Search
Kicking the Tweets
Friday
May062011

Clerks 2 (2006)

The World Needs Clerks, Too

This will sound ridiculous, but it's true: Clerks 2 is one of the best sequels I've ever seen.  It's not a perfect film, and non-fans of writer/director Kevin Smithmay scoff at the very idea that one of his foul-mouthed talk-fests could be good, let alone great.  But as a bookend, as a legitimate revisiting of characters, events and themes from a previous movie, it doesn't get much better than this.

The film centers on Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), two directionless slackers in their early 30s who work at a low-rent New Jersey fast-food joint called Mooby's.  Their previous jobs were as clerks in a convenience store and its neighboring video store, but after Randall accidentally burns both down, they're forced to find their first new gigs in a decade.

Mooby's doesn't get a lot of foot traffic, meaning Randal has a lot of free time to harass bloggers on the Internet and horrify his teenaged, Christian co-worker, Elias (Trevor Fehrrman), with tales of his bizarre sexual escapades.  Dante, on the other hand, has begun a twenty-four-hour countdown to his big trip to Florida, where he'll marry his bubbly, hot* girlfriend, Emma (Jennifer Scwalbach Smith), and manage one of her father's car wash franchises.  Complicating matters is his affair with Mooby's manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson), who has the looks, brains and heart of a perfect catch--but not the promise of financial security that Dante has sought his whole life.

Clerks 2takes place over the course of one bizarrely long shift (Dante and Randal open the restaurant and close it, and we never see or hear mention of any more employees than the four I've already mentioned) in which we're treated to Randal's ingenious, pantomimed re-cap of the Lord of the Ringsmovies; a hilariously provocative debate over racial insensitivity; a look into the mind of a sexually repressed young churchgoer; and a Tijuana-style donkey show, smack dab in the middle of the Mooby's dining area.

It's no surprise that the film is so raunchy:  The first Clerkswas all about the bored pop-cultural and philosophical musings of a couple of twenty-somethings.  Ten years on, the guys have the same interests, but Smith does not.  He's no longer content to let dialogue drive the proceedings, and his pro-active approach to getting the characters out of the retail setting for longer than a couple of minutes here and there is a refreshing expansion of scope (one of the key ingredients to any great sequel).

He also gives the film a much bigger heart than the original.  Dante's love triangle isn't the only one of import here: Randal acts out, whines and schemes in an attempt to both express love for his life-long best friend and construct the emotional steel wall he'll need after the Florida big-time yanks Dante away for good.  Smith seems to feel the same way about his characters, acknowledging to some extent that he's saying goodbye to the sarcastic duo that made him famous--ostensibly to move on to different, more "legitimate" types of movies (indie-porn dramady Zack and Miri Make a Porno and forthcoming thriller Red State).  In a strange but fitting turn, Smith bids adieu with a serenade.

Clerks 2 has more musical montages (including a full-fledged, dancing-in-the-streets musical number) than the average episode of One Tree Hill.  From the note-perfect opening-credits use of Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers" to the teardrop nostalgia of The Smashing Pumpkins' "1979", the film is peppered with touching tributes and promises that everything will be okay (for the characters and the fans).  I admit that on first viewing, I found the "ABC" sequence rather jarring; but it really does work, and is no more contrived than the linchpin of the first movie, in which Dante's ex-girlfriend had sex with a dead guy on a toilet.

The closing song, Soul Asylum's "Misery" is the perfect capper to the film and to the Clerksfranchise.  Not only is it a beautiful bit of filmic poetry, as George Lucas might say (the band's "I Can't Even Tell" closed out the original movie), but it's a neat representation of where the characters have ended up.  Not to spoil anything, but pay attention to the look that Dante and Randal shoot each other in the middle of the camera's protracted pull-back.  It's an awkward moment between two people who allegedly got everything they wanted out of life, and the subtext is delicious.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jay and Silent Bob.  As played by Jason Mewesand Kevin Smith, these foul-mouthed stoner icons have appeared in almost every one of Smith's Jersey films.  Their evolution from slice-of-life curiosities to branded pranksters comes to a head in Clerks 2.  They're only intermittently amusing as characters here; in fact, many of their gags seem dependent on the audience knowing who they are and recalling genuinely funny material from previous movies.  The duo's intro scene is particularly embarrassing, and if you can convince someone who's never seen a Kevin Smith film to stay in the room after it's over, I'm sure there are twenty marketing firms that would love to pick your brain.

