Saturday, August 1, 2009
So there's a trailer for a real (and real good-looking movie). Here, ingeniously, is a trailer for a movie that doesn't exist. But some very sharp cutter combined clips from several movies and imagined what Ghostbusters would have looked like if it were made 30 years earlier-- with Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Fred Macmurray in the leading roles. I don't know why he did or how he did it, but here it is:
This kind of reminds me of that clever "trailer" for Orson Welles' The Bat Man that popped up a couple years back.
I should have posted this a while ago: Barnes & Noble is doing an amazing sale where you can get 50% off on all of their Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays, making them pretty much $20 a pop (a steal for that label). It only runs through Monday, but here's the link.
Just seeing this picture makes me happy in ways I can hardly begin to explain.
Oh, and last time on "Loose Ends," when I embedded that rare Scorsese doc American Boy, I mentioned its companion piece Italianamerican. My resourceful buddy Mike, after enjoying the first film, found that Italianamerican has been posted on YouTube, albeit broken into ten minute chunks.
Simmons is clearly meant (professionally, at least) to be Sandler, with only the thinnest veil of fiction separating them; the film begins with priceless home video footage of the young comic cracking up his roommates making crank phone calls, and numerous clips of the skinny young comic are seen during the film. He stopped working actively as a stand-up years ago, in order to pursue what became a phenomenally successful film career. Here’s where it gets interesting: based on the evidence supplied by Funny People, Simmons makes bad movies. His biggest hits appear to be Re-Do, in which a wizard grants him the wish of youth and turns him into a baby with a full-grown Sandler head, and Mer-Man, in which he plays a funny-voiced male mermaid trying to fit in to society. The films look and sound like far-fetched jokes, unless you’ve seen Click or Little Nicky.
Those bad films have bankrolled Simmons’ lavish lifestyle—he lives alone in a huge, seaside mansion, with a garage full of cars and free electronics he’s never used. But there’s an emptiness to his life; he walks around in a shell, smiling for pictures with fans and banging groupies but not feeling much of anything. When he’s diagnosed with a rare blood disease with a slim chance of survival, it’s devastating. In desperation, he shows up at the Improv to do an impromptu stand-up set, bombing almost immediately with odd, dark, understandably death-oriented material. But the unfortunate young comic who follows him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), makes him laugh—even though some of the jokes are at Simmons’ expense. He hires Ira, first to write jokes for him, then to move in and work for him as an assistant.
Apatow’s script follows a simultaneously traditional and unpredictable three-act structure; on reflection, the three movements of his roomy (two and a half hours), free-form opus seem remarkably self-contained. The first establishes George’s character, his fame, and his health woes, while simultaneously introducing Ira, who lives on the pull-out couch of the apartment he shares with his fellow young comedy geeks: Leo (Jonah Hill), who just pulled a hosting gig at the Improv, and Mark (Jason Schwartzmann), who has found sudden financial stability with the starring role in a bad NBC sitcom called Yo, Teach! Apatow knows both worlds well and paints them with exquisite detail; the posters for George’s movies look exactly right, while Ira and Leo and Mark do seem like the kind of guys who would have framed Redd Foxx album covers on their walls.
Act two fleshes out George and Ira’s prickly, difficult relationship. As Ira travels, works, and does clubs with his idol, Rogen’s open face and gee-whiz enthusiasm are just right for the chemistry of the picture; when Sandler looks at him and deadpans, “That’s good. That’s good to be excited. I used to be excited,” you’re with those characters in that moment, but looking back, that also feels like a moment where the older actor is talking to the younger one. At the end of the second act (spoiler warning, though all of this has been given away by the trailer and several interviews), George makes a surprising recovery and, stung by the emptiness of his life as it exists, decides to act on a somewhat startling confession from his former fiancée Laura (Leslie Mann). She’s married with children, but tells him (when she thinks he’s dying soon, natch) that she still loves him and always has, more than her husband. So act three is about how George decides to do something about that.
