Sunday, May 31, 2009

Are Gross-Out Gags Invading Family Films?

This morning I went to see Up which was by all accounts a fantastic film, the highlight being the four-minute montage devoid of dialogue that perfectly visualized love in its purest form. But before the film started I was distracted by a nagging observation made about the previews that ran before the film: the large number of gross-out gags – jokes designed to make the audience recoil in disgust while simultaneously laughing.

I’ve long been fascinated by gross-out comedies and have devoted much thought to the theoretical ramifications of it as a comedic movement but until this morning I’d never considered their presence in family entertainment. Now that I think about it, booger or cooties jokes seem commonplace and in the ‘90s Nickelodeon virtually planned its entire programming around gooey substances. But I was struck by the usage and the content of the jokes I saw this morning and wonder if the gross-out gags featured in family films have escalated and become more graphic?

The three trailers in question were Imagine That, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and G-Force. All three trailers use a gross-out gag prominently as a punctuating joke. In the case of Imagine That, it’s the opening scene:

At the 0:11 mark we see a close-up shot of clumpy, spoiled milk being poured onto a bowl of cereal. The gag is created not just from the viscosity of the liquid but from the prospect that Eddie Murphy’s poor daughter might actually end up eating it. On the scale of gross-out humor this is fairly tame but it still produced an audible disgust from the sold out audience and it is significant as is chosen as the film’s introductory gag.

Next up is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs which concludes its trailer with two gross-out gags, one visual and one verbal.

The first occurs right before the title card (1:53) and involves a sap-doused nut being violently ripped from Scrat’s furry chest, resulting in a pink underbelly and a pained yelp. 40-Year-Old Virgin anyone? (To be fair, that film went further and fully solidified the gag as gross-out by showing extreme close-ups on the removed hair and the bristling gashes on Steve Carell’s chest.) The Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ trailer then concludes with Sid mistakenly milking a male ram, the error of his ways being emphasized by an amplified sound effect and close-up on the ram’s eyes (2:16). While the gross-out infraction is kept off-screen, the audio track and accompanying facial expression indicates that Sid has inappropriately manhandled the ram’s reproductive organs.

Finally, there’s G-Force which uses a gross-out gag to punctuate the trailer’s moment of maximum excitement – the hamsters soaring through the air in a protective ball – with a fart joke (2:14): (trailer not embeddable)

This was the specific gag that got me thinking about the propensity of gross-out humor in these trailers. It was the simplicity of its insertion, how unmotivated and unnecessary it was (the trailer also ends with a “poop in his hand” line of dialogue – 2:29). The film is rated PG for “Some mild action and rude humor.” Have family films always thrived on rude humor? To the point that it serves an essential function in their marketing? Or is this a more recent trend spurred by the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie?

Perhaps rude humor has always been present and I just haven’t focused on it. Surely, Beethoven contained a wealth of dog slobber jokes? I love a good gross-out joke and when they’re properly executed they can be wonderfully unifying acts, leveraging the lowest common denominator appeal into a class-defying unity of mirth. But when used improperly they’re resolutely low-brow – and the three trailers under scrutiny are certainly low-brow. For the record, Up, an exemplar of the high-brow family film, contains two minor gross-out gags involving animal saliva and the lead character’s walking implement. Neither gag features in Up’s marketing and both are executed in a simple, non-glorified manner. There’s a clear distinction between these gags and the ones profiled in the above trailers. But has there always been a need for this distinction within the genre of the family film?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Time for Me to Fly: A Review of Wings: The Final Season

"It would be easy to say that by its eighth and final year, Wings was coasting on fumes but the fact of the matter is Wings never really soared that high to begin with. The pleasures on offer here are modest but dependable. The final season of Wings isn’t its best but it gets the job done."

