RIORI Vol 3, Installment 99: Adam Shankman’s “Bedtime Stories” (2008)



The Players…

Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Courtney Cox, Richard Griffiths, Guy Pearce and Russell Brand, with Jonathan Morgan Helt, Laura Ann Kesling, Teresa Palmer, Lucy Lawless and Jonathan Pryce.


The Story…

Simple hotel handyman Skeeter’s life is turned upside down when kindly escapism intrudes on his boring life.

When his big sis Wendy has to go out of town, she taps Skeeter to babysit her kids for the week. He fast understands he has the “privilege” to get the kids to settle into bed by way of some wild-eyed bedtime stories (with the kids helping, natch). They love it, and Skeet finds this a lot more satisfying than banging water heaters into compliance.

But one night after one too many fantastic stories they began to manifest into reality. All the phantasmagoria that put his niece and nephew to bed are made whole, and now seemingly leading him on some sort of wacky vision quest.

Huh. Well, losing your mind is better than scrubbing another toilet.


The Rant…

Bedtime Stories was another movie I caught in home release/pre-RIORI days: one DVD of many DVDs scattered across the family room carpet of my then girlfriend’s apartment. Mom never picked anything up. It was kind of like, “don’t pick anything up. You’ll f*ck up the system.” Sure, half the discs were scratched to hell, their cases long since lost, but what remained was ready entertainment/distraction to a harried mom in need of a quick fix to the main vein thanks to the electronic babysitter. But one time, I was the babysitter. Flesh and blood and dreadfully analogue.

I wasn’t ready to be a stepdad. Hell, back then I wasn’t ready to be a dad, period. I was still immersed in the epic drama that was being in tech support for a mobile phone company, freelance writer for the local community press and eternally leveling up my HUnewearl OC on Phantasy Star Online 2.0 for Dreamcast from 1 AM to snore. Usually accompanied by a bottle of Jameson’s. What a dreadful apparition was I.

In hindsight, being a “babysitter” to my girl’s eldest daughter—my erstwhile stepdaughter—taught me how to be a dad. I realized outright that she was not my kid, so I had no legs to stand on assuming a fatherly posture. She tested me, always testing me. Being rude, being snarky, screaming and metaphorically kicking me in the shins everyday. My flesh-and-blood one-year old, she with finding ways to steal cereal under mom’s and my noses and swollen diapers one would have to don a hazmat suit armed with a geiger counter to inspect, she wasn’t as nearly as challenging as it was to get into my step’s good graces.

Serendipity dawned with all those DVDs splayed all over the carpet, my step accustomed to feeling bored and slapping in a disc without a blink. Mom told me that her youngest was bored: go watch a movie with her. I had just gotten off work, still in my togs, reeking of sweat and yeast (I was a baker at the time) and making sure the beater couch that served as my beater bed held fast to the floor by my sodden gravity. I had no attention span.

“Hey!”

“…Yes?”

“Wanna watch a movie?”

No. “Okay.”

She beamed and rifled through the library, found her quarry and held the case against my face. I can still smell the spine.

“This one’s my fave right now. Can we watch it?”

My bleary eyes widened. Bedtime Stories. Adam Sandler. Throw me back into the mill.

Please, no. “Sure thing.” What a guy does to score some goodie points with the girlfriend, moreover her kid. I’d rather vacuum at that point, but all those DVD cases everywhere. Resistance was futile.

She turned on the tube, fed the machine and swung the remote the way a samurai dispatches a disloyal retainer. The kid also found a way to make the lights dim low. There was not a dimmer switch to be found. Kids are crafty that way. And then: movie sign!

After the 90-plus minute slump through Bedtime Stories (and I was sorely in need of one myself) my bleary eyes were cheered. Not so much by the movie (which I could barely watch) but by the sweet, dopey grin the stepkid shined at me. She was so used to the electric babysitter solo, her baby sister demanding all of the time to wretched diapers and endless bottles and screaming her first word which roughly translated into A*SHOLE that anyone, anyone who had a more than one word vocabulary would sit and cradle her. On the other hand, this crafty moppet found her mark in me. Could’ve been worse.

So could’ve been the movie. But first, more about the stepkid. Chill. It’s relevant.

She was my first experience in parenting, and for seven years I raised her as my own until she decided to live with her real dad. I never tried to be her dad. That was impossible, and she knew it. Instead, I was big brother. I’d give advice and listen and just hang with her and make sure she got to school on time, do her homework, eat her veggies, detail my 20 year old Volvo. The basics. I remained on the level with her for seven years, and it was a silent agreement.

And it worked well. In truth is was actually easier to deal with my then one-year old than the seven-year old. As I said, always testing me. All of mom’s old boyfriends dropped out of sight; when was I gonna drop out too? I wasn’t. I didn’t. Between the first year of arguing, defiance and yelling (and that was mostly her not me) I half my own, proved myself, taught her some match and drove her to school and did a bunch of other dad stuff. I eventually won her trust and even now as she fast approaches 20 and into the working world, we still message each other via Facebook or share the occasional phone call (she mostly wants career advice. I tell her don’t open a restaurant. You out there should not either, all you delusional Michael Symons you).

Now rewind back to the mid-aughts. Not only did I explode into an immediate family with a daughter barely two, but a precocious seven-year old who knew how to work mom over like a Mafia capo with a jack handle and need to collect, but busted knees would work in a pinch. Okay, maybe not that bad, but she did have mom wound around her finger.

Ahem. Homey don’t play that. You can’t bullsh*t and bullsh*ter kid. C’mere, we gotta talk.

And talk we did. This is how understandings are formed and trust is built. What I learned with the stepkid as “parent” I adopted later for my kid kid. So far, no body piercings. Guess my plan of action worked.

Back to the whole movie matter. Bedtime Stories. I never read the stepkid bedtime stories. Not directly. As you now have probably figured out I am the Ken Jennings of cinematic non sequiturs and arcane knowledge about movies the like no Magic: The Gathering player would (or should) have about their fetish. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of truly useless film facts stored to the rafters in my beer-addled cranium. And like those comic book geex who get into a frothing frenzy about who’s stronger: Superman or Thor, I can’t wait for an opportunity to spew forth my bilious film facts to an unwitting audience. Back then I had an unwitting audience of one with enough DVDs to have Reed Hastings on call when they needed to refresh the library with every Disney release since “Steamboat Willie.”

Yeah, so a lot of movies, and the stepkid watched a movie an afternoon between getting home from school and homework time. I usually got off work about the same time, dragged my flour-drenched carcass home and fell upon the couch as if brained. In sum, all I wanted to do was examine the backs of my eyelids. But noooo…

“Nate! What movie you wanna watch?”

Groan. “Your call,” I said to the cushion.

Bedtime Stories, natch.

We watched. She liked. I was bleary. But I did “see” it. Then she asked me the apocryphal question, with arched brow, “Whadja think?”

I lied. I barely registered it. But it was kind of like a cut you didn’t knew you had until you see the blood. Yeah, that happened.

“I liked it,” I fibbed. “Hey, wasn’t Skeeter’s dad British?”

The brow again. “Huh?

And doped on inadequate sleep I told her about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And something about Infiniti commercials about the clock. And she asked me about the clock. And I said the clock is what the time says. And the next thing I recall I was barely awake at the wheel taking the stepkid to school.

She once asked me, “Can we watch Brazil?”

“No. Go to school.” Door slam.

Fast forward. The step kid’s “bedtime stories” was me dissecting the movies we watched. After the umpteenth Disney Bataan Death March I took the thing apart for the stepkid. The bitter and the sweet. The weird thing was she liked it. She liked hearing the dope on how her DVD library (and a lot of ancient VHS also. I had a lot of bedtime stories’ plots to cull from) came to be. So much that eventually she asked me mid-movie, paraphrasing, “What’s up with that?” And I would make an effort to give her the skinny.

Granted, these moments were not traditional bedtime stories. Homework was looming, and the sun was still up. But me getting down with my erstwhile daughter about mutual appreciation for movies, good or not, upholding the agreement of “I ain’t dad and you ain’t mine but we be cool” through a shared moment? Sounds like a bedtime story to me.

Two final things before the evisceration: One, I have to repair my daughter’s 3DS within the month, and; two, as a parent or surrogate, take what you can get from the kid on any kind of intimate level. You might learn something. I learned how to parent by proxy over movies. Sort of.

Considering the first time I “watched” Bedtime Stories, and now relating to Skeeter by proxy, I guess it’s still sort of. And me still with crossed fingers whenever my kid wants to go to the multiplex. Frozen 2 drops this Thanksgiving. Shiver…


Skeeter Bronson (Sandler) knows the hospitality biz is demanding. Not just demanding of a luxury hotel are the skills of the management, concierge, maids, chef and crew and even the detective. No, and not just. Skeeter knows the real deal behind keeping a sumptuous hotel running smoothly is the deft hands of the handyman. Skeeter is the Sunny Vista Nottingham’s maintenance man. He’s Sir Fix-A-Lot.

Skeeter was earmarked by his late hotelier dad (Pryce) to manage the Nottingham, but…well, things didn’t pan out. The little motor lodge that family built was bought out by Sunny Vista, its property transformed into a luxury liner of a posh hotel. It’s there that Skeeter whiles away his days unclogging drains and changing light bulbs. Leaves precious free time for a real life. It’s a good thing Skeeter’s big sis Wendy (Cox) offers her put-upon bro a break: whenever he stops by for a visit, Skeeter gets to tuck her kids into bed and let his imagination run riot, spinning the craziest bedtime stories this side of the Brothers Grimm by way of Monty Python.

