Tag Archives: comedy

Stating the Obvious

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

In the wake of Bridesmaids’ box office success three years ago, I remember a host of think pieces whose titles all asked variations on the same question: “Does this mean women will get to headline comedies now?” Well, the cinema landscape may still be overwhelmingly patriarchal, but I’ve been noticing more and more vehicles for comediennes cropping up recently. Some (Pitch PerfectThe Heat) may feature break-out Bridesmaids cast members. Others may just bear strands of its narrative DNA. Most of them, I grant you, are pretty lousy. But my observations suggest that a new-ish type of movie is emerging—or more likely, an old-ish subgenre’s becoming more commonplace—that I’ll describe with the unwieldy label of “millennial [or ‘post-Recession’?] feminist comedy.”

It’s true that values have been shifting since forever; that countless comedies from earlier decades have moved the goalposts from “Can she find a man?” to “Can she have it all?” or “Can she make it on her own?” But at least from this moviegoer’s perspective, pushback against the (once?) dominant romcom model is evolving into a loose formula of its own, with the question becoming “Can she make it as an adult?” I’m reminded here of my favorite movie from last year, Frances Ha, as well as Lake Bell’s In a World… and, of course, the movie at hand, Obvious Child.

Each of these films is, like Bridesmaids, shaped by real-world social and economic climates, wherein young women may have one-night stands and zero job security. Their lives may tarry around romantic subplots, but vocations (dancing, voice acting, comedy) or close friendships will always take precedence. Comedy of the cringe and gross-out varieties are prominent in these films, uninhibited by stereotypes about “ladylike” behavior. And in addition to starring them, the projects I’ve listed also involve women in other creative capacities: writers, directors, producers. (Not shockingly, these films are also overwhelmingly about white women who live in major metropolitan areas.) Again, none of these traits are really brand new, but they are coalescing in consistent and intriguing ways.

I’m impressed, for example, by what Obvious Child takes for granted—i.e., that women are entitled to control their own bodies and lives—as well as what it doesn’t do when Jenny Slate’s Donna discovers she’s pregnant. It doesn’t dwell on whether she’ll have the abortion or the feelings of the guy who impregnated her, nor does it devolve into a morass of twists and contrivances. Instead it stays with her, in her head, in Slate’s crumpled smile-that-wants-to-be-a-frown. All the supporting characters in Donna’s life (friends, parents, beau) are rather thinly written, serving mostly as foils and sounding boards. But that’s not disastrous, because the film’s framed by her solipsism, and its best scenes play like excerpts from a one-woman show.

These include her stand-up sets (very funny, if a little rough); a montage of a drunken night spent leaving voice mails for a hated ex; and an interview with her own brain, conducted in the three minutes before a pregnancy test yields its results. Here as elsewhere, Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre demonstrate a knack for words tripping over dirty words and an awareness of what an extraordinary comic tool an actress’s body and voice can be. They revel in this grotesque femininity and in visual tokens of Donna’s immaturity: a muppet designed by her dad, a cardboard box where she can hide, a pair of Crocs. The question “Can she make it as an adult?” is never answered, but it is nimbly navigated with joke after crude coping mechanism joke, until this particular set of crises has been weathered.

[Originally published on Letterboxd.]

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Go West

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) is a mouthful of a title, but it sets just the right expectations for Lev Kuleshov’s satirical adventure, which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s exactly the kind of zany fantasy travelogue that the title suggests, dropping an idiot westerner (Mr. West) and his faithful cowboy pal Jeddy into the silly, slapstick-heavy city of Moscow. There, West is terrorized and subjected to a series of elaborate con games by the sinister Zhban (played by Kuleshov’s peer Vsevolod Pudovkin) and his team of back alley grotesques. It’s all very, very funny and right on target when it comes to skewering American myopia. If only all Soviet propaganda were this much fun!

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Link Dump: #85

Giant, person-devouring KITTY!

This week’s man-eating kitty is from the Sandman series, specifically the story “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” from the book Dream Country. Remember: Watch out, because with a single collective dream, cats could overturn the natural order again! And now, I give you our last set of links for 2012:

We’ll close off this year of Link Dumps with a pair of pussy-related search terms: “oozing foaming pussy vedios” (eww) and “two gey one pussy” (huh?). Yeah, I think “eww” and “huh?” just about sum up the Pussy Goes Grrr search term experience.

