Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Wedding Singer (1998, Frank Coraci)

I was born in 1986 and when I was about eight years old I decided that the 1980s were the greatest decade. Initially this was due to the discovery of old faded Garbage Pail Kids stickers inside the lockers of my elementary school, and their maddening, tantalizing scarcity before eBay put everyone's childhood relics up for sale. I also soon discovered that my favorite film was Gremlins and my favorite band was Devo. These three products shared one commonality: nobody I knew in the present had heard of all three, or cared about one. There were new movies and music available which didn't need explanations to strangers. Yet the 1980s simply had more movies that were more like Gremlins and more bands that used synthesizers than what was new and readily available during the Clinton administration. I started to sincerely believe I had been born just a few years too late for my tastes.

I didn't understand for a long time that I had simply cultivated an affectation which prevented myself from enjoying the present as a matter of snobbery. I was as the narrator of Daniel Clowes' 1995 Eightball story "MCMLXVI": misanthropically obsessed with 1966 as the pinnacle of American pop culture. Having been born that year, he's forever chasing an idealized fantasy. The irony of such obsessions is that people with discriminating tastes have to make an effort of finding culture they enjoy in any decade, and often don't find out about a neat movie or band or what have you until many years after the debut.

There's another, more ominous publication useful for understanding the commodification of nostalgia: an article from the November 4, 1997 The Onion titled US Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past". The joke is that there was 1950s retro in the 1970s and ironic 1990s retro for the 70s, i.e. Grease and Happy Days does not account for this. The satirical piece also asserts that the retro gap has been closing since people started talking about the 1980s too soon, and if current levels of consumption go unchecked we may run out of past by 2005. For anyone annoyed by crass, mass-marketed retro this was a pretty funny article.

What The Onion writers only touched on was that Generation X's "appreciation" of their childhoods was a form of passive aggressive infantilism designed to eliminate the distinctions of adulthood. This is why the humorous 2005 prediction hasn't fanned out, and 1980s retro is still in stride circa 2010. Going back to eBay for a moment: I certainly wasn't the only one who bought old games and toys that I wasn't even alive for the first time around. The Internet helped kill the idea of past pop culture's scarcity - first toys on eBay, then clips on YouTube - as fearfully aging boomers and Gen X-ers began to conglomerate their collective junk memories into a common language. This assures both parties that their Tron reference will remain relevant whether they were 5, 15, 25 or negative-5 years old in 1982.

The first episode of Family Guy aired January 31st, 1999. Tron: Legacy is released in theaters December 17th, 2010. These are not unrelated incidents.

The Wedding Singer is a charming movie deserving the rare approbation of having something for everybody. As far as the retro angle is concerned, I'm baffled as to how the 1985 period setting was chosen the same year That 70s Show premiered. Were the 1980s a boom decade for the wedding singer trade? Probably not, the story could take place in any day. More likely, writer Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler wanted to feature an assortment of retro songs in their movie about a greatest-hits singer and noticed the whole "70s" thing was being overplayed. Instead they decided to beat everyone to the punch of goofing on the 80s, without realizing that relics of the 80s were going to be taken just as seriously as anything new in the years to come.

The fashion references are a lot funnier than the name droppings. Costume Designer Mona May is almost as funny as anyone in front of the camera, inviting the audience to crack up as Sandler's buddy Allen Covert casually enters scenes in Miami Vice or Michael Jackson getups and no one bats an eye. A modern remake would undoubtedly waste time explaining each getup instead of being so mercifully understated. Only in the final climactic scene does the retro become too obnoxiously self-aware, for the sake of a Billy Idol cameo that feels written by a young Seth MacFarlane. Most of the other references are fortunately casual enough to be innocuous and sometimes even irreverent: there's something about Sandler shrugging off a child in a Freddy Krueger mask which underscores the absurdity of the decade that let kids dress up as disfigured child murderers. Not so subtle are shoehorned clunkers like "Hang on hon, I'm watching Dallas! I think J.R. might be dead or something, they shot him!"

Drew Barrymore would be inspired casting if Wes Craven hadn't already used her as an emblem of the decade two years earlier in Scream. On a subtextual level, she's the only ironic touch. While the rest of the cast including Sandler and especially her cousin Christine Taylor have their 80s style played up, Barrymore is obviously closer to contemporary. Mona May's gaudy costumes and hairspray were probably considered unbecoming an up-and-coming recovering actress like herself. Even if her vanity was what made the call, thematically the chick flick trope that she's the special one-and-only meant to be with Sandler provides a rationale for quasi-timelessness in her character's personal style. Her acting is as competently plastic as any other of her adult roles, and Sandler obviously likes looking at her, but she's a cipher. Christine Taylor makes a more lasting impression and she's funnier playing off either one of them.

