RIORI Presents Installment #179: Barry Sonnenfeld’s “RV” (2006)

The Players…

Robin Williams, Cheryl Hines, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque and Josh Hutcherson, with Jeff Daniels, Kristin Chenoweth and Will Arnett.

The Basics…

A classic scenario. An overworked dad needs to reconnect with his family and plans a vacation. You know, to relax and get away from it all. To the perfect vacation spot to chill and definitely get away from it all. But the very reason Dad needs a break follows him down, and such pressure from work defiantly gets him away from all that plagues him.

So now what? Risk his career or risk his family? Both! Let’s rent a clunky RV and head out to Hawaii!

Um, who’s got the map?

The Rant…

As many movies have informed/warned us full-blown family vacations are rarely ever what they’re cracked up to be. Except the whole cracking up part. That’s a given.

Oh sure, it seems like a good idea at first. Whether it’s a road trip with no real destination in mind (or at least mediocre one), a week at the beach, blazing a trail through the great outdoors or dedicating just one weekend to cleaning out under the couch cushions—eventually to the couch itself—to find that dang Amazon Fire remote that got lost one day after the installation. And if that isn’t quality family time, what is (besides also finding all that loose change so one may buy a replacement)?

It’s that nagging “quality family time” bit, that’s what always trips the trip up. As we’ve learned from quarantine (at this time of writing) being cooped up with your loved ones for too long devolves into the love scene from Lord Of The Flies. Whatever skewed and misguided Rockwell-esque dream trip you were imagining stresses you the f*ck out when it doesn’t come to fruition. And why is that? Because Rockwell painted ideals, not actuality, and your imagination has been palsied by too much work, pointless PowerPoint presentations, lousy coffee and those irritating motivational posters that litter your office walls like so many stray bullet holes. One always makes vacation plans when one is desperate to get lost, an end-of-the-rope kinda scenario. How can you think straight when you’re so stressed out? Right.

Getting away from the humdrum is necessary once and again, and of course there are good parts and bad parts to that idea. Especially if you’re strung out at both ends. The good’s obvious: heading away from said humdrum! To the beach for swimming and sun! To the woods for camping and hiking! To Vegas for free shrimp toast and to lose and lose again! Change of scenery is what it comes down too, kinda like that Jimmy Buffet tune, “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes.” At least that’s what one expects. Hopes.

Now this is the rub. An essential need in going on vacation is a routine. This facet may be why vacations get so damned stressful, Rockwell notwithstanding. Okay, home/work life is getting you down and you demand an escape. Understood. However in order to take a vacation you must leave that routine—that lifeline—at home for a while, which is in and of itself stressful. Sure, you might’ve gotten tired of dopey Reddit forums and resolve to not touch your phone on your getaway, but by day three you’re back at it again, all wiry and frustrated. See where I’m going here? A vacation is as only as relaxing the further you leave your daily routine behind, however in order to enjoy a vacation your daily routine must be put in perspective; you don’t give it up. You can’t. It’s SOP. You can’t appreciate a vacation unless you measure it against your normal life, and that normal life is what you get homesick for by day three. Doubt me? How many times have you been on holiday when someone in your family/party says something like: “Wonder what the others are doing back home?” or “This sure beats your desk job, right?” Folks don’t truly appreciate vacations at face value. All they are is distraction. Distractions that come with distractions, like scrolling trough Reddit again, foaming at the mouth all the while. And of course you all have to come home eventually, lest have the RCMP form a search party.

BTW: Why is it called Reddit when most posts are written by folks who obviously can’t read and simply adore comma faults?

English lessons aside, one takes a vacation to escape the stress and strain of the daily grind. One gauges how good the trip is against your daily grind. Eventually one needs pieces of that daily grind to deal with the stress and strain of a vacation. Out comes the iPad you should’ve left at home and whatnot. Sure, that hotel room sure is sweet, but that’s not your bathroom. Stocked with rinky-dink soaps and shampoo bottles that aren’t your brand and you didn’t bother bringing your brand anyway because, hey, the hotel provides soap.

You get it. You have to take it with you, otherwise you can’t appreciate the getaway, and you need some anchor with a very, very long chain to keep you balanced. Seems like a lot of baggage to carry while you carry your baggage to the trunk of the sighing minivan. You can leave but you can never escape.

I know, I know. I’ve once again shellacked a cynical veneer across a universally wonderful idea like a vacation. But am I wrong? When I was a pup I was glad—happy—to spend another summer on Fire Island (well away from the gay communities, which sounded like fun incarnate but I didn’t know any better). However over the years the conveniences of the mainland ever creeped onto my summer idyll. First it was my CD player. Then the VCR with a clutch of choice tapes. Then the NES (so long sunset watching). Then cable. Then BOOM, I was home again away from home with no homework. At least there were beaches, but being in the sun between 11 AM and 3 PM were bad for my skin and I was working my way through Legend Of Zelda‘s second quest and…

A trap of bringing too much home with me. Some of it by choice, like the Nintendo. Some of it unavoidable, like hanging and dealing with the extended family. Some of it essential, like the Nintendo. You can’t really “get away from it all.” That’s a myth. You always bring something along to ground you, something you. Hopefully it’s something pleasant, like that book you meant to read, or a pair of field glasses to do some birdwatching, or your Nintendo.


Right. Got it.

What I’m getting at is that if you go hit the road, you gotta throw out a safety line; bring along a bit of the home life you’re tired of to take the edge off. Bring something “me.” Your phone, a book, your 3DS, whatever. Better yet, take your vacation alone. Otherwise your time away hearing other mouths whine and warble can be…well, kinda stressful…

Bob Munro (Williams) is an overextended workaholic of which he is keenly aware. He’s been losing touch with his family for years, always in the grind to make him feel like spent coffee dregs. It’s to be understood he’s good worker, and has earned his bones, but his sympathetic side to his burnt out co-workers has earned him the reputation as a softie. It’s all about the bottom line and whom one must answer to.

