Monday, August 30, 2010

The Kids Are All Right: Same-Sex Family Drama

The problem with most gay and lesbian themed movies is generally that this is an underserved genre: small budgets, novice actors, and undeveloped scripts focused on immature characters give most of these films the feeling of high-school drama, and even if they have a certain kind of appeal for their audience, they feel largely uninspired as film form.

The Kids Are All Right, the new movie about a same-sex couple and their two teenage kids, strives valiantly to rise above the limitations of its genre. With a fine ear for family dialogue and a stellar cast at the helm (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the couple, and Mark Ruffalo as the male interloper who is the unwanted sperm donor for the two kids), the movie feels like something more: like a keenly felt exploration of adult, family dynamics, no matter what the orientation of the parents.

Yet it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s writer / director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon / "The L World") who’s creating the fine moments in the film, or the actors. The story wants to go in a direction that feels constrained and false, suggesting that Ruffalo (who plays Paul in the film, a restaurateur and motorcycle-driving Zen-spouting Californian) really is an interloper and half-loser who would rather take over this family than start his own. Or that Bening’s Nic is inattentive and domineering and Moore’s Jules is aimless and polymorphous, leading them to a family argument that is a culmination of the unhappiness in their relationship. Yet the actors all bring out a humor and humanity in the characters that make them more than their roles in the film; they feel like fully realized human beings, interesting if flawed people who are worthy of our time and each other’s.

At the same time, there is definitely a novice quality to the film’s direction and editing, especially in the first act. Scenes that hang a second too long or dialogue delivered with flat inflection at times gives the film a Todd Haynes’ “surfacy” tone, as if we’ve stumbled into stinted parody, when what the director is really after is a casual authenticity. I’m afraid this may confuse many in the audience into taking the characters and their desires less seriously than they deserve.

Where the movie shines is when it’s delivering its unique, quirky insights, such as when Jules tries to explain to her fifteen year old son, who’s accidentally found their hidden sex tape, why the two women enjoy watching gay male porn when having sex. She gets tumbled up trying to explain the difference between inside and outside erogeny, and the moment feels both authentic and unique, making us realize just how rare it is not only to see a female-headed household on film, but any depiction of a real adult relationship or the genuine travails of child-rearing.

Leading what they think is a normal gay, middle-class life, the happy same-sex household gets distracted from their normal issues when the children decide they want to find their sperm donor. Played with charming roguishness by Ruffalo, Paul is both an adult child and a successful entrepreneur (I love his home, with their expansive gardens ripe for planting). He immediately takes a shine to the kids, and they to him, and slowly insinuates himself into the family. Again, the way that Paul falls in love with his newly found progeny, and they with him, endears us both to the characters and their dilemma.

All of this is supremely weighty and interesting. It’s a shame, then, that the movie feels it needs to create artificial drama by instigating an affair between Jules and sperm donor Paul. It isn’t just that sex with a man is politically incorrect – though one suspects that Cholodenko is testing the audience a bit with this. It’s that the affair looms up and crushes all the gentle insights that have come before. For one, it feels false, a plot development coming from the writer than more authentically from the characters, who after raising two find children, one hopes is smarter than this. For another, the false drama of the affair crushes the types of family insights we’d gotten before, and the trajectories of the son and daughter, never mind the two women, are cut short. Instead of stock lesbian accusations that their sperm donor is an interloper, we should be seeing how the son has resolved his self-esteem issues with his violent (and possibly secretly gay) friend; how the daughter has gotten out from under her mothers’ thumbs; how the two women will navigate their relationship now that their daughter is leaving home.

We don’t get to see any of that, and it’s a bit frustrating that the movie has chosen to focus on the sperm donor “issue” instead of the genuine family dynamics. I left the movie feeling that Paul had gotten the short end of the deal. He actually seemed to make a good father, and there was no reason the movie couldn’t have found a way to integrate him into the family (as Dennis Lim has pointed out in the NY Times, as many gay families have done with a biological parent). Instead, the movie seems to go out of its way to justify excluding him, and one can’t help but feel it’s succumbed a bit to ideology over good writing.

