In “The New One,” Mike Birbiglia Reckons With Life After Baby

Mike Birbiglia’s couch is the spine of his engaging one-man show, The New One, playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through the end of August. Couches, he muses at the top of the show, are humble, not like those holier-than-thou beds that demand we name a whole room after them. The couch is “a bed that hugs you” — an eternal comfort, symbolic of a cozy status quo.

The comedian and filmmaker is practically describing himself. Like his favorite piece of furniture, Birbiglia is a soothing presence. Loose and friendly, at the performance I saw, he began to greet the audience before he put on his headset microphone, as if we were guests gathered to hear a story in his living room. The subject of The New One is Birbiglia’s resistance to and gradual acceptance of fatherhood, but it creeps up on you slowly, as if to mirror the shift in his attitude toward being a parent.

From the opening bit about his beloved couch, Birbiglia steers the show, subtly but deftly, into the subject of parenthood and his unambiguous feeling, at the outset, that it’s not for him. “I never wanted to have a kid for seven specific reasons,” he divulges, not least of which is that “People aren’t great.” To be fair, he’s got some legitimate reasons to be wary of procreating, such as a sleep disorder — the subject of his breakout show and subsequent 2012 film, Sleepwalk With Me — that requires him to be physically restrained in bed while he sleeps. “There are details in my life that are both setups and punchlines,” he quips.

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After a visit to his brother, whose children appear to be making him miserable despite his insistence that they’re the best things that ever happened to him, Birbiglia returns home to his couch and his wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, who confesses that she, too, would like children. She promises this addition won’t change the way they live their lives. Cue uproarious laughter.

Directed by Birbiglia’s frequent collaborator Seth Barrish, The New One is simply staged, at least at first, with just the odd lighting change and a stool, placed in an upstage corner, standing in for that couch. Midway through, set designer Beowulf Boritt introduces a creative and appropriately surprising visual rendering of life after baby. At this point, Birbiglia’s tone shifts from gentle and relaxed, like a well-worn pair of jeans, to a panicked bark as he outlines the ways in which life with a newborn baby who refuses to sleep is, it turns out, a bit of a change.

Birbiglia is a seasoned storyteller, and he plays the audience like they’re an old acoustic guitar he’s been noodling on since childhood. Sometimes his voice will drop so low it’s practically a whisper, and the audience leans in, hanging on every word. He’s not the first comedian to tackle fatherhood, but he resists the caustic spit of Louis C.K. — who’s always coaxed laughs from the edgy juxtaposition of shockingly dirty humor with thoughtful material about raising two little girls — or the addled exhaustion Jim Gaffigan channels when riffing on raising a big family in Manhattan.

Birbiglia has always substituted the in-your-face aggression that characterizes so many male stand-ups with a kind of bemused detachment. Here, that approach certainly encourages vulnerability — he divulges that he and his wife had trouble conceiving because his “boys don’t swim” — but it made me feel at times as if I was being forced to sympathize with him against my will. “I get why dads leave,” Birbiglia admits late in the show, describing the hermetically sealed world that his wife and baby seemed to inhabit, while he was stuck on the outside looking in, feeling useless. Being a dad, he says, is like being the “pudgy, milk-less vice president of the family.” It’s a funny line, as is the one where Birbiglia’s wife points out that the story he often tells about her and the baby ignoring him while he does the dishes is true — except for the part where he does the dishes.

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It wasn’t until after I left the theater that I began to think about how The New One might have been received were it a woman standing onstage, confessing that she does practically no housework, never wanted to have her daughter in the first place, and understands why mothers leave their babies. I commiserate with people raising children, regardless of their gender, but I wish our culture had the capacity to give mothers the same kind of empathy and reverence we bestow upon fathers. It’s telling that when C.K. was talking about the pain of being a single dad at the height of his career as a stand-up, the most prominent female comic was Amy Schumer, who rose to fame on her persona as a party girl who’s “sluttier than the average bear.”

That’s why it was such a radical departure for Ali Wong to perform her debut stand-up special, 2016’s Baby Cobra, while seven months pregnant. Wong was also pregnant, with her second child, during the filming of her 2018 special Hard Knock Wife, and I can’t think of another stand-up who’s dived so unapologetically and angrily into the topic of what childbirth does to a human body, and the ludicrous reality that women in this country still don’t have federally mandated paid leave to heal their quite literally broken bodies before returning to work. Her tone isn’t bemused and calm; it’s furious and fed-up.

