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 Vol. 2, Installment 28: Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)


Pilgrim


The Players…

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kednrick and Aubrey Plaza.


The Story…

When the literal girl of his dreams Ramona starts popping up in his life-on-hold, slacker musician Scott Pilgrim wakes up. But to win the love of this rollerblading goddess, Scott must vanquish all seven of her evil exes in martial arts battles. You read that right. Bonus round!


The Rant…

I’ve covered a few comic book-based movies here at RIORI. To note, we’ve seen Green Lantern, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Superman (twice) and the Spirit (once and only once. Ugh) raked over the coals by the Hollywood combine, most of them with confused results. My responses have been generally positive than not on my watch, by the way. I try to separate my bias from…some other bias. To save time and spittle (and I’m slowly learning my readers can sometimes tire of the spray), most of the middling comic book adaptations I’ve seen under The Standard have been palatable, at times even enjoyable. But I think not all comic books deserve the dubious honor of making it to celluloid, or whatever they use these days.

Set the way-back machine, yet again, for the not too distant past. Oh, quit groaning. You made the hit here, didn’t you? This one’s gonna a get a bit more personal than before, and admittedly has very little to do with the context of this week’s movie. Why and what for? Well, sometimes you gotta just blog when you have a blog. Didn’t you learn anything from the Control installment?

2005. Between reality and semi-sobriety, a decade ago I decided to find a job. The inheritance that I had plopped into my lap was fast wasted on booze, pills, ennui and a grad school degree. Well, almost on that one. The only clear-headed thing I did with that wad of cash. I burned away my prospects and not a few bridges. Addictions are like that. You trade turns in the road only as often as you find the freakin’ road. So I was broke, strung out and stuck terminally in my late-20’s living under the ‘rent’s roof to get on the mend with my feet touching the pavement. Some pavement, anyway.

The job part comes in later. Remember my screed attached to the prior installment? Fire, walk with me; it’s a stinkin’ blog.

There was one addiction I used to have that remained dormant for a long time, however. And believe me, it did far less damage than the aforementioned blurs. Bless childhood.

*rewind*

Since middle school comic books were one of my balms against the cruel realities tweendom. I got hip to the funnies in summer camp, back when the sensible price for a new Marvel ish was a respectable 60 cents. This was the 80s. Yes, Millenials, I am old. So’s yer f*ckin’ iPhone 5s. The camp had a “system”; the parents doled out some discretionary spending that yeilded coupons for various items at the camp “store.” On sale was candy, cheap toys like balsa wood gliders and kites and, of course, comic books. The decent 60 cent kind. I wrapped my imagination around the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and—back in ‘85—issues from Marvel’s “New Universe.” For the uniformed, the New Universe was a line of then-new Marvel titles with brand new characters and storylines not drawn from their classic canon. It was launched in honor of Marvel’s silver anniversary. These titles, although new, were kinda derivative, stale and on the whole sucked. But as brand new stuff for a brand new collector such as myself, it was pretty cool overall. Anyway, the line tanked before the year was out, and it more or less caused then Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to resign his position in frustration and shame. Them’s the breaks.

Fast forward many years, up until high school. I quit collecting comics upon graduating middle school. Why? Not for a very good reason; comics were for kids. I was in high school now, a big boy. I got rid of almost all my books and delved instead into regular books, music, writing and pursuing the opposite sex with complete futility. You know, you mature. Or rather you just get older, and not necessarily wiser.

(By the by, according to the history books, the ‘90s were a terrible time for comic books. Sh*tty stories, bad artwork, prices skyrocketing and the ol’ House of Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I didn’t miss out on much during the ‘90s. Call it blind luck.)

Jump ahead again a decade or so. A college graduate. Time for the real world, which I avoided completely for most of the ‘00s as the abovementioned confessional explained. I gave up on most of my existence, mostly living for my Friday nights (and Saturday’s, and Sunday’s, and…), generally hand-to-mouthing it the rest of the week. I had a hard time holding down a job, and lived a Bukowskian existence for a few seasons. While I was trying to my head together, I reflected on “what went wrong” and backtracked, trying to assess the damage. I won’t go into great detail here, other than I tried to relive my past. That and I began collecting comic books again. It was a hesitant step, mind you. I heard about the abortive ‘90s and tentatively perused what had came before. Ugh. I got turned onto manga instead, and eventually weaned my way up back to America again. The turn of the century, after some housecleaning, brought about a Renaissance to the comic industry. That and prices, although higher, had stabilized. Again, I lucked out.

