Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Learning to love the weather

The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.

You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s Fortune—Cookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.

Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows. But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm. Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another. It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.

Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.

Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell. Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency. He’s up to his ears in debt. He has no prospects for digging himself out. There’s no one he can turn to for help. But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier. She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well. Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.

Margaret can feel it slipping too. She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified. So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome. Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine. If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.

She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette. She’s not fooling anyone. But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.

Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska. But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska. It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it. In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place. You learned to love the weather. That was Fleischman’s problem. He refused to get along or adapt.

But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra. The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.

Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses. It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business. The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away. They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness. They don’t make you want to rush to the airport. They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.

In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret. Then it dawns on you. They have.

Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.

In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.

He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.

The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.

The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead. Raymond has been gone only five. Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.

Which it does.

Well, a dead body does.

A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—

First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?

Second legbreaker: Don’t know. But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.

It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body. So they decide to leave it for the professionals. They drop it off in a dumpster.

Where Paul finds it.

Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator. The first part turns out to be easy. The insurance investigator is more of a problem.

Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one. In his way, he's as desperate as Paul. Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him. He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished. When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.

He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off. And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it. He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul. This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes. He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate. This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.

Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job. He demands visual proof. He wants to see the body. When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.

They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid. They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down. They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.

There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.

Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy. We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be. In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor. What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much. She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so. It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality. Going mad means becoming more like yourself.

To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too. Each man has become more like himself. And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people. Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.

Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections. He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear. This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters. Williams allows Paul to be angry. Paul isn't a martyr. He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret. It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check. The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.

As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often. He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.

Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly. Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned. Ted is a man doing a man's job. He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.

Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues. Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy. He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.

He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany. Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be. But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake. He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.

Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem. Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors. But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender. He doesn't want to like it there. He wants out of there, now.

So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there. This includes Tiffany.

Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.

The more fool him.

Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share. She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake. She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.

The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them. What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.

Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.

Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity. Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them. Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either. And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue. She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life. This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul. She doesn't feel owed.

Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.

I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance. She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.

It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends. Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes. He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.

The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul. Ted hasn't completely given in. But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.

Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them): Don't you just love this weather.

Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully): Learning to.

Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows. His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself. Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.

I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.

Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her. Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers. They are, however, married, in their fashion. They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.

The Big White. Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Collin Friesen. Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown. Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films. 2005.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sidewalks of New York

Five minutes into Sidewalks of New York, Edward Burns has made better use of Dennis Farina and gotten more out of him than Law and Order managed in two seasons.

Eighty minutes in, Burns has made better use and gotten more out of most of his cast than any director who worked with them before or since.

Heather Graham, Stanley Tucci, David Krumholtz, Brittany Murphy, and Rosario Dawson---all deliver the most technically brilliant and difficult performances of their careers.

Great acting is usually a matter of making outrageously unbelievable characters believable, of turning gods and monsters into plausible human beings. Hamlet, set down in a real Denmark, would be a madman.

Or great acting is the trick of turning plausible human beings into gods and monsters. For all the "realistic" details Robert De Niro brought to his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta, the brilliance of the performance was in the way De Niro disguised the ways he was thoroughly romanticizing La Motta, turning him into a heroic character worth watching for two hours. Had De Niro played the part truly realistically, no one would have gone to the movie because the real Jake La Motta wasn't much of a human being, let alone a hero.

Same goes for Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote. Hoffman didn't impersonate Capote. He idealized him. The real Truman Capote shrank on TV; he'd have been a dot on the horizon on a movie screen.

This isn't a criticism of De Niro, Hoffman, or great movie acting. It's just a fact of American movies. Americans make and prefer to watch Romantic movies, capital R Romantic. We like big, sweeping stories about beautiful, larger than life characters suffering beautifully or surviving beautifully or staring into the camera beautifully. So what the cast of Sidewalks of New York is called upon to do isn't often asked of American actors---play real human beings as real human beings.

If Stanley Tucci, terrific as he is, didn't always look like a caricature of whatever character he's playing in any given film, and if Burns hadn't cast himself---not that he's bad. He's just too good looking and too much himself. He can't hide the fact that he's acting because an important part of who he is is an actor---and you had never seen any of the others before, you might very well believe that they are what the narrative conceit of the movie would have you take them for: ordinary New Yorkers who somehow got talked into taking part in a documentary about their mixed-up love lives.

A documentary that for some reason requires the occasional show stopping presence of Dennis Farina, but nevermind.

This is especially true of Brittany Murphy, who could fool you even if you have seen her before, and, amazingly, Heather Graham---amazingly because Heather Graham is just too oddly and ethereally beautiful to be a real human being, yet in Sidewalks of New York, without doing much to downplay her beauty, she manages to play someone you could walk by on the street without giving a second glance. She comes across as just another modestly attractive neurotic businesswoman on her way to an appointment she'd rather skip.

Of course the movie takes more than a second glance at her and it isn't long before you notice that this woman is more than she appeared to be. But that's what you think, this woman. If you think of Heather Graham, you think, Wow, this woman looks a little bit like Heather Graham.

If you think some more, you might think, And she acts a little bit like Diane Keaton. I don't know if Graham was consciously doing an homage to Keaton. (She must have been. The character's named Annie, as in Hall, for crying out loud.) Either way, though, it doesn't come across as an actor's trick. It's as if her character had seen Manhattan or Annie Hall at a crucial time in her life and made Keaton her role model. If she thought she could get away with it, she'd say La di da. All the little Keatonisms have gone past mannerisms and become part of who she is.

Murphy, however, completely disappears into her character, creating a truly documenatarian portrait of the type of Midwestern kid with vague bohemian longings who comes to New York and in short order becomes more of New Yorker than people who were born and raised there. She plays a college student working as a waitress in a diner who hasn't any ambitions or particular talents beyond turning herself into the heroine of her own artistic and romantic drama, with no idea how to bring that about, which means that most of her life is spent waiting and drifting, making her easy prey for more selfishly ambitious types who want to make her part of their own psychodramas.