There’s been plenty of discussion in other reviews about whether or not this third act plays; frankly, I’d have appreciated it either way, because it’s such a risky narrative choice from a filmmaker whose pictures have always pivoted towards formula (well-crafted and energetically made though they may be). But I think it does work, and in a way I can’t altogether explain; that section, and most of the film, doesn’t seem to have much of a motor propelling it, so amiably does it meander from scene to scene. But it does so in a way that feels completely organic—we’re never bored and never concerned that the film is losing its way. But again, in retrospect (Funny People is one of those movies were you realize a lot of things about it afterwards), all of the pieces fit together in a way that is lucid, thoughtful, and somewhat ingenious. Seen in the arc of Apatow’s directorial filmography, this new movie shows real depth and maturity.
What is perhaps most impressive about Apatow’s direction is his effortless control of tone; this guy can turn it on a dime, from a dick joke to an honest-to-God heartbreaking confession (and sometimes, then, back to a dick joke). And, as with his best work, there is a genuine sweetness to the picture—not only in George’s longing for Laura, but in the slowly-built subplot concerning Ira’s crush on a dryly funny female comic (beautifully played by Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, whose work on that show prompted me to tell my wife, “I think she might be some kind of a comic genius”).
Leslie Mann was mostly doing forgettable ingénues when she took a break from acting to have Apatow’s kids; however, the roles he’s written for her since have provided opportunities for comic and dramatic gold, and she’s just wonderful here, ably taking on that third-act turn and investing it with real weight and consequence. Schwartzmann’s take on smug, sudden celebrity is appropriately wormy, while Hill just about steals the picture (his uproarious puncturing of Schawartzmann’s story about the death of his grandfather may be the film’s funniest scene). And the parade of real comics (playing themselves) are fun to watch, though the biggest cameo laughs, surprisingly, come from a shockingly good (and self-deprecating) Eminem and the surprisingly game James Taylor.
But Sandler is certainly the film’s MVP. He’s been this good before (in Punch-Drunk Love), but his low-key, hyper-natural performance in this film is a revelation—the pathos are present but not exploited, and he doesn’t shy away from the character’s less likable traits. It’s perhaps the most lived-in work of his career, which does beg the question of how much he’s playing himself—and what he thinks of those films that pay for the real big house and the real charmed life. Watching his nuanced, somewhat brilliant acting here, you just want to punch him in the face for continuing to trawl out half-assed vehicles like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; he is clearly capable of so much better than that.
And what exactly is Apatow saying in this film about those sloppy Sandler vehicles? Young guys like Ira and Leo love those movies—and so do the guys that play them (on the Knocked Up commentary track, Rogen says that “watching Adam Sandler movies” is one of his primary hobbies). But how much longer does an actor of Sandler’s skill have to keep playing down? His previous attempts to do more serious work for other directors (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me) have proven box-office failures. The adult audiences that they’re geared to don’t see them (at least not in theaters) because they’re “Adam Sandler movies,” while the (mostly young, mostly male) fans who know The Waterboy by heart might show up the first weekend, only to have the film go over their head and kill it with negative word of mouth. (I sat in front of a whole row of these mouth-breathers at Funny People, who lost patience after the first hour, sighing and belching loudly and pronouncing the film to be “gay.” It was like a living tableaux of what’s wrong with American moviegoers.)
So where does Sandler, now 42, go from here? Will he take the challenge quietly extended by his friend Apatow and continue to do work like this, films that give him the opportunity to hone his craft and explore his considerable skill as an actor? Or will he go back, as he always does, to his self-produced “Happy Madison” vehicles, in which he circle-jerks with the same subpar collaborators and pitches to the lowest common denominator? A visit to IMDb tells the tale. He’s currently shooting Grown-Ups, a screenplay he co-wrote with Tim Herlihy (Mr. Deeds, The Waterboy), directed by Dennis Dugan (Chuck & Larry, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). His co-stars include Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Kevin James. Maybe he can do Mer-Man after that one wraps.
"Funny People" is now in wide release.
Friday, July 31, 2009
A few years back, Judd Apatow shook up the cinematic comedy landscape, which had become moribund by stale Ben Stiller vehicles and insulting Rob Schneider atrocities, with his specific comic methodology. His films, as both a director and producer, mixed R-rated vulgarity with genuine romantic entanglements, while relying on the improvisational skills of a stock company developed from his short-lived TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as well as the films he produced for Will Ferrell. That formula led a successful string of pictures from the Apatow factory, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express.
