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Frozen

Frozen

Guess what? I also like “Frozen!”

One of the nice things about having your own film blog is that you don’t have to worry about generating clicks on your website, so that when your way too late, too short, and positive, but mildly measured review of “Frozen” is published, it doesn’t matter that nobody will read it.  So let me be the billionth person to say that I like the film and think it is pretty good. I don’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the film, and more importantly I have no interest in trying. So here it is in brief:

“Frozen” is high-end Disney pop art, littered with great music, compelling digital animation, mostly rich characters and a Bechdel-test passing narrative about the powers of sisterly love, which by Disney standards is crazy, Dennis Kucinich-level progressive. The film isn’t without its flaws (there is some  unearned tear bait in the film and an absurd character turn which was downright shamelss. Also, if your daughter has ice powers, maybe teach her how to control them instead of locking her in a room and say, “Try not to kill anybody,”) but by and large these are minor issues or are simply inherent to corporate filmmaking as a whole and gender politics at-large.  “Frozen” does everything that you would expect it to, plus a little more.

(I’m not bothering with a summary of the narrative setup. You either know it, don’t care, or can find out from one of the gaggle of people in your life that have seen it.)

4/5

 

 

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Slacker

Slacker

An odd day’s journey into even odder Austin oddness.

“Slacker” feels a lot like an acid trip, sans the hallucinations. The film meanders from one bizarre conversation to the next, unable to linger too long on any one topic but always fascinated by whatever is happening in whatever instant it is in.  These conversations consist almost entirely of absurd, self-aggrandizing banal nonsense, and yet you can’t help but be excited by the manic energy of the philosophizing weirdos uttering it.  It is like they are determined to find the truth in the mundane, or the mundane in the truth, plausibility and conventionality be damned. In the end, it may be just an extreme form of mental masturbation, but brains have needs too.

I for one am glad there are oddballs like those in “Slacker” out there in the universe, championing whatever causes strike them. If you’ve spent any substantial time in a liberal college town, you can’t help but run into them. Some are students, but even more seem to have wandered in from the sociopolitical wilderness of surrounding communities to wrap themselves in the warm intellectual cocoon of the university, or they seem to have grown from the fertile landscape of the city  itself, feeding off of radical ideas  like eccentric wildflowers. They aren’t just in the city. They are the city.

I have never been to Austin, but I have heard rumors of its prodigious peculiarity. I hope that these rumors are true, and that “Slacker” does it justice. In the film, we arrive in town as passive observers, wandering through the town and soaking up its otherworldly ambiance. The film eavesdrops on a variety of oddities, including a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a pop-tart chomping man surrounded by televisions, a robber that is charmed by an elderly anarchist, an expert on JFK assassination theories, and a couple of hipsters positing conspiracy theories related to children’s cartoons over beers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these characters are as ephemeral as ghosts, drifting back into the ether of Austin as quickly as they appeared, not unlike an early 90s Austin-version of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Whether and to what degree any of these individual ideas appeals to you is, I suppose, a matter of personal ideology. (I don’t have any problems with the theory that some children’s cartoons teach children to expect rewards for completing tasks. Not that this is a revelatory concept.) However, it isn’t the content of any of these ideas that matters. It is the spirit of these conversations which counts. These people are on self-defined crusades against abstractions of all shapes and sizes. I find their rebellion against normality comforting.

“Slacker” provides a strange viewing experience. Aside from evoking the weirdo-derived ambiance of Austin, the film seems to be utterly devoid of agendas. In that sense it feels incredibly unique. I was mystified for its duration, and the odd reaction it generated lingered long after the film is over. Not unlike an acid trip.

4/5

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Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

How to use porn as a “meet cute.”

Given my absurd effort to attempt to review every film that I see from beginning to end, I am obligated to write something about “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” I don’t really want to though. Despite what you make think, it isn’t very much fun to write about films which aren’t very good, and “Zach and Miri” just isn’t very good. This review will be shorter than most.

