Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sinking Like a Stone

It's official: Alan Sepinwall and I are matter and dark-matter. While it's unnecessary to agree with every opinion of my favorite TV critic, I've never found our responses so antithetical as with the recent string of episodes on 30 Rock A few weeks ago, Alan hated "Generalissimo," the sublimely silly episode featuring Alec Baldwin delightfully playing both his regular role of NBC exec Jack Donaghy and a gay Latino actor portraying the titular villain on a Spanish soap opera. Yet he's loved practically all of the lamer efforts from this season, including this week's climax (one hopes) of Jack's prince-and-the-pauperess romance with a Puerto Rican home health-care provider, a showcase for Baldwin and Salma Hayek's potent non-chemistry.

Hayek is only the latest casualty on a season dominated by guest stars: ostensibly funnier performers like Steve Martin and Jennifer Aniston also fell on their faces. This has been, of course, NBC's attempt to raise the show's initially floundering ratings. It seems to be working, though I can't imagine new viewers are enjoying -- much less comprehending -- the ostensible premise: a farcical behind-the-scenes peek at a late-night sketch show. The show within the show is now virtually nonexistent, as is the gallery of supporting characters who rarely appear at the same time anymore, and often not at all. At present, a typical half-hour of 30 Rock features Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, and a Special Guest Star of choice. Imagine every week of The Office with only Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson and without its marvelous ensemble and it becomes understandable why many fans have complained.

Less discussed but an equally prevalent case of network tampering has been the show's absence of political satire -- even this week's spotlight on a stock market crash was almost incidental and toothless. Last season's highlights included Matthew Broderick's hilariously beleaguered Head of Homeland Security, a ghastly-funny 9/11 visual gag, a gay bomb, and trenchant one-liners that had you laughing harder for days afterward. (One choice scene featured Jack mentioning attending a Republican fundraiser hosted by John McCain and 24's Jack Bauer, then Liz observing, "He's not real," and Jack replying with a condescending chuckle, "I assure you, John McCain is very real.") Occasionally a well-aimed jab slips through, but for the most part Fey's bite has been muzzled.

The irony is that possibly no television series' performers since the late-70s heydey of Saturday Night Live have ever been such a part of the political Zeitgeist: first with Sarah Palin; now, following Bobby Jindal's sing-song rebuttal to the President's address of Congress, comes collective mention of the Governor's unlikely yet uncanny resemblance to McBrayer's folksy Kenneth the page. With antics more amusing offscreen than on, it's possible that Fey may see this as her Faustian bargain to ensure her show's survival. Talented as she is, I hope Fey turns her rise in ratings into creative collateral, transforms these flaws into a fertile storyline, and comes to realize she has a cast with the comic chops to help her accomplish it.

I missed the first hour or so of last Sunday's 183rd annual Academy Awards, opting instead for what seemed like an intuitive bit of counterprogramming: Ben Stiller's Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder (which somehow seemed funnier the second time around). Yet eventually I gave in and caught the second half of the telecast. Every year I announce I won't watch the damn thing, and every year I end up staying up late in the evening doing just that. Although I missed what were reportedly high points (the Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway intro; the Tina Fey/Steve Martin pairing, which I have read was funnier than anything in their 30 Rock endeavor earlier this season) and caught instead the botched "In Memoriam" sequence and Kate Winslet's expected Gollum moment with her coveted precious, count me in with those who enjoyed the festivities more than usual. It wasn't anything that was added so much as what was missing -- a palpable lack of fear that allowed pompous blowhards like Sean Penn say whatever was on their minds without nervous producers cueing the orchestra and pulling the mike. A rare wry observation this year on 30 Rock was made by Jane Krakowski's bubblebrained pseudo-celebrity Jenna, a D-lister who noted, "We're actors! If we didn't exist, how would people know who to vote for?" For this, if nothing else, I'd like to thank the Academy....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Global Economy

Certain genres I'm a sucker for, and the globehopping thriller is one of them. Exotic locales, urban jungles, the fate of the world at stake -- only a complete nincompoop could blow it, as Marc Forster demonstrated by making Quantum of Solace as visually drab and dramatically inert as possible. Tom Tykwer, in directing The International, avoids the same mistake with the former problem and half-manages to sidestep the latter. Filmed on location in the likes of Berlin, Milan and Istanbul, The International has color and movement, potentially charismatic leads, a memorable action set-piece, and a monolithic villain that couldn't be timelier. Where Eric Singer's screenplay errs is by starting in what is really the middle of the story.

