“I can only see the world as it should be.” Murder On The Orient Express (2017) AND Daddy’s Home 2

Hollywood gets a lot of flak, much of it deserved, but the crime perpetrated by Tinseltown that may bother me the most is when a talented cast is completely squandered in servitude to a lame script and lousy direction.

The Thanksgiving movie offerings this year all have left something to be desired, but we were misfortunate enough to see two of the worst offenders back to back last night. Murder on the Orient Express and Daddy’s Home 2. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. We paid money to see these two movies in sequence. Maybe the problem is with us.

The first is an unnecessary remake of a far superior Sydney Lumet film, based on the original Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. It is yet another self-serious, self-satisfied confectionery indulgence from director/star Kenneth Branagh, who fancies himself the poor man’s Laurence Olivier, when he, in reality, may be the poor man’s Benny Hill.

The second is an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary broad farce, holding a far too indulgent and yuppified mirror to the mixed up sociopolitical and familial dynamics in modern middle-class America. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as an ex-husband/father and new husband/stepfather, respectively, whose own fathers John Lithgow and Mel Gibson, also respectively, crash Christmas and demonstrate that they are as boneheaded and as consumed with unflattering male ego as their sires.

NOTE: the movie isn’t smart enough to actually do anything with that premise, and it’s too frightened of its Trump-triggered audience demographic to actually skewer these idiotic men.

Both films favor set decoration and bleak whimsy over script and character development. Orient Express pursues arch tedium over anything resembling flesh and blood characterization, fetishizing starched linens and glistening martini glasses and anthropomorphizing its titular train to the point one wonders if Branagh is simply trying to capture the imaginations of too many young adults weened on the also creepy and tedious Polar Express.

Daddy’s Home conversely, is the kind of film that seems to hold National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a kind of high art that could only be improved if the “Nancy Meyers’ school of filmmaking” (middle-class characters living amidst-Better Homes and Gardens residential-porn they couldn’t actually afford in real life) had installed a Sub Zero fridge in Randy Quaid’s “the-sh*tter’s-full” Winnebago. Daddy’s Home is the kind of movie where a character cuts down a cell phone tower, thinking it is a Christmas tree, and gets charged $20,000, and everyone just laughs and shrugs and says, “Now, who is going to pay for that?” This inane, unrelatable incident occurs after the cast has engaged in an interminable sequence where they decorate – top-to-bottom, inside-and-out – a vacation home they are RENTING for the holidays. Who does that? In real life, this family would be trying to figure out how to pay the credit card bills they ran up to buy presents nobody actually wants and would end up in both divorce and bankruptcy courts when slapped with a $20,000 bill for destruction of public property. Or maybe they would be in jail. Fa la la la.

Orient Express is the kind of film where all of the characters have less depth than those found in a Clue board game, but lounge around all casual-cool-dramatic in beautifully appointed train cars (which seem much larger than humanly possible) as if they are posing for a Vanity Fair cover. It is the kind of film where people spout portentous philosophy (“I can only see the world as it should be.” – Poirot) and glower at each other across petits fours. Whodunnit? Who cares?

When one film (Orient Express) offers the best Johnny Depp performance in years (not saying much … and, by the way, spoiler alert, he is the titular murder) and the other (Daddy’s Home) makes John Cena as its final act complication seem practically Oscar-worthy, something ain’t right in the mix.

NOTE: Kenneth, a mustache that covers half your face and renders your speech incomprehensible is not character development. You are no Wes Anderson. And I don’t like Wes Anderson.

NOTE: Mel, swaggering around like an aging muscle man whose tummy has become a beach ball and who believes FOXNews offers great lessons in parenting and social graces is not character development. That is just you. And we don’t like you.

To the rest of the luminaries who collected a paycheck to appear in these movies – John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, I’m looking at you – you all know better. Next time an easy payday comes along, please just say no.

Finally, I want to correct the statement with which I began this piece. The worst crime Hollywood commits is hypocrisy. Women are not disposable commodities. Violence is not comedy. Respect for each other, for our individuality, for our unique spirit is essential.