Perhaps I'm just getting older, or maybe Smith and Mewes simply aren't funny in those roles anymore, but I found myself rolling my eyes whenever they'd pop up on screen.  The pair are especially flat compared to the great chemistry between Dawson and O'Halloran, O'Halloran and Anderson, and Anderson and Fehrman.  There are so many rich personalities and so much funny, poignant (and low-brow) dialogue in every scene that Jay and Silent Bob feel less indispensable and more like an imposition.

What I like most about Clerks 2 is that it is the perfect kind of sequel.  Like Rocky Balboa, the film was made more than a decade after the movie that inspired it and catches up with its characters, rather than shoe-horning them into familiar situations that evoke dollars and not much else.  By the end, it's clear that Smith and his protagonists have grown up (a little) and are ready to move on to a phase of their lives that isn't rambunctious or flashy, but more satisfying than anything they could have imagined in their youth.

That's a lot of high-falutin' schmaltz for a comedy whose highlights include a story about a guy with a pickle jammed up his ass; but amidst the dick-and-fart jokes is a tender, beating heart that knows the value of friendship and the truth about how awful the Lord of the Rings movies really are.

* No offense to Ms. Schwalbach, but I found the Clerks 2 characters' fawning assessment of her looks utterly strange.  Personally, I thought she used to look attractive--in an Unconventional Smart Girl way--but sometime between Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and this film, she lost way too much weight and had way too much junk injected into her face.  She now looks like Jenna Jameson in Zombie Strippers (pre- or post-mortem is a judgment call that I'll leave in your capable hands).

Tuesday
May032011

Office Space (1999)

Becoming Lumbergh

If you work in an office, Mike Judge's Office Space is a great litmus test for where your career's at.  For anyone just starting out in the business world, as I was when I first saw the film twelve years ago, the movie is a perfectly observed, hilarious send-up of corporate culture and its water-cooler whack-jobs.  Stay in the same place long enough, and you may find yourself wincing in recognition at the middle-management caricatures that you've actually become.  And if you're in the wrong job for decades, you'll likley cringe and guffaw at the desperate, over-the-hill paranoiacs who also--somehow, tragically--resemble you.

What I didn't realize until the other night--after having watched the film for the tenth time--is that Office Space isn't a comedy about the dream of not having to work anymore; it's a motivational comedy about finding the job that's right for you and going after it.  When I was twenty-two, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) was a hero to me, a guy whose trip to an occupational hypnotherapist renders him incapable of worrying about the repercussions of goofing off at work.  He goes from non-committal complainer to workplace revolutionary, trading boss-sweat for the cool, refreshing air of a mid-day fishing trip.

His cavalier attitude worries his software-engineer co-workers, Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), who are already freaked out at their company's hiring of two layoff-happy "consultants". Undeterred, Peter blows off mandatory working-weekends and finally musters the courage to ask a waitress named Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) out on a date.

Judge holds Peter up as a mirror to the ridiculous microcosm of office politics, where stealing an employee's prized stapler is more of a power-move than sleeping one's way to the top.  It's easy to laugh at Milton (Stephen Root), the mumbling, splotchy-faced desk squirrel incapable of asserting himself, or at Tom (Richard Riehle), the ineffective ball of panic.  They're slightly exaggerated cartoon characters drawn from real-life archetypes.  And Peter is their messiah, leading a charge of laziness in the face of his workaholic, soul-dead boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole).

As I've grown older, though, I've begun to see Peter for what he really is: An unhappy, directionless guy who, possibly through the uninspiring gray walls and grayer people around him, has completely checked out and become a drain on the system--even before the hypnosis.  I used to laugh at the way he described his work day to the consultants--two generic lumps of respiring bureaucracy, both named Bob (John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson)--with claims that he zones out at his desk for most of the day and only achieves "about fifteen minutes of actual work" during any given week.

But as a middle-manager myself, listening to that makes my skin crawl.  It's still very funny, but I realize now that the office was never Peter's enemy; it was a symptom of his own lack of motivation to do what he really wanted to do with his life.  At the outset, he claims that if he were to become an instant millionaire that he'd do nothing all day.  But by film's end (Spoiler), he finds satisfaction putting in long, hard hours as a construction worker.  I wonder if he might have saved himself, his friends, and his office (particularly the building) a lot of undue stress if he'd had the courage to make himself happy instead of riding the regular-paycheck train to a probable fiftieth-birthday heart attack.