I suspect that you can only write so many scripts about characters trapped in a post-high school inertia which combines raunchy dialogue and a sweet emotional tenderness . Eventually that well simply goes dry. In “Zach and Miri,”  there are a couple of nice performances  and a couple moments of lewd brilliance, but most of the film feels like Kevin Smith’s bucket is scraping against a bed of rocks.

Much credit goes to Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the film’s title characters, a pair of “just friends” and roommates who decide to shoot a porno in order to ease their financial woes. This is of course just the contrivance needed for them to acknowledge their mutual feelings for each other and live happily every after, but Rogen and Banks have a goofy chemistry which makes the film work despite a mostly shaky script. Aiding them in their home-made porno endeavor are Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, and Ricky Babe

It is during the scenes in which they are shooting their porno that the film comes alive. Their first attempt is a “Star Wars” parody called “Star Whores,” which features such characters as “Hung Solo” and “Darth Vibrator.” When this film goes awry because of a deal with a shady landlord, their next attempt is shot at the coffee shop where Zach works and is called “Suck My Cockucinno.” This leads to the best moment in the film. Amidst a ridiculous scenario involving milk delivery and silly innuendos, Zach and Miri have the sex which makes them realize they love each other. As to the rest of the film, we have a classic “idiot” plot which fuel the drama the rest of the way and generated a fair bit of ambivalence in me.

Kevin Smith has a notoriously unhappy relationship with critics, so I’ll understand if he doesn’t take kindly to this review, (Not that I qualify as a “critic,”) but the film never seemed to rise above the level of a high-concept curiosity. The seed of a great raunchy comedy is in there, but it needs a lot more from the script and its supporting cast. You can only lean on overtly crude language and shocking sat gags for so long before it becomes an exercise in tedium.

2/5

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

A comical essay on the joys of being Jordan Belfort.

There are those describing “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a white-collar version of “Goodfellas.” They aren’t wrong. Structurally, they both center around a fourth-wall breaking protagonist that cheerfully tells us about his, what might generously be described as, “alternative” lifestyle. While these lifestyles ultimately prove unsustainable, for a while both gangster Henry Hill and Wall Street sleazebag Jordan Belfort make a pretty good run of it. Yet for all these similarities (including their fantastic cinematography and all-around greatness) the nuance lies in the protagonists themselves: Henry Hill loved his career in organized crime, but in telling us about it he didn’t give a damn whether we approved of it, or him. Jordan Belfort, though, cares a lot. Belfort is the consummate salesman, and this film is one massive sales meeting. The pitch? Being Jordan Belfort is the greatest thing ever, and we are all suckers because we are not.

It is a weird sort of sales pitch, granted, because Jordan Belfort dares us throughout the film to dislike him. Just about every stereotype about white males on Wall Street applies to Jordan. He is misogynistic, elitist, materialistic, narcissistic, insensitive, and vile in any number of ways. More than once he directly insults our intelligence, mocks us for having less access to drug or our own helicopter, while flaunting his ability to get away with doing whatever he wants. Save for one moment, Belfort never seems to regret anything he does. While the appropriate response to Belfort is probably indignation and disgust, he knows us better that that. For all our self-righteousness, there is a part of us which is jealous that, for a little while at least, Belfort got to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, and we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to indulge every stupid impulse we’ve ever had.

Belfort is played with a brilliant snide charm by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose own status as a super-rich star certainly helps his ability to pull of endearing smugness and the dark humor needed to constantly tell us how much better he is than we are.  He also has the chops to start small and relatively innocent, with a young Belfort in the early 1990s learning the ropes from Matthew McConaughey as a grunt at a prestigious Wall Street investment firm. When that firm goes belly-up, Belfort moves to a small firm currently working the penny stock market. Deemed so small and insignificant, the S.E.C. left this market virtually unregulated. With lots of a worthless stock and a cadre of potential investors ignorant as to the difference, Belfort quickly builds up his own investment empire.

