Monday, December 20, 2010

Groan-Ups: How could this have gone so wrong?

Some thoughts on Grown-Ups, directed by Dennis Dugan (2010).

As I’m sure is the case with many people my age, I feel a disconnect between what is habitually offered up as cultural product and what speaks to the fragmented sensibilities of my age demographic. I recently turned thirty, which means I went from being treated to a smorgasbord of quality Saturday morning animated programming in the early eighties to watching the marketers’ laser-like focus move onto more profitable demographics – namely, preteens with loads of disposable allowance and no responsibility tugging at their dinero.

When I jumped ship from waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the cartoons to fighting my body to stay up late to answer the siren song of Saturday Night Live, it was a thrilling time -- not just for me, but for the show. Mike Myers et al were on the way out, leaving both an indelible mark on the show’s brand of comedy and a gaping void of headlining performers. Other than vague memories and glimpses that I’d caught at various points in my earlier years (Paul Simon ambling morosely onstage for his monologue in a turkey costume before I knew who Paul Simon was, or Chevy Chase telling me who he was and who I wasn’t), I was pulled in as a regular viewer as upstarts and dynamos like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Rob Schneider, Tim Meadows, and David Spade were making it their own. That was my SNL, and these actors helped shape my identity and my comedic tastes.

If that image takes you back and makes you chuckle, you know what I’m talking about. And that stunned, delirious and awakening-to-new-possibilities look is pretty close to the one I wore when I first saw a poster in the cineplex for the film Grown-Ups.

I indulged in the certainty that this film would undoubtedly be a success in every way that mattered. How could it not? Sandler, Rock, Schneider, Spade, James (hunh?)! It was, in the parlance of pre-crisis Wall Street economists, ‘too big to fail’. But it did fail, enormously. Grown-Ups scored an irredeemable 10% on, and its baffling suckiness inevitably leads one to question the judgment of its players and purveyors. I humbly present to you my thoughts on why and how this film went so wrong.

Grown-Ups opens with a tense youth basketball game in which five friends are lead to small-time victory by their inspiring coach. After this scene, we’re brought to the present, some thirty years later. The coach has passed on, and the boyhood friends all head back to the cottage resort town where they used to party for the funeral. This time, however, the wives and children come along, they’ve all grown older and softer, burdened by the weight of their successes and failures, hammered by what Lincoln called ‘the artillery of time’.

Sandler plays the straight man, a successful Hollywood agent, whose lavish lifestyle has turned his two boys into spoiled debutantes. Rock is wasted as a henpecked husband, and his character’s growth through the film entails him telling his wife, a gloriously pregnant Maya Rudolph, that he just needs to be treated like a human being. Spade is the requisite man-child that can’t settle down and wants to live in eternal drunken adolescence. Schneider plays the earnest hippy that nobody else takes seriously, the only member of the group that doesn’t go in for the emotional abuse that passes for camaraderie in this circle, and represents one half of the least clouded and deranged relationship of the film.

And then there’s Kevin James. Some might say he belongs with this crew. I wouldn’t. Don't get me wrong, King of Queens got me through some dark times. But when I first saw the trailer, I considered the possibility that maybe if I squinted my eyes during the film, I might be able to pretend that that was Chris Farley falling from a rope swing or fitting into a wetsuit as though it were a sausage casing. The role seemed tailor-made for Farley, and indeed, it was. IMDB tells me that Sandler actually wrote the script in 1997 with Farley included in the planned cast, but postponed the project indefinitely when Farley passed on. But seeing Sandler move ahead with this project with someone else in Farley’s place (someone who isn’t from the same generation of comedy and yet who is so clearly meant to channel Farley) seems insulting to everyone involved, and to the memory of Farley himself. It’s kind of like when Newsradio decided to push on after the passing of Phil Hartman – which in itself is admirable – but decided to try to fill the void with (another SNL veteran) Jon Lovitz. I’m all for healing and moving on with things, but watching Newsradio with Lovitz play the sardonic middle-ager only caused me to miss Hartman, just as watching Grown-Ups with Kevin James playing the clumsy but well-meaning fat man just made me miss Farley.

