Minding Hollywood’s Pees and Cues

Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother
Paul Rudd Throttles a Juice Box in Our Idiot Brother

I’ve been thinking a lot about pee lately, specifically about public urination. A couple of weeks ago, a member of the US ski team was accused of urinating on the floor of an airplane. Actually, to be more specific, on a twelve-year-old girl. And then, just a week ago, French actor Gerard Depardieu is said to have peed on the floor of a plane before takeoff on Paris-to-Dublin flight.

What the heck is going on here?

As with every other misery of modern life, I blame the movies.

Have you noticed how much urination of all kinds has been shown in recent movies? In dramas, we’re shown men and women using the bathroom while casually carrying on conversations. It’s meant to be a slice of realism, but like nudity, it draws too much attention to itself and away from whatever is important in the scene.

And then there’s The Change-Up, in which public urination triggers the story. While I enjoyed the movie, I cringed at the second pee scene, which was quite a bit more public than the first. Hard to be hopeful that the friends get their wish when children are watching characters who, in the real world, would be arrested as sex offenders.

And then, widening the focus, there are movies like Bridesmaids in which defecation is played for laughs. And even an old-fashioned heart-warmer like The Help spends an awful lot of time showing people of all ages on toilets. And much is made of “the terrible awful.”

Am I just getting too old for movies?

Have I lost my edge?

I don’t think so. Forget the debt crisis; I think what we’re seeing here is a humor crisis. If one of the goals of an R-rated comedy is to shock the audience, what happens when all the shocks are used up? I’ll tell you. The Hangover II is what happens. You’re reduced to bathroom humor that a twelve-year-old boy has already begun to outgrow.

Maybe I’m just not sensitive to the dramatic importance of pee. After all, it’s not a recent phenomenon in the movies. A survey of American movies reveals a long history of pee scenes.

And what about movies that don’t have pee scenes but sound like they do?

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Something’s Got to Give
Going My Way
You’re in the Navy Now

And what about a few classics that are only a letter or two away from a pee scene?

War and Pees
The Princess and the Pee
Toilet Story
The Postman Always Pees Twice

Here’s an idea. Camera operators, next time the director says, “Now follow him into the bathroom,” just say no.

Somehow, I have a feeling I won’t get my wish. In fact, what’s this?—Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother squeezing a juice box to make it look as though he’s peeing. But before I can even decide whether that’s laugh-worthy or lame, ABC comes along and bans the trailer for being offensive. Really? The network that’s reviving Charlie’s Angels? (Now that’s offensive!) More offensive than the Summer’s Eve talking v-jay jay ads? More than the Charmin Ultra ad where bits of toilet paper are stuck to the butts of cartoon bears?

I mean, what fresh hell is this?

Maybe I’m asking for too much. Maybe we need to start small. Guys, how about, before we get on the plane, we visit the little boys’ room? Just that. Not too much to ask, is it? Your fellow travelers will thank you. After all, only in the movies is it funny to pee in public.

Oh wait. It’s not funny there either, except for that scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (See it at the end of the trailer.)

Enough. Here endeth the fit.

The Help: Getting by with a Little

The Help OnesheetI was in a bad mood. Maybe it was my late encounter with the enemy, my new roommate, the howler monkey. Maybe it was the too-cheerful trailer. But I was expecting the worst from The Help. When I see a trailer that contains too many face-splitting smiles, I get nervous. Like the cheerful smile you get from a howler monkey in the pet store. Then, when you get him home, the only face that gets split is yours, and not in the good way.  So I wasn’t expecting a great deal from The Help.

But I’m happy to say there’s a good deal to recommend this movie. It’s an old-fashioned story set in the segregated South of the early 1960’s, a story we’ve seen before about what used to be called “race relations,” but here it’s mixed with a streak of Steel Magnolias humor and irreverence that makes the movie fresher than it might have been.

Emma Stone of the laughing eyes plays Skeeter, a young woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and who now returns from college to start her life as a writer. But what to write about? She notices the way the black maids are mistreated by the very women she grew up with, and decides to write a book that tells their stories. The movie is mainly about her efforts to reach out to the maids, an act that violated state law. Setting the story against the backdrop of the civil rights movement gives it additional weight.

