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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

You get it.

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

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

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

Boom…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do it. Just do it.


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

Nice codependency metaphor there, Wikipedia.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 22: Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004)


Zissou


The Players…

Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchette, Anjelica Huston, Willem Defoe and Jeff Goldblum.


The Story…

With a plan to exact revenge on a mythical shark that ate his partner, oceanographer Steve Zissou rallies a crew that includes his best and brightest.

Not.

For some matter of circumstance, Steve enlisted he estranged wife, a pushy journalist, and a fanboy of the Zissou Society who may or may not be his son to bag the beast. Sure. This is gonna be sane work. Now pass the dynamite.


The Rant…

Oddly enough, the first actor I ever paid attention to was Bill Murray. I say oddly because I was eight years old at the time. Not your average age for a budding cinephile, at least not regarding movies that cast talking forest creatures. Murray grabbed me for the first time when I saw Ghostbusters in the theater in the summer of ’84.. Ha ha! That’s gotta be a cultural exclamation point to…someone. Right?

*mopes, cries in beer*

I immediately took a shine to Murray’s Peter Venkman. I knew nothing about SNL at the time; I was in bed before that sh*t ever hit the airwaves. Eight years old, remember. At that age I was convinced that Han Solo and Chewie were real people. Well, person and his Wookiee sidekick. Anyway, all I got from Ghostbusters was that I needed a proton pack and Bill Murray was funny. Witty and funny and always there with a smart remark (this hero worship was only made concrete after I saw Meatballs that same summer and later Stripes as a teen). For a reliable laugh, even when he’s trying to tackle “serious” movies, make a bee-line to whatever Murray’s starring in (yes, even Lost In Translation. Without Murray, Scarlett Johansson may not have a career. Noodle that one). You won’t be let down, no matter how lame the movie. Like my acting hero Sean Connery, a lot of Murray’s movies can get pretty lousy. But he’s always good.

Now here’s the cookie. Murray has for over a decade been trying to shed his madcap CV, and try his hand as the aforementioned “serious” movies with middling results. There was the abortive The Razor’s Edge released the same time as Ghostbusters. Bill Murray? Doing grown up sh*t? What’s up with that? Does he battle gophers in that one, too?

I remember this quite keenly. As I was shuffling through the kerjillion VHS titles at the local supermarket kiosk (this was the 80’s, mind you) trying to tackle a copy of Tim Burton’s Batman I saw Murray’s signature hangdog on the cover sleeve of this movie I’d never heard of. The Razor’s Edge? Didn’t sound funny to me. I didn’t know at the time it was Murray’s first foray into drama, this interpretation of Somerset Maugham’s novel. I didn’t know what a foray was, either. I kinda dug the idea of Peter Venkman trying to be an adult. Don’t ask me why; I was kid. I think it might’ve been him being a so-called adult in Meatballs to see him do, I dunno, other stuff, more grown-up like.

Nah. I knew Murray was gonna be a kid regardless of what movie he was in, no matter how old he got. I was sure. There was always going to be that wit, that sarcasm and those keen facial expressions that were so much like a droopy bulldog against earnest eyes that made for good facetime. And you know what? I was right. I reported on it in Broken Flowers. It worked to great ends in Lost in Translation. And now as Steve Zissou, all those aspects come into focus. Now it’s in a “serious” aspect.

But Zissou ain’t Lost in Translation. It’s a Wes Anderson film.

It’s a good thing, crumbs and all…


Renowned oceanographer Steve Zissou (Murray) has a bit of a problem. More like a dilemma. Actually it’s more like a vendetta. While doing some diving and research of what could be a new species of shark—a “jaguar shark,” if you will—Zissou’s right hand man Esteban is captured and eaten by the elusive creature. Bummer. So at a symposium announcing the next plans for Team Zissou, now that a valuable member of the crew is gone and not coming back. Steve simply states he will hunt down and kill the shark that ate his friend. Revenge, a simple enough motivator.

After the symposium concludes, an enthusiastic young man, lifetime member of the Zissou Society and maybe Steve’s illegitimate son accost Zissou. His name is Ned (Wilson), and seems a decent enough fella. Steve is at first taken aback by this claim, but hey, he’s gotten around so who knows? Zissou hatches a plan: if this kid is really his, why not drag him along on the next expo with him and his crew? Find the shark, kill it, trophy on the wall, revenge exacted. Drinks all around. Ned could work the camera or ask poignant questions on one of Zissou’s next in an endless parade of documentaries. Ned could carry on Steve’s legacy, give good face or just simply stroke Steve’s flaccid ego. Who knows?

