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In Prince Avalanche, the Apatow Crew Goes Existential

Here’s a humble wig-out, a curio that could endure beyond its creators’ more demonstrably successful works—and for decades will certainly confound audiences who think they’re streaming/torrenting/eye-jacking some broad Paul Rudd comedy they had forgotten about. Prince Avalanche director David Gordon Green gives star Rudd more chances to charm than he’s had in the last few Judd Apatow joints, and the actor, here sporting a twitchy burr of a mustache, stirs laughs by appearance alone. As a workin’ man laying the yellow lines on the roads in a dead but huge Texas state park in 1988, Rudd wears crisp overalls, seems weirdly proud of his tool belt and goggles, and looks for all the world like the star of some pre-Depression two-reeler, one of those calm-seeming but hilariously desperate everylugs whose new jobs always result in expert humiliation.

He does fall down, amusingly, but Prince Avalanche isn’t that kind of comedy. Just what kind it is is, in some ways, its story’s central mystery: Two men, Rudd’s Alvin and the much younger Lance (Emile Hirsch, tender in coarseness), lay paint, camp in the woods, and discover with us just who they are—and what kind of world they live in. It’s a schlubby, existential, black-box-theater character study, steeped in warm silences and anxious boys’ talk, sugared up with sublime shots of fire-ravaged forest and wild streams percolating with raindrops. One sequence of Rudd taking a swim in that rain is as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen onscreen in the last few years; the real miracle is that it turns up in a big-hearted, small-scoped film in which men crab at each other over farts and control of the radio.

There is a story. Rudd’s Alvin is pledged to Lance’s sister, to whom he pens letters puffed up with all the self-importance absent from cinematographer Tim Orr’s camerawork. Lance heads home on the weekends to “party” with any woman he can sweet-talk into bed, but Alvin sacks out on a hammock in the park, more eager for Emersonian transcendence than the pleasures of the flesh—or even other people. As the film goes on, deepening in its urgency and strangeness, we slowly realize: Alvin should be going into town, too, to see Lance’s sister. From there, Rudd and Green peel back this guy’s pretensions, his niceness, his everything, often in prickly, elusive scenes that are the opposite of on-the-nose; they’re off-the-face. Meanwhile, his small blowups with Lance kaboom into explosions, as blowups between comedy leads must. The guys spill into goofball violence and heal through even more reckless drunkenness. A couple other characters wander the park, too, dispensing wisdom and maybe not quite literally existing. It’s that kind of movie.

Green made a dazzling debut with George Washington, also shot by Orr, a sumptuous indie whatsit of rural poverty, awkward kid romance, and knotted Faulknerian dialogue—a film that still haunts me, on occasion, though I haven’t seen it since 2000. A few years later, Green directed the likable stoner comedy Pineapple Express and its weaksauce imitators, Your Highness and The Sitter. Prince Avalanche reconciles Green’s twin modes into a whole no other director could have, deeply felt and light as laughter.

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Jeanine Basinger Explains Why There’s So Few Great Marriage Movies

There’s a reason, beyond basic Judd Apatow oversaturation, that hardly anyone went to see his mewl of middle-aged despair This Is 40. A movie about a marriage already in progress—as opposed to one about a marriage just waiting to happen, the province of the romantic comedy—is always a tough sell. Forget that marriage movies offer fewer opportunities for full-on movie-star glamour (not that we get enough of that these days, anyway). There’s something soul-killing about watching Leslie Mann dress down Paul Rudd while he’s perched on the john. Real marriage involves enough toilet-bowl diplomacy as it is. Why go the movies to see it?

Jeanine Basinger pinpoints the problem in her perceptive and nimble book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Making movies that are truly about the state of being married has always been a thorny proposition. “Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade,” Basinger writes in her introduction. (She doesn’t say anything about toilets, but then, she doesn’t have to.) “Worst of all,” she continues, “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good story was usually a story in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics.”