Between moping and scraping together what little cash I could, I began to frequent, or rather re-frequent the local comic shop of my youth. The owner, Jeff—who still holds court in the place for over twenty-five years. Quite an accomplishment for an independent comic book store, or any indie bookstore for that matter—was a sometimes acerbic, always opinionated but overall friendly dude who was also, of course, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the art form and history of the medium. To say his store had a lot of books is akin to saying the Antarctic is a tad chilly. Thanks to his hospitality and salesmanship, he re-activated the dormant comic-collecting addict I had once been in my callow youth. This was a major turning point for me, whether I knew it or not, and I slowly began to get my sh*t together.

Instead of carousing at my local watering hole, I hung out with Jeff and our fellow comic patrons (he kept late business hours) of all stripes. Young and old, male and female, black and white; it was a real crazy quilt of folks that would either shop and/or just chill there. I’d do some shopping, argue the merits of this book or that with Jeff and crew, or just simply hang and shoot the sh*t. I began to heal, although I didn’t know it at the time.

One day, I was doing that week’s shopping when Jeff extended either a hand of goodwill (he knew of my troubles, financial and otherwise) out of either being the charitable sort or knowing I was fast becoming one of his best, most reliable customers. Maybe both. In any event, he asked me about my work prospects. He must’ve known I was down on my luck by my constant yapping yap. Job opps? I said I had a few—meaning zero—irons in the fire, and then he made his pitch. He needed a guy to mind his store nights, from 5 till close 6 nights a week. He wanted someone he knew, perhaps trust and definitely not a snot-nosed kid who’d only rifle through the “adult books.” It didn’t pay much, but he would throw in an “employee discount” for me as a bonus. So whaddya say?

Of course I took it. Yes, the gig did indeed pay peanuts (and most of those peanuts were fed back into the elephant), but it got me out of the house—and bar—with a semi-productive routine. I managed the register. I recommended books in a salesman-like way, not some frothing fiend fresh outta momma’s basement. I was at in-stores, charitably promoting the local and not-so-local talents. I was also witness to the sad spectacle of life-arrests actually getting into fistfights over arguments regarding who could beat whom: Thor vs. Superman. On more than one occasion, I had to physically, but politely escort such ruffians out the door, reminding them to not carelessly chip a tooth on the concrete (sh*t like this really happened, Kevin Smith plot or no). As for promotion, the then EIC of Marvel Joe Quesada did a Q&A via conference call at the store, candidly fielding all of our geekish questions about what Spider-Man was gonna do next month. And the next. And the next. And the you get it. Joe suffered our silly inquiries handily and with much humor. I figured he was an old hand. After dealing each Wednesday with the usual rabble-rousers, I could only imagine what ol’ Joe has to do weekly with shareholders. It was all in good fun, and I wished I had only found a gig like this sooner.

At the end of the day, and I can’t repeat this enough, my time immersed in the comic book world as I had never done before in my youth became a lifejacket in a drowned world of my doing. Am I clean? Hell’s no. I tipple every time I watch a movie for this abortion. I smoke a lot too. Occasionally I’m solicited by co-workers with wondrous tales of the rapture that coke and weed may provide. Whatever. In this day and age, I find it takes a strong soul to say just that. I mean, look who we have to vote for. Still, my current vices possess the aegis of legality on its side. I’ll remain there for the time being. So long as the current Marvel/Disney hydra fails to notice its eighth head (you figure that one out, with your iPhone 6 Plus, bright boy).

Now. What I’m finally getting to here, is like the classic Cobsy line: I told you that story to tell you this story. While I was in “rehab,” immersing myself and getting caught up on the adversities of my favorite superheroes had triumphed over during my collecting absence, I came upon a format of comic book that I only had a passing understanding of: the graphic novel. I knew that publishers would often compile a story arc of a particular title—say, the Avengers—into an omnibus edition; it was simply collecting several back issues into one comprehensive whole, like a trade paperback. During my manga years, I only collected comics in this format (I initially thought all manga was published in this way). I wasn’t aware of stand-alone graphic novels of a single story and artwork carried across a self-contained package until my time at the comic store.