So now Steve reassesses his situation. He’s got to get back to the sea. He’s got to make a new documentary in order to get more funding. He’s got his maybe-so-maybe-not son in tow. He’s got a crew full of more ne’er-do-wells than a cheap Kid Monk movie. He’s got to one-up his on again/off again nemesis. And he’s got a shark to kill. Busy, busy, busy…


Wes Anderson’s movies are not what you’d call an acquired taste, like for Tom Waits for maple bacon ice cream. His oeuvre is decidedly a niche market. You don’t warm up to his stuff, you either get it or you don’t. Most of the mainstream doesn’t seem to get Anderson; even the praise he does get from critics tend to be from some Podunk periodical written by a fanboy intern who has indulged in magic brownies. Granted the left of center sensibilities yields very amusing results, Anderson’s sh*t isn’t the flavor in Columbus.

“Amusing” is the watchword of Anderson’s films. They’re not outright funny. A tad screwy, yes. And please don’t use the very tired term “quirky” to encapsulate his filmography. That’s as outmoded as 56k dial-up. But Zissou does fall right in line with the director’s muse, audience be damned. Oddball characters, inscrutable plots and comic dialogue so dry it chafes. That’s Anderson’s stock-in-trade. And remember what I was quailing about earlier with Murray? His deadpan deliveries and dry humor are indispensible to this film. Man’s worked with Anderson on a few other projects, so he settles in here like a round peg.

Like I’ve said in past reports of RIORI installments with Bill Murray, his signature slouching face and “What? Me worry?” comic delivery is priceless. His Steve Zissou is a practically perfect vehicle for Murray’s attitude and that delivery here. The guy’s a kid, forever and always, and Zissou here has got to be one of the most juvenile, spoiled drudges that has ever come off the projector. He’s a kid all right: an entitled, effete kid. He goes where his whims take him using the sea as an excuse. He’s self-important, kinda clueless and all always there to deliver the quick, albeit dry one-liner. If you’re a Murray fan you get it. The casual moviegoer wouldn’t take their time to warm up to him. I don’t think.

On the other hand, Wilson is Murray’s foil. Affable, naïve and with the corniest Southern accent this side of grits. He character’s wistful and lighthearted. He also seems to be the most normal and well-adjusted member of Team Zissou. He gives Murray an excellent spring to bounce off of. Granted it’s a tiny bounce, but it works. I don’t think Zissou would’ve held together as well if it weren’t for Wilson. He’s the only character in the film that is relatable enough to ride along with, stupid accent or no. He’s has a certain subtlety about him, reserved. It’s kinda endearing. And isn’t Wilson almost always the likeable straight man in all his cinematic efforts? Yeah. Don’t argue. He can make me smile too.

Stylistically, Anderson employs his usual, although welcome bag of tricks. He uses a lot of bright, often garish colors in his scenes, as if to relay to the audience that, yes, Team Zissou is a circus. And it is a circus. Surreal. There’s a lot of—let’s beat this word to death—odd, deliberate, angular shots that make the film feel at time expansive and other times confined. It’s like the whole damned mess is breathing.

An aside: a new trick that had to be pointed out in this movie (maybe a first for Anderson) is his use of music. All those Bowie songs sung in—what is that—French? What’s up with that? I liked it, but I like Bowie. Just another oddity in a movie full of ‘em. Somehow noteworthy, ‘though I can’t put my finger on why (any ideas out there in the blogosphere? Send me some comments, dammit.)

Anderson’s films are not designed to make money. They must fill something in his heart and soul, because the feel of this movie, like all his others, is off kilter. Despite how moviegoers these days are a cynical, jaded, looking for ironic stuff without knowing the proper definition of irony kind of crowd, his movies are not box office smashes. Not critical hits. Darlings maybe, but never outright hits. Anderson’s muse has a real affinity (or a maw that cannot be fed) for dysfunctional, comic and clueless characters doing foolish and candidly ignoble things. His flicks move at a meandering pace. The stuff’s surreal but not over the top or in your face like read this eye chart and see how low you can read. Nope. It is what it is, take it or leave it. Niche market. I like that kind of thing.

Call me hopelessly biased between Bill Murray’s childlike performance and Anderson’s style of humor, I really enjoyed Zissou. Not because I’m some pretentious douchenozzle who only veers towards offbeat cinema (c’mon, if you’ve read previous installments I dug Pacific Rim AND After Earth. And I didn’t like Rushmore. There is never any accounting for taste). I like characters. I like actors. I like good actors. I like seeing them in silly circumstances sometimes. And most of the time, I like Anderson’s way of doing it.