Considering how hard it is to make a decent marriage movie, Basinger has dug up a surprising number of them for this book, her tenth. She approaches the subject with a sense of adventure that’s something like the euphoric energy that makes people crazy enough to put a gold ring on the third finger in the first place. Her prose is fluid and adamantly unacademic, whether she’s outlining and analyzing the plot details of a Depression-era picture about the pratfalls of hasty marriage—the way, for example, James Stewart and Carole Lombard stumble toward potential happiness in the 1939 Made for Each Other—or launching into a dazzling riff on the rambunctious yet delicately calibrated partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. (That show isn’t, of course, a marriage movie, but it exploded previous notions of how marriage—and pregnancy—could be portrayed onscreen).

Basinger begins with the silent era, in which comic actors like Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand depicted “wretched marital behavior”—including Mabel throwing things and Fatty falling down a lot, with occasional intervention by the police or an organ grinder and his monkey—to draw the audience into a misery-loves-company embrace. “What made it work,” Basinger writes, “was that although the movies were saying ‘marriage is a disaster’ they were also winking and adding, ‘but it’s our disaster.’ ” She nominates Cecil B. DeMille for the title “Father of the American Movie Marriage,” pointing out that the director’s Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife? “nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to movies made under the studio system, addressing the ways Hollywood struggled to find new and engaging obstacles to throw in the path of its ring-bound couples. Basinger boils down a short list of the movies’ basic threats to happily-ever-afters: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. The first two, of course, are the most common, but Basinger really gets cooking when it comes to murder and addiction. Her breakdown of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life, “a monster movie in which the monster is a very nice husband,” captures the picture’s sense of reluctant hopelessness. James Mason plays a loving husband and father who’s transformed into an aggressive megalomaniac when he begins taking doctor-prescribed cortisone; wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen suffer immeasurably. Basinger notes that the happy conclusion is “neither convincing nor reassuring.”

Basinger spends the last section of the book, a very small chunk, on movies of the modern era, addressing pictures like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but also enlarging the conversation to television shows like Friday Night Lights. But the best parts of I Do and I Don’t are somewhere in the middle—the section, for example, where Basinger contrasts the three film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, made in 1934 (with Greta Garbo), 1957 (titled The Seventh Sin and starring Eleanor Parker) and 2006 (with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). “With different shadings about the importance of love, the need for sex, the issues of motherhood, obedience, couples working together, reputations ruined by affairs,” Basinger concludes, “The Painted Veil offers options to each generation, and each era can make the Painted Veil it needs.”

It’s a shame This Is 40 was released just before the book’s publication. Basinger would have found a lot of meat there, but it’s probably safe to say that the picture’s poor us, with our too-big house and our not-quite-satisfactory sex life self-indulgence wouldn’t have escaped her. Not much escapes Basinger in I Do and I Don’t. In her introduction, she notes that when she first conceived the idea for the book, friends like Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her of the dangers ahead. But then, embarking on a book like this is just as chancy an enterprise as getting into that shaky “I Do” boat and pushing offshore. In I Do and I Don’t, Basinger navigates the choppy waters deftly, and somehow, the strain of paddling rarely shows.

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Like Marriage, This Is 40 Is Long, Aimless, and Worth It

Sadly, country songwriters stand as nearly the only entertainers in our popular culture who craft memorable art on the subject of marriage, the state in which just less than half of Americans spend the majority of their lives. A few years back, Brad Paisley, one of Nashville’s best, wrote and recorded a wry waltz whose lyrics compared the odds of newlyweds lasting to those of an airliner making it to its destination. He concludes, on the chorus, “If love was a plane, nobody’d get on.”

But we still board, despite knowing those odds. And nobody bucks against them harder than writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, who has committed himself not only to matrimony but, with This Is 40, to something even less likely: making a good movie about it. He hasn’t quite succeeded, but he hasn’t made a bad one. In fact, the biggest problems with Apatow’s messy, sprawling, perceptive comedy have more to do with his goals than his execution. Jeanine Basinger diagnoses the difficulty he faces in her forthcoming book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in Movies: “Marriage had no story arc,” Basinger writes, describing old Hollywood’s reluctance to examine life after courtship. “A good movie was usually a story told in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics. Marriage took years to develop and mature.”

So, it’s easy to carp that This Is 40 is too long, too aimless, too alert to small resentments and too stingy with the comic set pieces and gel-capped life lessons that made Apatow’s Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin such hits. It’s even easier to complain, “The trailer promised big laughs and lots of triumphs, but other mostly the movie is devoted to showing us Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd pickle in each other’s presence.”