The first example of a “true” graphic novel came in the form of Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. It documented Pekar’s experiences getting his long-running, cinema verite series American Splendor made into a movie. Pekar has sort of become the archetype for this style of comic book storytelling. I’ve read other novels of his, like the bio of his friend in Michael Malice: Ego and Hubris and his urban historical, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland—a complete account of his beloved hometown—the backdrop to his Splendor series. I dug into other novels: Alison’s Bechel’s autobiography, Fun Home, about growing up gay set against the backdrop of her family’s business, a funeral home as well as an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and other novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others. These comics had little to do with superheroics, more to do with drama and humor. If conventional comic books were USA Today, graphic novels were the New York Times.

More like premium cable, actually. If you wanted to watch Homeland, Shameless or The Affair, you’d have to plunk down some extra cash. Like these cable series, graphic novels offered up a bit more freedom to explore more mature content than you average ish of Spider-Man (and like HBO, the prices were higher). Some stories were dramatic, others scary, some humorous. On the humorous side, and also attempting ironic commentary on folks from my generation, was this little collection called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Here, before I run on any longer, I’ll simply jump to the synopsis and get on with the meat grinding:

Once upon a time in Toronto…


Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the archetypal 22-year old slacker. No real job. No real prospects of any merit. Living in his dingy flat shared by his pompous, gay roomie Wallace (Culkin). Endlessly the bane of his younger sister’s (Kendrick) existence. Adrift, and he likes it that way.

Scott’s got nothing better to do with his days except endlessly pluck bass with his going nowhere garage band (the knowingly named Sex Bob-Omb) losers Stephen Stills, Young Neil and grumpy Kim (Simmons, Webber and Pill, respectfully). Oh, and on the side, date some 17-year old girl from a catholic school, the fetching Knives Chau (Wong). Right. Scott has a sh*tty track record for dating. His list is short and sweet and hopefully won’t get any longer wooing this recipe for a crime.

Then one fateful night, it comes to him in a dream. Really. A dream. The true “girl of his dreams,” whom at first could only be a figment of Scott’s staid imagination trying to break free. So when at a party, Scott and his amigos hear about a local battle of the bands—networking! This could be the way to Sex Bob-Omb’s big break!—there she is…

Her name is Ramona Flowers (Winstead), an ex-pat from New York City trying to settle down and find some stability in the Great White North. With her punky garb, snarky ‘tude and locks of many colors, Scott is transfixed. If not by her presence, then by the fact she has a presence outside his mind. Hey, all men are great in the their dreams, right? Scott pleads to the fates that this is true.

Ramona is somewhat taken with Scott’s geeky charm, but is reluctant to commit to any kind of relationship just yet. Not unlike Scott, she’s had some bad turns in the road on the dating scene. In fact, she’s had seven. Seven really whacked-out relationships that more or less scared her off to Canada. Scott thinks out loud: How bad could they have really been?

Well…

At the fated battle of the bands, Scott gets a taste (one of seven) of what Ramona warned him about. In a less than straight line, Scott faces off with one of Ramona’s exes, who apparently followed her flight up north. To win her, Scott must defeat him, Mortal Kombat style. Wait. This poof with the Lina Yamazaki hairstyle and his raiding of Prince’s wardrobe, this guy dated Ramona? And what about the psychic vegan bass player (Routh)? Or the witless, square-jawed action hero actor (Evans)? Or the Goth girl…girl? Or the twins!?!

Yikes. It’s like one of those video games Scott never plays, but (dum-dum-dum) it’s for real. How the heck is he gonna get past this rogue’s gallery of jealous freaks and win Ramona’s heart? Wit? Grit? Basslines?

And what’s Knives gonna think…?


It’s movies like this that make me question whether I was the target audience or not. The endless video game references, indie music soundtrack, alt-scene caricatures and the like seem to be aimed at me. Seem. However while watching Pilgrim, I got the creeping, crawling sensation that I had (shudder) grown beyond these hooks.

No, I’m not. All of it was just poorly executed.

Let me get one thing clear right now: I’ve never actually read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was aware of it. It slouched on the shelves at my former place of employ, but I never picked it up. After watching the film version, I kinda wished I had. Along with that sneaking suspicion that the raison d’être for Pilgrim on film was slipping past me, I also felt that taking the story out of its original context was doing me no favors. And the film was lousy with bleeps and bloops that winkingly told the audience that, hey, this was originally a comic book!

