Less than a month to our 3rd Annual “SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon”

Sex2

Do you have a favorite movie that subtly suggests sex rather than blatantly showing it? If so, tell us all about it in our annual summer blogathon! Click here for the rules.

So..what??

Witch

A great comedy scene, ruined by a a couple of so-and-so’s.

In 1960, humorist James Thurber wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “The Spreading ‘You Know'”, in which he decried the use of that phrase by people who couldn’t bear to leave short gaps of silence in their conversations. Thurber’s essay was all too prophetic. More than 50 years later, those dreaded two words have overrun people’s monologues to the point that we hardly notice it anymore.

And now, hot on the trail of The Spreading ‘You Know’ is The Slithering ‘So.’

I didn’t notice this social malady until I went to work at a new job four years ago. I worked with a guy who seemed intent on mangling the sound of the English language with every sentence he spoke. It wasn’t enough that he ended every sentence, no matter how declarative it was, with an upsweep that made it sound like a question. (“I’m meeting my girlfriend for lunch to-day?“) When you’d ask him an actual question, invariably he would begin his answer with “So.” (“Why has Sandy been out all week?” – “So he told me he had to visit his sick aunt in Atlanta.”)

This co-worker eventually left for another job, and I thought that would be the end of it. Then shortly afterwards, we got a new supervisor who spoke exactly the same way. As you can imagine, this made every staff meeting quite the exercise in tolerance.

I actually did not realize that the word “so” was, er, so multi-functional until I consulted an online dictionary. Depending on context, “so” can serve as an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, adjective, or interjection. However, in the cases to which I’m referring, my primary gripe is with the abuse of “so” as a conjunction and an interjection.

When “so” is used as a conjunction, it connects two clauses to form a single sentence — basically, connecting two related thoughts.

Adrienne1

“So” is also used as an interjection to express surprise or to draw attention to something.

Adrienne2

In the instances where “so” is abused, it is used either as a semi-conjunction — providing the final thought without its preface — or as an interjection in which the speaker is so self-important that he thinks everything he says is worthy of extra emphasis. Either use is enough to drive the casual conversationalist up the wall.

So do you get what I’m saying? So please think about the use of those precious two letters when you are trying not to alienate people with your everyday conversation. So the life you save could be your own.

 

 

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) – Cruel, maybe; intolerable, hardly

image

Ever since I fell in love with Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedy Raising Arizona (1987), I’ve been waiting for them to do another all-out farce. And God bless ’em, it took them only 16 years. Intolerable Cruelty is the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a legendary divorce lawyer called upon to help a rich man (Edward Herrmann) divorce his golddigging wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). I hasten not to divulge any of the movie’s surprises. Suffice to say, a prolonged and very verbose battle of the sexes ensues.

That alone almost makes the movie worth watching. After being mentally assaulted by recent movies with totally moronic main characters, what a pleasure to hear intelligent dialogue between intelligent people — even if both of them are the biggest schemers you could ask for. Clooney, in particular, has long, leisurely takes where he delivers pages of dialogue, and he relishes every opportunity.

Granted, not all of the jokes are Mensa-level. (Some of the earthiest laughs come from the always reliable Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye way too willing to dig up dirt for his clients.) But a critic once made the un-academic distinction between stupid comedy done stupid, and silly comedy done intelligently. The first kind we all know about, because that’s most of the bodily-function comedies that come out these days. Far more difficult to pull off is comedy based on normal people’s reactions to outrageous circumstances. Intolerable Cruelty provides a wealth of that.

As an example, I cite the movie’s climactic scene, in which someone labors to prevent a murder and someone gets killed anyway. A subject as inherently unfunny as murder is the acid test; if not pulled off properly, nothing falls flatter. I can say only that the scene’s punchline had me laughing until I cried.

And the timing of this movie’s performers is never off. Clooney, Zeta-Jones, Cedric, and Billy Bob Thornton (as a self-loving actor)…they have bells on their toes. I wish more comedies were as tolerable as Intolerable Cruelty.

THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

image (1) (1)

There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the new, twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original–Ulla, the Nazi–get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.

 

LIFE STINKS (1991) – …and so does this movie

3

Life Stinks is another chapter in the ongoing question, Whatever happened to Mel Brooks’ sense of comedy? It starts out nicely enough, with Mel as Trump-like mogul Goddard Bolt (“You can call me God”), who accepts a bet that he can’t live on the streets for 30 days. But the moment the movie hits the streets, it turns into a pathos-laden mess, with occasional “funny” bits interjected (Mel sees a black kid break-dancing for money and tries to do a vaudeville buck-and-wing, yuk, yuk).

Leslie Ann Warren is nothing short of wasted. The worst part is this movie’s musical number, in which Brooks and Warren do a silent dance to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Brooks’s musical parodies are usually the highlights of his movies; here he plays the whole thing straight, like a dancing excerpt from an aging guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” (on which Rudy DeLuca, this film’s co-writer, began his career).

