No yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka: Howie Mandel live at Caesars Windsor

Howie MandelThe other day over lunch with my pal Neil Simon (the consultant, not the playwright) I started to elaborate on a point I made earlier (apropos of nothing) on a blog entry about Gone With The Wind, namely that I love comedians who can mix bawdiness with self-deprecation, raunch with childlike whimsy, spiteful take-down with satiric absurdity. If a comedian is just mean or arrogant or gross for the sake of achieving some false sense of superiority over his or her audience, I ain’t havin’ it.

For me, Richard Pryor wins out every day over Eddie Murphy. Kathy Griffin or Joan Rivers get the prize over Lisa Lampanelli or Sarah Silverman. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, or Whoopi Goldberg than Dane Cook, Kevin Hart, or Bill Maher (maybe). The list goes on.

(Maher may be the exception that proves the rule for me as his egomania, misogyny, and dyspepsia often serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the political zingers he is attempting to land…but he still gives me a headache.)

Howie MandelI’d never really given much thought to how I feel about Howie Mandel, though. Like Gallagher or Carrot Top, he made my junior high self laugh with abandon over the funny voices and the latex gloves on his head, the germaphobia and the OCD. I never watched St. Elsewhere – he may have been genius there. I just don’t know. I adored his charming children’s show Bobby’s World in the 90s, and it always amused me greatly that his helium-voiced alter ego also doubled as the vocalizations for Gizmo in Gremlins and Skeeter on Muppet Babies.

As I got older, Mandel just seemed to disappear into the margins. I may have unfairly lumped him into the buffoonish band of novelty comics, or maybe he just became complacent, hosting game shows (Deal or No Deal) and talent contests (America’s Got Talent) and shaving his head and growing silly-looking “soul patches” on his chin.

How wrong I was.

Howie MandelLast night, we had the pleasure of taking in his stand-up routine at Caesars Windsor in their much-vaunted Colosseum room. (Let me say, though, that the room does not live up to the marketing hype, resembling a giant pole barn and with an entrance/egress system that functions more like a giant game of Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap than an efficient/pleasant welcome/farewell to the audience. It is a claustrophobe’s and a process engineer’s nightmare.)

Regardless, Mandel presented a remarkable show, reminding, at least this viewer, what made Mandel great in the first place. His routine on Saturday night was a mix of prepared and improvised material, free-wheeling in its delivery and free-ranging in its topics. With a boyish pluck, Mandel brought down the house, riffing on audience members’ foibles and any information they recklessly volunteered. His silliest and funniest moments came at the expense of two security guards downstage who seemed more interested in staring at each other than in protecting the funnyman. Yet, Mandel was never mean nor cruel; he was ever-playful and as hard on his own eccentricities as those of the targeted audience members.

Howie MandelMandel was plenty “blue” in his material, but it never offended as he comes across more as a little kid laughing at his own farts than a skeezy old man who bullies those around him with dirty jokes. You know the type I mean, right? You’ve seen such pricks (sorry for the colorful euphemism) at your high school reunions or at family picnics? “Hey, you, listen to something really filthy here. Does it make you uncomfortable? Yeah? Good! I win!” Mandel’s not like that at all, thank goodness.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for his tone-deaf opening act Shuli Egar, a correspondent from The Howard Stern Show, who came off as a hateful little creep and who seems to think life is there for his ridicule and contempt. There were pockets of laughter during his set, but mostly it was a pretty flat affair that could be best described as Don Rickles/Cheech & Chong/Ray Romano as re-written by Attila the Hun. My advice to him? Ditch the hipster glasses that make him look like mean bird, make fun of himself more, and let us see his tortured inner life that makes him so despise his outer one. THAT would be interesting. (Let me add – Stern I’ve always loved. See rationale in opening paragraphs above. This toadie of Stern’s? Not so much.)

Howie MandelBack to Mandel. He shared with the audience that earlier on Saturday he had become a grandfather for the first time, and, rather than coming across as cloying or preachy (a la someone like Bill Cosby), he used said news in clever and irreverent ways to introduce such tried and true Mandellian topics as … his omnipresent fear of germs; the torture of being on the road 24/7; his love for his wife as expressed by torturing her daily with public tomfoolery; the highs and lows of being part of nationally beloved reality shows on the Peacock Network (En…BEEEE….Ceee!); and so on.

Seeing Howie Mandel live is an interesting phenomenon. A forgotten comic (at least to me) becomes vital, vibrant, possibly even essential in that setting. The electricity of his intelligence and his wit, the kindness in his heart, and the acerbic view he projects toward this ridiculous planet make him very winning, indeed. I’m sure the TV shows and the merchandise and the appearances rake in the moolah, but here’s hoping the third act of Mandel’s storied career gets him back on stage, alone and live, with no yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka.

Detroit always looks best from ... Canada?

Detroit always looks best from … Canada?

________________________

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.

Step into the Way-Back Machine: The Book Thief and Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In my estimation, there are chiefly two types of films for young people:

There are the ones where a kid’s innocent yet wary POV on a grown-up world helps both adults and children better understand how tender and tenuous our collective grasp on daily reality truly is (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, Babe, The Black Stallion, E.T.).