Fate is a fickle mistress for Skeeter. He was robbed of his rightful place as manager of the Bella Vista when Nottingham took over years back. Almost by accident, he gets a challenge from present manager Barry (Griffiths): how to make the hotel more attractive to families? The more Barry goes on—and how snooty concierge Kendall (Pearce) harrumphs—the more the scenario echoes a bedtime story he told Pat and Bobbi (Helt and Kesling, respectively) just last night. Coincidence?

Nope. Across the ensuing week to the final challenge (and across multiple bedtime stories) Skeeter tries to attain the future he was supposed to have as Dad wanted.

Oh, the power of a child’s imagination. As well as Pat and Bobbi’s too…


Okay, here’s the poop. And you prob smelled it a mile away already. Bedtime Stories is an Adam Sandler vehicle. Nuff said.

Let’s be kind for once. It is the ultimate tonic against all the Sandler bashers out there. He is an easy mark, after all. Actually, he’s a punching bag. Sandler has sat upon arrested-development-as-entertainment laurels well back into his SNL salad days. Being juvenile has been—and still is—his stock-in-trade. I’m not made of stone (sandwiches maybe, but never stone), and shudder to think I have hung up movie snobbery years ago. But suffice to say Sandler’s schtick has served him well with a few movies. I have thoroughly enjoyed—and still do—Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer (Sandler’s Citizen Kane, BTW). Those movies stuck because there was a vein of humanity running through those stories. Sure, he was dopey throughout those flicks (esp Waterboy), but there was also sweetness and a little range set aside for Sandler’s characters. Some growth, if you would. A small amount of depth.

It’s amazing what a little bit of depth can do for a living cartoon like Sandler. Such scraps served him well as a comedic actor rather than a one-joke one-off like his inaugural Billy Madison (a movie I’ve punished myself with one too many times trying to get the joke. I never could. Stop looking at me swan). And in the final analysis, almost all of Sandler’s comedy movies—and the characters he plays—are all pretty one-note. It’s always been the sweet and insufferable goof in equal doses. Right, sometimes it works (if you’re still in a frat, even at age 30) but most of the time we get it already. With Stories, as well as the three films of his I actually liked, a little bit of depth can go a long…wait, that’s too much. It can go a medium way.

One would be hard pressed to deny that Sandler’s Skeeter cowed to the House Of Mouse’s standards and practices. Sandler plays nice here with the machine. Stories‘ tone is family friendly, at times fluffy and well-paced. It also looked like Sandler toned down his usual sophomore schtick just enough to settle in with a PG movie with kiddies and wish fulfillment in mind. Sandler is not (for once) a crass, callow man-child. He’s just, well, Uncle Skeeter. Humorous and harmless and light on the goofiness (save the fantasy sequences. Stuff like that has to be a bit goofy. It’s a Disney precept, after all ). He’s earnest here. That must be a first. Sandler carries an entire movie—no less a Disney movie—with nary a dick joke to be uttered. And it actually worked.

No. Really. It was very refreshing to have Sandler’s trademark juvenile snark toned down and actually digestible (we’ve let Brand handle the nonsense this time around). To what end? Read folks, the watchword: sweet, and hopefully not saccharine. Actually, a better word to describe Stories is pleasant, mostly due to Sandler’s wide-eyed Skeeter. I know, I am just as shocked as you are. We got us a low key adolescent Sandler. I can’t stress this fact enough. Sure, the flick is nutty and silly but not in a scatological way. The cryovacked corpse of Uncle Walt would never approve.

(Look: I know I’m being rather sober here. This is a Sandler vehicle I have positive things to say about. I’m concentrating. Please, be seated.)

What I feel I took to so well here was how the plot rolled along with a winking, almost meta kind of pace. A certain kind of clever at play. Stories is unabashed in its Disney-flavored delivery. We are all in on the joke that this fantasy film is just that, cast and audience together. Just go with it. Not every movie is meant to win awards. Hell, most movies that do win awards shouldn’t’ve. The last time, to immediate memory that Academy got it right was awarding Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Best Picture 1960. And I wasn’t even extant then. Oh, and did you hear the rumor that the AMPAS is toying with the idea of the Oscar category for “Most Popular Film of the Year?” For f*ck’s sake, just look at the ticket sales! First the Oscars lose their host and then lose their marbles. Anything to get the Millennials tuning in. It’s granted those doddering, old blind duffers on the committee never heard of YouTube. Or Hulu. Or Netflix, before God…

But I digress.

What’s good to go along with here is the family-style cast. Sure, the warm fuzzies of family permeate Stories like cheesecake permeates Oprah. It’s a given. But it’s never overarching as in similar fare like the dire Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That or the witlessness of Spielberg’s dreadful Hook. Overt fantasy takes the backseat in Stories letting the cast stretch out a little, work the beta plot some, do some pretty decent acting and keep the ham to a sandwich with Swiss (minimal) cheese.

Hey. Speaking of the cast, not only was I surprised at finding Sandler endearing (shoot me now), but his support had some glowing moments, too. Here: Mister Memento Pearce seems waaay out of his element here, which is smart. Smartly smarmy. I don’t care for Pearce’s wooden acting talents, but I did like not enjoying him here. Sure, he played the “bad guy” to the hilt, but with a one-man Three Stooges air about him. Big fish, no pond. You wanted to slap the sh*t-eating grin off that stump of a jaw. It’s always fun to have a villain we love to hate. Dustin Hoffman has made a mint on that precept in almost all his movies, and he got “awards” for his trifles. Pearce just sneers and our fists clench. Good work, in any event.

Okay. Now here’s a thing I detest in family friendly movies: endearingly cute kids with doe eyes, speech impediments and treacly smiles. I appreciated—despite how moppet they are—Skeeter’s niece and nephew being as plain as they were. It’s the go with it philosophy Stories entertains. The kids are just…there. It’s refreshing. Sure, they are twin oracles to the Maguffin of Skeeter earning his worth, and they mat be cute, but you don’t feel the need to slap them for their very presence. Save that truck for Kendall. Heh.

Oh BTW, the former Mr Katy Perry co-stars here as…some guy. Kudos. Moving on.

I could say more, but I’m tired. Bearing this fluff anymore scrutiny would waste time. This ain’t a Fellini film. Overall Stories was a decent waste of time. Like the first time I had to watch it, flour glued to my sweaty Crocs. Not a bad film. Not great either. There was a certain butter zone consisting of comedy, fantasy and family that somehow, miraculously (and with a PG Sandler in the wheelhouse) worked. Disposable. A pretty okay flick to check out (with some kids, duh) on a rainy Saturday afternoon. If only to kill 100 minutes or until bedtime, whichever come first.


Postscriptum: I dedicate this installment to my erstwhile stepdaughter Lex who made me watch this movie at age 7 and still mentions it to me via Facebook Messenger at age 19. Guess I did something right.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Sure, fantasy fulfillment movies under the aegis of Disney aren’t for everyone (esp if you are the “butt-chug champ of the world” at your local chapter), but this was a harmless, entertaining pastiche so I’ll forgive it.

Oh, I’m sorry! Damn bus driver drives like an animal!


Stray Observations…

  • “Goofy’s the new handsome.” And so it begins.
  • No TV, but a giant iMac.
  • Despite being a sight gag for the Santa Claus eligible, what was the point of Bugsy? I mean, I still believe in Santa. No, really.
  • “What? The clown died?”
  • Falco! Cool!
  • I think this installment has the most italics ever.
  • “As in gumball weird?”
  • Midgets in a Gremlin. Sigh.
  • Light bulb. Clever. Really.
  • “Where’s the arc?” Oh, Russell you.
  • Is Wendy eating nuts there? Oh yeah, “vacation.”
  • Keri Russell is eternally cute. She’s every girl who told you, “Call me” and you foolishly tried to.
  • “I’m innocent!” Oh, Russell you.
  • Sandler flipped the bird there for a nanosecond. You saw that?
  • Pryce has a very convincing American accent. I’ve found a lot of actors from lands afar have a tricky time expressing the melange that is the American accent. Here’s an example. It’s regarding two leads in the sci-fi series Fringe. Both of them are Aussie speaking American. One could and one could not. Stream an ep and you’ll see what I mean.
  • “I can’t read.” Oh, Russell you.
  • Whatever happened to rollerblades anyway?
  • “This is spooky.”

Next Installment…

In honor of what would’ve been the 100th Installment of RIORI (we actually reached that landmark eons back, considering all three volumes), we’re going to stroll into nostalgia/road repair territory by revisiting the early, raw and often sh*tty first volume of RIORI. So it’s gonna be Zack Snyder’s opus Sucker Punch revisited. As well as the other 16 train wrecks. You’re welcome.

Within a week’s time, we’ll commence with my trepanning.

Look it up.


 

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 14: Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009)


Funny People


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann and Eric Bana, with Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza and the RZA.


The Story…

When superstar funnyman George Simmons learns he has a life-threatening disease, he slows down and takes stock of his life. Sure, all his movie success has given him wealth and fame, but at what cost to his health and happiness?