And, by the way, whoever gave her the fake leopard skin jacket to wear made a brilliant choice. Anyone who's spent time around artists, actors, and musicians has seen that jacket coming and going from a thousand parties and knows exactly what sort of lost soul is inside it.

The only unbelievable thing about Murphy's performance isn't her fault, the fact that she's having a tawdry affair with a dentist.

I understand why Burns didn't want to make Tucci's character what he would need to be to attact the likes of Murphy's character---a college professor, a writer, an actor or director, or, at the very farthest edge of bohemian types, a lawyer who once dreamed of being a writer, an actor, a director, or a painter---but a dentist?

No way does that jacket ever go home with a smock.

Sidewalks of New York doesn't have a plot as much as it has a structure, like an elaborate arrangement of dominos that circles back in on its own beginning and which is interesting for the patterns it reveals as the dominos knock each other down. The story, such as it is, is a contemporary La Ronde, with the cycle repeated eight times. One character's little bit of story arc knocks into the next, and that character carries us along to the next, and so on, until we get back to the first character, and the dominos get knocked over again.

Tommy (Burns), the producer of an Entertainment Tonight-like TV show, meets cute with Maria (Dawson), a schoolteacher, who's trying to get over her divorce from Ben (Krumholtz), a would-be rock and roll star working as a doorman, who puts the make on Ashley (Murphy), a college student from Iowa, who is sleeping with Griff (Tucci), a cad of married dentist, who is inexplicably out of love with his realtor wife, Annie (Graham), who is trying to help Tommy find a new apartment and is, not inexplicably, attracted to him.

As I said, all of these characters come across as real people, and their problems, foibles, flaws, missteps, miscues, and mistakes are painfully, if not as Burns might have liked, heartbreakingly, true to life. They would come across as more real if Burns hadn't been so literal with his conceit of making a documentary. Besides the fact that it's impossible to believe that Dawson's, Graham's, and Burns' characters would reveal themselves to a stranger's camera so completely, especially when all the questions are about their sex lives, all of the characters talk about themselves with too much honesty and directness (although with no real insight), sounding like they're cribbing from Letters to Playboy.

It would have been better if Burns had let the camera act...that is, if he'd just filmed the story as if it was a documentary in the making without forcing us to watch pieces of the actual documentary. Nothing that the characters have to say into the camera tells us anything they don't reveal in their scenes with each other.

But that's just a mistake that can be put up with. What's harder to overlook is that as real as these people are, their very real-ness makes them a problem for the audience. There's a reason more movies aren't about "real" people. Most real people aren't very interesting or likeable.

Ed Burns has a writer's sensibilities, in a lot of ways, and one of those ways is that he's not concerned with making his characters likeable. He wants us to see people for what they are. That's fine, it's in fact admirable, necessary even. But it works better in a short story than in an hour and a half movie.

I started by saying that Burns does more with Dennis Farina in five minutes than Law and Order managed to do in 44 episodes. As it turns out, five minutes is about all the screen time Farina gets. That's ok. Five minutes of his character, Croup, an aggressively narcissistic aging playboy, goes a long way.

But five minutes of all these characters goes a long way. Once we've met them, and realized that we have met them, that they are, if not people we know, people we could know, there's not much more to recommend them to our attention. None of them is particularly likeable. Tucci's dentist, Griff, isn't supposed to be, but his caddishness doesn't rise to the level of true villainy, and true villains are "likeable" in their way---they compel us to identify with them. And, although they are desperate for love, or at least affection, none of them has much of a heart.

They are all---but one---driven by ego and by ideas about what they should want and be, ideas that are for the most part second-hand, which means, that they are all the products of convention not self-invention. They are phony in the way real people are phony. They don't think for themselves. They say what they've been taught they're supposed to say, given the roles in life they've adopted for themselves. Graham's character talks as if she's aware of how she's limited by her background and upbringing, but it's all rote awareness. Women like her are supposed to disparage their own conventionality even as they cling to it.

Consequently, all of the characters are controlled by their appetites and emotions.

The one character who has any heart, the one character who thinks and who feels---in an active way. She reaches out to touch the world. The others wait for it to touch them. She thinks before she leaps. The others don't start thinking until they are in free fall, and then it's only to ask themselves, What the fuck?---the one character who cares about herself as person with a soul to worry about, is Dawson's schoolteacher, Maria.

Maria is the film's heroine. Its tragic heroine. Because she is the only character with a heart and a conscience, she can't drift in and out of love. She is having a hard time getting over her divorce, she is determined not to make the same mistake twice, and she is responsible. She and Tommy should fall in love and live happily ever after. They have a lot in common. They want the same things out of life. Tommy's a bit of a jerk, but he has enough self-awareness to know that about himself and not like it, and you can see how being with Maria could change him for the better. But he's careless and she's too careful and without meaning to, Maria keeps hurting his feelings because she's too busy protecting her own.

Maria's part of the story ends unhappily, although not unhopefully, because she is the only character who has a real future. The others are going to go on exactly as they've been. If we were to meet them 10 years down the line, their lives would look pretty much as they did at the beginning of Sidewalks of New York. They won't have changed or grown.

Whatever happens to Maria, for good or ill, she will have lived through it.

Another reason I wish that Burns had left out the documentary scenes is that it puts too much emphasis on the themes of love and sex and how the two complicate and get in each other's way.

Burns really doesn't have anything interesting or original to tell us on that score.

The more important theme at work in Sidewalks of New York is what is happening on the sidewalks everywhere---how every day thousands of isolated strangers pass each other by without any thought or notion that they are all as Dickens says in A Christmas Carol

For the most part, we remain isolated strangers. But every now and then our lives collide with someone else's. Our problems become theirs, our mistakes turn into their problems. We bump into a person and knock them down, figuratively or literally, and that person bumps into someone else, who bumps into someone else, and all these lives topple into each other like dominos, and without our even knowing it we've knocked down someone a dozen miles away, someone we've never met and never will meet.

