Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Last Batch of Reviews for ILV 2009

(500) Days of Summer (Dir. Marc Webb, 2009)

My crush on Zooey Deschanel & my admiration for Joseph Gordon-Levitt aside, director Webb’s maiden mishap (500) Days of Summer is a nearly insufferable emo fable. If you have any qualms about a generation that blindly covets another generation’s touchstones (The GraduateThe SmithsJoy Division, Salinger, early Springsteen, Nancy Sinatra…) you’ll undoubtedly start groaning about five minutes into this film & won’t stop until you convince your date you’ve succumbed to food poisoning. Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hanson, a generic sadsack greeting-card scribe whose personality is summed up by his Joy Division Unknown Pleasures T-shirt (one for when he’s a young boy, one for when he’s a lonely twenty-something) & his love of The Smiths. Oh, and he’s also an architect, but for some vague reason doesn’t design buildings. Maybe he accidentally killed another architect in the ring, hard to say.

Of course, Hanson cannot fucking believe it when he meets new company employee Summer Finn (and that’s not even the first groan of the film), who also likes The Smiths AND Springsteen AND Nancy Sinatra and – get this – “other bizarro crap.” They bond over the TV show Knight Rider, Magritte (she has a fedora with an apple atop it on her coffee table), Belle & Sebastian, Goethe & some other stuff they read about in a Wes Anderson interview. He falls for her hard & for good reason, she’s Zooey Deschanel & she has insane pale blue eyes which are irresistible to boys like this. She likes him & for good reason, he’s a nice, boring guy whose soul she can devour without breaking a sweat. Because he’s so in need of being slapped into something resembling consciousness by his friends & family (including the requisite precociously wise little sister), we don’t feel particularly sorry for him.

An hour of celluloid is spent in thrall to details like Summer’s heart-shaped birthmark & the way her hair blows to the breeze from classic Kinks songs. There is some undeniable chemistry between the two actors, but it’s not enough to make you pull for them. The fact that Summer can’t read Tom’s dishonesty when he says he can handle a casual relationship with her, makes her a dangerous commodity & it’s difficult to see her point of view as she willfully ignores the bared heart on the young man’s sleeve.  A dead person could see he’s in love, but somehow she misses it.  When Summer tells Tom she doesn’t believe in love, he counters, “It’s love, it’s not Santa Claus,” and it would be a valuable point if believing in a romantic love this blatantly tenuous weren’t sadly akin to believing in St. Nick.  If you have a view beyond your own reflection, (500) Days of Summer is bound to be more of a chore than it’s worth.

Fringe Benefits: Of course, the soundtrack – Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” aside – is pretty good. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Up in the AirJuno) deserves major kudos for creating a predominately cloudy, very New York-ish Los Angeles, concentrating on the city’s oldest buildings & parks & filming in weather that’s always on the verge of inclement. There’s also a movie marquee advertising the film Vagiant – “Part Vampire, Part Giant”.

9 (Dir. Shane Acker, 2009)

As the world is ending, a scientist who’s inadvertently invented the instrument for total destruction uses old school alchemy to create a rag-tag band of sock-golems to combat a giant Johnny Quest-inspired insectoid robot. Produced by Tim Burton, Acker’s 9 is far too indebted to much better films to give it much resonance. Burton’s stylistic obeisance to German Expressionism is on display, the whole Machine Domination thing is ripped from the Terminator franchise, the Judaic golem myth is liberally pillaged, the doll parts & sutures smack of Brothers Quay, the faux-Nazi iconography seems lifted from Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, and -- as mentioned -- the robot creature is straight out of Johnny Quest. One of the little potato sack dolls even splatters portraits of fallen comrades in the style of Ralph Steadman. While all this borrowed ambience does make 9 a watchable diversion, it sure doesn’t make it stand out in a market currently agog with innovations in animation.

Fringe Benefits: An old phonograph powered by dancing sock-golems creaks out some old 78s, including Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow”. Not particularly original, but the giant old album covers are pretty cool.