So. What to do, what to do? I tell ya, I’m gonna recommend this movie. Problem is that Anderson’s stuff is in that confined niche market. Are you a buyer?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Like I alluded to: rent it. But this’ll probably be a directive to Anderson fans only. Zissou is the usual fare. Catch it!


Stray Observations…

  • Anjelica Huston seems ageless. She’s like the American Sofia Loren.
  • “Do the interns get Glocks?”
  • Michael Gambon is a versatile actor. And busy too. I just saw him in Sky Captain. Boy gets around.
  • “Son of a bitch, I’m sick of these dolphins.”
  • A lot of mid-80’s tech floating around in Zissou. Was this supposed to be a period piece?
  • “What about my dynamite?” If it only it was that easy. F*ck any waiting period!
  • I’d be remiss in my nerdy pop culture duties (see The To-Do List) if I didn’t point out the lone non-Bowie tune in the film was the Stooge’s “Search and Destroy.” Maybe it had something to do with Bowie being Iggy Pop’s benefactor on the Raw Power album? Or just did it sound cool here? I’m leaning towards numero dos.
  • “That’s it. I’m retiring.”

Next Installment…

Robert Downey, Jr. returns as Tony Stark as he once again dons the armor in Iron Man 2.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 4: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” (2011)


Image


The Players…

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cottiliard, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates.


The Story…

Would-be novelist Gil visits Paris with his fiancé and her family to soak up the local culture. One night, after too much family time, Gil hitches a ride in a classic Peugeot and finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920’s. Gil finds rubbing elbows and trading drinks with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the ex-pat Jazz Age sure beats yet another jaunt to the Louvre.


The Rant…

I only like good movies. I often scan AllMovie or Netflix to see if my opinions of movies match up with what either the critics’ takes are or what audience ratings indicate. But are the films good because they jibe with what strangers have to say? Because there are other like-minded people out there with agreeable opinions such as my own? Is this snobbery? Everyone thinks that his or her tastes are great. Folks can get pretty heady about such stuff.

I dunno. Maybe. Like I said, I only like good movies.

Maybe I was little too harsh in my last installment, covering the mindwipe that was Drive starring Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t all bad. It had its moments. It just wasn’t what I wanted to expect (and I didn’t really know what to expect). I still wouldn’t recommend it though. What I’m saying is a little thoughtfulness in my critiques might be a welcome thing. I can rail with the best of them, and when a film is disjointed, poorly paced, fails to follow interior logic, or if the acting is just plain dumb, I get cranky. But still, I feel a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.

Which brings us to this installment. Midnight In Paris was not a critical dud, and audiences happily plunked down their monies to catch it. So how does this film fall under the aegis of “dubious reputation of lack of box office mojo?” One small thing that I intend to expound upon for as many paragraphs as it takes. That thing the audiences were complaining about—if you can believe this coming from Woody Allen’s oeuvre—that it was “overly intellectual.”

Like this is a crime. We as filmgoers are already fed to the choking point—mostly during summer—with so much pabulum already, one would think a intellectual film that did well at the box office would be a good thing. I think it is. I’ve seen enough lowbrow films in my day (and don’t get me wrong, I find I like any Adam Sandler movie that has him playing a sport delightful. Too bad there are, like, only two) to bang my head against the wall and spit up my popcorn, threatening to walk out of the theatre. But I also like my Fellini, Kurosawa and, yes, Woody Allen films too. Most of those are thoughtful, smart pieces of cinema that could be or were popular.

So what’s wrong with “smart film?” Does it make the average moviegoer feel dumb? I heard somewhere that there was a theater warning patrons that Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life had, not graphic violence, sexual situations or extreme language, but “philosophical overtones and existential themes”. Stop the projectors! This was a warning. A warning. To average citizens. About smart sh*t in a Brad Pitt movie. Huh? This is a bad thing, apparently, according to the laymen.

Here’s a fact: people are stupid. I don’t mean people in general. I mean the collective sheeplike hive mind that is the nebulous concept of “people” is what is stupid. “What do they know?” is a phrase bandied about by all of us at one point in time. “They” is people, and if people are made to feel stupid, then they get what they deserve, and’ll probably miss out on cool sh*t and die angry.