Daddy’s Home 2 is by far the bigger offender because jokes about kissing/spanking little girls or about men “just being men” in Las Vegas or about fathers hitting on the mothers of their sons’ classmates are not funny. They are gross.

Hollywood, if you want us to buy the rhetoric that you are rejecting the worst offenders in your midst, make better movies. More responsible movies. Movies that don’t joke out of both sides of their mouths where animal rights or gun control or human equality are concerned. Stop trying to cater to every demographic. That lack of moral compass is the antithesis of what these holidays are truly about.

Rant over.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

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img_3692-1Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I don’t like stupid.” A weekend of iconoclasts: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and An Evening with Bill Maher

Bill MaherIt was a weekend of iconoclasts in Indiana as I spent the past two days in the Hoosier state with Johnny Depp, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Maher.

Well, I actually spent the past two days with my equally free-thinking parents who defy geographic boundaries, and we all took in movies and a show that featured these three performers.

Bill MaherNamely, Black MassGrandma, and An Evening with Bill Maher.

Bill Maher, explaining how he got into some controversy in a debate last fall with Ben Affleck (of all people), noted that he “just doesn’t like stupid things.”

Bill MaherAnd in his worldview, that idea encompasses any government or faith or group of self-important, judgmental blowhards who want to diminish the rights and freedoms of others, particularly those who chronically find themselves on the short end of every stick.

Susie and Bill

Susie and Bill

Fair enough. In fact, this notion of raging against stupid things defined all of this weekend’s entertainment.

Our first rule breaker of the weekend was Black Mass‘ Johnny Depp, so immersed in the look and feel of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, one might suspect he forgot to pay much mind to character development along the way. You know Johnny – he loves those colored contacts, that pancake makeup, and disarmingly fake-ass teeth. At least in this film, we didn’t have to suffer through any zany chapeaus.

Regardless, it is an impressive if uneven performance in an impressive if uneven film. Bulger, not unlike cinematic forebear Hannibal Lecter, definitely doesn’t like stupid. The film, directed with a more-or-less sure hand by Scott Cooper, marries the gruesome and the sparkling in surprising and inventive ways, and Bulger, at least in Depp’s portrayal, exacts a delightfully cracked code of punishing the moronic. Early in the film, Depp as Bulger tells a meddling police officer, “Do you think I’d warn you when I’m going to hurt you? No, you won’t see it coming.” Throughout the film, anyone who breaches Bulger’s plainspoken code, right and wrong, inevitably finds themselves two or three scenes down the road on the wrong end of a gun or more likely bare-fisted death blows.

"Black Mass (film) poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg#/media/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Black Mass details the rise and fall and disappearance of real-life Boston “Southie” gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Alas, familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve seen too many fictionalized versions of this and similar stories over the past decade: The Departed, The Town heck, American Hustle. While Depp gives the role his all, it’s just not quite enough to take the film to fresh levels. He may have had too much reverence for the character (or for his prosthetics), and Bulger sometimes seems like a ghost in his own film.

However, Benedict Cumberbatch turns in some of his best work as Bulger’s starched straight-arrow politico brother, a successful senator from Boston. Benedict must have seen Depp’s cosmetic indulgence and headed 180 degrees in the other direction. Smart move. Cumberbatch resists the urge to play any predictable notes of sturm und drang. Cumberbatch gives us the consummate politician – likable, gracious, but with the kind of studied ethical ambivalence that makes looking the other way seem like moral high ground.

Joel Edgerton, as the brothers’ childhood friend, also does a fine job in a pivotal role as an FBI agent who may fancy himself the long arm of the law but, in the end, enjoys frequenting Miami discotheques with mobster buddies a bit too much. The point/counterpoint of the film comes from the devil’s gambit Edgerton plays, cutting a deal with Whitey to provide what ultimately proves to be specious intel to the FBI regarding his fellow crooks. By the time anyone realizes, the die is cast and decades have passed wherein Whitey Bulger builds an empire with his FBI buddy indeterminately complicit in the act.

