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Irony and Romance, The Sliding Scale

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Romance is the genre that dramatizes our dreams of ideally effective action against the forces of evil. The white knight learns from his tutelary figure how to defeat the black knight, the ogre, the dragon, and the sorcerer in defense of the damsel and in doing so revives the entire community. He fights for the values that bind the community, earning the deepest gratitude of everyone in it who identifies with the forces of good. This gives dimension to his heroism and explains why he has been a focus of projection for boys since forever.

Irony is the genre that slaps us awake in the middle of those dreams. It apes the structure of romance but fills it in with realistic details that won’t cooperate with the fantasy–e.g., Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Irony presents stories based on our lowest estimates of ourselves, saying to us, in effect, “You can fantasize all you want, but you’re no hero and your plans never work out as satisfactorily as you hope.” (Critics who complain that ironists look down on their characters manage to be correct and to miss the boat at the same time.)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

In practice, however, irony and romance aren’t so cleanly antithetical. There’s often a breaking point at which irony turns into romance. It can be a drag, for example, in the Robin Williams or Jim Carrey comedy that goes soft, “redeeming” the character whose outrageousness has been our main source of entertainment. A lot of us prefer our irony neat, and Will Ferrell’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a straight shot of that good stuff. In last year’s Elf, the turning point after which you knew that James Caan’s daddy figure would be reborn and Ferrell would be happily integrated into his family came so early it killed the comedy. Anchorman makes up for that with total singlemindedness.

Ferrell plays the star local newscaster in ’70s San Diego who resists the introduction of a female co-anchor even though he’s dating her (having won the competition with his colleagues over who will lay her). The elements of romance are burlesqued from beginning to end–jousts in the form of vicious rumbles against rival stations’ newsmen, a spiritual crisis brought on by the death of his dog, a heroic return occasioned by the need to cover a much-anticipated birth of a panda at the zoo, and a rescue of the damsel from the zoo’s bear pit in which he and his resurrected dog collaborate. Ferrell is an even more poker-faced skit artist than Mike Myers, and he has a more specific and more generally serviceable specialty, playing characters who are oblivious to the chasm between how they picture themselves and how they come across.

Napoleon Dynamite

Anchorman was the funniest American comedy this year until Napoleon Dynamite, which is likewise a deadpan parody of a romance. The title character is a gape-mouthed, drowsy-eyed high-school kid in small-town Idaho who longs for the kind of skills that he imagines will make him popular with girls. (Among the things he considers “skills” are having a “sweet” bike and being able to grow a mustache.) To compensate for his lack of skills he fantasizes, exaggerates, and lies, and it isn’t clear that he knows the difference. (He covers notebook pages with drawings of the “liger,” a hybrid of lion and tiger “bred for its magical powers,” and he talks about this beast not only as if other people could have heard of it but as if it were real.) Napoleon is a loser by most external standards and we’re free to laugh at him because he’s not even loveable. He has the petulance of an adolescent who’s always ready to snap at people because they aren’t able to guess what he’s thinking. They actually have to ask him questions to find out. Idiots!

Jon Heder gives a classic slapstick performance, something along the lines of the silent great Harry Langdon, that sleepy-headed weirdo baby, after a hormonal growth spurt. You have to see Heder move; he runs, dances, and even swallows in gangly character. And he never appeals directly to the audience but understands that irony is a form of identification with character, with Napoleon’s very awkwardness and preposterousness (as the co-writer and director Jared Hess makes clear in this interview with Screenwriter’s Utopia).

Tina Majorino is nearly Heder’s equal as the shy but enterprising girl who loves him. A gravely self-serious photo-i.d. photographer and lanyard artisan, she’s got her own absurd dimness, an independent source of comedy, which is more than you can say for almost any heroine in Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Langdon. (Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the script with him and is probably responsible for the relatively soft-grained, characterful female slapstick.)

To maintain Anchorman‘s hermetic seal, Ferrell and the moviemakers no doubt had to win a staring contest with their distributor, and themselves. I hope Ferrell never blinks again. All the same, their movie is the work of fully-vested insiders compared to Napoleon Dynamite, which has a special grace, probably because Heder and the Hesses are young and unpracticed. (Their freshness is all over Jared’s interviews with Screenwriter’s Utopia and this one with IndieWire and this article in USA Today about Heder.)

