Black Comedy finds winning formula
By Donna Bowman, Noel Murray and Jim Ridley
JULY 13, 1998: When someone describes a movie as "a comedy with attitude," the odds are good that attitude is about all it has. In the absence of an original story or characters, many filmmakers (especially indies) pump up the outrageousness of their premise or give their dialogue a quirky, ironic edge. Attitude is a penny a pound in movies these days, since even major studios have decided it's exactly what they need to rejuvenate their tired formulae for the youth market.
But occasionally the attitude is in fact fresh and funny, and it arrives embodied in a character with flair and charisma, such as Christina Ricci's DeDee in The Opposite of Sex (which opens in town a week from Friday). Screenwriter Don Roos (Boys on the Side, Love Field), who wrote and directed this dark, dark comedy, hasn't dreamed up an especially compelling story or populated it with out-of-the-ordinary types, but he does provide some very funny lines and a great postmodern premise. DeDee, you see, is fully aware she's stuck in a coming-of-age movie, and she narrates the story of her 16th year with all the clichs and sentimentality that the genre entails. Her vulgarity and prejudice, shrewdly calculated to shock, provoke startled laughter and come to the rescue of many a standard scene.
After fleeing her dysfunctional home in Louisiana, DeDee shows up at the Indiana home of her brother Bill (Martin Donovan), a high-school teacher whose former lover Tony died of AIDS and left him a large estate. She promptly seduces his boyfriend Matt (Ivan Sergei), reveals she's pregnant, and takes off for L.A. Accompanied by Tony's sister Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), Bill sets out in search of DeDee, Matt, the unborn child, and $10,000 from Bill's safe-deposit box.
This is standard road-movie stuff, with perhaps two too many locations and a slightly overcomplicated plot, but it's delightfully enlivened by DeDee's subversive comments. Even as a child actress, Ricci always displayed a self-possession far beyond her years, and this very adult role proves her versatility. Kudrow is a nice surprise in her first substantial film part; her gift for comedy is undisputed, but in her scenes with Donovan and Lyle Lovett, who plays a local cop, she's luminous and vulnerable. Although Donovan's dry wit is an asset, he's a static presence at the center of the sentimental scenes that slow the movie's third act. Roos seems unwilling to undercut these supposedly emotional conversations with DeDee's narration, and the movie drags until she reappears.
This type of movie is the backbone of the independent film movement: a small ensemble, an examination of sexual politics, youthful characters, and at least one novel twist in tone to make things interesting. It's turning into a formula as rigid as any mainstream genre. But if the tone is interesting enough, and if the character carrying the tone can get past our jaded sensibilities, the formula can still entertain. Roos wisely lets Ricci's keen wit command his movie, and she leads, prods, and baits us into having a very good time.
Wilde thingAs Oscar Wilde in Brian Gilbert's film Wilde, Stephen Fry gives everything one could want from a good biopic performance. He doesn't impersonate Wilde so much as interpret him, showing the audience a multifaceted private figure more complex than the snooty, condescending wit so often portrayed in the popular media. Fry's Wilde is sweet-natured, charming, and devoted to his wife and children; he's hobbled only by his compulsion to disappear into hotel rooms for weeks at a time for trysts with young men.
Wilde doesn't glance over the acclaimed author's homosexuality--which is laudable. We've seen enough stories of famous gay men in which their love lives are reduced to a few chaste kisses by a drawing-room fire. Wilde dwells on the physicality of gay sex, following Wilde's growing awareness of his attraction to men from discreet hand-holding to sweaty embraces. And the screenplay by Julian Mitchell emphasizes the ways that Victorian society nurtured such relationships, despite outward disapproval. Men were expected to spend much of their leisure time alone with other men, rather than hanging around the house with the family.
Fry makes a compelling Wilde, and Mitchell's script delves nicely into the social and sexual mores that lead to Wilde's public comeuppance. Then why is Wilde on the whole so dry and uninteresting? Maybe because the movie gives us plenty of Wilde as a nice guy and passionate lover, but precious little of what makes him an important artist. As refreshing as it is to see Fry surrendering to the caresses of Jude Law (who plays Wilde's destructively arrogant boyfriend Bosie), the film doesn't make much attempt to show how Wilde's double life informed his writing. The only samples of his work we experience are a strained, supposedly metaphorical children's story and the incomprehensible last minute of a performance of The Importance of Being Ernest. His lasting gifts--his scabrously amusing portraits of society, his withering bon mots--are shortchanged.
