Friday, January 11, 2013

Catching Up: Comedy!(?) by Comedians!(?)

Shakes the Clown (1991, Bobcat Goldthwait) - netflix
Sleeping Dogs Lie (aka "Stay"? 2006, Bobcat Goldthwait) - netflix
Let's Go To Prison (2006, Bob Odenkirk) - netflix
Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012, Mark and Jay Duplass) - netflix
Sleepwalk With Me (2012, Mike Birbiglia) - netflix

I had originally planned to sit down and watch all four of Bobcat Goldthwait's films, which would also include World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America, but the latter hasn't shown up on Netflix yet to complete the non-quadrology and I kind of got side-tracked.  It's definitely not that I disliked Goldthwait's films, because I enjoyed them, or, at the very least, found them enjoyably curious.  I should note here that there is a clear distinction in storytelling and maturity between the two films, obviously 15 years does a lot to change a man's perspective.  I've heard that the two films of his I haven't seen are more consistent in tone with Sleeping Dogs Lie, which was pretty emotionally heavy for a comedy, and I don't cotton to investing that much emotion in my entertainment, given my regular emotional fatigue by end of day.  But I'll get to them both at some point.  Because, as I said, Goldthwait, if not making great films, is making interesting films.

Shakes The Clown is kind of infamous to me, as it got name checked quite explicitly by Kevin Smith as an influence on him for Clerks, and I was downright obsessed with Clerks and Smith for about a decade or so.  Shakes was sold by Smith as a provocative, sometimes filthy, nasty bit of filmmaking (or that was my impression of how he sold it) so I shied away from it for this long.  Imagine my surprise to find that the film itself isn't all that provocative, or filthy-nasty, but the character of Shakes, played by Goldthwait kind of is.

The film is a cult favourite, and I can see why.  The world of Shakes the Clown is unlike any other, one where it seems like half the population are clown school graduates or drop outs, or worse, Rodeo clowns.  They're revered and despised in equal measure, like a race of humans all their own.  Goldthwait seeds in a lot of racially-inspired elements to the script, without actually ever trying to make a commentary on race or racial issues, which is kind of inspired.

The main thrust of the feature is that Shakes thinks he should be the biggest clown in town, hosting the local cable clown show on TV, and the truth of the matter is Shakes is the best clown in town, when he's sober.  But since Shakes has his demons, his chief nemesis, Binky, steals his thunder, and conspires to keep him down.

It's an off-beat, oddly-paced but inspired bit of storytelling, with fun performances from some of Goldthwate's comedy contemporaries like a more than palatable Adam Sandler, Robin Williams, Julie Brown and future Spongebob Tom Kenny.  Bobcat's direction does what it needs to do, totally servicing the plot and never getting in the way.  He actively avoids the obvious jokes, almost fighting against the comedy, keeping it almost in the vein of a hardboiled suspense drama, but most definitely not.

15 years later, Sleeping Dogs Lie finds Goldthwait exploring a provocative little nugget to its fullest dramatic extent, where it could very quickly have veered into gross-out comedy territory.  It's spoiling nothing to say that the film centers around Amy (in a wonderfully understated comedic performance from Melinda Page Hamilton) who, in a fit of boredom or some other off-kilter sense of whimsy, orally pleasured her dog in college.

The conceit right there is more than enough to turn most people off from this film, but that reaction is the exact thing the film itself explores.  Amy's quite ashamed of this decidedly socially-unacceptable thing she did, and it colors almost her entire waking existence.  It's a disgusting secret that festers in the back recesses of her brain, something she knows she can't trust with anyone.  But she's in a committed relationship with John, about to take the next step into marriage, and she's debating whether she should be totally honest with him or if it will drive him away (or if not being honest will drive him away).