In what may be the most chaste screen coupling of beautiful people since Tom Cruise and Demi Moore handled the truth in A Few Good Men, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play, respectively, an Interpol agent and a New York City Assistant D.A., with the oddly literary names of Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman. Perhaps this is meant to underscore that these are characters more comfortable behind their desks, living inside their heads, out of their depth in the thriller conventions soon to unfold. Actually they unfold immediately, when Salinger witnesses the assassination of a colleague in Germany, and sometime later when both he and Whitman investigate the shooting of the potential Italian prime minister. The murders --and all subsequent ones -- have something to do with the efforts of a global bank named IBBC to monopolize the debt of third-world nations while simultaneously covering their tracks, and while it's a refreshing change not to be overburdened with exposition, a moment or two's pause to enable the audience to get its bearings would have helped considerably.

It's also an interesting choice, but I think ultimately a mistake, to make Salinger and Whitman already colleagues before the movie proper begins. Salinger is depicted as a sort of rogue agent married to his work, with ominous hints of A Troubled Past that are never really explained or utilized; while Whitman is a sharp, ballsy gal with a husband and son, only that vulnerability is never exploited by IBBC. (SMERSH they ain't.) Despite the lack of love story, Cruise and Moore have never had screen partners as fitting as each other in A Few Good Men, by puncturing each other's considerable egos, for once they generously shared the same space. Owen and Watts aren't megastars, though; they're character-leads who are framed a bit too punily in The International, dwarfed by the mise-en-scene rather than elevated by it. And while it confounds expectations that they don't jump in the sack, there's not enough of a relationship left -- especially since we're not privy to how it started -- to give reason to care.

One of my favorite actors, Owen at his best resembles Bogart in his ability to play different characters by emphasizing a certain aspect of his personality: sadism in Croupier; cunning in Inside Man; self-deprecation in Children of Men. Yet as Salinger he's asked to be wide-eyed and unhinged, and it doesn't really suit him. (A recurring motif, involving his ringing ear, is cribbed from Children of Men and should have been excised.) A more emotionally distant performer, Watts has exuded genuine warmth only once, in Peter Jackson's overwrought King Kong remake. Whitman is a role that should suit her, and does, but she's always on the periphery instead of directly involved in the action.

Which is a shame, because the handful of overt action or suspense sequences in The International are all ably orchestrated by Tykwer, who abandons the hyperediting of his first and still most successful feature, Run Lola Run, for a cool and elegant style that mostly serves him well here. Already much praise has been bestowed on the standout scene an hour into the picture, a frenetic shootout down the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. It's certainly one of the most dazzling action sequences of recent years, yet I agree with Ed Howard's observation that had Tykwer shot the scene with the same methodical pacing and wide-angle lenses as the rest of the film it may have been an instant classic, comparable to the train-station chase climax in Carlito's Way. (I'm not a De Palma fan, but there are certain elements he makes good use of, and space and time are two of them.)

