Sunday, October 26, 2008

Being Don Draper

In honor of tonight's Mad Men season finale (10:00 EST on AMC), here's a comic appetizer. the better of last night's two Saturday Night Live sketches devoted to the show (fun as it was to see castmembers Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery join host Jon Hamm in the first one). It's funny because it's true....

The Decider

Oliver Stone's astonishingly entertaining W. is a film that shouldn't work. Its main character, our standing president (played by Josh Brolin), is callow and shallow. The ensemble surrounding him -- familiar faces Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), George Tenet (Bruce McGill), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks), and of course George "Poppy" Bush Sr. and "Barb" (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn) -- isn't fleshed out with any shocking revelations. The screenplay, by Stanley Weiser (who collaborated with Stone on Wall Street) hits the expected marks -- from Dubya's Yale binging to the Iraq War -- while bypassing potentially meaty subjects altogether, both election victories and 9/11 among them. Arguably W.'s biggest flaw, brought up by some critics, is that it's simply too soon to get enough perspective on the impact of the incendiary Bush Presidency. That's a valid point: Stone's Nixon (1995) benefited from two decades of distance from its controversial subject, and looks even stronger today. Yet Stone and Weiser attempt something with George W. Bush that is quite canny: knowing how much of the man has already been reduced to easy caricature, they bring us closer to him than we might like, forcing us to confront our prejudices without letting him off the hook.

That's the crucial element. Critics of Bush, myself included at times, typecast him as either a buffoon or one of the evildoers he often speaks of with squinty-eyed loathing (or, nonsensically, both simultaneously); defenders of Dubya, even when acknowledging his mistakes, like to pin the blame on Cheney and Rumsfeld, viewing the President as though he were basically a good boy who got into detention because he fell in with the wrong crowd at school. An early scene in W. depicting a booze-fueled fraternity hazing at first appears to suggest this until we see just how cunningly Bush panders to his Yale peers, remembering not only all their names but their nicknames as well. Yet unlike Bill Clinton, he's never desperate to be liked. Seething resentment against his father -- and being compared unfavorably to his slicker younger brother Jeb (Jason Ritter) -- is ultimately what propels him: to drink; to rebel; to be born again; and to invade Iraq.

Expectedly, this Oedipal conflict is driven home a bit too hard. Like Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone's cinematic product suggests strong daddy issues; unlike Spielberg, whose recurring motif is paternal abandonment, Stone's theme from Wall Street through Alexander has been about the claustrophobic shadows that fathers cast over their sons. The memorable scene in Wall Street where Bud Fox is confronted by his father (an ingeniously cast Charlie and Martin Sheen) in an elevator shouting match is effectively replayed in W. as a brouhaha between a drunken Bush Jr. having it out with Poppy in the latter's living room. Yet if Dubya's motives are explained a little too simplistically, the relationship between the Bushes is given the complexity it deserves. James Cromwell, who can either be a bad actor or a terrific one, finds the exact balance between love and exasperation that I recall seeing in the real George Herbert Walker Bush on the 2000 election night: When asked by a reporter how he was feeling, Bush Sr. replied in his characteristic singsong, "Nervous....nervous and proud."

The infamous Florida debacle of that occasion is afforded only a cursory mention in W. While it's a relief that the film doesn't descend into the kind of left-wing smugness Hollywood is often accused of by Red State America, and on display in HBO's Recount which I caught up with recently on DVD, it does leave a gap in our understanding of how much Dubya is a pawn of his advisers and how much of his decisions are of his own making. Karl Rove (Toby Jones), depicted in W. as a cross between Iago and a leprechaun, is instrumental in mentoring Bush on how to not be "out-Texased and out-Christianed," but more details on their dynamic, such as how it applied to the 2004 campaign -- where Bush, a National Guard deserter, was widely regarded as a paragon of machismo while his opponent, a decorated war hero, was smeared as a wimpy fraud -- would have illuminated the central question of both the man and the movie: How much of W. is indeed "The Decider" he claims?

We don't get an exact answer, though Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al are depicted pushing the case for war against Iraq, each with different aims. Nor, on a less significant note, is it entirely clear why ESPN and Hardball are inexplicably given pseudonyms in the film ("Sport Cam" and "Spinball," respectively). For everything that happens in W., enough of it occurs in interiors to suggest that the filmmakers had a relatively small budget to work with. Yet whatever limitations they had may have become assets in terms of forcing Stone to pare down his famously overheated style. Gone are the multimedia excesses (however much I enjoyed them) of JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers; in W., Stone employs deceptively basic set-ups, alternating between unobtrusive hand-held cameras for the wayward early Bush and plants the camera on a tripod for the more dangerously sure-footed presidential years. It's telling that the film's one foray into surrealism -- a recurring dream sequence of Bush in a baseball stadium -- doesn't work.