Goldthwait expertly builds up this tension in the first act, as Amy musters up the will to tell John, in as much as the couple drive up to visit Amy's highly conservative parents to tell them the news of their engagement, and are still forced to sleep in separate bedrooms.  John is forced to bunk with Amy's brother Dougie, a die-hard stoner and terminally unemployed, prone to playing experimental musinc on his keyboard at 3am.  Whilst having a rendez-vous in the garage, Amy finally concedes to telling John her secret, unaware that Dougie was in the rafters.  It explodes from there into some of the most intense drama as Amy's life atomizes before her.  The air is out of the canister and there's no way to force it back in.

The second act is all fallout, while the third act is a quasi-romantic comedy that deals with Amy's new relationship, her severed familial ties, and reflecting upon the lessons she's learned about the power of an idea.  While it's not the best looking movie (it's quite cheap looking in many respects) and Goldthwait's direction rarely extends beyond serviceable, the story itself, once you get past the set-up is a rich exploration of human emotions, falling heavily into the dramatic reflection thereof, but is otherwise balanced with a lighter touch.  I quite admired Goldthwait's focus on the human side of things, rather than strictly looking for comic moments.  (And it has one of my favourite Brian Posehn appearances ever, as one of Dougies stoner friends).

While Sleeping Dogs Lie had a solid critical reputation preceding it, Let's Go To Prison is universally panned.  I remember when it came out in theatres back in '06, I was keen, after all here was a movie from Bob Odenkirk (I loved Mr. Show) and starring Will Arnett (I was deep into my Arrested Development obsession at that point), but, again, it was getting terrible reviews and it barely lasted 2 weeks in theatres, even in Toronto.  I was fine to let it drop.

Recently, while listening to one of the many comedy-centric podcasts (probably WTF or Nerdist, or perhaps Sklarbro Country) I heard Thomas Lennon (a veteran of cult comedy like the State and Reno 911, as well as a frequent podcast guest) promoting his new book (with writing partner Robert Ben Garant) "Writing Movies For Fun and Profit" in which he details how to get a script made in Hollywood (throw your ideals and your artistic morals out the window, be willing to do whatever the studios ask, and follow the paycheques).  Having written junky but popular fare like the Night at the Museum, they know what they're talking about, but Lennon mentioned when they first started they had a script they loved, and everyone who read it loved it, but nobody wanted to make it.  That film was Let's Go To Prison, which obviously did get made, and probably shouldn't have.

The film stars Arnett as a wealthy trust fund kid, never having any responsibility in his life, and no respect for anyone.  Dax Sheperd is a career criminal, having been practically raised in the prison system, put before a Judge who saw him as the worst in humanity and an example to set for society.  The judge was Arnett's father, and in his most recent release from prison, Sheperd would finally have his long-thought-out, much-planned revenge on the man who destroyed his life.  Only problem is the Judge died in the intervening years. So he picks Arnett as the subject of revenge, sets him up for a fall which takes him to prison.  But Sheperd can't just let him go and be left to the system, he has to see Arnett fall, if not partake in it further.  So he basically commits a crime, gets caught, pleads guilty and sends himself back.

As I think about the set up, on paper and in premise, I could see the grounds for comedy.  But where it goes from there, straight to lockup, it's far too dark and far too depressing to be funny.  Lennon and Garant's script, Odenkirk's direction, the actors involved all try to make rape jokes and toilet wine and vicious beat downs and shankings and intense racism and human suffering funny, and poking around only one of those bitter subject could you probably find a vein to mine, but altogether it's just way too much.  Only Chi McBride as Arnett's woo-ing rapist manages to evoke any laughter in the entirety of the film.  McBride is a comedy secret weapon.  He's not generally know for his comedic work, but here, and in Odenkirk's other disrespected (but far, far funnier) The Brothers Solomon, McBride is the hands down highlight, playing starkly against his massive and imposing figure.

There's a lot of terrible films out there that deserve to be forgotten, Let's Go To Prison, frankly is a waste of time, money, talent, space (digital and real), resources and everything about it.