I would also like to suggest -- not only to Tykwer, whose work here in his first commercial feature is promising enough that I hope he tries again, but all contemporary action-thriller directors -- that while these are indeed grim times, that need not mean any semblance of humor should be eliminated. Archetypal movie villains (Hannibal Lecter, Goldfinger, HAL-9000, Tracy Flick) have proven themselves quite funny without losing their edge, but the baddies behind the bank in The International (led by Armin Mueller-Stahl, looking like Laurence Olivier might have in Marathon Man had he misplaced his dental instruments) are all witless duds in expensive suits. World conquest undoubtedly has its rewards, but doesn't look nearly as fun as it used to be.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Movies about writers are tricky, and oddly enough it seems that the more visually expressive the author the more difficult the transition to the screen. Prior to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, there had been two major motion pictures about the good doctor. The first, Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), starred a young Bill Murray and was reviled by everyone, including Thompson himself, who with characteristic restraint threatened to disembowel the actor. The second, more recent, and more cinematically accomplished adaptation, Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), received admiring reviews in some quarters and scathing ones in others, yet both the film and Johnny Depp's portrayal earned Thompson's seal of approval. Personally, I think Murray's performance is more interesting than Depp's, but what do I know? It's hard not to descend into cringeworthy caricature playing Hunter Thompson, considering he did it himself.

Gonzo, directed by documentarian of the moment Alex Gibney, does a commendable job fleshing out that caricature as well as charting the path to its subject's suicide in 2005. I had issues with Gibney's style in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, where his attempts to goose the narrative -- such as a reenactment of a person's suicide -- undermined the power of his argument. Wisely Gibney restrains himself from dramatizing Thompson's day of reckoning. Moreover, he appears to have found the perfect subject to indulge his own flights of fancy.

The topics of Thompson's writing (well-documented in the movie) are deceptively straightforward: the Kentucky Derby; the Hell's Angels; running for sheriff of Aspen; a road trip to Vegas; a tour on a presidential campaign trail. Originality came from his surreal perspective, a downbeat, at times nihilistic pessimism conveyed via creative and energetic prose, and the at-the-time unorthodox methods by which Thompson inserted himself into his own narratives. Gonzo captures this volatile mixture, a Molotov cocktail that burned a hole through the pretenses of bikers, debutantes and politicians while concocting a somewhat pretentious persona simultaneously. Gibney captures an era when writers could make an impact on cultural discourse: just as Pauline Kael did it through film criticism, Hunter Thompson helped to shape (for good or, mostly, ill) the public perception of Nixon, McGovern, Humphrey, and the unfortunate Ed Muskie (the latter a victim of a false rumor of being addicted to Ibogaine, a rumor started by Thompson). Other targets, like Pat Buchanan -- one of the better interviews in the movie -- seem more amused, even fond of Thompson's antics.

To its credit, Gonzo is more about the work than it is the life. Some have objected to this, believing it glosses over the tragedy of Thompson: his raging ego; his creative burn-out; his outbursts of violence; his predilection for guns and drugs. But I don't think the film skates on the surface of those issues so much as pumps them into the bloodstream of the real story -- and a timely one at that -- the question of whether good writing still matters.

While I have come to loathe costume dramas even more than talking-animal movies, The Duchess had received enough acclaim to lead me to envision the positive review I'd hoped to write. I was going to wax rhapsodic yet again on the mysterious charms of Keira Knightley (never a great actress, but a vivid camera subject), praise Ralph Fiennes on his 2008 comeback (his turn as the profane yet weirdly principled mob leader in In Bruges my favorite performance from last year), and take a few more-or-less well-aimed potshots at all the tiresome Bronte/Austen repressed-Brit adaptations for which The Duchess was a corrective. Then the movie started. I gave up after thirty minutes, after the titular character had been subjected to an unhappy arranged marriage and forced to endure all sorts of drearily predictable unpleasantries from Fiennes's perpetually frowning nobleman. It was easy to guess the rest, with Knightley's lifeforce certain to be snuffed out. At least a talking chihuahua would have spiced things up.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Home in the World

Watching the elating special episode of The Office late Sunday night following the Super Bowl -- seeming to build on the momentum of the end of that game -- I thought about, of all things, David Milch's observation about his watershed series Deadwood. "[I]t's a single organism," Milch said about his show, " a lot of ways it's about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time." The ebullient confidence of The Office's ensemble was so apparent throughout the hour that it's difficult to cite just one instance of this: the opening fire-drill mass panic? the climactic "roast" of boss Michael Scott? the disastrous CPR seminar, which devolves into a giddy rendition of "Stayin' Alive"? The joy in watching these scenes comes from each member of the cast doing his or her thing, such as Ed Helms's energetic falsetto and Mindy Kahling's impromptu airhead dance in the last example. There's room for both close-ups of the characters -- namely in the talking-head interviews -- as well as wide frames that pack too many details for the eye to catch. Now in their fifth season, each actor has become uniquely individualized yet almost psychically in synch.