That one is Bob’s shrill boss Todd (Arnett), a scheming, self-entitled boor who after his business garden party was ruined by Bob’s leftist teenage daughter Cassie (JoJo) Bob must atone for her sins. Guilt by association and all that. Turn over this ailing account Colorado way and maybe, just maybe Bob’ll get back on Todd’s good side (if he even has one).

But wait. Understanding his predicament that work has trumped family for far too long, Bob booked a vacation in Hawaii for the summer. Hawaii and Colorado are not next to each other Bob explains to Todd. But it’s either a fresh proposal or his job, which means surfing has to wait. Is there a work around? Have a cake and share it too?

Sure! Rent a big ol’ dumb RV and rewire the Hawaiian getaway to a cross-country road trip to go “camping” in Colorado. Bob’s long put-upon wife Jamie (Hines) isn’t so sure about the idea and earth-crunchie Cassie and prison thug-in-training son Carl (Hutchinson) hate it. What about Hawaii? What about beaches and surfing? What the blank’s in Colorado that so urgent?

For one, Bob’s career. For two, winning back his family. What’s going to take priority?

Most likely figuring out the dang seat belt on this mother-trucker…

Both Barry Sonnenfeld and Robin Williams are frustrating talents.

On the whole, Barry’s work is ideal for family fun. Big, brash stuff like The Addams Family movies, the Men In Black franchise and the goof-tastic, so-bad-it’s-good send up of TV’s Wild Wild West. He’s never tried to win awards, he just wants to have fun and wants the audience to take his hand. However when the guy gets lazy or simply complacent it shows. “Fun” films like For Love Or Money, Nine Lives and Big Trouble are terrible yawns, as if the director swore off coffee in favor of an evening melatonin regimen. Barry’s either really into his films, or just calls it in. There’s no grey area that says he’s trying. Instead, his movies get trying. His directing style has bipolar 2.

Same could be said of Robin. He had a lot of good roles nailed down, enough to dismiss (but not eradicate) the crapola he churned out either trying to learn how to ply his trade or just pay the wireless bill on time. Consider this: for every Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King or Good Will Hunting he has to answer for HookToys and Father’s Day. Granted, the latter movies are not the former, but it was the same Williams all along. The guy wasn’t stupid, but maybe chose to be stupid just to let the manic comic man-child come out and play. It was more bad than good most of the time, and we as the audience were made to suffer. Care to watch Jack again, anyone?

Pairing such manic depressive talents together made for a very schizo comedy with RV. As far as Shakespeare saw it a comedy has a happy ending and a tragedy has a sad ending. RV twists that conceit backwards. It’s a comedy that we wish to end badly. Like with a thud.

Not surprisingly, RV feels cookie cutter. Ever since National Lampoon’s Vacation we all know what to expect from vacation movies. Everything that can and does go awry and all the antics can only be labeled as “zany.” Not funny, mind you, but definitely zany. BTW, what the f*ck does zany even mean? It means clownish, which is an apt term to describe Robin’s acting and Barry’s direction with RV. Except the usual motormouth comic histrionics are missing here, as well as the goofy zest Barry tries to imbue into his craft. Nope, what we got here are two very tired people. The air was out of the balloon before the opening credits were over.

This is a dumb thing to say but Robin was quite adept at tickling our collective funny bone back in the day. No, really. Look it up. Some of his early onscreen fluff—Popeye, Moscow On The Hudson, The Survivors, etc—just that, disposable entertainment, where acting craft came after the chuckles. His schtick both served and later haunted him as well, I feel. Over the years he became less coked-up man-child to solid character actor. He even got an Oscar under his boot. However all that time since Dead Poets’ Society audiences could never truly shake Robin’s—well—zany sense of humor and ADHD timing. Hey, when you land roles in films like Dead Again and The Final Cut it’s doubtful you’re going to reach for your old whoopee cushion any time soon.

So here, with this fluff titled RV a singularity appeared over Robin’s head and delivered a character completely devoid of clownish. In a comedy. A road trip comedy. Instead of rapid fire dialogue chased with quips aplenty we have Robin as frustration incarnate. Mostly with his character’s predicament but perhaps also with his career choices. It’s the first time I ever saw the man work a slow burn rather than manic panic. It’s oddly refreshing, but not for here and not now. Robin sells it so well it never appears like he’s having any fun at being Bob Munro. And he’s not. Even as the rest of the main cast proffer up their uptight, antisocial charm, Robin was living it in this movie. Come to think of it, none of the main cast seemed to having fun. That was sort of an inside joke at the film’s outset, but it sputtered, rusted and went clank by the end of the first act.We’re all in agreement here that Barry prized capital F fun in all his movies. Didn’t happen with RV. It just came across unfocused and wheezing. Ridiculous, and not in the best way.

The flaws with RV are myriad, but ultimately boils down to this fact: the movie just wasn’t funny. Beyond the stiff performances by Robin et al there were a lot of technical hiccups that pulled what few cards the movie had against its chest. Conflict is important is telling stories, even if it supposed to be for laughs. Hard to build that when the director is in a hurry. There was too much foreshadowing, still I couldn’t wait to see how the story would pan out. No surprises at all, but it’s like when my friend spoiled the twist in The Sixth Sense. Okay, I know Bruce Willis REDACTED, now I just wanna how we get there. Seeing everything coming is (say it with me) not fun.