Lumbergh and the Bobs are clueless, selfish, sometimes heartless tools of industry.  But they are also the keepers of the professional and social contract that Peter and his friends signed when they aimed for stability instead of risking starvation by launching a start-up or becoming street artists.  I don't hate Lumbergh anymore; partially because I understand his unfortunate role in the great, cold commerce machine, and partially because I've become a version of him.  It's no fun having to follow up with employees on e-mails or deliver frivolous company news at meetings to an audience of half-interested co-workers who'd rather be fishing.  The best any of us in that position can do is to be as human as possible and to never forget how silly the business world really is.

Sorry if this review is a tad navel-gaze-y (and for my over-reliance on hyphenated phrases).  I figure most people reading this have already seen Office Space, and don't need to be reminded of the awesome photocopier scene, the uplifting "Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangster" montage, or Joanna's wonderfully telling arguments with her manager over her uniform's lack of "flare".  This is a comedy classic that's only dated by the Y2K sub-plot (which leads to a scam that I used to think weighed the second half of the movie down, but which I find not nearly as egregious today).  It would also be unfair of me to ruin all the great jokes and quotable lines for anyone who hasn't seen this yet.

Office Space is one of my favorite films, and it's a credit to Mike Judge's genius (an over-used word that I feel 100% confident invoking here) that it not only holds up but is also so honest in its assessment of people and workplaces that it can mean different things to different people at different points in their lives.  Best of all, Judge holds his protagonist accountable, acknowledging that there's no way to half-ass happiness: We either take the plunge and dare to be happy or resign ourselves to sitting in boxes, manufacturing widgets and failure.

Sunday
May012011

Broadcast News (1987) Home Video Review

Burying the Need

The other day, I finally got around to watching writer/director James L. Brooks' highly regarded, Oscar-nominated 1987 dramedy, Broadcast News.  For the life of me, I can't understand the hype.  With the exception of a few remarkable scenes, this movie is awful.  I was ten years old when the film came out, so my understanding of what constituted "award-worthy" at the time is very limited.  Maybe this really was the high-bar back then; maybe it was a shit year for movies.  What I can say for certain is that Brooks' message is spot-on, but the movie in which it's stuffed like an afterthought is a cloying, directionless mess.

Let's begin with the children.  Broadcast News opens in 1963, where a blonde teenager confesses to his hard-working, delivery-truck-driving dad that he's doing poorly in school, and he's concerned that his looks and popularity are overshadowing his ability to be a good student.  Pop reassures him that things will be okay, and the boy promises to try harder--going into a sort of self-flagellating motivational trance.  Because I've seen the poster for this film, I immediately peg the boy as William Hurt's younger self (though I confess to being utterly confused because the dad character has the nebbishy features and delivery of Albert Brooks, who's also on the poster).

Flash forward two years to a high school graduation ceremony.  The blonde boy is at the podium delivering a snarky farewell address and bragging about leaving school two years early.  "Gee," I thought, "that kid really buckled down."

A moment later, as he's whining and getting pummelled by older boys in the parking lot, I realized that this is not the same boy at all--it's Albert Brooks' character.  Had the miracle of DVD not allowed me to rewind the film and notice that the title cards announcing the years also listed two different cities, I probably would have been confused for a good deal longer.  It's a sloppy, confusing way to open a movie, but nothing compared to the next scene.

Elsewhere, a precocious little girl is typing a fan letter to her favorite newsperson.  Her father comes into her room and tells her that she's too obsessed with her typing, and that it's time for lights out.  A minute later, she storms into the living room and berates the old man for using the word "obsessed" for its negative connotation.  The child actor's struggle to wrap her mouth and brain around such big words as well as master a cartoonish Southern accent made this exchange excruciating; but it wasn't as bad as the shock of learning that her exaggerated drawl would stay with her through the years on her way to becoming Holly Hunter.

The story then skips to its late-80s present, where Jane (Hunter) is a Serious News Producer whose best friend is Aaron (Brooks), a Serious News Reporter.  She's a tightly wound, career-driven shrew who rails against the coming superficiality of network news; he's a well-read politics junky whose intellectualism can't surmount his lack of self-esteem and ultra-average looks; he's also madly in love with Jane.  Into their sewing-circle of spite plops Tom (Hurt), a dashing and utterly vapid news anchor who's been freshly hired at their Washington bureau.

Aaron is instantly jealous, and Jane is reluctantly smitten.

