up later, college is a system to work, a game. A gamble. Getting in somewhere is a fun nightmare. Fun because you are an active subject in your own vetting process. A nightmare because you have a weak flashlight. Before I settled on SU I had to visit a lot of other prospects. There’s a feel to each and every school, and when you feel the right feel you apply.

That’s it. It’s how it’s been for the past quarter century. You find a home away from home. You’re not going to be denied an education; that’s the business before the business. It’s not as if you have a question for your prof pertinent to your midterm that they’re not gonna answer. What’s that? No. You’re going to have to go to Harvard to get that info. Hand in your blue book.

Getting an education at college is the program, the end run. You’re going to learn something. These days it’s the campus, the environment, the feel of the school that makes you want to sign on. That’s key, and f*ck all to my blustering earlier. Still think it’s relevant, if only as a slog to getting into college, but at the end of the day as a prospective college student you ultimately gotta find your niche. A school where you feel you belong.

Once in, limping through your chosen major (mine: waffles and Melville), you pick and choose your personal needs, both in academia and finding your Mark (refer to the Zack And Miri Make A Porno installment. Wear a raincoat). You find your wants over your scholastic needs a lot, be it discovering indie rock, burning, the Greek System, beer bongs, basketball games and/or a creative writing workshop dissecting the works of Sylvia Plath (Cliff Note: she was only great cuz she couldn’t figure out the new oven).

As of this installment, getting into college is simple (if you’re rich, white and male…or poor, black and not male). Smile and nod, and keep in the back of your mind all the well-to-do tags stapled to your nuts back in 1918 after thwarting the Hun and your folks investing in Mr Astor’s furrier enterprise. May seem like ancient junk now, especially facing the impulse to find a college that’s you. Where you can get the best education focusing on your skills and needs. Connect with the right friends that both support/inspire you and/or craft a fake ID before Friday night. Maybe even taken under the wing of an esteemed, ancient and most likely boozy prof exposing you to the hidden social commentary in Raymond Carver’s works as well with Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Choose that. Go learn.

Smart move. What’s yours now? Want fries/Proust with that?

I was accepted at SU. I learned a lot, both academic and social. I found my niche.

Twenty years on I sear duck breast for $12 an hour and am not at all remotely full of regret or bitter…


College is the melted cheese that covers up all the crap you had to endure those lame four years in high school. This is Bartleby “B” Gaines’ (Long) devil-may-care attitude come graduation. College acceptance? Easy. His apps went out, cluttered with average grades, no unnecessary extracurricular activities, precious few blemishes on his non-existant permanent record and no parking tickets in the student lot on Mondays. Getting accepted should be a breeze.

The only breeze blowing is over the empty mailbox, too weak to raise the red plastic flag. Even B’s backup backup school passes him over. And his parents are mad.

Since no school wants B, he concocts a wild idea. College is all about making yourself, right? Then why not create a college that would accept a mediocre grad like himself? All he needs is some hacked acceptance letter to show his dismayed folks!

“The South Harmon Institute of Technology?”

It fits. He’s up sh*t’s creek anyway. But a letter ain’t enough. B recruits his best bud Schrader (Hill) to snoop around and create a bogus website, find a campus, a student body, a skater half-pipe, the usual to keep this ruse alive and kicking. Thus SH*T is born. All will be well.

Until jillions of washouts from other colleges become barbarians at the gates demanding degrees.

What to do? SH*T has become more than a ruse. It’s fast becoming a sh*tstorm. Now what?

Simple. Launch motorcycle stunts into the student pool with a hella pyrotechnics.

Ain’t “college” fun?


I liked this, heaven help me. And not just based on my broken-wing concept of college life. Well maybe a bit.

I know I’m showing my cards here, but after weeks of shaking my head at my viewing selections I need some comfort food. Namely, a flick devoid of artistic pretensions. Any pretensions really. With Accepted, it made for some decent yuk-yuks. Even if it’s under your pillow or a latent snort when you’re taking a leak. You get where I’m coming from. I hope.

Accepted is a classic comic example of “just go with it.” There are no twists, no “serious” ones you couldn’t’ve predicted. Carbon copy characters/stereotypes with a dash of tokenism you can root for. You know all will end well. It’s a straight line. You might have seen this before. Well, thanks to the ur-college comedy, the green jello snorf of Animal House casts its guitar-smashing shadow over Accepted, as well as all the other college comedies that got thrown up in its fart you have seen this coming. Revenge Of The Nerds, Old School, the original American Pie here. Slobs versus snobs. Freewheeling versus square dealing (or really?). Saddles versus paddles (wait a minute). You get it. Now go with it.

I call Accepted a good Saturday afternoon movie. Off work. No errands. Slouched on the couch and, hey, there’s the remote. Snap on the Netflix feed and there go 90 minutes. The spazzy, overwatered dog can wait at the door. A good waste of time, curled up with a dumb, self-aware comedy. You’re already seen Casino too many times already. Time for some popcorn fodder.

In my opinion there are two types of comedy: clever and intellectual or shameless and derivative. The first is like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The second is like John Landis’ Animal House (my fave ever comedy. Shocker there). With Annie Hall, you gotta sift for the joke. With Animal House the joke is all over us. Thankfully, Accepted mimicked Landis’ magnum opus shamelessly and with great aplomb.

Director Pink knew exactly where to come from here. College comedy? Animal House is a safe bet. Any new spin? Um, nope. Enough nope to blatantly rip off tons of scenes and tropes from Landis’ marvel. With no shame. And all for the better.

Justin “I’m a Mac” Long was an inspired bit casting as our hapless B. He’s like Ferris Beuller lite. Rather than winging it in his collegiate charade he’s flying be the seat of his pants to keep his SH*T scheme aloft. A lot of thinking on his feet, which always goes catastrophically right furthering making hole deeper. He’s good at being just on the cusp of awkward (“This is another fine mess…”), stumbling and taking his fellow washouts with him. SH*T is a character in itself, akin to the doctor’s Monster and is always teetering on going on the rampage. B’s never truly cool under pressure, and his provides enough tension with his last-minute, half-baked plotting to keep you interested.

If only as an avatar for featuring a chockful of young stars no sane audience would mistake for actual high school grads. That being said, behold the birth of Jonah Hill’s dry, slacker wit. Hard to believe that super fluffy Hill here would go on to earn an Oscar nom, but gift for one-liners are here. Roughhewn, but here. His nerdy Schrader (a nod to infamous, scandalous scenarist Paul Schrader maybe?) is the “sweat act,” the voice of reason, the guy who got into his first choice real college, the protag’s best bud and the Flounder analog for Accepted. His was the not-so-envious position to picture legit college life against B’s freewheeling experiment in Camp North Star meets Lincoln Tech, which of course is far more liberal arts and precious few pretensions. His head’s in Harmon U, his wing is around B, snarky to the end. After wearing a hot dog suit, where do you think Schrader’s allegiance lies? I think Hill’s role as lovable loser here was his breakout.

Since my brain was turned off from my Scorsese-vision and allowed to just sponge, I let myself pay some attention to the minor players. At first I found them driftwood (read: Lively as the romantic interest who was so much wallpaper, doy), but I eventually warmed up to the supporting cast. At first the aforementioned tokenism is its drab guises told me yeah, okay. These folks are gonna fade into the background. Big ups to scenarist Adam Cooper et al to actually use this dips as essential to the A plot. There was a hint of actual filmmaking going on there. A crossbreed between Annie Hall and Animal House, Jugdish! To put it simply, the intro of lost scholarship Hands and Yale-denied Rory was just, yeah, whatever, B’s fellow washouts. The second act proves different, but in a friendly, soul-searching kind of way. Isn’t that a part of the whole (non) college experience? Between marching band practice and endless philosophy seminars I discovered Bob Mould and Korean food. Guess what went further? Maria Thayer and Columbus Short’s awakening as guru and artisan proved if not honest but refreshing, and not just a gimmick. Simply put, we got some money with our minors. Even the minor minors. I’m not gonna so far as to say the supporting cast was “colorful,” I’m saying Pink, Cooper and our rogue’s gallery were good stretching a cinematic dollar. You didn’t feel ripped off of your two Saturday afternoon dollars. Overall predictable, sure, but yeah. Vacuum the FunYuns off your sweater before your kids want some.

I found the ultimate appeal of Accepted was the geek factor. Look, if you set the wayback machine to high school, only the precious few found/created their own cliques of like-minded plastics and/or nerds. High school is that tricky time during adolescence as crucible tenuously balanced between the very deep “Who am I?” up against the greater, often superfluous “Who are we and why care?” Such social structures take the back seat with Accepted (this is post-grad ennui we’re lapping at here, not the cool kids’ lunch table). All that is woolgathering. Here we know the dorks will triumph. Accepted is all about how said mutants do so. The model students at the alabaster Harmon U are an afterthought Omega House, and their subplot is mostly forgotten as SH*T evolves into a pseudo-legit school. That’s where the honey is. Pink may be no DeMille, but he knows how to shove around a cast of thousands—okay, hundreds, if that with multiple stunt doubles and pro skateboarders—into the right places. The rabble is as much as much a singular character as, well, you are. The uncertainty of your future. The ensuing circles you run in. The dopey choices you make for good or for ill. If this sounds like a lot of existential hokum, it is. Either flowing from B’s seat of his pants thinking on his feet, or you just being in a potential life-changing clusterf*ck, figuring it all out and keep at least one foot on the ground is relatable for everyone. At it core, watching  Accepted is like talking yourself out of a speeding ticket. And how relieved you feel if you pull it off.