Believing his time is short, George decides to get back to the source: he wants to get out on the road again, do stand-up. Recapture the fun again, before it’s too late. But, well, its been a while since he had to sing for his supper. George could use some help to get back into the groove. He needs a wingman, a personal, personal assistant. Say maybe some up-and-coming comic, all fresh-faced with some raw talent. Somebody like George once was back in the day.

Since the clock is winding down, George instead settles with Ira. Sh*t, it wasn’t like the poor schlub was going anywhere to begin with.

*kick*


The Rant…

Tried my hand at stand-up comedy once. Never really thought I was funny in the vein of, say, George Carlin or Bill Hicks, but I remembered my younger days whiling away my lonesome Saturday nights watching Fox’s Comic Strip Live and laughing myself silly as those guys and gals tore up the midnight screen with their stories and one-liners. Hey, I could do that!

Right. No, I couldn’t, or was not able to in my neck of the woods. Such simple joys were all I was after, especially since beer and snatch weren’t as easily accessible as Domino’s was come the weekend. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Was I any good at it? Ah, again: no. I figured my schtick wasn’t the flavor in Columbus, let alone where I lived (which was nowhere near Ohio). To give you a notion—and this isn’t about sour grapes, believe me. Ask my friends—of where I was coming from, my hometown was—still is a chunk of conservative Middle America. I’ve commented here before that Middle America is not a place, but a mindset. And no, I’m not gonna slag on where I was raised and warped. Did that already, and once you hear about it, nod assent, share your story any further analysis is a waste. Because your small town is still going to be small, and likes it that way. Like Lou Reed sang, “No one ever important came from here.”

As a teen, there was no real social scene for me back then. There were high school related things, sure. A minor league baseball team. Even an under-18 dance club that played raver music, replete with glow sticks and a fruit smoothie bar. But that was it. Everything else to do revolved around bar-hopping—taboo for a minor like me anyway—and late nights at diners, with one exchanging places with another and back again every weekend. Boring. Dead. Not wholly awful, but me being a restless teen, I knew there had to be something else. Something really fun to do late at night on a weekend that didn’t involve danger. At least not the physical kind.

In a back-asswards kind of way, that’s how I got onto my Comic Strip Live viewings. Right. Nerdy teen. No place to go. Up late in mom and dad’s basement, Sega Genesis controller all sticky. You need a laugh. What’s on TV? Why, it’s a bevy of stand-ups, men and women from across the country (sometimes even across the globe) of all different stripes telling stories and spouting social commentary and making a huge room of complete strangers piss their pants. Not to mention the new fanboy at home (eeyew). I loved it; I was hooked. From 7th grade to the show’s cancellation in the mid-90s, you’d almost always find yours truly glued to the tube every Saturday night from 11 to midnight with the local Fox affiliate. When it was summertime with no school to worry about I was waving a finger to the Sandman by watching The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson to tide me over till the weekend. And when stand-up specials would pop up occasionally on HBO, I had a fresh, blank VHS at the ready to record George Carlin, Robin Williams and even goofy Gallagher for posterity.

So when I was of the improper age, figuring that I had a few funny things to tell strangers in the dark, I sought out open mikes at local coffee shops. Okay, at the two coffee shops. I never had a problem with public speaking. I always figured I got to be the center of attention, and if I f*cked up, hell just act all silly about it. We all worry about making an ass of ourselves in front of a crowd. It happens sometimes; just roll with it.

I tried to roll with it. You always hear about comics getting heckled. Some (usually drunken) assh*ole yells sh*t out of line at the comic, wrecking his flow and pissing off the audience. I knew about that. I also expected to having folks not getting my stuff, and not getting many, if any laughs. What’s funny to you ain’t necessarily funny to others, smashed watermelons or no.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the indifference.

I was young, but my concerns were decidedly not on the buffet for the gentry. Lambasting 90s pop culture institutions like the latest music and movies (see a pattern forming?) as well as how hard—honestly hard—it is to get with, deal with the opposite sex was not what your typical cafe crowd wanted to hear from some loudmouth 18-year old. Comparing sexual conquests of Sean Connery versus Roger Moore in the 007 movies wasn’t much of hit. My bits went sh*t over shovel, but weren’t regarded with heckles or no laughter. The crowd couldn’t be bothered with such interactions. They were too busy chatting with each other over their drinks to give an ear to my antics. I was an irritant. Granted that this was a cafe, but it was open mike night, and the guy with the bagpipes got a standing O, after all.

That’s not how it went on Comic Strip Live. What happened?

In my wanderings about town, I encountered many, many backwoods people in the heart of urban Pennsylvania. In the A Most Violent Year installment, I spoke of my walkabouts in the less seemly parts of my old stomping grounds. I found regardless of the setting—be it cafes, the aforementioned diners or other public gathering places—the townies were not keen to having feathers they weren’t aware of be ruffled by some jabber jaw kid who watched Jon Stewart and Colin Quinn cut their teeth Saturday night. One too many times. You hear what I’m screaming. Even if you weren’t a comedy wonk like me, but just some schlub living in an uptight, reactionary, conservative town you were quick to learn that spouting your mouth off about issues others would happily ignore would likely get you in line, awaiting the inevitable drubbing.

I understood that old comic axiom: “Timing is everything.” Certain jokes work here, some there. Depends on the audience. It would probably be unwise to crack jokes about type 2 diabetes while performing at Hershey Park. For every season and all that bullish*t. If you’re a comic, or any performer for that matter, you gotta pick your moments. Gauge your audience. And know when it’s time to make a graceful exit.

Which is why indirectly, after my belabored attempts at bein’ a funnyman, the seed was planted why I had to get the f*ck outta dodge.

Comedian Patton Oswalt—a personal fave—put it best with his “Test of the Small Town” bit. It went something like this, more or less verbatim: when you grow up in a nondescript, soulless, boring town you have been given a present from God. And the present is the Test of the Small Town. You pass the test when you go, “I’m leaving before I kill everyone and then myself!” That’s when you pass. You fail when you go, “I’ll git a job at the Citgo and fill m’truck up fer free!” Whoops, you f*cked up.

Wasn’t gonna be me. At the time, but I probably wasn’t aware of it, I was taking Oswalt’s test. By watching comedians and then mimicking their bits, I learned quickly two things (well, one was already quite codified in my teenage mind).

First, watching all those comics from all over hither and yon told me that there was a bigger world than my dot on the map. All sorts of different people came on that stage from all over, telling stories that anyone, on one level or another, could relate to. And laugh about, no matter how weighty the subject. And how they delivered their bits reflected where they came from. New York. LA. Boston. The Midwest. This told me that there was indeed a bigger world beyond my little ville. Populated with people that, hey, I might be able to be down with. Ah, the optimism that only puberty can provide.

Second, I grew up in a staid, narrow town. Maybe on some vestigial level my mucking about with comedy planted the needful seed for me to scurry off down the path. It’s not unlike the virginal would-be starlet fresh off the motor coach from Wichita. Most of us come from nowhere to seek our fortunes elsewhere. Those cats on CSL were just struggling comics, but they came to LA from very elsewhere sometimes for their big TV spot. I saw the salt mine years of Jon Stewart, Jeff Foxworthy, Jeff Dunham (and Peanut), Bill Engvall, Kathleen Madigan, Dom Irrera (whom I met once; nice guy) and Denis Leary on CSL, before they were anybody. They knew they had to travel, to move on to find their muse. That’s the way it is with stand-up. You gotta find the right time.

Again, as they say in comedy, “Timing is everything.” A wisecrack here, a joke there, an anecdote later on, maybe some philosophical musing and/or social commentary. It only works within the proper context, as well as the right environment. Languishing in my old town, with the gift given by both an Oswalt-esque crisis and all those jokesters I caught on CSL, I quickly learned that I had to get out. All this required was my timing.

The right timing.

Sorta like the kind George Simmons once took. His career skyrocketed only after years of digging in the trenches, hitting the road and honing his act. Now he has it all. But all it takes is some bad news at the (im)proper time to make him assess his actual achievements, and perhaps realize that where he came from—where it all began—may have been nowhere, but it was somewhere.

Profound, huh? You get chills…?


America’s number one comic actor George Simmons (Sandler) has it all. Success. Lavish home. Millions in the bank. A lucrative—albeit questionable—motion picture career. Wants for nothing. Except maybe…something. For all his wealth, like many celebs, there’s this feeling of hollowness. Not to mention some other feeling.

His annual physical’s laboratory results have come back, and the news is bleak. George has contracted a rare blood disorder. He has very few options for treatment, let alone looking down avoiding a possible death sentence. To say he is scared and devastated in a disgusting understatement. He returns home to his sumptuous estate and all he sees is, well, nothing. What was all that hard work as a workaday comic a lifetime ago for, only to have…this happen?

Ira Wright (Rogen) is a struggling comic. Struggling mostly due to one glaring problem. Ira ain’t funny. He lacks confidence, timing, decent material and stage presence. But he tries hard. In fact, by his roomies—all successful funnymen, by the way. Some even have contracts—he’s very trying. Despite his minimal talent, Ira is sure that if he keeps plugging, he’ll win over a crowd. But after all the silence and indifference, when will that happen?