All About Steve (Dir. Phil Traill, 2009)

Sandra Bullock, sporting Juliette Lewis’ hair like a yeti scalp, plays Mary Magdalene Horowitz, the Jewish-Catholic cruciverbalist (hey, I’m not your mother, look it up!) for a Sacramento newspaper that’s apparently never heard of crossword puzzle syndication. Horowitz is all geek, all the time, from her shiny red vinyl boots to her overstuffed noggin & when her parents (Howard Hesseman & the ubiquitous Beth Grant) set her up on a blind date with the titular Steve (The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper), a studly cable news correspondent, she immediately begins to drool (I wish I were kidding) & offers the poor frightened sod all Mary Magdalene Horowitz has to offer. The next day’s crossword puzzle is, um, all about Steve & apparently makes it to print without a single other person having looked it over. The rest of the movie is just this sad, desperate woman stalking Steve & his crew (Thomas Haden Church & Hangover’s Ken Jeong) across the country from one media mini-circus to the next. Gradually, Mary develops a cult following of  Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” & the movie unwisely aims for social satire, think Billy Wilder’s classic media critique Ace in the Hole, as performed by the cast of Hee-Haw. This miserably unfunny comedy is as desperate & cloying as Mary is. In the end, All About Steve doesn’t even have the good sense to happily resolve the love story, as if that would somehow compromise the movie’s spork-dull message. In a just world, a grating central performance like this would halt all Oscar talk for Bullock’s football movie, The Blind Side. Featuring DJ Qualls as Howard the apple-sculptor, the well-endowed Katy Mixon from HBO’s Eastbound & Down & about 30 different examples of how life is like a crossword puzzle.

Fringe Benefits: Well, Daily Show’s Jason Jones shows up as a rival reporter. How’s that?

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Dir. Peter Hyams, 2009)

Considered lackluster Fritz Lang when it was originally released in 1956, noted hack Peter Hyams’ (Capricorn OneRunning ScaredTimecop) remake of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is damn near as much hooey as one can fit on a screen without expanding to Cinerama. What may have worked marginally for a low-budget high-stylist like Lang is just a dizzy, unintentionally hilarious Law & Order episode in Hyams’ fumbling grip. Jesse Metcalfe (Desperate HousewivesJohn Tucker Must Die) plays C.J. Nicholas, an ambitious TV crime reporter who suspects slick, indomitable District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas, sleepwalking) may be bolstering shaky cases with fraudulent DNA evidence. To prove it, he decides to frame himself for murder, which sure beats nosing around for evidence like less imaginative investigative journalists. But like feigning insanity to uncover corruption in a mental hospital, this sort of thing has age-old cinematic risks. In fact, what C.J. is attempting would only work in a city with 12 people in it, where matrices of coincidence don’t appear downright supernatural. Like a snail inching up a garden wall, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt slogs along to its obvious, albeit ludicrous, conclusion without generating CSI: Des Moines-level tension. Attempts at snappy Ben Hecht-style dialogue do nothing to bristle the infuriatingly tame proceedings. Amber Tamblyn, as the Assistant D.A. who also happens to be C.J.’s girlfriend, nobly tries to save her scenes with a thankless professionalism, but the script, the director & her co-stars conspire wickedly against her. She does get a howler of a last line though & we can only hope it was addressed to the entire cast & crew: “Fuck you.”

Fringe Benefits: Amber Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn’s nude body double & easily the most boring time-condensing montage ever committed to celluloid.

District 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

Easily one of the best films in a pretty shoddy year, Peter Jackson-acolyte Blomkamp’s District 9 proves you can make a galvanizing, action-packed alien invasion movie whose appeal isn’t restricted to the pointy-eared set. It certainly helps that, but for the alien element, District 9 incisively mines the world’s current woes for its satiric kidney punches. Once aliens have parked their ominous spaceship over Johannesburg(yeah, the irony seems a little heavy at first), they run out of alien oomph & are packed into the refugee camp District 9. The aliens (called “prawns” for obvious, but inaccurate, reasons) are quickly disarmed, though their very sophisticated & quite deadly weapons are integrated to their particular biology & cannot be used by humans, a fact that drives the world’s military into a barbaric research frenzy, of course.