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Thicker Than Water

Once the auteur laureate of America’s outcasts, Tim Burton has lately become its leading purveyor of “Hot Topic movies”: glossy, soulless, and ready for merchandising. So I was nervous going into his latest film, the horror-comedy Dark Shadows (2012), expecting something strident and obvious. Instead I found a much better (and much more frustrating) movie than I’d imagined, one dotted by tantalizing highs and intoxicating performances but hampered by inconsistency. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s scary, but it bungles a lot of tonal shifts and never decides whether or not to take its own soap opera seriously. “Mixed bag” might be the phrase I’m looking for.

The beginning of the film sets a thick mood through Bruno Delbonnel’s smoky, monochrome visuals and the Moody Blues song “Nights in White Satin.” But Johnny Depp’s overwrought narration, introducing us his centuries-long feud with witch Eva Green, immediately gave me pause. His words are pure melodrama, yet his voice is so arch and affected, as if he can’t conceive of an 18th century romance without an ironic slant. This informs his whole performance, as manifested in his raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Contrary to critics like Andrew Street, this isn’t “flamboyant over-acting” at all. Depp’s very dry and restrained here, a far cry from his manic Jack Sparrow. But his detachment thwarts the film’s would-be tragedy.

Another stumbling block is Victoria, the nanny played by Bella Heathcote. Initially the film’s (and Depp’s) focal point, she recedes farther and farther into the background as the story’s given over to the cursed Collins clan. She never gets much of a personality, functioning mostly as Depp’s anemic object of desire. This has grave consequences during the climax, whose impact hinges on our investment in their relationship. Depp must bite his true love’s neck to save her life, and it would be so carthartic if Victoria wasn’t so underdeveloped. But she is, so it ends up feeling like the dramatic equivalent of orgasm denial. Like I said, it’s a frustrating movie.

I could expound on other shortcomings: the dumb-ass final shot, looking for all the world like a Friday the 13th sequel tease; the hippie caricatures even broader than those in Wanderlust; and Chloë Moretz’s burn-out brat routine, which gets old fast. (Not to mention her last-second “I’m a werewolf!” revelation.) But I’d rather linger over the bits and pieces that I flat-out loved. Like a clockwork diorama of howling wolves, or a deadpan POV shot of a square waffle. Sometimes I was even happily reminded of vintage Burton. In flashback, Victoria’s parents institutionalize her while standing in a rigid American Gothic pose, à la the prologue to Batman Returns. And at the climax, Green swings her head and moans, “Excuse me!” as if channeling Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice.

In fact, Green supplies a lot of the movie’s high points. Her performance is ghoulish, voluptuous, and wickedly funny. During the Collins ball, for example, she struts into the mansion wearing a devil-red dress, complemented by nebulae of purple and pink light—a visual distillation of Burton’s gloomy, gothic 1972. When the time comes to fight, she does so savagely, bringing a house full of horrors down on the vampire she still loves. (On the few occasions Dark Shadows opts to be scary and only scary, it succeeds.) Green isn’t alone in her entrancing bitchiness, either. Burton veterans Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both carve out delightful supporting turns as, respectively, a purring matriarch and the boozy psychiatrist she employs.

I don’t know if I would call Dark Shadows a “return to form,” but I also don’t think it has to be one. It’s a pleasurable movie, littered unpredictably with beauty and terror, which is enough. Despite its bad jokes, waste-of-time subplots, and limp denouement, it’s proof positive that Tim Burton, our Edward Gorey of the big screen, still has some blood left in him. Maybe next time the wit and visual invention won’t be quite so scattered.

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Getting Out Alive

I don’t know if I can overstate how much I love Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). It’s just, well, so much better than everything else. Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction; test the laws of physics with one near-impossible stunt after another; and construct a dazzling, meta-cinematic spectacle within the dreams of one lowly projectionist. It’s also this week’s movie for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, which means I need to pick the one image that best represents it. It’s a tough choice, since Keaton wasn’t just funny and physically daring, but a visually gifted director too.

In Sherlock Jr., he doesn’t just rely on the default humor of his life-endangering pratfalls. Every visual gag is elegantly framed and executed, with nary a single step (often into the path of an oncoming vehicle) out of place. Many of my favorite such jokes involve objects’ motion and momentum in a straight horizontal line, whether across a street, a (discontinuous) bridge, or a moving train. I love the one pictured above, too, for both its box-within-a-box composition and Buster’s sheer surprise at the magic of editing. That’s really the essence of the “Buster Keaton” character, there in those flailing arms: always bemused by the world’s instability, never able to get his feet on solid ground.