It didn't start this way. The Office, of course, was/is an import of an acclaimed British series that was (deliberately) brutally unfunny. Its painful humor derived from the horrific silence of depersonalized working drones to David Brent's antics. I've endured horror movies less terrifying than the scene where Brent welcomes a new group of employees from a corporate merger with a comedy routine that's like plummeting into an abyss in slow motion. A sweet, sad non-romance between two of Brent's employees -- Tim and Dawn -- couldn't quite offset the discomfort.

The Americanized Office -- the paper company now called Dunder-Mifflin and residing in Scranton, PA -- survived its early growing pangs mainly due to the casting of Steve Carell in the lead. Carell is a fine comic actor who can play pathos without degenerating into Robin Williams desperation: his character, Michael Scott, is needy but the actor isn't. As he demonstrated in the not-bad update of Get Smart, Carell can put his own stamp on iconic roles; and on The Office he doesn't mimic Ricky Gervais; he makes Michael (the David Brent update) his own creation, a savvy salesman clueless about real human interaction. For the first year or two, the focus was on not only Michael's antics but also the slowly requited romance between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). Yet over time the show has become increasingly democratic, going broader and deeper with its sterling supporting cast.

As Brian Doan pointed out, "Stress Relief" (the title of the post-Super Bowl eppy) was both a "big" episode and a parody of one, keeping special guest stars Jack Black and Jessica Alba along the fringes (in a fictional movie illegally downloaded by Andy) rather than awkwardly injecting them into the narrative. Even in its broadest moments, The Office maintains a naturalism that is very delicate to sustain. Last season, I complained that Michael was becoming too outlandish; bringing in Amy Ryan for a handful of episodes as his HR soul-mate Holly appears to have toned him down (and left him with an undercurrent of rue following her departure). This year it's office sycophant Dwight (Rainn Wilson) who has gone disturbingly over the edge, to the point where you wonder why he hasn't been fired. Still, it's hard to quibble when the character crosses the line as hilariously as he did in "Stress Relief," starting the fire-drill chaos and then disemboweling the CPR dummy.

If Michael or Dwight's behavior filled a vacuum, as often felt like the case with Gervais on the British Office, the show would be deadly. Fortunately, Brian Baumgartner (Kevin), Angela Kinsey (Angela), Phyllis Smith (Phyllis), Kate Flannery (Meredith), Creed Bratton (Creed), Paul Lieberstein (Toby), Oscar Nunez (Oscar), Craig Robinson (Darrell), and Leslie David Baker (Stanley) do more than supply reaction shots; they give the main characters something to push against.

This push-pull of office tension was at the heart of "Stress Relief," culminating in a celebrity-style "roast" of Michael (at his own invitation) that challenged his ideal that they're all a "family." We've all heard this axiom enough times in the real world to know it's bullshit; but Michael, for all his overbearing impropriety, genuinely believes this, complicating his employees' (and our own) responses to him. Stanley, the surly, older African-American salesman, has often been Michael's biggest obstacle, withholding the approval that Michael craves. Following the roast, Michael returns to the office and proceeds to single out each character in his own inimitable way. ("Dwight, you're a kiss-ass -- boom, roasted!....Pam, you failed art school -- boom, roasted!") The scene is tense until Stanley, recovering from a heart attack, responds with a slowly escalating hearty chuckle that spreads to Michael and the rest of the characters, until soon everyone is laughing. The only thing harder than telling a funny joke is telling a lame joke and making it funny. That the writers and actors of The Office (many of whom are one and the same) pull this off so well and so often shows their own confident sense of identity.