Yeah yeah yeah. I’m going on like Accepted was the second coming of Chaplin’s The Circus. Call it slow burn elation that comes with an entertaining film you don’t have to think about. Accepted is deliberate fluff. It kinda works. I say kinda because if you’re a thinking person, capping the cynicism lens might prove difficult. You gotta be in the right mood to watch this trash. Guess Netflix caught me on a needful day. Don’t forget, this has been done before, shoehorning tropes from milestone movies into lesser specimens, if only they are trying pay homage. The film understands this. It’s all about how the ornaments. Your Xmas tree already lost all its needles.

Just let me quote this once more when it comes to mediocre movies (it should become part of The Standard by now). It’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played. Accepted had easy pacing, inoffensive characters, a reliable story device and a thorough stream of chuckles. I started watching Accepted with my cynic lens firmly capped. I plotted on my notebook a “laugh meter” and tacked off every time I giggled. I gave up in the first act. What I sat down for delivered just fine.

So it’s Saturday and you’re waiting for the college boards to call. While you wait (and wait and wait), queue up Accepted as a good waste of time. Lars Von Trier can wait (and wait and wait and…)

*stirs, brushes pretzel salt off crotch*

Where was I? Right. Learning how to work the system while schilling for Apple. Here’s hoping.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Like I said, funny and a fair time waster. Feel feel to pore over the latest from Werner Herzog some Monday evening on PBS.


Stray Observations….

  • “Are you huffing grass?”
  • Bartleby, as in “the scrivener?” As in “ghostwriter?” Hmm.
  • No matter what role Lewis Black plays he’s always Lewis Black. Even for Inside Out. God bless ‘im.
  • “Yeah. In human dollars.”
  • Dr Chilton—er—Dean Van Horn’s motives echo Dean Wormer’s. No Millennial fun of any kind.
  • “I want to learn how to blow sh*t up with my mind!” Hey, who doesn’t?
  • I think Pink has a Cusack crush. He’s worked within and out of that film family before. That’s John and Joan’s sis Ann as B’s mom. She has the best cleavage of them all. Especially John.
  • “This is so cheezy in the greatest way.” The movie in a nutshell.
  • Did they ever clean up that bathroom?

Next Installment…

John Q Archibald takes on the health care system with a very specific agendum: find a way to save his son’s life. Hell, after tossing all those forms to the floor what else would you do? F*cking vote?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 85: Jesse Dylan’s “Kicking And Screaming” (2005)



The Players…

Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall (?), Mike Ditka (!?) and Kate Walsh (.), with Musetta Vander, Dylan McLaughlin, Josh Hutcherson and a team of spastic tweenage boys.


The Story…

Phil’s never been the athletic type. Truth be told he’s a total klutz, much to the disappointment of his uber-competitive dad, Buck.

Phil’s always been trying to earn his father’s approval. So when an opportunity arises for Phil to coach his son’s little league soccer team, he figures this might be an ideal way to prove to his old man he really has the chops to be a sports star. If only by proxy through the non-skills of a bunch of misfit, booger-eaters.

Play ball!


The Rant…

Ah, sports comedies. Covered on here with The Replacements installment back in 1870. I’m gonna paraphrase the MO of most sports comedies again right quick. Don’t want to bore you:

It’s all about the underdogs. The end.

Works well with grown-up “athletes” up against crazy odds. Even better with kids. Look at the Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks and to a skewed degree Hoosiers. C’mon, it had Hackman and Hopper. That claims some merit. My blog, my rules. And enough with beer cans already. Upgrade to bottles, for pity’s sake.

*klonk*

Thank you. Moving on.

Most sports comedies, by deliberate—if not predictable—design are meant to be feel-good, with much clownish humor and a dash of human drama thrown in. Y’know, to anchor some precious emotional investment. It’s a formula that works most of the time in such flicks. Please refer to the examples above.

*klonk*

Again, thank you. Shows your’e paying attention.

In relation to sports comedies (or any funny formula) there sometimes—okay, often—is what I call “animal mimicry.” It’s a very specific form of rip-off. There are only so many ways to fold a sheet. Namely a certain, specific sub-genre of movies hang on signature tropes to attempt to make the plot work. It’s expected. In fact it’s demanded. Talking about the sports comedy movie here, duh. There’s the essential underdog factor, given. The literal loss leader team of misfits as well. An incompetent, big-hearted coach with personal issues. The basics. Need I remind you of my fave saw regarding most formulaic film devices. Like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Sometimes, however, the strings break like an Entwistle bass solo. The tropes get abused. Familiarities set in. A cocked brow reluctantly raises with hope, smelled this poop before. Not so fresh anymore, pilgrim, so choose wisely at the ticket taker. For every Slap Shot you’re gonna find a dozen The Air Up Theres, all desperate for your stub and not satisfaction. It’s like choosing a personal pizza from the local Target’s snack bar. Plain or pepperoni? Never mind. It’s f*cking Target.

Based on Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes, AllMovie and the ghost of Ebert, we willfully get duped more often than not about this thing called sports comedies, We want the chuckles, the warm fuzzies, the guilty pleasures of rooting for rapscallions to achieve on the field of glory. It’s the formula we crave as ideal popcorn fodder. We can catch the latest Von Trier movie some other Sunday afternoon.

But at the back of our Twizzler-addled gourds, mostof us want Buddy Guy to thrill us, then leave. The sports comedy it totally disposable, and that’s the way we want it. We know how this game is played, so to speak. Just show us some money for a bit. Pleasure us. Get dopey without being dopey. Bad News Bears was dopey. Slap Shot was very dopey. The Replacements reveled in its dopiness, almost as parody. But they delivered their self-conscious dopiness with elan and not sacrificing the essential dumb to make us laugh.

I think I just described every Rob Schneider vehicle that wasn’t. Whoops.

How a good, formulaic sports comedy works? Don’t bow to our expectations, Hollyweird. Don’t play. We know what we’re getting into. Don’t disappoint us by disappointing us. Don’t play that sharp chord over and over again, Buddy. Tweak. Try b-flat. Might launch a tired show into something worth hearing. In basic terms, don’t deliberately aim for the lowest common denominator. Again, we know what we’re getting into even if we don’t. Don’t throw us any line. Just let us watch, giggle and/or groan and a spit of pathos might work millions. Better than multiple fart jokes. A few, but not multiple. We’ve seen Blazing Saddles already.

Wait. You haven’t?

*klonk*

Thanks. A simple concept shot too simple too often. Sports comedies. Dime a dozen.

Except with Kicking And Screaming. We’re gonna hafta work with eleven…


Attached to two left feet and a needful desire to honor his dad’s neverending legacy towards being a winner, Phil Weston (Ferrell)…fails a lot.

His nemesis and shaman father Buck (Duvall, whose cachet is rapidly wilting) is a sports gear magnate. Phil mans a holistic, humble vitamin store. Phil married his college sweetheart Barbara (Walsh). Buck scored the ultimate trophy wife in curvy, much younger Janice (Vander). Phil’s son Sam (McLaughin) is sweet natured and inherited Dad’s two lefts when it comes to team sports. Buck’s shark of a son Bucky (Hutcherson),the apple and all, tears up the soccer field like a lawn mower on steroids. Fist bump!

Phil’s not much of a winner based against Buck’s ultra-competative world. It rankles him, though he’d never say so outright. To say anything would just goad Buck further. And that’s another form of competition Phil’s been struggling with all his life. If there was only a way to prove his mettle about…something.

This something comes in the form of Buck cutting benchwarmer Sam from his soccer team. From the arch Gladiators to the lowly Tigers. Sam ain’t thrilled by this demotion, but on his inaugural game with the Tigers, he and dad Phil discover the coach has quit. Team can’t play without a coach, and Phil sees an opportunity. He’ll put on the mantle of coach. He’ll prove to his son and Dad both that he really has the goods to lead a junior soccer to the championships.

Right. Go have another cup of coffee, Phil. Smell it while you’re at it…


I had a bad feeling about this one.

This movie is one of the many reasons I risk sanity for all y’all at RIORI, and ultimately how The Standard came into being. It’s a low rent public service, to be sure, but a service nonetheless. And a free one, so there.

I’m gonna admit outright that I am generally not a fan of Will Ferrel’s retarded style of frat boy humor. I was a frat boy, and suggested dick jokes get limp (ha!) pretty damned quick. On the man’s flip side, his ace-in-the-hole is playing the innocent, shoved into said dick jokes. Fish out of water. Victim of circumstance. Yet ready to go streaking or drop the f-bomb on air. I get it, but I’ve seen it done better. I find his schtick too broad. Sorry. Not bad, per se. Just broad.

So after screening Kicking And Screaming I was left with the question, “Did Ferrel really want this role?” Old School, Ron Burgundy and even Elf (a fave Xmas movie of mine, as well as a million other elves) used the man’s comic chops of crass innocence prior to this flick to great effect. Okay, even though Ron dumb, it was self-consciously dumb. I’m really not a Ferrel fan, but I give the guy a wide berth acting in the proper role. With Kicking there is neither the sharp wit or self-aware banter winking to the fact that Farrel is a lovable dolt. With Kicking he tries, but he’s just a dolt, and a smarmy one at that. Not Ron Burgundy territory here.