When the District 9 tent & corrugated metal Hooverville becomes a hotbed of illegal activity & an eyesore, Africaaner poster-boy for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, Wikus Van De Merwe, is sent in, ostensibly to roust the alien population & divert them to an – ahem -- less central location. As Wikus, Sharlto Copley turns in an exhaustive performance that ingeniously splits the difference between Steve Carell’s Michael Scott from TV’s The Office & Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead series. That, in the end, this oblivious bureaucrat succeeds as an action hero of sorts, is testament to Copley’s range. During the alien relocation, Wikus is exposed to some prawn fuel & immediately begins vomiting black bile, loses his fingernails & teeth, starts molting & eventually sprouts an alien arm, which allows him to operate the prawn arsenal. Suddenly he’s “the most valuable business artifact on earth” & must choose between being harvested for further military experiments or falling in with his new alien brethren.

Like a slightly less cynical Paul Verhoeven, Blomkamp has a way of seamlessly integrating social satire & violent genre tropes, so the eggheads can half-grin at the sly commentary & the popcorn gobblers can thrill to blistering New Iron-Age shoot-outs & the free-flowing visceral guck. Those of us who wisely hold court in both camps can integrate the two like the aliens & their big, smart guns & thrill to all the bravura filmmaking on display.

About the only shortcoming in District 9 lies in the film’s erratic structure. It begins in the overused fake documentary mode & when that can no longer accommodate the mayhem, it switches awkwardly to straight narrative. The change in POV is jarring at first, but then the careening momentum of the film’s latter half runs roughshod over such meager formal considerations. Highly recommended!

Angels & Demons(Dir. Ron Howard, 2009) 

After having to contain himself somewhat for 2006’sThe Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard is finally able to have fun with Dan Brown’s potboiler Vatican porn. It must have been difficult to keep a straight face coddling an audience of nut-jobs to whom the Da Vinci/Holy Grail/Not-So-Virgin Mary conspiracy was a sort of Bizarro World gospel. And by giving into the pulp elements whole-heartedly, Howard’s made a movie that is far superior to the first installment. In fact, after seeing this, I could almost see myself becoming a fan of a Dr. Robert Langdon franchise.  

Here our favorite Harvard Professor of Symbology (once again Tom Hanks, sans novelty hair this time around) & a beautiful physicist (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) take on what’s left, or what seems to be left, of the fabled Illuminati, who’ve been accused of secretly running this madhouse of a world for the last 230 or so years. After the death of a quite popular progressive pope, this order of intellectuals within the church kidnaps four cardinals & an unstable anti-matter canister that could blow up most of Rome. They’ll kill one cardinal an hour until midnight & then set off the anti-matter bomb/“God Particle” (the canister is disastrously low on batteries…that’s right, batteries). All this ostensibly to settle an age-old grudge. 

Of course – and I’m not really giving much away here – most of the arcane conspiracy here is just misdirection. There are so many false endings here though that this is hardly a spoiler. In fact, as the many endings start to pile up, Howard gets a little caught up in playing giggly little games based on the past acting careers of his cast. You’ve got your Stellan Skarsgard as Commander of the Vatican police, your Ewan McGregor as the fresh-faced counsel to the deceased Pope & the bitter mug of Armin Mueller-Stahl as the cardinal who protests a little too much about becoming the next Holy Father. In the end, Howard makes the whole affair a little too much like figuring out whodunit in an episode of Columbo, toying with how these actors have been typecast in their prior roles instead of coming up with coherent surprises.  

Angels & Demons is gorgeous to look at. Even the high-tech elements seem bronzed & burnished like fine Renaissance art pieces, of which the film also features plenty. There’s enough Bernini & Raphael trivia here to make for a dynamite undergraduate Art History pop quiz. There’s also no end of kick-ass Vatican trivia shoe-horned gracelessly into the dialogue & theology howlers like Langdon having to explain heliocentricity to a room full of puzzled faces. The movie’s fascinations & obsessions, superficially researched as they are, provide a tongue-in-cheek treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of the Catholic Church & its attendant relics, ossuaries, catacombs & elaborate rituals.
Action-wise, A & D gives us an eyeball yanked out by its root, a spectacular, fiery shoot-out in the Santa Maria della Vittoria chapel, a grisly bit of business concerning artificial respiration & a punctured lung, casual cardinal brandings, bodies eaten by rats & some very tense moments in the oxygen-depleted Vatican archives. But worst of all is Hanks ripping a page from a 500-year-old text by Galileo. Hide your eyes for that one.  