The Wedding Singer lets Adam Sandler do something he's maybe done one and a half other times in his entire career: play an underdog who's neither an insensitive jerk nor an idiot. This was what won me over. He gets punched out twice and doesn't even return the favor to his romantic rival at the end; it's amazingly restrained compared to the rest of his body of work. His funniest scenes are in reaction to others and Herlihy justifies his few freakouts. The one major breakdown scene was unsurprisingly the most heavily featured in the trailer. That and the rapping granny are what kept me away from this flick until so recently. This is a more challenging role for Sandler than his supposed range-stretching in Punch-Drunk Love and more rewarding to non-Sandler fans like myself. The story's a logical outlet for his usual persona and shtick, including his silly guitar songs. Speaking of logical outlets for particular performers, Jon Lovitz's cameo is just as well done as Steve Buscemi's infamous best man speech in that Buscemi can also be hilarious as the star of the film whereas a small dose of Lovitz is best.

The other most distinguishing accomplishment of the film is the unwieldy combination of Adam Sandler Movie and Chick Flick. You'd never guess Herlihy wrote Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. He and Sandler deftly push all the right emotional aww-buttons for girls while being just rude enough for the men. The only bone thrown to men might be the 80s itself, when middle class women started dressing like whores. Female viewers get Adam Sandler pining for marriage and kids, an adorable old couple happily celebrating their anniversary, Sandler serenading Barrymore with a song about growing old together, Barrymore choosing to dance with the lonely fat kid at a Bar Mitzvah, and a good old fashioned million-to-one stunt by Sandler which rebuffs Barrymore's cheating yuppie fiancee for true love. If all "rom-coms" were as funny and satisfying to both genders as this one, there might finally be peace between us instead of animosity encouraged by the dick kicking parties that the subgenre regularly churns out.

Within the context of no context the 80s stuff in The Wedding Singer has paradoxically made it more relevant to cultural consciousness today than when it was released. The perfect alchemy of Sandler and schmaltz is a genuine feat. When some executive gets around to green lighting the movie of the musical based on the movie, like The Producers or Hairspray, we'll know for sure we've finally run out of retro.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010, Alexandre Aja)

Is there anything more foolish and dispiriting than being disappointed by a film for which you had low expectations, but also wanted very much to like?

Piranha 3D already had my money a good year before I even put on my 3D glasses, and the sheer anticipation provoked retrospectives of the entire Piranha series spread across two episodes of An Alan Smithee Podcast. The newest film follows the franchise tradition of creative schizophrenia over making a dumb monster movie with a knowing wink. This is the inheritance of the original film's screenwriter John Sayles imbuing all the stock monster movie characters with personality and director Joe Dante casting good actors to charmingly deadpan the absurdity of what was in 1978 already a familiarly hokey setup and obvious cash-in by Roger Corman on Jaws.

Piranha 3D's failure is more complex than the sweaty 1981 sequel or the joyless 1995 TV remake. Between the cast, director special effects and even the basic scenario, this could have been the worthy follow-up to Piranha 32 years later. Unfortunately, Aja seems to have taken the job for the proximity to boobs. Screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg of Sorority Row and Good Luck Chuck, respectively, are only too happy to supply him with obnoxious hotties. Like his contemporary Eli Roth, Aja seems to believe that horror movie audiences love to feel contempt for their teen meat before the butchering or feeding frenzy commences. His conception of a dumb-fun horror flick invites us to first ogle Spring Break sluts, then cheer their demise as a kind of puritanical punishment for lacking modesty. This is like being the high school nerd who fantasizes about screwing the hot cheerleader one minute and pictures her on the business end of Jason's machete the next, except that your average Friday the 13th movie has more empathy for the indiscretions of horny teenagers than this one ever shows. The original film had a mean streak, but was at its core a fun romp. The new version has the dressings of a fun romp but at the core is just plain mean-spirited.

Piranha 3D appeals mainly to horny misogynists and gorehounds in that order. As a full time member only of the latter camp, I'm sad to say that while the offerings are better than average they don't compensate for the opportunities botched or missed while catering to the first camp.