Thus, when Wilde is convicted for "gross indecency" (i.e. sodomy), we understand exactly how he meets his downfall, but we don't really know what the world loses when it sends him to prison. Wilde needs more scenes like its crackling opener, in which Oscar visits an American silver mine and thrills the rugged, unkempt miners with tales of murder and intrigue among European royalty. In this and other moments--as when Wilde trades fishing stories with Bosie's bitter, violent father--Fry's balance of intelligence, courtesy, and multiple entendres demonstrates the places Wilde could've gone. Instead, it stays locked in the bedroom, reducing a great man's work to a footnote in a dirty piece of gossip. Didn't the British courts do that already?
Rocks in the headThere's no use getting mad at something as lumpy and half-witted as Armageddon; you might as well kick some decrepit old mongrel for fouling a rug. The summer's second comet opera--and as such, destined to play Avis to Deep Impact's Hertz--Armageddon fires Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and a crew of roughnecks only a marketing consultant could love into outer space, where they must land on an oncoming asteroid, drill to its core, nuke it to Add-a-Beads, and return home safely, all in a few hours' time.
Anybody with half a brain is already thinking, "Yeah, right"--but anybody with half a brain is the enemy, as far as Armageddon is concerned. The overseas market is too lucrative for the movie to include any villainous far'ners, so eggheads must suffice, from arrogant astronauts to clueless physicists. (Willis' team has a couple of brilliant scientists, but there are mitigating factors--one's a cowboy, the other dates strippers.) Besides, thinking fellers might ask too many questions of the bonehead script--for instance, how the asteroid remains a global secret after Manhattan gets bombarded by basketball-sized fireballs.
The director, Michael Bay, who made the equally numbing The Rock, has been hailed for his hyperactive editing style--essentially, count to one and cut. "He recycles Hollywood clichs with such velocity and slickness they almost seem newly minted," gushed Newsweek, and indeed his modus operandi is to shovel so many overused visual tropes at you--men outrunning fireballs, low-angle slow-motion pans, large objects crashing into the lens--so quickly that your eyes feel assaulted. (I counted 28 cuts in a single minute; with over 144 minutes that approach near-cubist abstraction, that's more than 4,000 edits.) But his action scenes are an incoherent blur, further discombobulated by a camera that jiggles like a motorist who missed the last rest stop. And each shot is overlaid with a sickly shampoo-commercial gloss that triggers a sense, somewhere in the back of your aching head, that somebody is desperately trying to sell you something, be it an emotion, a piece of product, or the illusion of a good time.
As entertainment, Armageddon is obnoxious and wearisome, but as an exercise in commercial ass-covering, it's a wonder to behold. The intrusive, self-advertising soundtrack, which usurps Curtis Mayfield and Aerosmith classics for no good reason, does everything but drive you to Wal-Mart and pitch itself into your cart. And the movie is so afraid to turn away a single viewer that it yanks its characters every which way. One minute Willis is whacking golfballs into a boatload of environmentalists; the next he's saying he contributed to their cause. Even fishhuggers buy tickets.
Armageddon isn't so much a movie as an across-the-board demographic assault--the end of the world marketed to every biped with a wallet. As such, it's tempting to gloat at the movie's underwhelming box-office figures, which fell nearly a third short of the $75 million Disney was projecting over the Fourth of July holiday. But that would be stoking the same overpuffed media machinery that says opening grosses are the measure of a movie--or that earns the likes of Armageddon three pages of advance attention in Newsweek. (See how long it takes Newsweek to say the movie fell victim to overhype.)
One final note. The night I saw Armageddon at the Hollywood 27, the theater lights blinked on and off, and the deafening digital sound--the reason the man behind me drove all the way from Murfreesboro--dropped out every few seconds for nearly 20 minutes. If spectacle and body-rocking blasts are all a movie has to offer people for their $6.75, the understaffed Regal megaplex should at least fulfill that part of the bargain. (To their credit, the staff offered some refund passes.) Still, the absence of sound only pointed up the absence of anything worth watching.
Home invasionHow do you simultaneously please a rabid cult and a mainstream audience, neither of which wishes to acknowledge the other? Any TV show that leaps to the wide screen must finesse this dilemma, and it's not as easy as it sounds. Regular viewers want to be flattered with obscure references and plot lines, while first-timers want to skip the fanboy clutter and cut right to the action. Excepting films two and eight, the Star Trek series rarely managed to pull this off. The show's ponderous sci-fi themes and in-jokes left non-Trekkies scratching their heads, and whatever charisma the likes of William Shatner and DeForest Kelley had was lost on anyone but the faithful.