Just like an earlier generation of gay movies, then, this one similarly feels like it has the weight of representation on its shoulders, and perhaps in attempting to deal with all the “hot button” issues that a lesbian couple raising children face, it could have benefited by allowing itself to be simply quirky and true. Just as the parents feel pressure to make sure their kids are perfect, the filmmaker seems to feel pressure to deal head-on with core issues of same-sex child-rearing. Yet out of the corners of this film peaks some unexpected characters and discovered joy. That’s where its strength as a film lies; not in its depiction of a key gay / lesbian issue, but in its depiction of a family.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim versus the World: Teenage Life as Video Game

In Scott Pilgrim versus the World, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) sets out to create the imaginative world of a countercultural teenager as seen through the pop-culture maze of video games, computers, and television sit-coms. He uses imaginative sound editing (such as the laugh-track to Good Times and various Batman-esque THWACKS and DOINGS) as well as creative animations, Fight-Club-like closed captioning, rock music, and amplification arrows to create a unique look that crosses Anime comics with various slam-cut edits all to successful result. The effect is that of having one’s head locked inside an iPod that’s being randomly tuned to various internet music stations while simultaneously trying to play Donkey Kong on a unicycle, but it largely works; that is, if you’re a teenager looking to enjoy a unique interpretation of your concerns about dating, dumping, and being dumped.

The namesake, Scott Pilgrim (played with whispiness set on ten by Michael Cera) plays base in a three-man (two man and one woman) local Toronto punk band. Where the movie is most inspired is in how deeply down into local, Toronto punk culture it wants to go, creating a world of cheap basement apartment rentals, band battles, and inside jokes that gives the movie a rare authenticity (one of the most pleasing aspects of the film is how well it avoids the feeling of mass-produced multiplex fare). Scott, improbably, plays the base, and even more improbably, the band is actually good. He does have that oh-too-common teenage movie problem, however, which is a deep insecurity with girls. Currently dating an Asian high-school student (Cera’s character is in his mid-twenties – as are most of the main characters – even though their concerns all feel a bit younger), Cera was mercilessly dumped by an ex-girlfriend who is back in town with an even more awesome band of her own, and he has yet to get over the sting, even as he courts Ramona Flowers, a new-in-town rocker-chick who is even cooler, and has set his strings afire.

Ramona, however, comes with some heavy baggage of her own: specifically, seven “evil X’s,” all of whom Pilgrim must defeat if he is to be able to continue dating her. Those defeats happen as pure video-game send-up, with each evil X vaporizing into a stash of coins at the end of each battle. The movie takes its sweat time setting all this up, but once the game is in play, it’s pretty much Mario Brothers all the way from there.

The evil X’s allow from some fun cameos, including Chris Evans as a Jean-Claude-Van-Dam-like action star with a penchant for skateboards, Brandon Routh as a white-haired rock-boy with Vegan powers, Jason Swartzman as a successful club promoter (yeah, right), and Thomas Jane posing as the Vegan Police. There’s also Kieran Culkin as Pilgrim’s gay roommate (or more accurately, post-gay roommate: the two of them share a bed, and it isn’t an unusual occurrence for Pilgrim to wake up to a few extra warm bodies under the covers). Even if the film follows a traditional win-the-girl / win-your-self-esteem trajectory, it also seems to exist in an alternative youth culture of ambi-sexuality, musical appreciation, and post-modern irony that the script takes for granted, which is secretly quite pleasing. Rather than dumb down the characters, as similar films of this genre might, this film takes youth culture as serious stuff (I think of something like Dude, Where’s My Car, which has a similar cultural tourism but not nearly the same ironic jouissance. Dude may have more laughs per minute, but Pilgrim feels like being beamed with a teenager ray for two hours). I would have loved this movie when I was twenty-two. Even more if I were in a Toronto punk band.

Which may be part of the problem with the movie. The detail is great, but the obsessions here feel very specific, much like a teenager themselves. The technique of the film also begins to grate on the nerves after about ten minutes, since everything in Pilgrim’s purview is given all the attention of an interstitial internet commercial that’s cut off just before the punch line. At twenty minutes I seriously considered walking out; perhaps my old brain simply wasn’t making connections between the noise and bombast fast enough to keep my eyes focused. By thirty minutes in, however, you start to tune out the slam-cut editing and sonic assault and start to assemble the story, though it’s quite possible that younger viewers, who have fewer references in their brain they’re trying to associate, will arrive at that saturation point sooner. There’s also Cera’s unceasing narration, which starts off pedantic but eventually rises to delightful insight once the Evil X’s come on the scene, stirring things up with delightful superpower mischief.