It isn’t Belfort’s brains or lack of scruples that make him so formidable, it is his prodigious sales skills. He is able to turn giving money to a whackjob inventing stuff in his grandmother’s garage into investing in an exciting startup led by an innovator with great ideas and a lot of potential. People quite literally give him money for nothing more than the privilege of giving him their money. Of course, it isn’t really stocks that Belfort is selling, it is Jordan Belfort. His first disciples are a small group of friends who know nothing about selling stock, but follow his instructions on their way to millions. (A formula that goes something like Belfort’s sales script + repetition=millions of dollars.) Before long the camera is panning to a bullpen of hundreds of investors taking money from the masses, all acolytes into the church of Belfort. One way or another, everyone in this film is obsessed with Jordan Belfort.

Jonah Hill comes in with a big supporting role as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s best friend and right hand man. Played with a weird Long Island accent and an impressive set of fake teeth, Azoff is in truth more drug dealer and lead partier than investment expert. (Though the scene in which Azoff and Belfort get in a quaalude-riddled fight achieves a special kind of absurd excellence.) With business booming, Jordan Belfort makes little distinction between work and pleasure, with an impressive array of hookers and “team-building” exercises. It is like a frat party but with more money and better drugs.

Alas, all parties must end, but the film is strangely silent on who pays for it all. Certainly as rich as he is, Belfort has no trouble landing on his feet. (What punishment he does receive is exceedingly hollow.) We never see any of the victims of Belfort’s vicious sales tactics. The film doesn’t seem interested in exploring the broader implications of Belfort’s crimes.

What to make of Jordan Belfort, cipher for white collar criminals everywhere? The joke seems to be that whatever we may claim, we need characters like Jordan Belfort. Someone that we can idolize for their ability to game the system and to give us a benchmark to strive for, but also someone to despise for their scumbag ethics and pervess excess. Someone that can manifest both the vice and the virtue of capitalism in one nasty and compelling package. Who better for the job than someone as awesome as Jordan Belfort?

4.5/5

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Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber

A familiar ode to the blissful joys of perpetual ignorance and heterosexual male relationships.

It was a strange experience seeing this film for the umpteenth time, with my many memories of watching and quoting it having been unregarded for so long. “Dumb and Dumber” was a very early entry into the canon of comedies that would formulate my teenage sense of humor, along with being the world’s first experience with the Farrelly brothers, and one of the three films that helped launch the career of Jim Carrey. (With “The Mask,” “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber,” 1994 was a very big year for Jim Carrey.) It is one of those films which has given me more laughter than I could ever hope to recall, though many dusty memories were ignited by watching it again. However, aside from a few forced chuckles, the laughter wasn’t really there. Just the memories of laughters gone by.

Few comedies can truly feel timeless, and “Dumb and Dumber” certainly isn’t, but it has aged better than you might expect. Its “90s” trappings are less the centerpiece here than the quasi-brilliant performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, two of the most sublimely stupid character to ever to grace the silver screen.  Their endearing affection for one another and childlike zest for life is infectious, bolstered by the compelling reactions of the reasonably intelligent characters that are so baffled by the otherworldly idiocy that spews from Harry and Lloyd’s mouths they aren’t sure if their words are genius or otherworldly idiotic. They sort of transcend traditional notions of intelligence.  The chemistry and timing between Daniels (serious actor) and Carrey (mostly non-serious actor) has to place them amongst the best comedic duos of the 1990s. This film is inconceivable without these two as leads.

As characters Harry and Lloyd are so clueless that they couldn’t possibly sustain narrative arcs. They merely saunter from one situation to another, and react like pair of dogs that keep running into a wall and eating their own poop while smiling contentedly the whole time. You can’t help but root for them. Ostensibly Harry and Lloyd intend to deliver a briefcase from Rhode Island to Colorado, but their attention span is too short to worry about it for long. They have tails to chase.