Since no one is bothering to churn out quality Nunsploitation flicks anymore (Where are theStory of a Cloistered Nun, Flavia, The Heretic & Behind Convent Walls of today?), this virulently anti-Catholic fetish film will have to do & it’s not half-bad as an entry into that hallowed genre.  

Dog Eat Dog(Perro Come Perro) (Dir. Carlos Moreno, 2008) 

A modern crime classic & easily the best crime film I’ve seen in a decade, Dog Eat Dog is a tightly-wound little bulldog of a movie with no epic pretensions whatsoever, just seamless, airtight tension from beginning to end. All that & it still manages to generate the same weird hoodoo ambience as Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia! Columbian director Moreno even pulls off some horror film touches without detracting from the bristling crime story.  

The story is lean & taut as a pack of graveyard dogs. After mob boss El Orejon (Blas Jaramillo) loses a bundle of money in a foiled drug deal, underling Vincent (Marlon Moreno) absconds with the money when the interrogation of the first thief ends in premature death. He still pretends to be looking for the lost money though & heads north to roust the dead thief’s twin brother. Once in Cali (Columbia), Vincent is partnered with Benitez, who’s been cursed by a witch for the sewer-drowning of another thug & Sierra, an effective psychopath who wields his wide, goofy grin like a machete. Benitez is slowly going mad & Sierra suspects Vincent is the real culprit in all this & simply bides his time awaiting the inevitable collapse of the intense little fellow’s lies. When these three are side-by-side in a pick-up truck, it’s the best cab full of frayed nerves since Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer & Vondie Curtis-Hall crossed drunkenly crossed Memphis in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train 

Filmed in the same lurid, saturated, sun-baked & blood-soaked colors of the photographs in the Latin American crime tabloids Vincent reads compulsively, Dog Eat Dog practically sweats off the screen at times. Real faces, locations & ambient street noises serve as unrelenting momentum for the simple tale & the eccentric central performances are reminiscent of the great weirdo performances in small American crime films of the early 1970s (Charley VarrickThe Laughing PolicemanStraight TimeCisco Pike, etc.). Very highly recommended!  

Hooking Up (Dir. Vincent Scordia, 2008)

Ever wanted to seePorky’s as directed by Larry Clark, or an After School Special directed by Todd Solondz? Well, here ya go. Scordia’s very strange movie begins as a raunchy teen sex comedy, the kind they made in the late-70s & early-80s before AIDS & Christian zealotry screwed up our cinematic sex drive & then proceeds into an amoral wasteland of ill-advised sexual encounters, craven sexual cruelty, sexual abuse & date rape. But as the movie gets darker & darker, the viewer is stuck with inept filmmaking, clunker fuck jokes, hopeless acting, enough simulated oral sex to fill up wee-hour Cinemax for a month & a grating heavy metal score. There may be some kind of genius afoot here, actually. In making no concessions whatsoever to serious movie-making & perfectly mimicking exploitation fare, Scordia manages to concoct a pretty evil little satire about teen sex in the age of social networking, rampant misinformation, casual hook-ups & rapidly mutating communicable diseases. Problem is, you’ll have to go way further into this movie than you want to in order to get to the point where you see the director’s insidious game plan. In the meantime you’ll definitely struggle with a movie where Corey Feldman -- playing a 25-year-old (!?) coke-head scumbag who forces his high school girlfriend to strip for his buddies, is the best actor -- where a trio of boys discuss bukkake, seagulling & rainbow parties at the tops of their lungs in the school library & where girls betray their best friends in order to give some guy they barely know five minutes of oral pleasure. You’d be completely forgiven for turning this thing off at the half-hour mark, because Scordia does not telegraph his punches. And I’m not saying that you’ll feel much better about yourself if you make it to the end credits, because this is presented as a sex romp – though a very cruel one -- until the very end, when a poor young girl in an I Heart My Boyfriend T-shirt stumbles crying down the street while her hearted boyfriend (Feldman) has his way with her best friend. Roll credits: There’s a hair-metal rave-up with little comic vignettes interspersed & no indication whatsoever that Hooking Up wasn’t intended to be a half-cocked attempt at retro-raunch. It’s a queasy balancing act & there were times I felt the Christian right may have had a hand in making it – maybe it was the Bush for President posters that pop up a little too often. But then again, maybe Scordia is Bush bashing. It’s hard to tell in a movie that simply refuses to show you what it’s up to. Also starring Bronson Pinchot (Beverly Hills Cop, TV’s Perfect Strangers) as a chemis-TRY teacher, Brian O’Halloran from both Clerksmovies as the high school principal & a bevy of nubiles who only undress when something vile is happening, so you might not want to rent this solely for the purpose of taking advantage of yourself.  

