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Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is the latest multicultural variant of the lowbrow buddy comedy in which the heroes just want to get high and laid. This strain includes Cheech & Chong’s movies, starting with Up in Smoke (1978), and the best of them all, Friday (1995), costarring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker (who gives the most gloriously unregenerate comic performance since Chaplin’s short movies of the 1910s).

There are two new aspects here: one is that the Korean Harold and the Hindu Kumar are model minorities. Harold’s problem is that everyone assumes since he’s Asian he must be a highly-paid number cruncher, and, in fact, he is a junior analyst at a New York investment bank. Not very sexy. And Kumar’s problem is having more opportunities to go to med school, and become a surgeon like his father and brother, than he has interest in the practice of medicine.

This is connected to the second new aspect, which is that Harold & Kumar is the first openly assimilationist low comedy. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, born Dino Crocetti and Joseph Levitch, became huge in nightclubs and the movies and on TV in the era of Italian and Jewish assimilation into suburban middle-class America. But Martin played an Italian character only once in their movies, in The Caddy (1953) (in which he sings the excruciating “That’s Amore,” the “pizza pie” lyrics of which are incomprehensible without reference to the scene in the movie), and Lewis never played a Jewish character.

Harold and Kumar not only are Korean- and Indian-American characters but feel hampered by model-minority stereotypes that are true of them. The point is that normal Asian-American guys are just like normal not-Asian-American guys. Although Harold is Korean he doesn’t want to be another nerd in the East Asian Society, or to date the Korean girl his parents would approve of and whom he fears he’ll have to marry no matter what he wants. Kumar at least has the nerve to torpedo his father’s plans for him, but both of them want into the messed-up, raunchy club they’re presumed to be too good for. It’s so unfair.

I wish the movie had made more of this irony, that Harold and Kumar pursue downward mobility on a recreational basis, and less of its forced critique of racism. The script actually compares Harold and Kumar’s misadventures to the historical treatment of African-Americans, but if the makers had thought about it for three seconds they’d see there can’t be any comparison between the “plight” of a boy who doesn’t wanted to be herded by his father into top med schools, which are flinging their gates open to matriculate him, and the exclusion of blacks from any but menial occupations.

The ethnic taunts the boys endure lead the movie into various melodramatic subplots and it’s interesting to see that melodrama, treated seriously rather than comically, debases even an intentionally unambitious comedy like this. Some obnoxious, racist kids end up going to prison for a jumbo bag of pot that actually belongs to Kumar. In a movie that features an African-American professor thrown in prison for nothing, how can it possibly be a funny outcome for anybody to be jailed for something he didn’t do?

And I don’t mean to whine, but there sure are a lot of fag jokes for a movie that makes such a big deal about ethnic and racial prejudice. Plus, although I know the scenes of prejudice are supposed to be exaggerated, I couldn’t tell what they’re an exaggeration of. A med school admissions interviewer in the northeast corridor who thinks to say “colored” before “African-American”? Racist, monster-truck-driving, kayak-toting, skateboard punks in Hoboken? Whatthefuck?

Turning to what really matters: are the guys funny? Kal Penn (Kumar) sure is as the handsome juvenile hero’s feckless pal who gets them into one “fine mess” after another. Not as good as Stan Laurel or Jerry Lewis or Chris Tucker, but then the material isn’t as consistent. Still, Penn is hilariously single-minded in the beginning, blowing a med school interview by taking a cell phone call, or using his roommate’s grooming scissors on his pubes, or raving excitedly about the “dirty pussies” at Princeton.

As good as Penn is, though, those Princeton girls made me laugh harder longer. Their squint-and-grunt expressions in the game of “battleshit” are priceless, and scatological humor featuring women is even rarer than interesting roles for Asian-Americans in mainstream movies.