But over the last year or so, we’ve begun to see other filmmakers trying on this particular style and finding it a smooth fit. Apatow players Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Ken Jeong, and Jane Lynch appeared in Role Models, which melded those actors with several alumni of The State (including director David Wain); similarly, Apatow regular Seth Rogen brought Banks and Craig Robinson (and improv) into the View Askewniverse when he fronted Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Director Jody Hill took Rogen’s good-natured schlub to a darker place (with the help of his Pineapple Express co-star Danny McBride) in last spring’s uncomfortably uproarious Observe and Report. But no recent film without the mini-mogul’s involvement felt more like an Apatow film than John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man, a “bromantic comedy” starring Rudd and Jason Segal (of Knocked Up, Sarah Marshall, and both of the TV shows). This is meant, by the way, as a compliment.
Rudd stars as Peter Klaven, a Los Angeles real estate agent who, in the film’s first scene, proposes marriage to the lovely Zooey (Rashida Jones, of The Office and Parks and Recreation). Zooey immediately goes about stocking her bridesmaids from a large stable of girl friends (including lovably dirty Jaime Pressly and Sarah Burns), but is a little thrown when Peter has no one to tell. His family explains: he’s always been “a girlfriend guy,” a serial monogamist who shed his guy friends along the way. Afraid of becoming too clingy and fearing a lop-sided wedding party, Peter sets out to make some guy friends (going on a series of disastrous “man dates”) before settling on the guy who just could be “the one” (to be his best man, that is): Sidney Fife (Jason Segal), a laid-back Venice “investor” whose devil-may-care attitude (and passion for the band Rush) makes him a good fit for uptight Peter.
Director Hamburg (Along Came Polly), who shares a screenplay credit with Larry Levin, is rather sly in his construction of Peter and Sidney’s story; the picture cleverly repurposes the standard scenes and conflicts of the modern romantic comedy, from the “meet cute” to the “getting to know you” montage to the third party that may very well break them up (in this case, Jones’ Zooey). The semi-love affairs between straight, immature men is the thread that seems to run constant between most of these films; Hamburg and Levin’s script shrewdly and wittily takes that subtext and puts it out front. It is then fleshed out by the standard Apatow-style ingredients: cheerful vulgarity, good-natured charm, off-the-wall pop culture references (Chocolat and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium get name-checked), and a heaping helping of the comedy of awkwardness. Hamburg’s direction isn’t terribly innovative, but you don’t really want a director intruding on character comedy with indulgent camera moves; his shooting is practical and occasionally inventive (as when he cleverly stages what is, in retrospect, a fairly transparent third-act fake-out by distracting us with a good sight gag).
Rudd’s goofily handsome charisma is one of the film’s greatest weapons; the wedding proposal that opens the film is winning and sweet, and gets us on his side right away. Segal’s matter-of-fact delivery and effortless likability pairs them up nicely, and his engagement party toast is uproariously inappropriate (and perfectly delivered). Jones is charmingly unflappable; most of her notable work to date has been on television, but she clearly has the chops to carry a film (and Dreamworks’ marketing team seem to agree; she was absent from the film’s poster but has been added to the DVD cover). Her role could have easily been overplayed as a paranoid shrew or underplayed as an empty ingénue; Jones strikes just the right balance. You can see why Peter fell for her, and how he might be losing her.
Hamburg was also wise enough to surround his leads with a full staff of comic utility players: Pressly, Burns, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtain, Jon Favreau, Thomas Lennon, Larry Wilmore, and Aziz Ansari all show up, coming off the bench to grab laughs, sometimes in as little as a scene or two. Favreau and Pressly fare best, she as Zooey’s best friend, he as her husband, who openly loathes Peter (and just about everyone, it seems, including his wife). Their constant sniping and sex bargaining are a running joke that keeps on giving.