Do films have a limited number of laughs that they can generate within us? It is hard to laugh when you anticipate every funny moment with the giddiness of a girl at a One Direction concert. Perhaps if I waited twenty years, I might forget enough of the film that it could extract some giggles from me, but I doubt it. More likely I’ll get the same nostalgic bemusement I got this time, only with more potency. This might sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, but that would be the wrong impression to give. This is a film I enjoy immensely, like reminiscing with an old friend that tells you the same-old jokes with the same-old punchlines but that you like hearing anyway.

It does makes me a little sad that a comedy I admire will likely never make me laugh again. Not because I have changed and outgrew the jokes, because I haven’t. I just know all of its moves so well, and have laughed that its originality and spontaneity have been used up. The humor cannot offer anything new. It merely invokes all the laughter that I once experienced. With the return of Daniels and Carrey to the sequel coming out later this year, there is hope for a laughter Renaissance. Until then, “Dumb and Dumber” will continue to remind me how much it used to make me laugh.

4/5

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Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home_Alone_2

A bad early 90s classic that is actually good, because it’s bad.

Having just chided “Anchorman 2” for being an uninspired rehashing of its better and more original predecessor, it would seem contradictory for me to heap praise on another sequel for doing the exact same thing. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias maybe, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. In taking the same themes and riffs from the first “Home Alone” movie and cranking them up to 11, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” actually improves upon the shameless and bland middle class sentimentality of the original. Its incessant stupidity is like a running in-joke throughout the film, because honestly, how could such a bonkers idea actually resonate with so many people?

None of this is meant argue that “Home Alone 2” is a “good” movie. It isn’t, but I don’t think it has any interest in any traditional notion of quality. Rather, this film goes for some weird form of satire. Honestly it plays like a parody of a “Home Alone” movie, as silly as it is. In hitting all the same beats as the first film, I suspect the makers of “Home Alone 2” wanted to see just how much absurdity they could cram into this film with as little effort as possible, while still keeping the masses on board. In generating over 350 millions dollars in domestic tickets sales, despite receiving a paltry 24% approval rating from critics per Rotten Tomatoes, it looks as though the filmmakers experience was a success. (While Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1992, nevertheless odds are good that the film critic in your local newspaper told you it was terrible and that you shouldn’t see it, but your family saw it anyway.)

I doubt this film could have stolen any less material from the original. It stars the same emotionally neglected son, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin, whose indelible charisma and sharp delivery as the child star are the only reason these films work at all,) who once again improbably gets the solitude and freedom he so desperately craves when his overlarge family forgets about him amidst their hectic travel plans. The only difference this time is that a mishap at the airport sends him to New York City while everyone else heads south to Miami for Christmas. Armed with his dad’s wallet and an extremely versatile Talkboy device, Kevin’s freedom is initially intoxicating. Slowly, he realizes how big and unmanageable the world is without his family, and of courses misses them. This is an annoyingly superficial and irritating lesson which is further reinforced by an initially horrifying side character who turns out to be a sage with a heart of gold. (The Homeless Pigeon Lady, played with a bemused indifference by Brenda Flicker.) Do flmmakers really think kids and adults are so stupid? (Yes.) We also get the box-office required, Looney Tunes-inspired showdown between Kevin and a couple of buffoonish burglars, the Sticky Bandits, which has nothing to do with anything. This is nevertheless a great source for a lot of cheap physical gags, as Kevin rigs an abandoned house with booby traps that would kill most humans, but not are shockingly durable villains.

This film is a master class in camera-mugging led by legendary overactor Daniel Stern, whose finest moment as one of the Sticky Bandits involves howls of pain caused by an electric current so severe that he is briefly transformed into a skeleton. He is not alone in this, as Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey are the goofy members of a hotel staff so stupid they fall for the old “Angels with Filthy Souls” trick. Joe Pesci is as mumbly as ever, while all the other actors generate a different kind of laughter as they drip through all kinds of sappy, self-righteous dialogue, which plays every bit as ridiculous as all the bawdy comedy.