Once it gets going, it’s a wholly original movie, then, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to suffer the entire thing. Two hours of purely distilled teenage irony with heavy layers of techno-culture, punk music, Anime, metrosexuality, and video-game philosophy just isn’t for everyone.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Middle Men: An Internet Gangster Story (With Heart)

Strip away (no pun intended) the internet jargon, e-commerce and .dot-com millionaires, and "Middle Men" is essentially a gangster movie centering on porn, money, and cops, and mobster shakedowns, not too dissimilar from other stalwarts of the genre ranging from Get Shorty to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

The difference is that Middle Men is supposedly inspired by a true story. The other difference is that it portrays an compelling portrait of the birth of the online porn industry. Its tale of mobster interest, murder, underage porn, and middle-eastern terrorists infatuated with a 24-year-old's porn site is both plausible enough to feel authentic and exaggerated enough to deliver a satisfyingly tense storyline of an essentially good family guy who gets in too deep with fuck-ups, the FBI, and mobsters.

Luke Wilson plays Jack Harris, a Houston businessman, married with two kids, who just happens to know a slew of shady characters. Screenwriter and director George Gallo spends the first act jumping around Jack's timeline from 2004 to 1988 to the mid-nineties, establishing his business savvy and experience with various minor gangsters and know-it-alls, interspersing his story with little visual essays on the various ways in which men find to whack off, giving the movie a kind of mocumentary meets "Sopranos" feel.

But where Gallo is really going is deeply into how Jack hooks up with a pair of high-strung losers - Wayne and Buck, played with pitch perfect wackiness by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht - who have inadvertently invented the first online credit-card payment system while trying to get tittie pictures onto the internet. Wayne and Buck have involved themselves with some bad-ass Russian mobsters, and Jack has been invited in by his old friend, Jerry Haggerty (James Caan) to help extract the two from their mess. In the process, Jack has the bright idea that they shouldn't be making porn themselves; they should instead just get a 10% cut of everyone else who wants to collect an online payment. In essence, they can get even richer if they just make themselves the web porn middle-men.

That's essentially what they do, although in the process of paying off the mob, Jack gets one of the mobsters inadvertently killed. This leads to all sorts of trouble for do Wayne and Buck, who even when they become .dot-com millionaires never get their shit together.

The rest is basically the standard genre mob story, but I found it refreshingly compelling. Until now, things like online credit-card payment gateways seemed way too nerdy for something like a Giovanni Ribisi drugs and porn cut-up flick, let alone murder and lurking FBI agents, yet Gallo pulls it off, explaining it all while keeping the cut-em-up pace going.

No doubt there are some diversions here from the "true story," but as someone who has worked in the industry (internet, not porn), I can attest that these crazy connections with Russian mobsters and porn stars is not so far fetched. If anyone lived through the "dot com bubble" can remember, it was an entire zeitgeist. The business about FBI agents tracking down terrorists with porn sites may be a bit of a stretch...but it's fun, nevertheless (although Chris Mallick, the producer of the film upon whose life this story is based, claims that even the FBI stuff really happened.)

Gallo keeps the movie at a personal level, however, ultimately testing Jack's mettle in life-and-death situations. Why I think I like this movie so much is that it ultimately espouses an ethos: that a man of honor earns respect, even from the most ruthless people. And Jack ultimately learns a lesson. He's asked to give up all the money and "addiction," as he calls it, to the fast lane of sex, drugs, and wealth in exchange for a human connection. And even though he does so to essentially save his own skin, the movie suggests that that connection ultimately means more.

In a day and age when so many movies espouse an easy nihilism, this may seem like simple gangster moralism. And in fact, Jack has a discussion with Audrey Dawns, his live-in porn actress, about the difference between mere moralism and what's essentially the act of saving one's soul. Jack, and the movie, opt for the latter. It's not a complicated decision, and its certainly forced upon him by circumstance, but nice to see a movie advocating for personal meaning for a change.

That may make the movie sound more straight than it is. Trust me, it's got a full quotient of guns, ass, and drugs, so it earns a bit of family sentiment by the end. Part of the success here is Wilson, who manages to balance both boyish sincerity and real-man swagger. This may be his first real adult role, but he wears the part well, and serves as a nice foil for the crazy shenanigans of Wayne, Buck, and Haggerty.

An object lesson, then, in how a simple genre plot, a life lesson, and a bit of recent history can be combined into an original, entertaining romp. And it doesn't hurt when you've got actors like Wilson, Ribisi, Macht, and Caan to make it all zing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks: Who's the Bigger Schmuck?