Unfortunately, Peter’s awkward verbal fungus is a well that they visit far too often; too many scenes try to find a button by going back to his inability to come up with nicknames or do a cool send-off. The same goes for the unfunny character of Lonnie (played by Joe Lo Truglio, from Superbad); his “man date” is the film’s least successful, and he then reappears at the climax and isn’t funny then either. The entire closing wedding sequence is a bit of a mess, in fact—not a Wedding Crashers mess, mind you, but still a clumsily-staged sputtering out by a film that has, until that point, sailed pretty smoothly.
The only problem with borrowing so heavily from the Apatow playbook is that you’re bound to invite comparisons, and I Love You, Man isn’t quite as consistently funny or poignant as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But it still has plenty of huge laughs and an appealing story, and its packed, talented cast works together exquisitely."I Love You, Man" hits DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, August 11th.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
The first words of Sling Blade are spoken by the late, great J.T. Walsh, after he drags a chair, loudly and mercilessly across a linoleum floor to plop down next to Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton), the film’s protagonist. “A Mercury is a real good car,” he announces. “That was the car I was driving that day.” And he proceeds to tell a series of horrifying stories; Karl sits, and listens, and grunts; he may not be happy about leaving what he calls “the nervous hospital,” but getting away from this guy would seem to be one immediate benefit.It is perhaps a little unorthodox to begin your film with an extended, creepy monologue by a two-scene character, but there’s nothing routine about Sling Blade, the fascinating, nuanced Southern Gothic drama that put Billy Bob Thornton on the map and created one of the great, iconic characters of 1990s cinema. It is intriguing to note how we have come to consider Thornton solely as an actor, forgetting that he wrote and directed this breakthrough picture, and make no mistake, in the intervening decade-plus, he’s given us enough memorable performances to cement that reputation. But his delicate, precise script and painterly direction were all of a piece with his tremendous leading performance; lest we forget, he won his one and only Oscar to date for this film’s screenplay.
It tells the story of Karl, a mentally impaired man who was placed in the mental hospital during his teens for murdering his mother and a classmate (with the titular weapon—“some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade”) whom he caught in the act. He is now being released into the world (“they tell me I’m well”), but he’s not sure exactly what to do with himself; a hospital administrator gets him work in a fix-it shop, and he befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) who offers Karl a place to stay. The boy and his single mom, Linda (Natalie Canderday), along with her best friend, the gay shopkeeper Vaughn (John Ritter, playing well against type), become something of a surrogate family for Karl, but that delicate balance is frequently upset by Linda’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) a drunken lout who openly loathes her son and mercilessly mocks Karl and Vaughn.
Thornton’s screenplay, which is legitimately reminiscent of the small-town dramas of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, has a tremendous individual voice—he has a remarkable ear for the Southern dialect even for one-line characters with lines like “These are the people from that newspaper deal?” He writes in vernacular, but never makes the mistake of making his Southern characters dumb; even challenged Karl has an elegance and color to his speech, with statements like “I ought not worry your mama with comp’ny” and “He got me hired on with Bill Cox’s outfit,” and some of the dialogue (especially in the last scene between Karl and Vaughn) is marvelously poetic. Beyond the dialogue, Thornton’s script is filled with three-dimensional characters and utilizes a structure so subtle, you don’t realize how efficient it is; the events of the closing passages unfold with a precise, unforced inevitability (right down to the clean way he ends three consecutive scenes with three different characters saying the same line—“Karl?”—in slightly different ways).
Thornton’s performance has been justifiably celebrated, both at the time and over the passing years, but it’s particularly remarkable to watch now that he has crafted such a particular screen persona—with his bowl haircut, jutted-out jaw, and clean-shaven face, he’s barely even recognizable here. His speaking voice was so widely recognized and aped (for a time in early 1997, it seemed like everyone was doing a Karl impersonation) that we may not have realized what an interesting corner he painted himself into with it; that flat, unaffected speech pattern forced this actor, whose expressive voice has since become one of his greatest tools, to find other ways to convey emotion—the stoop of his posture, the rubbing of his hands, and his eyes, which are often downcast and empty but occasionally flash with an intensity (as they do at the end of his confession monologue early in the film) that suggests danger and unpredictability.