One night at an abortive club date, George catches a bit of Ira’s bumbling act. With a furrowed brow, George recognizes something in Ira he once recognized in himself. Do what it takes to be funny and make a bunch of strangers laugh out loud. George recalls, if only vaguely, what it took to make that happen.

George taps Ira. Knowing time is a precious commodity, and being reminded of that thrill he got back in the day, George tasks Ira as his new writer. He figures it’ll be good for the kid. That and George wants to do stand-up again, get back to the source, recapture the buzz again before its too late. He’ll let Ira try out new stuff with him as his mouthpiece. In return for his “services,” Ira has to be George’s valet, life coach and overall flunky for as long as…whatever takes.

Ira is ecstatic. George Simmons! The man is not unlike a god to newb comics. He’s the guy where Ira is now! F*ck George, yeah! I’ll do anything you say!

Could you get in touch with my ex and destroy her happy marriage?

Um, wait. What? Hang on. Like that’s gonna happen…


Funny People is two movies in one. Unlike a double bill at The Comedy Store, this is not a good thing. In fact it’s a disappointing thing.

I rightfully enjoyed Apatow’s first efforts, The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up (and by extension, Superbad). Apatow’s done all right as far as I’m concerned. He was one of the guys I caught on Comic Strip Live back in the day. He had a bit about having a head cold (no, really) that left me in stitches. Who’d be better to write a movie about the ups and downs of comic stardom than a former comic himself? Remember: write what you know.

Apparently what Apatow knows—learned, rather—is that the life of an entertainer has more pitfalls then a southeastern PA freeway come March. Success in this biz is a hard-won ally, and one that could hand you over to the enemy at a moment’s notice. Considering the dire state of affairs regarding Sandler’s current cinematic track record, Funny is both prescient and cautionary. Not to mention makes for great character study.

A few light-years back, I took apart one of Sandler’s dramatic turns in Reign Over Me. The thing sucked on toast, but prior to the nitpicking I spoke about the comedy career arrest in Sandler’s current movie CV. I also spoke of his trademark schtick, what with its screaming, silly voices and mid-70s variety show-like musical numbers. In addition to that, there was an assumed cavalier attitude Sandler might have regarding his fans and/or detractors who see his films: you know what you’re getting into buying a ticket, so take the lumps with the laughs or else.

That being said, is this whole film a self-conscious deconstruction of Sandler’s movie career? If so, it’s a needful thing—especially considering the non-stop backfires of his recent movie output. It’s then remarkable how one can turn a negative into a positive (albeit a small one). When the script for Funny dropped on his desk, Sandler read it, must’ve smirked and decided to give it the ol’ college try. Write what you know? Sandler “wrote” what he acts for Funny. The guy was readily game, and definitely qualified to portray a doosh like George Simmons.

What’s brilliant about Funny is first the very simple plot. It’s the whole mentor/student bent like other movies I’ve tackled here at RIORI, namely Finding Forrester and Wonder Boys. Whereas those tales were sober, heart-warming tales (sort of), Funny comes off as bitter and satirical, not unlike many a real-life comedians’ routines. Since the cast is choking with comic actors and real-life stand-ups to boot, small wonder why characters Ira and George—the proverbial Tom and Huck of the movieare hand in glove for a film like this. There’s a kind balance between schtick and dramatic aspirations at work here. The seamy, struggling world of Funny mirrors perfectly the lifestyle that goes with this kind of gig. Our movie is not supposed to funny, however, what with all its nights in the trenches and possible trappings of fame, it still keeps its humor. A good example in the film as how practicing comedy is at heart an organic thing are the scenes with the Teutonic doctor; it’s a priceless setup as to where comedy comes from. But despite the vital illustrations of funniness with scenes like that, prickly is the best overall way to describe the aura of this movie’s first act.

More on the final act later.

*cue sinister music*

Sandler didn’t need much motivation to play George. He is George. From his track list of movies that area at best mildly amusing and at worst inane, as well as his straying from the stand-up scene that made him, Sandler/George is an icon to comics and bane to their own careers. In other words, George sold out and it’s getting to him. Even more so that his life may be cut short.

Let’s talk about the acting, shall we? Essentially, our two leads are playing themselves. We get that George is Sandler. It’s nice to see—even in a meta fashion—Sandler’s hard-fought road to success. Sort of. I heard Apatow incorporated a lot of Sandler’s real-life experiences into the script. It shows, especially the scene when George is reliving his past via old video footage of his salad days. It gets lonely at the top later on in life. Doesn’t success do that? Sandler has this resignation hanging on his face, but doubtless it’s attached to Geroge’s circumstances. It’s his, winking and nodding at: yes, this is my life, my fame, my prison. How he delivers George, one gets the (correct) impression that Sandler improvised most of his lines, for good or for ill. I mean, the guy’s been there. Is there. Who’s better than him muckraking? I don’t think Sandler has but a wink in his eye as to how his career’s turned out, but his alter-ego does, and perhaps Sandler’s doing some vicarious therapy.

Right. I delve too deep. Shutting up and moving on.

After George receives his bad news, he quiets down, becomes reflective as anyone facing such a fate would. In the first half-hour of Funny Sandler exhibits more pathos than in the two-plus decades Reign Over Me sprawled over. He’s funny in fits and starts, and most of it is cutting, sardonic and plainly dark. Not the usual flavor in Sandler’s Columbus. His bread and butter is put to good tongue-in-cheek use as against character here. Like I said, maybe here was a opportunity for the guy to excise his demons, get some sh*t off his chest and let us have a laugh on him rather than with him. A nice departure, actually. I like a lower key Sandler here, and maybe a few of his diehards could make room for this bit also. This movie illustrates that Sandler can actually act. If only within the proper context. This movie does what Spanglish and Reign didn’t: give Sandler room. Comedians often do well in dramatic roles (e.g.: Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor, Jamie Foxx, etc) and seldom the other way around. Here Sandler got the ideal role: autobio comedy kinda drama. Sorry, it was the best way I could phrase it. Fine. You try.

I like low-key Rogen, too. Rogen here as Ira is just as childish as ever, not to worry. His stock in trade is playing a schlumpy quip machine ever put upon by the troubles he creates for himself. That and a lot of yelling. Here in Funny, Rogen also plays against type and his Ira is a lot more down that his usual fits of dick jokes and stammering like Curly on crack. Instead he is the terminal straight man. His childishness here is channeled into the mold of a nervous, under confident, neophyte comic that doesn’t have a leg to stand on. His act is lame. He has no timing. He’s like a kid who finds a lump of coal in the proverbial stocking. He needs a hug. Rogen finally has a role that reflects what America sees in him. It’s his most human role, not unlike his benefactor’s. Gone is Officer Michaels and Dale Denton. Enter Ira. Got a funny feeling here that Rogen is also channeling the years he grappled with a comedy writer. Like I said, many times over, timing is everything. Maybe with Funny, it was Rogen’s turn to pull back the curtain. What we see is rather endearing, and a character that we as an audience can sincerely get behind.

Okay. Now shut it about my rooting around. There’ll be a payoff.

What about the technical stuff? Good question. Apatow is generally a sharp filmmaker. He drops hints and allusions to subtly pair drama with the giggles and poop jokes. Funny is no different. There’s oddly a lot of good camera work. Why oddly? Because a bittersweet comedy in his vein is often in your face, if not outright brusque. Almost everything front and center. I couldn’t help but notice that for the majority of the shots—save close-ups—every scene was framed slightly left of center. Or right. Whatever. Even the scenes that involve intimate conversations or moments of contemplation (yes, there were a few in this Apatow flick), next to nothing was framed center stage. Unless it was significant; i.e.: the stand-up scenes. Little doubt to leave in the mind what our director was trying to convey here. All the world’s a stage and whatnot. If this show’s about stand-up, give the comics some, y’know. And Funny is very good at illustrating the growth of a comic. All this cinematography did a good job of keeping us centered against the looming twin shadows of death and failure. Kinda like that old Shakepearean trick…you’ve heard it already, right.

Apatow is also skilled with splicing drama along comic lines. Both Virgin and Up had heartfelt storytelling underpinning the raunch. It helps that the weighty matters are about the mundane sh*t we may all have to deal with in life. Like Carlin said, “Everything we share, but never talk about is funny.” Very sage. Apatow took this philosophy to heart when making his movies. For every booger joke, his sh*t illustrates we all pick ’em. There ain’t much subtlety in most of his execution, but then again neither is being caught digging for that gold nugget. Those proverbial nuggets are what makes his drama-comedies work so well most of the time. It’s kinda endearing.

One last thing on the technical side: Apatow’s tasteful soundtracks. What with all the 80s cheeze with Virgin and the stroke of genius hiring Loudon Wainwright to cut tracks for Up, a keen application of the right song at the right time isn’t missing here with Funny. There were two scenes that best illustrate said keenness. First was backing the whole face-out-the-limo scene. Backed by James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” makes Ira’s reactions seem to remind George the joy of success he’d had one time in the past. Poignant, if only for a flash.

Second was the scene where George was clearing out his garage, choked with movie promos and swag the studios sh*t on him over the years. You can hear Alice In Chains’ “Man In The Box” lulling in the background. Pointed without being all up in yo grill. You’d almost miss it if you weren’t listening (to the soundtrack or my quackings).

So far, so good. Solid story, likable characters (regardless of unfortunate actors), funny and a potential long-range, rewarding story. All that being said, the first half of Funny is a warm, good-natured movie.