We looks like we gots ourselves a bad case of the Happy Madison’s here. Trying to mine the numb dumb of Sandler’s earliest cinematic efforts (and effort being the key term, like in bearing to look, swan) is what Kicking reeked of. It also stank of forced sight gags, lame stereotypes, wooden acting and a dire need to shoehorn a PG-13 movie into the context of a G one. It was a bait and switch.

Kicking was Bad News Bears lite. Unlike that classic bad film of misfits and miscreants rising to a little league challenge to a non-victory, our duck drags to an inevitable conclusion. There a few decent sight gags, but the whole wad falls on Ferrel’s nebbish/manic quips and yelling for no good reason. I know it’s a Ferrel vehicle, but it’s also supposed to be a sports com. You can’t have the lead dominate everything. It quickly becomes a high profile act at The Laugh Factory. Kicking ain’t cuddly. It’s bitter, especially when Duvall rears his skull.

Let’s talk about that. Duvall is a great actor, earthy and convincing if not a bit profane. Tender MerciesApocalypse Now (love that napalm stink), Godfathers 1 & 2. His career cachet is grounded in portraying bitter anti-heroes. Hell, even the acclaimed original Twilight Zone ep “Miniature” early in his career proves his studied awkwardness can go far. I’ll even lob his stints in lesser roles like Gone In Sixty Seconds, Falling Down and Deep Impact, reluctance may be his stock-in-trade. Being a boor doesn’t suit his skills well. Enter Buck.

The guy is so annoying. It may be on purpose. It may be a need to be foil to pussy Phil. It might have been Duvall f*cking around with this lark, having a laugh. It might even been a troll to drag the ‘rents to the cineplex so their spawn could watch Lord Business play catch. Whatever the motive, I saw Duvall selling out with precious little shame, shoehorned into a role simply cast as a foil to dopey Ferrel. I mentioned this above. It bore repeating. Duvall wanderered through his role, visage awash with bitterness. I’m gonna place bets that overall a hefty check was his motive.

And yet, and yet…Duvall was the funniest guy in the movie. No joke, so to speak. Maybe being (deliberately) miscast served as a boon for his comedic chops. Right, Tom Hagen, Sgt Kilgore, Mac Sledge and Karl Childers senile dad were never the funniest guys in the room (okay, I’ll give a slight pass to Kilgore and his fetish for surfing and gasoline as tactical weapon). Duvall as crusty Buck was an inspired role born of either a demented agent or a crazy casting director. Maybe both, and maybe not. Let’s review: Duvall’s cachet as an actor may be portraying bittersweet anti-heroes, but there’s a flipside to this style. Duvall’s credited to making an acting career out of awkwardness, yes, but also via characters as fish-out-of-water, placed in situations that demand shrugging shoulders against the roles that are meant for any other actor to be the Rock of Gibraltar. Duvall bows to that, but with calculated reluctance. C’mon. Do you think Tom Hagen had a clear conscience representing the Corleone family? Mac Sledge sure had a time divulging his nasty past with that kid. Kilgore was sure good with all that bluster, but it was all posturing. Taking all this hoo-ha into consideration, maybe him being cast as Buck wasn’t solely about chasing the check. His Buck is an anti-hero, shades of Kilgore. Kicking was an ideal setting for Duvall’s cachet to be turned on its ear. That being claimed, Duvall as wiseass and a walking a anti-PC warning might be viewed as revisionist thumbing-of-nose to a snickering audience. Duvall’s Buck played as an okay to fart at a funeral. Yeah, he was funnier than Ron Burgundy in Kicking. I’m as shocked as you’re most likely not.

*klonk klonk*

You may stop that now.

At least Duvall twisted himself around and chewed some scenery. Ferrel was sleepwalking through his part. All the gags he honed in the above movies are merely laurels here. I know I’m beating up on a pseudo-kiddie flick here, but with a mostly quality cast here misused again and again, the star should at least buoy the flop with their signature style. Hell, even Jim Carrey’s trademark goofy annoyance played rather well with The Truman Show and The Man In The Moon. Here Ferrel is just plain annoying. It’s little wonder why his Phil became his pop’s fave whipping boy. Namely, Ferrel’s Phil is unlikeable and could’ve been salvaged by him playing to his precious few decent roles as amalgam. Instead, no nuance. Matthau made a good drunk with a heart of tarnished gold. Ferrel is just a wimp, and a whiny one at that. No surprise he spent most of the movie being dismissed. I found Phil boring as much as Duvall shrewdly chased the paycheck. Snore.

Yeah, yeah. I’m tearing apart some pastiche about kiddie soccer league like it were Proust. I found that troubling. Kicking was supposed to be disposable, bearing not much thought. EG: the most retarded family sports comedy ever. But the primaries totally dismiss character, the juvie cast ugly and a predicable straight line to the climax made me feel gypped. There’s a total absence of tension; we could see the ending a light-year away. I know we know the outcome’s gonna be; you don’t need to broadcast the sh*t. I didn’t expect to dig Gone In Sixty Seconds no less to be delighted by Elf every Xmas. But that fluff overturned my expectations. Surprised me. I saw Kicking a parsec away, and felt dumped.

I’ve been broadcasting. I know. But even with the crappiest film there is some emotional glue that keeps us watching (beyond the non-existant Walsh shower scene. Got your attention now?). That being shouted, to its credit, Kicking did possess an odd bittersweetness going down. The underlying dynamic is all about dads relating to their sons, for good and ill. In American society competition is the lifeblood of all. What better way to address this dynamic in microcosm than sports? My father and I were like oil and water when it came to the Super Bowl (as well as musical tastes, and books, and porn. The man-on-goat stuff was never my thing. Okay, his thing). I’m not sure my kid’s enthusiasm for field hockey will sow seeds. I only pay attention to pro ball if Boston makes it to the playoffs, then maybe.

In sum sports—and by extension, middling family sports comedies—should bring folks together. Often with polarizing results, sure, but that’s how the game’s played. So to speak. Fun is the name of the you-know-what. Kicking lacked that, and what a shame. We all need a good, goofy sports-com once in a while. Y’know, to pop the proverbial and overblown obsession with football as warfare.

In closing, some words from the front: it was many years ago when I was a baker at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I got to talking to a young server about the National Pastime (no, not streaming Netflix). We chatted about the merits of baseball against “faster” sports like football and b’ball. Eventually it came down to our fave teams. He was already going on about Yankees this and Yankees that, and asked me about who I followed.

“Boston.”

He frowned. “Yankees.”

“…I heard.” And frowned back.

In a moment of satori he curled back his hip and withdrew his hand from his back pocket, extended it.

“Okay. Ortiz has a hell of a swing.”

I took his hand, “And Jeter has a hell of an arm. Until the field of battle…where we will crush you!”

We slapped each other on the backs and laughed. Brothers in arms.

There’s a real sports comedy for y’all. Go find your own.

*klonk klonk klonk*

Y’all must be Mets fans. Or for Barcelona.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Kiddie sports comedies are usually funny. As is Farrel. Usually.


Stray Observations…

  • The only true laugh I belted out here was for the “We forfeit” scene. You’ll laugh, too.
  • “Go hemp!”
  • At least the kids ain’t cute.
  • “Get some circulation back in your skull!” Um, huh?
  • Too many pop songs. Cloying.
  • “Meat first!” Wise words.
  • Got the feeling that Ditka carried this movie.
  • “I take a vitamin everyday; it’s called a steak.”
  • Right. Coffee makes you an assh*le. Surprise (finger at face)!

Next Installment…

Dystopia never seemed so politically palpable as Natalie Portman raised her woke fingers in a V For Vendetta.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 83: Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (2005)



The Players…

Aaron Eckhard and Cameron Bright, with Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, JK Simmons, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.


The Story…

In the competitive market of the tobacco industry, it’s good to have an “in” into the public mind to best promote cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a stinky wardrobe. That’s where guys like lobbyist Nick Naylor steps in.

He’s a shill for cigarettes and a single dad. He has scruples when it comes to rearing his bright son, but when Big Tobacco calls, he’s their sleazy, immoral mouthpiece.

So when the assignment of his career invites getting a very high profile for his efforts how can he convince his son his work is worthy?

Check that. Convince? Try con rather.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em?


The Rant…

Okay. Confession time. Again.

I am a smoker. Twenty years gone. I’m not proud of it but I won’t deny it either. Like the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I’ll smoke. I’ll get the cancer. I’ll die. Deal? Thank you, America.”

The fact that Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer gives me pause. And some teensy bit of black hope. Denial is more than just a river in Africa.

My ugly habit emerged in my senior year of college. I was studying to become a secondary ed English teacher. Middle and high school students. It was a stress ball of the first degree, the curriculum, the course load. In addition to maintaining steady attendance of my regular classes, I had to shoehorn some time in the morning three hours a day, five days a week as student teacher at the nearest middle school. Those pre-pubers were a handful and a half. Never realized how short we all we back then. And mouthy. And at the dawn of the ‘rents blaming little Johnny and Janie for their sh*tty test scores on Teach being ineffectual whilst ignoring the thumb-worn PlayStation controllers and mouldering library cards. Ah, Millenials. Here’s the world you wrought on the public educational system.

