“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.

“Just because you see me on TV, doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.” Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It! at MotorCity Casino’s SoundBoard (Detroit)

William ShatnerLast night we saw William Shatner. Yes, THAT William Shatner. Priceline Negotiator. Denny Crane. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Captain Kirk. Cringe-worthy purveyor of spoken word psychedelia. He offered his one-man show Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It (originally presented in a limited run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) at Motor City Casino’s SoundBoard venue.

When I went to bed last night, visions of this D-level A-lister dancing around in my head, I was ready to write a snotty piece, dismissing his overeager schtick, rampant hamminess, cloddish sexism, sweaty egomania, and twitchy insecurity.

In the cold, hard light of this January day, I think, “Who am I to make fun of 84-year-old Hollywood legend William Shatner?! Granted he’s far from my favorite starship “Captain.” Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine are all far ahead in that line-up.

Shatner's WorldPlus, I’ve always found Shatner a rather desperate presence, sharing the same kind of icky balsa wood machismo that plagued contemporaries like Burt Reynolds, Robert Conrad, and Lee Majors throughout the 70s and 80s. Regardless, he’s sustained an acting career across stage and screen for sixty years; he’s a best-selling author; and he’s an icon. That is something to celebrate; yet, all that “Shatnerism” gets in the way of respecting his work and always has.

I was curious to see if Shatner’s World would allay or compound that conundrum. The answer, quite honestly, is that it did both. Whereas a Star Trek alum like George Takei has revealed a comic impishness and a (more or less) refreshing layer of self-mocking irreverence in the latter years of his career, Shatner has gleefully become more bloated, arrogant, and self-mythologizing as the years have passed. He capitalized on this to greatest effect as bloviating Denny Crane in Boston Legal, but he was aided in that enterprise by co-star James Spader (who could make an avocado interesting) and to some degree by Candice Bergen (whom one could argue is kind of the female Shatner when it comes to smart aleck self-absorption). His quirky Priceline “Negotiator” persona is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Denny with a teaspoon of mannered Kirk-isms and a healthy portion of “drunk uncle at your family reunion.”

IMG_3769(My favorite Shatner moment remains The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wherein his character is convinced that gremlins – which only he can see – are dismantling a plane in mid-flight. If there ever was a place for Shatner’s hyperventilating hyperbole and pop-eyed claustrophobia, it was the black-and-white world of Rod Serling.)

Shatner’s World – the show – is like a cocktail party guest who lingers about 45 minutes too long. The first hour is fun, frothy, and full of empty calories. Shatner, with his squatty shenanigans, fancies himself a raconteur – the dirty-joke-telling kind who went out of style when they retired Johnny Carson’s guest couch. For precisely sixty minutes, Shatner’s creative retelling of an upbringing with a loving, middle-class, Jewish family in Montreal is engaging. He uses slide projections, video clips, and an office chair in rather ingenious and theatrical ways to illustrate key moments (e.g. the office chair doubles as a motorcycle and a horse at various points in the show).

IMG_3754His sentimental, albeit self-aggrandizing, descriptions of his early days in the entertainment industry are captivating, damn funny, and, I suspect, patently false: he worked with good buddy Christopher Plummer (who knew?) at Stratford (Canada), and supposedly saved the day once as Plummer’s understudy in Henry V; he, in his estimation, single-handedly turned Broadway bomb The World of Suzie Wong into a long-running comic hit; he, according to Shatner, gave an Emmy-caliber performance in an unnamed Playhouse 90 episode until legendary co-star Lon Chaney, Jr., started rattling off stage directions as if they were dialogue; Shatner discovered the glories of leadership and horsemanship starring as Alexander the Great (!) in a film none of us had ever heard of.

Dammit. I’ve fallen into making fun of him. I said I wouldn’t. Yet, that’s part of Shatner’s studied charm. He knows you want to mock him, so he does it first, but then he twists every anecdote into a celebration of self, of the sheer force of will that has allowed him to transform marginal talent and blandly handsome features into more success and longevity than any of his detractors have or ever could achieve. It’s rather fascinating in fact – like a piece of performance art or a social experiment to which we’ve all been subjected yet remain unaware of its grand design. In this day of virulent social media and steroidal self-promotion, is Shatner any worse than the rest of us? Or was he simply our forebear? A pop culture Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian’s Steve Jobs?

IMG_3743As Shatner’s World proceeds into its second hour, the focus grows more diffuse and the self-celebration harder to take. He glosses over his Star Trek years, oddly enough, dedicating as much (if not more) time to his dubious career as a recording artist. This turns out to be a canny decision, though, as it allows Shatner to end the show (and reconnect with his flagging audience) with a “song” titled “Real,” co-written with country star Brad Paisley. It’s a pretty tune (spoken word overlay notwithstanding) and offers Shatner a chance to encapsulate his raison d’etre as vainglorious underdog, aptly noting: “Just because you see me on TV doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.”

It is this struggle with external perception and internal reality that brings much-needed (and sometimes head-scratching) pathos to the evening. He owns the fact that he can be a lousy husband and a half-assed father, sharing anecdotes that are equal parts aspiration and humiliation – a little Father Knows Best, a little Honeymooners, and a little War of the Roses. He acknowledges that he isn’t always beloved by his co-stars, with a riotous bit where he allows Takei to call Shatner a sh*t while simultaneously suggesting Takei might not be all the sweetness and light he wants us to believe. Brilliant. He isn’t afraid to show us his infamous struggles with money either, the kind of struggles that led him back to Star Trek (films) in the 70s (when sci fi nostalgia wasn’t the sure thing it is today), to an endless stream of comic book convention appearances, and to doing casino gigs like the very one witnessed at SoundBoard last night.

IMG_3761Finally, the aspect of Shatner’s life that surprised and troubled me most was (is) Shatner’s adoration of animals. Complete shock to me. Images of Shatner with his beloved dogs, horses, and other creatures fill his slide show and his repartee, and the joy in his eyes is palpable. He speaks meaningfully about the special language and kinship one can only feel with and for animals and how they can tell us all we need to know if we’d only listen. Yet, he then talks about how he “studs” his prize pets (equine and canine) to this day, going into great detail about all the awards he’s received and money he has made from the practice. He also relays a lengthy anecdote about the “horse of a lifetime” – his spirit animal, if you will – whose existence he ruined by breeding, the creature consigned to unending days of isolation and misery as a result. Shatner seems to indicate deep regret, and he expresses hope that the horse, in his final moments, forgave Shatner; but he follows this heartbreaking moment by regaling us with tales of the horse’s award-winning progeny.

Is Shatner looking for redemption or rationalization? This horse tale is arguably the most unintentionally revealing moment in the evening. A sensitive and empathic soul may lurk beneath all that Shatner bravado, but he is so preoccupied by a maddeningly retro belief in what he thinks we expect of masculinity that he can’t quite let that soul breathe and evolve and teach. He wants to embrace his mistakes, but he is too afraid that those mistakes, if authentically understood, will make him less compelling. It’s a shame. Those mistakes make him more compelling. Maybe when he’s 94 years old, we’ll get that show. He’ll still be going strong, kept aloft by a self-sustaining gale of monomania.

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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.