That’s all true. But those resentments are sharply observed, and the pickling is honest, more familiar from life than from movies, and almost always droll if not laugh-out-loud funny. A scene of husband Pete (Rudd) upsetting wife Debbie (Mann) with his bed farts is tinged with tragic truth—what is marriage but the process of acclimating to each other’s gasses? More painful still is the moment when Debbie, seeking sex, bares the breasts she has been worrying over as her 40th birthday approaches—only to be rebuffed as Pete monkeys with his iPad. (Mann is Apatow’s real-world wife, and the children in the movie are Apatow and Mann’s real-world children, so all this naked truth stuff is complicated.)

Occasionally, Apatow’s gifts for comedy and pain come together beautifully. Debbie and Pete laugh in bed about how much they hate each other, sometimes, and then how exactly they would murder each other. Her answer—a slow poisoning—gets more involved as she describes it, and Mann makes the most of her showcase: She plays it as if Debbie’s both pleased by the fantasy, a little turned on, but also a little upset by it—and more than a little invested in one-upping Pete. Debbie is the first female character in an Apatow film as engaging and fucked up as the boys.

Rudd dampens his natural charm, but he’s funny when not brooding. The Apatow children, though, are both marvelous. One searing eruption from Maude Apatow, age 13 at the time of filming, marks the film’s emotional high point.

This Is 40 offers story beats but nothing like a story. The family is having money troubles, which stands to reason considering both Debbie and Pete have cute movie-character jobs: She runs a teensy boutique, and he owns a record label that only releases music by over-the-hill alt-rockers. (Pete is a dick about his belief that rock music being the only real music, and his principled devotion to Graham Parker threatens his family’s lifestyle.) Meanwhile, between fights and reconciliations, the couple frets about turning 40, endures unsatisfying visits to and from their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), and tries to ween the family off wifi and junk food. That last story element is somewhat baffling: The fit Rudd and Mann do not at all look like the scared-of-salad schlubs they’re playing.

What the movie most resembles is a “harold,” one of those improv shows where the troupe takes one suggestion and then develops inter-related comic scenes based on everything that suggestion might possibly contain. Some scenes work; some don’t. Only one is as funny as those in Apatow’s first two films—it involves an agitated Melissa McCarthy—and a couple break the film’s reality. Pete suggests to his kids that rolling a rubber tire with a stick is just as fun as playing with their many i-devices, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s joking. If he is, he’s not funny; if he isn’t, he’s too dumb for us to invest in.

Apatow hasn’t quite beaten the odds, and the film—like his undervauled Funny People, which improves with re-watching—will play best for audiences who know what they’re in for. Much like marriage, This Is 40 is somewhat formless, and it almost never hurries up. But life is improved by having the option.

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Jason Segel Struggles with Weather, Relationship in The Five-Year Engagement

There is exactly one unexpected moment in the otherwise drearily predictable The Five-Year Engagement that, though little more than a throwaway line, at least adds a bit of political reality to puncture Nicholas Stoller’s limp, hermetic comedy of deferred nuptials. Tom (Jason Segel, who co-scripted with Stoller), a sous-chef at an upscale eatery in San Francisco, tells his butch boss (Lauren Weedman) that he’s quitting to move to Ann Arbor, where his fiancée, Violet (Emily Blunt), has just been accepted to do postdoc research at the University of Michigan. The head chef snorts at what a bad decision Tom is making in the name of coupled commitment before dropping the bomb: “This is why I voted against gay marriage. Please don’t tell anyone I said so.”

A gay person’s (or any person’s) anti-knot-tying stance—as an actual principle, not commitment-phobic skittishness invariably cured in the final act—tied up with the wish to keep that belief closeted would make for a great romantic comedy. But those complicated emotions have no place in The Five-Year Engagement, a film as comfy as the bunny costume Tom wears at the New Year’s Eve party where he first meets Violet. The movie opens on their one-year anniversary, the night Tom proposes. They postpone the wedding so that they can get settled in Michigan, an adjustment period that involves lame gags with snow and ice and the lack of classy restos worthy of Tom’s skills . While he makes Reubens at Zingerman’s deli, Violet thrives under the academic mentorship of Welsh charmer Winton (Rhys Ifans). When her postdoc is extended, Tom’s deepening misery at being stuck in the Wolverine State takes the form of extravagant facial hair and an obsession with deer meat; the downward spiral continues, culminating in extracurricular drunken kisses, an amputated big toe, and the couple’s decision to call it quits.