The Duplass Brothers are the inadvertent creators of the oft despised Mumblecore cinematic movement, based largely on their first two films, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, largely improvised films, shot on the cheap (with a quasi Dogme-95 aesthetic).  Though Mumblecore is quite derided, it's acknowledged that the Duplass' are quite handily the masters of the form, having since pushed the basic structure to comparatively larger-scale productions with name brand actors like John C. Reilley, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei in Cyrus and here with Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Sussan Sarandon in Jeff, Who Lives At Home.

Given how emotionally charged Cyrus was, I was expecting a bit more of the same out of Jeff, investigating the emotional side of having a grown offspring or sibling still occupying your space and the effect it has on the family dynamic.  Basically, I was expecting more of the "At Home" part of the title to be relevant.  But the Duplass' abandon the idea of exploring an idea for instead solely exploring the characters in the film.  Segel is the titular Jeff, unemployed once again, still living at home, constantly stoned, just barely capable of looking after himself.   Jeff is given one task, to go to the home reno store and buy some glue to fix a closet door shutter, and he sets off with that goal in mind.  But high, and fixated on the synchronicity of life and the meaning of the movie Signs, he gets detoured quickly.  Meanwhile, his estranged brother Pat searches for fulfillment not from his wife (the always awesome Judy Greer) or building a family, but by giving the appearance of success, the immature prestige of owning a fancy sports car.  Their widowed mother, Sharon, long single, searches for her own sense of fulfillment, her own sense of moving on with her life by way of a secret admirer at work.

Jeff and Pat collide, and their sibling dynamic puts them at odds instantly.  Pat's life starts careening out of control, and it's Jeff's rather zen like belief in the meaning of signs that indirectly and in an entirely serendipitous fashion, that actually starts to straighten out Pat's downward spiral.  Their story collides with Sharon's in an appropriate fashion.  The more these happenstances occur, the lighter the touch of the film seems.  It's almost whimsical, but not quite that twee.  Jeff, is decidedly inoffensive and becomes quite charming, ending in a sweet and rewarding fashion.  It's surprisingly earnest, a comedy in tone more than ever in jokes and punchlines.  This is a film that's rooting for its characters, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say "uplifting", it's definitely a film that start out cold and ends up comfortingly warm.

Goldthwait and Odenkirk are near-legends in the comedy industry at this point (though neither really for their directing talent) while Mark Duplass is quite solidly shoring his foundation as a multi-talent (and a gifted comedic improviser as seen on FX's The League).  This final film comes from yet another comedian, one less experienced before (or behind) the cameras.  Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me is an intensely personal and hilarious story which Birbigs has worked into multiple formats over the years.  It started as a one-man-play, became a book, a recording of the show was released on CD and, thanks to his exposure on the highly popular radio program This American Life, it's now a movie (co-produced by TIL's host Ira Glass).

Birbigs (as he's known to his friends and fans) has this material down pat, and despite having no previous directorial credits, he has a very assured hand here behind the cameras.  His confidence with the story he's telling must have tempered any anxiety he might have had, as the film not only tells the story incredibly well, but the little flourishes Birbiglia puts in throughout, such as the driving narration and the dream sequences intercut with reality are quite brilliant.

There's a relatable intimacy to Birbigs' story, about being in a relationship that just isn't working for him despite every indication that it should, about being unhappy with his current station in life and reaching for any opportunity that can even marginally advance it, about being so stressed out by these things that his subconscious starts manifesting physically, and dangerously so.

I've read the book, and I loved it.  I've heard Birbiglia's live performance and it's just as good.  This film measures up equally well, and I adore it.  It's thoroughly Birbiglia's tale (only, for some reason, names are changed, most distractingly for me, as a fan,  was his inexplicable change of his own to Pandamiglio) and it's true-life nature, as well as Birbiglia's storytelling skills, make it fascinating and often hilarious.  It offers an  astute comedy about relationships falling apart, as well as a look inside the difficult world of a working stand-up comic, as well as a bit of psychological exploration.  It's a rich and deep story that is deceptively simple, in part due to its highly refined nature.  I can't recommend it enough.