Now hold on there. I’ve only outright hated just one movie here at RIORI (EG: Project X), and have always tried to find something redeeming about a big batch of bleah. Too put it simply, what was wrong with the Gornike’s? Jeff Daniels’ and his film family were a hoot and a holler, and much more interesting than the Munros, as well as enjoyable. The “down home” gig of the Gornikes might be real cornpone, but they’re a lot wiser and happier than Bob and company. Might be a lesson in there somewhere, like there ever is sequel to RV in the works (never gonna happen) ditch the Munros and bring back the Gornikes. Remember that crucial scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation with Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie? There you go.

We were trying to laugh here. We were really trying, but it was all so bland. Robin’s (and Daniels’) comedic talents were all but wasted here. Both called it in to some level. Even decent agents can make mistakes. Despite all the hackery I was really disappointed in Barry’s unfunny direction. Like almost everything Blake Edwards cut after Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the law of diminishing returns (and laughs) can’t be avoided unless you care. Believe in your product, lest no one else will.

Best be getting to returning that rental. Got that deposit and all.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Pretty sluggish and joyless flick for being about a cross-country road trip. Don’t forget to buckle up!

The Musings…

  • “Try to remember we’re not friendly.”
  • The whole RENT ME thing is a decent metaphor for Bob’s predicament. And Robin’s.
  • I lost track of my facepalms.
  • “I’ll get some music!”
  • It’s amazing how technology can date a movie so fast.
  • Why do I get the feeling that the motivation here is all about cleavage?
  • “Wipe your feet.” Thank you unknown Amy Schumer!
  • Okay, the “not meat” scene’s final edit was great.
  • “Honey…honey…”

The Next Time…

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are trapped inside The Lighthouse they’re supposed to man through the densest of rolling fog. However insanity can really hamper one’s ability to stay focused.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 43: Chris Columbus’ “Bicentennial Man” (2000)

Bicentennial Man

The Players…

Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davitz and Oliver Platt, with Wendy Crewson and Stephen Root.

The Story…

It takes a lifetime to grow up. The world is cluttered with social mores, cultural differences and how to manage your emotions. There’s a lot to learn, well beyond the lifespan of your average human.

But what about being not an average human? Heck, what about not being human at all? If your timeline was infinite, could you eventually become self-actualized?

Andrew’s curious enough to give it a try.

The Rant…

That whole “self-actulization” thing above is a popular psych term about trying to reach one’s full potential. The term was coined by one Kurt Goldstein, an organismic theorist (I have no clue what that is either) describing self-actualization as either/or expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society. Mother Teresa territory, that. In this day and age of rampant narcissism, damaging senses of entitilement and folks unable to put down the goddam smartphones, such an ideal is lost—or at least ignored—by most sentient creatures.

But wait! Help is on the way (if you read)!

In many bilious rants here I’ve screamed about how tech has been dehumanizing us as a culture. I’m not a Luddite though. Far from. I can’t leave my home without my iPhone, even if it’s out to check on the lawn (it’s still there. Google Maps located it). First thing in morning I scan the NOAA website for the next few day’s angry, unforgiving climate. I have every console Nintendo ever made, even the NX which drops next year (I have connections, meaning a running truck on the corner. Ask for “Slinky”). When technology is used wisely and in the proper hands, we’ve walked away with precision surgical robots, soldier-saving scout drones and Pandora. When misused…well, ask the residents of Hiroshima what’s up.

Seems to me the only folks who were truly sharp about the use and misuse of tech kept the actual gear at an arm’s length. I’m not talking rocket scientists. I’m talking science fiction writers. Old school guys like Clarke, Niven, Ellison, Dick and Asimov to name a few. They had their proverbial fingers all over cautionary tales of science run amok and how it could impact an unwitting humanity (“I’m sorry, Dave…”).

Asimov looms large over this select group of leftist, humanitarian scribes. His classic Robot trilogy is still the first and last word about the use and abuse of artificial people. Androids serving the whims of an often lazy human society and what might happen if yadda yadda yadda change the channel.

Asimov’s works have been translated to cinema once or twice. I skewered I, Robot here, ostensibly based on the books of the vaunted S/F writer. Big surprise the film didn’t really do the man’s ideas justice. His meditations on what it is to be human and what may happen when we give it away is still the gold standard on this philosophy, like I said. Instead we got a miscast Will Smith and low-light distillation under the microscope, all mashed up in the Hollywood Cuisinart.

Not that I wasn’t totally let down by Robot. It had some sharp action sequences up against a few sops to Asimov fans. Which in turn muddled movie proper. But enough about that. Instead, let’s just focus for a few microns on Asimov’s muse. Namely, his substituting robots as metaphor for the human condition. It’s often a lot easier—if not sacrosanct—to analyze humanity displaced with aliens, AI and/or androids. It’s like pointing out the naked emperor the other way around. Deconstructing the pettiness and frailties of humanity in mechanical avatars goes down a bit easier than a witch trial. Or an all-you-can-eat night at Old Country Buffet, right? Who’s with me?

*earbuds being jammed into skulls*

So you don’t care for the cornbread stuffing. Whatevs. Still, it’s a lot more fun and chewy to ask what it is to be human without actually being human. Think about that. If you were an android, you’d never have to concern yourself with eating, sleeping, your sh*tty job, taxes, the crabs, getting sick, growing old and shuffling off this mortal coil. Imagine the possibilities! With that titanium frame and all the time in the galaxy, you could explore the moons of Pluto, dismantle the AIDS virus, out-Proust Proust with the ultimate novel or even unravel the machinations of how time travel may work. Hell, even figure out what the f*ck the inside of a Hot Pocket is really made of (my guess is potting soil and week old semen. Don’t ask).

