Friday, January 29, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Jim Jarmusch's breakout, second film is an exercise in constraint and black-and-white minimalism. The camera barely moves inside the spare and grimy New York City apartments of the films first act, the frozen Cleveland streets of the second, or the cheap Florida motel of the third. Sudden moments of poignancy are littered among the quite spots between conversations and circular chatting. Stranger than Paradise follows Willie, a 20-something Hungarian immigrant who does his best to be all-American — watching baseball, eating TV dinners, speaking without an accent — until his teenage cousin Eva comes to visit from the old world. Willie is not exactly the consummate host to his fish-out-of-water (Jarmusch's favorite archetype) cousin, but by the time he finally sees the fun in teaching her his interpretations of America, she's on a train to Cleveland.

A year later, Willie and his friend Eddie, bored with their recent race-track winnings, head to Cleveland to visit Eva, innocently believing it will be a beautiful city on a lake. What they find is snow-blanketed and rusty. "You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same," Eddie remarks. Soon, Willie, Eddie and Eva ditch the cold for Florida, searching for a place to call paradise.
Jarmusch's camera has a way of finding the rough corners and shaggy dogs in each on-location set, and nearly any still from the film would make a fantastic album cover or framed print. Stripped of action, with little plotting and sparse dialogue, Stranger than Paradise boroughs in and stays. The moments that stick — the little things matter — leave a strange, unnerving resonance waiting to be revisited. A

Big Fan (2009)
Patton Oswalt turns in a memorable dramatic performance as a man self-detrimentally obsessed with professional football. Working a dead-end tollbooth job, Oswalt passes the hours listening to sports talk radio, jotting down notes for his best moment of every day: his turn to call in and talk smack against Philadelphia Phil.
But when a chance encounter with his favorite NY Giants player ends with Oswalt in the hospital with brain hemorrhaging and a black eye, he is faced with either pressing charges against the man who nearly ended his life, or allowing the best player on his favorite team back on the field.
Big Fan is the directorial debut by former Onion editor and writer of The Wrestler Robert Siegel. It's namely a drama, but the first half showcases the kind of "funny because it's so true, and so depressing" observations often seen in Onion briefs. The rising action may leave some feeling manipulated, but the climactic point is worth the hardship and excessively depressing moments. B+
Funny People (2009)
Funny People works because it lets Adam Sandler essentially play himself, if he were a morbidly-depressed, sad-sack horseshit excuse for a human being. The role allows him to make fun of the inherent silliness of his "shibby-be-do-wa" shtick, the excess of entertainment's top rungs, and the self-deprecation that forms the basis for some of the best stand-up comedy, while at the same time allowing our generation to feel empathy for a character we grew up with in Billy Madison, etc. Integrating actual archival footage and pictures of Sandler, we are introduced to him as George Simmons, the aforementioned comedy superstar, told by his doctors in the first scene that he is dying of leukemia. This diagnosis prompts Simmons/Sandler to reevaluate his priorities and, you know, "find whats truly important." Enter Seth Rogen, a struggling up-and-coming stand-up still stuck in the doldrums of open-mic night at a popular improv club. He lives with Jonah Hill, a slightly more advanced but still struggling comic, and a hilariously clueless and vain network TV star played by Jason Schwartzman. After a chance meeting with Sandler, Rogen is offered the chance to write jokes for the dying comedian and serve as his all-around assistant/bitch, before, uh, they actually become real friends and stuff.
The best aspect of Funny People, besides the barrage of one-liners, the artful mastery of the dick joke and perfect ensemble cast, is the nuanced way they treat Sandler's "I'm-a-piece-of-shit-with-no-friends" epiphany — he doesn't use his illness so much to become a better person, he uses it as a tool of manipulation in a desperate attempt to win the heart of "the one that got away" (Leslie Mann). It may all be a bit fatalistic, but years of habit and personality don't change over the course of 2.5 hours, they just budge a little bit.
Also, they got James Taylor to say "fuck Facebook." B+


Brendan said...

You know, one of my friends tried to convince me that Apatow ripped off The Great Gatsby with his script for Funny People. He said, like, the fact that George Simmons is rich and popular and tries to impress a girl and takes Ira under his wing, leading to Ira's realization that Simmons is in fact a "morbidly-depressed, sad-sack horseshit excuse for a human being" was a blantantly obvious gyp of Gatsby. I tried to argue against that, but unfortunately the brilliant users of IMDb's message boards backed him up. I still think it's an original script, or at least a different spin on that kind of story, but I don't believe Apatow was copying F. Scott Fitzgerald at all. Did you ever hear of something like that, or get that feeling, though?

And I feel like it's fitting for me to add that I liked Funny People. I mean, it's not 40-Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, but it was definitely an entertaining, well acted and smartly written movie.

Warped Coasters said...

shhhhh, don't tell anyone but I've never read The Great Gatsby ... it's one of my huge cultural blind-spots. I need to get on that soon.

I've heard the same theory from some friends whose opinion I respect, but I can't add/subtract anything from that discussion.

I liked "Knocked Up" a lot the first time, less the second and so on. It's too long, though there are several parts that still make me laugh out loud.

I think 40-Year Old Virgin holds up the best.

When I watch it now I forget how many jokes/sayings/phrases that my friends and I use actually came from that movie.