Sunday, November 30, 2003

Some Notes on a Grimly Unfunny Movie That is Making the Rest of the World Crack Up

Alcoholic Customer: Do you serve beer or any alcohol?

Enid: I wish! Actually you wish... after about five minutes of this movie, you're gonna wish you had ten beers.

-- Dialogue from Ghost World, screenplay by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff

Many years ago, I took a date to see a comedy that didn't make me laugh once. She didn't laugh either -- maybe because I didn't; movies are best watched alone, and they're risky date events, at any rate. Anyway, the movie was Porky's, it was thought by many movie-goers to be the funniest movie of all time, and spawned at least two sequels, so great is the apparently inexhaustible flow of mirth from the vein of humor known as the "teen sex comedy." A few critics chimed in too, almost always with the familiar caveat that yes, it's crude and vulgar, but it's also really, really funny; not a few championed themselves as regular guys who aren't afraid to lower their sights a little where comedy is concerned, and some questioned how anyone could not laugh.

How could I not laugh? I have nothing against crude and vulgar, and silly and senseless go a long way with me. I draw the line, though, at witlessness, which was my problem with Porky's. I was all but alone with this problem, I'll admit, as everyone else in the theatre was laughing while I sat there like a rock. Friends didn't understand, and tried to get me to fess up that surely I secretly snickered at the scene where the dykey gym teacher grabbed the kid's dick when he jammed it through the peephole in the girl's locker room, or that I privately busted a gut when the girl howled like a dog during sex, or that I absolutely lost my shit when a prank phone-caller sent a waitress on a furtive search for Mike Hunt. Nope, nope, nope. Instead, I was just bored, and I wasn't real sure why. Actually I did know why; I just couldn't find the right word -- bad movies are sometimes bad in a unique way, and they make you search for the root cause of your dislike. All the jokes in the movie were loud and flat. It seemed to be the work of someone who clearly thought he was funny, and the box-office that movie racked up proved he was not alone in thinking so -- much in the way that the most popular radio deejays are the ones I least hope to be stuck with in an elevator. To my taste, the jokes were too broad, and all the way through it I felt like I was being elbowed in the ribs by the most obnoxious creep in school.

The same director, Bob Clark, went on to direct a really awful yuletide favorite, A Christmas Story, which I hated for exactly the same reasons. Now it was as if that obnoxious creep was at your dinner table, trying to fit in, impress your folks, laughing a little too hard at his own jokes, trying to be affable, and just embarrassing the shit out of you. The movie was the definition of "treacle"; it was so cute it made your teeth ache. It's an enormous hit every year on television, and I'd rather have nails driven through my eyes than watch it again.

In fact, I fully understand the impulse to dive-bomb the annual Christmas movie, for all the obvious reasons. When I found out that Terry Zwigoff had directed just such a movie, I knew I'd watch it, as Zwigoff directed two of the best movies of the past decade: Crumb and Ghost World. I was rather enamored, in fact, of the latter. I loved it so much I went out and read the Daniel Clowes' graphic novel on which it was based, spent maybe an hour and a half reading background material on the movie's website, looked up the official Thora Birch website, and even used a still from the movie for the wallpaper on my iMac. It was as if the movie had turned me into a damn fourteen-year-old girl. I loved the world of that movie and the people in it, and I just wanted to stay there as long as I could.

Why then, was sitting through Zwigoff's Bad Santa a replay of my Porky's experience? Because it milked a one-joke situation for as many laughs as possible, or because, perhaps, it seemed a little too much like a Bob Clark movie, both pushy and mean-spirited? Both, I guess. Most critics are absolutely wallowing in it, as are the folks at Milk Plus, with me being something of a lonely exception.

This mix of Scrooge and Leaving Las Vegas -- whose story was drafted by Joel and Ethan Coen, who also executive produced -- is about an full-time alcoholic and part-time safecracker named either Willie T. Soke (according to Roger Ebert) or Willie T. Stokes (according to Elvis Mitchell and Mim Udovitch of the Times) who annually plays Santa as part of a robbery scam. Every year, Willie and his midget accomplice (Tony Cox) sell their services as Santa and elf to some unfortunate shopping mall, the idea being to rob the joint on Christmas Eve and then spend the rest of the year blowing the dough. Their plan is complicated when a dorky little fat kid with rich but absent parents takes a liking to Santa, mainly because he desperately wants someone to like him back. A cranky, cynical adult and an innocent child -- the formula for a "redemptive" story, which the movie takes considerable delight in not being.

But the story, for me anyway, wasn't really the point; the point is to see how long you can stand looking at Billy Bob saying fuck you, fuck this and fuck that in front of a lot of little kids and their parents. Five minutes in, I was almost praying that the movie would do something besides remind us of what a foul-mouthed, butt-humping, chain-smoking retard the major character is; unfortunately, this is the major joke, and enjoying the movie more or less depends on how subversive you think this is and, more than that, how many times you can hear the same joke played out. The answer from critics and at least a few of the people in the theater is: extremely, and plenty.

What seems to give most of the critics a woody is the fact that Billy Bob basically stays a pitiful excuse for a human being down to the bitter end, and that even the fat kid doesn't soften him up that much. They like the fact that the character doesn't change, which I can appreciate; on the other hand there's no character development either. If I thought it was actually a funny movie, of course, I wouldn't care; absent any laughter on my part, the movie struck me as just relentlessly unpleasant and -- coming from the director with such a heretofore fine track record -- hugely disappointing.

My advice likely won't mean much, because success often encourages people to do what they are worst at, but I wish Terry Zwigoff would get back to writing his own scripts instead of picking up rejects from the Coen Brothers. Those two have yet to make a film as good as either of Zwigoff's first two, or as bad as his third one.

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