But really, under Asimov’s philosophies as an android, what could you do with all that freedom and all that time? Your human condition in an undying avatar wandering the world. The years. The decades. What would you do?

Remember that thing about self-actualization? What if not having a self at the outset would be the greatest advantage? Pure tabula rasa. What if time was not an object?

The centuries await…

Richard Mark (Neill) figures his well-to-do family needs to keep up with the Jones’. He solicits NA Robotics for his very own android valet. You know, to perform the domestic tedium to free up his wife and kids’ time to pursue other interests via tasking Andrew (Williams) to do android things.

That’s its name. Andrew. Andrew the android. Cute, right?

At first Andrew is simply positronic hired help. But Mark notices over time that Andrew starts to affect human tendencies, like developing an affinity for music, taking up woodcarving and stranger still an almost paternal affection for Mark’s children. Rather than being disturbed by Andrew’s very un-android behavior, Mark encourages it. Soon Andrew becomes less of an automaton and more of a family member. In such a liberal environment, the possibilities intrigue Mark. He explains to Andrew that given enough time—which indeed Andrew has, thanks to design—he could quite possibly achieve the ultimate dream of all people on the planet: true self-actualization.

This understandably intrigues Andrew in return. So he sets about on his quest towards humanity.

It first involves some clock making…

Let me get this out the way first. Despite my cynical, snarky demeanor, I’m quite the sentimental softie at heart. And yes I have one, you pricks. I hate seeing people hurt and in pain. I’m truly upset about the proliferation of plastic trash clogging our oceans to go so far as to try and recycle everything, including Saran Wrap (it’s a losing battle, what with all of those bodies to dispose of. So I’ve heard. Hey). The current Syrian refugee crisis pisses me off, and the local story about some inner city kid finding salvation in his cello playing simultaneously warms and amps me.

I’ve even cried over a few movies, too. Quit snuffling your nose; you’ve done it, too. Admit it. I am. Here’s a short list and why (and I’m going to forgo my usual REDACTED gimmick. In other words, spoilers ahead): the final act of my favorite film, The Fisher King, when two-plus hours of comic tragedy ends with bittersweet romantic triumph (one of the few Terry Gilliam movies to actually have a happy ending). The scene in Jerry Maguire (shut it) when Cuba’s character recovers from his near debilitating injury to finally figure out what’s what. All of Grave Of The Fireflies made me willingly lose hope.

I can now say that Bicentennial Man tops the list. It’s a good thing and I have no shame. So f*ck you.

But before we reach for the Kleenex, we better take apart how I got to such a lowly, squishy state.

Chris Columbus always struck me as a very methodical director. Journeyman, to be sure, but just because you get the megaphone slapped into your paw doesn’t mean you’re a capable director with a certain sense of, well, direction. Hell, the dude who helmed the biggest comedy ever (Home Alone. Really) as well as the most winning movie series to date (the Harry Potter films. Remember them?) knows a few tricks. Tell the folks in Tinsel Town. Here, this is your folding chair, sit. This is a slate. Clack. Now make us some money. People love those Henry Porter flicks. Get to work, bitch.

Not fair. Not every director is designed to shoot Oscar fodder. With Columbus it’s a good thing. Lacking industry mooring (at least as far as moneychanging name rec goes), the man’s work can slip under the radar, make solid films and have folks walk away satisified wondering not who made the film, but when the next one will drop.

Colombus’ whimsical style suited Bicentennial Man to a T with a capital T. I’ll admit it. I was skeptical at first. The whole I, Robot thing still had a bad taste in my ass, and the prospect of watching Williams as a cute robot mince through the decades with his signature manic delivery didn’t smell too good either. But this was a Columbus movie, and even with all the histrionics that fantasy and a screaming pre-pube Macaulay Culkin can prove, the guy has a steady hand. Granted its a hand clutching a Snickers bar, but sweetness can be potent with the right pancreas.

At its core, Man is a meditation on the nature of humanity. Kinda heady stuff for a family film, which is what Man ostensibly is. Mostly it’s a story of self-discovery, one of the oldest plot devices in Christendom. It’s the tale that’s launched innumerable directorial careers. Hey, when you think about it, it’s launched all directorial careers. So even though Columbus is an established workaday director, legacy secured, résumé solid, why tackle such an old warhorse?

Because has that soild, semi-Disney flair. Some may call his deal sappy. Others slick. But in the endgame, a good delivery is a good delivery, especially when the director has a unique toolbox to draw ideas from. With Man Columbus demonstrates his skill. Here, take my hand. I’ll show you a world of pure imagination.

Too much? Shut up. I told you about the Jerry Maguire thing. Go with it.

Of course Man is a character study. It’s nothing but. It’s essential. Hey, we’re following the lifespan of a near immortal android here. Chances are we got a lot of time on our hands here following the exploits of our vanadium friend. It’s a good thing that our avatar is the late, great Robin Williams. Whether it was Williams’ ongoing efforts to stretch out and distance himself from Mrs Doubtfire territory (also directed by Columbus, oddly enough), or Columbus’ hand both reigning him in and harnessing his skills, it was tough imagining anyone else besides WIlliams playing Andrew.

When he wasn’t employing his trademark zany, unhinged, I-need-Limictal act Williams could be a thoughtful funnyman as well as actor. The man could be very good at channelling the child within as with his roles in HookJack and The World According To Garp (one out of three ain’t bad here). Who better to play an adult child, albeit made of circuits? And Andrew is a child, believe me. Over the course of Man we watch him grow, mature and evolve from automated whatsit to fully-formed individual. If it wasn’t for Williams’ honest and endearing delivery, Man would’ve gone sh*te over shovel before the opening credits finished.