With about 45 minutes to fill before the preordained conclusion, The Five-Year Engagement introduces one amusing minor character, Audrey (Dakota Johnson), a decade-younger hostess whom Tom starts dating—and who erupts into ageist invective when he delivers news that she doesn’t want to hear. Some of that fire might have made dully cheerful Violet a more memorable creation; her most outlandish act is to quietly suggest to Tom, “Maybe it’s OK for me to be selfish.” She’s an improvement over the vindictive shrew Kristen Bell played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Segel and Stoller’s first collaboration—which, like this film, was also produced by Judd Apatow—but Violet remains a strenuously anodyne character, one that not even a performer as gracefully instinctual as Blunt can do much with.

The loutish or regressed guy behavior that typifies Apatow productions has also calcified into the innocuous. Tom’s male friends, with their pillowy, carbed-out bodies, are devoted, doofus dads who giggle over naughty wordplay.

Occasionally, the dialogue in The Five-Year Engagement might sound like something an adult audience member has once thought or uttered. “I wanna be alone with you here,” Tom pouts to Violet after they’ve had a fight, and she gets out of bed to respect his request for momentary solitude. This fleeting acknowledgment of the come-here-go-away dynamic of most romantic relationships serves as the film’s most insightful look at attachment at any cost. The rest is much like the doughnuts that Violet uses in a research experiment: stale and not good for you.

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Bad Teacher and the Downside of Equal Rights in Hollywood

From Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Anna Faris (which Jezebel.com reblogged under the headline “Hollywood Insiders Admit Hollywood Hates Women”) to the glass-ceiling-shattering pressure assigned to last month’s Bridesmaids (which has thus far outgrossed every previous Judd Apatow project since Knocked Up), a case could be made that 2011 will be remembered as the year the film industry (finally!) acknowledged its institutional misogyny, took steps to reverse it, and even learned that letting chicks into the comedy loop can actually end up being profitable. Yay, right?

If a new era is dawning, Bad Teacher reminds us exactly why change is so desperately needed. Directed by Jake Kasdan (an Apatow comedy family cousin whose last film was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and scripted by frequent Office writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, Bad Teacher focuses on a school year in the life of Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz), an aging party girl once destined to be a trophy wife, who instead ended up an incompetent middle school English teacher, managing to hold on to her job only via coy manipulation. Dumped by one wealthy fiancé, Elizabeth goes looking for another, and finds potential in Scott (Justin Timberlake), an heir who has altruistically signed up as a substitute teacher. Elizabeth must compete for Scott’s affections with her perky, perfectionist white swan—history teacher Amy (Lucy Punch)—while first fending off and then (surprise!) slowly succumbing to the advances of schlubby gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel).

The general argument holds that because studios produce so few films built around strong lady protagonists, Hollywood must hate women. But be careful what you wish for. Here, a “strong woman” means a lazy, lying, scheming, slutty, and obstinately materialistic one, whose sole redeeming virtue is her hard body (which the camera shamelessly ogles, as if the men watching need their hand held to look at an actress’s ass), who is so delusional that she thinks her ostentatious assholery is rock-star sexy, and whose delusions are essentially validated by narrative resolution.

At least Bad Teacher offers opportunities to ponder an evergreen pop-culture conundrum: At what point do professional performers with evident talent and a proven ability to make smart choices realize they’re trapped in a film that—due to lazy writing, style-free direction and visual design, and a general refusal to aim above the lowest common denominator—simply can’t be good? What compels someone like Justin Timberlake—so charismatically contemptible in The Social Network, so often a saving grace on SNL—to take a role centered on a cringe-worthy set-piece involving him dry-humping his real-life ex-girlfriend? Are actresses like Diaz and Punch really cool with punishing material based on the worst male-invented stereotypes of the way women deceptively control men and compete with one another? If they’re at all conscious of what they’ve gotten into, did they try to make it better, or did they submit to mediocrity because, you know, fuck it—the check cleared? Are they so far inside that they can’t possibly gauge what the fix they’re in might look like from the outside?