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Other standouts include Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, and W. Earl Brown. In fact, that is a big part of the film’s problem – too many characters, all well cast, but with not nearly enough time to develop fully. It is a testament to the performances and to the director that they stand out as they do.

As visceral and immersive as the film is, it just isn’t quite the gut punch I’d hoped. The narrative gets lost in a thicket of Scorsese-light subplots focusing on Bulger’s many “business ventures” (hailai! vending machines! sending weapons to the Irish Republican Army!), when what we most needed to see and explore were the serpentine interpersonal relationships of the two brothers, their family and their friends.

Giving us a much richer portrayal of an original gangster is Lily Tomlin in Chris Weitz’ charming ball of familial toxins Grandma. Tomlin plays a writer and academic whose longtime partner recently died, whose daughter has stopped speaking to her, and whose granddaughter turns to her in a moment of crisis. The film takes the form of an inter-generational road trip (which we’ve seen too many times before – and as recently as, say, Tammy or The Guilt Trip), but in this case sharp writing, smart feminist sub (and super) text, and flesh and blood authenticity transform cliché into revelation.

"Grandma Movie Poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There will be a host of boneheads out there who will stubbornly refuse to see this film because Tomlin’s granddaughter has turned to her grandmother to help her pay for an abortion. Damn, I’m tired of knee-jerk closed-mindedness. Honestly, it’s not a film about abortion. It’s a film about humanity – those of us living in the here and now, faced with darkly comic daily tragedies that only the mundane can bring.

We have become a country of squawkers who so viciously judge everyone else’s choices in the abstract that we’ve completely forgotten the real people behind those choices, people struggling to get lives back on track or to fulfill their deepest potential. You know what? The path any of us take to get there is no one’s damn business. This film celebrates that notion, warts and all.

The film suffers from some clunky transitions, endemic of the low-budget indie, but, on the whole, Tomlin and the film really zing, heightened by the deft help of a supporting cast that includes … genius, heartfelt Marcia Gay Harden as Tomlin’s loopy, jagged little pill of a careerist daughter; Judy Greer earnest and raw as Tomlin’s frustrated girlfriend; Julie Garner, a saucy millennial dandelion as Tomlin’s suffering, sputtering, spiraling granddaughter; firecrackers Laverne Cox and Elizabeth Pena (in her last role) as a couple of Tomlin’s cronies; and Sam Elliott as an open wound of an ex-husband, all swagger, self-righteousness, and melancholy.

But ultimately this is Tomlin’s show. This film is the perfect synthesis of the platform she has championed for decades: we are all outsiders on this planet, and no one more so than women. Why define and limit opportunity based on rudimentary biological constructs? Why is every choice women make questioned and challenged, and emotional, financial, clinical, occupational resources are funneled away in those moments when they are most needed, out of some kind of institutionalized patriarchal spite.

A quiet storm of misanthropic joy, Tomlin wages a postmodern Sherman’s March, across Los Angeles, in pursuit of the meager dollars needed to fund her granddaughter’s procedure. She suffers no fools gladly – from a standoff with John Cho in a pretentious coffee shop that displaced a women’s clinic (you haven’t lived until you see Tomlin write “f*ckhead” in spilled coffee on a snooty barista’s floor) to a heart-wrenching (and crazy funny) defense of her granddaughter when they finally arrive at the actual clinic where the procedure will be performed. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but what a pro-life little princess does to express her “love of humanity” (with Tomlin on the receiving end) is as telling as it is hysterical.

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Tomlin’s character is a broken heart in bullet-proof armor, fed up with a society that undervalues humanity, especially anyone who lives on the margins, pigeonholed by age, gender, sexuality, or, hell, hairstyle.

Bill Maher, may walk a similar path through life, at least as evidenced by his stand-up routine. As the host of Politically Incorrect and Real Time, Maher has always wielded snark like a machete, cutting down rigid, conservative political idiocy at every turn. Whereas a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert are a bit more equal opportunity, taking as many digs at Democrats as Republicans, Maher saves most of his ire for Republicans, championing any underdog he sees persecuted by increasingly shrill right-wing pundits and blowhards.