Back to Williams’ comic style as it pertained to Man. Knowing the man’s usual act, Columbus spinning it reverse made a whole new funny. Andrew’s reactive nature is in stark contrast to Williams’ usual histrionics. For once he’s not mugging the camera, bouncing around the set and bursting into impressions. No. We’re watching Andrew, not Williams here. Andrew is passive, sometimes a student, sometimes an object of ridicule. He’s a robot. He takes orders, not give them. He’s restrained, as was Williams’ winning performance. Being the brunt of humor isn’t something I’ve ever recalled in one of Williams’ roles. He’s proactive, but his Andrew certainly ain’t. It was refreshing, and nary a scream was belted.

Columbus was shrewd with his pile of parts as far as coaxing the required earnestness and innocence as any Pygmalion should be. Bits and pieces are carefully dropped along Andrew’s journey in regards to his developing “humanity.” It’s the softest sell of the philosophy of identity I’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing. Man‘s quietly engaging in no small part to Williams. Can’t stress this enough. Hell, even Williams’ voice suits Andrew well.

I’ll quit gushing. In all honesty, Man followed the same template as Forrest Gump. One could even get the impression that Columbus had a case of Zemekis envy going on here. Yes, Columbus’ work can be sweet-natured, but sometimes there’s an overspill of schmaltz. A lot of on the nose imagery. I mean, the clock thing wasn’t real subtle there. Neither was the cross generational joys of implied incest (I call ’em like I see ’em, folks. Not sorry). Sure, this is a voyage of discovery, right? As engaging as Man wasit had a tendency to wander. Probably hard to avoid covering a timeline of two centuries. Still, as absorbing as Man was, in excess of two hours I did drift. There was a lot of proverbial ground to cover, and some fat should’ve been trimmed. We didn’t need to know in depth the technical aspects—literally—of Andrew’s evolution. And the whole familial generations intertwining sometimes got confusing.  That and we delved—nay, plummeted—into forced social commentary in act three. These carps are minor, but glaring.

I’m compelled to give a few small shout-outs to the supporting cast. Hey, it was Williams’ show all the way, but a lead is only as good as whom they have to bounce off of. For instance, Sam Neill is not a great actor, but he’s always solid and enjoyable. He exudes just enough confidence here as a kind patriarch and a man of principle, as well as being left-thinking enough to know an opportunity when he sees one. Based against his Mark’s reticence, it’s really quite remarkable that he’s Andrew’s biggest advocate in letting the android discover his own humanity. This from a guy who learned his lesson about advocating evolution through science after nearly getting chewed to death by velociraptors. You learn, you grow.

I really liked the angular chemistry between Oliver Platt and Williams. This might’ve been the first time in my viewing practices that an ancillary character arrives so late on the scene and yet felt so necessary as well as there all along. Platt’s Rupert had a nifty combo of anxiety, wonder and drive that mirrored Andrew’s mission, but with a healthy dose of deadpan humor. Deadpan is not something Williams did well. Off and on, but not consistently over his wildly eclectic film career. Deadpan Platt works wonders with this stuff, as he did here. Self-deprication paired with the manic fervor of Q (Desmond, not DeLancie) made his Rupert fun. Brittle fun, mind you, but fun nonetheless.

I think that’s all. Covered what was necessary for this journey. Watching Man was emotionally exhausting, but overall worth it. I’ll take any emotional investment created by a movie over your best star power, F/X or gratuitous baring of firm breasts (one out of three ain’t bad). I’m a pretty cynical bitch, but show me a film like this and I will tear up as Johnny Rotten would after hearing Terry Callier’s latest album. Namely, let any pre-conceived expectations go.

Man‘s a sweet film, but hey, it’s a Columbus movie. So shake a hand.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Hope you like cotton candy. You’ll be swimming in it. My d*ck has the cavities to prove it. Enjoy the visual and get that sh*t checked.

Stray Observations…

  • I loved the fact that Andrew affected the same gait throughout his transformation. Once a ‘bot always a ‘bot.
  • “Chickens do not have lips.” Old gag. Still funny.
  • Root’s best acting I’ve ever seen, and I tend to get out much.
  • “You too?”
  • In a CGI world, there’s something to be said for good animatronics, prosthetics and make-up.
  • “You can’t invest your emotions in a machine.” Hear that? Now drop your iPhones.
  • “One is still all thumbs.” Confucius left out that one.
  • “I don’t have a mucus gland.” Useful during allergy season if you think about it.
  • I know that beach. I’ve been there.
  • “Did he not breast feed?”
  • Has Bradley Whitford ever aged? Or not play a schmuck?
  • “Shut her off or I will.”
  • I appreciated the practical touches here to the future cityscapes.
  • “It’s huge…but lovely.”
  • I couldn’t help but feel a taste of incest in Andrew’s quest for humanity.
  • “I’m done.”

Next Installment…

Say it with me, folks: “I’ve had it with these mother f*cking Snakes On [A] mother f*cking Plane!”

Forgive the brackets.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 37: Patrick Stettner’s “The Night Listener” (2006)


The Players…

Robin Williams, Toni Colette, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale and Sandra Oh, with Rory Culkin and John Cullum.

The Story…

Two odd stories—one within and the other without—coincide with radio personality Gabe Noone’s fractured life. The first story is about the loss in Gabe’s life. The second is about loss in the abstract, which Gabe can really sympathize. If not obsess over.

Abused child? Compelling manuscript? Empty nest? And utterly unable to separate work from reality? Gabe’s life is awash in uncertainty and confusion. All it took was a few words on air and down the rabbit hole he went. What to do to get some sanity back?

Stay tuned.