But Birbiglia is not the kind of comic who aims to shock. He appears more eager to put his audience at ease, to assure us that all will be well. He ends the show on a positive, heartwarming note, so that we’re literally applauding him for not leaving his wife and baby. In the realm of stand-up comedy, dwarfed for so many years by C.K. and his meditations on family life, the concept of a father who actually parents his children and is subsequently showered with admiration has become a kind of status quo. Maybe it’s time for a new one.

The New One
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through August 26


Michelle Wolf Is the Voice Comedy Needs Right Now

In January 2013, Michelle Wolf tackled her greatest challenge yet: She got herself fired. Then a 28-year-old aspiring comedian, Wolf had been working at a biochemistry research lab in New York City during the day and doing stand-up sets at bars and open mics at night. But she wanted to devote herself to comedy full-time, so, over the course of nine months, she pushed against every overachiever instinct in her body. “I did less and less work until I got a warning,” she explains, sitting in a booth in the Olive Tree Café, the restaurant above the Comedy Cellar in the West Village. “And then I got fired, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

With the severance, plus some money she’d saved up, Wolf devoted the next year of her life to stand-up. By Christmas of 2013, she was submitting a packet to Late Night With Seth Meyers, which was just staffing up; a couple of weeks after that, she was hired as a writer. In April 2016, after two years writing for Late Night and craving more onscreen time, Wolf jumped to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, where she’s now a correspondent. And on Saturday, HBO will air her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, a hilarious hourlong meditation on bathroom politics, feminism (“I’m not like a buy-my-own-drinks kind of feminist”), Hillary Clinton, birth control, and the innumerable everyday demands of being a woman in 2017.

The cliché of a working comic conjures images of a sad-sack dude shuffling to the club every night to dump his demons on an audience of cheerful tourists slinging back their mandatory two drinks. But, at 32, Wolf isn’t indulging in swooning platitudes about the fickleness of the creative spirit. Every morning, she wakes up, fills an entire French press with strong coffee, and drinks it all. Then she goes to work at The Daily Show, where each day starts with a 9 a.m. pitch meeting. The staff members go off to write and rewrite their jokes before gathering for another meeting in the afternoon to pitch ideas for the next day’s show. They run through a rehearsal of that night’s show, go off to do more rewrites, then return to tape the show at 6:30 or 7. Wolf is usually out the door by 7:30 p.m. at the latest. “Then I come right here,” she says.

“In all my years traveling the world doing stand-up comedy,” Noah told the Voice over email, “there are few comedians I’ve ever seen who exude pure comedy perfection like Michelle. If we’re all normal people, she sees the code of comedy like Neo in The Matrix.”

In between her staff writing duties, penning jokes for Chris Rock’s Oscar hosting gig last year, and performing a prototype of Nice Lady at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Wolf has done hundreds of stand-up sets at the Comedy Cellar, the venerable New York institution where countless comedy stars have honed their jokes. By her estimation, Wolf is onstage at the club somewhere between thirteen and sixteen times a week. Since her first performance at the Cellar in August 2015, she says, “I’ve been here every night that I’ve been in town and been available.”

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Growing up with two older brothers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wolf was the kid who’d come into school on Monday morning and re-enact the skits from that weekend’s Saturday Night Live. But that was hardly a career path. “I’ve always been a really big comedy fan, but in my mind, you got a job,” she says. “I didn’t think it was feasible to pursue an art.” Wolf grew up running track — she runs three or four times a week, eight to fifteen miles at a time — and studied kinesiology at the College of William & Mary before graduating and moving to New York.

She got a job in private client services at Bear Stearns, recommending mutual funds and separately managed accounts to people with too much money. Wolf also started taking improv classes at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), right around the time Bear Stearns collapsed and was swallowed up by J.P. Morgan. (“I was young and cheap, comparatively, so I stayed on.”) A few classmates at the PIT suggested she audit a stand-up course — Wolf suspects it’s because in her improv sessions, “I was making jokes rather than playing out a scene” — and she quickly took to it. “The thing that frustrated me about improv was that once it’s over, it’s over,” she says. “You don’t have any body of work or anything. I like the idea of being able to build something.” In an email, the comedian and Late Night writer Amber Ruffin wrote that Wolf “is a perfectionist, and it shows in her stand-up.” When Wolf first got an iPhone, she created a folder in her Gmail account to collect her stand-up ideas and joke drafts. She labeled it “work.”