Now we have a problem: there is no second act.

Worse: the third act is from some other movie. One I’d dislike. Uh-oh.

Hang on. Backtrack. There is a second act, and it lasts less than ten minutes. It’s just one scene, really.

In any other movie with a similar storyline (dying man seeking redemption), the scene where our protag tries to repair bridges with “the one guy/girl that got away” is de rigeur. It’s a f*cking tradition by this point. George has an emotional moment with his spurned love, Leslie Mann’s Laura, and it’s very sweet. Not quite saccharine—Apatow’s too adroit to leave it so—but also somehow…baiting?

And now we reach the inevitable; here’s the moment when Funny goes careening off the tracks.

I’m really unsure that what happens in the third act was an honest intention in Apatow’s storytelling, or instead some demon muse suggested, “Hey, you got these name stars, a tight plot, this big-ass budget and the audience in your pocket. You’ve done a fine job exorcising Sandler’s demons for the first half of your movie. Let’s use up the remaining time to purge your demons and vicariously tell your ex she kissed the wrong frog and her p*ssy is awash in warts for it! Mwa-ha-ha! Now go forth and bring me the skins of the Olsen twins!!!”

Right. Not sure. Just musin’.

At any rate, after George and Ira reach an understanding about each other’s chosen paths the film should’ve ended. It didn’t. Instead we get another 90 minutes of the two trying to upend Laura’s presently decent relationship in the name of…what? Revenge? A perverted extension of George’s need to mend/burn bridges? Ira trying to…hey, where’d Ira go? Totally unsure. All I got from the final act was a chance to hear Bana speak in his usual Aussie accent. Well, that was amusing, at least.

This whole tryst aim of the movie disrupts—destroys—everything, everything that get set up for the first 90 minutes. Here’s a bit that goes on waaay to long, and has next to no connection with the first half of the movie. I got confused as to where the point of the antagonism lay. If this device was trying to enhance some tension it would’ve worked better edited down and had nothing to do with advancing the ‘A’ plot. This killed the movie’s pacing (uh-oh) as well as all the natural-feeling tension that was established in the first half. In short, this sidestep sucked all the funny building in Funny out of the movie from then on out.

I repeat, Funny is two movies in one. But this ain’t about no double feature at the Cineplex. I mean, after my desultory opening statement to the review part, I enjoyed Funny up until the point of no return. But this movie went on way too long for the worst reason possible: directorial indulgence.

It’s been an accepted fact for decades that certain directors get long-winded, regardless of their résumés. Scorsese does it. Coppola did (still I feel that the unedited version of Apocalypse Now is superior to the original, theatrical cut). Cimino really was. But those dudes carried decades long cachets. Apatow has, what, five directorial credits to his name (or as I like to call it: Marty’s lunch break)? I think it’s a tad too soon for the man to get all gushy here with Funny. Y’know, since his work’s almost legitimatized. Big deal office turn out does not automatically grant one Crooklyn street credit (sorry, best example I could conjure up. I’m like a Replacements’ live show right now). Still, I get the feeling with the last half of Funny, Apatow took his turn pulling a George Simmons within his own film. It would’ve worked if it, well, would’ve worked.

It didn’t. In fact it failed so badly I got so befuddled two-thirds through the movie that not only I had no idea what was going on but forgot about the first chunk of Funny‘s original plot thread. Such a thing might’ve been tolerable if the movie’s throughput remained relevant, consistent and, well, funny. Geroge and Ira’s story are basically sidelined to make room for a f*cking soap opera. The only thing that was remotely amusing about this thread was seeing Bana be way over the top, almost a mirror image of Sandler’s rise to his. Trading one caricature for another isn’t funny. It’s goddam aggravating, like we need training wheels to get the joke. Very un-stand-up. Shame on you, Judd.

What spark had been developing got snuffed out here. This movie should’ve been half as long. Even my endless patience was tested as soon as George and Ira arrived at Laura and Clark’s place. Goddam it. Here we had a chance for a near blemish-free role for Sandler and Apatow just had to revisit his old high school A/V Club one last time. Sh*t. We were on a roll here with Funny, then it got all…unfunny. Not just “not funny.” The audience got catapulted into another theatre entirely. And I don’t care that at the end George alludes to Ira REDACTED. It would’ve been better off that way at the outset. Or at least the first 90 minutes.

I can’t f*cking believe this big-ass disappointment was two-and-a-half hours long. That’s like three hours of Comic Strip Live! Minus the reliable laughs!

That’s if you even use an ELP 8 hour VHS from BASF.

What? Too many acronyms? Is this on?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. It’s a bait-and-switch. Get the hook.


Stray Observations…

  • “Don’t blame me for your p*ssy problems.”
  • No burgeoning comics could ever afford a pad like that. Not feasible.
  • “You ever get tired ’bout talking about your dick?” F*ck FaceBook!
  • I love all the comic posters.
  • “Smart movie.”
  • I hate the LA skyline.
  • “I think I can hear the freeway…”
  • Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart.” It works wonders.
  •  “That’s just fifth grade.”
  • Schwartzman needs a-slappin’.
  • “Are you mad that you died at the end of Die Hard?” “I don’t understand your reference.” You tell ’em, Karl.
  • Marshall Mathers. Closet sage.
  • “You owe me fifty.”
  • Mann is endearingly annoying, like that squeaky girl who’d follow you and your friends around after school and onto the playground. Later in high school, she’s give you a bl*wjob so you’d do her homework. You dig what I’m saying? What do you mean…? Hm. Guess that explains the sores. Anyway, “I like Spider-Man!”
  • “I thought everybody loved you…”
  • Dick move there having Ira telling Laura about George’s REDACTED (God, I love doing that).
  • “Where are the black guys?”
  • Who wants to wager that Apatow is a Gershwin fan? What with Sandler performing and Rogen writing? The analogy sure wasn’t lost on me. Clever.

Next Installment…

Can Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried literally escape their futures In Time?


RIORI Volume 3, Installment 8: Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me” (2007)


Reign Over Me


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler and Saffron Burrows, with Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon and Donald Sutherland.


The Story…

After a chance run-in with his old college roommate, Alan tries to reconnect with his friend who’s since fallen on hard times. But his old buddy Charlie wants nothing doing, regardless of how his life’s fallen into ruin. As far as Charlie’s concerned, all he needs is his music, video games and a kitchen to remodel. But Alan thinks there’s something more going on…and not just with Charlie.


The Rant…

I’m not entirely sure how Adam Sandler has had a successful movie career.

I’m not going to lambast the guy; that’s too easy. We all know his comedies are exercises in dumb, sophomoric, scatological and generally adolescent crapola. We know this. So does Sandler, as evidenced in recent, questionable newswires. He understands this very fact, and makes little to no apologies for his junk. Hell, if morons want to go to the movies to see Sandler act moronic himself, that’s their lookout. Sandler’s wisely adopted the classic “Hey, if you don’t like my sh*t, don’t go to the theatre” attitude. I’ve seen a few of his flicks, and some I’ve found fun—if taken with the right amount of salt. And weed. But overall they’re dumb with a capital Q, and that’s the point. His is mindless entertainment. You know what you’re in for when you go to a Sandler comedy, and it ain’t gonna be Shakespearean. It’s gonna be stupid, all pratfalls, farts and Adam’s signature screeching. And really, let’s face it, we all need a can of PBR to chase the single malt now and again, right?

Like I said, Sandler’s funny films—up until recently—do good business. But is it because they’re really funny? No, not really—at least not consistently. Sandler also doesn’t score many points for originality, either (wasn’t Blended essentially a re-write of 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore notwithstanding?). As of late, Sandler’s audience has been drying up, perhaps finally getting hip to how old the joke’s become. And that’s just it, my opening statement: how has Sandler maintained a successful movie career for so long?

Every pop culture trend has a limited shelf life. If you’re an actor and get, say, seven years in the spotlight, you’re a true success. It’s even better if you score a few Oscars in the interim. Some actors’ work is best regarded within particular decades. Tom Hanks, for example, ruled the 90s with charm and chameleon-like acting chops; he’s like the modern day Jimmy Stewart. Pacino’s halcyon days were in the 70s. Hell, Shirley Temple held sway throughout the 30s—FDR even gave her a commendation for keeping morale up on the homefront. Barring Temple, the above actors are still active, but their cachet is waning (or with the case of Pacino, hurtling into self-parody and a never-ending toilet paper roll of sh*tty scripts). I’m not gonna bury the man before he’s dead, but along my argument, can you recall a truly noteworthy performance by Hanks in the past five years?

You chew on it; I’ll wait here.

*crickets*

Yeah. Me neither.

Despite some awesome Tom Hanks movies—running the gamut of roles and styles starting with Big in 1988 and winding down with Cast Away (“WILSON!”) in 2000—I think Hanks’ time in the spotlight is fading. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want the guy to ultimately be best remembered for just Forrest Gump and “Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s not a bad thing, really. Examples? Even though he took up some really dumb roles at the end of his life/career, Marlon Brando will always be remembered fondly as Vito Corleone (or Col. Kurtz, or f*cking Jor-El, depending on who you ask). Regardless of DeNiro’s roles over the past 20 years delving into inane comedies or playing second fiddle to Bradley Cooper or Ben Stiller, most of us will always recognize Bob as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Johnny Boy. All of those were great—if not signature—roles, and ultimately Brando is resting soundly, legacy secured.