Griff's carelessness hurts his wife and Ashley, obviously, but it also affects Maria, because it pushes Annie into Tommy's path. Ben's carelessness hurt Maria, obviously, but it hurts Tommy because it pushes Maria into his path while making her incapable of falling in love with him. And Tommy's carelessness has a serious impact on the life of someone who isn't even born when the movie ends.

The characters in Sidewalks in New York talk a lot---too much---about love and sex.

But love and sex are not what the movie's about, in its best moments.

In its best moments, it's about taking care.

Sidewalks of New York. Written and directed by Edward Burns. Starring Rosario Dawson, Stanley Tucci, Heather Graham, Brittany Murphy, David Krumholtz, Edward Burns, and Dennis Farina. 2001.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Groomsmen

Edward Burns' The Groomsmen is about a group of lower middle class, thirtysomething Long Island guys who have made good. But it’s a precarious good, dependent not just on continued good luck and no sharp downturns in the economy, but on their friendships lasting and marriages holding together—all the main characters need each other to get by, leaning on each other for support, for help, for advice, for shared strength. Their prosperity, such as it is, and any hope of improving their lots in the future depend on their cooperating and getting along, with each other and with their wives and families, and that takes emotional resources these guys are not abundantly blessed with.

To survive and thrive these guys need to be able to control their emotions, particularly their anger. But being guys, American guys, Irish-American guys, controlling their emotions has never been a discipline they’ve mastered.

The best the smarter and more mature members of the group have managed to do has been to repress their feelings.

They’re one bad day, then, away from a meltdown that will completely fuck up their lives.

The guys are Mike (Jay Mohr), a bull-necked, bull-headed, bullshitting owner of a landscaping business who lives with his father in the house he grew up in, thinks, acts, and talks like he’s still in high school and wonders why his girlfriend has broken up with him; Dez (Matthew Lillard), who owns a bar and grille, is married to a beautiful and understanding wife, has two smart-mouthed but likeable and talented sons, continually lectures his friends on how they need to do what he’s done, marry, settle down, raise kids, and yet spends the movie desperate to recapture the glory and freedom of his days as a high school rock and roller; TC (John Leguizamo), the only one of the gang to have left home, but he only did it because he was running away from having to admit to his best friends that he’s gay; and Jimbo (Donal Logue), the at one-time most successful who has had that one bad day I mentioned and is now in total emotional and financial free-fall.

Then there’s Paulie, Jimbo’s brother and Mike’s cousin, whose upcoming wedding is the occasion of TC’s return, the guys’ becoming groomsmen, and, potentially, the bad day looming on the horizon for himself, Dez, TC, and Mike, that will destroy them the way Jimbo’s destroyed himself.

Paulie, played by writer-director Burns, is marrying Sue, his longtime live-in girlfriend, under duress. She’s five-months pregnant. The duress is all self-inflicted. It’s clear that he loves his bride-to-be, she’s adorable (because she’s adorably played by Brittany Murphy; maybe a shade too adorably played), and she loves him to death. But he’s worried he’s only marrying her to do the right thing by her and that’s not a good reason to get married.

What’s more likely is that her pregnancy has woken him up to the fact that it was past time for him to do the right thing—grow up. It was a rude awakening and it’s made him grumpy.

Irritable, disoriented, slightly groggy—he’s not been sleeping well—guilty, and resentful of Sue, he’s withdrawn emotionally and physically from her and washed his hands of all the wedding plans. He’s going to go through with it, but he’s treating it like an upcoming root canal.

His way of dealing with it is to pretend he's ignoring its approach. He’s apparently dealing with his impending fatherhood in the same way.

His refusal to talk about what’s bothering him, what he flatters himself is stoicism, makes him a constant pain in the ass. In his scenes with Sue, she’s a hurt puppy and he’s always kicking her out of his path. And in his scenes with his friends, he’s a wet blanket, one way or another finding a way to take all the fun out of the festivities they’re planning on his behalf.

This is painfully psychologically true to life. But what it means for The Groomsmen is that there’s a very unattractive emotional dead space at the center of the film that makes it hard to care about.

Paulie is such a passive-aggressive asshole that we start rooting for Sue to wise up and call off the wedding. Or we would if Burns hadn’t made her, despite her adorableness, something of a big whiny baby.

Burns’ real focus and interest is the groomsmen and he wants their story, the story of how they wise up and learn to forgive each other and themselves, to be the story. He’s very much helped in this by John Leguizamo as TC, who gives his scenes all the heart and soul Burns has denied his own scenes as Paulie.

But it's hard to make a subplot substitute for a main plot. Burns has structured the guys’ friendship in such a way that Jimbo and Paulie are the natural leaders and, with both of them taken out of the picture by their crises, TC and Mike have to step forward to assume the roles of leading men—Dez is what he’s always been, the group’s anchor—which is fine, but Burns doesn’t give them leading man work to do.

Mike plays out a story as comic second banana, his regular role in the group, and TC nursemaids Jimbo, which makes him the sidekick of a character who has downgraded himself from leading man to second banana and in the process almost erased himself from the story of his own life.

Ensemble pieces like The Groomsmen aspires to be need every character’s subplot to be compelling, but they still need a center, someone whose eyes serve as our eyes, whose story ties the others together, and The Groomsmen doesn’t have that not because Burns has made his leading man less than likeable, but because he doesn’t have any leading ladies.

I was talking to my pal Margot about Burns’ movies the other day and she told me she hates them. Burns, she says, is both contemptuous of women and disgusted by them. She pointed to the women characters in The Brothers McMullen and She’s The One.

But in The Groomsmen, and Looking for Kitty, Burns doesn’t seem to dislike women. He just treats them as somewhat beside the point, a very odd narrative strategy for a movie that’s about a man and a woman getting married.

As I said, Brittany Murphy is adorable as Sue, in a puppyish sort of way, but Burns doesn’t give Sue anything to say for herself. Most of what she says amounts to her acting as Paulie’s conscience. She never gets to make the case for herself as the right woman for Paulie or as an interesting person in her own right. What’s more, she doesn’t even get to make the case for Paulie. She doesn’t tell us why she would want to marry him or why she took up with him in the first place.