To claim it was all a stress magnet is akin to suggesting that Gordon Ramsay may have a potty mouth. Us student teachers were shoved into an environment that not only took us away from other classes, but our very perception of reality. And let alone declaring said classes as the only classes that mattered at a university that virtually invented the liberal arts education, but also a responsibility of teaching our young charges by proxy. They may have been our kids (our “project”), but it was the host teacher’s class. Big diff, and a hand tying one at that. We as novices were supposed to have said hands on learning how to conduct a class. But the host teacher was stern, ever watching us to make sure we didn’t “undo” all that was learned prior to our intrusion. It was like perpetual internment in the principal’s office. Especially when us would-be educators proved the perfect foil to Teach when mom and dad came calling once again, Wii nunchuck wrapped around their necks.

Sleep deprived, coffee level low, profs scowling. A great many of us took to vices to counter the blows. Some began drinking more. Others turned to pot or even speed, which was hard to come by, but not impossible. Kept one alert, and since Red Bull hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet it did the trick (not to mention sleep dep’ and teeth grinding). The rest of our lot of us took up smoking. Including me.

I eventually graduated, secondary English ed sheepskin in hand. I’ve since lost it, figuratively as well as literally. But the tobacco habit stuck. I won’t lie to you (this time), but my first forays into cigarettes were less that dignified. Sure, the puffing was mellowing, but the deeper intakes were wrenching. I puked quite a bit, but kept going back. Guess that’s how potent nicotine can be. I learned that drug stimulates your frontal lobes. Meaning it gives your brain a boost, thinking faster. Which is also why a drag clears your head for a bit, until it doesn’t. Then on to the next butt.

In itself, nicotine is harmful in a minor sense compared to way it’s delivered. Tobacco has all that tar that coats your lungs until they look like briquettes, f*cks up your pulmonary system into high blood pressure at best and choking the heart into cardiac arrest at worse. You might lose a lung. You might lose both. You might die.

Yet smokers keep sucking them devil cigarettes up, Grim Reaper be damned.

I know all this, yet I still haven’t quit, even though falling from grace a potential force for good molding minds around the beauty of Shakespeare, Stephen King and how to sight parental forgeries on crappy tests.

I instead entered the culinary world, where me and my misfit peers are poster boys for delinquency in the eyes of the American Lung Association. The booze and speed boosters are there, too. How do you want your steak cooked?

Why is this? I mean, beyond the head rush cigarettes lend? There is open science as to what cigarettes do, their damage and how pernicious their addiction can be. Yet a million miles of voice boxed words are ignored. Guess the research ain’t in yet, as Congress would lead you to believe.

Here’s a tale that may codify the typical tobacco addiction. I mentioned before that my first foray into smoking was less than Hollywood golden days glamourous. For some odd reason (perhaps it was the brand I got introduced to) my smoke of choice was the raspy Kamel Reds. Apart from Lucky Strikes, this was the late 20th Century take on inhaling steel wool soaked in lime juice for a week. I convinced myself they were yummy. After a late night at the cafe I worked at I put out half a pack of these devils and a few more on my way home. It was when the key hit the lock when the buzz rebelled. I darted to the toilet as if all the demons in hell were on my ass, awaiting my supple anus. I puked violently, the sputum reeking of lattes and smoke. I caught my breath, staggered out to the stoop and lit up.

That’s what it’s all about. Unsure on all fronts, but that post-barf cig sure cleared my brain. Of what I wasn’t sure. Here’s my point.

There is no point. Cigarettes are addictive and understandably no good for you, no matter what the lobbyists try to spin. They cause cancer and heart disease. It’s an open secret. So why does Big Tobacco insist on having lobbyists? Isn’t that in the government’s eyes (as well as popular opinion that reads things beyond what’s smeared on a smartphone) kinda suspect? Any cause embroiled in controversy deserves a spotlight, and Big Tobacco has been in the glare for decades. Precious little has happened beyond bigger warning labels. But people don’t really read anymore, right?

How does this happen, this commercial shadowplay? Money. Big money. Big lobbyist spin doctors backed by Big Tobacco backed by smoking assh*les like yours truly. We have met the enemy and they are us. Why does Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the NRA never lay it down frankly what their agendum is? Bad for business, because we need that rush, keep the demons in our heads at bay and make sure non-Whites stay off their collective lawns.

This isn’t reactionary, populist, Alex Jones bile here. It’s (kinda) the truth. But the research isn’t in yet.

All this schadenfreude is suspect beyond the beyond. And it invites the question: what kind of doosh would promote this trash? Smoking is “cool?” That is so tired. It’s the trite throwaway reason tobacco-shilling rats claim what gets kids to smoke in the first place. On air, on screen. Doesn’t happen much these days. But wait! The endless Internet. YouTube. Vines. WordPress. There are always outlets to let the impressionable public that smoking looks is to be hip!

Nope. Smoking as cool is overrated, as well as wrong.

Millenials most likely never caught that scene in Now, Voyager where a suave Paul Henreid shares a smoke with femme fetale Bette Davis. Looked cool. Too bad most Millenials never saw Now, Voyager starring Paul who and Bette what. In black and white! Anathema. The scene was iconic, and very cool. But unless their Hulu stream is deep, viewers were smoking before the queue caught up.

Folks smoke to reduce stress. Looking cool caught smoking is so 20th Century. Passe. Stress, anxiety, headaches. The stuff of legend to the working class. Nothing cool there. Not to day traders, cops or willing educators. Stress is the total opposite of cool. Neither is the escape, be it cigarettes, beer or reds.

Put that in your pipe, lobbyists. And suck…


Nick Naylor (Eckhardt) is a dream. He’s a death merchant with a heart of gold. He’s a dedicated dad who’s got his son’s best interests in mind. He’s a committed business man committed to wreck and ruin. He’s hopelessly naive and keenly aware of the duties of his chosen profession. Of which is deplorable.

Nick is a lobbyist on the part of Big Tobacco. His job? Use his gift of gab to both decry and admit to the ups and downs of smoking in the same sentence. He’s very good at this spin, much to the chagrin of the people (barely) close to him. Like his son.

Nick’s job security is in flux. Turns out the Millenials are cleaning up their act. Smoking ain’t as “cool” as it used to be. Media, both open and social are decrying cigarettes and in turn folks are hanging up their Bics. Nick’s boss B.R. (Simmons) has made/concocted a scheme to secure their post. He sends Nick on his way to meet The Captain (Duvall), a venerated tobacco baron. The Captain has a ploy to make smoking “cool” again: get cigarettes in the back in the movies. Worked in his youth. So say Nick, how’s your generation coughing lately?

This would be Nick’s ultimate pitch, against all odds for his odious career to really take flight. Too bad tough-on-tobacco (the fantastically named) Senator Ortolan Finisirre (Macy) has his dander up. The opposite of Nick’s crusade, the senator views his crushing Big Tobacco would make his mark in the Senate.

And the race is on, all the way to the very Kool Hollywood…


There is comedy and there is black comedy. And there is tar black comedy.

Hang on. Before we go any further let me light up.

*cough, hack, spit*

Ever watch a black comedy whose premise is so wicked, so demented, so sensible you don’t know when to laugh? Thank You For Smoking is all that and more. Its send-up is so ridiculous, so absurd and so composed (not to mention dry) you have a hard time drawing the line between yuk-yuk and huh? Smoking makes you think so long go with it. Turn off, tune in, light up.

Smoking is the fine debut directorial effort of Jason Reitman. This movie is more or less his acid test. He went on to better things (Young Adult jumps immediately to mind, also covered here), but this his rough draft for future comedic triumphs. All the hallmarks are present. Very dry, wry humor. Offbeat without a Wes Anderson bent. His characters caught in moral trap of their own doing (and often undoing). It’s all naked here. Perhaps a tad too naked.

I make this claim based on after watching Smoking it creeped at corners that Reitman the younger had something to prove. He’s had some big shoes to fill with dad Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman and mom Genevieve “Casual Sex” Robert. Despite his stiff delivery with Smoking Jason honors no allegiance to the ‘rents. His idea of desperate comedy sniffs more of Jim Jarmusch than Jim Carrey. His muse is so dry it chafes. Smoking screams that. It also screams, “Wait, this is funny?”

And, surprise, Smoking was funny, but definitely not laugh out loud. Not even a snicker. The humor is passive. You can’t believe what you’re watching. We’re supposed to get behind a mealy-mouthed spin doctor who is a committed Dad who treats his child as a client to make him sympathize with the nature of his odious profession?

Uh, yeah.

You just gotta go with that. There are no overt one-liners to chuckle at. No sight gags (not really). Nothing broad. It’s all prickly and pointed. So much that you forget Smoking‘s supposed to be a comedy.   A black comedy. And we ain’t talking mid-80s Eddie Murphy fare.

Simply put, Smoking is not funny. Except when it wants to be. Hint at rather.

Ultimately, Smoking is a character study, right down to the voice-overs. That’s where to humor rears its cancer-ridden agendum. The banter amongst the caricatures. The desperate stereotypes. The flat affect of “just a job to do.” In the face of these very basic tropes, you gotta pay attention here. I mean, if you do laugh, it happens in the next scene.

So. It’s our rouges’ gallery mannerisms that carry the giggles. Character study, remember? Our antihero Nick. He’s our avatar through the dingy business of tobacco-pushing. He’s also the spearhead through this kooky cast of opportunistic, shallow government slimes to get a grip on all the ends that justify the means. All as cool and calm as winds across the Mojave.