Julie & Julia (Dir. Nora Ephron, 2009) 

About 20 minutes into Julie & Julia, the new Nora Ephron joint, one character snaps, “We’re not talking about men! Who’s talking about men?!?” & at that point most men might be forgiven for going out to the garage to sort the socket wrenches & drink some Old Milwaukee tall boys. Ephron (HeartburnSleepless in SeattleYou’ve Got Mail) has been pretty unapologetic about writing books, screenplays & directing movies aimed squarely at the fairer sex, so there’s no excuse for wandering into this movie expecting the appearance of even one rocket launcher. Thankfully, Julie & Julia – unlike some other woman-centric productions (Bride Wars seriously needed a bazooka) – doesn’t require heavy artillery to hold your attention. Unless you consider Meryl Streep heavy artillery, in which case you’re in business.  

Streep plays Julia Child, the indomitable giantess who brought French cooking to the kitchens of American suburbia during the early 1960s with her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking & her television program The French Chef. By now no movie fan needs to be told that Streep’s forte, despite her years sternly courting critical acclaim in such prestige pictures asKramer Vs. Kramer & Sophie’s Choice, is comedy & while it’s hard to brand a bio-pic as “a comedy,” her performance here is essentially comedic. While Julia Child’s story should have been enough for two movie bios (her stint working in intelligence during WWII & her pioneering television program are given tantalizingly little screen time), Ephron creates a seamless, fluffy helix out of her story & the story of moribund New York writer Julie Powell (the usual charm from Amy Adams) who, in the year before her 30th birthday (apparently the biblical end of days in women’s films), begins a blog in which she cooks her way through that famous Julia Child cookbook, one recipe a day.  

Refreshingly, the men in both their lives (the great Stanley Tucci for Child; the less-great Chris Messina for Julie) are supportive to the point of saintliness. In fact, there’s no male villainy at work here at all, which -- depending on how you’re presently treating your significant other -- will either make Julie & Julia more watchable for you, or intolerable. Which brings us to the major problem with the movie -- its utter lack of dramatic tension & conflict. The momentum here is all performance-driven. If lesser actresses were on display in this Macy’s window of a movie, most viewers would walk on by. Not that there aren’t glitches in both the women’s lives, but they never seem particularly consequential. Both women are so malleable & capable of shrugging off life’s little miseries, their happiness never really seems at stake. Near the end of the movie, which seems a rushed hodgepodge compared to the leisurely comfort food of the first 90 minutes, Ephron seems to realize that there’s no way to resolve a story if it’s never been unresolved in the first place, so she quickly forces a fight between Julie and her husband. It doesn’t even seem like much of a fight really, but he actually leaves her for a spell (though it’s hard to tell if it’s been one night or a month). We’re supposed to believe that Julie is at fault here, that she’s been a royal bitch (her & her friends’ word, not mine), but nothing in the film supports that, so her husband just comes off like a petulant jack-ass. 