Bill MaherMuch like Tomlin’s Grandma, Maher’s routine Saturday night at the Fort Wayne Embassy took no prisoners.  With an impish and childlike glee, Maher swung for the fences, excoriating the pompous asses currently running for president. I’ll let you figure out who his chief targets were. One hint: all of them.

I had, perhaps unfairly, found Maher a bit misogynistic in the past. I love that he comes to the aid of all creatures great and small – he is a longtime board member for PETA. However when it came to women, it has often felt like he left his conscience and consciousness in some back hallway of the Playboy Mansion.

Saturday night’s show went a long way toward correcting that perception, as 90 to 95% of his routine actively subverted conventional concepts of gender and sexuality. He nailed a bit on how different cultures define and imprison women via the sartorial choices dictated by fashion or religion.

However, in the show’s final minutes, Maher took a strange left turn that seemed to be an ill-advised concession to menopausal chauvinists – which is too bad cause there weren’t any that I could spy in the beautifully diverse sold out crowd. He went down a strange path of wondering when “his group” – apparently men who date women half their age – would be “celebrated,” going on to re-enact Cialis and Viagra advertisements. It was as unconvincing as it was odd and overreaching – “Look at me! I may be a liberal, but I’m a baby boomer man, and I dig the ladiiiiieeesss.” Whatever. I’m not buyin’ what you’re sellin’, Maher.

Bill MaherI will admit that embedded in his concluding riff was a keen observation that a certain group of men are still driven entirely by preoccupation with their nether regions and not with their brains. Yet, unlike any other era, they have access to a medical industry and clinical research to make their pubescent dream$ reality.

However, it was, to say the least, murky, as to whether Maher saw himself with pride as part of the crumbling Casanova club or as their court jester. It was a strange note of ambivalence to end an otherwise scorchingly consistent evening of social insight and tolerance.

To watch any comedian for two hours is a bit of a marathon. It’s a lot to ask of them, and it’s a lot to ask of the audience, but Maher rose to the occasion, and, with the assistance of a handy notebook full of laminated pages, he kept the momentum coursing through a wide array of topics, chiefly political though not exclusively.

We were also offered brief glimmers of what his upbringing was like in a Catholic home raised by two liberals who always championed the poor and the downtrodden. He didn’t open his veins for the audience – he’s anything but a memoirist. Yey, by showing us a peek into what sounded like an idyllic and inclusive home, he revealed that underneath whatever emotional Kevlar he has strapped on, there is a sweet and wounded heart beating inside.

His relentless barbs take on a different tone in that context. The marginalized kid is Maher, and this is his ultimate revenge fantasy on all the dopes who bullied him in life. It’s like Death Wish with jokes as his weapons and idiot politicians as his prey.

The party's over

The party’s over

Maher opened with some well-deserved digs at Indiana in 2015, much to the delight of the capacity crowd. About Hoosier leaders like Governor Mike Pence, Maher crowed, “Why, they don’t have the book learning to get into a tractor pull!” To be among thousands of like-minded liberals from across Northeast Indiana (I mean, I’ve never seen the Embassy so packed) was a revelation for my parents who often feel isolated and sad for holding such progressive beliefs in the community – a place that seems to buy (and spread) the thick, sticky, divisive, fear-mongering balm Fox and Friends slops across the land every A.M.

The party's over

The party’s over

IMG_2730 IMG_2732

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Maher’s words electrified a big room of open brains, thirsting for a different kind of dialogue, one where we could talk, laugh, commiserate, re: the significance of global warming or to deride and dismiss hypocritical ravings of multiple-married conservatives who fail to see how their behavior undermines their beloved institution of wedded bliss.

