Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Evening the Score

I am overjoyed to report that in a 24 hour-period I was fortunate enough to make three visits to the movie theater, matching the amount of visits in the past 6 weeks. The action started out at 9:20 on Monday night with a trip to the local New Jersey multiplex with for March of the Penguins, picked back up the next morning at 10:40 with an Angelika excursion for Broken Flowers and concluded the event with the good fortune of seeing a 6:00 advanced screening of The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Days like this don’t grow on trees.

March of the Penguins had a few nice qualities: it moves at an extremely brisk pace, is commendable for not shying away from the grimmer aspects of the journey, and most importantly, it is unquestionably a great thrill to watch penguins slowly waddle around. However, this cute and cuddly documentary ultimately didn’t feel like anything that can’t be saved for PBS, I can think of more impressive bird-related documentaries I’ve seen in theaters. It’s about on par with the uninformative but majestic Winged Migration but doesn’t compete with the accessibility and warm-heartedness of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Broken Flowers on the other hand is a very nicely presented little story that has one or two things in common with About Schmidt, most favorably, its episodic narrative that so easily emulates the feeling of reading an engrossing novel. The story is that of an aged Don Juan-type character played by Bill Murray and his cathartic odyssey of traveling to ex-girlfriends after receiving an anonymous letter saying he is the uninformed father of a 20-year-old child. The film is careful to make the distinction between casting the character as a Don Juan and not as a womanizer. He rarely says anything more than he has to and uses this to make any slight compliment or pleasantry seem all the more important. Unlike his overdone ironic detachment in the obnoxious The Life Aquatic, Murray’s performance here conveys an underlying sense of feeling obstructed by an emotionally impotent exterior. The film also benefits from some marvelous albeit brief supporting performances, particularly an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton and a positively radiant Sharon Stone. I was reminded of a play I saw at the beginning of my London stay on the West End called Some Girl(s) starring sitcom favorite David Schwimmer and written by hard-working and hard-biting playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute. Schwimmer played an indecisive man about to get married who decides to fly across America and visit four girls that he wronged in the past in hope of making amends. His oblivious insensitivity makes the spree painful for all involved and the play articulates a type of male character that can be incredibly damaging. Casting someone like David Schwimmer in this role makes the message all the more effective in that someone of his nature comes off as so completely non-threatening to men yet has the ability to be so irreparably damaging to numerous women. Broken Flowers does not cast its lead character negatively but rather observes the sustained results of years of romantic entanglements.

Continuing on the topic of the power of sexual relations but switching gears thematically, we have The 40 Year-Old Virgin, a peculiar studio film that manages to be conventional yet unconventional at the same time. The film doesn’t entirely work but there are a lot of very funny and unexpected scenes that make it worth a casual viewing. As far as gross-out comedies go, The 40 Year-Old Virgin is more interested in being There’s Something About Mary than Anchorman but it doesn’t quite succeed at reaching that level of widely accessible sex and fart jokes. Unlike Mary which had the ability to connect with audiences of different ages pretty unanimously, this is very much targeted toward the late teens-early 20’s demographic. Co-written and directed by Judd Apatow, the brains behind the brilliant television shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, the film similarly walks the tightrope between mean-spiritedness and genuine heart but doesn’t obtain the precise balance that he mastered in the television world. The first half gets bogged down with extremely vulgar material featuring throwaway ethnic and homosexual jabs and unnecessarily excessive cursing. There is one incredibly long sequence of gay jokes that never pays off thematically. While the scene is undeniably funny, the fact that it serves no purpose plot-wise initially confounded me. I later found myself appreciating the film being scattered with completely superfluous scenes as it is one of its most charming traits. While the camaraderie between the four males isn’t as effective as it was on Undeclared, we do get a sense of real-life conversations and natural dialogue that is surely an effect of a very loose and improvisation-heavy set. Another clear by-product of the ad-libbing is the plethora of obscure and pointed pop-culture references (Beautician and the Beast?) that alternate between misfires and uproariously funny because of their completely out-of-left-field nature. Then the second half arrives and we get blindsided by some genuinely touching scenes thanks principally to Steve Carrell’s surprisingly deep performance. Shedding his trilogy of newscaster-based roles entirely, he gives a meaningful and empathetic performance that skillfully elevates the character out of what could have so easily been a one-dimensional sketch character. His performance in the Planned Parenthood clinic scene is the stand out comedic set-piece, not the heavily publicized and spectacle heavy chest waxing scene.

The film borrows from There’s Something About Mary in a couple of ways, not least in its out-of-place but ultimately enjoyable conclusion, but also by filling the background with eccentric and imperfect supporting characters. Even the Paul Rudd character that starts out as the requisite amicable, hopeless romantic becomes more and more unbalanced as the film progresses. Paul Rudd is an actor who has always impressed me with his ability to easily alternate between independent and mainstream work in all sorts of various roles ranging from Clueless, The Cider House Rules, The Shape of Things, Anchorman, and even a recurring role on the final two seasons of Friends. I’ve always admired his willingness to make himself look absolutely ridiculous while being able to maintain his meek and mild-mannered characterization. My only complaint here is a bit too much Ron Burgundy seems to have rubbed off on him at times, particularly the porn delivery scene.

The way the film manages to incorporate emotion into its core without becoming too hokey is also worthy of recognition. Although there is one incredibly cheesy line toward the film’s climax that would have benefited most from the film’s established sardonic humor. We keep waiting for something biting to undercut it but instead the filmmakers simply let it hang which is disappointing at such a crucial moment as this. Still the scene is prefaced with a classic 80s rock song so I guess it can be forgiven. Unevenness and excessive politically incorrect jokes aside, Carrell’s performance and some very funny and unexpected situations constitute a viewing.

Next I’ll continue posting some film theory essays, as was prefaced with the brief dissection of a sequence from A Clockwork Orange and in spirit of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, an investigation into gross-out comedy using genre theory should be up shortly.

1 comment:

Cinema Journal said...

Man, I so badly wanted to see March of the Penguins - I have a sob story to tell of a stuffed penguin I had as a child, that when you squeezed its belly it made penguin sounds. My older brother, for some reason, thought it his duty to sit on the penguin until it died. I saved him before death, but not before it received serious injury. It never spoke the same again....

So I have a long history of penguin anxiety that needs to be worked out during this movie.

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I have heard surprisingly good things about the Jarmusch - and knowing your usual attitude toward him (stern, but kinder than mine) I am tempted to see it. I still am weary about it, however....

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As for 40 Year Old Virgin - On the purely comic level, which you approach it on, I don't think it will be my kind of humor.

-C