The revelation of his work may have also overshadowed the impressive gallery of performances surrounding him. Yoakam, known at the time only as a musician, turns in a frighteningly authentic portrait of slimy, brutal insecurity—Vaughn calls him “a monster,” and it’s not hyperbole, which Yoakam manages to suggest in manners both large and small. The late John Ritter is rather wonderful in a performance that is quiet and sensitive yet slyly funny, while Canderday’s work had always escaped my appreciation until this most recent viewing (she has a late-night kitchen chat with Karl where the delicacy of the writing is matched only by the understated playing). And young Lucas Black is remarkable; Karl’s friendship with the young boy is tricky, requiring charm and genuine affection without any undertones of inappropriateness, and if that delicate balance isn’t achieved, the whole picture falls apart. Black solves the problem by playing his scenes absolutely straight-forward, without a hint of cutesiness or pathos, and their closing scene manages to play emotionally without descending into easy sentimentality.
Sling Blade put Thornton forward as one of the many promising directors of the mid-1990s indie scene; it was also among the last releases of Miramax’s golden period, before their pursuit for Oscar gold and easy profits led the brothers Weinstein to take less frequent risks on chancy films like this one. His next two directorial credits were both for Miramax, and he would probably be hard-pressed to pinpoint which had a more disappointing result; his muddled but enjoyable Southern comedy Daddy and Them (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) went not even direct to DVD, but direct to cable, while his film version of Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses (which he only directed) went though a production and editing process which could politely be called “troubled” (for what it’s worth, I rather liked that highly-scorned picture as well).
He hasn’t written or directed since, and we’re poorer for it. Even in this, his directorial debut, Thornton’s filmmaking is mature and patient; he tends to hold his scenes and monologues out in long, unbroken takes, trusting the audience (and his screenplay) to focus on the words and take in the compositions, rather than breaking the deliberate pace with choppy edits and pushy framing. His compositions are carefully chosen—during a scene of verbal and physical abuse in Linda’s living room, Thornton stays in a wide shot, with Karl seated in the lower corner, listening and barely reacting, while a later shot stays over Doyle’s shoulder as he apologizes to Linda, Karl, and Frank, recognizing that our primary point of interest in the scene is Frank’s angry reaction, and shooting and editing accordingly. This no-cutaway method of shooting does cause a couple of scenes (like a rambling, post-jam conversation scene with Doyle’s thrown-together “band”) to run on a bit too long, but never to a point of distraction. In fact, from its startling opening scenes to the matter-of-fact brutality of its climax, Sling Blade is a film that never steps wrong—it is a rich, textured, terrific picture.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
So let’s get this out of the way first: Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming feature Inglorious Basterds is not a remake of the The Inglorious Bastards, the 1978 Italian-made World War II exploitation movie, directed by Enzo G. Casterelli. Oh, make no mistake—he’s seen it, and was inspired by the general idea, so he used the (misspelled) title for his WWII exploitation movie. It’s one of those stories of Tarantino “borrowing” from other movies (which drives his naysayers crazy). Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what of Casterelli’s film? Does it merit its new infamy, its hipster cache as a QT footnote? Will it inspire other filmmakers, as it did the geek supreme?Eh, probably not. Admittedly, part of what makes Tarantino’s work so rich and unpredictable is the esoteric nature of his influences; he seems capable of finding something to like in damn near anything. But you can watch the pictures he’s pinpointed as favorites, and even junk like Switchblade Sisters and Coffy have a kind of lowbrow kinetic buzz that you can latch on to and ride out for an hour and a half. So it’s a little befuddling that he appears to have spent so much time obsessing over a second-rate Dirty Dozen knock-off.
The film begins with a gloriously cheeseball opening credit sequence; after the logo for “Capitol International” (was there any group that gave themselves more self-important names than 70s-era distributors of low-budget cinema?), we’re treated to the kind of opening titles where the credit “And Ian Bannen as ‘Col. Buckner’” fits right in (one pictures a long, thin theatrical poster with thumb-sized pictures of the cast across the bottom). We’re then introduced to what would be, I guess, our title characters: a crew of five American soldiers (though three of them are clearly not American) on their way to a military prison. Among them are cool, collected Lt. Yeager (Bo Svenson, who took over for Joe Don Baker in the Walking Tall movies and later played the reverend in Kill Bill) and badass brother Pvt. Canfield (Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, of Black Caesar, Three The Hard Way, and, later, From Dusk Till Dawn). On the way to the stockades, the convoy is attacked by Nazis; the five prisoners survive and escape, working their way through France to neutral Sweden and shooting up Nazis along the way.
