Funny Girl(s)

I take on the question of women in comedy — and why they're undergoing a resurgence the last few years — in today's column for TOH:

Sure, Fey’s impression takes advantage of certain facts not of her doing — her resemblance to Sarah Palin, the fact that the candidate was already prominent in the zeitgeist. The reason why it works not only as adept mimicry but also as political satire, however, speaks to the ways in which women are mining a new vein of humor that appeals to anyone, male or female, burnt out on bland romantic comedies and wayward slackers. Fey, unafraid of cutting to the quick, displays a glimmer of empathy, too; there’s a subtle-yet-raw vulnerability to her Palin impersonation that takes it beyond the realm of caricature.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about “women are weak” vulnerability, which is a sham idea anyway. I mean that this is full-blooded comedy, reliant not only on audacity but also on the recognition that part of what’s funny about people is their propensity to fail miserably and find a way to get up smiling...

The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, among other sharp comedies of the last decade, did the same thing for those of us stuck between comfortable stoner-dom and the “real” world, but the premise is no longer current, the subgenre nowhere near fresh (witness the full-frontal dreadfulness of The Hangover: Part II). But the vein of vulnerability I’m talking about isn’t a woman thing, though they’re the performers who’ve capitalized on it most. It has broader appeal: it’s a human thing, a darkly funny reminder that we’ve created this monster of a troubled world...

But the delicate balance of pathos and penis humor in New Girl, easily the best in this new crop, suggests how America’s funniest women are facing vulnerability with a candor that puts most of the guys to shame.

Actually, I think the gents are coming around to what the women have already discovered. Last I heard, the best-reviewed comedy of the season was a little picture spawned from the Apatow stable—but independent of him—called 50/50. A cancer comedy, huh. Isn’t Laura Linney already making one of those?


The Making of a "Classic"

This one is sure to get the Tarantino crowd up in arms, but I stand by my assessments in today's "Now and Then" at Thompson on Hollywood: Citizen Kane is unthinkingly crowned the "best film of all time" every year, as if by rote, which forces us to forget its flaws; Pulp Fiction is a cold, clinical exercise when you get down to the bones of it. A real classic needs a soul. More excerpts:

In so many ways, though, Kane represents our ideal of film as art: the obsessive vision of a singular auteur, the technical inventiveness, the enduring themes, the epic scope. What is not often discussed is the flip side of this. As Pauline Kael argued aggressively, Kane owes just as much to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) used deep focus with more vigor, animating the upstairs-downstairs chaos of a hunting party. The themes lack enough nuance (“Rosebud…”) to be easy targets of parody, and the film’s sheer size is unwieldy.

I won’t deny that there are moments in Pulp Fiction that continue to thrill me, on what must be my sixth or seventh viewing. (The drug-addled nostalgia-trip freak-out of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and the strange illicitness of Thurman and Travolta dancing there, is evidence of just how striking Tarantino’s visuals can be.) But to elevate it to the level of “masterpiece,” as any number of critics have done, neglects that ways in which the world of Pulp Fiction, however cleverly constructed, is essentially a hollow one. The film’s circular structure has always seemed emblematic of this emptiness: around we go, trapped in a closed loop of pretty pictures that inevitably brings us back to where we’ve been.

 A “great” or “classic” movie needn’t be self-serious or tepidly highbrow (pretty much anything by Hitchcock in the Fifties or Sixties will do to illustrate the point), but it does need soul. The pastiche of Pulp Fiction, a mashup of pre-existing material with a dash of S&M and a heavy helping of irony, is more snarky than soulful. At times it feels mannered, an exercise in hip B-movie obscurity street cred that misses out on all the ways in which movies connect to us on an emotional level. You can adore Samuel L. Jackson talking about French cheeseburgers, and I do, but I’m not sure you can get any more out of it than a wry laugh — this isn’t exactly empathetic filmmaking. Sound and fury can be fun, but sometimes they signify nothing.


The Day After

From my piece on trends in American cinema since 9/11, at TOH:

The westerns of the past decade can’t ignore the killing either: they are, if nothing else, about innocence lost, and their resurgence speaks to how we have attempted to deal with the world to which we woke on September 12, 2001. Whether set in the recent or distant past, each grapples with how democracy and capitalism function on frontiers. More vitally, they imply that democracy’s finest feature is that it protects the ability to criticize, argue, question, be heard. They show us that we may falter in trying to make good on this promise, but that there still remains some valor in the trying.

The best film about 9/11 treated the fateful day with stirring immediacy: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) captures the organic, natural bravery that we can muster at our best, even in a dark hour. It is a frightening, draining film — I remember seeing it on opening weekend and feeling as though the wind had been knocked out me — but it’s also a fitting memorial to all the people that day who showed the utmost courage in the face of a scary new world.

In the past decade, I suppose, the cinema has matched this broader world, trying to balance its critique of where we’ve gone awry with a depiction of what can happen when we follow our better angels. United 93, for its part, is entirely about the latter, and rightfully so. Reading about the 40 heroes of United 93 this week, the most poignant aspect for me was how their courage came about. It wasn’t formal or planned, but they voted to change the course of events. There’s still something to be learned from that, ten years into what came after. 


Why The Help Remains the Most Successful Movie in America

Of course, I write about The Help and I get more response from readers than ever. This in itself says something about how it has broken the barrier from niche to mainstream — in an era when "water cooler" talk has nothing to do with an actual water cooler, and most of it takes place in narrowly defined digital spaces, The Help is being talked about across subgroups. To quickly address the two main criticisms of the piece:

1) Yes, The Help is going strong because there's so much crap out there (my reference to "prefab horror franchises and stale comedies"), but it's more than that. One of the reasons why blockbusters have become more rare is the oft-cited notion that there's too much entertainment out there for people to experience. It's a cliche, but from an anecdotal perspective of my friends and colleagues, going to the cinema is reserved for especially intriguing films, when time allows; the rest of filmgoing is done on Netflix or iTunes. So what about The Help — which, I might add, is not stylistically reliant on the big screen to work —is drawing people to the theatre itself? I think it's the amount, and power, of feeling that it evinces.