Grown-Ups is a curious beast and dumbfounds with its missed potential. As a film, it doesn’t seem to fully occupy any one role, and I was at a loss as to who might be its intended audience. It had the right premise for what could have been a home-run family film, teaching kids and adults about what really matters – but the explicit references to sex and drugs keep this from being the case. Further, the objectification of women (the camera-worship of Schneider’s attractive daughters contrasted with the denigration heaped upon his dehumanized unattractive daughter, for example) wouldn’t do anything to stem the body image issues increasingly faced by little girls these days. And yet it has these moments that strive to be tender lessons in life and love, aiming to be directly didactic to the youth of today, somewhere amidst the torturous breast-milk gags. That being said, it also fails as a movie aimed at adults. The comedy is far from being cutting-edge, and even falls short of the standard that these actors set for the industry twenty years ago. It begs the question of whether Sandler bothered to update his 1997 script to account for the comedies that have marked the evolution of the genre up to this point. The banter between the men and the quips that fly back and forth present nothing new to the viewer, and the actors split their time trying to appear convincing as buffoons or real human men, and can’t quite manage either. So you have a film that isn’t suitable for youngsters, and yet isn’t funny to adults. That leaves the people in the middle, being the people who enjoyed Pineapple Express, and Grown-Ups is no Pineapple Express.

I will say, though, that it was refreshing to see a film in which the characters routinely laugh at their own jokes – as happens in circles of friends. Since a weekend with old friends would consist of non-stop jokes and gags that, to outsiders, wouldn’t be all that funny, it’s only fitting that the laughs follow, and the director, Dennis Dugan, lets the camera linger in these instances. Think about it – how often do you see characters laughing at each others’ juvenile jokes, as you would with your own best friends?

The script also hints at character elements that never get fleshed out, leaving the viewer pondering themes that are invoked but never resolved. For example, James’s character seems to suffer from some urinary problems, and while this is indicated several times, it never reaches any kind of satisfying punchline. It takes him a fair bit of time to ‘make a sissy’, as it’s called in the film, and when he finally manages to produce a stream, someone quips that it sounds ‘like a diesel truck turning off’. What does this mean, exactly? From my extensive Movember research, though, it sounds to me like he suffers from prostatitis – which could have been a comedy goldmine. Another example of this trailing off is a strange subplot involving Lenny’s maid, who is brought along to help with the kids. Inexplicably, Lenny tries to hide the fact that the woman is a maid, choosing to present her to Kurt as an exchange student who can’t speak English. It seems there is some danger in Kurt meeting or being around a maid, but we’re never privy to exactly what.

Furthermore, the characters are paper-thin, to say nothing of the women characters in the film. Again, this would be par for the course for a Happy Madison production, but it prevents the film’s serious moments from having any real effect. Schneider’s character, Rob Hilliard, is the only one that is half-believable in this regard during these scenes. In fact, he’s the only one that seems honorable in any sense – and I’m not saying that just because he’s vegan (see my previous blog posting for more on this trend). He seems to be the one with the most unconditional love for his children; he doesn’t emotionally abuse his friends or go in for cheap laughs; he has an open, honest and loving relationship with a woman who just happens to be much (much) older than he; and he contributes to the funeral service in his own genuine new-age way (while the others snicker in the pews and place bets on the finer points of his contribution). Of course, his friends think he’s putting it on, and he is teased mercilessly throughout the film. He is a figure of fun that is relegated to third-row status in the group’s pecking order, along with Spade (both as a character and as an actor – see the group’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, posted on YouTube). In the end, though, Rob Hilliard is his own person, and flies his freak flag proudly – unlike James’s character, who hides the fact that he just lost his job (seriously un-funny and un-funnily serious) because he develops an inferiority complex any time Sandler’s Lenny is in the room, or Spade’s character, who projects a callous and in-control partier persona that crumbles when he is overtaken by the drink.

One of the more disappointing scenes in the film comes in an inevitable basketball rematch with the local boys who lost the tournament thirty years ago – a loss that has apparently kick-started their downward spiral into the dregs of American society. Another SNL dependable rounds out the locals’ basketball team, and this allows a face-off between two very talented, proven and consistent comics – Tim Meadows and Chris Rock. These are two very successful African-American actors who have been consistently funny individually and when they appeared (sort of) together in the Tales from the Barbecue sketches or (sort of) together in Everybody Hates Chris, and yet, in this film, as they square off on the basketball court, we get what feels like the comedic equivalent of soggy breakfast cereal. I can only give a rough recount of their dialogue here, because I wasn’t going to waste another six dollars on renting this film just to write it down, and no one the world over felt that this scene was memorable enough to merit being uploaded to YouTube (and that’s saying something). Here goes:

Rock: “Who are you?”
Meadows: “I’m the black man in this town.”
Rock: “No, you’re not. I’m the black man in this town.”
Meadows: “No, I’m the black man in this town. People see me, they get scared.”
Rock: “When people see me, they start running.”