That blinders-up attitude is on display in Nice Lady. Although it was taped in August, the special feels retrofitted to this moment, when the entertainment industry (for one) is cycling through a seemingly endless torrent of bad news about your favorite dudes. Over the past decade, the comic most closely associated with the Comedy Cellar has been Louis C.K., the subject of a recent New York Times report that confirmed years-long rumors of sexual misconduct. The introduction to C.K.’s FX sitcom, Louie, immortalizes the tiny basement space, tracking C.K. as he travels from the subway to the Cellar, stopping at the corner of MacDougal and West Third to inhale a slice of pizza. A regular at the Cellar, C.K. was known to pop in unannounced, even at the height of Louie’s popularity, to try out new material. He’d frequently pepper his show with bits of stand-up, the Cellar’s iconic brick wall and stained-glass sign forming a now-familiar backdrop.

The night after the Times article hit, Vulture sent a reporter to the club. She wrote that while most comics referenced C.K. in some way, others — including Wolf — did not. Wolf hasn’t just appeared alongside C.K. at the Cellar; in 2016, she had a small role in his self-funded TV show Horace and Pete, and last year, she opened for him on tour. In an interview with New York magazine last June, C.K. singled out Wolf when asked to name promising comedians, calling her “relentless, funny, consistent.”

But when I bring up, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Silverman, the “elephant masturbating in the room,” Wolf deflects. “In the biggest moment in my career so far, I don’t really want to spend time talking about bad men,” she says firmly. “I want to focus on me and what I’ve done and my hard work.”

The truth is, the fact of Wolf herself — her rapid rise to the top of New York’s comedy food chain; an hourlong HBO special, one of only seven that the cable channel has produced in 2017 (others include sets from Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Gethard, and T.J. Miller), and for which it reportedly paid an unprecedented sum; the way her comedy reframes everyday truisms, from an unapologetically female perspective, as totally absurd — all this is a powerful retort to the ceaseless flow of stories about celebrated men who’ve used their clout to keep women down.

“Michelle has the perfect combination for comedy,” says her former boss Seth Meyers. “She is kindhearted and also deliciously cruel.” Chris Rock, who invited Wolf to open for him on his 2017 tour, echoes Meyers’s sentiment: “Michelle is just one of the funniest people I know,” he says. “Like most great comics, she hates everything. She’s helped me out way more than the other way around.” 

“Michelle has a very loud laugh to begin with, but it was loudest whenever I flubbed,” adds Meyers. “I would mispronounce something and would immediately hear her and see the silhouette of her hair bouncing. I am not being sarcastic when I say I truly miss that.”

Early in her special, Wolf uses her own distinct voice as a way into Hillary Clinton and why she lost the 2016 election. (“I think it’s ’cause no one likes her.”) When she performs, Wolf speaks clearly and deliberately, her voice scraping up against the top of her sinuses before crumpling into a contagious chuckle. “Somehow I got this weird Midwestern twang to my voice where I say my a’s weird — I say ‘cay-at’ and ‘hay-at.’ I don’t know, I’m broken. No one else in my family talks like me, or looks like me,” she says, referencing her shock of naturally curly, naturally orange hair. (“I’ve seen pictures of Carrot Top where I’ve been like, ‘I mean, we do look alike.’ ”)

“People have made fun of my voice for a while — rightfully so,” Wolf acknowledges. “This is a voice that deserves to get made fun of. But it wasn’t until people kept commenting on Hillary’s voice that I was like, oh — it’s, like, a thing. It actually helped me think of the joke. It was like, ‘Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!’ ”

In Nice Lady, Wolf jokes about sucking the helium from a balloon and realizing, with dismay, that it caused absolutely no change to her voice — an incident that actually happened on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. It happened, of course, at the Cellar. “Even when I write during the day, when I get to do stand-up at night, it’s, like, the thing I get to do for me,” Wolf says. She likens stand-up to a science experiment, a situation that’s totally under her control. “It’s my thoughts, my jokes. It’s the most fun I have. A lot of people, very often, they’re like, ‘You need to take time off, you need to do things for you.’ But this is more fun than the other stuff I do!”

That creative obstinacy has served Wolf well, and it informs the kinds of jokes she tells. She rarely mentions Trump in her sets, because it feels too easy, and because everyone’s got a Trump joke. “I’m very selfish when it comes to stand-up,” she says. “I want to work on what I want to work on.” But like a messy spill, the outcome of last year’s election seems to have seeped into every crevice of our lives regardless, and Wolf’s comedy is not immune.