Can a film be terrible and still be a classic? I think so. I, of course, regard “Home Alone 2” with a sort of absurdist brilliance, but even if this review is the insane ramblings of a “Home Alone” homer, its 24% on the Tomatometer is far less important in considering its status as a classic than its box office take. A classic denotes a film which resonated, and keeps resonating with a mass of people. A classic is a collective fond memory that can be relived and shared with others, serious criticism be damned. For my generation, the “Home Alone” films certainly are that. For the millions of us that were under the age of ten in the early 90s, explicating “Home Alone” from your childhood is impossible.

3.5/5

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2

A very sad case of Sequelitis.

Here is a definition of sequelitis that I pulled from Urbandictionary.com: “A medical condition propogated (sp) by a combination of commercial success and creative ineptitude.” Thanks Zizz! (Note: A more credible source was not available.) That is admittedly a harsh statement to apply to “Anchorman 2,” but it isn’t that far off the mark. It was infuriating to see a film so hamstrung by the success of its predecessor that it generates only the most modest of a modicum of originality in what amounts to a more-expensive re-hashing of jokes that were done better in the first film. (Often literally.)

In attempting to be a more outrageous version of “Anchorman,” I suppose you could call “Anchorman 2” a success. “Anchorman 2” is certainly more than “Anchorman.” An early car-crash flashes the money and our-movie-is-going-to-make-you-money-so-back-off-studio-executive-and-let-us-do-whatever-we-want-bat-shit insanity that were clearly at the filmmaker’s disposal here, as a number of CGI objects, including bowling balls and scorpions, careen into the newly-reassembled news team in a savory, absurdity-soaking slow-motion in the back of a ditch-bound driverless van. The filmmakers also had enough of a leash from the studio to include scenes in which Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) jive-talks at a dinner with his African-American girlfriend’s family, smokes crack on camera, and nurses a baby shark back to health. (Even specific jokes are taken from the first film. We get a “picking out a condom” scene which piggybacks the “picking out a cologne” scene from the first, an even-bigger and more cameo-filled brawl between news stations, and another “Baxter saves the day” bit, to name three.)

The more salient question is whether or not all this rampant creative and financial license makes for better comedy, to which the answer is, not really. Most of the humor is taken from the first film, only distributed in a much-less effective balance. The crowd-pleasing Brick (Steve Carell,) for example, has increased the heights of his stupendous stupidity in this film, with a lot of help from his equally brain-dead love interest played by Kristen Wiig, with increased scene time to boost. Ron Burgundy has become even more brash and clueless since the last film, although the degree of his brashness and cluelessness is predicated on the needs of whatever particular setpiece he is in. Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd,) Champ Kind (Dave Koechner,) and Ron’s perpetually put-upon ex-wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) are lost in the shenanigans or otherwise have the thankless tasks of being less ridiculous (and therefore more forgettable) than Brick and Ron.

While “Anchorman 2’s” plot is every bit as meaningless as its predecessors, the film has a strange serious streak which doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. It involves a cynical critique about the creation of a CNN-style news network called GNN and the constantly-manufactured 24-hour news cycle it would help generate. There are even a couple of characters, the Rupert Murdoch-inspired owner played by Josh Lawson and the news network’s manager Linda Jackson (Meagan Good,) who are playing their scenes so straight that they don’t seem to realize that they are in a comedy. Paired across Will Ferrell, they look as though they are involved in two very different movies, resulting in a lot of uncomfortable scenes.

The prodigious level of talent involved in this film is undeniable, which is why it was so grating at times to watch. I suspect that everybody involved in its filming had an absolute blast working on “Anchorman 2,” and loved what they did, but therein might lie the problem. Giving so many funny people so much money to make a comedy sounds great, but I think they were simply too in love with what they did in the first film to give this one a chance, but what do I know? Well, I know I didn’t laugh very much while watching this movie, and neither did very many people in my theater. There were a lot of gasps, though.