Jason Segel can, perhaps: He seems to have shown up on set carrying an enormous amount of weight, as if he’s hoping to not be recognized. In a role hardly larger than a cameo despite the fact that he’s ostensibly the male romantic lead, Segel never tries to hide that he’s only here to pay his mortgage—which makes him the most likeable presence on-screen. In just a handful of scenes, he comes close to saving the movie by injecting a much-needed dose of casual, naturalistic performance into the shtick, even as most of his dialogue consists of caustic asides and barbed flirting. Elizabeth’s sole character growth comes from her gradual understanding that she and Russell are soul mates of sorts, in that they’ve both figured out that sincerity is for suckers, and thus subsequently live to mess with people. That his agitation consists entirely of harmlessly sour, even charming verbal play directed at oblivious rubes, while she gets her kicks from mounting pranks with severe real-world consequences, is a moral discrepancy the film is content to leave unresolved.

You can’t say Bad Teacher doesn’t fulfill the basic promise of its genre; once the dust settles, boys and girls alike walk away with what they went looking for. But for Segel’s character, “victory” doesn’t seem like a good thing. Maybe this is a sign of progress after all: After a hundred years’ worth of romances in which “heroes” are rewarded for their unrepentant shittiness with the affections of an ever-patient beloved, maybe it’s the dude’s turn to get the raw deal.

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Bridesmaids Gets Screwed

Bridesmaids is a high-profile test case. Directed by Paul Feig (a sitcom journeyman most lovingly known as the creator of Freaks and Geeks), it’s the first female-fronted comedy produced by Hollywood kingpin Judd Apatow, who has weathered criticism in the past for his brand’s dude-centric point of view. It’s also built around the talents of co-writer/lead actress Kristen Wiig, an SNL regular carrying a full-length film for the first time. This combination of gambles is rare enough in contemporary studio film that a wide variety of blogger-pundits—from feminist, fanboy, and industry perspectives—have positioned the film as a referendum on the viability of women in Hollywood comedy. It’s important to make a distinction between creative merit and commercial: Bridesmaids won’t settle the inane Christopher Hitchens–stoked “Are women funny?” debate once and for all, but its box-office performance could have a major impact on the sort of lady-oriented films that get made going forward.

Those high stakes manifest themselves on screen in a kind of multiple personality disorder, epitomized in a first scene that foregrounds raunch, then slips in psychology. We meet late-thirtysomething single Annie (Wiig) in the midst of a booty call with hot asshole bachelor Ted (Jon Hamm); they cycle through a variety of sexual positions in a glib, high-energy montage that quickly establishes the film’s R-rated bona fides (Ted’s command that Annie “cup my balls!” is maybe the film’s fifth line). Cut to the next morning: Annie sneaks out of bed to touch up her makeup before Ted wakes up, a fear and self-loathing tell that solicits knowing smirks over easy LOLs. From there, Bridesmaids continues to vacillate between two contradictory types of raw matter—one, the kind of raucous, visual, and vacuous comedy that plays well in a trailer; the other, a more nuanced approach forgoing immediate spectacle and punchline for character detail that pays dividends as the film rolls along. Or, in more cynical terms: The former tosses meat to the traditional male comedy audience, while the latter wins over ladies who look to rom-coms for self-identification.

Bridesmaids’ core relationship is between Annie and her best friend of 30-plus years, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), whose recent engagement—and new friendship with Helen (Rose Byrne), the effortlessly polished and capable trophy wife of her fiancé’s boss—sends underemployed, chronically single Annie into a tailspin. As socially awkward, underachieving Annie attempts to prove her worth as a friend to Lillian by day, by night she inadvertently charms traffic cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). A Model Boyfriend type, Rhodes, with his practical perfection and unwavering attention, begins to disrupt Annie’s default practice of finding excuses to give up when realities fail to match fantasies. (Another example of Bridesmaids’ split personality: It’s a film that thematically advocates for clear-eyed, delusion-free personal responsibility while narratively hinging on the realization of a fairy-tale wedding.)

