Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

The Heartbreak Kid(1972)
Directed by Elaine May
Written by Neil Simon
Based upon "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman
Starring:  Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepard, Eddie Albert, Jeannie Berlin, Audra Lindley
IMDB Entry

I figured I should get this in before the Farrelly Brothers version hits screens this fall.  Nothing against the Farrellys (though they don't appeal to me much), but this is a film that needn't be remade.  The original was perfect (and from the trailer, I'm not hopeful about the new version).

Consider who was involved.  Bruce Jay Friedman was a major short story writer of the 60s.  Not literary (though he appeared in literary magazines), but with a warped sense of humor and a keen eye for human nature. Though I've treasured his story collection Far from the City of Class, I have not read "A Change of Plan," but the title alone is pure Friedman: an ironic understatement.

Neil Simon, of course, was already the toast of Broadway with an already long list of successful stage comedies. The rap on Simon at the time was that he was funny, but his characters had no depth (his Brighton Beach Memoirs changed perceptions) and that he went for the funny lines at the expense of characters.  In this, though, his screenplay stays away from wisecracks (I only noticed one) in favor of Friedman's vision.

Finally, Elaine May was considered one of the bright lights of sketch comedy, and her previous movie A New Leaf, had shown her to be a director of note.  The financial (though not artistic) fiasco of Ishtar was several years in the future.

The film is a real gem.  It's definitely May's best, but also had great roles for several of its stars.

The story is simple.  Charles Grodin (in his first major role) plays Lenny Cantrell, who is off on his honeymoon with Lila (Jeannie Berlin).  But as they drive south from New York to their hotel in Miami, Lenny begins to think he may have made a mistake.  And when he's there, he meets Kelly Corc\oran from Minnesota (Cybil Shepard) and decides she is the one for him.

So, he decides to fix his mistake.

Two scenes really stand out (out of many).  One is when Lenny explains to Kelly's parents (Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley) that he's fallen deeply in love with their daughter and wants to marry him.  There's only one small problem: he's on his honeymoon.  Albert does not take this well.  The scene is shot in a single take, the four principals framed so that you can see their reactions as Lenny goes through a long, sincere speech explaining what he wants to do.  It's all Lenny until he finishes, yet the reaction of the others -- Shepard's affection, Lindley's bewilderment, and Albert's slowly building anger -- is terrific.

The second is when Lenny finally tells Lila.  He takes her out to dinner at a restaurant famous for their pecan pie.  But they're out, and Lenny makes a ridiculous fuss over it.  It's clearly his way of putting off what he wants to tell Lila, and it has the same emotionally edgy humor that made Nichols and May the top comedy team of their day.

The real astounding performance here is Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter. Lila starts out nice and slowly begins to do things that make Lenny's decision reasonable.  She says the wrong things, does the wrong things, and makes you think that Lenny is better off without her.  Then, in one scene, she turns it all around, becoming a sad and pathetic figure and making it clear she is the one being wronged (looking at the trailer for the remake, they seem to be eliminating the sympathy in favor of turning Lila into a caricature). .  It is an award-worthy performance (and she did get an Oscar nomination and a couple of film critics awards for it). Alas, she made very little else (her starring vehicle, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, was a flop) afterwards.  Jeannie was not really leading lady material, but she had great potential in comic and second lead roles at the very least.

Groden is also great as Lenny, making a guy whose dumping his wife seem sympathetic.  You understand his reasons, yet, in the final scene, he shows that there are other reasons he doesn't understand.  Our reaction to Lenny is as complex as it is to Lila, and I'm afraid the remake will dumb it down.

Albert is a long way from Oliver Douglas in this, and gives a fine performance.  He never likes Grodin in the first place, and when he learns the story, his angry consternation is fun to behold.

The cast did well afterwards. Grodin, of course, has had a successful career.  Eddie Albert was already established (he'd already done Green Acres) and had continued success.  Cybil Shepard has become a star in her previous film, The Last Picture Show, and has also been successful, and Lindley (whose role here is pretty minor) became Mrs. Roper.

The only ones who had no later success were the two who were primarily responsible for making this a great film:  May and Berlin.  Such is Hollywood.

I hope the remake is better than the trailers indicate, but you owe it to yourself to see the original.