It would be tempting to hail W. as a sign of "maturity" if it weren't for the fact that, beneath his reputation as a drug-fueled hothead and propagandist, Oliver Stone has always been a thoughtful artist. Only slightly less ridiculous than the still-present media dismay that a filmmaker like Stone might now and then take dramatic liberties with facts is the chorus of surprise about his "sympathy" for somebody as despised as Bush. Stone's body of work shows deep empathy for a vast array of subjects (if admittedly not always for women or foreigners, though his troubling misogyny and xenophobia have tempered over time); look beneath the visionary technique and rabble-rousing and he's as square as Frank Capra, at times overly respectful and idealistic, a true believer in the American Way. In interviews and on director's commentaries of his movies Stone conveys an encyclopedic knowledge of history and is generous with praise for his actors. (W.'s cast, as in all of his films, appears to be having a grand time.) In W., what has been largely obscured is now nakedly evident, no less than in the remarkable scene of Bush's born-again conversion, where he collapses while jogging, and subsequent passages that take his faith seriously rather than depicting it mockingly or cynically. Through pointed yet low-key metaphors -- a blind dog, a funny scene where Bush leads his staff down a wrong turn along a country road -- the film captures the myopia of unreflective religious zeal, how the path to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. "Compassion for the man, yes, but a greater compassion for our country," Stone has written in an ongoing debate. Eloquent words from a director who portrays an ineloquent man with calm and grace.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Dull Monty

Repeat after me, Hollywood: the key to screwball comedy is speed. Speed in length and structure, speed in snappy dialogue, speed in a nimble central character. Jason Segel, who had an appealing presence within the ensemble of Freaks and Geeks, is the dumpy lead in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, harmless and flaccid, as is the script he wrote for it. Segel's Peter Bretter goes through what is on the surface a prime screwball farce, getting dumped by his blonde-bunny actress girlfriend (Kristin Bell, playing the titular character), then running into her while on the rebound during a Hawaiian vacation. A variation of this plot was accomplished in a classic two-part Frasier episode about ten years back. The writers of that show were obviously students and fans of jerry-rigged comic contraptions from the diverse likes of Noel Coward, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and heyday Hepburn and Grant.

In contrast, the Judd Apatow gang has created a new kind of comedy that slows down the pacing in order to open up room for its performers to improvise. This worked liked gangbusters in Knocked Up, which showcased Seth Rogen's scuzzy charm and stentorian voice. Segel's speciality on Freaks and Geeks -- abject humiliation -- gets the full workout in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he certainly gets points for equal-opportunity nudity; but he isn't dynamic enough of a performer to hold the film together, and most of the surrounding actors -- especially Bell and Mila Kunis's comely hotel clerk, who form the other two sides of an unconvincing triangle -- have little to play with. Only Russell Brand as the unapologetically epicuran British rock star Aldous Snow, who first steals Peter's girl then later befriends him, has the mischief and high spirits of true farce.

As previously Frasier and now 30 Rock have shown, screwball comedy has migrated to TV sitcoms, which have no time or need for tedious exposition and interminable explorations of their characters' "feelings." Last season 30 Rock became increasingly surreal, climaxing in a dizzying finale that featured Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Matthew Broderick's hapless head of Homeland Security inadvertently detonating a "gay bomb." Disappointingly, this season's premiere -- now available on Hulu and airing officially on NBC next Thursday, Oct. 30 -- barely addressed any of the events that preceded it.

(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

The episode, appropriately called "Do-Over," had its moments, mainly involving Jack's return to NBC and speedy rise from mailroom clerk back to upper management within a day's work. Yet the show had more predictable beats -- Liz (Tina Fey) wants to adopt a baby, the adoption agent (the always amusing Megan Mullaly) sternly disapproves, everyone at the office behaves unwittingly at their worst while Liz is under review, hints of a burgeoning Liz-Jack romance -- and both that and the lack of political satire carried the suggestion of network meddling, a misguided attempt to make the show more familiar and "likable." While a hard-to-peg, abysmally low-rated series like 30 Rock has always been something of a hard sell, Tina Fey's recurring run as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live has pretty conclusively demonstrated the actress's ability to offer up charm without sacrificing bite. It's unclear whether NBC should have more balls or more faith.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Awkward is Easy, Comedy is Hard

Last night, Saturday Night Live, the ostensible flagship comedy show in the country, was rocked by visits from a pair of our most uptight citizens: the long-promoted appearance from Governor Sarah Palin; and a "surprise" cameo from actor Mark Wahlberg. Amid a usual run of horrid sketches, play-it-safe SNL has lucked out recently from some unusually biting satire -- first, from Tina Fey's recurring devastating impersonation of the Republican VP nominee, followed last week by Andy Samberg's brilliantly Dadaist "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals." It was only a matter of time before the party got crashed, and Palin and Wahlberg's odd convergence (promoting, respectively, the McCain campaign and the new Max Payne movie, a toss-up over which has received worse reviews) made for unfunny television yet fascinating psychoanalysis.