At its best, Bridesmaids reconciles its two minds, merging high-concept, skit-length and paced comedy with naturalistic conversation (an extended scene on an airplane finds the heretofore unknown common ground between Robert Altman and Jerry Lewis). It’s funniest when the humor is based in language, with Wiig exercising her talent for passive-aggressive one-upping in heightened situations. Lurking inside the uneven finished project is a film that continually draws attention to movie clichés by literalizing them. The standard third-act tough-love talk devolves into an absurd inspirational anecdote and physical aggression. Montages of therapy baking and wound-licking are set to carefully chosen songs sung by Fiona Apple and Courtney Love, female performers whose prodigious talents for introspection and histories of self-sabotage neatly match Annie’s struggle to see herself accurately and make changes accordingly. But many of the chaotic set pieces cataloging Annie’s self-destruction (a pair of party fouls that recall Wiig’s most painful SNL mugging, an even more foul and painful extended riff on public diarrhea) have a kind of dumb crassness that works against Bridesmaids’ often smart, highly class-conscious deconstruction of female friendship and competition. Comedy of humiliation is one thing; a fat lady shitting in a sink is another.

Bridesmaids’ need to be all things to all quadrants places an unfair burden on a film that, when not bending over backward to prove that girls can play on the same conventional comic field as boys, successfully dismantles both romantic and bromantic comedy formulas. This supposed great experiment in femme-com bears the distinct scars of having been “fixed”—out of fear or financial imperative—by and for dudes.

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Monogamy: So Much More Than a Hipster Blow-Up

The romanticized commitment-phobia that keeps Judd Apatow in gilt-fixtured man caves is brought down to earth (or Park Slope, anyway) in this inventive indie thriller from Murderball co-director Dana Adam Shapiro. Monogamy follows thirtysomething Brooklynite Theo (Chris Messina) as he simultaneously slogs through his day job as a wedding photographer, preps for his own impending nuptials to perky Nat (Rashida Jones), and works a side gig taking surreptitious shots of clients who contact him anonymously. This latter endeavor leads him to a voluptuous blonde (Meital Dohan) who enjoys public sex and the photographic documentation thereof, and sparks an obsession that threatens Theo’s love life and overall mental health. While its genre trappings and privileged urban milieu occasionally make Monogamy seem like a glib cocktail of Blow-Up and Look at This Fucking Hipster, they also allow Shapiro to float sly observations on the benignly predatory wedding industry and the subverted misogyny lurking behind affluent males’ knee-jerk anti-matrimonialism. (He also nails the inarticulate panic and disorienting self-pity of a breakup with nauseatingly perfect pitch.) The film’s final plot twist is easy to spot well before it arrives, but that doesn’t detract from its crafty, heartfelt, and surprisingly sound affirmation of getting hitched.

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The Kids Grow Up’s Doug Block Talks Personal Docs

“It’s not therapy,” says Doug Block about his intimate family movies 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up, in which he probes, respectively, his parents’ 54-year marriage and his relationship with his daughter on the eve of her going to college. “In fact, it’s the opposite of therapy. In the same way Birch Street was my way of putting off grieving for my mother, Kids was my way of putting off the empty nest.”

After each film premiered, the 57-year-old filmmaker celebrated with a party. “Then,” he says, “I’d go back home and crash, because I’d have to face what I avoided.”

Block’s ability to take a step back from his most personal subject matter may be the secret to his films’ successes. As he says, “It’s about how I can get out of the way and make these stories move other people.” In 2007, he crafted a list of the “The Ten Rules of Personal Documentary”: Rule No. 1—“Don’t make it all about you (even though, of course, it’s all about you).”

The New York–based Block, whose latest, Kids, opens on Friday (see review below), never intended to be the guru of “personal documentaries”—a label that he jokingly derides as “what some people might call glorified home movies.” He planned to be “a big-time fiction filmmaker,” he says. “I never wanted to make documentaries growing up. They were boring.” It wasn’t until he saw Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee’s epic meditation on love in the era of nuclear weapons, that he realized documentaries “could be funny, director-driven, and as creative as fiction films.”

His first feature, 1991’s To Heck With Hollywood!, which follows three hapless indie-film aspirants, may have helped validate his decision to move into nonfiction. After co-producing Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View From Here, the devastating 1993 doc that follows a couple dying from AIDS, Block turned his lens further inward with 1998’s Home Page, a look at proto-bloggers and his own efforts to represent himself online (giving birth to the still-active nonfiction forum d-word.com). 

