“Secrets are like margarine.” A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

“Secrets are like margarine. Easy to spread but bad for the heart.” – Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), A Simple Favor

“What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.” – Rick Wershe, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), White Boy Rick

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ah, American hustle and the dark truth of the Horatio Alger myth: you can be anything you want to be in America and have as much success as you can stand as long as you deny your true nature and, arguably, your humanity. If there is a through line in A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick, this weekend’s two big “fall films” (movies that lean into Oscar season and don’t star an alien Predator), it is that very truism and the resultant deception and self-loathing that accompanies it.

 

A Simple Favor is stylishly directed by Paul Feig, whose previous efforts Bridesmaids, The Heat, Ghostbusters, and Spy demonstrated a sure-handed understanding that women are, you know, people too. Based on a novel by Darcey Bell (think Postman Always Rings Twice author James M. Cain writing for The CW), Feig gleefully pulls a Brian DePalma (minus the gory misogyny) in an unrelenting homage to some of suspense cinema’s greatest hits: Vertigo, Charade, Diabolique (actually name-checked by one of the characters), Gaslight, and, yes, Cain’s Double Indemnity, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. Blessedly, Feig embraces the black comedy of it all, and the film is less Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and more Mel Brooks-spoofs-Gone Girl.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For her work in this film, Anna Kendrick now and forever will be my hero as her performance drives a stake into the heart of the insufferable DIY, cupcake-baking, Pinterest-stalking mommy vlogger (that’s vlogger with a “v” … as in “video blogger”). Her Stephanie Smothers is a hoot, one bad PTA meeting away from a nervous breakdown – a young widow whose  fixation on “home and hearth” may belie a darker (trashier) past.

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into Stephanie’s life breezes fellow elementary school mom Emily Nelson, an icy Hitchcock blonde in divine Lauren Bacall-pantsuits. Blake Lively reminds viewers she’s more than “Ryan Reynolds’ wife” in a crackpot performance that is one part Carole Lombard, one part Veronica Lake, and one part Barbara Stanwyck … that is if those women were showboating, day-drinking, pansexual PR executives addicted to painkillers and stainless steel appliances. Oh, and she’s got secrets too … some doozies.

 

Emily and Stephanie meet cute in the rain, picking their sons up from school, and strike up the unlikeliest of friendships. The best parts of the movie are watching these two circle each other, realizing their respective “hustles” are as artificial as the day is long. Pretty soon, Emily disappears Gone Girl-style, and hunky husband Sean Townsend (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding who is suddenly everywhere) is the chief culprit, which is compounded when he and Stephanie strike up a romance.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil the twists and turns as they come fast and furious, but Feig and his stars have a ball indulging in and skewering the excesses of the genre. A fabulous supporting cast of pros like Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, and Andrew Rannells all deliver zippy character turns. By the final twenty minutes, I will admit, I began to sour on the improbability of it all as the film veers into farcical War of the Roses territory. Nonetheless, for Lively’s gonzo performance alone, the film is essential viewing.

 

Across the aisle from A Simple Favor‘s flawless Dwell Magazine production design is the rough and tumble scruffiness of White Boy Rick, set in the nadir of Mayor Coleman Young’s mid-80s Detroit when the entire city looked like the back lot of a Mad Max movie and stopping to grab a Slurpee at 7-Eleven was a death-defying act.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the true story of Rick Wershe, Jr., the longest serving juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan, White Boy Rick details Wershe’s descent into crime, his ascent as both FBI-informant and drug kingpin, and his eventual arrest and conviction. Along the way, Wershe (a haunting Richie Merritt) and his gun-smuggling papa (McConaughey in one of his best and most understated performances) meet a host of dodgy characters from the mean streets of the Motor City and in the mayoral Manoogian Mansion. (Legends Piper Laurie and Bruce Dern pop up as McConaughey’s parents – they are dynamite, and the biggest crime is that they don’t get more screen time.)

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty much Jennifer Jason Leigh (which is fine) as an FBI agent using the boy to infiltrate the Detroit drug scene, and Brian Tyree Henry spins gold from his underwritten part as a Detroit cop in on the deal.

 

Director Yann Demange does an exceptional job capturing the sheer ugliness of this hardscrabble place and time without ever condescending to the moment nor its denizens. These characters are people who view the “land of opportunity” through a fun-house mirror where the only choices for financial stability are felonious. I will admit that I found the film’s point-of-view regarding its central figure problematically slippery. Are we to sympathize with him and his failings? Is he some kind of martyr figure? What does the film mean to imply about race in these circumstances? I’m at sea about the answers to these questions, and that leaves me just shy of fully supporting the film. White Boy Rick is well-done with a crackerjack cast, but I walk away with a bit of unease about what it is ultimately trying to say about race and class distinctions in America.