That said, I think we found Eckhardt’s hacky acting niche. I’ve labeled the man reliably unreliable. Almost whatever score he blows based on coming across all plastic. For every exception (The Core, The Dark Knight) he drops the ball more than he catches (The Black Dahlia, Battle: Los Angeles). The guy’s talented, as well as narrow and compartmentalized. Flat affect, all the time. His agent must have a 20-20 lazy eye. Or Aspberger’s.

The flat presence works to his advantage in Smoking. Eckhardt’s Nick is a cypher. Add on what you may.  And that niche mentioned above? Being smarmy. He’s soaking in it. As well being in complete, convincing oblivion to it. It’s his job. He’s very good at. And it’s never about the smokes, not really. It’s about having purpose, regardless of the ends. Which are always quickly justified in the next choked breath.

The passive sense of humor here is Nick’s responses to his peers and superiors. Eckhardt is defiantly not funny. His Nick is anti-funny. It’s circle, quick with either a quip or a one-liner making smoking a worthwhile hobby—er, habit rather. While Nick sounds like Fox News, his supporting cast babbles like…well, Fox News about opportunism. Such opportunism paints Nick as the innocent here. There’s a Monty Python meets Woody Allen humor at work. Like I said about Reitman’s slow out of the gate start, the humor is dry but the premise is so preposterous. If Smoking as a whole wasn’t ridiculous (and being very good at that), the supporting cast would justify it as so based mostly on Nick’s passive responses to the weirdness he’s been dealt in the name of climbing the career ladder.

For the nonce, Nick is surrounded by a circus of oddballs directing his possible promotions, and he boinks off all of them and never really taking the baton. Simmons is his usual clipped, blustery self. Duvall chews scenery as the stereotypical Southern tobacco baron, mint juleps at the ready. Fellow spin doctors Bello and Koechner are the The Three Stooges in two, babbling about misery and corruption as business as usual while Nick quietly chews a steak. A cameo by Stanley Tucci as an anti-smoking terrorist. Sam Elliot as Sam Elliot. Nick’s whole mouthpiece is here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. The ping-pong ball delivery is where Smoking gets it’s irreverence. You don’t root for Nick. You’re not allowed to. But you’re allowed to boo and laugh at him, so hapless is his crusade backed by all these morons.

Overall, there is a veneer of some kind of satire happening. Big shocker. It’s razor thin between a PSA and a terminal facepalm. Here’s where Reitman may be pushing too hard. I say if there were any more symbolism here the script would’ve been transcribed via semaphore. Smoking‘s humor may be arid, satirical, absurd and trace but it’s supposed to be an outright comedy. Doesn’t fully reach that, what with being in the valley of the shadow. If Reitman was reaching for a black comedy subtly was absent. Based on that precept, Smoking is disagreeable but not unlikeable. That lack of subtlety was part of the gag, but was omnipresent and therefore got kinda tired. Fast.

So this installment’s been mixed. Since I know that Reitman was bound for greater things I give a pass to Smoking‘s pitfalls. I’m the sympathetic sort. I did get the joke, even without a single laugh. Big problem with the flick is that for all the manic, passive nonsense Smoking was busy, busy, busy. Too much happening all at once. Right. Pacing was rough. Like I said I got the joke…in the next scene.

This might be my most clinical take ever at RIORI. Might be because I’m a customer of folks like Nick and am trying to rationalize something. Maybe the film made me squirm with guilt of my nicotine habit. Maybe its chafing humor laid a giggle in my brain but my lungs were too weak to cough out an actual laugh. Whatever. Truth be told, Smoking was too loony, subdued and justifying the Ministry of Silly Walks to have me walk away with a feeling of contentment. Smoking made me feel both ugly and cynical at the same time. Credit Reitman’s yeoman’s work.

Light ’em up.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A sympathetic rent it. Consider this film a dry run for Reitman. Also the most pointed, absurdist PSA committed to film. Don’t smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. And do smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. A guy like Nick’ll get your back. Cough.


Stray Observations…

  • “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
  • Aw crap. Katie Holmes. With Eckhart. All we need is Aniston for the ideal trifecta of gah.
  • “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Not quite Hallmark territory. Even better.
  • The Birks might have been a bit too much.
  • “Get your ass on the next flight to Winston-Salem!”
  • I don’t think Nick’s kidding about his motive of “population control.”
  • “It’s an inside joke.”
  • Who isn’t slimy in this movie?
  • Angel wings on Joey’s back? We get it.
  • This movie felt like slow-burn (so to speak) Jerry Maguire in reverse.
  • “You wanna hug me here?”

Next Installment…

The Grey wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature.

Like lost, injured and frostbitten humans.


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.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 76: Todd Phillips’ “Starsky And Hutch” (2004)



The Players…

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughan, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg, with Juliette Lewis, Carmen Elektra, Amy Smart, Chris Penn, Matt Walsh, Fred Williamson and Will Farrell.


The Story…

Way too uptight David Starsky and way too laid-back Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson are paired up for the first time as undercover cops. In order to get to the bottom of a cocaine ring in Bay City the new partners must overcome their differences and get to detectin’ rather than bickering over the small stuff.

Like who gets to drive and who has the cooler, non-permed ‘do.


The Rant…

Finally. RIORI is dissecting a classic Hollywood trope: the buddy cop movie!

This formula has been both revered and reviled. The latter sadly more often than the former. Why sadly? ‘Cause the whole buddy cop gimmick invites action, comedy, mystery, the occasional side boob and often lotsa things going ker-boom. These films are usually reserved for the summer season, when audiences brains are too dinged by the heat to make sense of the Fandango app on their iPhones. Me just want ha-ha, boom and boom. Ha-ha.

I’m not bagging on these kinds of dumb fun in the theatre. And no, not that kind; keep it clean for now. I may approach almost serious here, which is kinda dumb considering this week’s installment. But when I think quick dumb fun, some wacky stunts and precious little moral fiber attached to either, gimme a buddy cop flick. Think about it. Summer movie bubblegum? Sex, shooting and snickers. Besides Twizzlers, a bucket of popcorn the size of a Basset hound and soda large enough to swim in, what more could one want for mindless entertainment? Even Skyrim requires thought and planning, so there you go.

So how come such a simple formula goes south more often than barges down the Mississippi? I think it happens when the directors and scenarists try to get too clever. Adding seemingly needless details and twists to a relatively straight line regarding plot, no matter how razor thin. Over arching romantic threads, surprise reveals like the hero is the bad guy and/or political intrigue. Sure, such devices might enhance the plot some, but I feel that the best kind of buddy cop flicks steer relatively clear of such tricks. Keeping in mind my criteria above, we ain’t talking auteur theory here. We mustn’t. Think too much about what you’re watching with a BC flick and it’s game over, man. Twizzler avalanche. Bummer. While you picking up the debris, you missed the side boob.

Too clever, mind you. All things being equal, the sex and shooting alone don’t make a decent, memorable BC movie. And yes, even though most are designed to be disposable entertainment, the real good buddy cops flicks have to have at least one trick that sticks, like that stubborn kernel jammed in your molars. Just keep it simple, be it snappy dialogue (essential, actually), rough and ready heroes who make you laugh (also necessary) and a wild mystery to solve with maverick moves (raison d’etre). That something special, almost ineffable quality that raises dumb fun into really dumb fun. Don’t muddy the waters with…f*cking anything. We wanna hear Axel’s donkey chuckle, thank you very much.

Examples of the decent BC formula are myriad, but also few and far between. A few notable ones include the original Bad Boys, the movie that officially launched Micheal Bay’s directorial career (a dubious honor at best) and Will Smith’s movie career (just as dubious). The goofball Tango & Cash, shameless in its goofballery. 48 Hours, though technically not a buddy cop flick since Eddie Murphy was a con, but the thing followed the paradigm, as did mostly solo Murphy in the manic Beverly Hills Cop (best to remember Taggert and Rosewood now). The sleeper Stakeout featuring Richard Dreyfuss at his most ridiculous and Aidan Quinn at his most scary. The underrated but eventually enjoyable Running Scared with wiseacre detectives Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal (at his most snarky) following the title’s advice regarding the vile druglord Jimmy Smits (his best role IMHO. Fanboy here? Yep. Have a Twizzler) on their tails. There are many other BC goodies hither and yon. Key there is reveling in the funny.

Speaking of Running Scared one could regard that movie as a dry run for the ur-buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, you’ve never heard of the 1980s either. You might have missed something. If that’s the case, let me enlighten you dear reader and perhaps the curious reading the anti-art of the BC flick. It follows the classic formula. Some may argue it defined it. I do.

For the uniformed part of y’all—those born post-1990, when BC films started to creep towards respectability (I’m looking at you, The Hard Way)—the first installment of the seemingly endless Lethal Weapon franchise (no word of a reboot barring the TV show yet, but after the recent RoboCop travesty hold on hope) set the blueprint for all BC movies, past and future. Our mismatched heroes were played by the unhinged, manic Mel Gibson (a full two decades before the real unhinged, manic Gibson surfaced) paired against serious, family man Danny Glover (no signs of mania there. Or now). The plotting of their case is straightforward: busting a drug ring. Classic, reliable, now often over/misused. Beverly Hills Cop covered this, as did Running Scared and even the warped sci-fi BC pastiche Alien Nation, featuring Fredo and Inigo Montoya. Really. Wasn’t bad either.

Weapon‘s basic premise laid the plans for and eventually established how a good, satisfying BC movie should tick. Namely, that snappy dialogue, kooky stunts, car chases, a tough case to crack, quotable quips (“I’m too old for this sh*t”) and a scary villain (Gary Busey at his most menacing). All killer, no filler. So to speak. And it’s been ripped off for decades, including its sequels of diminishing returns.