I had been curious how the Fey-Palin collision would play out, given the former's well-publicized distaste for her target and the latter's clear reluctance to leave her comfort zone, which appears to be roughly the size of a graham cracker. SNL's solution was primitively simple: Don't have them meet at all. We saw instead the real Palin watching Fey imitate her at a press conference, an awkward appearance by Alec Baldwin pretending to confuse Fey with "that horrible woman" (which I sensed was a reiteration of an actual conversation), then finally the two Palins passing each other near the podium. The Governor popped up again a little later on "Weekend Update," where she sat and bobbed unplayfully to Amy Poehler's "Palin Rap," the entire show's only jolt of energy or inspiration. At least John McCain pre-dementia occasionally exuded a sense of humor about himself; Palin's purported charms are undercut by a mean-spiritedness fun only for those on her smack-talking wavelength.

While Sarah Palin looked as tense and trapped as the guests at Michael and Jan's party on last season's most excruciating episode of The Office, Mark Wahlberg pretended to play good sport by stalking into the frame and, in a moment of alleged levity, repeated the catchphrases from the previous week's sketch while threatening to beat the shit out of Andy Samberg if he ever did it again. That the latter didn't come across as a joke isn't just due to Wahlberg's prior grousings about the imitation. He has become heavy weather lately, completely at odds with his light touch onscreen.

I think Wahlberg's acting career has been one of the most improbably interesting to come along in years, with several good performances (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Italian Job, Invincible) and a couple of great ones (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees). What's hilarious about Samberg's sketch is that he captures the man's unique blend of hostility and sincerity, as well as applying one of Wahlberg's most appealing qualities as an actor -- his ability to listen -- to a gallery of animals, so that that quality hangs in the air as though encased in amber. Since his Oscar nomination for The Departed, where Wahlberg took a backstage part not even in the Hong Kong original and blasted by DiCaprio, Damon and Nicholson for some well-earned accolades, he has made a couple of missteps, starring in M. Night Shyamalan's latest folly and now the lead in a videogame-adapted crapfest. Wahlberg needs to lighten up a little. He had better. Thanks to Samberg, "Say hi to your mother for me" is sure to be how he's greeted for some time to come.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Spies Like Us

Well, what can one say about Burn After Reading, the latest oddball head-scratcher from the Coen brothers? Is it a good movie? No, but it has its moments, several from Brad Pitt as the dim-bulb naif who works at a Washington, D.C. fitness center, a handful from Frances McDormand playing against type as his selfish colleague desperate for cosmetic surgery and a romantic relationship, and a choice few from John Malkovich as the hot-headed CIA analyst the pair foolishly attempt to blackmail. Is it a comedy or a thriller? Like most of the Coens' films, it occupies a netherzone between the two: comedies are typically funny and thrillers try to be thrilling, and Burn After Reading is mostly neither. As the neurotic, sexed-up federal marshal who gets involved with both McDormand and Tilda Swinton as Malkovich's ice-queen wife, George Clooney is fitfully amusing but generally fails to register. That seems to be the point, as much of the important action occurs offscreen, with a pair of exposition-heavy CIA bureaucrats (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche) filling in the blanks for us. No Country for Old Men was the first Coen movie (okay, maybe Fargo too) where I felt as though the characters had lives outside the frame, and Burn After Reading, in its own peculiar way, continues this trend. Perhaps, like Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, it'll be a transitional film that moves its makers out of their own hermetically-sealed film-nerd existence and into something resembling how real people think, act and live.


In the northeast Ohio town where I reside, I've now twice encountered a gentleman I can only dub "Political Guy." Sixtysomething, clean-cut and well-mannered, with a boisterous demeanor that manifests itself in public places, Political Guy gets very excited near the end of election cycles and wants to share that uncontainable excitement with others. In 2004, when Bush put in a local appearance, Political Guy regaled an employee at the library with the President's quip to the mayor that he fix the potholes on the city streets. "Fix the potholes! Fix the potholes!" Political Guy exclaimed in slack-jawed wonder. Never mind that Bush made that remark to practically every mayor at every stop in the campaign; he was agog at the man's wit.

More recently, following Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, I saw Political Guy run into a female acquaintance at a nearby Border's. "You have to be very impressed with her!" he shouted to the rafters. "Very, very, very impressed!"

Some continue to be impressed; increasing numbers less so; and a few of us were never on board in the first place. As one of the latter, unbedazzled by her folksy ramblings in the recent debate (I'm not keen on Biden's more polished bullshit either), I've found most of the post-debate coverage predictable and unilluminating. One exception has been Roger Ebert's focus on body language, patterns of speech and other mannerisms. I've also enjoyed Ebert's colleague Jim Emerson's analyses of Tina Fey's Palin parodies on Saturday Night Live. Readers of this blog know how much I've loved Fey's comic genius and fearless political satire on 30 Rock, and her appearances as Palin have been an invaluable public service over the last few weeks, a portrait of a smug yet strangely guileless politician who never asked to be the VP nominee and is making the best out of a train wreck that one can. Fey is smart and savage, yet with a dollop of empathy. I'd vote for her in a New York minute.