March 14th, 2005


Two bad movies and a microphone (err a good one)

There are three types of movies in the world. That's not strictly, or even loosely, accurate, but for the sake of argument let's pretend it is. There are three types of movies in this world; ones that should have died at the pitch stage, ones that had a chance to be worthwhile but fail for some reason or other, and ones that succeed on at least one level so they're actually worthy of your time. Of course the last type is exceedingly rare, at this point as close to extinction as the Wild American Bison, but still more than worthy of pursuit. This weekend I had the fortune and misfortune of catching at least one film in each category, and I feel like I should put something down about how I reacted to each.

The film I saw that didn't have a ghost of a chance of working in the first place was, of course, Mansquito . This was a movie that was almost certainly produced on the "Sci-Fi/Horror geeks watch a lot more programming than normal people so they will watch anything of any quality level so long as it conforms to their genre of choice" theory that has flooded the noble field of science fiction with schlock in recent years. Add in a catchy name and a budget as microscopic as the malaria bacteria that prompts the research project that leads to the creation of the titular monster. I'll admit that I was looking forward to Mansquito on some level because of the name. It's so incredibly cheesy that I thought it might denote a film with a nice level of cheeky self-awareness and fun. The sort of "We know we're making schlock so let's have fun while we do it" spirit that makes shitty TV movies like Cabin By the Lake at least a little watchable, if not the wholesale self-referential glee that turned Evil Dead 2 into a cult classic. Mansquito's self-awareness is restricted to the title, with the rest of the movie being played as straight as Wilt Chamberlain's public image. The movie was conceived of as a nearly wholesale ripoff of The Fly minus the stars, the special-effects, with just a pinch of Alien thrown in for seasoning. The Fly (Jeff Goldblum version) had decent star power and David Cronenberg visuals to drive it despite its silly plot. Alien had Ridley Scott, Weaver, and an incredibly tight-focused script. Why anyone would think that these films needed a lovechild lacking in any of the qualities that made them worthwhile in the first place is beyond me. Yeah it's cheap and exploitative, which gives it a shot of being profitable, but you can make a movie that's cheap, exploitative, and decent. Perhaps the name Mansquito was just too catchy to pass-up. Perhaps somebody owed someone a favor. Perhaps I am spending way too much time thinking about a piece of trash so bad that I could only watch about 50 minutes of it before going to sleep with confidence that 8 hours spent looking at the insides of my eyelids would be infinitely more entertaining than another 70 minutes of Mansquito .

Mansquito side-note, this is yet another film that features a sexy female scientist with huge breasts. The problem I have with that is that actresses with huge (generally enlarged) breasts very rarely have the intelligence or attitude necessary to play the scientist role well. I am not, of course, saying that it is impossible to have big boobs and a high IQ simultaneously, just relatively rare (the two attributes are unusual in and of themselves so it is natural that they rarely intersect, especially considering that having big breasts often reduces the need to work on your intelligence and visa versa) I have never understood the reasoning behind this. Isn't it BETTER to have an attractive actress with small tits who is capable of actually reciting the lines with something approximating authority and understanding than to have a girl with two big zeppelins strapped to her chest stand around and attempt to sound out multi-syllabic words like they were from some alien language not intended to be spoken with the human mouth? Maybe I'm defective but there's no amount of cleavage in the world that can distract me from a poor pronunciation of proboscis.

The film that had the possibility of working but didn't was Bringing Down The House. This movie certainly started with a powerful strike against it in that it was essentially a remake of a ten year old Sinbad movie. Houseguest had a slightly different story and attitude, but the general plot was the same. Loud black person invades life of uptight white family on false pretenses, hi jinx ensue. One of the reasons I don't just drop everything and move to LA to try and make it (Besides the whole driving thing) is that I'm terrified of what must be in the air out there. There's got to be a significant psychoactive element to that smog. Producers sit around drinking wheat grass shakes and saying "Hey, remember that Sinbad movie Houseguest? It's like ten years old by now. Isn't it time for a remake with a few minor modifications?"

What potential Bringing Down the House did have was in its cast. Steve Martin is one of the great comic actors of our time, which is to say he's not nearly as good as the great comic actors of the 1930s and '40s but he'll do. Queen Latifah irritates me, but she has a certain charisma about her and is not a movie-doomer like Chris Tucker or Tara Reid. Eugene Levy is a unique and singular talent capable of elevating even pedestrian material to comedic heights with his laconic delivery and deadpan charm. Jean Smart is a typical sitcom actress in a movie, neither an asset or a detriment she exists merely as a character placeholder, plot-dressing if you will. You get Steve Martin, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, and Latifah together in a single film and you have the chance to make something eminently watchable.