For much of the first hour, the narrative is tediously repetitive—the group travels, is discovered and outed as Americans, has a big shoot-out in which all of their enemies are killed and not one of them gets a scratch (seriously, these guys have the best luck this side of The A-Team), and then the move on to the next discovery and shoot-out. Some of the vignettes are downright inexplicable—you may have thought you’d seen shameless, credibility-stretching nudity in an exploitation film before, but wait ‘till you get a load of the T&A sequence here. In fact, Castellari and his five (!) screenwriters find themselves marking time until they can get to the big third-act set piece; that’s the only reason I can come up with for the romantic subplot between cool, suave Tony (Peter Hooten) and nurse Nicole (Debra Berger), which is so half-hearted and undercooked, you wonder why they even bothered with it.
The dialogue isn’t terribly interesting, and poor Williamson gets stuck with the dopiest of it (to his gun, before another shoot-out: “Okay, baby, here we go again”), though he reportedly wrote much of his own stuff, so he has no one to blame but himself. But there’s a stilted, awkward quality to the non-action scenes, on top of the usual displacement expected from the dubbed dialogue of the mixed cast (even English-speaking Svenson and Williamson sound like they’re talking from another room). Acting is all over the place—most of the performers seem to have been allowed to mug wildly and play it to the second balcony.
However, it is probably safe to note that the target audience for a film like The Inglorious Bastards wasn’t there for the sturdy script construction, nuanced acting, or witty repartee. How’s the action, you ask? Pretty good. As mentioned, the shoot-outs of the first half get a little monotonous, and some of the filmmaking is clumsy—there’s a moment of laughably obvious stock footage (a paratrooper appears to fall from day in the sky to night on the ground), and Williamson’s fisticuffs during the takeover of a Nazi compound are poorly choreographed. But the big climax (involving exploding bridges, the takeover of a moving train, and plenty of gunplay) is well-staged; you get the feeling that most of the filmmakers’ energy went into the last twenty minutes. The shots are crisp, the editing is fast and sharp, and the mood is kept light by some great gag stunts (as when Michael Pergolani zips across a checkpoint on a motorcycle and plugs a bullet hole on the fuel tank with a wad of gum). The action is strangely bloodless (could they not afford real squibs?), and I’m pretty damn sure that we’re seeing a model train there at the end. But it’s still a fun sequence, and a decent capper to a fairly uneven shoot-‘em-up.
The Inglorious Bastards, contrary to what you may have been led to believe by its biggest and best-known admirer, is not a lost classic waiting to be rediscovered. It is a middling and sometimes downright clunky ‘70s actioner that would probably have long disappeared without the championing of QT. That said, it does have some energy to it, and a nice sense of style and pace. I doubt you’ll feel the need to revisit it, but if you’re in the mood for a slice of exploitation cheese, it’s worth a rental, as a curio if nothing else.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
A River Runs Through It (Blu-ray): Robert Redford's study of family, religion, and fly-fishing came out around the same time, and conversely, I liked it less on revisiting; it's well-made, yes, and pretty to look at, but mighty dull.
The Mafia DVD Set: Another good one from the History Channel; there's too much repeated material (as is often the case with their box sets), but there's an abundance of fascinating information about real-life goodfellas.
Comic Legends- Four-Disc Collection: Some enjoyable vintage TV performances from the likes of Dick Van Dyke, Groucho Marx, and Tim Conway.
Monday, July 27, 2009
In some ways, the story of Pushing Daisies tells you everything you need to know about why network television in such a sorry state these days. The show, from the mind of Dead Like Me creator Bryan Fuller, debuted in October 2007 to critical kudos and strong ratings, thanks to a full-court promotional press by ABC, who quickly put in a full-series order. But the ratings slipped somewhat during that first season, which was then cut short by the writers’ strike; only nine episodes aired, and once the strike ended, the writers elected to start fresh with season two.