But it worked. Despite all its overall mundanity Weapon worked. Even with its first sequel somewhat, that set up a rule about action sequels: bigger, faster, more. More laughs, more ker-booms, upping isolated troubles to correct to aiming overseas; apartheid was a hot topic when the second film emerged, so why not make the evil money launderers baddies arrogant, white Afrikaaners? Hey, let’s toss Joe Pesci into the mix as the motormouthed comic relief. Why not? We don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Why?

Complacency. BC flicks for the past whenever have been color by numbers, connect the dots, and getting way too old for this kind of sh*t. There have been some bright spots. The first Rush Hour. The 21st Century take on 21 Jump Street (I know, an adapt, but good is good, and I’ll take what I can get). The hilarious Hot Fuzz; parody at its best. The Other Guys, wacky and turning the genre on its ear. These worked in the wake of the BC Golden Age 80s.

Then there’s the diaspora, which aimed to ruin the genre. And often did.

I’ll play it fast and loose for ya, cuz I think I’m losing you, enough to resort to semi-ironic mispellings a la a Slade playlist. Now please open the door before the obscurity police break it down and drag me away. Quit clapping.

Turner & Hooch, the response to Tom Hanks Oscar nom for BigShowtime, too meta for anyone’s good.   White Chicks? Um, we can always go too far. Cop And A Half? The less said about that.

You get it.

There’s dumb fun and then there’s just dumb. The above besmirched the good time stupid that BC movies culled. Again, don’t make me think too much. I have my Kurosawa collection for that purpose. And which I why I adore Running Scared. No samurai, but still.

Now we come to this week’s chopping block. Be warned. First, it’s a remake. Second, it’s a remake of a dopey 70s police procedural. On TV, no less. You’ve already heard my carps about that device. It does work sometimes (eg: 21 Jump Street), but more often such trickery falls flat (further eg: Dragnet). In the endgame, it’s all about keeping it fast enough and having the just right amount of dumb to fly. It’s the mantra to chant when approaching such a beast.

So to paraphrase Steve Martin (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), let’s get dumb.

Boom…


We got trouble. Right here in Bay City. Which starts with C and that rhymes with sea and that stands for: cocaine.

This kind of malfeasance really chafes the upstanding detective David Starsky (Stiller). He’s a model cop. Some may claim too model. Guy can’t let anything go. Every case is bamboo under the thumbnails. Every crime spreads feces all across his beloved city. Worst of all the Force won’t get off him for his perfect hair. It’s not a perm!

On the other side of town, loose cannon detective Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) takes the crime of drug dealing way too casually. He’s a happy grass eater, pleased as punch to accidentally foil any crime boss’ plans. Accountability? Spell that please. Just doin’ the job, Captain.

This kind of offhand attitude regarding how the cops handle drug trade in Bay City offers all sorts of opportunities. Drug kingpin Reese Feldmen (Vaughn) has a plan. The scuzzier elements of Bay City want their fix, but the narco squad with their crack K9 unit won’t let this be. Money is to be made, if only there was a trick to the trade.

Feldman’s toady Kevin (Bateman) figured out where the rabbit hid. A new strain of coke, scentless, throwing the sniffers of any trail. Drug dogs can’t smell it, the China white. Feldmen is made.

Not quite. Dedicated cop Starsky and laid back Hutch are paired up to bring down the drug ring. Neither have ever had a partner before, and both are fast to piss one another off. But there’s the dire case to consider. And who can figure out who has the better haircut.

Actually, both need some straight dope, so to speak…


There’s a trick here to flicks like Starsky & Hutch, and I ain’t talkin’ about the buddy cop thing. That’ll come later. Always does whatever it is; you’ve been up this alley before. Welcome to my dead end.

The trick is this, and what was attempted, more often failed that succeeded what making the transition from small screen to big screen back in the day. By back in the day I mean the 90s. This’ll most likely be a retread 0f some knuckle-headed theory I spouted prior here at RIORI. Shaddap, it’s relevant, rest assured. Now wake up.

Back in the Slick Willie years Hollywood got a yen to adapt classic TV shows into big budget spectacles. The Fugitive, Lost In Space, even the freakin’ Flintstones got screen time. Boomer nostalgia running high then a great deal of these movies raked in the cash and made for passable movie entertainment. In that order. But for every Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables or The Fugitive (which even got an Oscar nod, before God) we got sh*t over shovel. But for every   we got The Beverly Hillbillies, Car 54 Where Are You?  and Dragnet (tho’ I admit I have a soft spot for that one. I blame that on maybe Tom Hanks’ character being named Pep. Sometimes I like slumming). Kinda funny Hollywood once felt threatened by the medium of TV. Divide and conquer, I guess. Pagans.

Ahem. Back to now. The trick is this: any TV adaptation to film’s make or break is laying on just the right amount of period cheeze without crumbling the cracker. Our above positive examples incorporated the right amount of nostalgia fuel (sometimes making that just wallpaper). MI with the disguises, international espionage and cool gadgets a la Tom Cruise just barely hanging over that computer lab. Heck, that one teeters on an iconic scene. Hard to screw up The Fugitive‘s story; played out not even like a TV remake (“I don’t care!” Couldn’t resist). Hell, even though Wayne’s World was a short bus period piece, and only culled from an SNL skit series, it caught a slice of pre-Web zeitgeist that was winning, even inviting a less than inviting sequel. All had touchstones that complemented the movie version, not overshadow it.

This theory seems pretty heavy-handed regarding a dopey buddy cop TV show from the 70s and therefore translated into a dopey buddy cop movie in the 00s. Either director Phillips didn’t get the message about how TV adapts are passé or he just tore up the note, ground the flecks under his heel, declared pishaw and barreled forth, dismayed haircuts be damned.

So yeah, Hutch is rife with winking period cheeze. It is not subtle. It is not refined as refined as TV police procedurals went during the Gerry Ford administration. The whole flick stinks of wallpaper paste. And it exists in a bubble. Again, seems Phillips did not give any sh*t, and maybe that was the point. A big winking joke, which was actually mildly funny.

Going without speaking, let’s jump into it. Our leads are it, the pinion on which this period 8-track clicks. Stiller and Wilson have an awkward chemistry and like Phillips’ direction it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose. Regardless of my suspicions, Stiller and Wilson were a stitch throughout. The flick was smart to let the guys demonstrate—more like run riot—their signature comic chops; the sh*t they cut their teeth on.

Being a stiff, winking nebbish is what Stiller is best known for. From Reality Bites to Meet The Parents (where I belived he first sparred with Wilson) to The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty remake, Stiller at his best is when he plays the fish-out-of-water. By happenstance or by design. Stiller’s Starsky is an odd amalgam of Roger Murtaugh, momma’s boy and Frank Drebin. Dedicated, but to what? Sure, there’s the case, but that’s just the proverbial Maguffin. Here he kinda strains at being straight-laced; a “serious” Stiller is often funnier than a goofy, nerdy Stiller. He might not be some supercop, but to even infer that?

I’ve always dug Wilson’s shaggy dog sense of humor, like he doesn’t know where he’s going either. His midwestern surfer dude schtick has always tickled me, and it suits his Hutch to a T. “What could possibly go wrong?” should be his epitaph, and a keen catchphrase to his Hutch. We have Wilson here at his laid back silliness making it up as we go along for the ride.

Wilson and Stiller have sparred together before true, but not as primary foils. Hutch was their first true outing together if you ask me, and it was pretty amusing, almost in spite of the well-worn plot device (eg: bust a drug ring). But this was less a silly Lethal Weapon rip-off than more like a 21st take on Abbott And Costello Play Cops. But in the 70s. With a lot more boom. And babes. And cool hair. And all the body language smirks, like we’re all in on the joke. Including the audience.

Speaking of cool hair, Snoop Dogg as informant Huggy Bear was an inspired bit of casting. He managed to out-Murtaugh Murtaugh. Always timely on the scene to both deliver Starsky and Hutch about drug ring scuttlebutt and quick to remind them what a pair of lame-o white boys they are. And they need it. Simply put, we got good banter here with this doofy Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. Guess it’s really no shock considering all three’s similar style of motormouthed delivery, either funky beats or stammering, uh, beats. Word.

Speaking of which, Vaughan has made a career of being a motormouth. His Feldmen doesn’t stray far his gimmick as carnival barker on speed has kinda worn thin on me, but paired with straight man Bateman as Kevin the sycophant works really well. Let’s face it, Hutch is a tongue-in-cheek, kitschy action comedy satire based on a 40 year old dopey buddy cop TV show (but with a cool car!). But that being said, we gotta have villains just as nutty as our heroes, essentially mirroring our gung ho cops (okay, Stiller is gung ho. Wilson asks what a “gung” is, and Snoop’s only interested in da hoes). Since Vaughn’s persona has become such a self-parody, why not work it? It does work here, against most odds; his Feldman is equal parts hustler and baddie with Bateman as “Yes, master. Whatever master. should be running this operation (backslap to the head; get back to the laboratory).

Not just our leads, but the accomplices all had a chance to shine. Well, maybe just one really. I’m not much of a fan of Will Farrell’s style of soft-core frat boy comedy. But sometimes…sometimes a snicker slips through the wire. Even as just a cameo, Farrell is as obnoxiously goofy as ever. He improved his entire scene, I’m sure of it. Despite me being a naysayer, I felt like Farrell stole the entire movie in five minutes. Remember what I said about trickery? No? Good. Moving on.

