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Movie 43 (2013)

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My dad would say, "Bill, do you have to say the 'F' word in your act, son? Bob Hope doesn't use the 'F' word in his act." Yeah, well, Dad guess what: Bob Hope doesn't play the shit holes I play, all right? You put him in some of these joints, he'll have Emmanuel Lewis and Phyllis Diller sixty-nining as his closer--just to get out of there alive.

--Bill Hicks

Sometimes, movie critics suck. Theoretically, they perform a valuable service by steering people towards worthwhile films in a culture fueled by ever-emerging content and scarce disposable dollars. Too often, though, many so-called "established reviewers" get caught up in their own self-seriousness. They can't (or won't) recognize very well-made, very vulgar, and ostensibly very stupid movies as being legitimately artful. Allow me to present Movie 43 as exhibit A.

Peter Farrelly--one half of the sibling duo that brought us Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, and last year's surprisingly outstanding adaptation of The Three Stooges--has produced a ninety-minute series of twisted rom-com/coming-of-age vignettes, all written, directed, and starring some of Hollywood's biggest names. It rams straight through whatever boundaries were left in the "R" rating, and rejoices in extended diarrhea gags, menstrual jokes, and humiliation so acute that someone, somewhere, must have cried buckets on the way to realizing these laughs. If you're touchy about issues of race, incest, liberal use of the word "fag", or just about any subject whose very mention is grounds for a one-way trip to Human Resources, Movie 43 is definitely not for you.

If, however, you don't think South Park, Family Guy, or Funny or Die go far enough with their taboo-busting humor--and if you can imagine a world in which the people who create this kind of entertainment aren't all prejudiced, ignorant monsters--then this may be the funniest movie you'll see all year. I know it's early, but I can't imagine having a better time in the theatre.

Dennis Quaid stars as Charlie Wessler, an over-the-hill producer who's never gotten anything off the ground. He lies his way into a meeting with Griffin Schraeder (Greg Kinnear), a mid-level movie studio executive, and pitches him a romantic comedy starring Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman. As he tells the story, we see it unfold with the actual stars taking part. All such movies have an insurmountable problem that the leads must overcome in order to find true love, and "The Catch" is no different; what makes it unique is Jackman's character's unfortunate deformity--a spoilerific detail that I won't deprive you the sick joy of discovering. All I'll say is that the big reveal took me by surprise, and I laughed out loud in shock.

Dozens of writers and directors helped Farrelly make his modern-day sketch anthology, which was shot over several years to accommodate their A-list talents' packed schedules. Together, they deliver ten twisted short films and two commercial parodies--all the brain child of the increasingly desperate Wessler. A quarter of the fun, of course, is the shock of seeing Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Naomi Watts, Halle BerryTerrence Howard, and many others gleefully tarnish their "serious actor" personae. But Movie 43 doesn't skate by on brand recognition; it's a legit, hard-working comedy that only appears to be easy.

Now that I've fallen into the math trap, let me break down the rest of those quarters. The film's second key component is that all of the stars commit to their ridiculous roles. Contrary to last week's New York Post article, there's no evidence here to suggests anyone was embarrassed by having appeared in the movie, or was somehow roped-in by nefarious producers wielding inescapable contracts. True, that may be strictly due to professionalism, but everyone sells their wacky parts by playing them totally straight (unless the material calls for something utterly farcical, like "Superhero Speed Dating"). If you were to walk into the auditorium towards the end of "Veronica" and see Emma Stone sheds tears of heartache over her ex-boyfriend (Kieran Culkin), you might think you'd stumbled into an angst-y indie film by mistake. Of course, you would have missed the preceding several minutes of imaginatively vulgar sex talk, but that's the point.

