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The Meh Wayback: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

First, the pleasant surprises. In puffing up the slight, absurd Mr. Peabody and Sherman shorts from Jay Ward’s The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show into an 82-minute 3D save-the-timestream child-distractor, director Rob Minkoff and his many writers have preserved a few of the hallmarks distinguishing the Dada, deadpan, almost primitive original, a toon so flat it was almost less than 2D. The structure remains episodic, visiting the French Revolution, Renaissance Italy, and ancient Egypt; genius beagle Mr. Peabody still caps each escapade in history with a proudly terrible pun; and the whole thing has an amiable, gag-to-gag vibe for most of the first hour.

Many of those gags are godawful: Sherman, Mr. Peabody’s human boy companion, points out that “King Tut” rhymes with “butt” and that “booby-trap”has the word “booby” in it. Some don’t even seem to be gags, exactly, but vague notes toward punch lines the writers maybe meant to add later: Sherman’s new bully/galpal/adventure buddy, Penny, heading off to marry a pharaoh, proclaims, “I want a big fat Egyptian wedding.” And a handful are killer, as when Peabody, as the god Ra, addresses the people in the Valley of the Kings, telling them that wedding is off and they won’t get their deposits back on the catering. (Ty Burrell, who voices Peabody, finds some glory in the rote.)

That Egypt sequence boasts a trapped-tomb adventure better than anything in the last Indiana Jones picture, and before that there’s an oddly moving montage detailing the title duo’s relationship set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.” (No word on why they don’t Wayback to Central Park West 1980 and divert Mark David Chapman.) But the movie labors hammily to get us worried about problems in that relationship, and it’s more committed to chasing the now than to finding laughs in the past — in the first two minutes, distinguished Peabody makes cracks about Zumba, planking, yoga poses, and methane cow farts, and then throws in silly dancing, the imperturbable authority figure from TV cartoons coming on as desperate as Al Jolson to win love in the movies. It’s the first time I’ve seen flop sweat on a dog.

By the end, dog and boy are zipping about interminably trying to stop yet another pixels-in-the-sky doomsday with the usual shouted-on-the-fly movie science — all as they learn to love and trust each other again. More puns, less story, please.

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Clive

Have a Baal. Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman resets Bertolt Brecht’s tale of a misunderstood poet to 1990s New York City. Ethan Hawke, one of the icons of that time and place, directs and stars in the New Group’s production, joined by a cast that includes Sherman, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Zoe Kazan, with music and sound sculptures by Gaines.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Mondays-Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Starts: Jan. 17. Continues through March 9, 2013

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Daryl Sherman

A faculty member at the less-is-more, light-is-right school of jazz singing, Sherman will give standards a constantly endearing once-over. James Chirillo will be on guitar and Boots Maleson on bass. This is a can’t-go-wrong gig with someone who fits the room like Derek Jeter fits the Yankees.

Mondays, 8 p.m. Starts: March 16. Continues through April 20, 2009

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America’s Preeminent Film Diarist

America’s preeminent film diarist, Ross McElwee is some kind of national treasure, a sympathetic, cogent, witty cinematic voice that would make for seductive reading, satisfying a contemplative intercourse we’ve long since learned not to associate with movies. This library must-have features McElwee’s entire massive quarter-century-plus autobiographical epic—second only to (and vastly more accessible than) Jonas Mekas’s corpus, it’s our largest and deepest movie portrait of a life lived from behind a camera. McElwee’s coup is his ordinariness—nothing cataclysmic ever happens to him.

Sherman’s March (1986) is still surely the most satisfying two-and-a-half-hour documentary ever made about romantic inertia. But here you also get the shorts that led up to it: Charleen (1978), which introduced the world to the titular family friend and all-around irresistible belle vivant, and Backyard (1984), where we first tasted the sugary-tart oddness of the McElwee clan in repose. Time Indefinite (1993) and Six O’Clock News (1997) record the decade of his eventual married-with-children domestic bliss—and they’re no less wry and fascinating. Bright Leaves (2003) takes a pre-menopausal detour into the pasts of both his family (a tobacco empire found and lost) and Hollywood (which may have co-opted the McElwee tale in a forgotten Gary Cooper film). McElwee’s life project is far from over; you get the sense that American nonfiction film won’t “get” old age and death until McElwee gets there himself, filled with fear and forgiveness. Extras include McElwee interviews, outtakes with commentary, notes, stills, music, where-are-they-now? bio sketches, etc.

