American Pie, Wild Wild West

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


American Pie

directed by Paul and Chris Weitz

(photo courtesy of Wiki)

Humor, Pink & Black

American Pie brings new meaning to the phrase “coming of age,” and provides the South Park movie with its only serious competition for the title of Grossest Film of the Summer. A precision-tooled yuk (and yuck) machine designed to pander to teens and teens-at-heart, the film takes the subtext of early 80s horndog high school movies—Get Laid or Die!—and puts it right there on the surface.


The four best-pal heroes, seniors in high school and cherries to a man, make a Little Darlings pact to lose the big V by prom night or dwell in the house of the lame forever. Their penises become narrative divining rods, pointing this amiably shaggy movie in the direction of box office gold whenever it threatens to stray. The Joe Bob Briggs rundown goes as follows: two breasts, plentiful (mostly offscreen) nookie, masturbation fu (male and female), hard-on fu, scrambled tv porn channel fu, clueless parent fu, onscreen, offscreen and online nookie and the title-providing image, which has nothing to do with the Don McLean single and everything to do with the tactile similarity of warm apple pie to the engorged female nether regions. Schwing!


What’s odd and a bit sad about American Pie is that it could have been more than a Farrelly-Brothers-in-high-school movie. As a matter of fact, roughly half the film is fairly low-key, sweet and reasonably realistic; besides Porky’s and its ilk, the central influence is Barry Levinson’s fondly remembered 1982 male bonding picture Diner, which American Pie blatantly references (an image of the tuxedo-clad heroes gathered together outside the high school gym during the finale echoes the Levinson film’s poster). When the film isn’t being outrageously silly and disgusting (sometimes amusingly so), it’s an endearing look at young men’s earnest obsession with getting laid and how that urge can obscure and destroy otherwise healthy relationships with young women. Directors Paul and Chris Weitz and writer Adam Herz work equally well in both modes, but the film shifts between them so clumsily that whiplash doesn’t begin to describe the effect on viewers. It’s
like somebody assembled alternate reels of Diner and Porky’s and projected them in no particular order.


The male characters are well written and acted. The closest thing to a hero is gawky schlemiel Jim (Jason Biggs), introduced in a pre-credits sequence whacking off into a sock while peering haplessly at a scrambled tv porn channel in hopes of spotting a flickering flash of naughty bits. His buddy Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is marginally more suave and even has a steady girlfriend named Vicky (Tara Reid). Utilizing carnal logic our Commander-in-Chief would surely appreciate, they call themselves virgins because they haven’t had intercourse, even though Vicky has polished Kevin’s bishop on more than one occasion. Brawny lacrosse player Oz (Chris Klein) is a virgin more because of bad luck than any lack of charisma or poise; but to ensure that he wins the contest, he improbably signs up for choir practice (chicks dig sensitive guys, right?) and sets about wooing a straitlaced aspiring singer (Mena Suvari).


The quartet is rounded out by the film’s most original character, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a small, slender, hard-drinking, pale-faced rich kid who grabs an early lead in the devirginization race by paying a female classmate to spread the word that he’s hung like a Clydesdale. Thomas, a superb comic actor with a prematurely low, croaky voice, plays Finch as a guy who pretends to be old before his time, then wakes up one day and realizes he really is old before his time. Finch carries a flask, dresses like a prep school refugee and practices his putts on school property. The actor unspools Finch’s lines as if the character is never quite sure what he’s going to say next and is delighted that he can even get to the end of a sentence. The film has no interest in exploring the kid’s painfully apparent alcoholism, which goes without saying; this is Porky’s 1999, not Days of Wine and Roses. But Thomas’ bleary-eyed puppy-dog vibe—he’s like a pint-sized, teenage Nicolas Cage without the muscles and Brando mannerisms—indicates that this actor has already figured out how to tell truths a lazy script isn’t interested in exploring.


The studio-manufactured buzz on American Pie includes the assertion that this is the rare teen sex comedy that gives the female characters some backbone and actually goes to the trouble of understanding their feelings. Will anybody be surprised to learn that this is utter bullshit? The filmmakers let the girls talk dirty and occasionally stand up for themselves, but with rare exceptions they make them secondary to the guys and their ‘tang odyssey, and most of the women fall into one of three categories: (1) sweet, bland virgins, (2) controlling pricktease virgins and (3) good-to-go party gals, like the Eastern bloc exchange student who comes over to Jim’s house for tutoring and, on being left alone in his room to change, discovers Jim’s stash of porn rags, plops down half naked on his bed and begins masturbating. The film’s best—maybe only—original female character is a band geek who gloms onto Jim like a lamprey on a manatee and bores him senseless with tales of band camp; the stunningly profane payoff to this subplot would be twice as hilarious if the film’s tv ads, theatrical trailers and one-sheet hadn’t already spoiled it.



Wild Wild West

directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

 

(photo courtesy of Wiki)

After hearing how mind-bogglingly terrible Wild Wild West supposedly is, I was surprised to discover that it’s funny, imaginatively designed and full of elements worth praising. I’m not saying it’s a classic—just that it’s a proficiently executed time-waster. It’s slightly less of a movie than Men In Black, slightly more of a movie than the Addams Family pictures, and in the end, like much of director Barry Sonnenfeld’s work, not quite a movie.