His leaving her seems utterly false & unconvincing & instead of adding the requisite conflict toJulie & Julia, it just serves to point out how much of these women’s lives didn’t make it to the screen. Despite all of Streep’s entertaining crowing & nervous flouncing & all of Adams’ cutesy mid-life insecurities, these characters are nearly as thin as the onion skin paper on which Childs typed her famous tome. In addition, this isn’t nearly the food fetish movie one would think it might be. Compared to, say, Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) or Big Night (Campbell Scott/Stanley Tucci, 1996), Julie & Julia is just a generous snack. In most cases the martinis & wine bottles draw more attention than the boeuf bourguignon. This makes Streep pretty much the whole show, though there are a few pleasant diversions along the way -- the great Jane Lynch (TV’s GleeThe 40 Year Old Virgin) as Julia’s equally tall sister, the voice of Mary Kay Place as Julie’s passive-aggressive mother, Frances Sternhagen’s hilarious turn as Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer, Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” played during Julie’s first lobster genocide & best of all, Julie & her husband watching Dan Akroyd play Julia Child on the now-famous “Save the livers!” sketch from Saturday Night Live. 

The Hangover (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2009)

Though Phillips’ (Old School,Starsky & Hutch)take-no-prisoners, breakneck bro-medy loses a lot of its ambitiouslyepic oomph on the smaller screen, there are still enough jokessomersaulting over one another to make this a raunchy comedy must-see.Lensed like a mescaline fever dream by comedy mainstay Lawrence Sher, The Hangoverleaps off the starting blocks more like a Peckinpah film than apost-Apatow bong warmer, giving what is, after all, a pretty standardmen-at-the-brink farce, a weird air of lasting importance.

Slick,but habitually dissatisfied Phil (Bradley Cooper), romanticallybrow-beaten Stu (Daily Show vet Ed Helms) & batshit crazy Alan(batshit crazy Zach Galifianakis) set out to give their buddy Doug thebachelor party to end all bachelor parties in Las Vegas. Though wenever actually see their big night, the boys awaken the next morning toa nearly razed hotel suite. Stu’s missing a tooth, Phil’s wearing ahospital bracelet, frightened chickens scrabble about for food, anabandoned baby cries from a closet, a Siberian tiger holds the toilethostage & the groom-to-be is nowhere to be found. The frenetic bodyof the movie concerns this bedraggled trio piecing the night togetherone absurd bit at a time, abetted by some surprisingly dazzling camerawork, exhilarating broad-canvas action sequences, a score full of malemutton music that somehow manages to kidney punch you into liking it(though The Cramps’ version of “Fever” gets an inspired slot) & afreakish menagerie of cameos by Heather Graham, Ken Jeong (TV’sCommunityPineapple Express), Rob Riggle (Daily ShowStep Brothers), Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested DevelopmentPollock) and – a jaw-dropper – Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins.

Although I didn’t feel quite as strongly about The Hangover watching the DVDas I did when I saw it on the big screen, it still escalates into giddyinsanity enough that I couldn’t resist its onslaught for long. Plus,the extras are worth the price of admission, as you might expect from acast like this

The Skeptic (Dir. Tennyson Bardwell, 2009)

Man,Bryan Becket (an underwhelming Tim Daly) is such a skeptic! He doesn’tbelieve in the Loch Ness Monster, Crop Circles, Roswell Aliens or theHoly Trinity, but when his aunt dies & he stands to inherit hersprawling mansion, old family secrets begin to manifest themselves inthe form of creepy dolls, discarded toddler socks, creaky doors & afull-body apparition that looks a lot like his mother. Here’s anold-fashioned, mercifully CGI-free,nearly bloodless psychological horror movie, if that sounds likesomething that might distract your kids from demanding to rentSaw IVThe Skeptic gains a few points for not becoming the Scooby-DooGaslightdowner it toys with becoming now & again, but loses a few for neverbecoming much of a horror flick either, though it’s almost worthwatching to hear Daly’s astonishingly awful girl-scream. Also featuresthe usually reliable bad-movie wingman Tom Arnold, Edward Herrmann(here wisely disguised as “Ed” Herrmann), Robert Prosky as a not-so-skeptical priest & new IT girl, Zoe Saldana (Avatar), as a flaky trust-fund psychic.