The Rant…

Hey, you know what? This here’s the first installment at RIORI that’s exceeded the number of previous volume’s installments. I guess that’s a milestone. Maybe a testament to my wounded attention span’s slow mending. Or whatever. Most FaceBook posts are still a blur to me even 30 minutes after. Thought I’d say something, though.

Anyway, now it is time I once again recall my radio days. I’ve touched on it before back with the Pirate Radio installment, but I don’t think I really cut into the meat of the matter. Y’know, beside screaming vitriolic about how can Gwen Stefani still have a “career” in music and “earn” accolades courtesy the pages of Us Weekly on her fashion sense and how her new album’s production standards (it’s amazing what one can glean from their doctor’s waiting room pile of mags) exceed the next viral phenom from Canada’s many suburban basements.

Just kidding. Most Torontan’s have attics, too, sans the skins of fallen fanboys, hides shimmering in the new dawn’s light.

Christ, that was grisly. I must really hate…everyone. Moving on:

So forgetting my bilious dislike of Journey for a breath, I was raised on radio.

I grew up in a patch of Pennsylvania that was squarely aimed between radio broadcasts from both Philly and NYC. Dotted between those markets were a panoply of local affiliates (then untouched from the winding tentacles of ClearChannel) which thrilled me with their broadcasts of music, news, talk shows and the occasional Bible thumping that scared me back into bed faster than a Wes Craven movie in 4D. Needless to say, I got me a lot of bang from my boombox. And pissed through a lot of double-As.

Back in the 80s, everyone had a Walkman, including me. Used to strap that thing on my belt all the time, if not for the radio than the monthly Weird Al release. I was always curious about the radio programmers (never deejays; a term a pox on any respectable radio personality). They would talk and talk, always in bright, upbeat tones regardless of how lame the last single might have been or how horrible the war in Lebanon was (is). To me, it was precognition. The programmers’ words dictated where the day would go. The idea of voices floating out into the ether and landing on whatever ears they could (including my maligned radar rings) fascinated—later disturbed me.

The notion of free-floating vapors as voices more or less got me into radio, if only for the briefest moment. Before my times on air, I was once a kid who’d stay up late and tune into the local college stations. As you may know, those broadcasts are tad more eclectic and loose in their programming. Any college kid working on a broadcast journalism degree, hyped up on coffee, knocked loose on window box weed and powered by a healthy does of misguided musical hubris would only have the gall to spin Miles Davis into the Beastie Boys into the Minutemen into Brian Eno into the drone of an angle grinder. Good times for a geeky, insomniac teen like me. Hell, maybe you, too.

Must’ve been the hour. When the rest of the world had gone to sleep, there I was in the dead of night, ear pressed against the stereo. I mean pressed. The walls of my house were like tissue paper, and if mom or dad heard any noise from my bedroom after midnight, it was inviting a raid, safeties off (they f*cking hated Eno. Must’ve been that second Talking Heads album, them upset by their wrangling of the Al Green tune. Picky, picky). Strange sounds from the radio entered my brain, and I was entranced how these weird college kids got away with playing what they did, saying what they said. It was a far cry from how the local Top 40 station conducted itself. Me being cracked in the head, hard up and quite tired of—if ever awake to—Ace Of Base, the mumblings of these ne’er-do-wells and the odd tunes they played was nothing less than a revelation.

Wait. That’s not quite right. Not a revelation. An obsession. Late at night these voice wafted froth from my stereo and I often wondered where they came from. I knew a studio. I ain’t that dinged in the head (not quite). Just who were these folks and what was their damage? Did they really consider their audience, or did they just babble hoping their music selections and the random errata that only endlessly cracked cans of PBR could coax? Yeah, yeah. Both, I know. Still, got me to wonder.

Fast forward a lifetime. It was my custom (and still is) to tune into the radio for my morning shower. Rest assured I do bathe, almost daily. Sometimes I even use soap. Amidst my sudsing up, I get my news and the odd rhythms that being up well before sunrise provide. A habit from back in the day, when my day began at 1 PM and my aim was to scrub the alcohol-soaked sins of the night away. I got sick of the commercial stations, buffeting my stinging ears with that week’s American Idol caterwauling. I decided on bleary day that, f*ck it, I was gonna tune down to way left of the dial and scroll up until I found a decent playlist, something that stank of my adolescent midnights with the stereo and the angle grinder.

I didn’t have to go far.

One click above the the butt end of the FM buzz I struck upon a really decent pop tune, by some artist I didn’t know. It was an earnest, sunny song recalling summer and picnics, but not cloying. It was decidedly not Ace Of Base. The sphincter loosened. It was followed by that jaunty Beatles song “Drive My Car” and flowed naturally. That piano vamp and Ringo’s cowbell (if you yell “More cowbell!” after reading that you are a dick) really brightened my shower. I even flossed in the tub. Between my toes, mind you. I ain’t that weird.

Needless to say, I tuned into that curious station everyday from then on (BTW, the sunny song I spoke of I later learned was Sam Roberts’ “Every Part Of Me” from his We Were Born In A Flame album. Yes, I own the thing. Now. Duh). Everyday that station had a different host, and with their personality came reflecting songs. The show was (is) called The Blend, on WDIY FM 88.1, Lehigh Valley’s Community Radio station. I was entranced, both by the eclectic variety of rock, blues and obscura that got spun, but also the voices of the folks on the other end of the mic. Reminded me of those blissful, lonely nights again, securing trip wires five feet from my bedroom door (that Heads cover was awesome, by the by. My folks were just Al Green purists is all. They liked basketball a lot).

