The Other Guys

I’m almost a year late to the party, but my friend’s mother recently got The Other Guys on Netflix—and, well, I’m glad we had nothing better to do that night. After slagging on Will Ferrell recently, and on “mainstream comedy” for awhile now, I felt obligated to endorse this film. It opens on an overt subversion of buddy-cop bombast—with Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, two of its finest self-parodying practitioners, martyring themselves for the sake of their badass—and then settles into a subtler critique: Mark Wahlberg, who’d be cast anywhere else as the winner, shines here as the whiner. Macho makes him a stooge. Ferrell plays Wahlberg’s partner. He does the opposite of what I accused him of always doing; he isn’t an overgrown kid but an overgrown adult—which extends to this Prius-piloting pencil-pusher’s taste in adult-contemporary music. Overactivity vs. Complacency: not super original, but funny when taken too far, as director Adam McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy blissfully do.

Other things are taken too too far—in the decrepit S.N.L. tradition—like a repeating joke about the ’90s girl-group TLC, a reference point now old enough to have mildewed in the pop-cultural cellar. But the film has a great cast, including Michael Keaton—happily dusted off as the guys’ chief—and sharp enough shards of the real world snuck in—like the chief’s having to moonlight at Bed Bath and Beyond to underwrite his son’s bisexual explorations at N.Y.U.—to buttress the unstable plot. The plot is the problem. Trying to tap into that anti-corporate anger that rippled briefly through the national psyche before being bought out by its target, the filmmakers have essayed a storyline about Ponzi schemes that just doesn’t cut close enough to the bone. It’s a personal tragedy when one’s anger can’t match up with one’s talents, especially when one has popular appeal and a really deserving subject; it draws the line between parody and genuine satire. The other guys may have had better luck if they’d partnered with Charles Ferguson. But Ferrell and Co. deserve credit for trying, and for doing what they can do so well.

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Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go—including the script. Heck, it’s a bargain: second-hand wisdom. The lede of one review asks, “Does Will Ferrell have a Bill Murray future?” To which I reply, “Probably not.” Murray has always been cool jazz—subtle, sarcastic, recessive. Ferrell isn’t hot jazz, exactly; but he’s a hot mess—completely, commercially, often hilariously, unsubtle. His satire is a toothless grin, however, because it’s disarmed by that classic catchall: He may be crunky (Old School), creepy (Wedding Crashers), misogynistic (Anchorman), ignorant (Talladega Nights), or naïve (Elf), but we’re secure in our knowledge that, behind that blank look, lies a lovable lost boy, infinitely expiable. As an actor, he’s an apologist for his characters; their hearts are in the right place, after all. It’s a shtick that’s been a staple of popular entertainment since long before moving pictures first flickered; but it’s no coincidence that the last 10 years have been a boon for Ferrell. Beneath our hawkish lockstep we had a renewed need to rationalize male bluster. Maybe Anchorman became such a dorm-room blockbuster because it made young white guys feel they had license to be dickheads—as if being a dickhead were funny in and of itself. Guys will be guys, sure; but at a time when the straight white man is—fatuously, as if in place of all authority figures—being forecast as obsolete, guys who at one point had a straight-and-narrow path to achieving “manhood” will naturally gravitate to ironic masculinity. Because, for them, it isn’t really ironic. And I don’t think it’s really ironic, either, that one of Ferrell’s biggest boosters was his impression of George W. Bush. When he reprised it, for a one-man show in 2009, he still couldn’t get past his outsize-stripling salve; it was as relevant as satire as a joke about Hitler’s mustache in 1945. It isn’t a question of his politics, but of his instincts as an entertainer.