Despite Hutch being a semi-screwball comedy we do got have a nice little mystery to solve a la a hockey helmet Law And Order, but with more chuckles. It’s almost sovereign that all buddy cop movies got some dire stakes on the line if the bad guys succeed in their nefarious acts. Wooooo. I found it kinda cool—if only in a chewing gum sense—that this token device played out so…okay. I guess if found some strategic  scenes of action played well against the funny. It makes for better comedy in the long run. Ask the Greeks.

Whoa, whoa. What’s with all this in depth scrutiny of a dopey Todd Phillips parody (almost a given)? Okay. Sometimes you gotta give yourself over to the absurd. No matter how much you think you detest certain movies based on the casting, story and director’s crap shoots it sometimes, albeit rarely hits the mark. Hutch did that to me. I guess I was stressed out at my time of viewing and just needed a dumb laugh. Hutch gave me a tickle. That and it was decently funny, too, skewing all those buddy cop trappings listed before. We could do far, far worse here.

Like some damned perm for high school Homecoming, circa 1975. Go Cougars!

My mascot was a f*cking canary, which is probably why I grew my hair long. Why not?

Do it. Just do it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s dumb. It’s sophomoric. It’s funny. Take it with a lick of salt. I did and you’ll need it. Did I mention the cool car?


Stray Observations…

  • Great soundtrack. Period music played with a modern style. It works.
  • “Why are you touching him? Jesus…”
  • Nice shootout.
  • “Must be the old coke. This is the new coke.” “It’s sweeter.” Groan.
  • I did feel ashamed to laugh at this fluff. But it was fluff. It’s hard to be cynical sometimes.
  • Best. Easy Rider tribute. Ever. Down to the music.
  • Is that a fondue set? Oh yeah, right. Period piece.
  • Oh hey, it’s Patton Oswalt. Neat…who also improvised his lines.
  • Shout out to Hamm’s, Farrell’s poison of choice.
  • Direct quote from blogger’s lips: “Mimes. Oh, sh*t.”
  • “I don’t cry. I work out.”
  • Wait. When did the wheels get fixed?
  • “Do it.”

Next Installment…

The Half Nelson is referred to by most coaches as being the easiest, but most effective move in folkstyle wrestling, and is very commonly used.

Nice codependency metaphor there, Wikipedia.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 74: Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (2008)


 


The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Kevin Kline, with Derek Luke, Adam Ferrara and Bill Clinton (by proxy).


The Story…

Young Maya is seriously curious about how her parents—currently hurtling into divorce—met. Naturally, she sweats her dad, Will, for the straight dope.

With a sigh and a need to get some sleep, Will recounts his romantic past (in a PG kinda way) with three different but still special women, Emily, April and Summer. All seemed to have a lasting impression on Maya’s beleaguered father, leaving her to a game of connect-the-dots as to guess which one is really Mom.

Some little birdy tells Maya that Match.com had precious little to do with her existence.


The Rant…

This may come as no surprise, but I’ve never been much for rom-coms. In fact, I should’ve dropped that decree back when establishing the Standard.

Nope. Never much cared for ham-fisted jokes about dealing with the opposite sex. Ditto the proto-softcore sexual dalliances of well-shorn, upwardly mobile, late-20s white people. The cute and winking social commentary. Jennifer Aniston. The whole wad.

But I won’t deny that I’ve found a few entertaining. Maybe even approaching good (shiver). Still ain’t made of stone here, and despite my typical frothing foment here, there’s always room for exceptions, be it at a vegan buffet or the occasional Taylor Swift single (I like “Shake It Off,” okay? Ten billion 17-year old mallrats can’t all be wrong).

Of course there are a lot of classic rom-coms out there. Often high water marks that every Kate Hudson vehicle aspire to be and of course fall flat because Goldie’s kid can’t act. Classics like the lovely (but bowdlerized Capote adaptation) Breakfast At Tiffany’s starring the winsome Audrey Hepburn and the dreamy George “Hannibal” Peppard. Reluctant lovers that find each other alone in the crowd that is early-60s NYC. There was the cynical Jerry Maguire featuring both bromance and wooing cutie-pie Renee Zellweger. Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie; unconventional, yes, but Hoffman was trying to get into Lange’s panties (that counts I say). Hepburn and Grant stepping on the tiger’s tail in Bringing Up Baby. And of course Annie Hall, the only rom-com to ever win Best Pic, although it didn’t have to. Woody Allen would agree.

Beyond my short list, there are indeed nice, non-drippy romantic comedies around. Few and far between, to be sure, since a great scorched earth swath of these beasties have been following a tried-and-true formula (read: one that sells the tix to gullible Americans) toward the end of time. Kinda like the Book Of Revelation, seeing St John was such a fan of pixie dream girls.

The aforementioned formula is as such, with or without Kate Hudson and especially with Ms Aniston. I base it on the Patton Oswalt bit about what all rom-coms are all about: our characters trying to f*ck. That’s the endgame, right? Crisis averted. Tab A, slot B, Holy mana chunky peanut butter. Sad but true, even though not many money shots get beyond a transaction with the teller. Need I remind you of the ticket taker and all right, got it.

But that’s true, even if actually see anything or not! Sure, we can get kisses and hugs at Chuck E Cheese any day of the month, but it’s the burnt pizza smell we want to a hang over us like a satisfying romantic caper should. Plots with fleshed-out, ribald characters. Basic—but not sodden—plots with room to breathe, letting in some quick “Hey there” now and again. An actual interest, if not concern, that our lovers find their way towards lasting commitment. The occasional side-boob shot. Whatever works in favor of the story.

I think a lot of rom-coms fall dead in their tracks not so much as to derivative…everything, but to trying to pander to our wizened expectations. Okay, you and I aren’t jaded like that. Okay, I mean you aren’t jaded like that. I mean…

*sigh*

*blogger drinks milk straight from the jug, passes it around*

Our jaded exceptions. Why do we watch such pap? Mostly like it might have to do with the wishes of our significant others, always with that box o’ Kleenex and pint of Haagen-Dasz at the ready (read: your girlfriend, regardless of gender). Maybe we just want a dumb chuckle attached to pretty people behaving pretty stupidly around the potential object(s) of their potential affection. Hell, maybe we just want to look at said pretty people. Unsure on all fronts here, but what can’t be denied is that no matter how hardened to reality we claim to be we all need a li’l giggle-and-snuggle now and again. Like I said: not made of stone. Neither are you. Admit it, at the time “you complete me” made you warm and the eyes watered, if only for a flash.

Let’s face it, folks, despite how diehard cynical we are, watching a decent rom-com takes our edge of for a short time so we can ransack the peasant village with a clear conscious tomorrow. We enjoy love, hope to find it someday, and may unfortunately face the wreck and ruin when your crush spurns you or you find the bed empty next morning. I guess we watch such drivel because, hey, romance is hard. We want easy answers. Matters resolved in 90 minutes. Ain’t that true of all movies? Patience pays, too. I took half of forever for Travis to whack Sport, and Taxi Driver—though well made—was a sh*t-tastic romantic comedy. I blame Cybil Shepard.

Anyway, I think the reason that most rom-coms are maligned is that they fail to transcend the tropes. We know what to expect. We still pray for a successful tab A slot B…again. We get clever and winking instead of earnest and “Hey there.” Yeah, they make good cheddar, maybe based on the Oswalt theory on the Aniston x-factor. Can’t say for sure, but if we’re talking about the bottom line, regardless of genre, the fluffy flick must have something to rise above the cheeze.

There’s often a pillowful of fluff associated with rom-coms. It’s almost the stock in trade. What made the above goodies, well, above is a good plot, sharp acting and a keen directorial eye, like with all good movies. Takes a sharp director and scenarist to throw the correct spanner in the sticky, sentimental works and maybe, maybe a smart rom-com will emerge. Maybe it happened here with Definitely, Maybe.

But maybe not. The thing does star Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds here…


Will Hayes (Reynolds) is a modestly successful ad exec. Not his dream job, but it pays the bills. Bills like alimony and child support.

Poor Will is going through a divorce, to his college sweetheart “Emily” (Banks) no less, and is learning how to make the most of his time (read: visitations) with his young daughter Maya (Breslin). Like most doomed divorcees he asks himself how did it end up like this? Not just his dissolving marriage and the ensuing limited Daddy time, but how the hell did he lose some integrity and make his way in the cold, hard world schilling cereal punch-up to afford his apartment? And the impending alimony? And the impending child forget that.

One day Will scoops Maya up from school on his designated day. The school is awash in chaos. Parents screaming, kids howling. Is it a fire? Lone gunman? Cafeteria ran out of chicken fingers (again)? Nope. Sex ed. In an elementary school? Will asks no one, “Aren’t they a little young?”

Maya finds her Dad amidst the crowd. “We need to talk,” comes her plaintive demand. Yep, too young.

With her stern quip, Maya sweats Will as to how Mom and him came around to make the good sense to have her. Select day or no, Maya refuses to bunk down that night unless Dad explains who Mom was. She means really was. How did they meet? When did they fall in love? Was she really the one? It ain’t the most conventional bedtime story, but Will acquiesces and fields Maya’s interrogation, if only to shut her up.