And that’s about it. I wonder if these two guys chatted in Rock’s trailer afterwards and told each other that they ‘really nailed that scene’, or mused on the fact that they weren’t scripted to be the best basketball players on the team, instead playing second fiddle to Adam Sandler and Colin Quinn (actually, Rock’s character is quite bad at basketball in the film – another element that could have been mined for laughs and would have been, as far as I know, pretty original). And don’t even get me started on this guy:

As I said earlier, it’s not cutting-edge stuff. But these guys aren’t exactly known for producing cutting-edge stuff: I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry was about 15 years behind the times. I don’t think anyone batted an eyelid when Sandler and James played firefighters who pretend to be gay to score employment benefits, even though they probably thought they were being trailblazers and likely patted themselves on the back for providing a service to the gay community. I suppose we’ve come to expect mindless fluff from these actors, as that’s the bulk of what they’ve produced over the years. Like the grown-ups they portray, they’ve settled into stale routine, afraid to shake things up for fear of coming out on the losing end. Which is really too bad – in my humble opinion, these actors have shone the brightest when they took on roles that diverged from their usual tired output. Think of Sandler in Reign Over Me, or better yet, Punch-Drunk Love, or Rock in I Think I Love My Wife. It seems to me that their celebrity and their long-term critical success would have fared much better had Sandler decided to play this a little differently.

Imagine this movie without the kids, without the spraying breastmilk, without the predictable jokes about 80’s music and making out, without the empty platitudes about family, and without the physical shtick that has become bland in this post-Jackass comedy landscape. Oh, and without Kevin James. Imagine a serious piece about men coming to terms with real problems in real ways; give Schneider the lead and let him play a serious straight man, and let Spade play someone who isn’t trying to crack wise for an hour and half. Imagine something that’s a little more The Big Chill and a little less Big Daddy. It might not have been a blockbuster, but it definitely would have scored higher than 10% on the Tomato-Meter. A film like that could have confidently called itself Grown-Ups, unlike what we’ve been given. There is nothing grown-up about this film at all – instead these actors hash out the same brand of comedy that they’ve been peddling for twenty years, even though the subsequent generations of comics that they influenced have rendered them obsolete. It makes you wonder if Sandler and company realized that the audience they hoped to please with this film is made up of people that, since seeing them burst onto the scene with SNL, have actually grown up, and now look for humour that goes beyond the likes of what we saw in Happy Gilmore (which was really something back then, and stands as a comedy classic).

For me, and likely for others my age, it’s a reminder that you really never can go back to those golden days. An SNL reunion movie (as this was touted to be) will always disappoint, because tastes change, comedy changes, and audiences grow up. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson says, you can never step in the same river twice.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 1, 2010

In The Belly Of The Beast: Some thoughts on Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan

Leviathan is the first Young Adult novel that I’ve read in a long while, and it managed to keep my attention focused for 434 pages by blending two things I love: vegetarianism and Star Wars. Let me unpack this a little bit.

Leviathan is set in a universe in which Darwin discovered the secrets of DNA. There are two predominant ideologies to which the nations of the world subscribe. Darwinists believe in harnessing deliberately evolved creatures for all manner of purposes, including war, while the Clankers put their faith in steam-powered mechanics. The father of one of the main protagonists, Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated, plunging the world’s nations into war.

From the onset of Westerfeld’s narrative, there are parallels to be drawn to Lucas’ original trilogy. This is perhaps unavoidable and not at all on purpose – since Star Wars draws on timeless motifs and character types that have been endlessly recycled. Still, Leviathan’s opening scene of Prince Alek playing at his desk with toy troops, vehicles, and weapons calls to mind images of Luke Skywalker indulging his wanderlust with a toy X-Wing fighter, in the company of his newly-acquired droid companions on dusty Tattooine. It’s a useful way to open a narrative – Julie Taymor begins her version of Titus Andronicus with this an exceptionally forceful and effective scene of this nature. But I digress...

Instead of Lucas’ farmboy wanting to join the Rebellion and find adventure, we have a prince that is thrust into adventure against his will. Alek is suspicious of his captors and allies, always questioning the motives of those that direct his path, whereas Luke is perhaps too trusting and eager to jump in headfirst. Alek’s parents have lived their lives in the public eye and under constant scrutiny, while Luke must gradually uncover the secrets surrounding his heritage. I think the case could be made that Prince Alek is, in many ways, an inverse Luke Skywalker.

Like Star Wars, we have a story that takes old technology and mixes it with a foreign element (in this case, the splicing of DNA or possibly even Westerfeld’s notion of airsense) to create new spaces to explore. Reading Leviathan’s first chapter, I’m wondering if I simply see Star Wars in everything. It’s not easy when your first memory as a child is a television screen flashing the image of R2D2 and C3P0 ambling through the desert – those story elements tend to float around in your brain and never leave. I dismiss these thoughts and move on to the next chapter, and am greeted by this splendid illustration:

Do you see it? In my mind Westerfeld is signalling me with visual subtlety. Upon seeing this illustration, what jumps out at me is one of the cooler machines to come to life in the Star Wars Trilogy – the ATST Walker. It seems there are two ATST walkers hiding as the legs of Westerfeld’s (or Thompson, the illustrator’s) Stormwalker. Of course, I could be projecting here… that’s likely the case, because I also a see a bit of JarJar Binks in those leg units.