2/5

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Love Actually

Love Actually

A tour-de-force of in-your-face sappiness and most of Britain’s finest actors.

In my years of watching films, I’ve somehow almost completely avoided the films of Richard Curtis. Not including his work as a writer and producer on the film “Bean,” I’ve steered clear of his eye-watering canon of saccharine romantic comedies. While the schmaltz his films generate is legendary, I was still unprepared to witness their emotion-churning effects for myself. In watching “Love Actually” with my wife over the holidays, well, I was gobsmacked by its ability to hijack the human nervous system and generate tears like some sort of fast-replicating sadness/happiness virus, but you know what? I liked it. Kind of. If one is going to make a film as aggressively sentimental as this, better Richard Curtis than just about anybody else.

The trouble with a film like “Love Actually,” which consists of several highly-contrived narrative vignettes filled with lots of warm and sticky feelings which are generally recognized as love, is that it is impossible to care equally about all of it plot strands. Some of these stories do worm their way into your heart, but the film constantly jumps from story to story, some of which are not uninteresting, but actively irritating. The result is a well-meaning film with highly-inconsistent returns that is nevertheless hard to hate.

On the good side we have Bill Nighy as aged rocker Billy Mack, my personal favorite on this smorgasbord menu of holiday cuteness. Mack is forced to transform some of his long-expired hits into bad Christmas music by his manager, a task which Mack approaches with a full-on DGAF (look it up if you don’t get know what this acronym is Grandpa) attitude. While promoting his admittedly awful music on the British media circuit, he raises all kinds of Hell by mostly being brutally honest about just how awful that music is and the shameless drive to resurrect his defunct career which inspired it. I also enjoyed John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) as a couple of stand-ins for sex scenes that slowly fall in love over the course of the movie they are shooting.

Including the previous two, I count nine stories in all, from the silly to the starkly serious. We have: 1) Alan Rickman as middle-aged man that is considering cheating on his wife, played by Emma Thompson, with his perpetually-clad-in-red secretary, played by Heike Makatsch,) 2) Laura Linney as one of Rickman’s love-stricken employees whose dreams of getting with her long-time crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) are ruined by her brother’s rare mental disorder which compels him to call her while she is trying to have sex, 3) Kris Marshall as a down-on-his-luck-romantically Brit who travels to America to impress the local women with his accent, 4) Hugh Grant as Britain’s Prime Minister who falls for a member of his household staff, played by Martine McCutcheon, who is mercilessly and inexplicably called fat at several points in the film, 5) Andrew Lincoln as a man hopelessly in love with his best friend’s new wife, played by Keira Knightley, 6) Colin Firth as a writer who falls for his Portuguese maid, played by Seinna Guillory, and 7) Liam Neeson as a recently widowed husband who must contend with his lovesick (and decidedly non-grieving stepson,) played by Thomas Sangster. These narratives are even more ridiculous than that quick synopsis makes them sound.

“It is what it is” isn’t much of a criticism, but it feels very apt here. Whatever else can be said about “Love Actually,” it is at least honest about what it offers. (In starting out with home movies of friends and families reuniting in airports, the film couldn’t make it more clear about what you can expect the rest of the way.) The value of what this film offers depends on your desire for cheap but well-constructed and viciously-efficient emotional manipulation by an enormous cast of British talent. Bearish as I am about such films, “Love Actually” kinda sorta won be over.

3/5

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Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur_Verdoux_poster

Chaplin at his least trampy and most resentful.