“That’s kind of where the whole ‘nice lady’ thing evolved from,” she says, lowering her self-professed “crazy” voice to a quietly determined murmur. “No, we can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over. The time for doing things just to please other people for no reason — because it’s what we were raised to do — is over. We’re done being nice. That’s kind of the overarching theme of the show, so even though I don’t talk about it a lot, it’s more just like — yeah, I’m done.”

“When I get to do standup at night, it’s like, the thing I get to do for me.”

On a recent Friday night, I went to see Wolf perform at the Comedy Cellar. She was the only woman on the bill, and the last comic to go up. The show was sold-out, so I turned up an hour early, gave my name to a large man sporting a black “Comedy Cellar” beanie, came back at showtime, waited to hear my name called, showed the man my ID, was handed a slip of paper and instructed to turn off my phone, and descended the street-facing stairs down to the shoebox-sized room, where a waitress showed me to my seat. Each stand-up performs a fifteen-minute set, introduced by the night’s bantering host. Then you pay your bill, wait for the waitress to stamp your receipt, and show your proof of purchase to the doorman on the way out. On Fridays, the Cellar offers four shows a night, back to back, and this process, from seating the audience to delivering each patron her minimum two menu items to ushering the crowd out the door at the end, runs as smoothly as a Japanese rail line.

It was early, the first show of the night, but the place was packed and lively. In between the first two sets, host William Stephenson quipped, “Louie’s gonna come out and jerk off in front of you. I brought a tarp for the front row.” The audience laughed. A mother and her adult daughter sitting near the stage — the room is so tiny the round tables that make up the front row are pushed right up against the stage, which itself is so narrow, most comics end up hugging the wall — were easy targets for crowd work. It became a bit of a running joke. One comic, Des Bishop, commented on how attractive both mother and daughter were, then added, “Maybe that’s inappropriate. I’ll wait for Page Six to tell the story” — an apparent reference to a Page Six report that claimed Chris Rock dropped by the Cellar recently and tried out some sexual harassment jokes that fell flat.

Wolf went up last. She opened with a bathroom bit from Nice Lady, and moved on to some new material about dick size. There was no hint of hesitation, no self-conscious hedging — she was confident, masterly, louder than anyone else onstage that night. The audience was in hysterics from start to finish, and then we were out the door, wiping stray tears on the sidewalk in the cold November air.

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In October — shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke — Trevor Noah devoted a segment on The Daily Show to the topic of sexual harassment. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, “but I’ll tell you who I really want to hear from — The Daily Show’s own Michelle Wolf.”

Wolf took the stage in her uniform of long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and delivered a short monologue on Weinstein and the #metoo social media campaign he spawned. “Trevor is right,” she began. “This problem is bigger than Harvey Weinstein.” She talked about the “obstacle course” women tackle every day: “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!”

She closed the routine by pointing out that it’s not enough to just fire individual men who harass women. This moment isn’t just about sex; it’s about power. “My solution? Every time a guy gets caught sexually harassing someone, you don’t just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman.” The crowd erupted. “It’s a policy that I call, ‘Pull out your dick, get replaced by a chick.’ ”

Noah returned to the stage, microphone in hand, as the audience cheered. “Michelle Wolf, everybody!”

Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady premieres Saturday, December 2, at 9 p.m. on HBO.


Blind Item

When Louie premiered in 2010, its creator, Louis C.K., set a TV precedent by shooting his series on a laughably low budget in exchange for total creative control. Seven years later, C.K. is widely acknowledged as the greatest living standup comic and has entered a new phase of his career, one in which the fifty-year-old comedian, writer, and director can do pretty much whatever he pleases — or maybe not.

I Love You, Daddy (co-written with TV writer Vernon Chatman) is the first movie C.K. has directed since 2001’s Pootie Tang. It’s a natural next step for this button pusher who for the past five years has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with female comedians — allegations to which he has so far refused to respond. But soon he may have to. Earlier today, trade mags began reporting that a premiere screening planned for tonight at the Paris Theatre in New York City was canceled after word began circulating that the New York Times was about to drop a bombshell related to those allegations. [UPDATE: It’s now out.] Whatever C.K. wishes, I Love You, Daddy is unlikely to be the last word on the subject.

With a deliberately provocative plot and the undeniable homage it pays to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, I Love You, Daddy has C.K. steering into the skid. Shot on 35 mm in luscious black and white, the film is an ode to classical studio cinema with a capital “C,” right down to the loopy title font and the swelling, Gershwin-esque orchestral score by Zachary Seman and Robert Miller. Set in present-day New York, the film has a classic Hollywood texture and a classic Hollywood conceit: a brilliant old man paired with a beautiful young ingenue. C.K. plays Glen Topher, a TV writer with a cavernous high-rise in Manhattan, a house in the Hamptons, a private jet, and a seventeen-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), to whom he can’t say no. “I love you, daddy,” is her constant refrain, which according to Glen’s ex, Maggie (Pamela Adlon), means he must be doing something wrong.

Grace Cullen (Rose Byrne), a glamorous movie star campaigning for a role in his new series, invites Glen and China to a party, where Glen is gobsmacked to see his hero, a legendary 68-year-old director named Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who has been trailed for years by rumors that he “fucked a kid.” When China calls him a “child molester,” Glen scoffs, “That’s just a story. He’s a great artist.” But Glen sings a different tune when he discovers the great artist has struck up a kind of friendship with wide-eyed China. The auteur and the teenager enjoy a long chat at the party and a spontaneous run-in at the women’s section of Barneys, where Leslie admits to loitering so he can check out young girls. “I’m a pervert,” he explains to her. Suddenly, Leslie is inviting China to accompany him and a group of bohemian artist types to Paris, and a horrified Glen finds he’s paralyzed to stop her. “He’s kind of gross,” China says of Leslie. “But he’s hilarious.”

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To anyone who’s been following the speculation surrounding C.K. — he’s been rumored to have masturbated in front of nonconsenting women — I Love You, Daddy comes off as both a sly acknowledgment of his alleged sexual behavior and a vexing evasion. In a way, C.K. is getting in front of the story here, but he does plenty of hedging, too. He’s cast himself in the role of concerned father, not predatory creep (then again, Allen never used to play the creep, either). As on Louie, C.K. surrounds himself with a coterie of brash women who loudly cajole him to be a better father, a better husband, a better writer; Glen’s put-upon production partner, Paula (Edie Falco), lashes out with barely controlled anger whenever he makes another major decision without consulting her.

This circle of Strong Women — many of whom bat away Glen’s paranoia about Leslie and China — feels like a buffer, a protective shield against accusations volleyed at C.K. I Love You, Daddy plays like an attempt to work through a particular brand of middle-aged male angst. The film is anchored by a series of one-on-one conversations — between Glen and China, Glen and Maggie, Glen and Leslie, and, in particular, Glen and Grace — about female empowerment, radical feminism, and whether a relationship between an older man and a younger woman is inherently predatory. Anxiety about weird sexual impulses has always been central to C.K.’s work; his 1998 independent film, Tomorrow Night, which he released on his website in 2014, centered on a misanthropic man who finds sexual release by sitting in a bowl of ice cream. This buffer might be more effective, to me at least, if C.K.’s body of work hadn’t already convinced me that the comic gets off on exposing his shame — an impulse that finds its ultimate expression in the release of this film at this time.

With many male artists, and comedians in particular, who take pride in their willingness to tackle any taboo, that say-anything ethos always seems to stop at their own front door. All the rah-rah feminist empowerment talk in the world won’t drown out the way C.K. presents Moretz, who first appears in a bikini onscreen — like a creamy confection, an ice cream cone waiting to be licked. (“I just look at women,” C.K. marveled in his 2013 stand-up special, Oh My God. “Like they’re, you know, cakes in windows.”) China’s radiant face, perfectly coiffed hair, and gorgeous body are on display in every one of her scenes, a presentation that makes Glen’s frustration at his own failings as a parent — a kind of impotence at watching his daughter chase after another old man — feel uncomfortably Freudian, and China herself feel less like a person than a display-case dessert.

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The one character who remains inscrutable to the end is Leslie, and the movie leaves its central issue — what, exactly, is wrong with an older man and a barely legal girl engaging in an intimate relationship — totally unresolved. C.K. seems oblivious to what should be clear: Even if a man refrains from putting his hands on a girl, that doesn’t mean his interest in her is harmless. And it doesn’t help that Malkovich is far and away the most enjoyable screen presence here, and the character who gets the most laughs. Ultimately, C.K., who always has found his strongest and funniest voice when he’s onstage alone with a microphone, struggles to make the movie cohere — it goes limp, the plot fizzles, and Leslie himself fades out of view, a cloudy figure who never really has to answer to anyone.