And then there are those where sheer nonsensical anarchy takes over and society is seen through a colorfully madcap lens to rationalize how unfair and frustrating life can be (e.g. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Toy Story, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles).

 

Today, I saw fine examples of each form: The Book Thief (on DVD) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (still in theatres).

The Book Thief somehow escaped my attention last fall when it was released. I think it was unjustifiably lost in a shuffle of Oscar hopefuls and critical muckraking (the latter of which appeared perilously close to sour grapes pettiness regarding the runaway success of the young adult novel by Markus Zusak on which the film is based).

Starring Geoffrey Rush (who turns in a refreshingly nuanced and subtle performance) and Emily Watson (always magnificent, walking that fine line between heartwarming, poignant and world-weary) and introducing Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief offers a look into the atrocities of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a child growing up in a small town where survival is the primary concern.

Akin to essential classic The Mortal Storm, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (if you’ve never seen it, you must), The Book Thief relates the sweaty, creeping terror of totalitarian Nazi rule as it insinuates itself into the daily lives of everyday citizens. I remember thinking as child, “How could German citizens let this happen?” Both The Book Thief and The Mortal Storm do a wonderful and chilling job of showing that progression.

(And as an adult in post-millennial America, both films give me pause about where some of our political and business leaders might try to take us.)

Rush and Watson’s characters, not altogether altruistically, take lost soul Liesel (played by Nelisse) into their home. Liesel’s birth mother is a socialist who gives her daughter and son up, ostensibly for the children’s safety; the brother is lost to some unidentified ailment en route to their new home. As the film proceeds, we realize that flinty Watson and flaky Rush are actually deep-feeling souls whose private disgust over the direction Nazi Germany takes is balanced with an equally heart-wrenching desire to protect their adopted daughter, their unconventional life, and those human beings who enrich their existence, including a young Jewish man (ably played by Ben Schnetzer) who camps out in their basement to avoid persecution.

The film’s title is a nickname for Liesel, whose character is illiterate at the film’s outset but who learns the liberating power of language and free thought from the books she is able to swipe, despite Nazi attempts to limit citizens’ access to certain literature, art, and music.

John Williams’ score as always is lush and evocative and practically a character unto itself.

There is great supporting acting work throughout, including Barbara Auer as the mayor’s kindly wife who has her own literary secrets, Nico Liersch as Liesel’s charmingly unconventional best friend, and Roger Allam as, yes, the omniscient narrator Death. It is this latter aspect that gives the film its emotional resonance and sharp edge. Death is not spooky or malevolent but practical and even kindly, giving young and old alike a reminder of our inevitable mortality and that every moment should be lived as authentically and kindly as life will allow.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now, on the other end of the family movie spectrum, we have Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on my personally favorite segment of Jay Ward’s 1960s TV classic series Rocky & Bullwinkle.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (or how unlikely it is that I am pairing this movie with The Book Thief – just the luck of the draw in today’s viewings!), Mr. Peabody & Sherman relates the tale of a genius bespectacled pooch who adopts a not-so-genius bespectacled boy, invents a time machine (among many other scientific breakthroughs), and takes his son on many educational excursions throughout history.

The premise from the TV show essentially remains the same in this big screen adaptation, including Mr. Peabody’s endless series of painfully-so-unfunny-that-they’re-actually-funny puns and the crackpot Looney Tunes-meets-Your Show of Shows-era-Mel Brooks/Sid Caesar takes on historical figures as varied as King Tut, Marie Antoinette, Agamemnon, and George Washington.

The drawback for me would be DreamWorks Animation’s needless obsession with fart/poop/butt jokes. There were at least a dozen too many; they were jarring and dumb and an ugly distraction from what was otherwise clever and charming.

As in any good kids’ flick, despite the cartoon mania, there is a very real and haunting tension: that the adopted (and clearly adored) Sherman will be taken away from his doting canine father Mr. Peabody because the conventional world cannot accept such an arrangement.

Allison Janney does fine voice work as a beefy busybody social worker who will stop at nothing to upend their happy life, and Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann (someone needs to cast them as a live action movie couple stat!) are starched-shirt-hysterical as a rival set of parents (think God of Carnage-lite) whose bullying daughter is bitten by Sherman at school. (Hence the overreaction of all the “sensible” humans that a dog is raising a boy as his own son.)

Mr. Peabody throws a dinner party to try to settle the matter in a civilized fashion, the kids monkey with the Way-Back Machine, something wonky happens to the space-time continuum, and all sorts of silliness ensues.

Directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little), Mr. Peabody & Sherman is weighed down by its own episodic structure as we careen among historical eras, and, sadly, the ending is the typical lazy “let’s blow some stuff up and regurgitate some nonsensical pseudo science to wrap everything up” conclusion that Hollywood always tacks on these kinds of films.

But for a few brief and shining moments, Mr. Peabody & Sherman breaks through the absurdity and offers sweet-natured messages of tolerance and joy and, yes, like The Book Thief, the necessity of free thought and the critical importance of family, no matter how left-of-center.

___________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.