The other two wives, Dez’s wife Tina and Jimbo’s wife Julianna, played by the cheerfully down to earth Sherri Albert and the wonderful, madonna-esque Heather Burns respectively, don’t have much to say for themselves either.

Tina breezes in and out of the corners of the scenes of Dez at home, her only job to approve of her man and her boys while playfully keeping them in line. Julianna is allowed a couple of moments of anger and personal outrage. Her husband is doing a good job, wallowing in his self-contempt, of persuading her that he is contemptible. But she’s never allowed a scene in which she’s even tempted to act on her anger or give in to her outrage. And in the end her only job in the film is to welcome Jimbo home when he comes to his senses with a hug and a kiss.

I suppose it’s a form of contempt to treat women as though their role in life is to wait patiently for their husbands to grow-up and kiss their boo-boos in the meantime. For Burns, with The Groomsmen, what it is is an artistic shame.

Ninety years of American filmmaking ought to have shown him that it’s possible to write strong roles for women even keeping them within the traditional roles of understanding wife and patient mother.

The lack of a strong female voice is one of the reasons The Groomsmen is a less interesting and less successful movie than another middle-aged guys on the brink of a second adolescence ensemble piece, Beautiful Girls.

And it’s just not fair to compare The Groomsmen to Barry Levinson’s minor masterpiece, Diner. For one thing, the doings of thirtysomething men lackadaisically coming to the realization that it might be time for them to give up behaviors they should have outgrown by the time they graduated from high school don’t have the same urgency as the desperate measures taken by a group of twentysomethings trying to get their adult lives started.

But while I’d recommend that you go out and rent Beautiful Girls and Diner first, I’m not saying that The Groomsmen isn’t worth watching.

The fun, though, is in the acting, particularly in watching the performances of Lillard, Leguizamo, and Mohr.

I’d only seen Lilliard in one movie before, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleash. He played Shaggy, and while he does a remarkable job of impersonating a cartoon character—or maybe because he did—it’s fun to see him playing a real human being with subtlety and insight.

Dez is the certifiable grown-up among the guys. He’s sensible, responsible, self-controlled, and happy with his lot because he knows he chose it and because he continues to make the best of it for himself and his family. But he married too young and possibly gave up his dreams too soon and there’s a part of him that wonders, What if, and another dangerous part of him that replies, It’s not too late. Why don’t you go find out?

Lillard gives Dez a casual maturity, a goodnatured dad-ness that’s convincing, but the lectures he delivers to his friends about the joys of marriage and fatherhood begin very quickly to sound like pep talks to himself, and Lillard has a wildness that sneaks into his eyes, especially when he picks up a guitar, which warns that he could let go and blow it all up on himself without a second’s thought.

Leguizamo is excellent, as he always is. In his way, he’s been playing cartoon characters too (Literally, in Ice Age and Ice Age II: The Meltdown; pretty darn close to literally in a recent episode of My Name is Earl), so it’s great to see him as the very human TC.

He does a nice job of showing how TC is one of the guys and not one guys. TC is every bit as much a macho swaggerer as his buddies, but Leguizamo reveals TC’s gayness in the openness of his eyes and where he puts the emphasis of his gaze and his thoughts. He also gets at how TC is still struggling to get over years of self-denial, repression, fear, and self-loathing in the instantaneous and reflexive self-corrections TC makes whenever he feels that a word or a gesture or a glance has revealed too much.

But it was Mohr who was the revelation to me.

I'm used to seeing him playing slicker than slick. In The Groomsman he plays Mike as a guileless, good-natured slob, something of a big baby of a man, in fact. He even walks a bit like a fat baby, although it's plain that Mike thinks he's walking like a tough guy. He carries himself the way he's seen weight-lifters carry themselves, with his chin tucked in and his arms out at his side like Popeye. He leads with his gut as if daring anyone who has a beef with him to take their best shot. Of course, the one time someone takes him up on it and punches him there, Mike crumples in a surprised, teary-eyed heap.

As angry and loud and belligerent as Mike is, he's a softy at heart, and he's shocked that anyone takes him seriously, which is of course part of his problem in life. No one takes him seriously because he can't take himself seriously.

Given that Mohr grew up in the mileu in which the movie takes place, that he was born to be a groomsmen (In the sense that some women are bridesmaids never the bride, some men are groomsmen never the groom), and only his intelligence and ability to tell a joke got him out of there, I wouldn't be surprised if his Mike is an impersonation of someone he went to school with.

If it is, it's a loving portrait.

Mohr makes Mike a blowhard and a goof but he also gives him a real heart. Mike thinks he has to be a tough guy, but he doesn't enjoy it. He'd rather be your friend than fight with you even while he's throwing a punch at you. For years he's been holding a grudge against TC and it's funny and touching when he realizes that the break in their friendship is his own, not TC's, fault.

Mohr plays the moment with a pure, sloppy, blockheaded joy that carries you away but also shows what a good actor can do when he gives up all his vanity.

The Groomsmen. Written and directed by Edward Burns. Starring John Leguizamo, Jay Mohr, Donal Logue, Matthew Lillard, Edward Burns, Brittany Murphy, and Heather Burns. 2006.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Three films by Edward Burns

My favorite kind of movie reviews to write are about good but flawed films. You get to mix analysis, enthusiastic description, and completely subjective opinionizing in ways that usually come out sounding trenchant, fair, and even knowledgeable. Plus, you might convince people to take a look at a film they might not have heard of or have given the skip on the first go-round.

Reviewing a bad movie is easy but it'€™s not a lot of fun and you'€™re always at risk of just sounding mean.

Writing about a very good movie takes the most work. You don'€™t want to gush but you don't want your critique to turn into criticism in which the things you liked about the movie get downplayed or even lost in the discussion.

Hardest for me to write about are movies I loved. This is why I haven'€™t gotten around to a post about Little Miss Sunshine.

