(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)
New movies in the same weekend by Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers – this should have been the best news for comedy since Pauly Shore stopped making movies (sorry - just thought I’d try that one out). Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
So if you take Smith, the deceptively low-brow seeming auteur of Clerks and Dogma, and subtract the flamboyant obscenity, the comic books and the frantic invention, we now know that you get something close to Edward Burns. Burns is the guy who had a brief run as a chronicler of blue-collar New Jersey (The Brothers McMullen won big at Sundance) before his luck ran out (as a director that is – he continues to do pretty well at scoring acting gigs). Smith’s new film Jersey Girl doesn’t have Jay and Silent Bob, and has not one use of the f-word, and that’s even with George Carlin in the cast. In some scenes you can viscerally feel Smith straining to write his way around his normal vocabulary. He just about made it – but what was the point?
Apparently rooted in some way in Smith’s new contentment as a husband and father, Jersey Girl stars Ben Affleck as a career-loving Manhattan publicity consultant. He marries a book editor played by Jennifer Lopez (although it seems that we’ve been reading the Bennifer stories forever, the two actually met on the set of this film), and when she gets pregnant he grudgingly accepts the prospect of an adjustment in his work-life balance. But Lopez dies in childbirth, and he’s left with his agony and with a daughter he can’t comprehend. When a frustrated outburst costs him his job, he moves back to New Jersey with his father (Carlin), and eventually goes to work with the old man in the sanitation department. The years go by, the kid grows up to be seven, and Affleck adores her, but never stops thinking of getting back to Manhattan and into the game again...
As if in partial compensation for his self-imposed f-word embargo, Smith contrives a bizarre meeting between Affleck and Liv Tyler in which she, a video store clerk, harasses him about his renting a porno tape. This is just the most egregious of the movie’s many off moments. Sometimes – as in the weird choice of a scene from Sweeney Todd for the kid’s act at the school play – you think it might amount to something, but it never lasts. In the end, Will Smith, playing himself, turns up as the voice of wisdom, musing on the magic of fatherhood and on the wretched compromises that take you away from your kids. I’m only guessing here, but I think the parenting support system available to Will Smith might be a bit plusher than the norm – plush enough, maybe, that a director of serious intent could have looked elsewhere. As it is, Smith’s appearance seems quasi-ethereal and rather demeaning, like his role in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
(Kevin) Smith’s earlier movies were defiant in asserting his tastes and sensibilities – they had a swaggering take it or leave it quality about them. But on the basis of Jersey Girl, you can only assume he agrees with all those cracks about his own arrested development. His idea of an adult movie is to make himself into someone else. As if tired of the recurring jibes about his films’ undistinguished visual style, he hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters; McCabe and Mrs. Miller) – but the film’s resulting gloss only serves to emphasize its lack of personality. At the end of it, you feel that Smith’s in a similar spot to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, agonizing over being superficial and about the meaning of it all, whereas God only wants him to concentrate on making funnier movies. Sadly, by the time Allen really took that advice on board, his skills had eroded. Smith’s skills were never at that level to begin with, which I’d say makes his next move rather critical.
The Coen brothers’ latest film The Ladykillers is another case of auteurs scoring below par. It’s a film of inventive, quirky bits and pieces (much better than any of the bits and pieces in Jersey Girl) that fail to coalesce into a whole. The film’s opening ten minutes hit you like random cuttings from a studio floor – a credit sequence built around garbage barges; a long stilted conversation in a sheriff’s office; Tom Hanks doing a weird accent; Marlon Wayans in a scene that could fit in a hundred other movies; an indescribable interlude involving a dog in a gas mask, and so it goes on.
These early scenes set up a motley bunch of criminals, and the old lady whose basement they intend to use as a base for digging into a nearby vault. The film is a remake of a 1950’s British classic, and it’s hard to know why the Coens bothered. The movie never stops feeling fragmented – it doesn’t flow with anything close to the fluency of their best movies. Of course, their narratives have always been crammed and digressive – movies like Fargo and O! Brother Where Art Thou meld a corkscrew sensibility with an approach to character that’s somehow both clinical and tolerant. When it works, it’s a dazzling act. But their second-tier movies tend to seem like creations where you instantly get half the joke and love it, but somehow can’t summon the energy to figure out the other half.
The Ladykillers comes out only six months after their last film, Intolerable Cruelty. That was a more unified effort than this one, but felt superficial next to their best work – for one thing, it was set in Hollywood, which at this late stage seems like a tired satirical target. The new film’s quick arrival, the presence of Hanks, the general sloppiness, and the presence of a Gospel soundtrack that seems too stridently designed to match the success of the O! Brother bluegrass soundtrack, all seem to smack of what Hollywood calls “product.” And although it’s often funny, I found myself laughing more at Wayans’ trademarked profanity than anything else. Which gives The Ladykillers something in common with Scary Movie.
Talking of auteurs, but no longer of comedy, Neil Young picks up his sporadic film- directing sideline with Greendale, a muddled story of small town mishaps set to a nine-track song suite. The film is grainy and haphazard, taking potshots at some identifiable targets like John Ashcroft, and conveying no end of suspicion about the modern media, before ending up on an expansive be-one-with-nature note. The film is dully literal-minded – the images generally merely illustrate what’s plain from the lyrics, although there’s the odd bit of surrealism in there too. But compared to the two films reviewed above, Young’s is at least intimately faithful to his muse.