Here. I know. I ramble. Let’s put it into simpler terms: consider the career lifespan of a rock star. If you’ve maintained the spotlight for three to five years, moved a million units, get a gig promo’d by Ryan Seacrest and hobnobbed with Kanye and Kim, then good on you; you made it. But precious few of us can be Bowie. Hell, most of us are Imagine Dragons.

So how come Sandler hasn’t become Hollywood’s latest iteration of “Radioactive” by now?

I know, I know. I hear ya screaming. It’s the whole Hollywood profit margin guided by either “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “If it works, beat it into the ground” in full operation, right? But if the actor or rock star examples above illustrate our ADHD cultural shelf life, then why haven’t we got sick of Sandler’s antics yet? I mean, we trade in our PlayStations every three to four years. Since Sandler’s rise into his heyday 20 years ago, there’s been four PlayStations (more if you include the Vita. I don’t), and at least with those consoles its media evolves, gets smarter and more sophisticated. Folks like that kind of thing, except when it comes to Adam Sandler’s film output apparently. There they like that as progressive as stone wheels-and-axles. Or a PSX.

Don’t get me wrong. I reassure you I don’t hate Sandler. I might hate some of his movies, but I’m not so out of joint to deny he’s a talented, funny guy. For instance, I liked The Wedding Singer and his screwball sports comedies The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore (or as I like to call it, Caddyshack for the 90s), not to mention that his salt mine years on SNL were great. But we’re still talking shelf life here, so here’s what I’m asking:

How can Sandler’s movie career be totally one-note yet has thrived for over twenty years?

Sandler—by conscious choice or an accident of design—has honed his on screen persona as loveable loser/irresponsible man-child to a razor sharp edge. He has played the same guy in almost every one of his 40-plus(!) movies, and we can always count on Adam to always deliver these goods in all of his movies—all of them:

  • Screaming,
  • Speaking in a funny voice,
  • Doing something musical,
  • Engaging in light physical comedy, and;
  • Acting all childlike.

In the face of examples presented by Hanks, Pacino and DeNiro with their films of diminishing returns and the present, increasing resentment of Sandler’s oeuvre—the audiences increasingly bored, and the plots (such as they are) growing beyond repetitive—his goofball act slogs ever onwards. By and large, his sh*t still sticks. Christ, even when he flexes his acting chops and tries his hand at a dramatic role, Sandler gets no quarter nor respect. He does get a response, however (mostly out of critical disbelief he’s actively trying to avoid peeing on camera), but the general public—his core fan base, rather—demand fart jokes, and the promise of serious drama as departure unpalatable.

As a professional actor, attempting to stretch and branch out, it’s become Sandler’s tender trap, what with the dyed-in-wool snot rockets on command. The people have spoken; they want belches. But now with 20 years under his belt, Sandler wants critical respect, even if it flies in the face of—defies—his lucrative cinematic legacy. Butt jokes and all.

Sandler’s stint in Reign Over Me is no different a situation. Well, maybe a little…


Success can be defined in quantitative measures in our society. What you do for a living. How much you earn. Where you live. What freedoms these things offer. Dr. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) can answer all these things with an affirmative. He’s a prominent cosmetic dentist. He has a nice Park Avenue apartment. He has his beautiful wife Janeane (Smith) and his equally wonderful daughters. He has money in the bank, a good reputation in his field, a nice ride and all the bells and whistles that a successful life allows.

Then how come Alan feels so bloody tight, trapped and depressed?

One day on his ride home from work stuck in the usual rush hour gridlock, Alan spies some guy on a scooter recklessly weaving around the stuck cars, oblivious to the traffic. Alan knows this guy. It’s Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his old roomie from dental school. Alan tries to flag him down, but Charlie’s oversized headphones cut him off from Alan’s cries, and from most of the world, too.

Lately, Charlie’s been zipping around Alan’s homebound route a great deal. Eventually Alan catches up with his old pal and asks him what’s up, what’s been going down? At first, Charlie is in a haze; he doesn’t recognize Alan. Charlie barely recognizes reality. The well-heeled Alan, all nice haircut and perfect cut of suit, tries to press Charlie. How have you been? What’s happened? How’s your family and why aren’t you listed in the directory of practicing dentists?

All Charlie can do is hitch on his headphones and get back on the scooter.

Alan asks around. What the hell happened to Charlie? He used to be an eager student and eventually a success story in the dental field. He had achieved the standing Alan now enjoys light-years before he even smelled a partnership. Now Charlie’s a disheveled mess instead. Again, what the hell happened?

9/11.

Charlie lost his entire family when the planes hit. He also lost most of his sanity. He quit his practice. He gave in to his hobbies as lifestyle, such as it is. He shut out the world. Alan learns it’s PTSD; Charlie copes as well as he can with music, video games, government stipends and endlessly overhauling his kitchen.

It’s terrible. Despite Alan’s material success against sympathy, he reaches out to his old, wounded friend, hoping to get Charlie reacquainted with reality. Alan also hopes—learns—that reconnecting with his old roomie might give him some perspective on his present, boring, probably needlessly stressful life.

After all, Alan is still successful. He still has his wife, daughters, prestige and an office with his name on the door. All Charlie has is a drumkit, a PlayStation and a never-ending kitchen. And a sh*t-ton of memories he wishes he could shake…


Reign Over Me was a tragic waste of time.

(Oops! Did I give away my review already?)

Seriously. Sh*t, we had a veritable goldmine here to plumb. Post-9/11 New York? PTSD echoing the tragedy soldiers from the Mideast return home to face? How the mentally ill are both maligned and feared by the upwardly mobile?

Funk dat. We got Shadow of the Colossus instead. That and Bob Seger.

Oy. Reign falls under the auspices of what I’ll call the Lady in the Water syndrome (go read the review). This film had such great promise, and it dropped the ball more times than Manhattan has every New Year. The premise was ideal, with a classic, no-fail storytelling device: friendship and salvation. And director Binder screwed the whole pooch using a very deliberate and forced execution. His execution muddied the movie waters with cloying, inorganic drama, half-baked, inconsistent characterization and a sputtering pace that makes the film drag in most places and skitter away elsewhere. Reign is riddled with flaws, and it’s really a shame because the story had such promise…if it made some sense.

I don’t want to tear apart Reign just yet. I do want to spend my opening sortie picking apart the good —or at least noteworthy—aspects of the film. Since first and foremost this is a buddy movie/character study at heart—a very odd buddy movie, mind you—we have to talk about the acting. Naturally, Sandler and Cheadle’ characters.

All right. Y’all know I’ve got a man crush on Cheadle. I’ve also mentioned before here at RIORI that Cheadle is a fine actor that almost always gets stuck in dumb roles. He should get a new agent. Here his Alan is our Everyman; it’s kind of a stereotype—man who has everything feels trapped by his success—but Cheadle delivers it in a very down-to-earth way. I’d use the “have a beer” analogy here, but Binder already has a scene like that in Reign. Even though Cheadle’s had a track record for lame roles, he’s always good, and can make the most mundane character a little more three-dimensional.

The key to Cheadle’s acting style, I feel, is his earnestness. I’ve never seen him play out of character (even when he should, like in Iron Man 2). His Alan is no different. Our protag is solid; all the conflicts Alan faces—from a crisis at work to his straining marriage to helping Charlie—are handled in a candid manner, with Cheadle working the plain, but pretty good and clever. I’ll give Binder’s direction that much—dialogue with utmost conviction and sympathy. Cheadle is as reliable as ever in Reign. At the end of the day—or movie—solid acting is more important than “good” acting regarding Reign. Good acting is subjective, but a guy like Cheadle is dependable enough to give the audience the proverbial “goods.”

However, what’s also reliable in Reign is Sandler’s usual histrionics. Those five things I listed above about fixtures in Sandler’s comedies? Welp, they’re all present and accounted for here. All in all though, regarding Sandler’s performance, it’s nice to see the guy try and sort of stretch himself as an actor. But even here in Reign, Sandler gives us his usual man-child schtick, albeit wrapped in a veil of “maturity.” In another movie, in another light, Charlie would be no different than Billy Madison. Think about it: Charlie as PTSD victim. He wraps himself up with his video games, record collection and drumkit. Whenever he gets mildly agitated, he screams and tears about. He has this fetish for root beer. He even ogles women with no shame (and isn’t Charlie a guy who supposedly misses his wife more than anything in the world?). In the context of Charlie it works it fits and starts, but when you think about it, it’s still Sandler doing Sandler.

And the hell of it all, I liked Sandler as Charlie. For real. Here’s a role where Sandler’s gig was actually put to some good use. I’ll agree his act is threadbare, and trying it out in a “serious” role was a shaky prospect at best, but you know what they say in storytelling: write what you know. Sandler knows how to be an adolescent goodfball, very well I might add. He just rolled with it in Reign—with mixed results—and it more or less resulted in a Sandler character that was at somewhat sympathetic and tolerable. He even had some good moments, too. Not many, but the few present worked well (e.g.: the therapist’s waiting room scene). So it wasn’t a total wash.