However, when the second season began in October of 2008, it had been a full ten months since American audiences had seen the show—and that fall, ABC’s promotional efforts were lackluster at best. The second season opener pulled less than half the audience of the debut, coming in fourth in its timeslot—and that would represent the best numbers of season two. ABC quickly cancelled the show, only producing 13 second season episodes; it only aired the first ten before yanking the series from its regular schedule (the last three were burned off early this summer).
There was a time, of course, where networks would get behind a high-quality show with the kind of rapturous notices that Pushing Daisies received; lest we all forget, NBC stuck with cellar-dwellers Cheers and Seinfeld for far longer than this, and were rewarded with first place ratings. But it’s a different business now. Pushing Daisies was presumably an expensive show to produce—the production and costume design were immaculate, the cinematography complex, and special effects were commonplace, plus they had all those actors to pay. As has happened all too often in the last decade, networks looked at the bottom line, and when you can fill your schedule with numb-skulled “reality” shows like The Bachelor and Wife Swap and Supernanny, which cost four dollars and a bologna sandwich to make since you don’t have to pay writers or actors or anyone with any discernable talent, well, why would you stick with a wonderful but costly series like this one?
And with that, I’ll step off my soapbox and tell you about the show itself. Pushing Daisies is the story of Ned the pie-maker (Lee Pace), who has the peculiar ability to bring dead things back to life with the touch of his finger. However, he discovers in childhood that he must touch them again (sending them back to death) within sixty seconds or someone (or something) else must die in their place—and that his touch can still kill those he’s brought back to life, even after that sixty seconds is up. (Writing a synopsis like that, I’m somewhat amazed that they managed to sell the series at all.)
As an adult, Ned (who owns and operates a pie diner, wonderfully named the Pie Hole) teams up with Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a seen-it-all private investigator who uses the pie-maker’s gift to score easy cash—he and Ned visit a corpse in the morgue, they bring it back to life long enough to find out who’s responsible, and he collects his fee. But then Ned goes to his hometown funeral home and is shocked to discover his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel) in a casket, and try as he might, he can’t send her back to her grave. They begin a romance that’s about as warm and tender as one can be when the two parties can’t, you know, touch each other. They’re clearly crazy about each other—much to the chagrin of Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth), the Pie Hole waitress who harbors a hopeless crush on Ned. Olive has also accidently inserts herself into the lives of Chuck’s surviving aunts, the agoraphobic Vivian (Ellen Greene) and Lily (Swoozie Kurtz).
Season two begins with shifts in the dynamics of the show; at the end of the previous season, Olive found out that Lily was not Chuck’s aunt but was, in fact, her mother. Ned finally confessed to Chuck that he was responsible for her father’s death when they were children, which prompted her to move in with Olive and seek a more independent life. Lily spirits Olive off to the nunnery where she spent her pregnancy; she’s hoping Olive will keep her secret, while Olive sees it as a respite from Ned. After she returns, some unexpected romantic complications ensue.
Meanwhile, Emerson’s quest to find his long-lost daughter (which involves, hilariously, writing a children’s pop-up book about her) gives his character some lovely poignancy, and while the show’s overall arc is sweet and compelling, the enjoyably convoluted mystery plots help to keep each episode self-contained. The unacknowledged joke of the premise, of course, is that while the information Ned gleans from the recently departed is supposed to make Emerson’s job easier, their sixty seconds of information unfailingly bring up more questions than answers.
The thirteen season two episodes are penned by about as many different writers, which is somewhat remarkable; all seem to have effortlessly captured the voice and comic vision of creator Fuller (who only wrote the season’s first episode). The dialogue is paced within an inch of its life—this is the kind of show where the scripts must run much longer than the page-a-minute standard, the lines are delivered with such audacious zeal and rat-tat-tat brazenness. The witty narration (whimsically delivered by character actor Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks) is full of alliteration and lovely turns-of-phrase.