But I'€™ve been on an Edward Burns kick this past week, having watched three of his movies, Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen, and Sidewalks of New York, and since Burns makes good but flawed movies, I know exactly what I want to say about them and pretty much how to say it, and that'€™s what Iâ€'m going to do this weekend, write about them.

Burns' first film, The Brothers McMullen, was the kind of independently-financed, low-budget, character-driven, realistic films that nowdays are the staple of the Sundance Festival and often win their directors positive critical attention and a Hollywood contract to make big-budget, star-driven, high-concept comedies or action movies. Since The Brothers McMullen Burns has made a handful of low-budget, character-driven, realistic films.

I'™m guessing that at some point the Hollywood contract was on the table but for some reason never got signed, and, judging by his movies, I'€™d bet that it was because Burns decided he wanted to keep making the kinds of movies he'™s been making.

His apparent influences are John Cassavetes, without the edge, Paul Mazursky, without the whimsy and polish, and Woody Allen, without the neurotic-obsession with his own neurotic obsessions and without Allen’s limiting class-consciousness. Except for parts of Annie Hall and all of Radio Days, Allen has kept his focus on a very narrow sliver of society---€”life among the upper middle class of New York's intellegensia. Burns turns his camera on the lower strata of the middle class, that part of society where the blue and white collars meet, and since that's where most of America happens to live, he has a wider variety of character types to play with and a greater range of voices to give us to listen to and more neighborhoods he can carry his camera and us into.

This isn'™t something he's got over Allen. I don'€™t think Burns has learned how to portray his characters and render his cityscapes with a unique ear and eye yet. He'™s too willing to trust his camera to do the work. He'€™s like a newspaper photographer who runs through three or four rolls of film (or a couple of memory sticks) without taking time to compose a shot because he knows that somewhere in there he’ll have captured the perfect picture. Burns isn'€™t careless or wasteful. Just a little complacent.

I don'€™t know how good a filmmaker Burns will turn out to be. He's 38, old for a Hollywood hack, but young for an artist, and I think he'€™s ambitious the way artists and writers are, the way most movie makers are not allowed to be because too much is on the line with any one film---he looks at each work as a necessary step to the next one. He'€™s learning as he goes. Great geniuses learn in leaps and bounds, but most artists are slow learners and it'€™s not until they'™re well into middle-age, even old age, that they really know what they're doing.

We'€™ll see what Burns is up to when he's fifty. I have a feeling his movies won'™t look much different. He seems to have a certain kind of writer's sensibility---”Chekhov being the best example---in that he sees himself as at work on one long story that will take him his whole career to tell.

In the end, I think Burns will be content to be judged on the body of his work rather than on the excellence of individual movies and he appears confident that the judgment will tell in his favor. Woody Allen is doing the same thing, by the way, and criticisms of his movies should take this into account, looking at each one not in comparison to his past masterpieces but as pieces in the larger puzzle he's been assembling around those great movies.

Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors are the center from which the long story Allen'€™s telling has been radiating for the last 20 years.

Burns hasn'€™t yet produced a film as good as Allen's best, or even some of Allen's only pretty good movies, but, remember, Allen's a genius, and he didn'€™t make Annie Hall until he was in his forties.

I wouldn'€™t put money on Burns turning out to be as good as Allen at his best, but I can see him besting his other influences, Mazursky and Cassevetes. Whether or not he becomes an important American filmmaker in the future, however, he does have an importance to American filmmaking now.

He's a reminder that American movies don't have to be about blowing things up or about how beautiful movie stars are when they cry or about...well...anything. They don'€™t have to have plots.

Plots being something different than stories. Plots are to stories what a firefighter'€™s turnout coat is to a raincoat.

I mentioned Allen, Mazursky, and Cassevetes as Burns'€™ most obvious influences. Americans and New Yorkers all. Burns has also been influenced by foreign films, as they were. But I think Burns has also learned from a lot about what he wants to do from writers like Chekhov and Dickens.

There's a scene in Looking for Kitty in which the private detective Burns is playing is lectured by a very foolish and pathetically boyish middle-aged rock star about how superior comic books are to novels. The rock star is specifically contemptuous of Dickens.

What does Dickens know about real life, the rock star sneers. Comic books, that'€™s where the truth about life is to be found, that's where to look for raw life, that'€™s where to go to find real emotion.

It's a bit heavy-handed and too transparent. Burns might as well have had his characters debate the merits of Sin City versus Looking for Kitty. Hollywood, Burns is reminding us, would rather he made filmed comic books than the short stories he prefers.

In using Dickens as a stand-in for himself in that exchange, Burns was making an analogy not a boast. But I don't think he'd have been out of line if he was drawing specific comparisons.

There'€™s a Dickensian quality to Burns' view of life. While he doesn't share Dickens'™ love of the grotesque and, for budgetary and artistic reasons, he doesn’t go in for elaborate and fantastical plots, like Dickens he sees people as lost, lonely, and isolated eccentrics, knocked around and beaten down by social and economic forces they only vaguely understand, generally irrelevent and even disposable as far as the great financial and political doings of the world and the people who run it are concerned, desperate to connect with others, and finding solace and some safety, if not salvation, in forming makeshift families based on love and need rather than genes and legal ties.

So this is what I plan to be up to over the next couple of days, writing my three reviews. I'€™ll be posting them below this one. I have an order planned for their placement but I'll be writing them out of that order, working my way from the easiest to write about to the most difficult (see above), so expect my review of The Groomsmen first.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The beginning of art

In Blockbuster a few nights ago, happened to be browsing along in the same aisle as another customer searching the shelves for a movie he'd once seen starring John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino.

Customer was a young guy, early 20s, dark curly hair, a goatee and long sideburns, an ear ring, black leather jacket and jeans. Without reading the labels on his clothes or having a finer eye for fashion than I do, I couldn't place him by looking at him. Nothing he was wearing seemed to mark him as coming from one background or another. He could have been a grad student, he could have been a mechanic, although his habits of speech were a little coarse and loud, not obnoxiously so, just more like someone used to holding conversations over the thrum of machinery or the pounding of hammers and not in a shared office with a couple of English lit types and a doctoral candidate in Women's Studies.