But…

Unlike Cheadle, Sander plays out of character a lot. I blame the writing. The narrative started to get real sloppy by the second act. The seams got frayed, and Charlie vacillated between disturbed and surprisingly lucid (all this from reconnecting with Alan? And wait. Going to therapy? Just like that?). I’m no expert, but Charlie eventually appears to be suffering from more than PTSD, and PTSD isn’t like psychosis, not really. I dislike how mental illness if often portrayed in movies as either being plum crazy or just plain sick. Reign is guilty of that. We know Charlie’s been through some sh*t, but excluding very little backstory, he just comes across as textbook nuts most of the time. Charlie’s inability to relate to anyone (except under certain circumstances) comes and goes at will halfway through the film, surprisingly not for the ever-patient Alan to take note. Seemed rather convenient to me.

Reign is your basic character study/buddy movie, right? Well, it’s mired in arrested (character) development. Both of our leads play children masquerading as adults. Alan is repressed and wants to lead a carefree life like Charlie seems to have. Charlie is unhinged and without a family to ground him—to give his life purpose—and basically retreats to his bedroom and bolts the door. Retreat, both “good” and “bad” is the axis of this movie. That’s the general undercurrent I felt in Reign, and that would be a reliable fulcrum for a story to balance.

But Binder blows it, time and again, with a lot of rambling in a script that never feels balanced. There is the overarching feeling of “play it fast and loose” pervading the entire damn movie. The opening scenes feel rushed in setting up the backstory. The 9/11 tragedies seem more like an inconvenience and/or wallpaper rather than being the movie’s Maguffin. Reign is interspersed with honest pathos but sandwiched between layers of filler—a lot of saccharine filler. The wobbly nature of the script leaves you never really sure of where the film is going. The meandering can become actually jarring, due to its ensuing frustration as the audience gets lost or forgotten about entirely. And a lot of the “message” (whatever it is. Even that ultimately gets confusing. Is it the healing power of friendship? Sympathy for the lost? Sandler can act when he really tries? I couldn’t keep track) gets delivered with ham-fisted empathy via a jumbled plot seemingly thrown together by the third act. By and large, everything feels forced.

I’m feeling that the only reason this movie got any press was that our established goofball Sandler was going to “play it straight” in a rare dramatic role. He didn’t (but tried), and the script betrayed him. Also, and once again, Cheadle got the short shrift. Granted, neither of them did any fart jokes, but both actors were either underused—their talent downplayed—or maybe under the delusion that a film tackling New York 9/11 matters automatically meant playing in Reign was a noble gesture and tribute. Didn’t they read the script before signing on? Could they have?

Call me cynical (no, really), but I think that the only reason Reign got any kind of praise is for employing post-9/11 sympathies on us. If Charlie had been a homeless vet…well, that’s been done before. If it was a role akin to DeNiro in Awakenings…uh, that’s already been done, too. PTSD afflicted guy from the WTC attacks? With Sandler? Hollywood gold!

Hey. Don’t throw the beer cans at me. Aim for Binder.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie is awful. It’s pandering, in poor taste and awful…not unlike the majority of Sandler’s “funny” films. Blech. What a shame.


Stray Observations…

  • “I hated kitchen talk.”
  • I know that yellow diner. Then again, so does half of Manhattan.
  • “Get a new shrink. Get several.”
  • I envy Charlie’s hair. I tried to achieve that kind of mane in my post-punk phase…in 1999. Slap me.
  • “You need some Mel!”
  • Why is Liv Tyler in this movie? She’s not a very convincing shrink. Discuss.
  • “Nobody has the right to look that good.”
  • Admittedly, Quadrophenia is one of my favorite albums.
  • “You don’t like this?” “I don’t like remembering.”
  • (Later, in the third act) Oh, God. Is Burrows still in this movie?
  • “Can we go get Chinese now?”
  • No visible facial wounds from that street…apprehension? Bad editor. Bad, bad editor.
  • “You used to take sh*t from everybody…but you were great at it!”
  • It’s a Madison 23 Production, doubtless a nod to the 23rd anniversary of Sandler’s break throughmovie, Billy Madison. Now stop looking at me, swan.
  • “It’s a kitchen, sweetie.”

Next Installment…

Hey! It’s time for another Kick-Ass comic book movie adaptation! Again! Comic books! All right! Here, at RIORI! Again! We get a lot of ‘em! Yet again! C’mon!

Sigh.


RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 2: James L Brooks’ “Spanglish” (2004)


Spanglish-Poster


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Bega and Cloris Leachman, with Sarah Steele, Shelbie Bruce, Ian Hyland and Thomas Hayden Church.


The Story…

John and Deb Clasky need a housekeeper. Flor needs a job to keep her and her daughter Cristina financially independent. Matriarch Evelyn needs to dry out. The Clasky kids need some focus. The dog does not need a ball. Flor’s daughter needs American opportunities. And all of them need to start communicating in a productive manner otherwise John’s business is going to crack, Deb will crack further, Evelyn will crack open another bottle and the kids will turn to crack. And the dog is gonna trash the house. Really. After all these mixed signals, who needs more trash?


The Rant…

My father once inadvertently gave me some sage advice.

In my misspent life so far, I often recall his little nugget with a sigh and a shake of the head. He and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but his words of wisdom at certain times bounce around my brainpan with sharp clarity.

Dad said that most of the world’s problems stem from a lack of communication. That, and high fructose corn syrup. But if you look around at the world—or at least what the cable news networks beat you over the head with 24 hours a day—my Dad may have been right. People get all bent out shape over issues like money, religion, politics, family and whose turn it is to take out the garbage. No one seems to listen to each other, and some people just won’t shut the hell up. Your voice at any given time is the most important sound in the galaxy, regardless of the topic and often the audience.

Nowadays, communication doesn’t even to need an audience. Not an immediate one anyway. With all the FaceBook posts and Tweets rattling around the Web at millions of bytes per second, does anyone really care who’s listening anymore? Most folks sure as sh*t don’t really care. I mean, some FB posts are way too personal for my sanity. People forget it’s an open forum, and do I really want to see the MRIs of that lime-sized tumor in your inner left thigh? No. No I don’t. Unlike.

It’s like everyone in the First World is talking about everything and saying nothing. No one listens, no one hears, and yet we still keep trying to get some point across. About what we have no idea. I blame the cradle, where we grew up. The first words you hear are usually mom’s, maybe the doctor’s cry “It’s a boy/girl (minus the slash, of course)!” Our first introduction to the world is people talking at you. Not with you; you ain’t there yet. Here’s where the troubles begin.

Me? I think problems with lousy communication start with the family.

We’ve all come a family, right? That’s where the hassle begins. I was born into a family. Maybe some of you were too? It’s supposed to be about open exchange of ideas and manners and community, socializing and creating opinions. Supposed to be. But reality intrudes, the diapers come off (hopefully by the time you’re 12) and let’s face it, every member of a family takes a side, sometimes knocking the whole civilized facade over. More often than not, every side takes a side that is a side of one.

Here’s an example: when you’re a kid, your Mom and Dad are the alpha and omega. They were infallible, and as sure as eggs is eggs, mom and dad would never steer you wrong. Then puberty hits, and the almighty parents seem more like tyrants; what do these, these f*cking “adults” know about growing up? They’ve already been there, so what do they know about what’s what now is anyway? And what’s up with that crappy music? Who’s Paul McCartney?

Later, around your mid-20’s (if you’re lucky), you come to realize that your parents are basically cool people, did the best they could, and you were the butthead all those years. But you didn’t listen. Check that: you didn’t want to listen, to mom, dad or their Beatles’ albums, which probably you now own and/or stole from their record collection. Now you can’t come out and say those six words: you were right, I wasn’t listening.

It takes a lot of humility to admit we’re wrong. It’s takes a lot of fortitude to truly speak our minds. And it takes either a careful reticence of words or copious amounts of beer to convey some actual meaning to an audience that counts.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What the f*ck is he talking about?”

See? You weren’t listening. You were probably scanning YouTube for the latest video of cute cats doing macramé to the dulcet tunes of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Drop the mouse and listen up. That’s right. Listen. Pay attention. Pocket the iPhone and please shut the f*ck up.

Remember Dad, in his finite wisdom, and let’s try to communicate in a productive manner. Let’s not be like the Clasky household…


John Clasky (Sandler) and his wife Deb (Leoni) are in dire need of a domestic. Deb has just gotten out of the investment business (read: fired) and is ill-equipped to manage a household. John as a reluctant four-star chef can’t balance his time equally between business and family. And there are the kids to consider, not to mention Deb’s freewheeling, boozy mom Evelyn (Leachman). Plus, there’s a crazy dog that needs a lot of walking and not fetching. The Clasky clan has gotta find a center to their bustling, verging on dysfunctional family dynamic.

Flor (r-r-r-r…Bega) has recently emigrated (and read: jumped the border) from Mexico and landed both she and her daughter Cristina (Bruce) into the barrio of LA, looking for the “American Dream” (read, once again: a good job). Flor’s cuz knows of this well-to-do family in need of a housekeeper that could probably pay a fair wage to keep Flor and Cristina financially solvent but still maintain their Hispanic roots.

Despite her age, Cristina knows that to make it north of the border you gotta learn English. Flor views such formality an affront to her proud Mexican heritage, and refuses to learn a lick. But there’s this job to consider, as well as Cristina’s well being. And the Claskys seem like nice people—albeit off the wall— so one must be ser flexible.

