Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Comedy overboard

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

Two new comedies with exactly opposite problems: one too unambitious and set in its ways, the other with a reach that far exceeds its grasp. From that summary, the former sounds like the best bet for the conservative viewer, until I tell you it’s directed by the legendarily wicked John Waters. But, as we know, the once shocking has a tendency to become endearing over time. Not that Waters’ work wasn’t truly jaw-dropping at its peak. But if it makes you quiver nowadays, it probably isn’t with outrage, but rather with disbelief that (a) Waters ever thought up that stuff, and (b) that he then found anyone willing to enact it. The chicken molestation scene in Pink Flamingos is pretty high on my list of things I wouldn’t do for any amount of money (and would be even higher if not for the dog poop-eating scene).

Ode to Baltimore

But Pink Flamingos, despite its central theme of Divine enacting the “filthiest person alive” – a status I’m sure most viewers happily conceded – had a weird affinity for family and domesticity, even if enacted by grotesques and perverts. Over the years, Waters has become softer in his approach to these subjects, while growing almost as famous for his love of Baltimore as for the, uh, other stuff. His new movie Pecker synthesizes these strands in a way that’s perhaps revealing about the earlier work. Young Pecker (ostensibly so named for his habit of pecking at his food – well, isn’t that convenient), a sweet-natured youth who constantly captures the world around him on his cheap camera, becomes an instant sensation when a New York gallery owner happens upon an exhibition (on the walls of a burger dive) of his artless but helplessly evocative photographs. He’s whizzed off to New York, where the intelligentsia fawns over him and he’s showered in adulation, money and commissions.

But the often-chronicled dark side of fame quickly sets in, with adverse consequences for Pecker’s entire family and social circle. Must Pecker sacrifice the pursuit he loves to regain harmony? Well, you’ll have a pleasant enough hour and a half finding out. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the movie is its sheer amiability. Pecker’s life in Baltimore is a down-at-heel paradise, bursting with goodwill toward the homeless, the crackpots, the kleptomaniacs and – with particular relish perhaps – the gays (Martha Plimpton’s role as Pecker’s sister, devoted to her role of professional fag hag, is perhaps the best of many goofily precise performances in the film). The shock value in Pecker consistently seems based in a delight at the foibles and eccentricities that keep people going under economically and environmentally challenged conditions. Some characters – like the dotty grandmother who puts a parrot-like stream of “Full of grace”s into the mouth of her plastic Virgin Mary, then claims she’s witnessing a miracle – are treated with as much kindness as they could hope for anywhere in Filmland (in There’s Something About Mary for instance, granny would have been stripped topless and the Virgin sold into bondage).

Limp and Limper

That might have been fine if Pecker never moved out of Baltimore, but I found the film’s overall direction really quite off-putting. The jabs at New York styles and pretensions have substantially less wit to them, and although Waters’ inherent good nature staves off bitchiness, it’s hard not to read the film as being simply anti-intellectual. The quirky tolerance of Pecker’s environment is appealing from the outset – it’s not like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist needs a series of revelations to show him the true value of home. In that light, the picture’s entire trajectory is redundant. As it went on, I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a display of insecurity, or one of self-congratulation. In any event, Pecker ends up seeming progressively limp.

That’s nothing though compared with the startling tailspin of Stanley Tucci’s current The Impostors. It’s a consciously old-fashioned farce, with lots of running around and mistaken identity and comic violence and lust and that kind of thing, built around two unemployed actors (played by Tucci and Oliver Platt) who inadvertently become stowaways on a cruise ship. The first twenty minutes or so, consisting of a series of sketches around Platt and Tucci’s mishaps on dry land, are fairly wonderful – visually stylish, imaginative, painstakingly written and acted, with a fresh eye for classic slapstick and bumbling (and the cameo by Woody Allen doesn’t hurt either).

Sinking feelings

But once the action switches to the ship, with twelve or so key characters to juggle, the rot quickly sets in. There’s not much wrong with the concept that I can see, but the movie foolishly overburdens itself with plots (a kidnapping, a conspiracy to blow up the ship, a suicidal entertainer, a deposed queen, to name about a third of them). The slamming of doors (and the accompanying musical motif) becomes increasingly tedious; the actors get squeezed; the jokes get mechanical; things become purely (and barely) functional. The cast, pretty strong on paper, is squandered: the likes of Steve Buscemi and Lili Taylor have never seemed so dull, and how could Tucci make Next Stop Wonderland’s intriguing actress Hope Davis so washed-out and, well, ugly? The film’s closing Blazing Saddles-like conceit, in which the cast dances off the ship, through the set, and out into the studio parking lot, is a blatant (and failed) attempt to strike a camaraderie with the audience that the movie’s second half distinctly fails to earn on its merits.

Given the success of the earlier tighly-focused sequences (and of Tucci’s first film, Big Night, co-directed with Campbell Scott), this looks primarily like a case of over-reaching – a flaw easily correctable for the next film. As for The Impostors, the highlights I’ve mentioned – as well as a few other bits here and there (I particularly liked Billy Connolly as an untypical homosexual predator) – make it no more than a passable time-killer.

So although in principle it seems more commendable to aim too high than too low, Pecker scores a clear win as the better film of  these two, if only by default. Unless Waters hits on something new, or steps into something really disgusting, Tucci should get the better of him next time round.

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