I Love You, Daddy
Directed by Louis C.K.
The Orchard
Opens November 17


The View from the Black Box: Charlie Victor Romeo Lives in the Moments Before the End

Louis C.K. has a great bit about people who moan and groan about the inconveniences of air travel. “I had to sit on the runway. For 40 minutes!” they’ll say, to which he responds, “Oh my God, really? What happened then? Did you fly through the air, like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?”

There’s something highly unnatural, and undeniably wonderful, about the way we so casually step into these winged metal shells and emerge, just a few hours later, half a world away. But human flight is a miracle of science, and every once in a while, because of engineering issues or even just a stray Canada goose, the promise of science can stumble. At that point, something more natural and human takes over — the response of the pilot and crew means everything. That’s one of the ideas at the heart of Charlie Victor Romeo, a taut, effective little picture whose dialogue consists wholly of transcriptions of actual cockpit recordings, most of them from flights that ultimately crashed. (The movie takes its title from the code used for “cockpit voice recorder.”) The film is an adaptation of a play first staged in New York in 1999, and it was shot in 3D on bare-bones sets with a small group of actors. That setup may sound too resolutely conceptual to be emotionally effective, but the movie’s restraint — its refusal to overdramatize events that are inherently dramatic — makes it feel immediate and vital. Charlie Victor Romeo shows us how much of life’s weight and meaning can be packed into one second of thought or action; it’s a work of shivery intimacy.

What can go wrong on any routine flight? You probably don’t want to know, but Charlie Victor Romeo will give you some idea. The picture, co-directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, dramatizes the final minutes leading up to six aircraft disasters, minutes in which flight crews scramble to gain control of their planes, attempt to navigate using old-school methods after all of their electronic instruments have failed, and even, in one case, get up to pee. A rotating cast of actors plays the various crew members, mostly pilots and copilots, with the occasional flight attendant popping in. (All scenes take place in the cockpit; no passengers are heard or shown.) Much of what these pilots say, to one another or to ground control, sounds fairly benign: “We still got ice.” Other times, a sense of urgency seeps through their surface calm: “We don’t have any controls, not even the basics.” In one case — a moment so fleeting you could almost miss it — a pilot suggests to a flight attendant, with a casual bit of slang, that she might survive what’s about to happen, but he probably won’t. It’s possibly the most moving, the most devastatingly human, moment in the film.

Interstitial slides provide, in stark white letters on a black background, the grim fatality statistics (in most of the instances dramatized, all passengers and crew were killed) and the ultimate explanation for each disaster. For example, “Static ports left taped over by maintenance crew” — you may not know, technically, what that means, and yet you know what it means. Another case is tragically straightforward: “Multiple bird strikes.” One goose flying into an engine is bad; more than one can spell disaster, a mark of just how vulnerable we are when we’re lucky enough to be up in the air.

Charlie Victor Romeo is a tense experience. It leans heavily on our sense of apprehension, our knowledge that in real life, the events depicted resulted, for the most part, in death. There’s a huge risk here for exploitation, even the unintentional kind: These are the words of real people who are about to die. At one point, we hear the voice of a flight attendant urging passengers to hold their babies tightly. Does that step over the line of what we want to know, or should know, about the moments before a tragedy? Possibly. But Charlie Victor Romeo treads respectfully, with a sense of honor and discretion, around the dead; it’s a somber movie that, in the end, is really more about life, and about how much nerve it takes to keep us clumsy, wingless humans up in the sky. The 3D effects are subtle, and the picture works well enough on the small screen. But I’d urge you, if possible, to see it in a theater. By the end, you might be grateful for the presence of other souls aboard.


Louis C.K. Will Make You Cry of Laughter for Staten Island Sandy Benefit

Unlike the two-week anniversary, the destruction from Sandy has not yet passed. Communities have only just begun rebuilding as volunteer efforts ramp up to save what’s left. And Staten Island, the borough that was arguably hit the worst, is one of them. So for this reason, Louis C.K. — comedy’s current Golden Child — is offering his hand in the recovery.

This Saturday, the stand-up performer and star/producer/director of FX’s Louie, will play two shows (tickets go for $65 a pop) at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, with all proceeds going to the Project Hospitality Hurricane Relief Fund. Part of this might reflect on the two shows he had to reschedule two weekends ago due to the fact that, according to an e-mail he sent to fans, he didn’t want “a pole to smash your face in because you saw some comedy.”