Which is a great segue to my favorite shot, because riding past a train on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle is about as far from solid ground as you can get. The camera’s been traveling alongside Buster as he’s careened along a country road, with farmland zooming by and the train tracks coming into view. As soon as he catches sight of the train, Buster performs a beautiful full-body double-take, then does what any sensible person would do so close to death: presses his hands to his head and cowers. Seconds later, after racing past a car as well, he tentatively peeks up like a turtle from its shell. No title card, nor any need for one—just a disbelieving face that says “How am I still alive?”

How indeed? It’s all perfectly timed, leaving us to marvel at his split-second survival. (To spoil the illusion somewhat, TCM’s John H. Miller says “repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.”) Even though Keaton himself was a peerless, fearless acrobat, the onscreen Buster is just like you or me. He’s hopelessly inept, a victim of circumstance, and whenever things go right it’s because of pure dumb luck. Like the rest of us, he’s just the oblivious X in a vast, complex equation. Maybe part of the reason I love Sherlock Jr. (and The General, and Our Hospitality, etc.) so much is the profound optimism implicit in Buster’s everyman quality. Because hey, if he can make it out alive, who’s to say I can’t too?

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Heartbroken

I’m not dying; who said anything about dying? I want outta the marriage! I want outta the goddamn marriage.

The break-up in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) is one of the most agonizing, mortifying scenes in American film history. This is comedy as torture, torture as comedy, about as funny as a tightening thumbscrew. And it’s set in a tacky Miami Beach seafood joint with only half a slice left of its famous pecan pie. The worst place to announce the impending dissolution of your days-old marriage. The vicarious pain and nausea intensify with every new detail: the honeymooning bride starts to sob, choke, and hyperventilate as her husband’s news sinks in; he tries to smooth things over, to keep her from causing a scene. Then, of course, the waiter brings over that half-slice of pie.

Charles Grodin plays Lenny, the husband, and it’s what I’d call a “brave performance” because the character is so goddamn unlikeable. He’s a schmuck, a middle-class salesman from New York who marries a nice Jewish girl, then starts pondering a divorce before they even get to Florida. Lenny’s defined by a handful of negative traits: he’s callous, insincere, and most of all audacious. He’s a pathological liar, really, inventing all these bullshit stories so he can court glamorous shikse Cybill Shepherd while his wife Lila recovers from a nasty sunburn. And Grodin sells the character, too, with his plastered-on smiles (always pretending everything’s fine), his faux-empathy, and his faux-indignation. He’s an everyman, and a sociopath.

Hell, is there even a difference between the two? Part of what makes Lenny so terrifying and difficult to watch is that he’s normal through and through. He has platitudes and justifications to back up his every selfish act. Faced with his prospective father-in-law, a stone-faced Minnesotan businessman, he describes his current marriage a “big mistake… Radio City Music Hall big,” but nevertheless “the decent thing to do.” He wears “decency” like a suit of armor, and it’s impossible to tell if a real Lenny even exists beneath the lies, the mind games, and the raw determination. (He proudly identifies himself as “probably the most determined young man you have ever seen.”)

The sickest twist of this acrid comedy is that Lenny gets what he wants. He’s an unstoppable force, immovable objects be damned; he’s going to fulfill his American dream, his masculine prerogative, even if Lila has to suffer for it. Lila’s only crime? Not being Cybill Shepherd. Being the “nice Jewish girl.” She isn’t dumb, or unattractive, or unpleasant. A little gullible, maybe, but how is she supposed to guess that her entire honeymoon has been an elaborate ruse? So she suffers. She suffers through that protracted break-up, misunderstanding Lenny’s cues before being blindsided by his desire to get “outta the goddamn marriage.”

The metatextual irony here is that Lila’s played by Jeannie Berlin, the daughter of The Heartbreak Kid’s director, Elaine May. Casting one’s daughter isn’t too unheard of—just ask Dario Argento or Francis Ford Coppola—but this is an especially degrading part, and Berlin spends much of the film flecked with lotion or egg salad, playing her own humiliation for muted comedy. Watching her, I’m both upset and awed: What kind of mother would subject her daughter to this kind of onscreen torment? On the other hand, what kind of mother wouldn’t help her daughter receive this rich of a professional opportunity? (Sure enough, Berlin received her only Oscar nomination to date for the performance.)