Directed and Written by
Elaine May
Starring Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabel Adjani, Charles Grodin
IMDB Entry

If there ever was a movie with an undeserved reputation, it is Ishtar.  You've heard of it — the worst comedy ever made.  A mention of the name gets laughs.  The movie is supposed to be one big unfunny mess.

Only it isn't.

Now, I'm not saying Ishtar is a great movie.  But it is, overall, a good one.  And parts of it achieve great comedy.  It's certainly funnier than anything Adam Sandler has ever done (OK, faint praise, but still . . . )

There was one big problem with Ishtar:  its price tag.  It cost around $40 million to produce.  While nowadays, that's peanuts for a film (Sandler's The Longest Yard cost over twice that), it was expensive back in 1987:  one of the most expensive films up to that point.

That $40 million figure poisoned the well.  Critics back then, remembering Heaven's Gate, figured that any film spending that much money had to be trash.  Even worse, there was no sign of the money on the screen.  So the knives came out.

A few critics bucked the trend (I remember that Newsday on Long Island ignored the expense and gave it a good review, and Vincent Canby of the Times -- one of the top film critics of the day -- mentioned it as just missing out on his ten-best list).  But others went into the theater expecting trash (some even bragged about it),   Every single review did mention the price tag, which is interesting, but hardly relevant to whether the film was good or not.

So the film tanked.  Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.  And it has developed a reputation for the ages that is totally unjustified on all counts.

The movie is often compared to the Hope/Crosby "Road" pictures.  It is indeed similar, but also much different.  The Road pictures were pretty much plotless meanderings —Hope and Crosby get in trouble, with Dorothy Lamour in the middle.  Hope wisecracks; Crosby sings and gets Lamour.  But the Road pictures were filled with "anything for a joke" lines, self-referential humor, and topical references.  Ishtar had none of these.  In their place, it had characters.  Hope and Crosby always were Hope and Crosby.  Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman were Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clark.

The plot involves two talentless singer/songwriters who go to the mythical Arabian country of Ishtar, supposedly to give a concert.  They get involved in a plot to overthrow the government involving a missing sacred map, and a CIA agent (the delightful Charles Grodin) who tries to use them to find the map and keep the government in power.  A mysterious woman (played by Isabelle Adjani) is involved keeping the mix moving.

The first twenty minutes of the film is pure comic brilliance.  I can see why a critic coming in with a chip on his shoulder would dismiss it:  it's a very dry, wry comedy of character.  Rogers and Clark's career is shown in flashback.  They have no talent, of course.  And it's all excruciatingly funny. 

It's helped by Paul Williams's brilliant songs. Their tunes are catchy but unmemorable, but it's the lyrics that make them such gems:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one'll hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.

(Elaine May and Dustin Hoffman also joined in.  A full list can be found at Richard Muller's Ishtar Lyrics website.)

The genius of the movie is that Rogers and Clark never really understand just how awful they are (except in a few flashes).  The have no conception that a song "I'm leaving some love in my will" might be inappropriate for an elderly couple.  They come up with really awful lyrics and start praising them as though they were the greatest things since Cole Porter ("When you're on, you're on" is one of the funnier lines -- said after a particularly bad lyric).  It's one of the few portrayals of the mindset of someone who is working his damndest to be artistic, but who just doesn't have the chops. 

The flashback ends with Rogers and Clark deciding to go to Ishtar for the gig.

When they reach it, the comedy does flag.  Adjani tries to recruit them both to find the map; Grodin tells Hoffman that she's a communist.  Hoffman is indignant that Beatty didn't tell him that Adjani asked him to be a communist.  There's a tedious bit about men with sunglasses all trying to shadow Hoffman and Beatty and trying to keep their movements secret from both the two men and the other spies.

Then Hoffman and Beatty go into the market, supposedly to make contact with an agent.  The password is to ask to buy a blind camel, and when they call the name of their contact (Muhammad), everyone answers to it (unsurprisingly).  This is where things pick up.

Hoffman and Beatty end up in the desert with the blind camel, with no food and little water.  There are some good gags, leading to one of the funniest scenes in film:  the arms auction.

Hoffman is captured by arms traders; Beatty escapes by donning Arab garb.  Hoffman tries to pass himself off as the translator to the native tribes they dealers are selling to.  Of course, a man who speaks English but not Arabic is immediately suspect, and Hoffman, at the risk of his life, is supposed to show his ability by telling the tribesman that their camels have been stolen.  Hands at his sides, he screams out gibberish.

But Beatty, disguised among the tribesman, begins to gesture and run to the camels; the others follow.  Hoffman's story is believed.

The rest of the scene is also very funny.  It is a real high point of any film.

Alas, after that, things fall apart.  The ending seems rushed, and doesn't really pay off properly.  It's OK, but it feels like May was very much under the gun to get things done, so patched together something that is just adequate.

But I don't find it disappointing.  The more I see the first section, the funnier it seems.  The humor is completely deadpan (which is why people missed it), but, if you pay attention, it's right on the mark.

The saddest thing about the flop is what it did to Elaine May.  She had made three previous films:  A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, and Mickey and NickyThe Heartbreak Kid, in particular, is comic gold.  The story of a newlywed (Grodin again) who falls in love with Cybell Shepard -- on his honeymoon (with Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter and the part May probably would have played if she were younger at the time).  It's based on a Bruce Jay Friedman story (Friedman was a wonderfully warped writer) with a script by Neil Simon, and it's hilarious.  Watch it and never think of Key Lime Pie the same way again.

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  After Ishtar, May never directed another film.  That is a tremendous loss of a great comic talent.

So, if you have a chance, watch the movie.  You'll be pleasantly surprised.

(To learn more about Ishtar, visit the fan site at Ishtar: The movie.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Heckler (comics)


Written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum
Art by Keith Giffen and Malcolm Jones III
Wikipedia Entry

In the late 80s, writer/artist Keith Giffen had a radical idea for superhero comics.  He wanted to make them . . . comic.

Giffen's big successes were the various Justice League titles, where his combination of superhero action and slapstick humor was a breath of fresh air.  Sure, superheroes had the obligatory gibes while fighting a villain, but Giffen's went for the belly laugh, and wasn't afraid to show the heroes as cranky and definitely nonheroic in between battles.

Giffen also created the delightfully bizarre Ambush Bug, a comic book character who didn't have a serious moment, even if he did interact with some DC superheroes (as well as with the reader, his editor, and fanboys everywhere).  And Giffen was involved in the creation of Lobo, the most nihilistic character in the DC universe.

The Heckler contemplates Bushwack'r's trap -- issue 4And he cocreated the Heckler (Giffen at this time wrote the plots and did pencils, and had others handle dialog).  It was, perhaps, his weirdest creation. Probably because of this, it only lasted six issues.

The Heckler had a very stylized format:  every page of the comic (except the last pages of the issues 5 and 6) was laid out in a nine-panel grid. Since each panel was filled with jokes and bizarreness, this led to a rather claustrophobic feel.

The Heckler was your average superhero, patrolling Delta City, and dishing out justice and wisecracks.  In some ways, he wasn't much different from Spider-Man, Daredevil, or Bugs Bunny (and there were parallels to all three. Especially Bugs.).  In his regular life, he was Stu Mosely, who ran a diner called "Eats" (or it would be if the sign painter didn't keep screwing up:  "Fats" "Feets," "Yeast," etc.).  Stu was rather put upon: his artiste of a French chef tried to serve all the food in the form of works of art, his quest for a waitress brought in a series of completely unsuitable candidates, and his partner never showed up.

And that was the strength of Heckler: the utterly bizarre and surreal characters that inhabited Delta City.  They included the Minx, a bounty hunter dedicated to bring to justice all the bad dates she had had in her life; X-Ms, the superhero of tinseltown; and Nina, clerk at Dozens O'Donuts (they only sell glazed donuts, but they have dozens of them).  My favorite was Mr. Dude, a greaser who vaguely resembled Elvis and who evidently knew everything (the Pope would ask him for advice).   

The criminals were also a bizarre lot (remember, there were only six issues):

  • Boss Glitter, who ran the town and wore a mask.  Well, he didn't actually wear it:  he held it up on a stick like in a Renaissance costume ball.
  • El Gusano, which means "The Worm" in Spanish, and who has certain Annelid features -- notable, no face.
  • John Doe, the Generic Man, whose touch turned people into generic versions
  • Buckshot, whose freckles were buckshot and could shoot it.
  • Ratchet Jaw, with a machine gun for a mouth (literally).
  • The Cosmic Clown, an intergalactic hit man.
  • C'est Hey, a living scarecrow.
  • The Four Mopeds of the Apocalypse
  • The Flying Buttress (remember -ress is a feminine suffix).

But the greatest villain in the book was Bushwack'r.  He appeared in issue 4 and halfway through, I realized who he really was:  the Coyote from Roadrunner cartoons -- though he makes the cartoon coyote look like someone who knew what he was doing. His elaborate deathtraps for the Heckler -- who is completely unaware of them -- are worthy of Chuck Jones's best (the issue even shows a copy of Jones's autobiography).

The dialog by the Bierbaums was consistently funny.  The Hecker's jokes are funnier and more vicious than any other superhero, and the characters would always be going off on their own personal manias and tangents.  There's also a marvelously understated humor throughout, lines that wouldn't seem funny if I quoted them here, but which are hilarious in context.

It was evidently too weird for comic book buyers, and DC probably took one look at the first issue and said, "What the hell have we commissioned?"  The plug was pulled very rapidly, though it's hard to say it didn't have a chance to find its audience, since its audience probably didn't read comic books.  Since there was no connection or crossover with other strips, it was as though it never existed.  It's not even listed in the DC Comics Encyclopedia.

But if you search eBay and comb the cheapo bins, you may be able to pick some issues up (some people call it a limited series, which it was in a strict definition, but not by design).  It will be well worth the search.

Friday, July 13, 2007

VR.5 (TV)

Created by Jeannine Renshaw
Starring Lori Singer, Michael Easton, Anthony Head, David McCallum, Louise Fletcher, Will Patton.
IMDB Entry

Anthony Head, Lori Singer, & Michael Easton of VR.5VR.5 was a show ahead of its time.  This doomed it to failure.

With The Matrix, and other films (not to mention virtual worlds like Second Life), the idea of virtual reality is just entering the mainstream.  But back in 1995, it was still a new, far-out, science fictional concept.  And setting a show based on virtual reality was a long shot.

The problem of virtual reality in fiction and films is that, since anything can happen, solutions to problems come out of the woodwork (this has happened as far back asTron)  If the hero has a problem, they can do something that had never been established as a possibility, since, well, anything is possible.  But if anything is possible, you have to work very hard on the script to keep things plausible.

VR.5 handled this problem with a great deal of imagination.  It starred Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a phone company employee and computer nerd who discovers how to enter into virtual reality at a level that gives her the ability to enter the dreams of others.  Her ability brings her to the attention of the Committee, which tries to use her for its own purposes.  She's assigned Dr. Frank Morgan (Will Patton) to be her guide and mentor.

I have to admit the first episode was not spectacular. It was the third episode that showed me that they were dealing with more than just routine:  Dr. Morgan was killed.

It was a shock.  He had every sign of being a regular (including being listed in the opening credits), and you don't kill off a regular in the third show.

The next show, her new mentor appeared:  Oliver Sampson, played by Rupert Giles  . . . I mean Anthony Stewart Head (he didn't use "Stewart" at the time).  The parallel to Giles on Buffy was uncanny:  Sampson was a little stronger, and not quite as witty, but otherwise the Giles we all learned to know and love.  I have no doubt that Joss Whedon saw Head's performance here when casting for Buffy (prior to this, Head's was best known in the US for a series of coffee commercials).

The show began to find more and more levels as it advanced.  Sydney learned that the Committee had its own agenda, and that Sampson could not always be trusted, since she wasn't sure whose best interests he had in mind. It focused in on the search for her father (David McCallum), who had been looking into VR and categorized its levels.  Sydney was at VR.5 -- where you could access the subconscious, but that was halfway up toe VR.10, where anything was possible.  She felt her abilities expand, and learned more about the Committee -- its factions and plans.

The show had some real depth to it, both in plotting and style. The VR sequences were designed as bizarre and surreal dreams, with imaginative use of splashes of color. They all had a kind of dream logic, which made the work.

The show ran ten episodes (there were 13 filmed), then cut off at a cliffhanger. Though there were fans, it was not enough for a DVD release.

The biggest casualty of the cancellation was Lori Singer.  She was a terrific presence and actress (she's also a model and professional cellist -- a highly unusual triple threat), but has worked very little since.  I would love to see her again.

Definitely a show worthy of a DVD.