Matthew McConaughey (Finalized);Richie Merritt (Finalized)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regardless, both A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick (especially taken together) do an exceptional job holding a cinematic lens to the artifice of “success” in America: its false promise of fulfillment, its ephemeral nature, and its intrinsic heartache.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

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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.

“Do you want me to say I’m from the Midwest? Where’s the buffet? How do I find the Blue Man Group?” Spy (2015)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Melissa McCarthy is a comic alchemist, spinning comedy gold from the insidious politics of gender, age, and physical stereotypes. When she defies expectations, simultaneously embracing and undermining our collective desire to pigeonhole and judge (see Bridesmaids, The Heat), she provides a master class in laughter as medicine. With her sparkle and her heartache and her anarchy, she seems to say, “I dare you to limit me, and I’m going to make you laugh so d*mn hard that you won’t realize I just re-wired your pea brains for tolerance, acceptance, and kindness.”

When she hews too closely to self-deprecation over self-actualization (see Identity Thief, Tammy – the latter of which is better than we all remember it to be), she runs the risk of self-satire, becoming co-opted by the Hollywood marketing machine and reinforcing the gender- and body-shaming that Tinseltown has foisted on generations.

I am happy to report that Spy, her latest collaboration with director (and, I suspect, fellow free-spirit) Paul Feig, is firmly a home run in the former category, not the latter.

Never devolving into Austin Powers-hackery, Spy gently lampoons the James Bond genre and its misogynistic tropes with a depth and breadth that keeps the enterprise from being an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch. Working from Feig’s script, Feig and McCarthy have created the strongest showcase yet for McCarthy’s seemingly effortless, wildly diverse, rich character work.

McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a sharp, eagle-eyed, kind-hearted desk operative in the CIA whose unrequited affection for Jude Law’s field agent Bradley Fine has derailed the unrelenting moxie she once showed in her basic training days. When Fine is seemingly murdered on a mission – a mission guided from afar by Cooper – she sees no choice but to take his place and track down his assassin Rayna Boyanov (an epically bewigged, riotously toxic Rose Byrne, channeling Sarah Brightman’s wide-eyed, new age Baroque bullsh*t, that is if she’d been raised by Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld).

With the exception of this Legally Blonde-esque narrative impetus (woman in love leaves her comfort zone to ultimately triumph over self-imposed, patriarchal limitations), Spy is a tart feminist meringue. McCarthy (not to mention her crackerjack sidekick Nancy, smartly underplayed by Miranda Hart) makes the absolute most of every moment, mixing supreme self-confidence with bat-sh*t anxiety to offer us an accomplished master-spy finding her voice and her power, nevertheless wondering how the hell she ever got into this mess in the first place. It is the most charming, heartfelt, and hysterical performance she’s yet given.

In addition to Law, Hart, and Byrne (all of whom are spot-on delightful), the ensemble cast also includes a frisky Jason Statham (like McCarthy, playing both to and against type) as a bumbling alpha male agent who is utterly convinced McCarthy’s Cooper has no business being on this (or any mission) and who, in his every effort to help, makes things ten times worse. (Typical male.) Allison Janney (always so darn present) is the CIA chief who wrings every bit of funny right out of her character’s exhaustion heading a male-dominated ship of fools. Hammy Bobby Cannavale has a small but pivotal role as a nuclear arms buyers, and Morena Baccarin is a hoot in a cameo role as a glamazon agent whose mean girl tendencies are masked by a hair flip and a smile.

What the partnership of Feig and McCarthy (from Bridesmaids to The Heat to Spy) does so well is run headlong into the very ugliness of men’s mistreatment of women, women’s mistreatment of women, and people’s mistreatment of people. The best comedy in these films comes from the quiet slight, the reaction shot, the response said through gritted teeth.

While scoping out the kind of sleek, sleezy high-end Eurotrash casino so prevalent in these kinds of films, Statham sniffs at McCarthy that she couldn’t possibly function as a successful agent because of her look, her gender, her demeanor. She just doesn’t fit in. She responds, with the kind of wounded/wounding line delivery only she has mastered, “What?! Do you want me to say I’m from the Midwest? Where’s the buffet? How do I find the Blue Man Group?”

And this exchange occurs well after her character has demonstrated a competence – no, excellence – that defies anything evidenced by any of her male colleagues. The commentary is hilarious and sad, exhilarating and maddening for, in one line, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper highlights how far we’ve yet to come, but in so doing reclaims power for herself by also pointing out just how stupid and blind we all can be. Go, Melissa, go.

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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.

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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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.