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Monday, May 04, 2009

London Calling: A Review of Last Chance Harvey

"Last Chance Harvey isn’t particularly ambitious, and its minimal storytelling scope indicates it wasn’t designed for more than home video viewing (or perhaps in-flight entertainment), but it does offer a few certain charms. It’s the equivalent of a competently written paperback or a leftover helping of Ma’s comfort food. With the right expectations there’s nothing to be disappointed by – but there’s also nothing to be challenged by, either."

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Together They Make Average Music: A Review of The Soloist

As a great fan of Joe Wright’s previous features, the slightly crass but hugely entertaining Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, it’s with a heavy sigh that I report his third film The Soloist to be a middling effort. The weight of the film eventually gets too heavy for itself as it desperately struggles to ensure a happy ending in the last twenty minutes but there is still a good amount of interest here and it confirms my suspicion that Joe Wright is one of the best middlebrow filmmakers working today.

The film marks Joe Wright’s third adaptation, culled from newspaper columns and a memoir by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez in the film (if only all journalists were so lucky) and Jamie Foxx stars as Nathanial Ayers, the subject of Lopez’s book. Ayers is a homeless man living in downtown LA and exhibiting qualities of schizophrenia. But he’s also a remarkable string musician, having studied at The Julliard School during his youth. The film chronicles the friendship that develops between the two men and it’s to the film’s credit that things only become saccharine during the final act.

All too often the topic of disability only appears in film when it is the subject of a ‘quest for a cure’ narrative where easy answers are delivered and miracles materialize just in time for the closing credits. The Soloist deserves recognition for attempting to buck this trend. While Lopez is guilty of pursuing a cure for a large part of the running time (but really, who wouldn’t?), a character finally tells him in regard to Ayers, “You can’t change him, all you can do is be his friend.” It’s an important message but sadly it gets sublimated during the rosy-tinted conclusion. Downey Jr.’s voiceover does mention that Ayers still suffers from dangerous outbreaks but the images in the last scene do nothing to underline that, choosing instead to highlight his charming eccentricities. For 75% of the film, Wright and his actors do a noble job of presenting the story realistically and interestingly but they fumble during the last 25%, losing all momentum and eliminating any real threat from the one scene that absolutely requires it.

The rule of Rain Man would dictate that Foxx as the mentally imbalanced character would be the flashy role while Downey Jr. as the straight-laced cynic would be the thankless supporting role. Curiously, the inverse is true in the case of The Soloist with Downey Jr. inhabiting the peach of a role while Foxx just barely manages not to be overshadowed. This seems to be a product of both the filmmakers’ intent and the performances. Of course, a quick survey of Downey Jr.’s career reminds that he never plays “the background” anyway (except maybe in U.S. Marshalls). But can it be considered showboating when it’s done by someone this talented? Downey Jr. is a joy to watch at every moment, completely engrossing from start to finish with nary a false note. The only flaw in his performance is beyond his control: the inconsistency of the amount of gray in his hair. To Foxx’s credit, he does a good job appearing and acting like someone without a home. The film has a keen awareness of homelessness and reportedly cast real homeless citizens of LA as extras (I don’t doubt it).

Even though it’s only his third film, I’ll eagerly anticipate every film Joe Wright ever makes. His films aren’t entirely successful (those who criticize The Soloist for being uneven are partly correct) but at least the man isn’t afraid to take chances. After all, he did insert Scorsese-esque steadycam shots into Pride and Prejudice and even dared to change Jane Austen’s understated ending. With his penchant for non-linear storytelling, his showy use of sound effects and music, and his fusion of highbrow and lowbrow material, I’m tempted to call him the Quentin Tarantino of literary adaptations. I’m hard pressed to think of another filmmaker who would have taken a film with this much assumed prestige and chosen to offset lengthy classical music interludes with not one, but two gags involving Downey Jr. getting doused by urine. Also of note is the bold sequence half way through the film in which the image fades away and an array of bright colors appear in synch with the classical music on the soundtrack. It’s the kind of daring synesthetic sequence one rarely sees in major studio films, the only other examples that readily spring to mind are 2001 and Ratatouille.