Of course, the look of Leviathan is also very similar to that of Star Wars. This is largely because they’re both drawing on the same visual source material. Lucas based the designs for his Empire on Nazi Germany, and while Alek and his entourage are Austrian, they share the same aesthetic as the First World War-era Germans they find themselves fighting. It’s all a lot of spiked helmets and iron crosses, and while the ‘Nazi’ element has not yet surfaced (Leviathan takes place in 1914), it’s easy to see that, farther along Westerfeld’s planned overarching narrative, the Clankers may begin adopting Darwinist technologies to promulgate their master race and create even deadlier weapons of war.

Now onto the animals. Westerfeld taps into something that I’ve been noticing more and more in popular film and fiction – vegetarianism and veganism. It’s a long-standing convention of cinema that if you want your audience to truly hate a character, have them abuse an animal (see Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets or Eddie Hassell in The Kids Are Allright). Conversely, characters can show their hearts of gold by caring for little creatures. Good guys never hurt the dogs that attack them, because those dogs (typically guard dogs employed by bad men) are just acting according to their nature. Instead, the hero will distract them with a steak or sedate them, and then continue with their quest.

As such, rarely will you see the true hero of a story chowing down on some chicken wings or a Big Mac. Think of Dinner For Schmucks… while Paul Rudd’s character has a confused conscience and a questionable ethical code, Steve Carrell’s character is single-minded in his drive to promote empathy and help others. In an extreme act of empathy, he jumps in front of a moving vehicle to salvage a dead mouse. He drinks almond milk while watching television and is horrified at the lobster feast served at the much-anticipated dinner. He is able to role-play, he ‘gets’ the animal art of Jemaine Clement, and he is the one to point out (and transcend) the cruelty of the analysts’ sport, in which they consume, as opposed to celebrate, personalities. Many directors and writers have taken the stance that an inherently ‘good’ character is one that extends his or her empathy into food choices.

With Westerfeld’s Darwinists using engineered creatures for war, it is perhaps inevitable that he address issues of meat consumption. And address it he does. In order for the Darwinists to succeed in fusing living creatures with control mechanisms, they must work with the biology. Thus a pilot at the helms of a flying creature must consider the animal’s impulses – fear, hunger, instinct – and work within them. Like a rider on a horse, a relationship is formed – one that is heightened by understanding and respect. Thus the Darwinists hold creatures, and all life, in the highest regard. While there is little detail about what the Darwinists eat on a daily basis, their level of empathy towards animals is made clear, as illustrated in this passage, as the protagonists (one Darwinist and one Clanker) make their way through the belly of the Leviathan, a living airship:

“This is… disgusting. We’re inside an animal!”

Suddenly the tilted walkway beneath his feet felt slippery and unstable.

Dylan laughed… “Aye but the skins of your zeppelins are made of cattle gut. That’s like being inside an animal, isn’t it? And so’s wearing your leather jacket!”

“But this one’s alive!” Alek sputtered.

“True… and being inside a dead animal is much more awful, if you think about it. You Clankers really are an odd bunch.” (Westerfield; 255-6)

Of course, nothing is black and white in Westerfeld’s book. While the Darwinists display a basic respect for animal life, they also put their beasts on the front lines of the battlefield, where they become mere casualties. As a people that have learned to create new species designed for specific purpose, have the Darwinists also taken to creating giant chickens that yield only breast meat a la Margaret Atwood? And the Clankers aren’t soullessly mechanical – Alek’s older companions continually lament the limitations of their Stormwalker in various situations, citing the horse as a much more desirable option, and it is Alek that cannot allow the crew of the Leviathan to starve to death outside his stronghold in the Alps, as he hides among stockpiles of provisions. In the end, though, Westerfeld is clear on integrating a message about the interconnectedness of everything. The Leviathan is itself a floating ecosystem, in/on which smaller creatures live and feed, while contributing to the propulsion of the craft and even its defenses. In order to fuel the Leviathan, each element of its food chain must be allowed to fulfill its basic function, right down to its bees collecting nectar. There is a larger theme about balance and ecological thinking at work here – much like in Star Wars.

The first chapter of Leviathan sets the stage for a narrative which pierces and plays with tropes that have been trotted out time and again in adventure narratives. Westerfeld, however, injects a good dose of revisionism and imagination (not to mention gender-bending), creating new playgrounds for Leviathan to explore. It will be interesting to see how these elements play out through the rest of the trilogy.

Thanks for reading.