What I'm saying is that if I had to put money on it, I'd bet that he was a working class kid with a high school education and a blue collar job and not the son of a couple of lawyers majoring in film studies at Bard across the river.

But he was still in his own way an aesthete and a scholar.

There was a young woman with him, a pal, I think, not a girlfriend. Also unpeggable. He was explaining to her why the two movies he'd wanted to rent, and which weren't on the shelves, Casino and Heat were great movies. The explanation was simple. De Niro.

And, in the case of Heat, also Pacino.

Another good one, he told her, and now he wanted to check to see if that one was in, was Carlito's Way. Pacino again, but also John Leguizamo.

The way it is with most people, they latch onto a favorite movie star for the star's screen persona. Somehow the kind of character the star usually plays strikes a chord. The character's an idealized "me," the person they would be if...or the character embodies an erotic or romantic dream, the love they would earn if...

That's how it might have started out with this guy. I can see how he might have been drawn to De Niro and Pacino and Leguizamo because they reminded him of him. Short, dark, ethnic guys, rougher around the edges than other movie stars. They must have struck him at first as transcendent versions of himself.

He even looked a bit like Leguizamo.

But his admiration for them had grown way beyond simple identification.

He admired them for what they could do.

At some point it had dawned on him that movie acting required more than looking and sounding good on film. It took talent and skill and his favorites had more of that than most other movie actors. He started asking himself why that was so, and how that was so. How did they do that? What exactly were they doing to achieve the effects they achieved?

His conversation with the girl was too brief and too often interrupted by one or the other of them picking up a DVD from the shelf that had caught their eye, so I couldn't tell just how deeply or completely he'd answered those questions for himself. But what I overheard suggested the answers he had come up with were pretty good so far. The girl apparently thought so too. She was hanging on his words and had the thoughtful, trustful expression of someone who knew her friend knew what he was talking about. Probably he'd introduced her to movies she'd never heard of before and she'd liked them.

It was also clear that asking those questions had forced him to ask other questions, about how movies are made, about what particular movies are meant to be, the kinds of stories they're trying to tell, the different ways those stories are told, and how actors and their artistic choices fit in with all that.

He knew that good acting wasn't a matter of portraying an interesting character. It was a matter of portraying that character in a way that was right for the story the character was part of and the movie the actor was acting in.

Watching movies had taught him how to appreciate several different arts---acting, directing, writing, photography. He didn't have a chance to get into it, but for all I know he had a lot of interesting things to say about costume design too.

But pop art is the path most people follow to the higher arts.

A young air guitarist listening to his favorite band hears something, a chord, a riff, a solo, that strikes him as different from anything he's heard before, either better or worse, and he asks himself, How did that happen? How did they do that so well? How did they make that mistake? And before long he's not a rock and roll star wannabe, he's a musician.

A junior high school student borrows her parents' video camera intending to make her own episode of Veronica Mars with her friends and suddenly something stumps her. She can't get the angle she needs for a shot. She realizes the mystery her Veronica's solving makes no sense. She points the camera at her friend playing Veronica's dad and thinks, He needs to be bald! She points it at her friend playing Veronica and thinks, She needs to be...different.

She puts away the camera for the night and turns on the TV and while she's watching the real show, it strikes her. The solution. And suddenly she's not a kid playing with a camera, she's cinematographer or a screenwriter or a make-up artist...or all of those because she's a director.

Other kids read comic books, they watch TV, they go to movies, they attend concerts, they sing along to the songs on their iPods, and they don't become artists themselves, but they know.

They understand that some drawings, some TV shows, some movies, some songs are better than others not because they themselves happen to like them better but because they are done well. They are made better.

There's skill, there's talent, there's intelligence, there's discipline, there's work involved. There's intelligence. Decisions have to be made, choices. And there are right ones and more right ones and perfect ones and really, really, really bad ones.

They learn that there's such a thing as art.

And they're delighted. Continually.

A clerk had been helping the guy try to find the movie starring Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino. The clerk came back from the front counter carrying a big red-covered movie guide folded open so that the page with Leguizamo's credits was alongside the page with Sorvino's. The only movie the two of them had made together, the clerk said, appeared to be Summer of Sam.

Nah, said the guy, with the air of someone who knew that movie, knew all Spike Lee's movies, in fact, liked them ok but wasn't bowled over by any of them. The movie he was looking for had bowled him over. Then, as if on cue, he found it on the shelf himself.

It was called Spun. And it wasn't Mira Sorvino, it was Mena Suvari. I get those two confused all the time, he told the clerk, and not just because of the names.

The clerk had never heard of Suvari. (Neither had I.) The guy knew her work well, though. I'm not surprised.

There's another movie, he said to the clerk, a newer one. It's got Sean Penn in it, and Anthony Hopkins.

The clerk knew this one right away.

All the King's Men?

That's it, said the guy excitedly.

Actors he knows. Titles? Not so much.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best Actress Completely Unsuited for the Part

Shows you how much influence I've got.

Sarah Paulson has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

Paulson, it's generally agreed by critics and fans alike, is the second most annoying thing about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the first most annoying thing being the show's creator Aaron Sorkin's "comedy as a serious business, like periodonture," approach to writing a TV show about writing a TV show, and in a just, or at least tasteful, world she'd have been written out of the script by now and not up for any awards.

Yes, I know the awards Hollywood incessantly gives itself are fairly meaningless as artistic judgments, and the Golden Globes are the biggest joke of the bunch (although at least the people behind the Golden Globes seem to know they're a joke), and yes, I'm about to write yet again about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and I have heard from many of my readers that I've already written way too much about that show. To those readers I say, Patience. This post isn't just about Studio 60. It's also about Cheers, M*A*S*H, and The Unit, and it includes discussions of nudity and sex.