Hey, let's do something fun.  Let's call Broadcast News out for what it is: A rom-com rip-off of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's Network.  I could go into greater detail about the love triangle that overshadows the (perhaps at the time) cutting satire and observational humor about news as entertainment.  But that's a waste of time.  Broadcast News is Pretty in Pink with sport coats and teleprompters, minus the bitchin' soundtrack.

The only interesting, original thing about this movie is something that probably happened accidentally: Late in the film, Aaron gives a pretty funny speech about how Tom is The Devil:  He's handsome, polite, and plans to destroy the planet by lowering peoples' standards until nothing of substance matters.  A couple of scenes after that, the network lays off much of its Washington staff, and Jack Nicholson--who plays a millionaire celebrity news anchor--shows up to preside over the last day. As people pack up their desks and cry on each others' shoulders, he strides through the offices with a sinister calm--and I couldn't help but recall his role as Satan in that other 1987 Yuppie blockbuster, The Witches of Eastwick.

I really wanted to like Broadcast News, but the fact is that James L. Brooks simply can't pull of issues-based comedy.  Network was a brutal satire of the onslaught of superficial news, and had lots to say about traditional journalism in the face of new media and corporate profits.  It was also damned funny and disturbing because Lumet and Chayefsky genuinely cared about the issues they were satirizing. Brooks' film could have been set in any business, because its focal point is not news media; it's the formulaic love story that drags the meaty material down.

A lot of that blame falls on Holly Hunter's shoulders.  Keep in mind, I'm writing this nearly a quarter-century after the fact, but Hunter's nagging, self-righteous, frigid character is no more interesting or real than any of the lovelorn shlubs that Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl built their careers playing in equally crappy, predictable rom-coms.  Hunter may beat them all, though, with her Southern-fried accent;random fits of crying that, I think, are supposed to be comedic; and unbecoming mania that reminds me of Andy Samberg's SNL impression of the comic-strip character, Cathy.

It doesn't help that Brooks refuses to focus his charaters' motivations into anything resembling cohesion.  Is Tom the Devil, or just too ignorant to know he's being used?  Does Jane fall for him simply because of his looks, or because she sees a sensitivity in him that her logical, activist brain lets slide for a bit?  And is it love or infatuation?  Is Aaron really the nicer, more sensitive of the male leads, or is he really the most selfish and evil guy in the picture?  The screenplay bounces back and forth between these scenarios so often that it's as if every other page of the shooting script came from a different draft.

By film's end, all of the characters are miserable, even though they have relationships and (in some cases) kids.  Granted, Brooks breaks cliche by not having Jane and Tom end up together, but I wasn't sure what the hell I was supposed to have learned from any of their experiences.  Or, for that matter, what their romantic entanglements had to do with the selling out of evening news.

The only bright spot here is Albert Brooks, who does Wishy-Washy Snob like nobody's business.  He's the only indication that Broadcast News has the potential to be something greater than it is.  His smarts, heart, and wit keep the Network legacy alive amidst all the awards-baiting melodrama, and made me forget that all the film's juicy commentary was--at that point--nine years old.

You may wonder why I keep bringing up Network.  Simply put, that movie is the most damning media critique I've ever seen on film (a distant second may be Natural Born Killers).  It is so perennial in its relevance and so astute in its Nostradamus-like ability to predict and satirize our disposable entertainment culture that there's no room left in its genre-of-one for successors.  It's like trying to name a movie that did Star Wars better than Star Wars.

With Broadcast News, James L. Brooks delivered a third-rate rom-com with (mostly) first-rate actors, and somehow convinced millions of people that it's a classic.  I'd tune in to watch an exposé on that mystery, no matter what the anchor looked like.

Saturday
Apr302011

Fast Five (2011)

Brio de Generic

I really enjoyed Fast and Furious, the fourth installment of the motor-heads-and-muscled-hustler series.  It was fun, light, and fast-paced.

And I can’t remember a damned thing about it.

I recall Vin Diesel driving hot cars through desert caves and Michelle Rodriguez’s character dying. But if you were to ask me who the villain was; what he or she wanted; how Diesel and Paul Walker’s characters were involved; or how they saved the day, I’d be utterly stumped.

Even the opening of Fast Five didn’t help remind me that car thief Dominic Torretto (Diesel) had been sent to prison at the end of the last movie: During the opening prison-bus-breakout, I had an awful sense of déjà vu, as if I were watching a scene from one of the earlier installments (though it could have just as easily been from one of the half-dozen other action movies that have pulled off, almost beat for beat, this exact same scene).