I mean—ahem—graphic novel.

I understand that for over a decade comic book movie adaptations have been en vogue, but not all books really need an adaptation. Admittedly, Pilgrim had an interesting way of “adopting” the comic book format for a movie. A lot of the gimmicks of the trade (sadly mostly clichéd concepts) were employed on screen. Sound effects—a la the 60’s Batman TV show—action lines, dialogue balloons, asides to the audience and ridiculous scenes of fight scenes lifted from hyperactive video games like Mortal Kombat, Looney Tunes chase scenes and/or supernatural portals into otherworldly, kaleidoscopic world via Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, all were employed to keep you in on the joke. Unfortunately, the joke’s not that funny.

Even the editing is comics panel-like. Scene to scene, things just swoop in and out of view like some slideshow with a corrupted file. I guess this was to come across as surreal—and believe me, Pilgrim has surrealism in spades—but it also was exhausting. The pace is so frenetic that if you felt you missed something, you probably did. Trying to make sense of what you see here makes no sense.

And despite the breakneck dynamics, Pilgrim feels boring. I say feels, not is. Yes, the plot is a well-trodden road, yet the overall vibe of the movie tries to have some verve. But this movie drags. At an almost two hour running time, Pilgrim is something of a slog. It feels like all of this sh*t could’ve been wrapped up on a nice, neat 75 minutes. It doesn’t; Pilgrim goes on and on and on. I blame the stale script and the tired storyline. This movie looks like it’s not supposed to be boring, but it sure as hell feels that way. Plus it has a corny, after-school special kind of ending. Did that ruin it for you? No, it didn’t.

Other than the threadbare plot, Pilgrim is a movie about the dynamics of being dumped. In the long run, you learn from it. But the short run runs so quick that, even for maybe a few months, it feels eternal. It’s ultimately harmless and a fact of life. Under normal circumstances, tempered with a reality that excludes the dumped, a breakup seems world ending over a span of some very long days. We’ve all been there, and many of us may be there again in the future. Like I said: fact o’ life. If that’s the message of Pilgrim, it seems a little high-minded. Okay, I said it, but I think I was trying to put something into the film that wasn’t there in the first place. Most of it seemed like a lot of Gen X audience bating, but I never read the graphic novel, so what do I know?

Is Pilgrim Gen X nostalgia? I’m not sure. There are those tiring video game in-jokes, and the music is the post ur-grunge that saturated the marketplace circa 1995. But the series was launched in 2004, and I think that might be too soon to wax poetic about ago in this case. Overall, Pilgrim really reads like Looney Tunes meets Dazed and Confused. Is this supposed to be a comedy? Because it’s not terribly funny. Sometimes the snappy dialogue is engaging. When forced, not so much. And the hell of it is that director Wright is a vet of the alt-comedy standup circuit in LA. I figured here he was trying to apply his craft on film. Actually weld is a better term; welding shows its seams.

Pilgrim is trying too hard to be “hip.” But it’s catering to the wrong crowd. Seriously. Gen X virtually invented cynicism towards pop culture while simultaneously embracing it. If the producers of Pilgrim was aiming to make it a tongue-in-cheek lambast of everything “cool” in 90’s alterna-culture, then they should of took a step back and rethink their drink (Christ, even writing that sounds hopelessly 90s. I suck). I cringed a lot here.

One final carp (you’re welcome): Pilgrim is suffering from a bad case of The Matrices here, and not in just overt terms. Never has CGI been used so wastefully. It’s an extension of the forced hip pretenses of the movie. I know that nowadays you couldn’t execute the same kind of video game F/X here without digital aid (most moviemakers simply don’t want to), but it sure gets numbing. Made to make Pilgrim more comic book-y? I dunno. Maybe it was like that in the book. I’m still at a loss there.

Universal’s jump on the comic book cum movie bandwagon falls short here. Then again, I might be completely wrong in my opinions. All the other movies based on comic books I’ve taken apart here at RIORI I was a least familiar—even in passing—with the source material. When one goes to see a movie based on pre-existing media, comic book or otherwise, part of the enjoyment of the film stems from what the director lifted and (hopefully) got right from the book. I didn’t have that here, and it was entirely my fault.