Let’s start with this. What is a schmuck, exactly? It’s a Yiddish word with a dual meaning – both a dupe (as in, “what a schmuck” said the car dealer when he sold the guy a lemon) and an asshole (as in “what a schmuck” when that guy spills your soda as he crams past you at the baseball game).

Properly, the role played by Steve Carroll (as Barry) in this movie isn’t a schmuck, but a schlemiel. A schlemiel is a supremely careless guy, and a bit of a shut-in, who ruins everything he contacts. And a schlimazel is, in the old Jewish joke, “the person upon whom the schlemiel spills his soup.” That puts Paul Rudd (as Tim) in the role of the schlimazel whose life is nearly ruined by his encounter with Carroll’s schlemiel.

The set up, taken from an earlier French film (whose translation is roughly "dinner for dolts" - a more accurate description and a film which was, by the way, nominated for several awards), is this: Tim works for a wealthy hedge fund. He labors away on the entry-level 6th floor until one day, someone from the executive floor is fired, and there’s an opening for a promotion. Tim sees his chance and makes a move to pitch a German millionaire to take over his antiques business as a way of getting the firm to manage his money. The only catch is this: the executives on the 9th floor have this little ritual of “dinner for schmucks,” which is that they each find one laughable, oddball loser that they bring over for dinner at the CEO’s mansion, whereupon they have a contest to see which guest is the oddest. The one who has brought the “winner” wins the approbation of the group.

The problem with this movie is that it wants to have it both ways – it wants to both get some laughs out the oddballs, just like the executives, as well as romp in moral approbation that anyone would stoop to such a thing. The real “schmucks,” the movie wants to say, are the executives. Thus we get Tim’s disapproving girlfriend, a museum curator who herself Is a bit too involved with a pompous, hairy-chested Matthew-Barney type artist (Jemaine Clement, de-nerded from "Flight of the Concords"). Clement's Kieran gallumps through his modernist apartment with literally nothing but a fig leaf and hooves as he photographs himself in various stages of coitus with painted women, and I suppose he is meant to be a counterpart to the loser oddballs, suggesting there is a very fine line between kooks and geniuses.

If only the movie went with that. Instead, what happens is predictable sit-com. The girlfriend, carelessly drawn in by Kieran’s charisma, is also a bit of a downer (even though she’s French) who thinks this whole dinner idea is for the birds. After swearing to his girlfriend that he’d never stoop to such a low contest, Tim literally runs into Barry as he’s picking a mouse off the street for his latest mouse diorama. It’s a stroke of fate, or so Tim exclaims, and he’s just as quickly changed his mind and invited Barry to the dinner.

Then the movie veers completely off track and into some variation of Cable Guy, as Barry begins to ruin Tim’s life before they even get to the party. There are various stunts involving ex- girlfriends, tax auditors, the German millionaire, and a destroyed Porsche (the moment I first saw that nice car enter the fame I knew it was toast). All of this seems completely off track as we haven’t even had dinner and the only schmuck, it seems, was me for buying a ticket.

Things pick up once the ensemble cast of schlemiels, schlimazels, schmucks, and oddballs all assemble for dinner, but really, aside from some nice moments of fake hypnotization, not much funny happens. The script seems too concerned with both trying to entertain us with oddball behavior and turning the schmucky executives into bad-guys for wanting to be entertained by various ho-hum losers. That puts the audience in a weird place of both being the schmuck and the schlimazel (and with Carroll's schlemiel, as the picture's centerpiece, never quite achieving either endearing quirkiness or the existential threat that say, Jim Carrey does in Cable Guy), and the movie never develops a coherent message.

The real problem here is that the movie lacks the courage of its premise. What would be funny would be to go with the idea of laughing at oddballs and take it, unembarrassed, to its logical conclusion. What would that say about our current elite? Are there really, perhaps, people who are just too weird to be lovable? Either, or both, of those would be interesting social commentary ripe for mining some nice satire.

I have a feeling the original film may have gone for the jugular like that. Instead, in this washed out Americanized version, the movie wants to take the politically correct, inoffensive approach of loving everyone’s weirdness and condemning the oafish rich (Tim ends up the movie losing his job, but he’s happier for it). It’s inoffensive, all right, but it just isn’t true. And neither is it funny, very much.