Well, kid, there was your mom. Then there was your mother


Like I said, in order for your usual, drippy rom-com to come to life there has to be a modest degree of smarts attached to the story. I say that and also a blurred focus on the whole Kate Hudson angle. Namely, pay no mind to the couple canoodling behind the curtain.

What’s funny (and I don’t mean ha-ha) about Maybe is that said canoodling is well wrapped in the curtain. Almost non-existant. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. The curtain action is virtually an afterthought. While watching Maybe I formed the impression that regardless of all the textures and trappings it wasn’t trying to be a rom-com. The whole deal with Dad recounting possible mom against another possible mom to Maya was more of a coming-of-age tale rather than the Oswalt context.

Maybe was dry. Both in humor and delivery. A good thing, couched against my strident dictum regarding what often goes wrong with the usual rom-com. Namely, cotton candy and no cone to hold. And without my trademark snark, a lot of things can and have gone wrong with this maligned sub-genre. I won’t mention Aniston again, at least in this paragraph. This one.

Maybe was indeed dry. Like sober. No-nonsense, or at least very little. Sure, there was a share of being fluffy, but at the end of the day Maybe had some low-key dire consequences, namely regarding Breslin’s prying open Reynold’s shell (and she is so precocious in the best way possible. Think Olive). That invites the whole raison d’être with Maybe: it pries. It’s intrusive. It’s what drives the plot. It’s what my kid might call “cringy.” I didn’t laugh much over Maybe. I did cringe a bit, but for the better. Blame the arid atmosphere almost revolting against the typical star-crossed love interest factor. And let’s face facts, Romeo and what’s-her-tits has become hackneyed. Claiming that, one could blame the Bard for Aniston’s movie career (and no, I will not stop beating on her like a rusty cymbal).

The whole air of Maybe was drenched in shame and schadenfreude. Almost solely laid at the feet of Reynolds. Kinda odd saying that considering Reynolds here is uncharacteristically likable. I know, I’m just as surprised as you. His signature smarm is at bay, and plays the innocent here for a change (maybe the first time). Most flicks like Maybe come at you from a female angle. Not here, yet the movie shrewdly takes cues from above (eg: the diary scene). Will is not the most proactive “ladies man” you’d see in your standard whatsit. For that very fact, Maybe comes across more like that aforementioned “coming of age” story rather than a polite tale of chasing tail. It’s in reverse, besides the flashback sequences. It might be a film about finding oneself, except that our protag works the exploration angle reflected off of three females. Four if you count Breslin. I do. It was different.

Which may be why I didn’t roll my eyes (much) watching it. Wasn’t as much a chore like I anticipated (oh, how one suffers for their art). Like all rom-coms, Maybe is totally character driven with wobbly undercurrents driving the principals. What makes Maybe unique is a matter of arrested development. Past Will is only a fleeting distant from Present Will. All the naivete of youth never got lost with “maturity” regarding our chump. As an “adult” Will is still chewing over what his chosen path has led to, and with the wayback machine in full force thanks to Maya’s prodding, he’s made to examine his unexamined life so far. “Exorcise” is probably a better term.

And Will’s past demons—I mean women—do a pretty good job of defining where Will went. Their characters ain’t nothing to write home (or anywhere) about. Banks, Fisher and Weisz fall into the traditional female rom-com archetypes. Banks was the college sweetheart, left behind. Fisher was the wild one, perched in the cosmo mess that Will was virginal to. Weisz the free spirit, all artsy-fartsy possessing an allure far from Minnesota. All temptresses to Will. What made these stereotypes worked—barely—was how Will responded to their potential offerings. Most male rom-com leads have a definite quarry, whom are not only the requisite object of their affection but the Maguffin that makes the plot extant, be it Hudson or Keaton. Not here with Maybe. There is a real uncertainty (like with Maya’s questioning) as to who Will eventually hooked up—and stayed—with. Uncertainty since Will is still the wide-eyed, post-grad Clinton booster now schilling kids’ cereal. Don’t let the clothes fool you. Maybe is a rather earthy rom-com. Like Reynolds as modest, maybe a first.

I could go into the ups and downs of our female cast, but I won’t. For two reasons. One, theirs were where the sickly sweet smell of all rom-coms dwell. Their characters, gamely played mind you, were simply gamely played. Two, despite their relatively unique personalities, this was Will’s tale all the way. The ladies were both merely bookends as well as reflections of Will’s growth as an individual. How you like them apples? An existential rom-com, populated with three weird sisters, all named Inez.

Sorry. Philosophy minor. Moving on.

And moving on is all about Will. The guy apparently can’t (or won’t) get his emotional sh*t together. Small wonder due to the impending divorce. Smaller wonder why Maya’s all over her history like Rosie O’Donnell on a Big Mac. This push-and-pull between emotional security and emotional need drives Maybe, and rather than the coven’s influences crowding the scene, it’s Will’s shrugging that moves our tale along. From Ryan Reynolds! Far cry from Green Lantern, eh? And I still liked that trifle. Sue me.

All right. It’s that time. Let’s talk tech. We can only wring our fists so long over the Patton theory. Cute chicks and their wicked plans only go so far (which can lead out to Toledo regardless of your zip code). I gotta give props to the notable props employed here, side-boob shots or no (less on the no part, one hopes).

Of course there were a few tips and tricks I nabbed that made the film a little smarter that your average Aniston—

*squished beer cans go clang*

Sorry. That hurt. You’re welcome. Where’s the potato chips?

I saw some keen camera work here. Namely, precious few close-ups. Maybe is an open film, probably reflecting the “room for interpretation” theme of the story. That and its opposite, wide frames and open space, doubtless a reflection of Will’s chosen, uncertain and virtually never-ending stroll through life, love and leaving. I’ve often felt in my travels that technique—such as it may be—in most rom-coms feature a lot of face time dappled with dewey eyes and wide open expanses. Again, not here with Maybe. Even the most open shots are tight, almost claustrophobic. This is a character study, right? Will is always under the lens; why not make him solid front and center? It’s almost relentless, which also adds to the sense that Maybe ain’t yer average romantic comedy. I began to suspect that over the relentless 2 hours. Might not’ve been a bad thing. Trying to absorb that.

Also, there’s a lot of passive 90’s pop culture noted in Maybe. Might’ve been nostalgia speaking to me; I remember all the Clinton/grunge/nascent World Wide Web stirrings back then stabbing my squishy adolescent skull. Like a sharp orchestra with well-waxed bows, such tones hit the ears to the properly receptive. I know this was all a setup to have a destination for Maya’s interrogating Daddy Will about when and where, but we didn’t get swamped with the likes of touchstones MTV Unplugged, Pepsi Crystal and/or affordable Discmans. Instead we passed through Will’s doors, snapped at but never snagging our coats. There’s a lot to say for subtlety so beneath that one barely remembers to zip up before bounding reluctantly out into the rain. Did I leave something behind? Maybe. Must’ve been Maya’s questions. Bless her.

There was a lot of purposeful cheekiness here, too. Granted not really a technical aspect of a movie, but for this kind of movie—again, this genre—sour cutesy can work wonders, especially here. A lot of knowing, narrow winking is the expected death knell of any credibility a rom-com tries to attain, which ain’t much (I dislike the genre, all right? Quit reading then). Maybe‘s cheekiness is a disguise for being self-effacing. There is an uncertainty about the “right woman” threading through the film. A lot of “okay, now what?” It’s the “hey there” factor here. Play cute, implode later. Shakespeare played that card a lot, and it worked so well “Taming Of The Shrew” is still de riguer in every high school English class. Trust me, I know. I used to be a respectable member of society and not reeking of salami, beer and beer. Them errant cans be my underlings now. Tremble before me.

*belch*

Wrapping this whole gob up, I’m still not a rom-com fan. As a whole—let’s call it—they’re usually too damned schmaltzy. Maybe managed to avoid this. Don’t misunderstand me: this stuff is decidedly not my thing. But I kinda liked it. Kinda. Maybe still had the hallmarks federally mandated to address. Pretty white people in amour (okay, to be fair we also had a pretty black guy, but he was unattached). Struggles regarding communication and self-doubt. Running a little too long (not feeling, running. We were pushing 2 hours here). The whole deal. However Maybe quietly strained against the boilerplate. A fan of the genre, I still ain’t, seeing for a clever director/scenarist trying hard to steer clear of said genre’s trappings and generate a flick I’ll watch, three stars and a bouquet.

Even though I never plan to watch Deadpool woo Wyldstyle ever again. I’m a guy.

Place your bets?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. I’m just as surprised as you might, might be. Blame or thank Maybe‘s not obvious unconventional execution. I blame Ryan Reynolds as not smelling of Van Wilder. I should thank just being a guy here with some…er, very little patience. That and I think Isla Fisher’s hot. As well as Breslin. Today! Breslin today! Jeez.


Stray Observations…

  • “And then what happened?”
  • Early 90s = Arrested Development. ‘Nuff said.
  • “Probably…not.”
  • I love the opening montage (the Sly song goes a long way, too).
  • Is Rachel pretty? My vote’s not in yet.
  • “You should get on your horse.”
  • Ever play the game/see the movie Clue? Wanna wager Brooks did?
  • “I make a living.” Couldn’t resist either.
  • Strangest pop culture study of Bill Clinton I’ve ever seen.
  • “You.”

Next Installment…

It appears that Viggo Mortenson has A History Of Violence he was ignorant about. “Luckily” he found the best, worst refresher course. Coffee anyone?