But how much to bend? John seems like a decent man. Deb looks like she needs massive therapy. Evelyn needs 28 days. And the Clasky kids Bernie (Steele) and George (Hyland) need fully functioning parents. Flor knows all the troubles of being a single mom without a family to back her. Now she ends up having to back this family? Well, with Cristina as her envoy, maybe Flor can find a middle ground to both stand firm and still earn a steady paycheck to keep the wolves at bay. Then again, who knew such a pack lived in suburban LA?

It’s all gonna be a dream deferred…


Sorry to tag that with a clipped quote from Hughes. Still, the guy knew poetry and the troubles of being a needful outsider, so again, shut the f*ck up. I already claimed you didn’t listen, and when I said Hughes I wasn’t referring to John. Get it?

Good (sigh).

Oy, this was tough, and not just the movie either. Recently, I had to retreat to my bedroom, wire up an old, first-gen flat screen TV with a beater DVD player just to get some privacy from family suffering from either insomnia or the midnight munchies. They always want to join me (read yet again: interrupt) and watch these so-called mediocre movies in my hopeful, misbegotten privacy. I now know I need a man cave. One with a portcullis.

I never knew how tough it was to be a mediocre critic of mediocre movies and try to ignore an audience. After all, it was the faceless, nameless, potential audiences I claimed to let them in on the know, before God. Well, on the topic of miscommunication, I guess I bend to that sway sometimes too.

Now then.

Ahem, this was tough. Backed by the Lady in the Water precept, didn’t you just want a movie to go right when others said wrong, wrong, wrong? Me too. The idea of a family comedy, one with an extended family and even in a sense adopted foreign family should be rife with opportunities about culture shock and clash, crazy humorous bickering, that crumbly pretense of normalcy of a family desperately trying to patch it up with chewing gum and duct tape. Hopefully all of it would be wrapped up in a smart outer layer coating a gooey, sentimental center, with chuckles all around.

Sometimes you cannot wave from popular opinion.

I heard gripes about Spanglish for a long time, but it was mostly superficial stuff. Things like Sandler not playing his usual, trademark buffoon schtick for laughs. My thoughts? His routine can get very grating and overdone. I am as surprised as you are. Y’know, like for (*does some quick math on fingers and toes*) his kersmillion comedies out there, pressed onto DVD, VHS, streamed, Edison coils, either all released, unrealized or still just a mote of dust in the mind of some kookoo producer. Sandler’s loud, goofball thing has served him well, and he’s probably been laughin’ to the bank the whole time. Still, here? Mostly mellow Sandler is a welcome thing now and again, if only to show he can be mellow It’s almost ironic that Sandler portrays a chef; chefs are decidedly not cool-headed people and prone to volcanic freak-outs. Besides, it’s not like he hung up the clown shoes after Spanglish.

There was also issue taken with how truly unlikeable Leoni’s character was. Deb is a neurotic nightmare. Even the characters we are not supposed to root for have at least one redeemable quality that would either be: a) later revealed as the plot devices carefully scrape away the bile and bitterness to expose the tender, misunderstood heart within, or; b) something the audience could relate with (a little warmth, a little pity, etc). Not Deb; she is an overanxious ball of nerves whose thoughts come across as so disjointed you find yourself wondering, “Is she really that f*cking insane? And how does Sandler put up with it?” Audiences didn’t put up with it much either.

And there were those adorable moppets, the kids, who despite this being an ensemble family drama ended up mostly as wallpaper. Cardboard cut-outs that didn’t really push the story along very well. Even one of the little buggers was, in essence, the center of the story, and even she was relegated to the sidelines most of the time.

So there were a lot of complaints. My sources came from the IMDb, good ol’ reliable Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, Box Office Mojo—along with what people told me with eyes rolled Heavenwards—to hang over this movie. Again, it was not unlike the flak dished out for Lady in the Water by yours truly. A character study of a non-nuclear family mixed with culture clash and language barriers isn’t a new thing. Hell, Dances with Wolves earned Best Pic for it, so folks know about this often used device. But the message of the movie, what I wanted to get out of Spanglish was…um…er…

I wanted to get a message. Any message. Moral, social, text. Something.

Director Brooks is known for telling stories about communication—or the lack thereof—and how it not only reflects individual social interactions (e.g. Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News, etc.), but also American society as a whole. He’s been producing The Simpsons since its inception, so the guy knows a thing or three about kooky family dysfunction. The whole cast of Spanglish is endlessly flapping their lips and not saying anything. The whole movie’s raison d’être is absent. To quote Gert Stein, “There’s no there, there.”

But let’s break it down, by the numbers.

Spanglish’s story is pretty simple. The whole culture clash thing. Rich paired against not so much. Token outsider—conveniently played by a foreigner—gets swept up in the family dynamic and injects some much needed perspective on the whole mess. There’s that language barrier thing, too. Simple. Been done before. Will be done again.

Here’s a surprise: it’s been done better than Spanglish has here. Dances with Wolves was all about that. Other good examples include Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and even that very-80’s sci-fi Robinson Crusoe caper Enemy Mine tangled with perils of communication breakdowns and their eventually being overcome. Those movies were about learning to communicate, and doing so a metaphor for peace, understanding and teamwork. Not the case here. We’re bludgeoned with the whole “too much talking and saying nothing” contrivance over and over and over again throughout the movie, and it gets very trying after a while.

And it doesn’t even lead to anything. Apart from all the verbiage—English and Spanish alike—other forms of communication are employed for naught regarding advancing the already tenuous story allegedly about Cristina and Flor. There’s a lot of emoting via facial mugging and deliberate speech here (Leoni seems to be channeling a low-level Sybil), but not necessarily by body language, which is if you think about it, for the better part of the film, Flor’s only way to get what’s going on is to read the Clasky’s faces and movements. It’s kind of like anti-mime (which sounds like a pretty good thing if you ask me). But all of it goes nowhere.

This is particularly damning when there are many flourishes or suggestions of how Spanglish could’ve made for some halfway decent entertainment. The subplot of Deb finding worth as a mom in Cristina’s eyes against Bernie’s deference to dad would’ve made for some juicy tension if it didn’t come across as so flat and hinging so one-sided to Deb’s crazy. The whole “performance anxiety” trail John follows fizzles out after awhile, rather than cloud his sense of responsibility versus ego. Lastly, a glaring omission for under using some acting is Leachman. She’s a delight here, and there’s a lot to her backstory, especially in how she relates to her grandkids. But instead she’s more or less releagated to scenes not unlike awkward comedy sketches. She has sweetness tempered with bile, and this is never fully realized not explored. Spanglish has a lot of these half-baked ideas paired with wasted opportunity, and the whole story about Cristina making her way into the world gets all tangled up and seemingly discarded in the overwhelming hijinks of the Clasky clan.

My ranting above how social media is more or less making us less social (i.e. no one pays attention to each other anymore). The art of conversation, with all its words and sounds and need to use your ears and no snappy emoticons at the push of a button and having to feign interest (not dissimilar to what you’re doing here) has all but vanished. It’s all making us unable to talk without using sound bites and enough room to give someone barely the time of day, what with your nose glued to your Android and all. We don’t notice or know our own miscommunication anymore. That might have been the message behind Spanglish, what with all its dysfunction and Three’s Company­-like mixed signals. No one listens, no one understands, no one is willing to accept any incoming feeds about others’ needs or wants. We’re all too tied up in our own bullsh*t. Maybe that was what Brooks was trying to get across, but I don’t know. Seemed the culture clash thing was supposed to be the whole crux, but the story got hijacked by the antics and antagonism of upper-class, white liberal guilt. And maybe too much corn syrup.

No shocker here, but I had a hard time watching Spanglish. It wasn’t the plot was too obtuse or the acting that dreadful. There was just this lack of momentum here, which in turn failed to engage me. It felt like this: have you ever been reading a book only to come to the conclusion about halfway through you don’t like it? But then you grit your teeth and squint and sally forth anyway out of some sense of spite? You’re not going to bested by some book, by God! Well, I was determined to not be bested by Spanglish. I tried watching the movie three times. Now I’ve been known to occasionally re-watch my victims here at RIORI. You know, in case I missed something or was too pished to remember it (hey, it happens. If you forced yourself to watch of these clunkers, you’d need a drink, too). Re-watching and re-re-watching Spanglish was both an exercise in futility and teeth-grinding. And I eventually lost the fight.

For a guy who places a serious emphasis on the importance of communicating, Brooks failed to send us any real message with Spanglish.

Hey, you still listening?

Hello…?

ERROR 404


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. I all but gave up by the second act, that and the disc kept skipping out on me. I need full streaming on this new/old unit. Talk about a breakdown in communication. Oh yeah, and the movie wasn’t that good. Thanks a lot, Dad.


Stray Observations…

  • “Double gulp!”
  • Second best fake orgasm ever.
  • “I don’t exist!” “Ah, sure ya do.”
  • Finally, Sandler’s screaming come in handy.
  • “I slept.”
  • Story has it Sandler met with and learned a few things from esteemed chef Thomas Keller to get into character. He wasn’t listening too well.
  • “Well, I’m broke.”
  • I notice the less I like a movie, the fewer notes I take.

Next Installment…

Breaking news! The President has been abducted by terrorisrs! Is the country under siege? Is the White House Down? Further updates and snarky movie reviews may provide some answers. Back to you…