One fateful broadcast, the folks at WDIY let out a casting call. Volunteers to be on air programmers (again, the more pro term for deejays. Radio folks deem the title as a pejorative, reserved for guys still donned in Jncos and spinning Skrillex at 11 for sweaty chicks saturated with ecstasy. The drug, not the rapture. Maybe both actually). They needed capable bodies who knew music. Against my lukewarm receptions at karaoke nights and my unfeasible record collection, I think I might’ve met the requirements. What the hell. Play music? On the radio? Where those voices came from? Ha ha ha. The source! I called immediately.

The long and the short of it was I spent five years on the air as the Friday host of The Blend. Nate, your friend in The Blend, Eeyore On Prozac was my handle. Well, I thought it was clever, and partially accurate. I got to see how the sausage was made. I got to spin my tunes as well as exposed to more new music than any sane person should. Day one when I met with the operations manager Neil (the man behind the curtain), my position was secured by the two massive CD wallets of endless mix discs that served as my resume. Neil was a Sham 69 fan, and the handshake cliched the position.

Everything old, new, borrowed and blue was The Blend’s tagline. And there I was, one of the voices, playing all sorts of eclectic sh*t both within and outside my comfort zone. I learned to be cagey. As a listener, I hated how commercial programmers seemed to be in love with their own voices. They’d talk and talk, interrupting every third song for either a plug or a wisecrack. Some would always, always yak over the instrumental intro to a song before the mandatory station ID. Imagine the speedy prattle over Jimmy Page’s delicate guitar work on “Stairway To Heaven” before Robert Plant tells us about a lady she knows. Yeah, that. Puke. I did not tune in to hear that voice. I tuned in for the songs and either the hazy or witty repartee from the programmer without intruding on the music.

I know, right?

I kept it brief. The best part of left-of-the-dial radio after the music by the unscripted dialogue from the programmers. Those distant voices. I learned from my late nights tuning in. Keep it short, or at least interesting. My ultimately goal was to jam in 50 songs within the three-hour running time of The Blend. The closest I ever got was 47. Commercial stations can barely squeeze in 20 songs within a single hour, what with the ads and blathering from the DJs’ irritable colon. Not I. Barring station identification (mandated by those fun folks at the FCC), I kept my on air babble along the curve of Mel Gibson’s lines in The Road Warrior. I understood there was a voice necessary to tether the show, but based on my experiences it was far better to speak frankly at the right moments for the right reasons.

My laconic sensibilities once proved fruitful. Once. I got a kind email of appreciation from a fan, thanking me for airing some fresh tracks from the then new Belle & Sebastian album. She told me she always tuned in to my show to accompany her studies at a local college. She also appreciated the brevity of my demanded on air spiel. Short and simple, just say enough to get out there and onto the next track.

But that was it during my five-year stint as Eeyore On Prozac at WDIY. One casual, friendly blurb. It was the lone letter of gratitude I ever got from a fan for my efforts, meager as they were. Once more a naivety let me down. Folks out there weren’t as interested in the voices as much as I was. Or as I hoped. Still, I did consider who might be out there, tuning in, and what they were getting out of listening. There is an entire human audience out there in radio listener land. I kept thinking about who might be on the receiving end. A single email from a fan was all I knew.

I guess the voices didn’t travel as far as I thought.

More like heard…

Gabriel Noone (Williams) tells stories. He’s an on air broadcaster at WNYH, telling tales and spinning yarns for the proud few that tune in. On the radio, his tales are a warm comfort for the millions of silent ears out there in listener land. At home…well, Gabe’s having a bit of it leaving work at work.

What else is leaving? His boyfriend Jess (Cannavale), has had his fill of Gabe’s woolgathering and increasing distance. Theirs was once a nurturing relationship. Turned out Jess being HIV positive and Gabe’s total sensitivity to all that entailed only went so far. Jess didn’t want to be a terminal pity case, and Gabe with his Florence Nightingale syndrome something had to give.

What didn’t give was Gabe’s drive for sympathy to others. Misguided sympathy to be sure, but akin to his endless firesides on the microphone, keenly aware of the audience out there listening. Out there it matters to someone, the tales he tells.

Turns out he has a fan.

One day Gabe’s publishing agent friend Ashe (Morton) presents him with an unsolicited manuscript of a bio from some abused kid. Quite the fan of Gabe’s radio show Ashe assures him. He thumbs through the pages and a dull-burning spark licks the embers of his brain. Here’s a kid who’s a real head case. He needs a friend. Later phone correspondence proves this true. The boy’s caretaker Donna (Colette) tells him of the boy’s dire circumstances, and the illness that is killing him. Out comes the apocryphal plea:

“It would mean a lot if he could meet you.”

Screw it. Jess is gone. The on air audience is hiding. Here’s an opportunity to get in touch with a true listener. Someone who gives a real sh*t about what Gabe’s been sending out forever.

In kind, the man sets out for forever. He may never get back…

This was a tricky watch. By tricky I mean, “What the f*ck?”

I was merely confused and a bit bored with the first act. Only later I didn’t know what the f*ck was up. Later still I wanted to kick the screen in for the movie cheating me. No, I didn’t enjoy The Night Listener. I tried to. My resolve ain’t broken that quickly (except around mint chocolate chip ice cream). It was a long ride to not enjoy The Night Listener. Took some attention, though.

Watching Night was like waiting for tea to brew. Iced tea. You know. Dunk those speciality teabags in cold water and let them do their duty, slowly. Gradually the water turns brown and murky over a few hours, not like hot tea. That stuff’s immediate. Five minutes and boom: chai for your gullet. Ice tea takes a lot longer. And solar tea? Break out your dusty copy of War And Peace. Christ, just pop a bottle of Snapple already.