Charlie Chaplin wasn’t subtle with the social critique that fueled his comedy, particularly later on in his career. In both the exasperated assembly-line worker desperately trying to maintain impossible levels of efficiency while being force fed by a machine designed to eliminate the need for lunch breaks in “Modern Times” and the metaphor of a flamboyant Hitler playing gracefully with a globe in “The Great Dictator,” (not to mention Chaplin’s speech at the end of that film,) Chaplin wasn’t shy or opaque about expressing his leftist beliefs. Missing from “Monsieur Verdoux,” which takes a very large and very obvious swing at U.S. foreign policy, is that indelible Chaplin charm which let him perpetuate ideologies that might otherwise generate consternation and controversy. (Hence the controversy generated by this film back in its day.)

For clarity’s sake, I do not use the word “leftist” as a criticism unto itself, but as a lazy way of articulating a number of beliefs which are generally ascribed to the American political left. Things like vegetarianism, agnosticism, opposition to military action, support of the working class and a belief in social welfare, which then as now, are linked with such loaded terms as “Communism” and “Socialism.” Chaplin himself espoused pretty much all these beliefs on some form with the films of his eternal Tramp character, mostly to mass acclaim. These beliefs are also present in “Monsieur Verdoux,” only the tramp character is conspicuously absent, leaving the film with a character so enured with bitterness and cynicism that it is hard to see anything resembling hope.

“Verdoux” is about no less than a serial killer who targets wealthy older women, marries, and then murders them in order to cash in on their prodigious financial assets. Per the 21st Century, this seems old hat, but it sounds downright shocking for the 1940s, especially given that the serial killer was played by one of the most beloved actors in the world. Verdoux (Chaplin) has somewhat noble reasons for doing what he does, namely a pretty wife in a wheelchair (Mady Correll) and a wide-eyed son (Allison Roddan) to support after being laid off of his job as a bank teller during The Great Depression, but that isn’t enough to soften the dark edge which cuts through this film. There are shades of “The Tramp” in Verdoux’s character, particularly at times when he is trying to seduce his conquest and in an especially manic scene in which he has to dodge one of his wives at his own wedding, but there is not nearly enough there to mediate the nihilism which oppresses nearly every frame of the film.

The trouble with this film is parsing out where the despair comes from and on what the anger is directed. Human greed provides a reasonable target, certainly, but “Verdoux” is less concerned with the psychological impulse of capitalism than it is in the hypocrisies which it yields. Some dialogue suggests an analogy, and contradiction, between Verdoux’s actions and the military-industrial complex. According to Chaplin, both involve the deaths of many for selfish gains, but the latter receive praise for their actions, and the former are labeled monsters.

That is an evocative point, stated polemically, which was not surprisingly massively unpopular amidst the afterglow of World War II and the defeat of Hitler, one of history’s most magnanimous villains. It is also not a surprise that Chaplin’s career was decimated by this film. Even now, with a film industry more welcome of darkness and scathing criticism, it is tough work to make serial killer likable. I can only speculate as to how to high the degree of difficulty was for that in the mid-1940s, with the killer a stand-in for the U.S. military.

During the film, I was often conflicted by what I was seeing. The film seemed equally conflicted. A running gag revolves around Verdoux’s repeated attempts to kill a particularly obnoxious wife of his, played by Martha Raye at her loud-mouthed finest. Verdoux tries chloroform, strangulation, and drowning, but something happens each time to thwart him. Our instinct as film fans is to rout for Verdoux, but should we be disappointed or elated by his failure? Perhaps the answer lies in how seductively easy it is to endorse the actions of those we identify with, even when those actions are horrible.

At times, his proselytizing is shameless. In one particularly pernicious scene when we first meet Verdoux’s “true” wife, a close-up shows us her sweet and slightly sad face, before the camera pans down to reveal that she is in a wheelchair. Certainly a bit of cheap emotional manipulation, but I wonder how deep Chaplin’s serial killer/military industrial complex analogy goes. Is the wheelchair-bound wife a metaphor for the self-righteous reasons we use to justify going to war in order to cover the secretly base reasons for what amounts to mass murder? Without the buffer of “The Tramp,” the rawness of Chaplin’s disillusionment is unnerving and even shocking, but at the same time no less fascinating.