Go rent Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which covered the same ground 70 years before and did it a lot better.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986) – A non-appreciation by an ex-teacher

2
I think you have to be or have been a teacher to feel as though John Hughes’ movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is like a student scraping his nails across your blackboard for 90 minutes. When this movie was first released, I happened to see it on a week where a student came tardy to my class, cussed me out when I called him on it, and then had his mother phone and tell me that I was overreacting [for doing what was expected of me] and tell me that she was praying for me. By the time I finished watching the movie, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who was intended as a figure of fun, was a very sympathetic character to me.
Anyway, Matthew Broderick plays the title role, an insufferable youngster who appears to have an angel of God at his side. Ferris concocts elaborate schemes for playing hooky from school, yet he manages to endear himself to everyone except Mr. Rooney, who can never quite catch Ferris in the act, and his sister Jennie (Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing), who is justifiably annoyed at Ferris’ liberties.
One fine spring day, Ferris again fools his parents into thinking he is on Death’s doorstep. When they leave for work, Ferris browbeats his downtrodden buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck, later of TV’s “Spin City”) into stealing his father’s prized 1961 Ferrari, hijacking Ferris’s girlfriend (Mia Sara) from school and going on a joyride.

 

The angel-of-God analogy is particularly apt because the movie seems a latter-day version of deus ex machina. And never has a movie seemed so stagy. When Ferris starts talking to the camera (presaging similarly self-conscious ’90s movies and TV shows), expounding his theories on life and skipping school, one half-expects to read “Based on a play by Neil Simon” in the credits.
What a great combination — the self-righteousness of John Hughes and the Broadway smarminess of Matthew Broderick. Two minds without a single thought.

And the film in constantly at odds with what it tries to tell us. At one point, Ferris tells us that you’ll never get anywhere by kissing people’s hindquarters. Yet he can’t get anywhere without sucking up to people or manipulating them for his selfish whims.

He also complains about his parents being weird. The poor kid — all his parents have ever given him are everything he wants, and more attention than his sister can hope to receive.

And how is all of this massive manipulation possible? Because Hughes sets up cardboard characters and emotions. Mr. Rooney is essentially Wile E. Coyote, forever chasing the Road Runner in vain. Ferris’s parents are vapid dummies who don’t care much about anything. And Ferris is supposedly made lovable by such acts as his hammy performance to get out of school (an old bit when it was used in E.T.) and his lip-syncing to a rock song (which, after Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Rodney Dangerfield in Easy Money, was well on its way to become a modern-day movie cliché).

All of the performances are execrable, except for Ruck as Cameron, the put-upon friend. When Cameron vows to take a stand against his dad, the scene almost works, despite its utter gravity, because Cameron has been such a likable dolt up until then. If only we could see a movie about a teenager like him, instead of this self-indulgent vehicle about a self-indulgent brat.

When John Hughes was asked how he prepares his scripts, he said, “I never start with the jokes. I look at an issue and try to find the story in it…To me, Animal House was a character movie.” That’s funnier than anything in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

RAISING ARIZONA (1987) – It’s a classic, or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona!

1

The films of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are not for everybody. But if you’re in the mood for a no-holds-barred, breakneck farce, you could do far worse than the Coens’ Raising Arizona.

image (1)

This movie was early on in the careers of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, but for my money, they’ve rarely been better. Cage narrates the story of H.I. McDonough (“Call me Hi”), a “recidivist” robber of convenience stores. Hunter is Ed (short for Edwina), the police officer who books Hi for prison after each of his robbery sprees. And the intro that sets up their story is one of the funniest movie prologues ever.

Ed and Hi slowly fall for each other, causing Hi to quit his life of crime. They marry but find out that Ed is too “barren” to have children. When they read a news report of local furniture baron Nathan Arizona and his wife having quintuplets, Ed and Hi plot to take one of the babies for their own, rationalizing that the Arizonas already have “more than they can handle.”

Granted, this doesn’t sound like a premise for belly laughs. But you would not have reckoned with the Coens’ far-from-barren imaginations. The cinematography alone — by future director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) — should earn Raising Arizona‘s place in movie history, culminating in a chase scene that just about kills you with laughter.

And there are memorable supporting characters, all perfectly cast. First, there’s John Goodman and William Forsythe as Hi’s fellow cons. (Their first scene is a beautifully done prison escape, with Goodman emerging from muck like a revived dinosaur.) There’s also Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as the last parents on Earth who should be advising Hi and Ed on child-rearing, and Randall “Tex” Cobb as a bounty hunter so nasty that even his boots are hairy.

In these days of gross-out fests, there’s something almost brave about a comedy that takes this many chances and pulls all of them off. As one Los Angeles reviewer put it, “Imagination run amok in a Hollywood comedy — it’s about time.”