Paulson plays Harriet Hayes, the inexplicably popular fan-favorite and class sweetheart of the "cast" of the fictional sketch comedy show that's at the center of Studio 60. The character, a conservative, evangelical Christian with a bad habit of letting everybody know it at inopportune times, but who substitutes lecturing and scolding for praying in public, is said to have been based on Kristin Chenoweth.

Chenoweth, now wowing them on Broadway in The Apple Tree, is bubbly, brassy, sexy, and funny. Harriet Hayes is none of those things and Paulson captures that perfectly.

As I've said before, Harriet's blandness is not all Paulson's fault. Sorkin hasn't given her much to work with. All her best qualities are assumed by the scripts; as if we have no real interest in seeing Harriet's talents as an actress and comedienne on display, we never get to see her shine, we're just told that she does. And her worst qualities, her sanctimony, her self-righteousness, her instinctive desire to be a wet-blanket, aren't portrayed as bad qualities. They are seen as intrinsic to her being a conservative Christian, and since Sorkin is using Harriet as a kind of noble savage---"Some of my best friends are Indians and Evangelicals, now let's get on with exterminating the brutes"---vices that Christ himself preached against repeatedly are allowed to pass as virtues, proof of her sincerity and therefore shielded from irony, satire, and contempt.

I imagine Paulson could have a whole lot of fun with the part if she was allowed to play Harriet as annoying scold, whose sanctimony was really a hysterical expression of repressed sexuality---the church lady type who is usually found at the end of the play with her heels up, her crinoline around her waist, and a red-faced church deacon on top of her, huffing and puffing away, on the verge of a heart attack as he tries to satisfy her suddenly unleashed libido.

Of course, a leading lady who's an annoying hypocrite would violate the Prime Directive of Network Series Television: Main characters are not allowed to be unlikeable, and how Boston Legal gets away with breaking this one week in and week out is beyond me, except that it suggests that the rule is all in the minds of the Network suits and timid writers and producers and actors and not all that important to viewers.

But Paulson could still approach the part as if Harriet wasn't the saint she, that is, Harriet herself, and Aaron Sorkin think she is, and even come close to making her that sexy church lady, by playing her as one of two types---the Good Girl with a Naughty Streak or the One Time Bad Girl Determined to Repent.

I've written about the Good Girl With a Naughty Streak before, when I wrote about Lilith on Cheers being the Schoolmarm type.

There's something of the Schoolmarm about Harriet, but a true Schoolmarm type has to be in a relative position of authority, at least in regards to the other characters around her. Schoolmarms have a good reason for holding themselves sexually aloof and not becoming one of the gang and not joining in the fun. Lilith has a professional reputation to uphold, plus she is a wife and a mother. Diane Chambers, who acted the part of the schoolmarm, has no good reason to be so superior and standoffish except her own snobbery, which is why she was so annoying and why her character's ultimate exile from the bar made dramatic sense.

Actually, in many ways, Diane was the Sexy Church Lady type, but her "church" was the church of her own intellectual pretensions. Another Sexy Church Lady was Margaret Houlihan on M*A*S*H. And currently one of the wives on The Unit is presenting an interesting, and dressed-down, variation on the type.

Thanks to J. at the Armchair Generalist for calling my attention to this show.

Tiffy Gerhardt is a good and loving mother, a dedicated and even heroic high school teacher, and in most things that count a loyal wife---she's devoted to her husband's "church," the Delta Force Unit and the Army, and she sings in the choir, so to speak, energetically and enthusiastically taking part in the base wives's social activities and self-support work. And she's cheating on her husband regularly with his commanding officer.

The Unit's backstory gives her an excuse. Her husband, Mack, is a good solider but a bad husband, negligent, withdrawn, emotionally stunted, unable to express any feelings around her except anger---he's lost control at least once and beat her and the scripts so far don't give us any reason to think this was out of character and likely to be a one-time mistake. Tiffy is lonely, afraid, deserving of much better from life but bound to her husband by love and a sense of duty.

On top of everything else, she seems to love the commanding officer, tragically, because part of the reason she won't leave her husband for him is that she knows it would wreck both men's careers if the affair ever became public.

Her situation is such that we ought to forgive her and root for her and be glad she has at least something of her own in her life and we do and we are, but, and this is something I admire about The Unit, it's more complicated than that.

As she's written and as she's played by Abby Brammell, Tiffy is sexually eager, even demanding, and there's a definite implication that while she loves the colonel, love isn't everything or even the main thing. She likes, wants, and needs sex, not just because she's young, horny, and lonely, but because she's good at it.

She is vain, proud of her body and proud of what she can do with it in bed. She's also reckless and she enjoys the threat cheating brings to her life. In fact, in many ways she is very like her husband. Sex is her talent, the way combat is his. They both enjoy expressing their competence and love the thrill and the danger that goes with it.

She is without guilt too. When the colonel, harried by his conscience and concerned about the way his own bad behavior is jeopardizing the Unit's cohesiveness and therefore its security, tries to break it off with her, Tiffy demands and gets a last meeting in their usual motel room. There, she listens to him try to explain himself, scoffs, sneers, dismisses his guilt and his concerns, pushes him down onto the bed, strips off her shirt, and leans her perfect belly into his face, absolutely confident of her power over him, but also angry and insulted that he would even think about giving up the possibility of seeing her naked.

So, like the Sexy Church Lady, Tiffy is vain and sexually adventurous in private and a goody-two-shoes in public. It isn't just the case that she needs to protect herself with a public reputation for being a good girl. It's also that she is as vain of being a good girl as she is vain of being a sexual dynamo. Which makes her a hypocrite by choice not just by necessity.

As I said, I'd find it more interesting if Harriet Hayes was a variation on the Sexy Church Lady type---and for those of you who think I'm just wishing for more scenes of Harriet in her underwear, there are plenty of ways for Sexy Church Ladies to backslide without their always landing on their backs---but that's not in the cards.