That his earnestness comes to very little here isn’t entirely his fault; it may have amounted to a lot more if he’d been allowed to play a character. Dry Ferrell is dry toast. I really want to believe that the writer-director Dan Rush read Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance?” and was inspired to sculpt a sympathetic bust of a crumbling alcoholic; that he saw something resembling his vision in Ferrell; that Ferrell saw truth in the role and wanted to challenge himself as an actor; and that Rush was just too inexperienced to pull any of it off. I want that to be true. Honest. But to say that any film is based on a story of 1,600 words, and then have them be 1,600 words written by one of the most celebrated American authors of the last 30 years, and one whose reputation is based on opacity and brevity—well, my inner skeptic begins to scratch. Literally three basic premises are borrowed from the story—and are inflated until they implode. If this was a better, more imaginative movie, it wouldn’t be such a bothersome issue, but Carver’s name seems almost to have been appropriated as a form of social climbing, just as Christopher Nolan used Marion Cotillard and Édith Piaf in Inception; they’re high-brow brands. (To be fair, the author’s name may have also been instrumental in getting the film distributed.) Regardless, Carver prescribes ambiguity and Rush dispenses generics. Glenn Howerton, who plays the young hotshot who cans Ferrell’s droopy dipsomaniac, is typecast and turned into a stereotype; and there’s nothing in the central character that suggests an alcoholic, a sales executive, or even a spouse. He’s a rough draft. When Ferrell and Michael Peña, as his A.A. sponsor—and seemingly only friend—prattle with one another, they’re as chummy as perfect strangers. (Peña is posed like a black-eyed psychopath.) It’s as if Rush, the director, assumed his dialogue would speak for itself. But Rush, the screenwriter, has a poor sense of structure, and squirts discontents as globby as Jell-O shots.

So even if the filmmakers’ intentions are sincere, as I want to—and mostly do—believe, the hollowness of their conception is self-destructive. The details about the characters’ lives are so trite and archaic that Everything Must Go becomes as square as The Square. Left hanging in this void, the psychiatric gristle seems to exist for its own self-congratulatory sake. Murray got through similar sad-sack mid-life-crisis material in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, but he had a carousel of former flames to illuminate all the facets of himself that he’d since blacked out. Ferrell has a touching moment with the radiant Laura Dern; she remembers a good deed he did in high school. But the rest of his background is like a case history rather than a past; and he doesn’t display Murray’s ability to improvise what isn’t in the text. And to top it all off with a moldy maraschino cherry, Rush has the actor prove his indie credibility by having him teach a lonely black kid, with body-image issues, to play ball. It’s E-Z sensitivity. Touching—like a pair of fingers pressing down on the back of your tongue. Everything must go.

Win Win

When was it decided that wrestling was a sign of sensitivity? It was implied that the troubled teen of The Kids Are All Right might be sending his brah a love letter every time he held him in a headlock. Now, in Win Win, in defiance of the sum of modern hyperconsciousness—and codes that have been programmed into every halfway savvy comedy since 2005—the gay subtext has been revoked. Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the misunderstood kid du jour, finds his way by fighting; when he pins his opponents, he has his demons by the horns. No wonder he’s a champ.

Kyle is practically a foundling—the nominal ward of his rather nominal grandfather Leo (Burt Young, whose characters’ screws were never too tight), himself the ward of his court-appointed attorney, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). A normally scrupulous lawyer, whose expanding family and modest practice are struggling to adjust to straitened times, Mike has taken on this responsibility so that he can receive an annuity from the state of New Jersey; Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Leo’s meth-addict daughter and Kyle’s mother, is M.I.A. somewhere in Ohio. Enter Kyle—a bleached-blond, outsize stork dropping, waiting, in headphones, on grampa’s stoop. Unable to contact Cindy himself, Kyle is “adopted” by the Flahertys, too. He shadows Mike, who coaches the high school wrestling team, at practice; joins the team; and becomes its great white-haired hope. This laconic waif—who only looks like a “bad influence”—goes cold turkey on cigarettes and starts running laps at four A.M.; his opacity now registers as quiet charisma, and he befriends everyone, including the team pipsqueak (David Thompson). Even Mike’s wealthy pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale), whose dirty mind is doing laps of its own—around his ex-wife—is inspired. He becomes an assistant coach. Neither Mike nor Terry were all-stars when they hit the mat in high school; but now they have Kyle to live through—and, for the first time in ages, victories to look forward to.