Come to think of it, maybe that was the ending of Fast and Furious.

Ugh.

Whatever the case, ex-federal agent Brian O’Connor (Walker) and Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) use their mad skillz and hot ridez to utterly wreck the prison transport. Local news reporters arrive on the scene and claim that no one was killed, and that Torretto was the only person missing.  Right away, the movie lost me. If you can find this scene on YouTube or—God forbid—your local theatre, watch it and ask yourself how everyone on that bus could have survived that particularly heinous flipping, skidding, parts-flying mess.

Also, ask yourself when the last time was that you saw resolution lines across your high-definition television. I’m sidetracking here, but, seriously, this is a movie convention that needs to go. Are news tickers and station logos not enough, or do audiences really need fake resolution-line overlays to avoid getting confused?

Okay, back to the story. We flash forward to Rio de Janeiro, where Toretto has pulled together some of his old crew to steal three impounded cars from a moving train. He also allies himself with members of a local drug cartel who, shockingly, turn out to be untrustworthy. Bullets fly, chumps get stomped, and O’Connor leaps from an exploding train into a convertible driven by Toretto—mere seconds before they would have been clipped by an oncoming bridge.

The subsequent freefall into a river several hundred feet below is what drew me to this movie in the first place. In the trailer, this scene concludes mid-air, with O’Connor bracing to leap out the back and Toretto following suit as he leaves the steering wheel behind. I simply had to know how director Justin Lin planned to get these modern day Duke Boys out of this pickle.

Turns out the answer is really simple: They jump out of the car and fall straight into the water, emerging moments later without so much as a broken bone. Apparently, the duo spent all of their earnings from the last movie’s heist (I assume there was one) to buy their way into the Super Soldier program from the upcoming Captain America film.

O’Connor and Toretto find themselves at the top of drug kingpin Reyes’ (Joaquim de Almeida) enemies list: The car that Mia jacked from the train contains a computer chip that has the dates and locations of Reyes’ entire drug network stored on it. Back at home base, O’Connor suspects one of his oldest friends, Vince (Matt Shulze), of selling them out to Reyes. This did-he/didn’t-he drama ping-pongs back and forth so much that after Vince’s fourth ambiguously sinister close-up, I didn’t care who’d stabbed whom in the back; I just wanted to leave.

About forty minutes into the movie, Fast Five’s plot kicks in. Toretto decides to rob all of Reyes’ safe houses and use the $100 million to make himself and his crew disappear “forever” (we’ll know for sure after the weekend numbers come in).  To pull off this impossible feat, he recruits almost every living cohort from the past four films, along with a new Hot Girl named Gisele (Gal Gadot).

Excepting her and her would-be boyfriend Han (Sung Kang), every member of the gang is comprised of the Hell Naw School of Acting’s alumni board. Seriously, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges do more to regress and corrupt black culture in this movie than the entirety of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (and, no, I’m not suggesting that they “act white”—merely that they act like men in their 30s).

For a few minutes, the prospect of this large crew targeting ten heavily guarded locations in Rio excited me. How would they pull that off, I wondered? Once again, the answer sucks.

The gang raids one of the safe houses and sets fire to several million dollars. This freaks Reyes out so much that he immediately calls for all of his money to be shipped to a single state-of-the-art vault inside the local police headquarters. This means that the next hour-plus is a gear-head version of Ocean’s Eleven, with lots of tedious training and driving exercises leading up to the climax’s Big Heist. You’ve seen bits of the finale in the trailer: Toretto and O’Brian anchor the safe to two cars via steel cables, yanking it out of the cop-shop and right into a high-speed chase.

I can’t say much about that penultimate twenty-minute stretch.  Like every other scene in Fast Five, the tension registers at exactly zero on the Thrill Meter (and dips into the negative on the Imagination Scale). No major player is ever placed in mortal danger (which gives the fourth movie an instant leg-up over this one; more on that in a moment), and there’s so much CG in every action scene that I found myself marveling more at the shoddy digital face replacement than caring about what horrific collision would next leave our heroes unscathed. Maybe it’s the actors’ desperate attempts to look and feel 25 a decade after a fluke blockbuster launched their careers; maybe it’s the fact that practical stunt work is going the way of the Gremlin; whatever the case, I was thoroughly bored during two-plus hours of “non-stop action.”