It's also a little late to start presenting Harriet as the Bad Girl Determined to Repent. Harriet's past could be full of many episodes of backsliding, but it's really not necessary to the type that she actually be a Bad Girl, only that she think of herself as one. Christianity does a good job of convincing lots of good people that they are in fact bad just for being themselves, so this wouldn't be at all a stretch. It's just that Aaron Sorkin is determined to make Harriet a sunny, romantic heroine type, and not a neurotic mess of a realistic protagonist.

So it would seem that Paulson's best and only option is to play Harriet as the Good Girl With a Naughty Streak, which, based on the way she lightened up in the last two episodes, seems to be where she's headed. Trouble is that her idea of naughty appears to be loving a Jewish Hollyweird atheist comedy writer. This is "trouble" in the usefully dramatic sense. It means that her love for Matt Albie is a serious problem for her in that it means she has to reject or betray her sincerely held beliefs in order to be with him. This makes her very much like Diane Chambers, who could never completely give in to her love for Sam because in her mind it meant she was rejecting her "church" of Art and Culture.

For each woman, then, having the man she loves requires her to compromise herself, no big deal as far as the audience is concerned, because neither Harriet nor Diane is devoted to an attractive belief, in fact, they are both devoted more to their own self-image as a Good Girl than to actually being a good girl. But giving up a cherished and self-flattering opinion is very difficult for most people.

Shelley Long's leaving Cheers saved the writers from having to decide whether or not Diane was capable of changing and what to do with her if she was.

Things will be more interesting on Studio 60 if it turns out that Harriet can't change or has a lot of trouble changing. (There is no reason for Matt to change for her, because he doesn't need to in order to love her or let her be herself, and because he's right.) But it would be even more interesting if it turns out that not only can't she change, she doesn't want to change, because to change would take away what she likes about being in love with Matt---that in loving him she is being naughty.

This is what makes Good Girls With Naughty Streaks dangerous in real life, if you happen to be the object or occasion of their naughtiness.

For one thing, Good Girls With Naughty Streaks are in fact good girls. Being good means being able to resist or give up being naughty, which means that once they decide they don't want to be naughty any more, you're out the door.

But it also often means that what they like about you is that you are what allows them to be naughty and so they will resist any attempts on your part to make your relationship with them less naughty. The Sexy Church Lady can be an extreme variation of the Good Girl With A Naughty Streak and Tiffy on The Unit is a good example. When the colonel tries to break off their affair, he's attempting to return their relationship to more proper terms. Not at all naughty. And Tiffy won't put up with that.

Good Girls With Naughty Streaks can be extremely manipulative then. They will have things their own way. If you mess with them by trying to be something other than they need you to be, they will put you back in your place in a violent hurry, even if it means breaking it off with you in a fit of self-righteous indignation. "How dare you think I am that type of girl, you cad!"

This was the way Diane kept Sam in line. Whenever she threatened to or did break it off with him, she always made sure he understood that it was because he was beneath her. She played on Sam's insecurity and vanity and that way made sure he danced to her tune.

This was also an element in the perpetual threat Margaret used against Frank on M*A*S*H. She always made it clear that he was the cad and the seducer who had taken advantage of her in her loneliness, she was his innocent victim, guilty of nothing more than loving not wisely but too well, and she made it even plainer that if he ever did her wrong this is exactly how the world, and his wife, would see things. She'd make sure of that.

The Good Girl With a Naughty Streak is always one step away from becoming a villainess or at least the antagonist to her former lover's or the rival for her former lover's protagonist.

I wouldn't mind seeing Harriet Hayes being taken by Aaron Sorkin and Sarah Paulson in this direction, especially since Matt and Harriet just aren't clicking as a couple.

But as things stand, and as Paulson is currently playing her, Harriet is one of literature and life's most annoying types.

The Prude Who Wants to be Thought of as Fun.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcome to Ought-Seven

Think old geezers in 2047 will refer to this decade as the Oughts? As in, "I remember the great blizzard of Ought-nine" and "Yep, that was the Presidential election of Ought-eight..."

For me this decade has definitely been the decade of the oughts. But that's been true of every decade since I became an adult full of regrets and conscious of my many sins and failings, as in "this year I ought to be smarter" and "this time I ought to be stronger."

So in honor of the new year, here are my oughts for Ought-seven:

I ought to be more patient, generally, but especially with someone I know who needs me to be more patient.

I ought to remember to say, "Good dinner, dear," before dear asks plaintively, "Did you like the dinner?"

I ought to get out more.

I ought to explore the west bank of the river.

I ought to see what's over that hill.

I ought to figure out how to get from here to there.

I ought to get that looked at.

I ought to stop making that mistake.

I ought to get over it, get past it, get around it, and get used to it.

I ought to know better.

I ought to pay more attention.

I ought to fix that.

I ought to be more concerned.

I ought to let it slide.

I ought to be able to go without it.

I ought to do that more often.

I ought to answer your email.

I ought to link to your post.

I ought to return your call.

I ought to read that one.

I ought to start watching.

I ought to check that one out.

I ought to leave that for another time.

I ought to give that one up.

I ought to stop kidding myself.

I ought to face up to it.

I ought to come clean.

I ought to have learned my lesson.

I ought to cheer up.

I ought to whistle a happy tune.

I ought to put a shine on my shoe and a melody in my heart.

I ought to wake up and smell the coffee.

I ought to switch to decaf.

I ought to cut back.

I ought to give it up.

I ought to swear off.

I ought to start.

I ought to take it up.

I ought to look into it.

I ought to buckle down and just do it.

I ought to get cracking.

I ought to slow down.

I ought to think it over.

I ought to remember that one.

I ought to forget it.

I ought to relax.

I ought to get serious.

I ought to lighten up.

I ought to give it another shot.

I ought to give it a rest.

I ought to quit, a lot of things, but making this list especially, or I'll be at it until Ought-eight.

Thanks to all of you for reading, for commenting, for linking, for helping to keep this blog lively and interesting. All bloggers ought to be as lucky in Ought-seven as I was in Ought-six.

Happy New Year!