Saturday, January 2, 2010

It Probably Sounded Better on Paper

With New Year's Eve behind us, it's time to start examining some of the films that were overshadowed by big end-of-year releases aiming for Oscar recognition. Two films coming into general release this week are more notable for their defects than their assets:
  • Each film is built around the talent of a reasonably marketable box office star.
  • Once you've watched these films you'll quickly find yourself questioning whether their producers could have raised the money needed for them without a box office name attached to the project.
  • You'll also wonder if the film has much chance of becoming an asset in the star's bio.
  • Each film features some fairly clumsy writing, with gaping holes in logic through which one could easily drive a tractor-trailer.
  • Each film is laden with the symptoms of a project that probably seemed like a good idea on paper (or when being pitched to producers), but either imploded under its own weight or flatlined in the editing room.
  • Each film is, at best, a rental. Or something you might watch out of sheer desperation if you are stuck on a long flight.
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If you're the kind of person who can't get enough of Ebeneezer Scrooge, you might want to start the year off by taking in a new film written and directed by Joshua Goldin that stars Matthew Broderick as Ben Singer, a much younger curmudgeon with a decidedly bleak view of the world. As Goldin explains in his production notes:
"The inspiration for this film was me. I’m a 'first time director' and it’s always hard for first time directors. I tried to undercut this mark against me by mentioning other first time directors in pitch meetings with financiers -- Francois Truffaut, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Barry Levinson, Woody Allen. You get the point. I don’t think I helped my cause by being a smartass. Luckily, I wrote the script with my old pal Matthew Broderick in mind for the main role and, even more luckily, Matthew loved the script. The moment he signed on, Wonderful World went from being a 'Josh Goldin movie' to being a 'Matthew Broderick vehicle'.

One of my first jobs out of college was as a file clerk in a small insurance company. The only other worker in my office was a Senegalese man in his fifties. I was struck by a kind of Zen attitude he had toward the drudgery of the job. I was also struck by his high intelligence. We became good friends. He talked a lot about Senegal, which he had left at the age of eight. For him, it was a place of magic and wonder.

I wanted to create a movie about a man who saw only the negative side of things (an emblematic character for our times, I think) and so I used the workings of my own brain for research. A lot of what Ben says in the movie reflects a kind of dark commentary that runs through my own head on the way to, say, the supermarket. Some of what Ben says are actual quotes. I’m not a former children's singer, guitarist, or divorcee, but I do have a three day growth of beard like that of Ben Singer in the film. Ben is both more honest and more unhappy than I am, and the negative part of me -- the part I drew on to create Ben Singer -- believes he is more unhappy because he is more honest."
Although Goldin may be less inspirational than he gives himself credit for, it's fair to say that Ben has plenty of reason to be disgusted with his life.
  • During his heyday as a children's songwriter, his career came to a screeching halt when his publisher/producer decided he just wasn't a hot enough property.
  • Ben has lost touch with his creative muse to the point that strumming a guitar barely even brings him pleasure anymore.
  • Ben doesn't fit in with his younger, more upbeat coworkers, particularly an obnoxious young redhead named Cyril (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who considers himself a part-time talent scout.
  • Ben's diabetic roommate from Senegal (who believes in "fish falling from the sky") routinely beats him at chess.
Michael Kenneth Williams as Ibou
  • One of Ben's neighbors is an obnoxious yuppie who keeps threatening to have Ben's car towed away the next time he finds it blocking the access to his reserved parking spot.
  • A divorced father, Ben is often uncomfortable during his daughter Sarah's visits. If anything, his overwhelming sense of gloom often frightens the young girl (Jodelle Ferland).
  • Whether or not he likes to admit it, Ben has the word "loser" written all over him.
When life hands Ben a new series of lemons, he has so little to fall back on that he can barely make lemonade. Within a short period of time he loses his job and learns that his daughter is reluctant to spend time with him. When Ben finds his roommate Ibou (Michael K. Williams) in a diabetic coma and tries to get Ibou to the hospital, he discovers his car being towed away by a city employee who is not about to show any lenience because of a medical emergency.

Matthew Broderick as Ben Singer

Soon after Ibou is admitted to the hospital all kinds of strange things start to happen. Ibou's sexy sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) flies in from Senegal to help nurse her ailing brother back to health. With nowhere to stay, she ends up at Ben's apartment while Ibou is in the hospital. Without a car (or much knowledge of how to get around town), Khadi still manages to spend most of her spare money on high-priced sneakers that she can bring back to the men in her poor village in Senegal.

Needless to say, Ben is not impressed with her spending habits, her insistence on involving him in native rituals, or her attempts to brighten his life. Even after sleeping with Khadi and seeing the positive impact she has had on his self-deprecating daughter, as soon as Ben suspects that Khadi may want to marry him in order to get a green card, his negativity explodes with a radioactive impact.

Sarah (Jodelle Ferland) and Khadi (Sanaa Latham)

Meanwhile, Cyril discovers one of Ben's old recordings among his child's toys. When he tries to suggest that Ben get his career as a children's entertainer back on track, Ben furiously rejects his advances, implying that Cyril is nothing more than a parasite.

Disgusted with the ugly change in Ben's personality, Khadi heads back to Senegal with all of the men's sneakers she has purchased. Furious at the way Ibou was treated while in a diabetic coma, Ben ends up filing a civil suit against the city, citing a municipal employee's "depraved indifference" in denying Ibou assistance in a medical emergency. After hearing the plaintiff's justification for his lawsuit, the judge grants Ben a hearing but quickly rules against him.