One of the original Piranha's quirks, which would soon be revealed as a Joe Dante trademark, was the casting of genre b-movie favorites like Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller. On paper, Piranha 3D seemed to be attenuated to this choice, giving supporting roles to eclectic people like comedian Paul Scheer, a long-missed Christopher Lloyd (drawing audience cheers,) Eli Roth (natch,) and Richard Dreyfuss (geddit?). Top billing goes to Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames. Unfortunately, that's not really the case. The main characters in terms of screen time are Steven R. McQueen as Shue's son, Jessica Szohr as the vapid Spring Breaker he wants to bone, and Jerry O'Connell as the "Girls Gone Wild" type producer who takes them both along on his boat for some videotaped teensploitation. O'Connell is actually funny in his manic sleaziness, yet Aja is constantly offsetting our derisive chuckles by implicating us as viewers of many, many bikini girls and bringing us down to his level. This hypocrisy feels too oblivious to be intentional.

Our intended sympathy for McQueen appears to be based on his desire for Jessica Szohr, a longing for which he's willing to abandon babysitting his two younger siblings and get them stranded on an island from which he then has to rescue them. Since he and Szohr already know what O'Connell's pervy motives are, any way you look at his decisions he comes off as selfish, irresponsible and uncaring that his would-be girlfriend doesn't mind acting like a whore for O'Connell. Ironically, McQueen is such a weasel and simp throughout the whole film that O'Connell's brash honesty about the same base horndog motivations they share makes him more likable. He's certainly funnier in his awfulness. Objectifying teen meat and then expecting the audience to invest emotionally in a couple slabs is a bad idea.

Meanwhile, Shue and Rhames' natural charisma is wasted on dull exposition beats: they find the piranha's first victim, they go talk to Chris Lloyd, they warn the partying teenagers to get out of the water. Even at the climax when Shue has to rescue her son and his slutty crush from O'Connell's sinking boat, the focus remains on McQueen. I was rooting so hard for those piranha to get him, or at least Szohr. Switching the ratio of attention between the teens and adults could have saved this movie, even with the inane dialogue. If Chris Lloyd had been given more than one and a half scenes, he could've sold as many bad lines as they'd give him. Then again, when Adam Scott (of the criminally cancelled Showtime series Party Down) shows up, he's visibly bored by the script and can't even read his lines convincingly, something I'm convinced the native French speaking Aja doesn't particularly notice or care about.

At least the piranha eventually get their due, a little past the halfway mark. Greg Nicotero elaborates on Rob Bottin's grisly aftermath makeup from the original and comes up with some suitably disgusting looking chomped flesh, including a memorably horrific full body view of O'Connell after he's pulled from the water. There's a good missing-legs gag stolen from John Sayles' other killer animal flick Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) and a seamlessly CG enhanced gag involving a wounded swimmer breaking in half. Since fish are hairless, skinless and fluidly moving creatures, the CG piranha don't look all bad - except for a stupid gag when one chokes up a CG dick. They're the only part of the film to really benefit from being in 3D, unless you bought your ticket for a preview of the soft core porn we'll someday be able to stream to our 3D TVs. The other three standout gore moments could've gone into any film with or without piranha, but a modern mainstream horror film trying for more than a couple such moments is commendable in these splatter starved times. Aja acquits himself in viscera department but it would've been nice to care about any of the victims, who are hateful even in their panic.

According to IMDB, Chuck Russell was originally to direct this film and contributed to the script before Aja took over. The director of A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 and the 1988 remake of The Blob definitely knows what genre fans like, so I'm going to assume the various similarities between the original Piranha and this one were more his doing than Goldfinger and Stolberg: the opening shot of a sign warning swimmers, the double climax of an outdoor event massacre and the rescue of children elsewhere, the final escape from piranha via rope around the waist attached to a speedboat. Aja and his screenwriters don't seem to be particular fans of Piranha, or maybe just the idea of character development. The film's first half favors boobs and jerks over blood so much that I was nearly demoralized by the time the piranha got to attack en masse. What about Ving Rhames' character motivated him to sacrifice his life against the piranha? Would have been nice to know. Even without sympathetic characters, a few kills in the first 40 minutes would have compensated a lot for the film giving its best assets the short shrift in favor of asses. All the right ingredients were in place and Aja almost completely blew them.

The opening cameo by Richard Dreyfuss kind of encapsulates the nature of the whole film: the guy from Jaws gets eaten by piranha, but they don't really trust you to recognize the guy from Jaws without having him singing the same song he sang and wearing the same clothes. Piranha 3D aims to be a smart "dumb movie" but ultimately doesn't believe there are any smart people in the audience deserving of the effort. While not a total waste, this film could've been so much more. At least the announced sequel from John Gulager of the "Feast" trilogy will probably give papa Clu a worthy amount of scenes.