Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Low comedy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

I like the idea of taking the elements of low comedy – toilet humour, doubles entendres, and so forth – and raising them to the level of art. In recent years, the Farrelly brothers attracted a fair bit of critical approval, particularly for There’s Something About Mary (I didn’t get it). And some serious critics held American Pie in very high regard (I can just about see that). But if you really want to talk about this, I’d start with Blake Edwards. At one time, I thought Edwards was one of the best American directors of his time. Nowadays, I’d say he’s better than most people realize, but that isn’t quite the same thing. Most people acknowledge the gentle charm of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the surprising rawness of Days of Wine and Roses. And the Pink Panther movies were big business in their day, although I’m not sure they got enough attention for their formal rigour – a quality which admittedly fell off sharply later in the series.

Blake Edwards

Remember how, after Peter Sellers died, Edwards put together a whole film (Trail of the Pink Panther) out of discarded material and new linking bits, after which he made Curse of… with a new lead character, and later again Son of… with Roberto Benigni. Some see this as merely desperate, but it seems to me to go beyond that, into what might be regarded as a pseudo-scientific examination of desperation, of the repetition and patterning that’s always marked his comedy. But I acknowledge that I could be giving him too much credit here – after all, at the same (declining) stage in his career, he recycled Victor/Victoria into a not-particularly-successful Broadway musical.

His two masterpieces (OK, that’s a relative term too) are 10 and S.O.B., two brittle and often bitter examinations of aging in Hollywood. In Bo Derek, 10 had Edwards’ best ever gimmick, and Dudley Moore temporarily caught the popular imagination, but the movie is consistently rueful, if not depressing, and it captures a certain type of self-indulgent maleness very well. S.O.B. was ever darker – notionally a wacky farce, populated almost entirely by old, unhappy people. Julie Andrews baring her breasts provided another (although not quite as compelling) audience-grabber, but the heart of the film was William Holden as a director who’d sold his soul almost completely, and yet managed to retain a notion of gritty integrity that somehow hung intact through the movie. It’s yet another wonderful Edwards ambiguity – almost the ultimate biting of the hand that fed him.

Peter Segal, director of the new comedy Anger Management, is no Blake Edwards. Specifically, his film has no visual style at all, and no attitude. And very few good lines. I think I only laughed at some silly euphemisms for sexual activity, but that just tells you something about me. This is a typically ill-considered, barely controlled Hollywood package, seemingly built around a single concept: that Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson would be in the same movie. Which is not a bad concept, but it doesn’t take you very far either.

Anger Management

The surprise is that much of the movie’s interest would come not from Nicholson, but from Sandler. But to address Nicholson first – the movie is obviously a conscious relaxation for him, after The Pledge and About Schmidt. Critics praised him (excessively, in my view) for how he kept his usual mannerisms under wraps in Schmidt, but here he lets them all tumble out. You name your favourite Nicholson moment – it’s evoked here at some point. Somehow it all manages to seem more weighty and respectable than Robert de Niro’s recent exercises in self-parody, but that’s yet another relative assessment. Presumably the whole thing carries the significance for Nicholson of a trip to the Oscars; sprawled out in his front row seat, mugging for the camera and getting treated like a king.

It’s hard to think of an actor being handed a greater gift than Sandler was with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. The movie had almost no purpose other than to rehabilitate Sandler; to show how his shtick masked his warmth and complexity. The whole movie, more or less, served as a visualization of Sandler’s passive-aggressive confusion. At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it – it was obviously accomplished, but on some level seemed just nutty.

But now, Anger Management finally proves the success of Anderson’s film, because Sandler just doesn’t seem the same to me anymore. He plays a nervous executive assistant, put-upon and under-rewarded at work, stifled in his relationship with girlfriend Marisa Tomei by various hang-ups. A stupid misunderstanding with a flight attendant gets him sentenced to anger management therapy. Nicholson plays the doctor who, of course, is crazier than the patient. He leads Sandler through various supposedly therapeutic misadventures, winding up with a splashy finale in Yankee Stadium (with guest star Rudolph Giuliani).

Saved by Sandler

The joke is that Sandler doesn’t need anger management, but he sure needs something. Nicholson’s misaligned treatments, stamping all over every aspect of Sandler’s life, only makes him angrier, thus prolonging the sentence and digging him a deeper hole. It’s a conventional tale of escalating disaster, but Sandler never seemed to me like merely the suffering fool. He avoids the over the top outbursts of his pre-Punch Drunk persona, all but embodying the straight man to Nicholson’s antics. The much remarked upon “sweetness” of Anderson’s film is back too. But most interesting is the ambiguity he projects regarding his true mental state – a quality that frequently suggests there’s more to the movie than meets the eye.

As it turns out, there sort of is – an ending that attempts to put another twist on everything we’ve seen. It’s utterly feeble – the ultimate proof of the film’s vacuousness. The only other thing of interest is the movie’s faint attempt to tap into contemporary paranoia – it has a few references to these being “difficult times,” and the Yankee Stadium climax, with that guest star, certainly comes across as an exercise in reassurance. The movie could easily have extended this line of inquiry, setting up Sandler as a funnel for contemporary jitteriness, but that’s more than it has in mind.

In fact, the film’s ultimately the most complacent kind of backslap to the audience – the kind of movie that assumes that if the cast is having fun, then so will we. Another assumption it makes: there can’t be any better entertainment than watching celebrities goofing around, so just about every supporting role is filled by a “name” – Heather Graham, Woody Harrelson, John Turturro. It’s like watching a particularly demeaning episode of Celebrity Fear Factor.

Still, it’s the kind of movie that at least has interesting flaws, and then there’s Sandler. It’s maybe a quarter of the way to being an intelligent dumb comedy.

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