But it was with 2006’s critically acclaimed 51 Birch Street that Block found his form. As a testament to the movie’s universality, it drew a diverse group of fans, from Stephen Sondheim to Judd Apatow to Michel Gondry, who champions Block for his ability to “find the extraordinary in the patient observation of everyday life.”

Though the docs have been “tricky to make,” because of the weight and responsibility that comes with capturing your own family onscreen, Block sets up basic ground rules to protect his “subjects”: “I never shoot when they don’t want me to shoot,” he says, adding, “OK, I might protest a little, but then I put the camera down.”

In a key scene from The Kids Grow Up, for example, his daughter, Lucy, sits as if for a formal interview, but then protests: “I’m really pissed off that you’re doing this right now,” she says through tears. “Instead of experiencing me going away to college, you’re just trying to film it.” Block’s response acutely sums up his process: “I’m trying to do both.”

Making Kids did present Block with “the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to shoot professionally,” and it wasn’t his daughter. Midway through Lucy’s last year in high school, his wife, Marjorie Silver, suffered a severe depressive episode. He struggled with whether to video-tape her, but eventually did. “She’s committed to destigmatizing the disease,” says Block. “She gets over it, and then we move on.”

One of his close collaborators, Esther Robinson—who produced Home Page, and directed the Warhol Factory doc A Walk Into the Sea, which Block, in turn, produced—says what’s “important to understanding Doug’s work is that he’s surrounded by tough, truth-telling women,” she says. “These ladies”—his wife and daughter—“do not let him get away with anything.”

As a logical follow-up to Kids, Block is now starting a new project about his marriage to Silver on the eve of their 25th anniversary. As a wedding videographer on the side—he has shot some 120 nuptials—Block hopes to bring the same candid humor and sensitivity to another deceptively simple subject: “What makes it work for some couples,” he asks, “and why doesn’t it work for others?”

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OFF THE AIR

Check out the TV rejects of Conan, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow
Ever find yourself hypnotically fixed to the couch, rounding out the third hour of an overly laugh-tracked sitcom binge (we, um, surely don’t) and wondering in awe at what manner of programming didn’t make the cut if this piss-poor excuse for entertainment did? Well, incidentally, it’s the awesome stuff that gets cast aside, at least according to The Other Network, a festival of the best unaired TV pilots ever made. For two nights, never-before-seen shows will be screened that were either too controversial, like 1998’s Five Houses about a gay couple moving into a suburban neighborhood; too hilarious, like the original Saturday TV Funhouse, a sketch show hosted by a drunken clown; or just too weird, like Ben Stiller’s masterpiece Heatvision & Jack, in which Jack Black plays an ultra-smart ex-astronaut with a talking motorcycle sidekick voiced by Owen Wilson. See other denied titles by Judd Apatow, Brent Forrester, and Conan O’Brien and decide for yourself if the network execs were right.

Fri., July 23, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2010

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

T.J. Miller Is Main Selling Point of She’s Out of My League

This isn’t entirely without its selling points, chief among them T.J. Miller, who’s a cross between Seth Rogen and Jason Segal—paging Judd Apatow, now. Miller plays Stainer, a moptopped giant and best bud to Kirk (Jay Baruchel, an Apatow player from way back), a TSA lackey and a “hard five” who catches the eye of Molly (Alice Eve), a lawyer-turned-party-planner who’s a “hard 10” and out of Kirk’s league. Molly, burned by her hunky flyboy ex, wants safe and sweet. Stainer, burned by his own former flame, is aghast at the coupling; short on self-esteem himself, he insists it’ll never work, and it doesn’t for long stretches precisely because Kirk buys Stainer’s sincere rap—he doesn’t want his boy hurt. Stainer’s the real goofy, damaged soul of this slight comedy, directed by Jim Field Smith, who tries with modest success to blend the sticky-sweet with the plain ol’ sticky (the first time Molly grinds on Kirk, he’s a bit early on the draw—and, look, here comes the dog to lick his pants). Baruchel’s bit is the same one he’s been perfecting since he enrolled in Undeclared—puppy-dog pouty and cute and clever and good God, he’s this close to turning into Michael Cera. Miller’s the find. He’s out of this movie’s league.