4.5/5

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Anchorman

On the lingering excellence of a minor masterpiece of broad comedy.

Of comedies in the past ten years featuring narcissistic manchildren whose massive egos are matched only by their prodigious cluelessness, Ron Burgundy is perhaps the most durable. Having seen it as a twenty-year-old riding high on his second year of undergrad, this film was quoted ad nauseum by me and basically everyone else on campus. Yet unlike other films which spread one-liners like pinkeye in a frathouse before quickly receding into the pop culture history books, (I’m looking at you “Austin Powers,”) “Anchorman” still has juice left in the relevance tank.

Case-in-point, you could start reciting almost any line from this film, and a shocking number of people under the age of forty could finish it.* Of greater significance is that this film is still capable of generating laughter, both from those who’ve seen it several times and those watching it with new eyes. It even worked for my in-laws, who audibly chuckled numerous times when they watched it for the first time. So why this film (and this character,) when so many comedies’ vibrance has slide into the niche nostalgia zone or relative obscurity? (I’m thinking of other Will Ferrell comedies, like “Talladega Nights” and “Old School.”)

*This claim is just science.

The impending sequel aside, much of this starts with the zeitgeist of top-notch casting. This film is led by the reliable Will Ferrell, whose performance takes vanity to new heights and features some now-comedy superstars including a pre-“Office” Steve Carell, a proto-Apatow Paul Rudd, and the underappreciated David Koechner as the constituents of the bumbling Channel 4 news team/boy’s club. Christina Applegate comes along as the upstart female news anchor that throws a wrench in their idyllic life as the cream-of-the-local-San Diego-news anchor-crop. Improv legend Fred Willard throws in some comedically sublime moments as the bewildered news manager trying to keep everyone, especially his delinquent son, in line.

It isn’t just that these actors have prodigious chemistry with each other, it is that they are all plugged in on the same high-level wavelength, intuitively knowing what to do like borgs doing improv. The mostly-irrelevant plot features lots of melodrama, bruised egos, and almost non-stop lunacy, but as a sort of comic recipe, these key ingredients are in perfect balance with each other. We get just the right mix of Brick Tamland’s (Carell) endearing stupidity, Brian Fantana’s (Rudd) delusions of self-importance, and Champ Bailey’s (Koechner) homosexulity-repressing machismo to accentuate the profound immaturity and self-aggrandizing of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell.) As the intrepid Veronica Corningstone, Applegate knows she has the mostly thankless task of offsetting all the silliness as the straight woman to all the shenanigans, a role which she delivers with aplomb, while still getting her comedic licks in where she can.

It also helps to have such a great premise to work with in the first place. All the goofiness on display in this film takes place amidst the corniness-filled 60s hangover that was the 1970s. I mean, I wasn’t there or anything, but much of the out and out absurdity and surrealism in the film seems only a couple of steps away from plausibility. Couple that with the ironically dour importance placed on the seemingly innocuous job of reading the news, a meta-joke which looms over the entire film, and you have a (back to the cooking metaphor) recipe for success. When we hear Fred Willard’s character say, “Brick is useless when he isn’t reading the weather,” we get that the film is really saying, “Brick is useless.” Even something as seemingly serious as the first female news anchor is treated with bemusement, as though it is only marginally more important for women’s rights than being the first woman to eat a Snicker’s bar.

So this review is basically a convoluted way of saying that the combination of a rare assemblage of talent and a great comedic hook amounts to a uniquely persistent staple of a comedy in the 21st century, that manages to be broad enough to appeal to a lot of people while still feeling authentic to director/writer Adam McKay’s and Ferrell’s initial vision. Yet the obviousness of this review doesn’t make it any less true. I mean, 30% of time, obvious ideas work 100% of the time.

4.5/5

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