In addition, all three are Mormons who met at Brigham Young University, which ought to turn all kinds of stereotypical notions on their heads. (Jared said to Screenwriter’s Utopia, “I don’t feel there is any Mormon culture in the film,” but both Jared and Heder carried out two-year proselytizing missions and that experience may account for the number of people in Napoleon Dynamite who sell things door-to-door. ) These Mormon tyros make the big-industry comedians look square by comparison. (Click here for the MTV.com page on Napoleon Dynamite.)

At times Anchorman gets by on being so purposefully bad it doesn’t need to be that adeptly written or performed, though a considerable amount of it is. Napoleon Dynamite is more original, but it too works by parodying romance conventions: Napoleon has rivals and must defeat them at the climax, thereby saving his best friend and winning the girl. As in Anchorman, Napoleon’s combat skills develop fully within the mode of irony, but his triumph sneaks up on you without your even being aware the movie has a plot. The characters’ misadventures unspool in a series of first-rate blackout sketches, which play out leisurely but are cut together with the snap a young director could have learned growing up on The Simpsons. And verbally Napoleon Dynamite is the most entertainingly imitable comedy since Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (both in Heder’s delivery and in such lines as his announcement to his girl, “I caught you a delicious bass”). It likewise features a melodrama involving nasty popular kids versus ironically heroic Z-list kids, but the melodrama in Romy and Michele is too insistent–like we care. The Hesses finesse it so you get the surge without disrupting the ironic circuitry.

Shaun of the Dead

Last year’s Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton went so far with its travesty of holiday movies like Miracle on 34th Street that you could trust the moviemakers hadn’t just tacked the unironic redemption on at the end to appeal to the audience. They staggered their way to it honestly. Usually, however, when moviemakers segue from irony to romance it seems as if their irony had been a passing attitude rather than an aesthetic commitment.

In the British movie Shaun of the Dead, the inevitable switch to romance taints the irony that came before like backwash. Shaun is an overaged slacker who loses his girlfriend because he can’t outgrow his ambitionless best friend. The two guys like to sit on the couch playing video games and making fart jokes, or to drink and smoke at the pub, and Shaun expects his girl to tag along. Shaun has become a permanently adolescent zombie, but when a viral epidemic causes the dead to rise and feed on the living he becomes a man of action who can take heroic risks, improvise as the desperate situation mutates, feel the importance of the moment and convey his feelings directly. He rescues his girl and defeats his rivals, and by the climax you have only a vague memory that the movie started out with a hyper style keyed to the unidealized view of the hero and with the star Simon Pegg expressing the character’s dilemma with superbly timed alternations of attention and distraction (his mental mouse and cursor only randomly connected).

Irony lampoons the elements of romance. In Napoleon Dynamite the climactic battle is a dance; in Shaun of the Dead the hero’s trusty sword is a cricket bat (a choice arrived at after various alternatives, including LPs, have been tried and discarded). The weapon stays the same throughout the picture, but the attitude shifts to decisive and disappointingly bland romance, ironic only to the extent that it’s fantastic. The movie attempts a late save by making the aftermath of the horrific outbreak comic (the zombies aren’t destroyed but put on chains and hired for menial work like rounding up shopping carts in parking lots), but it’s too late. The movie has already shown us that its heart is in the right place and this proves fatal.


The British tennis movie Wimbledon, starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, has an even slimmer margin of irony. The weapons are tennis rackets, of course, the battles on the courts, and the hero unlikely (he’s overaged for championship matches and was never driven enough to be that successful anyway). All the same it’s played as a relatively straightforward romance, with ogres (the girl’s father) and rival bad knights (the girl’s ex-boyfriend), tutelary figures (the girl herself and the hero’s father), a damsel in a tower guarded by a dragon (a barking pooch), a trusty steed (a convertible sports car), and a crisis which leads to a victory that returns vitality to the land (not only does the hero’s success at Wimbledon reunite his estranged parents it rouses the entire nation). Wimbledon thus has leanings toward national epic, a fictional British counterpart to Miracle, the movie about the American hockey team’s gold-medal win at the 1980 Olympics.

Dunst teases and challenges Bettany, bringing a physicality out of his recessive personality. (Dunst does for him as an actor what her character does for his as a tennis player.) But I’m not very big on this kind of romance: the substance is too thin (it doesn’t tell you much about tennis) and the fantasy at once too blatantly and yet coyly masturbatory (I prefer undisguised porn). But this doesn’t explain its failure with the American mass audience, which does feed on such stuff. Wimbledon probably isn’t a hit here because, for starters, the hero’s main rival is American, not just by nationality but by supposed national type: cocky, obnoxious, insensitive.

Worse, this is also true of Dunst as the hero’s girl, a rising star on the women’s circuit. On the one hand, she rejuvenates him and teaches him how to bring his game up to championship level (even if it means creaming his best friend), and thus has a tutelary function. On the other hand, she rejects him midway and throws him off his game, and thus also functions as an evil temptress (like Barbara Hershey in The Natural). She gets hers, though, and women in particular must feel they were suckered into the theater when Dunst is defeated on the courts because she had sex with the hero the night before. If the moviemakers wanted her to be the “girl” cheering from the sidelines why did they make her a tennis sensation in the first place?

In addition, the reluctant, and possibly overmatched, knight is a tricky figure. For American audiences it takes a certain kind of masculine confidence to counterbalance it (like Bogart’s in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, for instance, or Bruce Willis’s more recently). American audiences will go for a cocky-juvenile romance hero who has to learn a thing or two before he can win big time; they crowned Tom Cruise in this guise. Bettany is a more nuanced figure, more scaled to life–qualities cast away in such a conventional romance–but in any case he’s so self-effacing it’s hard to believe he’s ranked even 119th. (This I take to be a British fantasy on the part of the moviemakers–they have the raw talent to lead the world in the place of the Americans, they’re just too genteel.)

As a result, Wimbledon isn’t enough of a dead-ahead romance to please a popular audience here, and not enough of a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be an older player in a tough game to please a more discerning crowd. If the makers wanted it to be “thoughtful” then it shouldn’t be a competitive romance but more like Ron Shelton’s Kevin Costner sports movies, Bull Durham and Tin Cup, in which the hero competes mainly against himself. Instead, the romance rivalry descends like doom on the plot. As soon as you see the young American champ, who’s slept with Dunst and whose serves travel in excess of 140 mph, you know that Bettany will have to play him in the final match and you know Bettany has to win–because the movie hasn’t been promoted like one in which the hero loses. The director Richard Loncraine has used CGI to make the game as visually exciting as it could be, but the predictability of the romance outcome draws the climax out excruciatingly. No amount of charm on the part of the stars can overcome the pall of generic conventions used in such a rote manner.


Currently, the romance with the least degree of irony would be Zhang Yimou’s Hero. It’s about knights who fight for ideas with swords, ironic only in the sense that the nameless protagonist fails in the quest he set out to accomplish, though not in the one he comes to accept. He poses as a man who has eliminated legendarily invincible assassins intent on killing Qin Shi Huangdi, the infamously cruel first emperor of China, and manages himself to get within killing distance of him. But the emperor, who wants to hear this “hero” recount his exploits, is shrewd enough to see through his various yarns, told successively in varying dominant-color schemes. In the process of drawing him out the emperor changes both the assassin’s attitude and his own. The result is the unification of the nation.

Though Hero employs current moviemaking technology and follows the recent trends in martial arts choreography, from Yimou’s remarks in this interview with the Chicago Tribune it’s plain he has the best, traditional reasons for making a romance–to exemplify and promote national and spiritual principles, to use narrative to transmute ideas into group sentiment. In the West we’re familiar with Hero‘s motives as Verdian themes from the transitional works I Vespri siciliani (1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un Ballo in maschera (1859), and La Forza del destino (1862): the necessity of sacrifice on the part of one of the antagonists in order to end a vendetta and the primary importance of national unity. Unfortunately, Hero lacks that combination of mastery and discovery that Verdi shows in these operas.

The fantastic combat scenes in Hero, accomplished with wires and CGI, are impressive but in a relatively impersonal way. Yimou seems to be working in a borrowed style. Indeed, this movie bears no resemblance to the much more formally static works that made him famous. As a result the movie doesn’t have the crispness that an action master like Akira Kurosawa brought to his breakthrough works. And though it does sweep along that’s due in large part to the fact that the script recounts the same events in several versions within a short enough span of time so you can appreciate the differences. A lot of the most pictorial effects–the protagonist’s face moving in slow motion through individual raindrops, antgonists running across the surface of a lake seen from below, or action laid out against geological panoramas–make the movie look like a sequence of (admittedly sleek) TV commercials. Yimou’s work here is absorbing and fleet, and all the actors score, especially Maggie Cheung who maintains movie-star allure in a range of styles as the protagonist’s story changes, but I would be more careful than most critics have been not to oversell it.