Win Win never questions this vicariousness, which is sometimes the bane of parent-student athlete relationships. (Just ask the Emilio Estevez of The Breakfast Club.) But Tom McCarthy, who directed and wrote the script—he shares the story credit with Joe Tiboni, an elder-law attorney who was on the wrestling squad with him in high school—shows us how avidness for sports can transcend its value as simple escapism for people in trouble: a link that’s usually as broad as the shoulders of E.S.P.N. pundits, and thus an easy target for scoffers. Maybe the movie succeeds because it transcends simple escapism without ever transcending escapism itself. In the end, Kyle’s wins may signal long-term dividends but only short-term relief; Mike’s financial situation doesn’t improve. The film’s problem-play mechanics, and the neorealist look and sensibility, outsmart the sports narrative beneath—and yet Win Win thrives on its residual inspiration. Cannavale seems at first to have the ear-achingly obvious function of being the fount of enthusiasm that soaks through the dry flakes of indie irony; I felt the same way about him in McCarthy’s The Station Agent. He’s so in-your-face he seems skin deep. And yet we come to understand that all of Terry’s feelings are amplified; he needs this diversion; he has a bull horn attached to his heart.

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Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes’s H.B.O. miniseries Mildred Pierce reintroduces us to two of the most loathsome characters to have ever letched their way across the screen. The first offender is Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), a well-born weed whose family tree is no longer blooming with legal tender; and the second is Veda Pierce (played by Morgan Turner as a teenager and Evan Rachel Wood as a young adult), less a weed than a thorny rose who thinks her bourgeois roots are too close to the surface. They both divvy up lover/mother Mildred (Kate Winslet) for fertilizer, and share a condoling attitude toward her and everyone else who works to earn their keep. They’re divine-right douche-bags who bite the hand that feeds them, and only to selfish ends. Scratch that. In a movie, they’d bite; in a five-part miniseries, that sprawls across the long and forlorn years of the Great Depression, they nibble.

Fortunately, we viewers at home are treated to a slice of ’30s life as toothsome as one of Mildred’s famous pies; and Haynes gives us enough to gorge on. The truly remarkable thing about this miniseries, which aired between March 27th and April 10th—and which I’ve only of late caught up with—is the way it delves into its period. For me, it was curiously evocative of reading Madame Bovary: It’s that feeling one gets when one senses a modern consciousness narrating its first-hand experience of a long-gone time. And Pierce feels paced to fit the lifestyle of its period. Perhaps what makes it more Madame Bovary than Mad Men, though, is its lack of historical irony. Change isn’t around the corner: Mildred will never become a liberated feminist. (Flaubert had his own brand of irony; and though he kept his distance like Haynes, he was far more aloof.) That the James M. Cain novel, from which the story stems, was published in 1941 surely plays a part in Pierce’s unique sensibility; but the series rises to a level of tact and perception that I assume the book lacks. I assume this because Cain’s plot is a pile of pulp.

There are sundry stories about slavish liaisons with partners who are cruel and destructive and yet tragically irresistible; but Cain applied that familiar tenet of s&m to a mother-daughter relationship. Pierce’s 1945 screen treatment, starring Joan Crawford, was so deeply embedded in Hollywood convention that the movie, viewed today, is little more than floridly terse. Produced by Warner Brothers, it was a “women’s picture” disguised as a noir; it had a melodramatic framing device that Haynes and his co-writers have shorn. But, even with it gone, and with every other element almost infinitely classed up, Haynes still can’t explain away Mildred’s semi-incestuous devotion to a monster that goes for Mother’s jugular at every opportunity, and without hesitation. So Veda’s final insult—staged like a pornographic passage illustrated by Fuseli—seems overdue. If Mildred hasn’t gotten with the program, it’s because she can’t or won’t; and even Winslet’s expressively weather-beaten visage can only vaguely imply that this restaurateur’s motives are anything but maternally altruistic. I’m not asking that this be explicitly hammered out, only that we get a clearer view into what Mildred sees of herself in Veda; we don’t get enough consanguinity. All that the filmmakers could do was build a Fabergé egg around Cain’s hard-boiled yolk.

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