Which they didn't, and of course it was because of poor scripting and direction. The film's script has all the consistency and firm story backbone of a bowl of jello. It shifts character motivations around like sands in a windstorm, juggles subplots like it's playing a game of hot potato and is desperate not to be caught with a resolution, and just generally sucks. I could savage virtually any part of it but one scene stands out in particular. In it Latifah, who is pretending to be Martin's children's nanny as an excuse for why she's seen with him and living in his house, is made to don a stereotypical "Black Domestic Servant" outfit and serve food to Martin's family and an increasingly racist Plowright. The family is vaguely uncomfortable with the situation, especially when Plowright's character begins to sing a "Negro Spiritual" of questionable validity (It is mostly about serving the master) and Latifah shoots her angry looks behind her back, but other than that nothing funny really happens. The climax of the scene comes when Latifah tries to put ex-lax in Plowright's dinner but Martin ends up with it instead and has to rush off to the rest-room.

How is this supposed to be funny? It certainly succeeded in making me uncomfortable and could have garnered nervous laughter by the words of the hymn itself, but there was no sense of comedic justice or real resolution. Yes Martin misbehaved in the scene; he failed to stand up for Latifah and he taught his kids that it's okay to suffer a racist so long as he or she can do something for you, and he got penalized for it, but Plowright walks through unscathed despite being the true villain of the scenario. Later on her dog is held hostage and she is kidnapped, but frankly that scene is even more uncomfortable as the movie sets out to prove that it believes two wrongs make a right, and one of Plowright's presumably innocent domestic servants gets beat up so that Levy and Latifah can gain entrance to her house. Does the movie not know that people getting beat up is only funny if they've done something to deserve it or if the movie is cultivating a "dark" or "black" attitude about the world. Why beat up an innocent maid when you can go after a snooty butler?

As for the direction, well I guess it matches the script pretty well but that's certainly not a compliment. To start with Steve Martin is asked to play one of those characters he does that completely fails to harness his comic energy, the genial schlub. Martin is funniest when his characters have an edge to them, frequently inappropriate and even a little mean spirited. He can do "Generic nice guy" decently well, but why? Even in my favorite sweet-natured Martin film, Roxanne, he has a few scenes where he shows off his inner anger and gives the character an edge. In Bringing Down The House he is only angry when it is appropriate and his character's greatest flaw is being a workaholic, something we have NEVER seen before in a movie dad. Planes Trains and Automobiles (A film where he was at times mercilessly cruel to sad-sack John Candy and mercilessly funny to the audience) this ain't.

I don't want to yammer on and on about why this film wasn't good (too late for that) but it irritates me when you put this much talent and money together and come up with something so bland and uninteresting. It made a lot of money at the box office, but that seems to have been mostly on potential. It's like the 18 year old Pitcher with a 97 MPH fastball who is signed to a multi-million dollar contract before it is clear that he can get one over the plate with consistency. Come on Steve Martin, you are one of my favorite comic actors and a pretty good screenwriter to boot (Roxanne, Bowfinger, The Jerk) why not leave the reheated crap comedies to Sinbad?

The film that worked for me was The Opposite of Sex, which I wasn't really expecting to enjoy since I'm not a Christina Ricci fan. This particular movie wasn't perfect, for one thing it featured Lisa Kudrow as an ugly and undesirable woman (She's no Catherine Zeta Jones but she's hardly Kathy Bates in Misery either) and Lyle Lovett attempting to act. For another it tried to have it both ways with the Ricci character a little too much.

One of the oddities of film criticism is that it's easier to talk about a bad film than a good one for two reasons. A) Things that work are often subtler than things that don't. A line that fits perfectly with a character or situation is almost unnoticeable unless it is incredibly clever. A clunker stands out like a turd in a punchbowl. B) There's no reason to avoid giving away scenes and plot points from a bad movie. Those from a good film are treasures to be carefully evaluated before their revelation because you don't want to spoil the experience. Because of these factors I won't get into The Opposite of Sex too deeply, but there are a few things I would like to note.

1) The story was actually good and interesting. This is fairly unusual. They pulled it off through a combination of a gimmick (Ricci narrates the film in a brash and sometimes dishonest style, keeping you on your toes) and characters who had both depth and realism to them. The dumb gay mimbo, for example, is both goodhearted and self-aware. He is elevated above the stereotypical role for such a character through those attributes and the performance of Ivan Sergei.

2) The cinematography is wonderful. It isn't flashy, but the lighting was superb and the film manages to provide lush visuals regardless of setting or scenario. I found myself feeling the warmth of a California summer during some sequences, or the coolness of a too-large house in others. The closeups are framed unconventionally and the actors are allowed time to develop expressions and layers in scenes. Just a really impressive job.

3) The subject matter is both scandalous and tender. The film deals with teenage pregnancy and rebellion, violence, religion, homosexuality, dishonesty, and loneliness and it treats each theme with subtlety and care.

4) Everything felt real. Despite the unlikely turns of event that occurred the film maintains a certain real feeling to it that sucked me in. These were people who I would be interested in meeting in a place I would like to go, and they didn't strike false notes or seem to be caricatures. Even the most one-dimensional character is not out of the realm of realism as his angry violent tendencies are a result of his youth and complex upbringing.

When a film works like that it elevates the whole art form and reminds us of the possibilities that lie beyond the unambitious schlockiness of a Mansquito or a Bringing Down The House. At times such films (the good ones) are harder to watch and require more of us than the simpler fare, but they give back what they request a thousandfold instead of merely, well, to steal a line from Mansquito, sucking.
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