And as audiences are rediscovering now, courtesy of her role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, Berlin is extraordinary. Here, she’s essential to her mother’s comedy of cruelty, exuding the naïveté (“I never thought that I’d get to Florida!” she gushes) that makes her so susceptible to Lenny—and to the kind of toxic male egos that populate the rest of May’s scant filmography. Men with tunnel vision; men incapable of resolving moral dilemmas. Men who initiate the circuitous verbal tangos that May stages for maximum pain and nervous laughter. Breaking up is hard to do, unless you’re as psychotically audacious as Lenny. Then it’s as easy as pecan pie.

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Cooling Down

Maybe if I took the little fan, put it in the icebox, left the icebox door open, then left the bedroom door open, and soaked the sheets and pillowcase in ice water… no, that’s too icky!

Since America’s presently in the midst of a July heat wave, now seems as good a time as any to write about The Seven Year Itch (1955), Billy Wilder’s feature-length paean to air conditioning in the summer. Adapted from George Axelrod’s play of the same title, the film doesn’t hide its theatrical origins: most of it takes place in a single set, the Manhattan apartment of its seven-years-married protagonist Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). There, he monologues and fantasizes about infidelity, turning his abode into a psychic echo chamber—and turning The Seven Year Itch into the comic, gender-flipped cousin of Repulsion.

Fundamentally, this is a film about paranoid masculinity, about men who are only capable of viewing women as wives or sex objects. To the audience, “The Girl” played by Marilyn Monroe is a real, complex person, and indeed Monroe plays her as more than just a ditzy blonde. She’s new to New York and happy to have a friend in her building; a little naïve, but driven by innate sweetness and thrilled by an impromptu performance of “Chopsticks.” To her, Richard is a chance to combat both loneliness and, via his AC, the summer heat.

To the solipsistic Richard, however, The Girl only exists insofar as she plays into his fantasies, all derived from pop culture and peer pressure. His visions are alternately self-aggrandizing and self-loathing: first he’s an amorous, Rachmaninoff-loving nobleman and Monroe’s his Obscure Object of Desire; later, he’s the sex-crazed “Mad Lover of Liepzig” and Monroe’s a proto-feminist bitch out to ruin his marriage and reputation. This is Wilder at his most Tashlinesque, inflating gendered behavior until it’s cartoonish and extreme. Hilarious, too: Ewell’s body is the ideal vehicle for Richard’s neuroses, which manifest themselves in dances, tics, pratfalls, and grotesque visual gags.

The Manhattan that surrounds Richard is no less broad and garish: his male acquaintances include his boss at the publishing house—a bellowing summertime hedonist—and the janitor Mr. Kruhulik, a bawdy, intrusive blue-collar caricature. (Robert Strauss, who plays Kruhulik, should’ve gotten an Oscar for his insinuating delivery of “big, fat poodle” alone.) Although Monroe is so often described as an exaggeration herself, as this ne plus ultra of femininity, she actually gives the film’s subtlest performance; her “playing dumb” looks especially restrained and unaffected next to all these histrionic men.

This is part of why I love the short monologue cited above: while Richard’s in the kitchen fixing drinks and holding a one-sided conversation about civilization and its discontents, she isn’t being a sexpot—she’s just curled up in a chair, pondering the best way to sleep comfortably. She’s oblivious, yes, but also guileless, unaware of the obsession that drives this “family man” to try and fuck a younger woman. The Seven Year Itch is very much a movie of the ’50s, about a postwar era when prosperity and hypocrisy went hand in hand. With a satirical slant, it navigates a culture of quick fixes and consumerist highs, of advertising, pop psychoanalysis, and health food.

And, of course, pathological self-absorption. Richard’s lost his up his own ass, whipping up rationalizations and projections to claim that he’s a good guy, that she’s seducing him, that his wife is probably off cheating, too. For all the film’s jokey, pastel lightness, it’s surprisingly dark at heart: no matter how much he deludes himself, Richard is still a pathetic, manipulative scumbag, a regular “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” And he’s the film’s idea of a typical American husband and father. Maybe The Seven Year Itch is closer to Wilder’s acidic black comedies than we realize. It’s silly and farcical, yeah, but you can distill its impression of the American family down to one line uttered by Richard’s boss: “On the surface, clear-eyed and healthy… but underneath, dry rot.”

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