Things continue to get worse. When Ibou dies, Ben insists on accompanying his roommate's dead body back to Senegal where (miracle of miracles) he actually witnesses what Ibou had described as "fish falling from the sky."

After attempting to repair the damage he had done to his friendship with Khadi, Ben returns home to the United States and attempts to reboot his career as an entertainer. Cyril succeeds in getting him some bookings and, as the film ends, the audience sees Ben playing a guitar, smiling, and singing to a private party of adoring tots.

Forget the glaring credibility issues. As the old saying goes, "I think I'm gonna fwow up in my mouth."

I have always liked Matthew Broderick as an actor (I first saw him performing opposite Harvey Fierstein and Estelle Getty in the original cast of Torch Song Trilogy). Playing against type in Wonderful World (don't go to this film expecting to find a grown-up Ferris Bueller), Broderick is convincing enough as Ben. While his confrontations with Philip Baker Hall as "The Man" don't quite match the scintillating conversation between Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol, they lay the groundwork for some kind of spiritual transformation.

Even if the more cloying moments in Goldin's film have not wedged in your throat and severely tested your gag reflex, you'll find it pretty hard to stomach Ben's supposed redemption. As nice as it may seem dramatically, it's hard to believe that a bitter realist like Ben (who just lost his job and has enough trouble finding money for weed), is going to drop everything for a round trip to Senegal with a loaded coffin as his check-in baggage. But as Goldin explains:
"I sympathize totally with Ben’s plight and I’m glad he had a catharsis. I believe these moments of catharsis are possible. They are what keep us going. Behind every cynic is a disappointed idealist. That's where I and Ben Singer diverge. He may be a disappointed idealist, but he’s still an idealist. I am not. There’s a danger, when we leave the unreal world of idealism, that we also abandon our better natures. This never happens to Ben Singer. It’s what makes him a very flawed, wrong-headed hero, but a hero. "
Sanaa Lathan is beautiful to watch as she embodies a more mature spirit of earthy honesty with a willingness to believe in tribal magic. The rest of the cast does its best with the material given to them.

If Matthew Broderick had not taken a deeply personal interest in Wonderful World, I sincerely doubt that this clumsily conceived film would have received a theatrical release. You can easily skip it. Here's the trailer:

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Because the Weinstein brothers have an interesting knack for choosing projects that become solid moneymakers, I'm not surprised to see them producing Youth in Revolt. This new comedy, directed by Miguel Arteta stars Michael Cera as young Nick Twisp and his super suave French alter ego, Francois Dillinger. The film is guaranteed to score with three key audience segments:
Cera has already proven himself to be a deft deadpan comedian (the confused adolescent to whom everything happens) in coming-of-age roles in such popular comedies as Arrested Development, Superbad and Juno. Now 21, his youthful features will allow him to develop the Youth In Revolt franchise into a cash cow as he continues to build a loyal fan base while tackling other projects.

"Michael was a crazy fan of the book,” recalls the film's director. “It was the one book he read that doesn’t condescend to teenagers.” Cera himself recalls that:
“I was around the age of the main character when I read it, and I completely related to it. Anyone who was ever a teenager could relate to it, especially if you had a romantic interest that somehow drove you crazy. Nick doesn’t have a great home life. His parents are divorced. His mother has an idiot boyfriend and his life is stagnant. He meets this girl who blows his mind and he feels that he has to hang onto her.”
Michael Cera as Francois (left) and Nick (right)

What's fascinating to me is the film's pedigree with regard to how supporting roles have been cast. With Steve Buscemi as Nick's divorced father, Jean Smart as his trailer-trash mother (Estelle), Zach Galifiniakis as Jerry (Estelle's loser truck driver boyfriend at the beginning of the movie), Ray Liotta as Officer Lance Westcott (Jerry's replacement in Estelle's bed), Fred Willard as the landlord, Mr. Ferguson, Mary Kay Place as Mrs. Saunders, and Justin Long as Paul (her very mischievous stoner son), this cast is top heavy with A-list character actors.

Add to the mix Portia Doubleday as Sheeni Saunders (the object of Twisp's lust), Adhir Kalyna as Vijay Joshi (Twisp's overachieving Indian classmate), M. Emmett Walsh as Sheeni's super religious father, and Jonathan B. Wright as Trent, her obnoxious, superclean boyfriend, and you have the makings of a very nice coming of age comedy in which Cera (yet again) tries to lose his virginity.

Nick (Michael Cera) and Sheeni (Portia Doubleday)

Unfortunately, that's not enough to make a great movie. Even with the wealth of talent on board, I found Youth in Revolt to be a surprisingly unsatisfying movie experience.

The fact that Nick and Sheeni are functioning at a level much higher up the intellectual ladder than most of their contemporaries doesn't necessarily make them funnier people. It just shows how sadly out of place an intelligent teenager is when surrounded by dumbed-down trailer trash.

To be sure, there are some wonderfully comic moments (mostly sight gags), but the writing lurches from scene to scene. This could very well be because the novel was written in an epistolary format which succeeds on the printed page but can be difficult to transfer to the screen.

A sure sign of the movie's creative imbalance is that the occasional animation sequences have so much more charm, wit, and whimsy than the rest of the film. However, it's very possible that when viewed in a theatre filled with teens and tweens, the film could prove to be a rollicking success.

All texting aside, my lack of enthusiasm for Youth in Revolt could very well be strictly generational. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen "A Christmas Tale," French? Would love to have your comments; mixed reviews from family here on the East Coast.