It is, however, weirdly offensive, for reasons that have nothing to do with its entertainment value or alleged lack of same. And I’m annoyed but not surprised that these reasons have been raised by most film critics only in passing (if they were raised at
all).


First, the praise: Sonnenfeld, a onetime Coen brothers cinematographer whose resume includes all of the above movies plus the enjoyable Get Shorty—which was a movie, thanks to Scott Frank’s script—specializes in star-packed diversions that are visually inventive and packed with nifty chain-reaction slapstick gags. He also knows when to quit, a rare gift in our age of blockbuster bloat. Most of his films clock in at around 95 minutes; you’re in, you have a few laughs and you’re out before your neck starts to hurt. In a recent Premiere interview, Sonnenfeld talked about how he was originally supposed to direct Forrest Gump but had to bow out because of scheduling problems; among his many tart observations about that Oscar-winning comic epic was that if he had directed it instead of Robert Zemeckis it would have been an hour shorter. (Seems to me Sonnenfeld also would have decided early in the game whether he was making a satire, and what, if anything, was being satirized—decisions Zemeckis postponed indefinitely, choosing instead to wreathe the script in a faintly melancholy nostalgic fog that hung low over the film’s politics, then lifted a few months later to reveal six Oscars.)


Judged solely as a parade of images, Wild Wild West is a treat. Sonnenfeld’s budget ($180 million by some estimates) means the original show’s James Bond-meets-Jules Verne vibe gets a major steroid injection, but unlike in, say, a Joel Schumacher movie, the images are controlled and witty rather than profligate and vulgar. With his elaborate design sense, whirling camerawork, fiendishly silly slapstick bits and love of wide-angle lenses, Sonnenfeld belongs to a minor commercial
filmmaking movement that could be called contraptionist—a category that includes the Coens, Terry Gilliam, the Wachowski brothers, Peter Jackson and the French filmmakers Jeunet and Caro (who made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children). Contraptionism is a baroque style that’s built for speed and impact. But it also possesses a magician’s bravura and a certain goofy delicacy. The images are dense and elegant, but they move (and are moved over) lightly. Like a clock with a glass back, the display of whirring gearwork isn’t a distraction from the point, it is the point—and the central source of audience pleasure.


This movie is a contraptionist showstopper—a toy store, a magic show, a children’s pop-up book for grownups. The theatrical disguises, the preposterous attack plans, the tiny hidden guns, the razor-edged discs that track fleeing prisoners in magnetic collars, the amphibious tank, the 80-foot tall steam-powered tarantula robot—they all hold one’s attention for a shot or two. That’s what Sonnenfeld does: He keeps you interested, maybe pleased, and that’s it. He’s Mr. Light Touch.


Of course, one of the problems with being acclaimed for a light touch is that nobody expects you to dig deeper—even when you should dig deeper. As in The Fugitive and The UntouchablesWest uses its tv source as a jumping-off point. But unlike the first two, it doesn’t jump far. Which is to say it lacks a strong rooting interest, much less anything resembling suspense or passion. Yet the material for such a movie is there; it came into existence the minute the producers cast Will Smith as James West, who was played on tv by pint-size white stud Robert Conrad. The script, which I’m told was worked on by every writer in Hollywood with an agent, acknowledges West’s newly darkened skin color, but it greatly underestimates both its importance to the story and its potential to yield original pop entertainment.


In what strikes me as a crucial blunder, the filmmakers treat West’s race as a comic (and childishly comic-bookish) element—a casting twist that’s good for a few whitey-baiting showdowns and some enjoyably bitter repartee between the hero and the mad scientist villain, Dr. Arliss Lovelace (Kenneth Branagh), a white Southern racist who’s in a wheelchair because of a military accident. If Wild Wild West had been content to keep race percolating at a Blazing Saddles level, it would have remained on safe but sensible ground.


Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided instead to saddle West with a back story so horrifying and tragic that the movie can’t begin to imagine how to deal with it. West, we eventually learn, escaped slavery as a child and was raised by American Indians in the Southwest. Upon reaching adulthood, he journeyed back East to find the parents he lost. He found them in a town run by freed slaves—but the town was destroyed by Loveless and his fellow racist ex-Confederates, who were trying out their experimental military equipment. Which means West, like Batman, isn’t just some wisecracking do-gooder; he’s also an orphaned child, all grown up and looking for the vicious lunatics who murdered his parents. And, by proxy, he is the avenger of two wronged ethnic groups, blacks and Native Americans.


What’s required here is the coiled, righteous fury displayed by Batman, or Ice T’s undercover cop in New Jack City, or Indy liberating the enslaved children from the mine in the second Indiana Jones film. Those films proved it was possible to address overpowering emotional trauma in summer movie terms—to do justice to a survivor’s anguish without destroying a film’s pop framework. But that takes a hell of a lot more precision and conviction than anyone associated with Wild Wild West can muster. Sonnenfeld and his writers—and Smith, a powerful black superstar who should know better—let the movie use race as a crutch instead of a springboard. Rather than a thrilling, crazy, brilliantly original comic book fantasy about a black avenger redressing the bloody injustices of the Wild West—what a breath of fresh air that would have been!—the screenplay settles for jokes about darkies and mud people and big black dicks.

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