Then again, a good movie—adaptation or no—should lend itself to some enjoyment at least. That was sorely lacking here in Scott Pilgrim’s world. The whole thing was a grind.

A grind. Y’know. Like in video games? That’s hip.


The Verdict…

Rent or relent it? Relent it. It’s stupid. If this is Universal’s hope of tossing its erstwhile notion of hip into the ring of the lucrative comic-as-movie trend, then they have dysplasia.


Stray Observations…

  • Seinfeld reference! Definitely Gen X nostalgia.
  • “Pirates are in this season!”
  • I have an affinity for Rickenbacker basses. Must be my early-Rush fanitude speaking.
  • Evans is really enjoying his role here. You can tell. He also has great facial hair.
  • It appears that the rabble who blinded and willfully go to the multiplex have little to no concept of dues ex machina It gets shamelessly employed here in Pilgrim World a lot. Good work, advertizers! (That’s not a typo.)
  • I tried veganism for a few years. Lost some weight, which, in fact, I needed to (lost some muscle mass, too, though). My blood pressure improved, as well as my endurance. A poorly maintained vegan diet however, as mine was (I then knew nothing of quinoa) is a highway towards anemia. Been there. On the whole, and not out of hipster dynamism, one should experience once in a while a diet sans animal products. You’ll feel quite clean and refreshed. And after a few months sanity will set in and you’ll be queuing up at Mickey D’s for the semi-annual relaunch of the McRib wearing nothing a lobster bib. Really, try quinoa.
  • “Kick her in the balls!”
  • Was that Thomas Jane? Awesome! “No vegan powers!”
  • DRUM. Heh.
  • Pill is the best actor here, deliberate or not. As the eye of this hurricane, her flat affect works wonders.
  • “What are you doing?” “Getting a life.”
  • Up up down down left right left right A B (select) start.

Next Installment…

John Cusack quits sleepwalking through movie roles long enough to rejoin the Adult World, if only for one film.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 16: Maggie Carey’s “The To Do List” (2013)


The_To_Do_List_film


The Players…

Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader and Scott Porter, with Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele and Clark Gregg.


The Story…

Class valedictorian Brandy Klark can and has handled anything that high school threw at her. Stellar grades? Of course. Extracurricular activities? Almost the full catalog. Dating?

Uh, what?

College starts in the fall for Brandy, and facing down all the socializing that comes with that (read: action with the opposite sex), she realizes she’s coming up trumps in the sex department. So she takes the logical, studious action: make a list and check off any and all erotic activities she’d like to work her way through before heading off to school. Hopefully with that studly surfer dude Rusty.


The Rant…

I’ve noticed in the past few years, and I guess it’s SOP for every generation, that Hollywood has been cashing in on movies squarely aimed at my generation. The vaunted Gen X. Those of us, who were Reagan babies, grew up with the Internet and a keen acumen for relaying tons of useless pop culture trivia to one another with the ravenous fervor of a bulimic elephant in front of the Planters’ factory.

I noticed this trend when the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies came out. The Transformer toys and ensuing cartoons were a hot commodity back in, say, 1985 (back when the original animated movie came out, BTW). The Transformers movie dropped in 2007, when we of Generation X is all growed up. I was working in a comic book shop at the time (DON’T JUDGE ME) and my fellow geeks of similar ages were raving about the film, saying it was awesome and the best thing they ever saw.

Hmm. This seemed like key jingling to me. The best thing they ever saw? That’s sad. Now I’ll admit it, I haven’t seen a single installment of the Transformers franchise. Why? I don’t really wanna be another statistic to be pandered to courtesy of Hollywood, another wallet to shamelessly empty. That and I hate almost all of Michael Bay’s movies. But to seemingly trap a generation who had fond memories of childhood backyard wonder, knowing full well how irresistible it is to tempt the tastes of long ago? That is calculatingly cruel and insulting to entire generation of latent adults who march off to the theater to try and recapture something that is fleeting, and basically, not as great as you may have remembered it. Cashing in on nostalgia? It might explain the insipid Smurfs movies from the past few years.

…Right. Movie. Let’s get on to that:

The To Do List is very aware of nostalgia. Self-aware in fact. The film takes place in 1993, twenty-odd years ago when I was in high school. Back when there was no World Wide Web, cell phones were the size of bricks for the privileged few, grunge was the soundtrack, and I had this sick crush on some girl in band that I never had the sack to ask out (you did too, admit it. Well maybe no the band part). It was your salad days, all hormonal and identity building. Sure it was tough at times, but like they say, it built character and meant you were growing as an individual.