World’s Greatest Dad (Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)

Goldthwait,the comedy equivalent of Bram Stoker’s Renfield, has – over the courseof 20 years -- been quietly digging a little warren for himself as askewed auteur. He’s only directed three films, but all three share amanic, peculiar vision. The first, Shakes the Clown(1991) has developed a considerable cult following among the kind ofpeople who long ago stopped debating the merits of a half-full glass.The second, Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), is certainly the most warm-hearted comedy ever made about bestiality. And the third, World’s Greatest Dad, continues his streak of none-more-black comedies with hearts made of, well, very attractive pewter.

RobinWilliams is nearly tolerable as Lance Clayton, a would-be sciencefiction writer who pays the bills by teaching poetry to a handful ofstudents at a lackluster private school. It’s a variation on his World According to Garprole, but he actually undersells the part. If you’re anything like meyou’ll definitely hold your breath waiting for Williams to becomeinsufferable & gradually loosen your death-grip on the arms of theEZ-Chair at about the half-hour mark. Clayton is a human footstool,afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings & far too timid to make hisauthorial voice count for much. Discarded novels with titles such as Door-To-Door Android & Invisible Dog’s Teethlitter his small apartment, which he shares with his fairly detestableson, Kyle (Daryl Sabara, in a break-out performance virtually no onewill see). Kyle masturbates almost non-stop & is slowly graduatingto the type of jerking off that leaves scars. Kyle thinks anythingwhich distracts from utter carnality is “queer” – movies are queer,music is queer (“The only thing queerer than music is the people wholike it,” Kyle says. “And heavy metal is the faggiest of all the fagmusic out there.”) & meaningful interaction with humanity isunthinkably queer. Adding insult to trauma, Clayton’s girlfriend Claire(Surfer, Dude’sAlexie Gilmore) is a bright-eyed snake-in-the-grass with an effortlessTV Weather Girl smile, who is obviously cheating on him withteacher-stud Mike (NYPD Blue’s Henry Simmons).

But,while jacking off to upskirt cell-phone photos of Claire, Kyleaccidentally strangles himself. In a montage so tender & fucked upit’s not likely we’ll see its equal in our lifetime, Lance unbucklesthe belt around his son’s throat, deletes the pornography on hiscomputer, cleans up the mess, writes Kyle a suicide note & makes itlook as though the boy hung himself. Because no good deed goesunpunished, this selfless fatherly act begins to create unforeseendividends in Lance’s life. The school now worships Kyle (“our angel incargo pants”), his suicide note is declared literature & everyonewants MORE from this boy whose existential depths were sowell-concealed in life. Lance, of course, gives in to his writerly ego& creates an entire body of work for his dead son, digging himselfdeeper & deeper into a series of cringe-worthy deceptions.

  The problem with World’s Greatest Dad is that, once the posthumous redemption of Kyle begins to escalate, Goldthwait’s movie starts to feel like a dozen other high school-centered black comedies, most of all Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. There are still some laughs & their attendant WTF’s to be had, but it feels a tad stale. The movie isn’t ruined exactly, but it’s hardly the revelation it promises to be at the outset & it’s somewhat disheartening to think that an oddball like Bobcat didn’t see that coming.  
To make up for its shortcomings, we get cameos from Bruce Hornsby, Krist Novoselic (together at last), Toby Huss (voice of Kahn on King of the Hill), Tom Kenny (the voice of a million cartoons & Mr. Show regular) & Bobcat himself as a chauffeur. Oh, and at one point Lance takes in an afternoon double feature of Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday & Tod Browning’s Freaks, two films that serve as a pretty accurate set of parameters for Goldthwait’s reach, if not his immediate grasp. Recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. "If you have any qualms about a generation that blindly covets another generation’s touchstones (The Graduate, The Smiths, Joy Division, Salinger, early Springsteen, Nancy Sinatra…) you’ll undoubtedly start groaning about five minutes into this film..."

    The 32 years between the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and the release of the first single by The Smiths is quite a span of time for a single generation (presumably Generation Jones?) to lay claim to, but I understand what you're getting at w/r/t the film.