Charlie Kaufman’s Curse, A Downbeat Durham, & Tenacious D Gets Dissed

“Dramatic irony – it’ll fuck you every time.”
Dr. Jules Hibbert (Dustin Hoffman) STRANGER THAN FICTION

Okay, I promised some new release DVD reviews last so here goes :

STRANGER THAN FICTION (Dir. Marc Forster, 2006) When bland by-the-book IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) hears a disconnected voice narrating the mundane moments of his daily routine then foretelling his death, naturally a modern movie-goer would expect a full-out Ferrell freak-out. Well despite some yelling at the Heavens what we get is a questioning rational note-taking far-from-frantic Ferrell. The voice he hears belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) a frazzled chain-smoking acclaimed author suffering writer’s block on how to kill off her latest main character that she is unaware actually exists. As a prisoner of an enforced narrative Ferrell enlists Literary professor Dr. Jules Hibbert’s (Dustin Hoffman) help. Hibbert breaks it down to purely a question of whether Crick is a character in a comedy or tragedy. At it’s core it’s a wake up and realize that you’re alive movie with Crick coming out of his self-created shell to declare his love for abrasive tattooed bakery shop owner Maggie Gyllenhall, shake off his dull routines, and even take up the guitar while trying to get to the heart of his daunting dilemma. Three years after David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES (that also featured Hoffman) was billed as an “existential comedy” and accused of ripping off the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (see below), STRANGER THAN FICTION pushes the existential envelope and the Kaufmanesque approach a little further. It’s not a case of “life imitating art” or vice versa – it’s more like life challenging art to a duel but eventually agreeing to a stalemate.

The look of the film is fitting – white-washed bare backgrounds of Ferrell’s sterile hotel room-looking apartment and his fluorescent lit workplace with cubicles and filing cabinets reaching back to infinity are contrasted with the clutter of Gyllenhall’s punk bakery and Hoffman’s wood-grain ragged book-filled university office. Spoon songs fill the soundtrack with the welcome exception of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” which Ferrell woos Gyllenhall with as the first song he learns on the guitar. The supporting cast is spot-on as well – Queen Latifah as Thompson’s assistant, Tony Hale (Arrested Development – TV-series 2003-2006), Linda Hunt, and an almost unrecognizable Tom Hulce (AMADEUS, ANIMAL HOUSE, PARENTHOOD) as Ferrell’s chubby bearded touchy-feely office counselor. STRANGER THAN FICTION is a fine film but one that never really gets airborne. It’s highly likable even as it lumbers in a state of subdued surrealism but maybe, just maybe it should have freaked out a bit.

KAUFMAN’S CURSE

Nearly every review of STRANGER THAN FICTION calls attention to the influence of writer, producer, and soon to be director Charlie Kaufman who apparently is widely acknowledged as modern cinema’s reigning meta-movie master for his films BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. One particular phrase really stands out :

“Charlie Kaufman Lite” – Richard Corliss (TIME Magazine)

“Zach Helm’s Kaufman Lite script…” – Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

“A cutesy, Charlie Kaufman-lite exercise in magic unrealism.” – Peter Canavese (GROUCHO Reviews)

“Charlie Kaufman-lite but enjoyable nevertheless” – Bina007 Movie Reviews

Also in the same vein :

“a charming though problematic meta-movie in Charlie Kaufman mode” – Scott Tobias (Onion AV Club)

“Zach Helm’s screenplay has flagrant Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) overtones rocketing out of it that are impossible to ignore.” – Brian Ordoff (FilmJerk.com)

“Owes a considerable debt to the dual-reality-plane excursions of Charlie Kaufman” – Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)

And finally :

“Finally, a Charlie Kaufman movie for people who are too stupid to understand Charlie Kaufman movies.”
– Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly)

Congratulations Charlie Kaufman! You are now officially critical short-hand.

WELCOME TO DURHAM (Dir. Teddy Jacobs, 2006) This film isn’t listed on the IMDB (hence the lack of linkage here) and apparently Netflix doesn’t have many copies because after weeks of it being in my queue they informed me that it wasn’t available at their local shipping center and had to be sent from Worcester, MA. Funny since it’s a local interest documentary. Despite reading negative reviews I was anxious to watch this film because I lived in Durham albeit briefly. A very cheap production with harsh hissy sound and clumsy cuts, WELCOME TO DURHAM unfortunately dissolves from a history and social political lesson into hip-hop propaganda. Hard to understand interviews (a drinking game could be made out of all the times “y’know what I’m sayin’” is said) with gang members that show off their gun shot wounds as proudly as their tattoos dominate the overlong poorly structured narrative making for little balance. Only one white person is interviewed and he’s a cop.

One segment segues from recording studio footage to interviews with senior residents at the Imperial Barber Shop in the Hayti district with voice over narration by Christopher “Play” Martin* guiding us – “while the young cats in the hood are pushing ghetto music, the older cats in the hood are wondering what went wrong”. What’s wrong in this production is that the music from the preceding scene continues and the rap backing track detracts from the old timer’s facts and that’s just whacked! Sorry, all the free style in the film made me bust out that lame rhyme. An earnest effort is within and obviously Jacobs cares passionately about his subject but the implied premise that hip-hop can save Durham from itself is hardly convincing. Y’know what I’m sayin’?

* Of rap duo Kid N Play

TENACIOUS D THE PICK OF DESTINY (Dir. Liam Lynch, 2006) A friend of mine years ago (I believe upon the release of their first full length self titled album in 2001) said that he had determined that Tenacious D is funny “for about 11 minutes”. Certainly the case here the first 11 minutes including a mini rock opera in which Jables (Jack Black) escapes the rule of his oppressive father (Meat Loaf singing for the first time on film since ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) and journeys to Hollywood to chase his musical dreams is pretty funny. After that we pretty much go through the movie motions with material that was better covered in their short sketch-films that aired in the late 90’s on HBO – indifferent open mic-night crowds, Sasquatch, the devotion of their only fan Lee (Jason Reed), and a never ending slew of bombastic though acoustic mock anthems.

Almost immediately after getting off the bus in LA Black meets Kyle Gass a long haired street musician with similar delusions of rock-star grandeur whom Black mistakes him for a guitar God. After being beaten up by the droogs from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (played by a few of the Mr. Show guys – yep, it’s that kind of movie) on his first night in town Black is taken under Gass’s wing to be schooled in the ways of rock. Gass’s cover story of previous rock glory that Black worships at the altar at is soon blown and the narrative becomes a quest involving a sacred guitar pick made from one of Satan’s teeth.

The stoner slacker road-trip comedy genre is pretty cashed and so are the modern comedy conventions – obligatory supposedly surprise cameos (Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, Dave Grohl as Satan), scatological gross-out humor, and even a car chase just for the sake of having a car chase proven by the soundtrack song “Car Chase City” blaring along. There will be hardcore fans of “the D” (as their fans call them) that will consider this a crude comic masterpiece that will become a cult classic in years to come but for the rest of us this is just a mediocre mix of BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and THIS IS SPINAL TAP. So as Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel might say on the how-many-laughs meter this “goes to eleven”.

More later…

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