On the minus side, John Cho (Harold) isn’t a comedian, not even as the straight man exasperated by his clownish partner. In Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) Cho amazingly could suggest his character’s conflicting drives and feelings without dialogue–his face could look both opaque and transparent in the same shot. That’s appropriate here, too, but it’s not funny perhaps because there’s nothing cartoony about him. He’s a dramatic actor and his skills are too subtle, and not sunny enough, for this material. He also strikes me as very comfortable in his masculinity (he looks pretty hot in the animated burgerland fantasy) and so casting him as a shy young man who’s unable to assert himself just diminishes him. Cho’s body language contradicts Harold’s supposed diffidence, and in fact the only time he clicks in the movie is when Harold gets angry at the White Castle. (Though Cho does squeeze out a funny, tight smile when pointing out to a racist cop that his name, unlike Kumar’s, is inoffensively familiar.)

The Manchurian Candidate

Speaking of Whatthefuck? the remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate botches everything distinctive about the original to such an extent you think, “If they didn’t get it, why did they want to remake it?” The remakers don’t approach the older movie like fans but like engineers humorlessly addressing a technical problem: how to update the components without compromising the structure.

The original is a paranoid thriller about some American soldiers captured in Korea and brainwashed by their Chinese and Russian captors as part of a grand conspiracy to put a covert Communist in the White House. It always heads in the direction of its own improbability, disorienting you for your amusement with material you can’t assimilate or believe. For instance, it shows you the brainwashing scenes from the captured soldiers’ perspective without telling you what’s really going on. These scenes, in which the soldiers appear to be at a meeting of a ladies’ garden club, feature the most dementedly funny footage ever put in a violent thriller.

On top of that, the conspiracy (getting a clandestine red elected as Vice President and then assassinating the President) has a fine bit of effrontery at its heart. The VP candidate is a parody of Joe McCarthy, portrayed as a brainless boor, but when unmasked he is–a Communist, and thus a justification of McCarthy’s own warnings. The original thus treats the Communist threat as real but in a jokingly exaggerated way. It had something to offend everyone.

The Communist threat was real, of course, but is no longer, and so the new moviemakers have replaced the Red Chinese and the Soviets with businessmen, which doesn’t fit the premise. As Ronald Reagan made plain, and exploited to their detriment, totalitarian dictatorships rack up unsustainable costs in order to keep their warlord grip on power. Businessmen seek profits on income, and government is a massive, unproductive outlay they don’t need. Worse, these new moviemakers aren’t kidding. They really think that big business is out to conquer the world (though they probably discount the threat of Communism). By any and all indications they give in the movie, however, they have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about.

I keep formulating my disbelief over the new movie in a way that answers itself: If they’re so very ignorant about business why are they paranoid about it? The villain in this new Manchurian Candidate is a business entity, repeatedly called a “private equity fund.” In the real world (and speaking generally), private equity funds are partnerships that seek capital from large investors (e.g., tax-exempt institutions, such as state pension funds and universities, and wealthy individuals) to invest in buyouts of undervalued businesses, or startups, in single or multiple sectors, depending on opportunity, the fund managers’ experience, and other factors. They’re operated as partnerships rather than corporations in order to avoid corporate-level taxation on their income. (Click here for a more positive take than the movie’s on the kind of international business activities private equity funds conduct.)

A fair amount of the information about the movie’s private equity fund, Manchurian Global, is provided in voice-over news reports, and among the sins ascribed to it only the accusation of price-gouging is at all plausible. (This could happen if the fund bought a large enough stake in a company to influence management decisions. All the same, overreaching in business is hardly a recent phenomenon.) My favorite nitwit bit in the movie is the reference to the private equity fund’s operating through a “subsidiary partner,” which is a phrase comparable to Faye Dunaway’s “sister-daughter” in Chinatown except there’s no possible situation in which it could be used. And how on earth would a private equity fund make money from capitalizing a private army? What’s the nature of the income stream–interest? dividends?