The movie version of The X-Files does a good job of distilling six seasons of loosey-goosey paranoia into accessible summer action fare, without shortchanging its obsessive fans. On TV, where it often indulges a penchant for technobabble and high-minded sermonizing, The X-Files can take itself awfully seriously for a show whose most memorable characters include a liver eater and a fat-sucking vampire. The movie, directed by Rob Bowman, plays more to the show's chief strengths: its macabre wit, its creepy-crawlie scares, and especially the tense, complex relationship at its center.
Over six seasons, David Duchovny's Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson's Dana Scully have developed one of the most interesting partnerships on TV, shaped as much by bias and spiritual belief (or lack thereof) as by reliance on their interlocking abilities. They're defined not so much as man and woman than as believer and skeptic, and part of the show's fun is how frequently they're forced to flip-flop those roles. The X-Files movie gives them plenty of opportunity, using a bomb threat in a Dallas federal building to connect long-running plot threads involving alien abduction, government cover-ups, a global cabal, and an oily substance that takes over anyone it touches.
Dallas? Cover-ups? A bomb in a federal building? X-Files creator/screenwriter Chris Carter may have the most tone-deaf ear for dialogue this side of James Cameron, but he's a whiz at assimilating urban legend and conspiracy obsessions into a sweeping crackpot mythology. (The show's most inventive plot lines hint at dark motives behind Social Security numbers, the smallpox vaccine, and of course TV signals.) The X-Files movie is never more fun than when Carter connects the dots between headline news and tabloid fodder. In a culture where conspiracy theory is becoming the dominant art form, it's still amazing how few associative leaps you need to get from Oklahoma City to killer bees.
The movie has the same hurry-up-and-wait pace as the show, commercial breaks included, and I wish Scully, as tough, intelligent, and capable a working woman as TV has ever permitted, didn't literally end up a slumbering princess in a glass coffin awaiting her prince's rescue. But the action scenes are crisp and well-mounted; a couple of alien attacks had me chewing my neighbor's fingernails; and David Duchovny and especially Gillian Anderson hold the big screen as confidently as the small one. And any fears the movie will choke under cinematic pressure are alleviated when a drunken Mulder stumbles into an alley to relieve himself--onto a poster for Independence Day. That's a multilayered joke you don't need six seasons of loyal viewing to appreciate.
Booty callI can tell you the exact moment when I gave up on the new, modernized film version of the children's classic Doctor Doolittle. An owl has spread word throughout the animal kingdom that a human doctor has the ability to speak to and to understand the beasts of land, air, and sea, as well as the compassion to fix whatever's ailing them. In response, all sorts of flocks and herds have descended upon Doolittle's San Francisco home and are sharing their litany of complaints. First up are three sheep, who look up at the Doc and say, in unison, "Our butts hurt."
Now, this may just be a vague allusion to a dirty joke (something involving lonely farmers, no doubt); but I have a different theory. I believe the filmmakers just think it's funny to hear a talking animal say "butt." The sheep chorus is not the first anal-related gag in the film, and it's certainly not the last, but it is the most inexplicable and most gratuitous. It marks the point at which any hope for a clever, cute movie about the secret thoughts of animals disappears down a smelly hole.
Eddie Murphy plays the titular hero, no doubt in an attempt to follow up on the success of his 1996 updating of The Nutty Professor. But that comeback film offered Murphy multiple roles and multiple opportunities to be funny. Here, he's reduced to playing the straight man to a gaggle of voice-over talent. Granted, there are some high-quality names behind those voices, including Garry Shandling as a whiny pigeon, Norm MacDonald as a surprisingly sweet-natured mutt, Albert Brooks as a depressed tiger, and Chris Rock as a sassy guinea pig (not to mention full-body appearances by such top-notch character actors as Oliver Platt, Paul Giamatti, and Pruitt Taylor Vince). But as funny as these stars are at times, their skills are buried in a flurry of flat lines.
Doctor Doolittle seems to have borrowed the idea from the execrable Theodore Rex that if your anthropomorphic creature can't say anything interesting, you should just keep him talking fast in the hope no one will notice. As a result, the audience is treated to a lot of animal speeches along the lines of, "Hey! Whoa! What are you doing? Listen to me! Rectum!"
As for the plot, it's a careless afterthought revolving around a ruthless HMO's takeover scheme and Doolittle's attempts to be a better father to his neglected, unusually bright children. (Believe me, that reads better than it plays.) Although Doctor Doolittle could be charitably described as "amiable," it's hard to accept that a film with this much talent in front of the camera could be so crude and unimaginative. One wonders if the filmmakers thought the premise would be enough to start with, and once the cameras started rolling, they'd get by on whatever they could pull out of their...well, you get the idea.
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