The only bright spot—and this should really tell you something—is Dwayne Johnson’s turn as Hobbs, the ultra-buff, no-nonsense fed who’s brought in to take Toretto down.  His Sergeant Slaughter line delivery and look-right-through-you eyes made him a magnetizing figure, and I wondered how great it would’ve been—how original for this franchise—if we’d followed him in his pursuit of Toretto’s gang, rather than following Toretto’s gang as they avoid him and his team of mercenaries. Johnson is especially charismatic when compared to the film's second lead, Walker, who, when he's not reciting his lines like Zack Morris on Ambien he appears to be waiting for the director to call "Action!"

That brings me to two big issues I have with Fast Five and, to an extent, the franchise in general. These movies have always romanticized Toretto and his street-racers-turned-criminal-masterminds. It’s most striking here, as they destroy half of Rio in their quest to steal lots of money. I guess the moral distinction is that they’re not as bad as Reyes, but I wonder if the bystanders at the climax would’ve noticed a difference.

Busy sidewalks, office buildings, and streets are demolished by flying cars and a multi-ton safe clanging about like the fist of God. Because these characters have been established as lovable rogues, their anti-establishment violence and theft can safely be called a “fun, action-filled romp” instead of a “polarizing terrorist thriller.”

My second problem is that the Fast formula of having the hot-pursuit cop team up with the criminals at the end has gotten really, really old. Particularly since you have “The Rock” playing Toretto’s nemesis, I figured there’d be an epic fight to the finish somewhere in the film.  But soon after a manly brawl that would’ve been impressive had I not just seen it in The Expendables (along with a number of other story beats), Hobbs switches sides for about half a day in order to bring down Reyes.  Emerging victorious, he issues the standard “24-hour head start” warning, allowing all the “good guys” to escape with their crazy fortunes.

Either the authorities in this reality need to start screening their candidates more effectively, or they should just appoint Toretto as head of the FBI.

A funny thing happened during the end credits, though. After having been awake for nearly twenty-one hours, I was in no mood to fight my way through packs of giggling, meandering teenagers; so I sat still and checked my phone for new e-mails. A couple minutes later, the hard-driving rock music stopped and a mid-credits coda popped up on the screen.

Turn away now if you’re not into spoilers.

We see Hobbs behind his desk at the police station. His colleague, agent Fuentes (Eva Mendes, reprising her role from the hilariously homoerotic 2 Fast 2 Furious) asks him to look at a report detailing a massive car heist in Germany. He says he’s not interested unless Toretto is involved. She convinces him to peruse the folder anyway; a few pages in, we get a close-up of Michelle Rodriguez as Toretto’s allegedly deceased girlfriend, Letty.

With Fuentes’ ominous line, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and the subsequent cut to black, Lin and writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott guaranteed that I’d be in a theatre for the opening of Fast Six: The Good, The Bad and The Furious.

Call me a sucker, but that moment—the only surprising one in more than two hours—held real promise.  I’m giving these movies one more chance, and then I’m out.

Probably.

Correction: After having listened to the newest episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, I was reminded that Gal Gadot actually appeared in the fourth film.  Much like the opening jail-bus breakout, I had no memory of her involvement in the series; which is either a testament to the interchangeability of these characters or a sign of my impending senility.  Let's call it a draw.

Saturday
Apr232011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Corporate Shrill

"If you do a commercial, there's a price on your head.  Everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink."
--Bill Hicks
 
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I found Morgan Spurlock's documentary about pervasive corporate advertising, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, to be so profoundly depressing that I staggered from the theatre and couldn't figure out where I was for fifteen minutes after it was over.
 
This is the most upsetting movie I've seen in years; not because of the subject matter, but because I felt betrayed and assaulted by the film itself--and by its director.  I hesitate to even call this a documentary, or even a film, as it is so blatantly and proudly a ninety-minute commercial for second- and third-tier brands (and, ultimately, for itself), that any ideals about art or information become irrelevant by the end of the first scene.
 
Spurlock's 2004 debut, Super Size Me, was a Michael-Moore-lite stunt doc in which he--as subject and director--ate nothing but fast food for thirty days.  By chronicling the effects of self-pollution, he illustrated just how dangerous the convenient, brightly packaged foods Americans take for granted can really be.  I gave the film a pass because, though I found it a tad slim on mental nutrition, Spurlock was such an engaging and forceful personality that I suspected Super Size Me would be the rocky start to a promising career.
 