The show’s stable of directors (chief among them TV vet Lawrence Trilling) continue the inventive, fluid, downright edible look established in the show’s first two episodes by film director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black). If it were nothing else, Pushing Daisies would be a joy just to look at—the costume and production design is jazzy and vibrant, while the frames are packed with background gags (Olive reads a book called “The Double Negative: What You Shouldn’t Not Know”) and clever touches (even as a boy, Emerson Cod is seen in loud shirts and pinstripe suits). The editing is fast and smooth, often using clever new transitions for each episode, like the elevator doors of a department store of the snapping jaws of a killer shark. The show’s only real technical flaws are the occasionally-dodgy special effects; the incidental pieces are fine, but when they have to do a big CG sequence (like the reservoir climax of episode 212), the seams show. My only real complaint with the second season concerns the final moments of the closing episode; the brief epilogue feels tacked-on and rushed (which, unfortunately, it probably was). It’s nice to have a bit of closure, yes, but this viewer wished they would have nipped and tucked elsewhere in the episode to give the closing revelations a bit more room to breathe.
The ensemble cast is nearly flawless, from open-faced, loveable Pace to charming Friel to cheery Green. Swoozie Kurtz’s acid tongue offers a welcome touch of tartness, while McBride bone-dry delivery and gruff persona notch in just right against his sunny co-stars. But the show-stealer is the enchanting Chenoweth, whose snappy timing and screwball comedy persona (and occasional musical interludes) are a joy to watch.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a show for all temperaments—the underlying sweetness and pitch-black comedy are sometimes an uneasy mix, while the whirling-dervish tempo and fairy-tale stylization has stricken some naysayers as forced whimsy (and it is, admittedly, a show that occasionally tries too hard to charm). But if you’re willing to go along with its particular brand of dew-eyed silliness, it is a program of guilt-free giggles and snazzy pizzaz.
Pushing Daisies certainly isn’t a show for hard-nosed cynics; some will undoubtedly find it sickeningly sweet, or cloying in its fast-paced but old-fashioned cheeriness. But it is a truly wonderful show, with a second season just as strong as its first, and while one can easily mourn its loss as another casualty of the continuing decline of narrative television (and I have), it can also be viewed another, happier way: it’s a small miracle that they produced 22 episodes of a series this quirky and original within a network landscape so homogenized, and perhaps we should just be thankful that we got as many as we did.
"Pushing Daisies: The Complete Second Season" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
I’ve never seen a film quite like Pennies from Heaven before, and I’m certain I won’t again; it’s a strange, difficult picture, built on incongruence and unhappiness. The notion (of both the film and Dennis Potter’s original BBC mini-series) is that the razzle-dazzle movie musicals of the 1930s sharply contrasted with the real lives of average folks during the Great Depression, a point illustrated by telling a downbeat, realistic story interspersed with stunning song-and-dance sequences. On top of that, the production numbers are all mimed to popular records of the time, with the emphasis on emotion rather than illusion (so that, for example, a high-pitched female song of longing might come out of Steve Martin’s mouth).
The resulting film is recklessly uneven but strangely fascinating; it doesn’t quite work, but you can’t believe they’re even trying it. It is anchored by a peculiar Martin performance—this was only his second starring role (after The Jerk) and he comes up with an interesting, almost schizophrenic interpretation, playing the dialogue scenes in a flat, manner-of-fact fashion, while morphing into a wide-eyed wonder during the musical numbers that’s something akin to his stand-up persona. “They tell the truth, songs do,” he insists, and later he pines, “there must be a place where the songs are real.” There’s real pain and real skill in this performance, and it’s hard to imagine him doing anything remotely this risky at this unfortunate point in his career.
No matter where you stand on the ying-and-yang of the downer story and the upper songs (and I’m somewhere in the middle; it’s a lovely trick that gets a bit overplayed by the time the picture’s 108 minutes draw to a close), you must admit that the craftsmanship of the production numbers is astonishing: Bob Mackie’s costumes are ravishing, the production design by Philip Harrison and cinematography by Gordon Willis (Manhattan, The Godfather) are astonishing, and Danny Daniels’ choreography is marvelous (the three-man dance number and the big closer being the highlights). And Christopher Walken absolutely stops the show—his tart, sneering, tap dance/striptease to “Anything Goes” is a barn-burner. Pennies from Heaven never quite lands as a coherent whole, but the fact that a major studio spent this much money to try and bring this kind of cockeyed vision to the screen is certainly something worth celebrating.