The stars aren't the only ones who take the craft of crassness seriously. Unlike the Scary Movie-style parodies (to which this will be inevitably, unfairly, and lazily compared), Movie 43 boasts a stable of directors who give each segment the distinct look and feel of glossy Hollywood blockbusters. Pitch Perfect director Elizabeth Banks stomps all over the pre-teen love story "Middleschool Date" by turning menstruation into a concept that men literally cannot understand. She also turns up as an actress in the James Gunn-helmed final segment "Beezel", about a devilish, animated cat who comes between a young flesh-and-blood couple. Who else but Brett Ratner could have made the slick and stupid "Happy Birthday", in which Johnny Knoxville gives Seann William Scott a foul-mouthed leprechaun (Gerard Butler) as a gift? And Rusty Cundieff pulls off a note-perfect, Grindhouse-style homage to inspirational black-athlete weepies with "Victory's Glory", a mini-movie whose freeze-frame finale is at once hilarious and deeply depressing.

Finally, there's the writing. You probably won't recognize any of the credited names, but keep in mind that Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the Zucker brothers were once unknowns, too. Whoever these creators are, they clearly have deep affection for the material they parody. It takes a genuine understanding of rom-com mechanics to write authentically boring, yet believable, getting-to-know-you dialogue ("The Catch"), or to push macho guy-talk to such funny, absurd levels ("The Proposition"). I can't say how much of "Truth or Dare" was on the page and how much came out of Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant's bizarrely compelling on-screen chemistry, but this nutty story of one-upsmanship is both genuinely sweet and lewd as hell.

I began this review by bashing critics, and they deserve every ill word anyone has spoken or written about them. Yes, I am also a critic, but the reactions to Movie 43 make me ashamed to be one. Many have called this an early contender for the worst movie of 2013; some the worst of all time. The universal complaint is that it's vulgar and unfunny. In my experience, those charges are often synonymous and always hypocritical. If a parody movie from the guy who made Shallow Hal features sexually humiliating jokes about women and an extended diarrhea gag, it's unforgivably tasteless. But if Judd Apatow produces a hit with the exact same themes, that movie is somehow an empowering, revolutionary comedy.

Vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder, but honesty is becoming too rare a commodity in film criticism. I don't doubt that Richard Roeper and Andrew Parker had a miserable time at Movie 43, but these assertions that bodily-fluid humor is, by definition, an unfunny crutch and that Farrelly failed because comedy anthologies have been done before are just weird. Too much of their writing focuses on the allegedly troubled production and the producer's assertions that the film would push the boundaries of good taste; I'm left to wonder just how much baggage they brought into the theatre with them, and if they were too busy unpacking it to notice just how well-executed the project is.**

The uncomfortable truth is that humor has evolved in the decades since Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, and The Kentucky Fried Movie. Farrelly understands this in a way that most critics can't. What was groundbreaking forty years ago is quaint by today's standards, just as, I'm sure, Woody Allen's frank discussion of sexual foibles in the 70s would have ruffled plenty of feathers during the His Girl Friday era.

Blaming a lowest-common-denominator mentality for the advent of excessive "potty humor" doesn't cut it. In a parody-happy media landscape where films like UHF and The Hollywood Shuffle are long-forgotten templates, the only way to surprise audiences is to go places no one would or should expect satirists to venture. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that path leads straight to the gutter.

Whatever code these dinosaur reviewers think they're upholding has absolutely no validity beyond their own ability to get paid for writing about it. I have no idea whether or not Movie 43 will become this generation's quotable, go-to satire, or if it will disappear from our collective memories and the participants' resumes. I hope it catches on. We're in desperate need of more smart, well-put-together comedies that makes us laugh like idiots.

*I bought into it for about a day, until hearing Farrelly debunk the story on Friday's Nerdist Podcast (episode 313).

**For those of you astute enough to call "bullshit" on this sentiment, based on my Zero Dark Thirty review, understand that I went into that movie with concerns, and walked out with them fully intact. I gave Bigelow and Boal more than two hours to address burning questions I had about their depiction of an allegedly true story, and they didn't come through. During that time, I was fully aware of the movie's highlights and shortcomings, and gave it the respect it deserved.