Next came 2008's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?; a tiresome, simplistic movie made for people who pay absolutely no attention to world affairs.  Once again playing the central figure in his own story, Spurlock delivered a ghastly, shrugging "Muslims-Are-People-Too" message that was, ironically, more Chicken McNugget than Chicken Cordon Bleu.
 
So, going into The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, I was partially looking for news about the sinister tactics marketers use to sell products in the multimedia age, and partially looking to tilt the "Is Morgan Spurlock a Good Documentarian?" scale.
 
Let me make something clear: This is not a movie about sinister corporations.  It's a multi-brand vanity project working through an identity crisis and a false premise.  Spurlock would have you believe that the cute notion of his trying to find corporate sponsors to fund his movie about corporate/media influence is the framework for a meaningful film.  But that framework is just about the whole movie.  Aside from a visit to a town that outlawed outdoor advertising and a brief visit with Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader (more on him later), The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a series of interviews between Spurlock and prospective donors.
 
If your idea of a good time is turning your theatre seat into a virtual place at a corporate boardroom table and listening to stuffy, unimaginative people drone on about brand identity and multi-platform promotions--with each meeting perfectly framed so that the interchangeable products' posters and sample displays are visible at all times--then you'll probably get a kick out of this thing.
 
However, if you find such an idea distasteful, along with the notion that Spurlock would present himself as an aw-shucks outsider who finds the whole process ridiculous--only to indulge in his donor-masters' every whim--then stay far, far away.  This is meta-filmmaking, to be sure, but it is also unaware meta-filmmaking, which can be dangerous.
 
"But how can a movie be dangerous, especially when it's really funny?"
 
That's a great question, with two answers.  The first is that neither Spurlock nor his movie are particularly funny.  There are plenty of comedic moments in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but many of them are simply distractions that keep us from learning anything.  Michael Moore, who I mentioned earlier, knows how to inject humor into his documentaries in ways that both amuse the audience and advance his agenda; whether or not you agree with his politics and tactics, Moore's ability to connect with viewers is undeniable.  There aren't enough takeaways in Spurlock's movies--especially this one--to start a stimulating conversation, let alone a revolution.
 
The second answer is that Spurlock spends a lot of time making fun of the companies he's getting money from and "wrestling" with the notion of selling out; but he laments his phony rock-and-a-hard-place position while swigging from a bottle of POM Wonderful juice.  When someone goes out of their way to perfectly light and present that which they're allegedly rebelling against, they are no longer the detached, ironic hero railing against the machine; they're a pitch-person.  The danger lies in increasingly passive audiences' inability to distinguish between sincere discontent and the most clever product placement in history.
 
Spurlock takes this a step further by joking to various spokespeople that he'll gladly place a 30-second commercial smack-dab in the middle of his film, for the right price.  At least, I thought he was joking.  But, no, there are three spots in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, each more disturbing than the last.  Worse yet, there's nothing controversial or subversive about the ads; they're the same bland crap that DVRs were made to erase from our lives.
 
Towards the end, Spurlock says that the only solution to the problem (a problem, mind you, that he doesn't bother to explain all the components or negative effects of in the course of 90 minutes) is to get back to nature, to find a place where there is no advertising.  Inevitably, he says this while walking along a stream with his son, in what turns out to be a commercial for waterproof shoes.
 
These are the same shoes that he presents to consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Earlier in the film, Nader talks about the lack of truth in advertising and seems generally run down by the all-powerful machine.  He perks up, though, when he gets those shoes; so I guess the message is marketing and advertising are evil except when schwag enters the picture.
 
Had this been a real movie, I might have learned about the history of advertising; the influence of celebrity endorsements on brands and consumers; the challenges corporations face in an increasingly crowded marketplace; and what can be done to change our collective mental landscape--if anything (one consumer-advocate-group member suggested, without a hint of irony, placing pop-ups on TV shows to let the viewer know they're being marketed to).  But because this is a Morgan Spurlock movie, all I got was a lot of mugging; some half-baked scenes involving companies' use of brain-scanning technology in targeting their consumers' habits and desires (!); and stimulus overload from an hour-and-a-half of non-stop "Buy Me!" pleas.
 
If you love headaches and feeling like there's no hope against the onslaught of glossy, brain-dead media, check out The Greatest Movie Ever Sold!
 
How's that for an endorsement?