*eyes rolling Heavenward*

Let’s face reality. For most of us, high school sucked miles of broken glass and stank of acne and angst. But it was a major touchstone in social awareness, when your personality was starting to gel. You began to understand what you liked and disliked on a socially relevant level, and eventually it (whatever “it” was) defined you as an individual. You may have attached a lot of your memories to the events that happened in high school, for good and for ill and are going to drag them around with you for your remaining days. This is not a bad thing, walking around with all these pop culture moments in your mind. Especially if you’re a member of my generation with the ridiculous affectations of pop culture dripping from your cerebral cortex that cloud your judgment when seeing a silly movie based on a line of toys over twenty years old.

Sorry. Still bitter about that cinematic version of gaslighting. So it goes…


Valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) is the epitome of overachiever. It seems that ever since kindergarten, not only she has reached for the brass rail, she’s straddled it as been ridin’ for glory ever since. Too bad it’s the only thing she’s been riding.

It’s summertime, and Brandy’s college bound in only a few short months. She’s more than prepared for the transition. She’s got her awards on the wall, her scholarship in place and all her pencils sharpened and her lascivious buddies Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Steele) nudging her at every moment how not prepared Brandy is for college. You see, Brandy is painfully virginal, and has generally deleted the need or at least any curiosity about the opposite sex. She’s had no time for boys. Made time. Brandy’s just apple pie about reaching her academic goals without being distracted by some mouth-breathing boyfriend, thank you very much.

That is, until, she her gal pals attend a usual but this time fateful party…

Long story short, a brief encounter with the resident blond Adonis Rusty Waters (Porter), all tanned, chiseled abs and guitar slinging at a moment’s notice makes Brandy to finally make time for the pesky—albeit gorgeous—opposite sex. So Brandy, being OCD as she is, makes a mandate. She will lose her virginity to Rusty before the summer is out. She considers it worthwhile goal on par with the student government, president of the math club and another essential learning experience. It helps that Rusty is just too dreamy.

But before Brandy sets off on her quest preparations first must be made. Brandy has no experience whatsoever with all the oys, joys, boys and general stickiness that comes with making out. Necking, dry-humping, hand jobs, all that good stuff? Foreign. Gotta make a to do list of every sexual act in the book (and some out of it) and check them off as they’re completed. Gotta be thorough, lest she comes off as a klutzy newb to Rusty. All of this research should culminate in getting into Rusty’s pants before she’s off to college. Brandy’s always been meticulous, well-read and goal-oriented. But this is sex, and it always, always gets gooey…


Here’s a new one. One wonders why it wasn’t done sooner.

Well it’s kinda new. The formula is an old warhorse. Almost all teen sex comedies are about guys. Remember American Pie? That probably stands as a high watermark for the subgenre, and despite the fact that the movie had memorable female characters (no cookie cutters there), none of them held the spotlight. Busting your cherry in Hollywood (and in the movies. Ha!) seems strictly a guy thing.

Why? Good question, and one director Maggie Carey aimed to answer. She took a pretty good stab at it, too.

An extension of my opening sortie to this installment, tickling the bare feet of nostalgia, despite how not subtle and manipulative it is, is always fun. George Carlin once said that everything we share but never talk about is funny. A good portion of List’s comedy stems from quietly reviewing the acid test of high school memory. Picking out the goodies that send you back to your salad days and thus getting your fancy tickled. Usually this was the junk of the heart that never got talked about in polite company. Or impolite company either now that I think about it.

Well, List didn’t do so hot at the box office, despite maintaining that shared secret funny we’ve all shared. I think the reason for the lousy returns might have had something to do with the nostalgia trip comedy being too specific here. Pop culture is a generational thing, and one generation is only a part of the American whole. Yes, List is squarely aimed at Gen X, with a lot of references being spot on for me but most definitely lost on the Millennials. But The To Do List was made for Gen X, and by playing that nostalgia card…well, it’s kinda hard to make a movie like this without keeping the original pop culture junkies entertained.