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Dismaying Experience

Elaine May’s case is a curious one. Since the brilliant days of her early work with Mike Nichols, her career has been a succession of public misfires, disasters, and false starts. (She has had a string of what might be called private triumphs doctoring screenplays.) The never quite right films she directed in mid-career, Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf, have a certain cachet: An astute mind was obviously at work in them, struggling to shape a real sense of life’s agony into quasi-comic form.

But the succession of mostly short plays that May has unveiled in the last decade or so displays an ominous sense of having given up the struggle. Any old gag or gimmick, they imply, is good enough; the most overworked themes will do, and nothing fresh need be made of them. May’s full-length Broadway disgrace of a few years back Taller Than a Dwarf was a minimal reworking of her ’60s pre-Broadway flop A Matter of Position. Her recent short plays likewise have the musty feel of objects unpacked from an old trunk. Even when they produce a mild sputter of laughs, every 10 minutes or so, they seem archaic, suburban, small-minded. That May’s aura can still make people finance this turkey farm is an ongoing puzzle.

Part of the puzzle is that May, a woman presumably in her seventies, seems to write only about getting laid. Of the three plays in her current bill After the Night and the Music, the first deals with dancing, a metaphor for seduction; the second centers on unhappy people waiting at home for bar pickups from last night to phone them; in the final one, two couples attempt group sex, which quickly turns into neurotic bickering. But then, almost everything in these plays that isn’t a successful consummation turns into neurotic bickering; May’s palette is aesthetically bipolar. The characters never rise to become a comic quintessence; they aren’t cartoon monsters of lust. At the same time, they don’t seem to have any lives beyond their desire; though jobs are occasionally mentioned, you rarely get a glimpse of the world beyond the bedroom. Forget politics, culture, society. In a millennial time of global upheavals and catastrophes, May’s characters are still uncomfortably comfortable, whiny, urban Americans bitching about their relationship problems.

The first piece in After the Night and the Music, grudgingly titled Curtain Raiser, is the best, though it also sets the tone for the evening’s nondescript refusal to place itself convincingly in any specific world. In a “dance hall” (when were there last dance halls?), a lesbian sulks at the bar while her partner, uneasy about being seen dancing with another woman, waltzes off with a succession of men. A goofy-looking bespectacled chap who accosts the sulking Sapphic turns out to be a retired dance instructor who can’t find a partner and who, used to teaching both men and women, has no problem about who leads. Soon they’re making beautiful footwork together. Clinch, sort of, and fadeout. Charmingly performed by twinkle-toed Eddie Korbich and twinkling-eyed J. Smith-Cameron (the latter in a severe Louise Brooks black bob), this improbable trifle gets a lot of help from Randy Skinner’s choreography, which Korbich in particular animates extravagantly.

Nothing so animated happens in the next piece, Giving Up Smoking, an extended kvetch in quartet form that looks to have been inspired by Dorothy Parker’s famous short story “A Telephone Call.” Lonely, neurotic Joanne waits at home for Mel, a hunk she met in a bar, to phone her (the era of cell phones and call waiting has only incompletely entered May’s consciousness). Meantime, her gay male best buddy, Sherman, calls periodically while waiting for Gavin, whom he met in a bar, to phone him. In due time, we see Mel, in a funk about his recent divorce and wondering whether to call Joanne, whose name he can scarcely remember. Their woeful monologues alternate with confusions, meant to be funny, over who does and doesn’t call whom when. For an obbligato, a phoneless fourth monologue goes to Sherman’s widowed mother, who reflects on the happiness of her own marriage, presumably as evidence that humans were more loving before voice mail. Brian Kerwin, as Mel, and Smith-Cameron, white-wigged in this one, as the mom, add some vitality, but Sherman and Joanne, baskets of complaints rather than human beings, are a lugubriously unfunny pair of characters, and the performances of Jere Burns and Jeannie Berlin only redouble the mournful feeling by squeezing every last drop of whine from their roles.

After intermission, there’s Swing Time, in which a nervously overexcited couple (Smith-Cameron and Kerwin) welcome their best friends (Berlin and Burns) over for a first-time bout of group sex. The second couple turns out to be just as jittery about the prospect, remarks are made at just the wrong time, the phone rings, and the erotic bout is a disaster before you can say, “Bob and Carol and Ted and . . . ” May has found one or two laughs here, but the material feels even wearier than in Giving Up Smoking, and Daniel Sullivan’s direction can’t find any way to enliven it. (Berlin, improbably cast as the erotic target of both men’s desire, is a particular problem here.) Only Smith-Cameron’s elegant fits of hysterics and Kerwin’s snappish reactions to them offer any relief. If this is the essence of May, we can only hope June will be better.