Before I go off on another bilious tear, let me say that tempering thoughtfulness with intellectualism made Midnight In Paris a small gem…


Gil (Wilson) is a Hollywood hack and a budding novelist. When he and his fiancé Inez (McAdams) and her parents take a trip to the City of Lights, Inez and family are too caught up in the idea of Paris, its pretensions, for Gil’s tastes. He eventually gets restless with being inundated with too much Parisian culture. He goes for a stroll one evening, lost in the winding streets after too much wine when at midnight, he happens upon a ride in a classic Peugeot. Gil’s magically transported back in time to a swinging party hosted by none other than the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and F Scott to be precise, with lots of bathtub gin and a live performance by Cole Porter. Over the course of several evenings, Gil drinks with Hemingway (Stoll), gets writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Bates), and carouses with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana. Gil is rubbing elbows with artistic elite of 1920’s Paris, if only for a Cinderella moment. And happy as a pig in sh*t, more so than in his clumsy 21st Century life…


If this premise appeals to you, apparently it didn’t appeal to the masses. Well, some of the masses. I guess I’m one of the few that found it appealing; otherwise I wouldn’t have rented it. Woody Allen’s films have almost always been intellectual, even the dumber stuff like Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight In Paris is the only movie in his filmography that I know of that has been so overtly intellectual. At lease, appealing to the intellectuals out there.

Am I saying that I’m an intellectual? Hell to the yeah. The notion of conversing about writing and getting tight on absinthe with Papa Hemingway charges me up. Watching Gertrude Stein argue with Pablo Picasso about each other’s interpretations of a portrait? Bring it on. Having Dali want to do and abstract portrait of me? “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is my favorite painting.

Does all that bother you? All that name-dropping? It would bother me too if I were outside the circle that Allen tries to condense into an hour and thirty minutes. It’s easy to see why folks could get alienated. The whole film is virtually a holy host of 1920’s celebs, too many for the hoi polloi. Too many writers, too many artists, too many non-Internet (save Wikipedia) connects to catch up with the times.

Enough about the dividing lines. What brought this film together for any smart audience to appreciate?

For one, the opening montage is great. Dozens of scenes showing off everything you need to know about Paris. The winding streets, the cafes, the out of the way places. Here is the setting. Adjust to it for the next 90 minutes, yer gonna be walking it. Good news is you won’t sweat.

Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest here. Charmingly awkward. Wilson always has this air of “I’m in the wrong place” in most of his films, and it works really well as he Billy Pilgrim’s it between 2010 and 1920. This awkwardness translates into childlike wonder when Gil goes back in time and hobnobs with the writers and artists he meets, especially when he starts crushing hard on Picasso’s dame, Adriana (played gamely by a lovely Cottiliard). Yet on the flipside, this is a more mature Wilson, not so quick to act goofy and clueless to grab a laugh. This is not a laugh-out-loud film, but using Wilson as a guide, you get snickers. Following his childlike enthusiasm for this newfound world, you have to laugh inspite of yourself. It’s hard to be cynical with a movie like this one.

It’s the 1920’s, right? That means jazz and gin and flappers. The costumes are great. Everyone is nattily dressed in the attire of the times. Sumptuous attention to details. The backdrops to Gil’s fantasy world are so inviting that even if you’re not a big deal reader or even writer, you’d like to dip your toes into a party where the Charleston rules and gins flows like icy water. And as always, Allen’s soundtrack is  tasteful and thoughtful as ever, too.

Notable acting is key. Head and shoulders over the cast is Corey Stoll as Earnest Hemingway. His script is tight, just like his prose. And he has this stare that is just so convincing. Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is a hoot too, flapper incarnate and perpetually drunk and borderline psycho. Good stuff.

The whole film had a sophisticated Twilight Zone feel. Man hates present. Man visits past. Man wants to stay in past. The past in not where he belongs. The film questions the idea of a “Golden Age.” I’ve read somewhere that a Golden Age is when you were 12 years old. Despite the fact Gil is well over twelve when he takes his stroll into the Parisian version of the Zone, his juvenile enthusiasm is infectious.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed intellectual, you can appreciate what’s going on. This movie isn’t about who you rub elbows with, it’s about being comfortable with yourself. In your own shoes. Hell, there’s a message we all should hear once in a while. With or without the bathtub gin.

But hopefully with.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Get over yer pretensions and have a laugh (or more accurately a chuckle) with Wilson. As we travel afar with Owen, it brings to mind that old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m working on a…Where am I?”
  • Hemingway: “Have you ever hunted?” Gil: “Only for bargains.”
  • The set pieces were amazing. I mean, I wasn’t extant in the ‘20’s, but it gave me the feeling of realism all the same. And I guess during America’s Prohibition years, Paris was the place to be.
  • I should learn French.
  • My uncle taught Owen Wilson at St. Mark’s. And his brother Luke. And Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo form a wobbly alliance to hunt the Zodiac. Let’s hope they got enough crossword puzzles.