Playing on my generation, I loved the title sequence. It’s introductions like this that always crack me up, just like all the pop culture references in this movie. Is there a thing as too much nostalgia? As List’s 100 minutes play out, Carrey’s answer is decidedly no. The choice of music, the technology of the times (I almost forgot about those clear phones), the endless cultural references to then hot topic movies and TV is an overdose on early nineties zeitgeist. The crassness of this trip down memory lane is very funny, but unfortunately for a narrow audience. To which I say, too bad, so sad. Neener, neener.

But anyway, The To Do List answers the question I posited earlier. Why don’t we give the ladies some (aw yeah) much needed insight on how to get laid? C’mon, we’re not talking Sex and the City here. We’re talking fumbling with undergarments in the back seat of your Daddy’s sedan. This isn’t about feminism and social climbing (not really). List is about sex, plain and simple. Carrey based this film on a lot of biographical events, and you what they say: write what you know. In this case, it’s what semen tastes like after too much pineapple juice. 🙂

Yes, yes, I know. But ladies can get rude and crude too. IMHO, I think females are much more self-aware and comfortable about sex in all it’s guises (RE: Cosmopolitan) than guys could ever think possible. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood wised up and decided to get some insight from the angle of the Second Sex. Time for the classic teen sex comedy to get a belated distaff spin.

Our heroine Plaza is terribly funny as uptight, yet eager Brandy. Her facials are priceless (actually, the entire cast’s are). Is it possible to mug the camera without being hammy? I think Plaza does it, pretty well I might add. What’s particularly shrewd on the behalf of Carrey is how fast Brandy turns from civics darling to turbo-whore. One can chalk it up to her overzealous nature or attacking all her learning endeavors with aplomb, but also it sets a (dare I say it) really neat momentum for the film to glide upon. In other words, good pacing. You had me at hello.

Unlike Brandy with all her sharpness and candor, the supporting cast falls into typical teen sex comedy stereotypes, but stereotypes in the best sense. Brandy’s boy BFF with the oh so obvious crush on our lead (Winters), the antagonistic and sexually advanced buddies, the object of her affection, the older “wise” mentor (Hader), we run the gamut. Despite the fact they’re all unquestionably one-note, they’re all sharp and funny or groan worthy with a slap to the forehead (well admittedly, Bill Hader’s Willy tended to get on my nerves. I wanted to like Hader, I really did. Call is residue from enjoying  Superbad).

Speaking of the characters, is List supposed to be self-parody? Is it trying too hard? The template the movie follows is pretty unremarkable as far as teen sex comedies go. Same old formula. But Carrey turns this formula on its ear. As I said List is pretty self-aware, so why not stock itself with the commonplace trappings of this kind of movie as use it as the big screen version of a comedy club? The comedy here is totally based on one-liners, like a sexually charged Mitch Hedberg routine. Funny, punchy and not necessarily hackneyed. The dialogue plays out like a bit, and its words are used with efficiency and candor. Yeah, there are a few sight gags (with keen uses of freeze frames) that can be considered trite, but they’re still funny (like the endless popcorn bucket trick) and that’s what matters.

List does not have the same sweetness as American Pie, but it does have more guts. Really, when the penultimate teen sex comedy’s high point is the main character f*cking pastry, you could really push the envelope a bit more. List does that. As well as ultimately subverting the tired tropes that go along with these kinds of movies. Sure, List can be a bit derivative in places, but don’t worry. It’s all in good fun. At least for us Gen X’ers. And as for the overdose in nostalgia, in the final analysis, it’s all relative.

And yes, that’s what a Mac looked like twenty years ago. Sans Internet. It is to shiver.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. You’ll especially enjoy it if you were born to Baby Boomer parents. Don’t worry, like Millennials, they’ll hate this movie too. Word!


Stray Observations…

  • Oh Lord, Sour Apple Pucker. The end of many casual dates.
  • “You’re like after school special drunk.” Again, Sour Apple.
  • “We can stay.”
  • I still enjoy Mazzy Star. I am old.
  • That Elastica song was released two years after this movie’s timeline. I’m a member of the anal pop culture generation, remember? Go on, ask me what band Justine Frischmann was in before Elastica. Come at me.
  • “To the van!”
  • Goddam devil sticks…
  • “Have fun poppin’ yer cherry.” Should’ve been the movie’s tagline.

Next Installment…

Nic Cage and crew struggle to survive the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.