Color Me Curmudgeon (Miranda July, Paul Haggis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Stiller and His Lost Boys)

I seem to be slightly immune to the charms of Miranda July and her much-vaunted first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know. Something about its careful creepiness sticks in my craw — and not in a good way. July and her characters’ quiet peculiarities — the dowry-obsessed preteen; a pair of sexed-up neighborhood vixens seducing the blank-faced new kid; July herself as an art naïf busy mucking about with slide projectors and stalking the shoe salesman who lights his hand on fire in response to his divorce — just aren’t my cup of tea no matter how original they may be. Yes, July strips her film of the misanthropy that often sinks Solonz’ films (to which Me and You has been rightfully compared), but a teeth-decaying preciousness takes its place. Her movie may touch on the many mottled ways that humans strive for true communion with each other, but not with as shattering an impact as it’s been credited. It’s hard to distinguish exactly what sets her film apart from a bevy of other small movies slated for release this summer: The estimable Happy Endings and Junebug poke into some of the territory with a greater fierceness if perhaps less vulnerability.

I am willing to admit that some of my beefs simply aren’t fair, that I always read July’s sort of morose whimsy as passive-aggressive. But if July’s film were as overwhelming an achievement as it’s been touted, wouldn’t it render sympathetic even characters to whom I’d be disinclined in real life? Isn’t that one of the points of character-driven film in the first place? Or am I just (back)lashing out? I can’t quite decide.

Here’s the kit to go with that caboodle:

1. I was restless as all get out during March of the Penguins. It’s typically true that humans only focus on aspects of nature that suit their own agendas (the upcoming Grizzly Man does a fine job of proving that), but an usual amount of anthropomorphizing goes into projecting that those penguins were laboring hard for love. Since when is good-old species survival conflated with romantic pursuit?

My resistance may stem from a resistance to Morgan Freeman’s hypnotic narration. His sonorous voiceovers actually work sometimes — most recently in Million Dollar Baby — but there are other times when his magnanimous smile is just too audible. Which reminds me that:

2. Paul Haggis really is overrated. Million Dollar Baby is great, but that is because Haggis adapted that script from F.X. Toole’s terrific book, and because Clint Eastwood is a great director and actor who surrounded himself with an able cast and crew. The over-the-top portrayal of Hilary Swank’s female boxer’s lazy, poor family smacks of the kind of demographic shortcuts that comprise the whole of Haggis’ too-pat LA ensemble film Crash. The (limited) success of that movie (and of Me and You) shows just how how hungry American viewers are for bigger topics and bigger emotions. Which brings me to my last point:

3. Reading, of all things, a copy of GQ on the can, I came across an article calling to task Ben Stiller and his gaggle of boys-will-be-boys (no link available, sorry). Much has already been written about Stiller’s vainglory, about how he struts his strangely overdeveloped little Cro-Mag bod around even when it’s plot-inappropriate, about the fundamental mediocrity of his mainstream comedies. But this piece nails what it dubs his “fratpack,” the group of male comedians who claim vaguely hipster status without remotely ruffling the status quo.

Stiller started out his career working with gays and feminists (the aborted Ben Stiller Show contains his funniest work by far) but, along with the likes of the Brothers Owen, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell (whom I do love), he has found his footing making the kind of movies that challenge nothing but patience. I’m as much a fan of simply retahded as the next girl, but therein lies the problem. There ain’t no girls to speak of in these stickly-dickly vehicles except as objects of humor or lust. Given that Chappelle is now on a seemingly permanent hiatus, that Kudrow’s show is an enormous disappointment, and that the Stella boys may be nerdier but are certainly no more progressive, what does it say that the only true social satire taking place right now is in more straight-on media knock-offs like The Onion or The Daily Show?

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