The moviemakers have no inkling of how to approach these issues and neither do the mystified critics. The movie’s nefarious private equity fund is referred to as “a huge corporation” in The New Republic, “a multinational corporation” in the Austin Chronicle and the Dallas Observer, “a Halliburton-like multinational corporation” in the Onion, a “global conglomerate” on FilmThreat.com, a “multinational conglomerate” in Slate, a “multinational defense conglomerate” in the New York Times, and a “multi-national corporate conglomerate” in the Oregonian. (“Why say ‘gila monster’ when you can say ‘Godzilla’?” appears to be the operative theory.) Even the Wall Street Journal, for goodness’ sake, calls it “a vast multinational corporation.” (Isn’t it odd that writers, of all people, wouldn’t realize that different phrases have different meanings?)

Even sadder than the imprecision of the paranoia is the embracing of it: Slate finds compensation in the “dread that permeates” the movie, and of course all of the appreciative reviews could be keyed to the sentiment in Rolling Stone, that, with the villain changed into a “powerful corporation” “in the Halliburton-Tyco-Enron era,” the climax “couldn’t be timelier.” Which is ironic, since, according to this Deal.com report, “Through the early part of the [current] decade returns had lagged and many [private equity] funds were in the red as valuations fell and it became increasingly difficult to exit investments.” I take all this critical palaver simply to mean that the movie twitches with the same complacently ill-informed liberal anxiety that moves the critics. My point isn’t that a writer should have to pass a course in business organizations to qualify as a movie critic, but that mainstream critics’ field of endeavor is the art of narrative, not business or politics–if only they knew it!

I wouldn’t be surprised if the moviemakers, and these critics, thought a private equity fund could make money by direct ownership of oil fields rather than by indirect investment in oil companies, and that having an automaton in the White House would free them from all restraints. But don’t they think this has already happened, and yet somehow The Manchurian Candidate still comes across as far-fetched, and neither insightful nor prescient.

There’s another critical reflex at work here: Meryl Streep is once again getting rave reviews, as a U.S. Senator from New York who serves as the bridge between business and government in the conspiracy. Streep does have spectacular comic technique, but not really a comic spirit. Watching her as the Machiavellian mother of the political dupe is like watching Joan Crawford in the role, if she’d had the emphatic vocal and gestural address of Rosalind Russell but her same hefty, smothering, deliberateness. Streep’s delivery is amazingly varied and always shrewd in a highly theatrical idiom. You can’t help but be impressed, and that’s part of the problem.

Streep lacks the shameless, caricatural quality Angela Lansbury brings to the role in the original. Lansbury doesn’t play a character in a realistic sense but outlines the grotesque creature, and her very distance from the part she’s outlining with such bravura becomes the center of the aesthetic experience. In short, a witty but indelicate irony is central to Lansbury’s performance. Streep, by contrast, isn’t trying to be grotesque and is too conscious a craftswoman for irony. She’s such a scrupulous realist that she’s quite convincing as a tough politico. But she’s so plausible in the scene in which she has to win the vice-presidential nomination for her son that you can’t imagine what greater edge she’s hoping for by implanting a computer chip in his brain. (She shows too much relish for winning the old-fashioned way.)

Remember, too, that when Lansbury bustles and squawks as the woman behind the numbskull vice-presidential candidate, the character is consciously playing a role. Streep, by contrast, is straightforwardly strong in and out of the conspiracy, and the script has the lady senator being openly supported by the bad guys, whom she confers with in public. In this way Streep moves closer to Lansbury’s untwisted performance in Frank Capra’s straight-up political melodrama State of the Union (1948), and her faults are only accentuated by the movie’s earnestness, although the director Jonathan Demme does cut her scenes to enhance her timing. (Streep at least rouses you from your torpor, which is more than you can say for Denzel Washington, giving one of his numb-lipped, downcast-idealist performances.)

The updated joke was probably supposed to be something like “Republicans are the new Communists,” but it doesn’t detonate like a joke. The original movie was an act of comic provocation; this new one turns into a grim and muddled attempt to provoke thought and perhaps outrage. (The only thing I found myself thinking about afterwards was whether this new movie is supposed to take place in a world in which the first movie exists.) To fans of Demme’s work from Citizens Band (1977) through Married to the Mob (1988) he’s a god among moviemakers, but here he turns out to have a head of clay.