Add another reason to the “Why Louis C.K. is the Coolest Guy in the World” list.

And just in case you were wondering if you could profit off the relief shows . . .

Also, if you can’t get tickets, here are other non-Louie ways you can donate. Until then, you can watch this:



Raise the Spoof

Poised somewhere between blaxploitation spoof and avant-garde freak-out, Pootie Tang qualifies as the weirdest, funniest studio release of the summer so far and a bona fide cult object in the making. (The abysmal first-weekend grosses can only help.) A sketch from HBO’s The Chris Rock Show augmented to feature length (barely), the movie stars Lance Crouther as the titular crime fighter, love machine, and hip-hop icon—an ethereally deranged vision of superfly pimp-chic (fur vest, tortoise-shell glasses, braided ponytail) and a fount of flamboyantly indecipherable pseudo-jive. Pootie’s hit film is called Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine. “Sipi-tai!” and “Wa-da-ta!” are his favorite interjections. It’s one of the movie’s central jokes that everyone somehow understands what he’s saying. Not that Pootie actually needs words to communicate: When he records a single consisting purely of silence (miming gospel-sized emotion while he’s at it), it becomes a massive dance hit.

Without trying too hard, Louis C.K.’s good-natured media satire lands like a ton of bricks on linguistic pop-cultural vogues, celebrities as blank slates for projection, and the commodification of ghetto fabulosity. As in Josie and the Pussycats, evil is untenably embodied by corporate America: Conglomerate head Dick Lecter (Robert Vaughn) tries to steal Pootie’s magic belt (bequeathed by the late Daddy Tang, played by Chris Rock in one of his several cameos) and divert his energies from anti-malt-liquor PSAs toward ads for LecterCorp products like booze, cigarettes, and Pork Chunks breakfast cereal. While Pootie Tang shows the typical stretch marks of a skit-to-movie expansion (and doesn’t quite sustain the inspiration of its first 20 minutes), C.K. enlivens the proceedings with a befuddling array of alienation effects (alternating narrators, an explosion of intertitles), and muscles through the threadbare patches by sheer force of surreal non sequitur.

A different kind of alienation effect, Scary Movie 2 represents the collaboration of seven screenwriters, who evidently couldn’t come up with a single decent joke each. The Wayans brothers’ new bottom-feeder signals its utter exhaustion—and barely veiled contempt for the audience—by opening with that most decrepit of horror spoofs: Exorcist head swivels and projectile vomit, with James Woods’s priest reprising Jeff Daniels’s toilet break from Dumb and Dumber for good measure.

Its predecessor having vigorously despoiled the Scream and Last Summer movies, Scary Movie 2 settles for, um, The Haunting. (Or is it The House on Haunted Hill?) Evil professor Tim Curry lures a bunch of gullible college kids to a poltergeist-inhabited mansion. Chris Elliott shows up as a pustular manservant. Tori Spelling gives a ghost a blowjob. If Scary Movie was an exercise in vertiginously redundant parody, this time Wayans and company don’t so much lampoon their targets as ineptly copy them. And so the filmmakers cough up John Woo doves, Charlie’s Angels and Crouching Tiger buttkicking, a Hannibal lobotomy, a Jerri-from-Survivor reference, a parrot squawking the Weakest Link catchphrase—hoping no one will notice that the cheap thrill of recognition is a piss-poor substitute for comedy.

No less dutiful, The Score attends to its heist-thriller obligations with needless solemnity and a studious lack of imagination. Robert De Niro plays a master thief looking to settle into retirement as a Montreal jazz-club owner; his fence, Max (Marlon Brando), talks him into one career-capping job and sets him up with an impetuous upstart (Edward Norton). Perhaps awed by the congress of Method men, director Frank Oz stands back as his actors phone it in. The resulting conference call soon fizzles into a low, distant hum of access codes and safecracking physics. De Niro and Norton don’t bother to conceal their boredom, and the film’s only dubious pleasure comes from the sight of Brando waddling on screen in a series of spectacular outfits. (The kimono-cravat number is a doozy.) With the attention it lavishes on De Niro’s posh pad (all rich dark-wood tones and Restoration Hardware furnishings) and its repeatedly expressed preference for level-headed experience over reckless youth, The Score is—right down to its obligatory final double-double-cross—a triumph of bourgeois middle-aged complacency.