Archive | Essays

Death by Casting: Prince Avalanche’s Tale

Prince Avalanche begins as silently as any of David Gordon Green’s films do: with footage of the forest fire-ravaged 1988 Texas landscape, followed by the figures of two men wordlessly performing roadwork in the same area. The images are lovely and terrible, lackadaisical and strained—the oddly comforting dissonance that characterizes all of Green’s dramas.

But as the film revs up, the THC-inspired goofiness of his comedies The Pineapple Express and Your Highness quickly creeps in. The two men are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and we grasp their Abbot and Costello dynamics long before we sort out any other details of their relationship. While tasked with repairing the roads in the region, they are roughing it in the wilderness. Alvin, older, heftier, and more self-possessed, gently bosses Lance, who seems impervious to everything above the waist. (You know you’re dealing with unusually short men when Rudd looms as the big man in the duo.) While Alvin writes letters and studies German, Lance flips through comic books. While Alvin sleeps in their shared tent, Lance jerks off. The elder’s Achille’s heel reveals itself soon enough, however: It’s Madison, Lance’s sister, whom Alvin loves but also has fled. In his own way, Alvin is at least as much of a fuckup as Lance, whom he has speculated may be “mildly retarded.”

When the weekend arrives, Lance hightails it back to town in the hopes of getting laid, and Alvin basks in his solitude. He fishes; he reads; he wanders through the woods, a reverie of saturated greens and rust colors. And it’s at that point that Paul Rudd, rather than Alvin, begins to shimmer into focus. For Alvin gets silly as only Rudd can: He flops in the water. He does a weird jig. He juts his hip out at a crazy angle. He is, in other words, too cartoonlishly outsized to read legibly as a guy foolish only in his degree of anal-retentiveness—a guy who has sought a Thoreau-like isolation to cool his dangerous temper. Alvin may be slotted as the straight man in this mundo bizarro but Rudd can’t help but put a wag in his tail. Continue Reading →

You Say Blue Jasmine, I Say Rotten Tomawto

I would have been so happy to keep mum on the topic of Blue Jasmine. In the week of its release I was on vacation, confident that colleagues would cover all necessary ground without my two cents. (I’d already extensively documented my feelings about Allen’s work in the 2006 essay Hollow Wood.) But upon my return I discovered everyone falling over themselves like high school football players in high heels. Which begged the question: Were these glowing reviews of the same film I’d so blithely dismissed as Blue Jizz?

The premise itself, like too many of Allen’s post-Mia endeavors, is a meet-too-cute mashup: Call it A Streetcar Named Madoff. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine née Jeanette, a New York socialite who’s fallen upon hard times since her charlatan of an investor husband (Alec Baldwin) left his family toe-up. After being forced to move to Brooklyn (Woody’s old-man slippers are showing), she lands upon the San Francisco stoop of her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose marriage to Andrew Dice Clay ended when Jasmine’s husband swindled them out of their savings. Cue vodka-swilling, pill-popping, and smack-talking—especially when it comes to Ginger’s hotheaded beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who’d only be more aptly named if he actually were called Stanley.

That Blanchett actually played Blanche DuBois in a BAM production of A Streetcar Named Desire adds a curious wrinkle here. For though her characterization of Jasmine is slightly comic and slightly harrowing, mostly it is just slight—like the film itself. There’s a faintness at hand here, as if we were watching a facsimile of a facsimile. Continue Reading →

Not-So-Sweet Melissa: The New McCarthyism

What to do with Melissa McCarthy? It’s a question I ask myself with a surprising regularity.
When we reviewed Identity Thief on Talking Pictures, I foundered while trying to explain why I wasn’t her biggest fan. God knows I was loath to come down on one of the few successful large woman in mainstream comedy. Add to that how much I loved her as obsessive-compulsive cook Sookie on Gilmore Girls, how eminently likable she comes off in interviews, and the fact that she’s one of the funniest comic actors around and you can see how I was at a bit of a loss.
Besides Albert Brooks, McCarthy was the only amusing part of the unfortunate This Is Forty, and she’s capable of revving herself into a veritable Cadillac of an insult machine. But in her movie shtick boils a pure vitriol that always pulls me out of my admiring reverie: As a rule, she throws out even more vile than is directed her way. I give her credit for not playing the jolly fat lady. I give her credit for not making herself the butt of every joke. But I’m not sure if I give her credit for what she does instead.
For in films McCarthy refuses to make herself the true butt of any joke, instead playing comedic alpha dog to a degree few others do these days.  (Maybe Chris Rock, which admittedly puts her in excellent company.) Take her sexuality. Rather than poking fun at her decidedly un-Hollywood physicality, she wields it adroitly. In her three biggest movies, Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat, she’s depicted as intensely sexual powerful. In Bridesmaids she also may read as laughably predatory but in the end that joke’s on us: she captures her very willing sexual bird of prey (played by her real-life husband). I’m not crazy about the subsequent sexy-sex scene—the two fuck while wolfing enormous submarine sandwiches—but even as I type those words I can hear how prudish they sound. Sure, it does seem she’s mocking her own size by playing up the gluttony angle: aha! a fat woman is turned on by eating!  But she commits so fully to the premise that we’re laughing with rather than at her.
Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy