Posts in: December 3rd, 2010

Meet Dave (2008)

Meet Dave, the latest in a long line of disposable Eddie Murphy vehicles, plays like a half-hour sitcom episode that has been stretched to feature-length running time.—Manohla Dargis, New York Times

This sci-fi romp seriously skimps on the sort of wacky comedy that should have flown liberally from such an inspired premise.—Michael Rechtschaffen, The Hollywood Reporter

Better material and more adept direction might’ve made this a perfectly solid commercial enterprise.—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

I don’t know what caused Eddie Murphy’s gradual decline from the most fearless, energetic standup comic of his generation to the star of family films ranging in quality from mediocre to bad. I do, however, know that schadenfreude has infested the public consciousness. If Murphy refuses to utilize the offbeat, foul-mouthed qualities that made him the biggest comedy star of the 1980s, critics and adult moviegoers will pile on top of him like a pyramid of naked prisoners. Unless you’re under the age of 10, nothing he does is good enough. When he steps out of the family film realm for something like Dreamgirls, it’s hailed as a daring return to something resembling his glory days. Then he does Norbit, and everyone blames that film for his losing an Oscar for Dreamgirls.

It’s easy to forget that Murphy’s movies have been a mixed bag for his entire career (remember Harlem Nights or The Golden Child?), but one thing has always remained true: No matter how bad the end result, he always gives it his all. Even miscast as the straight man in the Dr. Doolittle films, he performs with the same verve and vitality he did 30 years ago on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t enjoy The Nutty Professor or Daddy Day Care, but I respect Murphy for trying to inject energy and humor into an awful script more than an actor who’s just in it for the paycheck.

When a friend of mine told me he and his family found Meet Dave hilarious, I didn’t believe him. Critics treat most Murphy movies to scathing, unnecessarily hostile reviews (especially when the film isn’t screened for critics, which apparently makes it open season for hostility), so that didn’t surprise me. Usually, though, his movies find a rather large family audience. Meet Dave didn’t, which made it easier for me to automatically side with the critics who dismissed it and the audience who rejected it. Still, a small part of me wanted to believe my friend. Murphy’s not the bad guy here; he’s not exactly innocent, either. He’s sort of like the wheelman who, deep down, knows his friends just ran into that bank to rob it, but he’d prefer to think they just went in to make a deposit.

I finally sat down to watch the film, with no idea what to expect. It was more ignored than hated, so maybe it really wasn’t that bad. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Bill Corbett co-wrote the screenplay, which suggested to me that, if nothing else, the sci-fi jokes would pop. Hell, when I watched it, I didn’t even know it featured a ton of gifted, well-known comic actors (Elizabeth Banks, Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Judah Friedlander, Pat Kilbane, among plenty of others). My expectations went from low to unknown—I had no idea what to expect, which helped me to approach the film with as much objectivity as possible.

Meet Dave is a pleasant surprise: a frequently funny, family-oriented sci-fi comedy boasting two of Murphy’s best performances (as captain and “ship”) since his dual role in 1999’s Bowfinger. First, he plays the stone-faced captain of a Nilian ship. Nilians are tiny creatures who look conveniently like humans but, like Vulcans, aren’t quite tapped into their emotions. They bury everything in a patriotic fervor and dedication to duty above all else. Their starship, as it happens, is shaped exactly like The Captain, in order to blend in with the strange human beings. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the crew’s search for a mysterious orb that will allow them to drain Earth’s oceans and collect the salt, which on Nil is a highly valuable energy source. That’s merely an excuse for some of the oddest fish-out-of-water comedy ever committed to film.

As the ship, Murphy delivers one of the funniest performances of his career. Only a comedian as gifted as Murphy can make expressions as simple as a big smile or a blank stare into hilarious running gags. The bulk of the comedy comes from the schizophrenic idea that one “man” is run by a crew of dozens, with an encyclopedic knowledge of human culture (thanks to their ability to access an Earth database “called the Google”) but a fundamental confusion about how society actually functions. The ship arrives camouflaged in a white suit with big shoulders and wide lapels. Why? Because Nil has only received one transmission from Earth: a brief clip from Fantasy Island, from which they gather all humans wear such suits because Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize do.

Once it lands in New York, the ship is almost immediately run down by Gina Morrison (Banks), a single mother whose driving skills leave something to be desired. An awkward friendship/romance forms when she drags the unwilling ship up to her apartment, because from her perspective he’s a person acting very strangely after getting hit by a car. The bridge crew struggles to convince her of the ship’s normalcy, but their ineptitude only makes things worse, making Gina think something is seriously wrong. The Captain realizes it’d be smarter to keep her as an ally, so they can learn from her, blend in, and find their missing orb.

The ship itself is stocked with comedians, which initially seemed like a needless waste of talent. Why cast funny people in straight, emotionless roles? As the movie unfolds, the answer becomes clear: Ultimately, the film is about the repressed Nilians tapping into the emotions we inferior humans wear on our sleeves. This runs the gamut from Kilbane’s annoyingly over-the-top security chief (who discovers he really wants to be a flamboyantly gay hairdresser after seeing the Rockettes) to the surprisingly emotional moment in which the ship examines one of Gina’s paintings, and the entire bridge crew feels overwhelmed by the emotions it evokes. Another key scene finds The Captain and Number 3 (Gabrielle Union) watching It’s a Wonderful Life, scoffing at its sentimentality before bawling like babies by the end. It might seem a little cheap and easy, but it’s an effective moment that underscores the changes occurring all over the ship.

Emotions overcome most of the crew, but they fear and try to reject them. Only The Captain is willing to embrace these new, unexpected feelings, which leads to a surprisingly dark coup d’etat in which Number 2 (Helms) leads the others in usurping The Captain’s power, then secretly unleashes his own plan to destroy Earth and its terrifying, emotional giants. It’s right around this time that I started marveling at how effectively the film develops these characters and balances the story of “Dave” and Gina with what’s happening on the ship. I’d actually started to care whether or not The Captain would be able to stop Number 2’s plans. (Also, the film gets some props for having the dignity to not use “Number 2” as a poop joke—apparently, the Austin Powers films used up all the good Number 2 jokes.)

The script has a lot of fun with the way people talk to each other, and the confusion colloquialisms and pop-culture references would have on an alien. It’s a long way from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another sci-fi film with a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy. Corbett and co-writer Rob Greenberg really put thought into how aliens might react to behavior we take for granted. Take, for example, another scene that probably only Murphy could make funny. Upon arriving at Old Navy (to buy less conspicuous clothes), he misinterprets an employee’s routine “Welcome to Old Navy” as a customary Earth greeting, which he starts saying to everyone he meets.

I would complain about Brian Robbins, who has specialized in kid-friendly feel-goodery almost without exception (the darkest he gets is Varsity Blues, a melodramatic but decent teen drama). Meet Dave has the potential to transform into a pitch-black social satire and sci-fi spoof, but Robbins won’t let that happen. An edgier director might have played up the satirical bent of the script, but the goal here is to make a true family film. “Family film” has, in recent years, become a euphemism for “kiddie crap,” the sort of film that adults grind their teeth through as their children beg to watch it on an endless loop. Like The Wonder Pets or Pixar films, this is real family entertainment, the sort of thing that parents can watch with their kids without wanting to kill themselves. So Robbins could have brought that same edge that made him so memorable as Eric, the leather-jacket-wearing “cool” genius, on Head of the Class, but that would have undermined its ability to reach a wide audience. Then again, nobody saw Meet Dave, so maybe that didn’t matter.

The film’s special effects are uniformly awful, but I can’t really say anything worse about it than that. It has a well-written, deceptively complex story; great characters; great comedy; and a heartwarming (but not too treacly) message about tolerance, learning from others, and the value of not burying feelings. It’s not the greatest comedy or family film ever made, but it’s far better than average. It opened opposite Journey to the Center of the Earth, which made a lot more money and got much better reviews despite being a significantly worse movie than Meet Dave (and I say that as a longtime Brendan Fraser fan who will defend the merits of Blast from the Past until the day I die). If you like to laugh, Meet Dave won’t disappoint. Just don’t go in expecting merciless, mean-spirited satire.

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Cruising (1980)

Leading up to Cruising‘s 1980 release, it became the subject of numerous protests from gay-rights activists operating under the assumption that this film would defame their culture and set the burgeoning gay rights movement back decades. Despite the film’s opening disclaimer about it merely depicting a small subculture within the gay community, the activists were both right and wrong. Its world never takes the opportunity to portray homosexuals in any sort of positive way, and it quietly condemns the “leather bar” subculture. At the same time, the underlying message seems to be that hate crimes against the gay community only occur as a result of deep self-hatred of closeted homosexuals. It’s the sort of jeering knife-twisting that deplorable gay-bashers deserve. I just wish it had been the central theme of a better movie.

Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a New York City beat cop who takes the opportunity to advance his career by working undercover. A serial killer is on loose at various S&M clubs, and the victims all have a physical description similar to Burns’s. Because he’s the only one in the precinct who comes close to matching it, they send him undercover despite his inexperience. Burns checks in to a queer flophouse, befriends a few gay men living there to pump them (so to speak) for information, and goes to leather bars to observe the community in action, waiting to be picked up by the potential killer.

For awhile, I thought the film would turn into a great black comedy. Heterosexual Burns cannot abide what he sees in these clubs. He sits in the shadows, looking on with disgust, and grunting, “Not tonight” at any man who tries to pick him up. I thought this neighborhood of gay men would start assuming he’s the killer, because of his obvious disdain, his ignorance of the culture, and his unwillingness to participate. In other words, he’s a terrible undercover cop with zero training who botches the mission and loses the trust of the people he’s supposed to get close to, and he has a bunch of well-muscled gay men targeting him as the serial killer in their midst.

Boy, I wish that’s how the film had actually played out. Instead, it splits its time between a straightforward investigative procedural, a leering depiction of homoerotic depravity, and Burns’s increasing angst about thrusting himself (so to speak) into the gay underworld. See, he’s married (to Karen Allen!), so the feelings this assignment stirs up in his brain, heart, and loins make him extremely uncomfortable. After spending hours in clubs, he frequently defies his orders and goes home to have eerie, aggressive sex with his wife, followed by adopting a thousand-yard stare while ruminating on the confusing feelings. Of course, he can’t say too much, because not even she can know his undercover assignment—and besides, who wants to tell his wife that he might be secretly gay? All of this builds to a deranged ending that does fit the story writer/director William Friedkin has laid out, but it’s still sort of infuriating.

Although Cruising isn’t quite as bad as its reputation, it’s still awfully difficult to sit through. Friedkin relies on tawdry shock moments (including a bizarre, never-explained police interrogation in which detectives bring in a burly African-American man in nothing but a G-string and a Stetson to beat on the suspects) and the comically stereotypical behavior of the gay characters. It’s not as insensitive as the activists probably thought it would be, but come on—the prime suspect is a musical theatre major, for crying out loud. I don’t think it was Friedkin’s intention, but the portrayal of homosexuality really does come across like a disgusting world of depraved, self-loathing, mentally ill men who have no desires beyond sex and violence. Maybe that’s how your average straight man would react to spending a few hours in a leather bar, but it’s a film without any shades of gray. Do any of these men have lives outside the clubs? If so, do these lives involve anything beyond cheap flophouses with water-damaged ceilings and semen-damaged bedsheets?

Pacino plays Burns as a man plagued with chronic gay panic. He spends much of the movie quiet and bug-eyed, overreacts to passes from other men, and tries desperately but ineptly to find the killer, more to get out of the underworld than to stop the murders or further his career. It’s not an unreasonable way to play the role, but it certainly does nothing to help the film to portray homosexuality with any sort of nuance. Like the generic portrayal of numerous anonymous S&M fetishists, Burns’s fear that he might secretly be gay or—even worse—may have been turned gay simply by being near large groups of them presents a black-and-white world of cheap sex and color-coded bandannas.

In other words, Cruising wants to expose (so to speak) the unseemly side of a subculture many people already think is inherently unseemly. It wallows in its own depravity and cynicism. Friedkin shares the wealth of relentless negativity, spreading it to straight men and women as much as gay men, but it’s the sort of movie that will ultimately make anybody watching it feel sort of ill, regardless of sexual orientation or their personal feelings about homosexuality. It’s just that kind of movie.

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Scrooged (1988)

Here’s something you may not have realized while agonizing over Great Expectations in high school: Charles Dickens was hilarious. It may not be easy to parse his old-fashioned language, but he managed to combine withering, Swiftian satire with the frothy melodrama readers desperately wanted. Even better, he ridiculed Britain, created empathy for the downtrodden working-class (who couldn’t read but were oppressed by people who could), and used the popular techniques of melodrama to create unexpected tragedy amid relentless, dark-edged comedy. Few writers can successfully achieve such a combination, and for my money, it’s one of the reasons why he’s remembered and celebrated. The fact that so many adaptations of his work ignore the obvious comedic bent of his work frustrates me to no end. And then there’s Scrooged, which modernizes Dickens’s biting A Christmas Carol and infuses it with contemporary satire.

At the height of his star power, Bill Murray used his well-cultivated smartass persona to great effect in a string of cynical, brutal, punishing, hilarious comedies. Scrooged was the first in this series of minor masterpieces (which continued with Quick Change, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Mad Dog and Glory), brilliantly exploiting Murray’s position as the world’s most likable asshole. Here, he plays the unsubtly named Frank Cross, president of a TV network, who has completely lost his humanity. Crass, selfish, angry, and obscene, we first meet Frank complaining about the promo for an upcoming live television adaptation of A Christmas Carol (starring Buddy Hackett, Jamie Farr, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold dancers). It’s not enough that the promo makes people want to watch it, he argues. They have to feel that if they don’t watch it, the world will end. He presents his own version of the promo, the sort of terror-inducing nightmare vision that ends with a mushroom cloud. (The day after it airs, he proudly shows off a newspaper article speculating that an elderly woman died because of the stress his promo caused.)

It won’t shock you to learn that Frank abuses his employees. In that opening scene, he fires Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) for raising appropriate concerns about the promo. He also torments his assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), an underpaid single mother with three kids, one of them mute. Her Christmas bonus this year? A washcloth, in addition to her usual network-monogrammed bath towel. Everyone hates and/or fears Frank, and with good reason. Since this is a variation on A Christmas Carol, that must mean three ghosts will visit him and remind him of the person he once was and should be. He’s warned of these ghosts by his deceased former boss (John Forsythe, in appropriately disgusting rotting-corpse makeup), and in one of the subtler jokes, Frank never once realizes the parallels between what’s happening to him and what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ultimately, A Christmas Carol has the structure of a character study before the advent of psychology. There’s the exploration of Scrooge’s past, the depiction of how others perceive him, and the examination of his secret self-loathing. To use the parlance of Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko‘s self-help guru/pedophile, fear motivates Scrooge instead of love. The purpose of his journey is to tap into his lost love of life and gain a new perspective.

Since Scrooged exists in a post-Freud world, this character study is bleaker and more resonant than Dickens’s. We get to see Frank as a child on Christmas Eve, glued to the TV. His mother drinks to avoid mothering and disappears (ostensibly to a bar) to avoid her husband, a snarling butcher who gives four-year-old Frank five pounds of milk-fed veal for Christmas instead of the choo-choo train he really wants. When Frank complains, his father instructs him to get a job. It’s shocking that he grew up to be a career-driven loner.

Then there’s Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), The One That Got Away. As Ghost of Christmas Past Buster Poindexter—sorry, David Johansen—takes Frank on a guided tour of his past, he’s allowed to see numerous examples of choosing career over love. He loses Claire in the process, but she is the pipeline to his humanity. A well-worn romantic-comedy conflict, the career-versus-love theme here goes deeper than the usual fluffy fare. Admittedly, Frank is career-obsessed, but Scrooged paints a portrait of a man who forces the obsession on himself in order to avoid real intimacy. He spends an entire lifetime putting up a wall around himself, and this Christmas experience echoes the words shouted by President Reagan a year before the film’s release: tear down this wall!

A combination of writing and performing sells this romance better than I would have imagined. Murray and Allen share the lived-in chemistry of a deeply connected couple who only split up because other priorities got in the way. Like Frank, Claire has put up a wall of her own—it’s just a wall that looks like selfless, altruistic action. She runs a nonprofit organization, but she gives so much of herself that she claims she has nothing left to give. Like Frank, she’s remained single, and she’s just as unhappy despite being an all-around better person. In stark contrast to their past selves, the present-day versions of the characters wear misery like a raver wears a Dr. Seuss hat: to draw attention to themselves while pretending they don’t crave the attention and love they find so lacking.

Then there’s Grace, Scrooged‘s secret weapon. She provides sharp relief from the merciless story of Frank’s terrible life. As played by Woodard, she stands as a beacon of normalcy in the film’s comically cynical world. Like Bob Cratchit (the character she represents), she feels sorry for Frank more than she loathes him. She also finds the simple joys in her modest life, the sort of joys Frank finds puzzling and saccharine until he realizes how nice it is to feel real human emotions.

Despite its redemptive arc, Scrooged‘s unsparing anger and negativity has prevented it from developing into a perennial classic. However, the film does a far better job of capturing Dickens’s tone than most adaptations of his work (a notable exception is Nicholas Nickleby). It’s hilarious, insightful, and as heartwarming as a movie that makes numerous jokes at the expense of frail elderly women can be.

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