2) Just to clarify, I'm not saying that women will go see anything with a woman in it. I'm saying that the claim (about Bridesmaids, Sex and the City and now The Help) that each "proves" women can carry a movie disrespectfully implies such a view. Women are a lot smarter than that. But it's an easy way to continue to ghettoize women-centered cinema as a blip on the radar, rather than an audience (not limited to women, I might add), desperate for adult fare and rarely given any to chew on. The Help is, for all its flaws, a vital exception.  
To give you a taste, here's my piece over at Thompson on Hollywood yesterday:

Based on my own unscientific sample — one screening at one cinema in one city — women are only part of The Help’s box office triumph. The theatre I attended in New Orleans was equally divided, by my rough head count, between men and women; the crowd skewed older than, say, Colombiana, with Zoe Saldana as a female lead, but it wasn’t ladies who lunch. What’s happening here, I think, is not unlike the rise in gold prices. When the economy’s in the tank, investors flee for the stability of gold; when the weekend’s offerings at the multiplex are prefab horror franchises and stale comedies, filmgoers flee to adult fare. Neither choice is a particularly risky one, and you may not win big, but you’re just as unlikely to lose.

A lot of ink has been spilled over The Help: arguments about its politics, femininity, historical accuracy. But the real issue, if we’re talking about its success, is not Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) deciding to write a book from the perspective of local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in 1960s Jackson, Miss. Because The Help may be grossly oversimplified, cheaply emotional, messy, melodramatic, and overlong. But it’s also rousing, uproarious, fiercely felt and acted within an inch of its life by some of the most talented actresses today. Nearly every one is believable, complicated, finely balanced. The cast provides an impressive display of emotional range in a part of the year when movies are usually drained of every drop. Bryce Dallas Howard, as the villainous Hilly Holbrook, pushes right up to monstrosity and then pulls back with a veil of tears — what starts off a bit too broad narrows until she’s just a woman, embittered and humiliated, unable to get what she wants. Jessica Chastain gives a brave tragicomic performance as the lonely, ditzy wife of a local heir, vacillating between bubbly and distraught. 

The one that lingers longest, though, is the magnificent Viola Davis, roiling and raw. As Aibileen Clark, the first maid to agree to speak with Skeeter, she steals the movie from the opening minute. “How does it feel to take care of white children all day when your own are being looked after by someone else?” Skeeter asks. Davis conveys her near-incapacitating pain at having to respond with just the pace of her breathing and the gaze of her eye. “It feels…” she trails off. The Help, just as it’s getting underway, answers my earlier question. Why has it become so popular, despite its imperfections and the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to see things like this anymore? Because it feels. When it comes to movies, sometimes that’s all you ask.


Love Hurts

My review of the indie drama Littlerock, which opens in L.A. today, reposted from TOH:

You could say that I had an on-again, off-again relationship with Littlerock (trailer below). Impressive yet exasperating, Mike Ott’s film about two Japanese tourists stranded in a California hamlet seduces, cheats, and comes halfway back to reconciliation, which is just another way of saying love hurts. And love it I did, at least at first. The camerawork is sensual and assured, whether capturing the low glimmer of fairy lights at a backyard kegger or a field of crispy, amber grass at dusk. While it’s just a slip of a film, more impression than narrative, the impression smacks of nostalgia — it’s a sweet reminder of afternoons drinking beer from brown bags and throwing rocks in abandoned lots.

The tourists, siblings named Atsuko and Rintaro (Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto), have wandered into town to wait for their broken-down rental car to be replaced. Speaking little English, they are taken under wing by a wannabe model and actor, Cory (Cory Zacharia), and in the pleasant minor adventures that follow, Littlerock exudes a low-key confidence that won me over. 

(I was spurned.)

Even for a film that does youthful dallying well, Littlerock has an unfortunate lack of focus. Just as Atsuko discovers an ability to disarm the young men around her — angering Rintaro, who drives on to the next destination without her — the film drowns her with extraneous material. Characters emerge and drift away; throwaway lines, like Cory’s father’s suggestion that he go turn tricks with the “pretty boys” on the Sunset Strip, make dark allusions that float off unexamined. Potential subplots, such as a stale one involving money Cory owes to a pair of local drug pushers, never gel. In this dreary middle section, Atsuko becomes a foil for Cory’s painful earnestness, which Zacharia plays with contorted face and high voice. “Would you rather kiss Jordan than me?” he whines. “I’m telling you how I feel, and it’s like you don’t even care!” The film’s weakest link, he never convinces as either loyal friend or potential love interest — against Atsuko’s grace, Cory’s just a brat.

When Rintaro returns and tells his sister it’s time to get the show on the road, it’s a relief. As Atsuko walks her bike along a dirt path in the gloaming, teary eyes catching the last light, Littlerock rekindles somewhat, but the momentum’s already gone. She’s crying over the aforementioned Jordan, who earlier gave her a mixtape titled “Limerence.” I looked it up, thinking I’d find some hip band I’d never heard of, but it turns out limerence is a psychological term. It refers to the overwhelming need to have one’s feelings reciprocated by those with whom we fall in love. I guess Littlerock had me feeling a little limerent myself: I wanted so much for it to be as good as it promised, but in the end I was left holding the bag.