Sitting in that huge performance space of the Embassy, encrusted as it is in gilt and cherubs and velvet – an artifact of another time; being part of a crowd of raving regular folks who happened to dig tolerance and laughter; having been informed by two films the night before that questioned how we see ourselves and how we measure the success of a life fulfilled, I thought, “Hey, am I at a kind of big tent revival? Evangelism for the Anti-Elmer Gantry age? Well, sign me up for another round.”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Adrift in a sea of male menopause: Two Muses’ production of Jake’s Women

And presenting: ALL of Jake's Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. November 14-December 7. A heartwarming comedy by Neil Simon. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

And presenting: ALL of Jake’s Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. Through December 7. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

Playwright Neil Simon has always seemed to me like a man adrift in a sea of male menopause. The man sure can write a very funny line (I often think his work is best served in a musical comedy setting), yet he seems preserved in Swinging 60s amber, a throwback to another time when the whole country fantasized about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and found humor in delicatessen euphemisms and sitcom-sexualized comedies of error.

 

Simon’s semi-autobiographical memory play Jake’s Women, thereby is an interesting conundrum. First produced in 1990 and starring Alan Alda, the show is Simon’s post-mid-life-theatrical-crisis-writ-large. Simon literally and figuratively exorcises the the ghosts of women who have influenced and shaped his work. Take that, Joan Baim! And that, Marsha Mason! And that … Elaine Joyce?!? In the wrong hands, the play could be an exercise in misogyny at worst or farcical foolishness at best – a kind of Borscht Belt version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (itself later staged/musicalized by Maury Yeston as Nine).

I am happy to report that the sparkling ensemble in Two Muses’ current production of Jake’s Women (directed by Bailey Boudreau) hits all the right notes. Given that Two Muses’ mission is to promote and celebrate the artistic contributions of women, this play is an inspired and intriguing choice. In lead actor Robert Hotchkiss, the production gives us a sensitive and grounded Jake, informed and haunted as much by modern life/sensibilities as he is by any kind of cooked-up gender war.

Jake’s marriage to whip smart corporate warrior Maggie is failing as he has never gotten past the death of his first wife Julie. The past and present collide as Dickensian specters (wives, daughter, therapist, sister, paramour) shadow Jake’s every move, given vibrant, intrusive life by his crumbling mental state. Jake as a writer is forever trapped in his own head, revisiting the past as a means of understanding the present yet never truly living in any moment. Jake’s laptop computer is an omnipresent stage symbol of the wall he puts between himself and the rest of humanity. I suspect anyone with a smart phone can relate to that.

As Maggie, Amy Morrissey provides the perfect counterpoint to Jake’s neuroses. She has a tricky task of playing Maggie both in the present day and as an idealized Maggie from the early days of their relationship. The actress shows great warmth and humor for the material but is never sidelined by Simon’s more misogynistic tendencies. Maggie is a person first and foremost, as she intones to Jake in one of their later conversations.

The ensemble work is particularly strong in this production. Charlotte Weisserman as Jake’s 12-year-old daughter Molly beams with a mischievously angelic presence – as does Barbie Weisserman as Jake’s sister, the chaotically big-hearted filmmaker Karen. (No shock there I supposed as Charlotte clearly has inherited some lovely, natural stage gifts from her talented real-life mom Barbie.)

Some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments come from the theatrical mother-daughter team of Meredith Deighton as Jake’s late wife Julie  and Egla Kishta as college-age Molly. The familial dynamic achieved between Alexander, Kishta, and Hotchkiss during the play’s second act is remarkable – deeply felt with a comfort and ease rarely seen on any stage.

It wouldn’t be a Neil Simon show without some broad comic relief. Margaret Gilkes is sharp-edged fun as Jake’s saucy therapist Edith, aided and abetted by some of the script’s best zingers, which Gilkes nails with Elaine Stritch-y aplomb. Luna Alexander as Jake’s of-the-moment mistress has the show’s most raucous scene  (think The Odd Couple‘s Pigeon Sisters by way of The Jersey Shore‘s Snooki and Jwoww), and she wrings every bit of rimshot glee from her second act moment.