Despite Night being a relatively short movie (hour twenty to be exact), the waters got brown and murky pretty fast. The plot was wobbly and the execution fractured enough to be baffling instead of intriguing as I suppose director Stettner intended. It was handily directed, though, albeit in a hurried fashion. As well as in an unsophisticated fashion. This was a mystery film like an onion; many layers to peel away. Those layers just weren’t pared down in a considerate fashion. We brewed a pot of hot tea here and the bags tore.

Some specifics. The key issue I had with Night: that nagging feeling that this had been done before. I dismantled Flightplan years ago. There’s a touch of The Sixth Sense here. Hitchcock’s unimpeachable Rear Window gets ransacked by Night. Little girl lost. Someone who was never there. Was there a crime at all? Dribs and drabs from psychological thrillers of yore, sprinkled over the muddle here. Homage or rip-off? You figure it out. I couldn’t. Ultimately, I think it was ignorance on the director’s behalf of how to pull this thing off that made this crap come off the rails.

We can thank the interesting cast for trying to keep Night on track. I’ve always considered Williams in dramatic roles almost always more satisfying than his comedic ones (think The Fisher King or even Good Will Hunting. Stop groaning; he did get an Oscar for that thing). His Gabe is a haunted, desperate character. He appears useless, dismissed. Lonesome. Not lonely, mind you. All alone with himself, despite people seemingly concerned for his well being. There was a disconnect; Gabe’s fragility belies a need to be wanted. His quest to help the invalid child—which may or may not exist, in Gabe’s mind or otherwise—we could follow a futile search. Williams’ timorous delivery and an appearance of massive insecurity clinched a convincing angst. Best stuff in the whole film I think. Better than the copycat plot.

An aside: I’d probably be remiss in my duties to not mention that Williams was in recovery, owing up to a crippling addiction to booze while filming Night. One could only wonder if the anxiety his Gabe delivered on screen was magnified under the strain of rehab. Not The Method I would want to use in fleshing out a character. Worked though.

Anyway, most of the rest of the cast also stood well by Williams’ performance. Joe Morton is a fine character actor. Always a cool customer, even after Sarah Connor blew out his arm (run through your cinematic mental Rolodex, people. Does anyone even use, let alone know what a Rolodex is these days?). Morton is the the only actor I know of that gets younger every successive film he’s in, and his natural energy is always snappy and warm. His Ashe might’ve gotten Gabe into his mess, his somewhat casual passive-aggressiveness almost appealing to Gabe’s neurosis, the impetus for Gabe’s decline.  Morton didn’t get a lot of screen time, but he made the best of it.

However (and there’s always at least one here), not every member of the decent cast was actually cast well. Toni Colette is a fine actress, almost always in roles demanding a left-of-center kind of aesthetic. She’s pretty solid. But you know what she’s not good at? Hamming it up. Her Donna was a low-rent version of Kathy Bates’ performance as the demented Annie Wilkes in Misery. It was pretty apparent at the outset that Donna was a wingnut, always changing her story, vague in her motives and just as desperate as Gabe to be needed. The only difference with Colette was a lack of subtlety against Williams sober (so to speak) performance. It’s far better to be an antagonist that doesn’t twirl their mustache. Or failure to see.

Night attempted to be creepy, but with a soft sell. It’s a stalker film, but in reverse. We’re never sure who’s listening to whom, and what their quarry is. Is this a film about obsession really? If so, over what? All those things are peppered throughout the movie, making it a confusing melange of old mystery tropes that Stettner either clearly was dedicated to, or completely oblivious to Hitchcock’s work and every damn stereotype in a psycho thriller. His parents must be so proud.

I walked away with a dissatisfied feeling in my tummy. I kept asking myself “What’s going on here?” Being convoluted does not a convincing mystery make. Night was like either an early Cluster album and/or a Danielle Steele bestseller: very little to hold on to. We learned Gabe was grasping at straws, trying to establish sense against both his fractured mind and uncovered odd circumstances. That much was certain. But the “what the hell for?” aspect was either screamingly cliche or way too murky to appreciate. Like so much dingy hot tea.

Too much was going on to follow, despite the short running time. Then again, too little was flopping about, too, like the running time was a stopwatch. Night was a confusing, unpleasant mess. Nothing lined up. Mysteries should not bewilder. Confound maybe. But not leave you scratching your head come credits time like lice were feeding directly on your cerebral cortex. Especially if you got hoodwinked as to the real purpose of the show.

Night was an example of what I entertained back in my radio days. Someone out there heard me. Maybe they cared. A voice on the wing managing to connect. I didn’t get no invisible, sickly, junior writers describing their abuse with sounds, feathers, so much lube and bacon on inappropriate parts.

Might’ve been cool, though. On both fronts.

Hey. Was that Cluster bit too far reaching? Go hear the album then, you philistine. Yay angle grinders!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Not surprisingly, relent it. I think I’m getting sick of derivative psychological thrillers. I’m also getting sick of chicken. For real. They have a tendency to explode when I f*ck them. Duct tape, folks. Always duct tape. That and don’t watch this movie.

Stray Observations…

  • Pirandello Press, percursor of the Theatre Of The Absurd. English degree. You’re welcome.
  • “Do you have to make everything filthy?”
  • Denial is denial, not matter which way you swing (I should’ve worked for Hallmark).
  • “Go play with Tiny Tim!” Tiptoe…
  • I can’t remember a Hollywood take on a May/November relationship—gay or straight—that wasn’t rotten with stereotypes. And these guys were a couple, really?
  • “It’s a hideous way to promote a bank.”
  • Admittedly, Colette made for a convincing blind person from what I saw (so to speak. Ha!).
  • “You’ve done something for flight attendants?”

Next Installment…

Bradley Cooper is a strung-out, Burnt-out chef, desperately searching out a few old recipes from the Silver Linings Cookbook to get his life back in order. Excelsior!