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A Documentarian Searches for His Tobacco-Stained Roots

If Ross McElwee were a novelist instead of a creative-nonfiction documentarian, he’d have awards by the mantelful, he’d be an Oprah’s Book Club millionaire, he’d be beloved by—at least—the 47 percent of Americans who reportedly read literature of any stripe. His sympathetic, cogent, witty voice would make seductive reading, satisfying a contemplative intercourse we’ve long since learned not to associate with movies. In a less supercool, more thoughtful world, McElwee’s new film would be an event, to be sighed over by reasonable adults, and imitated by ambitious camcorderists. Continuing the autobiographical torrent begun nearly 30 years ago, Bright Leaves is an utterly mundane miracle, a sampling of gentle insight and poetic retrospection quietly at odds with the exploitative culture around it.

McElwee’s romantic stasis was the fertile comedy at the core of Sherman’s March (1986) and Time Indefinite (1993), and his anxiety as a new parent hot-wires Six O’Clock News (1996). His son Adrian now having passed into adolescence, Bright Leaves has a more relaxed flavor, and its ruminations are the classics of comfortable middle age: looking backward, family history, and the fearsome roll of time. Lucky for McElwee, he’s got plenty of footage to consult, from 8mm footage of his grandfather to the library of footage he himself has shot over the decades (Adrian grows up on film, in more ways than one) to a forgotten Hollywood epic, Bright Leaf (1950). McElwee stumbles into this Cooper-Bacall melodrama at the home of a film-obsessed cousin, and quickly recognizes in it the outline of his own great-grandfather’s life—way back when, the McElwee patriarch was a tobacco mogul who was sabotaged and litigiously squeezed out by the Duke family, and the filmmaker gets rich, dry laughs out of bitterly observing how North Carolina iconizes the Dukes and has all but forgotten the McElwees.

Indeed, Bright Leaves inevitably finds its way toward a guilt-ridden harangue against the tobacco industry and the culture of smoking, and it’s a measure of McElwee’s generous sensibility that the outrage, complete with cemetery visits, never seems shrill, even when it should. Along the way, McElwee exercises his talent for finding articulate, self-dramatizing subjects, including his old friend Charleen (again), an army of tobacco farmers and adamant smokers, his dead father’s surviving cancer patients, and even a film theorist, who gaffer-tapes handles to a wheelchair and plops McElwee in it for a “kinesthetic!” traveling-shot interview around a carpenter’s gothic street set used by the UNC film school.

It’s clear that McElwee doesn’t begin and end projects, he just films—making movies is a way of living for him, a process that began as a running gag and has evolved into a mode of exploration that grows more profound as the man ages. Bright Leaves is a movie without motivation, a shared experience of stoic father love and humane curiosity.

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Klumper Stumper

Eddie Murphy is back in college, but his Nutty Professor II: The Klumps suffers from a serious case of sophomore slump. The last time we saw Professor Sherman Klump, in 1996’s The Nutty Professor, he’d invented a formula that jiggered fat people’s DNA to make them thin. Despairing at how his girth kept him from romance, Sherman downed a vial of the brew—which made him skinny indeed, but also transformed the sweet-souled researcher into his obnoxious, testosterone-fueled alter ego, Buddy Love. The movie’s big conceit, though, was Murphy—in elaborate fat prosthetics—playing five members of the garrulous, overweight Klump family. Their profane dinner repartee was often hilarious.

This time around, Sherman has invented a fountain-of-youth potion, which the college dean wants to sell to raise cash. After a lab accident, Buddy Love springs free of Sherman’s body and plots his own scheme to peddle the concoction—causing mayhem for the school and derailing Sherman’s relationship with new girlfriend Denise (a dewy Janet Jackson). Meanwhile, Sherman’s family carries on its ribald ways, complicated by Papa Klump’s ingestion of some of Sherman’s secret sauce (which looks suspiciously like the cough syrup I’ve been swilling all week).

Murphy’s first Nutty Professor was a funny, even charming effort. Sherman was a surprisingly sympathetic creature, his family an entertaining dystopia. Murphy’s new chronicle of higher education is pitched louder and cruder, but to much less effect. The Klumps are still an amusing crew, but the gag gets tired despite Murphy’s wonderful multiple-personality theatrics. Swamped by tit jokes and a numbingly busy plot, Sherman’s romantic woes only seem saccharine here, not endearing.

Please note that The Klumps depicts a staple of faculty life rarely written up in Lingua Franca: anal rape by giant hamster. Department chairs may wince, but the eight-year-old sitting next to me found it especially droll.