Like the majority of Two Muses’ output, the production values are spot-on, with clever and efficient use of the space, detailed but never overdone set dressing, classic character driven costuming, and an evocative lighting plot.

Back to Jake:  Hotchkiss builds his character beautifully, giving us a broken soul who is not just relatable but a lot of fun to watch. Jake’s journey is a difficult one to convey on stage, rife with potentially self-indulgent pitfalls, but Hotchkiss is very smart, warm, and wry and never panders to the audience or to his character’s many, many flaws.

Jake follows a similar arc to Company‘s Bobby, never sure who he really is and only finding motivation by pinging off the input of others. Unlike Sondheim, however, Simon offers Jake a bit more redemption. Hotchkiss does a fine job walking Jake’s circuitous path as he realizes that snark and witty wordplay do not healthy flesh-and-blood relationships make. The play’s script leaves us with an ambiguously happy ending, as Jake and Maggie set off to resolve their differences, but the rich performances by Hotchkiss and Morrissey overlay that denouement with a believable and honest sense of the couple’s future chances.

The play runs through December 7 at Two Muses Theatre. Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left. Tickets can be purchased online here or by calling 248.850.9919 (Box Office Hours: By phone:  10am-5pm.  In person at the theatre, 60 minutes prior to all performances.)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: The Heat

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

13 days left until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

“McCarthy seems to be the comedic love-child of Kathy Bates and Jackie Gleason, marrying Bates’ soulful empathy with Gleason’s caged intensity, in a feisty package whose doleful eyes speak volumes, even in the most farcically broad circumstances.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

The comedy of worry: The Heat

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Nobody makes comedy gold from exasperated worry like Melissa McCarthy – the kind of frustration and anxiety about a world spinning out of control that leads one to bold, aggressive, head-busting tough love. She did this to great effect in her breakthrough Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids and does so again in Paul Feig’s follow-up to that film, The Heat, alongside co-star Sandra Bullock.

McCarthy seems to be the comedic love-child of Kathy Bates and Jackie Gleason, marrying Bates’ soulful empathy with Gleason’s caged intensity, in a feisty package whose doleful eyes speak volumes, even in the most farcically broad circumstances.

Unfortunately the script for The Heat includes one or two too many of those big, dumb farcical moments, trying even McCarthy’s (and Bullock’s for that matter) unique ability to weave a higher order of comic social commentary and righteous rage over the indignities embedded in these misogynistic United States of America. (Yes, we even have to suffer through that 80s film throwback: the female-buddy-drown-our-sorrows-in-cheap-beer-at-a-dive-bar musical montage, this time set to Deee-Lite’s admittedly infectious “Groove is in the Heart.”)

Regardless, The Heat is a fun film because the two leads rise above the rather junky, contrived, and, yes, stale premise of a rigid FBI agent (Bullock) thrown into partnership over turf issues with a scruffy police detective (McCarthy) in pursuit of a big bad drug cartel. I feel like we’ve seen this movie a million times, but in the capable hands of Bullock and McCarthy this high concept claptrap has some decent nuance and is pretty d*mn funny. (I suspect the best dialogue did not come from the rather pedestrian script but from some free-wheeling improv between the two leads.)

I don’t always love Bullock. She can come off rather stiff and clunky with an overeager desire to show her aren’t-I-a-zany-dame? schtick. However, partnered with McCarthy who exudes edgy warmth in spades, Bullock becomes a crackerjack, shining a simultaneously acerbic and poignant spotlight on a patriarchal power structure that resents her intelligence and blocks her progress at every turn.

As noted, the script stumbles with some dumb b-movie cliches and gets pretty muddled about two-thirds of the way with some gross-out gags that undermine the overall momentum and message. However, sweet character moments toward the conclusion pull the film back on track.

The Heat is worth seeing, albeit with lowered overall expectations, for the nifty high-wire act that McCarthy and Bullock are pulling off. They deserve a better film…which, in and of itself, may be the most compelling proof point/indictment of the kind of institutionalized sexism the film attempts to critique.