A Dirty Shame

A Dirty Shame, the latest movie by John Waters, brings the interplay of irony and romance full circle. It stars Tracey Ullman as a drab, prudish, picklepussed Baltimore housewife who suffers a concussion which turns her into a raging, exhibitionistic nympho. This isn’t just a physiological condition. She’s the final apostle of a mechanic named Ray Ray, played by Jackass host Johnny Knoxville, who believes that number 12 will be the One to lead the world to an overwhelming sex act never before performed.

It’s all a put-on, of course, and Waters can beat Ferrell and his team any day at purposely bad. The challenge for Ferrell is to appear incompetent in a way that registers as if it required effort–the difference between Anchorman and Elf. Waters, the most consistently entertaining of permanent amateurs, has never bothered to develop any conventional skills. The difficulty for him is finding actors with the right mixture of bravado and desperation, which came naturally to Divine, the obese cross-dresser Waters met in high school who starred in his first, way-underground cheapies. (There’s nothing else in movies like the scene in Female Trouble (1975) in which Divine out of drag rapes Divine in drag.)

In Cecil B. DeMented (2000) Melanie Griffith wasn’t far enough out of the mainstream to be in on the joke of playing a nasty, fading star who’s kidnaped by a band of extremist independent moviemakers and forced to star in their anti-Hollywood guerrilla movie. You and I may think Griffith has become grotesque but she doesn’t, and, as she showed in Adrian Lyne’s woefully romanticized Lolita (1997), she lacks the high style and push it would have taken to give the movie a center, as Kathleen Turner did with Serial Mom (1993). (To retract my claws a bit, Griffith has some good watchful moments in Cecil B. DeMented, and does a wonderful quick, maternal shake of her head when Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a suicidal remark.)

Tracey Ullman is as consonant a star as Waters has had since Divine’s death (right after the release of Hairspray (1988).) She’s a small miracle here, expertly overdoing sketch acting in a way that somehow simulates a total lack of training. Ullman runs through the movie, literally, grinding her pelvis and grimacing, channeling Waters’s guiding impulse to achieve as much eruption with as little control as possible.

When Waters was a perverted midnight-movie specialist he didn’t have to fake it. Now he does, and it has changed things in his movies. Watching Divine eat poodle poop off the sidewalk in Pink Flamingos (1974), you didn’t have the sense that these creatures could ever fit into the world above ground. (Perhaps clearest in the shot of Divine strutting down the sidewalk past gapers unaware a movie’s being shot, while “The Girl Can’t Help It” plays on the soundtrack.) Waters has been integrated into the culture now and there’s something quaint about his outrageousness. He may not be a big-time director but he’s not an unbankable freak, either. He’s genially “inclusive.” So in A Dirty Shame a big part of the joke is that the self-styled “Neuters,” neighbors who want to put a stop to Ray Ray’s orgasmic-ecstatic revolution, object to sexual specialties that real-life sheltered suburbanites wouldn’t know about. The culture has broadened to such a degree that Waters is almost in the position of selling nostalgia for the good old repressed days when he had the power to shock.

Waters doesn’t worry about his position too much, however. He just whips up the hysteria and chortles over it with total ironic detachment. I have never seen him attempt direct emotion in a movie–once this gay boy saw what life could be like at camp he never went home again. The intentional overwriting and unmodulated acting, the over-the-top and under-the-skirts naughtiness, make A Dirty Shame arguably Waters’s funniest movie. (It’s helped a lot by a soundtrack filled with brazenly suggestive old pop tunes like “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts (Ten Cents a Bag)”.) At the same time, when a snake wriggles out of evangelical Ray Ray’s fly, it is to Waters, albeit entirely within the overarching irony, a religious moment. It’s the romance ethos for his world–a lower-middle-class Baltimore gone sexy in every way, conceivable and inconceivable. He’d mean it if he meant anything.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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