Collateral

Collateral, directed by Michael Mann from a script by Stuart Beattie, offers about as thoroughly worked-out an allegory as you’ll find in movies. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a hitman, who hires Jamie Foxx‘s Max, an L.A. cab driver, to chauffeur him around town while he bumps off witnesses set to testify against a druglord. Max is the hero, and Vincent, his antagonist, is a sociopath who feels no qualms about killing for hire. At the same time, however, Vincent represents the kind of assertive masculinity that Max sorely lacks and could use in order to effectuate his business plans, cope with his mother, win the girl.

The script works it out as a progression: first, after Max discovers what Vincent is up to, he fails to beg or buy his way out of staying on as Vincent’s driver; then Vincent rescues Max from muggers after Vincent has lashed Max’s hands to the wheel of the parked taxi while he takes care of business; then Max gets himself in a position in which he has to convince the druglord that he himself is Vincent; and finally Max uses Vincent’s own means to defeat him. Which is to say that Max “has to” take on the parts of Vincent’s personality that are, regrettably, useful to a man in this wicked world, and discard the rest. Max, thus, doesn’t kill Vincent so much as digest him.

Similarly, Jada Pinkett Smith‘s Annie is the damsel in distress and, in perfect conformance with the allegory, it’s the killer Vincent, confident beyond the bounds of common morality, who necessitates Max’s calling her, which Max had previously lacked the nerve to do. It is thus significant (though not interesting) that Annie is the prosecutor out to convict Vincent’s druglord-employer by calling to the stand the witnesses Vincent kills. Collateral isn’t a work of realism so it doesn’t matter as much as it otherwise would that once Vincent has killed the four witnesses it would be unnecessarily risky for him to kill the prosecutor whose case he’s already destroyed. What matters is that Annie represents the virtue that Max doesn’t discard even after he’s taken on Vincent’s violent aggression, the visceral sense that right is right that he manfully defends in the climax.

Collateral isn’t an exposé in the manner of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), it’s a chivalric romance involving a struggle between a white and a black knight (traditional moral color here the opposite of the actors’ skin pigmentation, and steeds replaced by the cab). As with all chivalric romances, the topic is what kind of knight the hero will turn out to be, a dramatic subject that gives rise to no suspense whatsoever.

That’s a problem, as is the fact that the allegorical framework is too simple to support the action set-pieces (which pale next to the crystal method of Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy) and the maunderings about jazz improvisation and insignificance. The characters could be called Aggression, Sensitivity, and Morality, and you wouldn’t need more than a single-paneled fresco to get out of the interplay all there is to be gotten.

This is where virtuosity comes in. Or should. To put it succinctly, Tom Cruise is the last actor to cast as a character whose keynote is “improvisation.” (The same complaint could be made of the whole picture: a coyote can’t cross the road without getting sucked into the movie’s symbolic matrix.) Even if nothing else were altered, the movie would play better if Cruise and Foxx switched roles. As it is, Foxx, who’s been terrific letting loose in a comedy like Booty Call (1997), isn’t asked to improvise but to play a timid character who “learns” the importance of improvising. In other words, Foxx is not used for what he’s good at, enlivening a movie from its low end, but to demonstrate how an unassuming man can get a new lease on life as an action hero.

As for Mann’s own virtuosity, the substance of the movie is so trivial that the nervy, scanning, night-vision camerawork just seems mannered. He seems to have read the script and gone ahead despite his better judgment; he’s still looking out the car windows for something to make a movie about as he’s filming the convictionless scenes. Unfortunately, the movie was shot on high-definition digital video and images that are supposed to have a burnished quality–the polished surfaces of an urban hell–have the dull sheen of images reflected on plastic rather than metal. In extreme close-ups, Foxx’s face sometimes scans as flat as a refrigerator magnet, and the whole movie looks like surveillance camera footage. It’s another example of Hollywood spending a lot more money to do badly what independents have done well for a fraction of the cost (e.g., Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), in which the dimness of vision made poetic sense).

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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