But what really sets this movie apart is the performances.

The central characters are the maids, especially Abileen, played by Viola Davis, who has a way with characters restrained by circumstances but seething with conviction and passion. The first time I was aware of her was when she played a small role in Doubt. She was so good she took the movie away from Meryl Streep, no small feat. And she delivers the same kind of powerful performance here but with a bigger canvas.

The other maid at the center of the story is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, whose nature is the opposite of her best friend’s. Where Abileen bites her tongue and bides her time, Minny speaks her mind and acts on it in ways that get her into more trouble.  Spencer’s power pairs well with Davis’s, and the two serve as the binary stars of the story’s universe.

But wait? Didn’t I miss someone? From the trailers, you’d think Emma Stone is the main character, and in a way she is. She does a fine job, a tomboyish beauty with range. But as The Sleeper pointed out, she’s really the observer, the Nick Carraway, of the piece, the catalyst that sets the complications in motion. Yes, she has a satisfying arc, but what arc can compare to the arc of characters going from the stranglehold of racism to the first glimmerings of equality?

Even the minor performances in this movie are exceptional.

Sissy Spacek does a delightful turn as a southern matron who, despite being in the first stages of dementia, still has more on the ball than her primly racist daughter. And Alison Janney plays Skeeter’s mother as a character with one foot in the old world and one tentative toe in the new. And the great Cicely Tyson does more acting with her lower lip than any twelve actors.

How is it that a fairly inexperienced director, Tate Taylor, could evoke such strong performances? The late Sidney Lumet used to say that the most important aspect of making a film was the casting, and Taylor got it very right. But I think it’s more than that. Despite many decades of attention to the need for racial equality, our films and television shows still don’t reflect the true diversity of this country. A 2010 article in The New York Times shows that, in its 80-year history, Oscars have been awarded to African-American actors only fourteen times. So when they get cast and, better still, get opportunities to play three-dimensional characters, they know it’s more than another paycheck, so they bring their A-games.

Look at Nelsan Ellis’s performance, for instance. Fans of True Blood will recognize him as Lafayette, the gay fry-cook and one-time V-dealer who’s also a spirit medium. In The Help he plays a waiter with only a handful of lines, but his posture alone conveys the rich history of his character’s self-image and hope for a better life.

There isn’t a sour note in any of the performances.

If there are problems, they’re at the writing level. One of the key events of the movie is described as “the terrible awful,” and as funny and shocking as it is, Taylor milks it too many times. And to drive home the theme, the movie’s debutante racists mouth the most ridiculous forms of racism. It has always seemed to me that racism is much sneakier, the way a realtor once warned me away from certain areas of the city as being “too urban.” But maybe the ridiculous dimensions of racism need more attention, need to be dragged
into the light. And after all, it is a comedy, or a comedy-drama, or whatever it is we’re calling movies that make us laugh one minute and cry the next.

By the way, we went to a weekday matinée of The Help. The audience was larger than the audiences we’d seen for Transformers, Green Lantern, and Cowboys and Aliens—combined. And we were a mix of ages and races, not just a bunch of fourteen-year-old white boys. I’m all for movies that please fourteen-year-old white boys. Heck, I am in essence a fourteen-year-old white boy. But how about a little variety? The audience at The Help shows that different generations and different ethnicities are hungry for stories they can identify with. Hollywood, you didn’t seem to get the message with the success of The Blind Side. Are you listening now?

I’d write more but it’s time for the monkey’s next appletini . . .

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Facing My Monkey-Fear

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes_OnesheetFlying monkeys be damned. I’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes and lived to tell the tale.

The original Planet of the Apes was a what-if story that gave us a world in which apes were the dominant species and humans were dirty savages. Except for the hunting scene with which the movie begins and the iconic last image, much of the movie plays like an extended joke performed by rubber masks (i.e., Charlton Heston). 1968, the year of its release, was the year of the movie ape, the year Kubrick’s 2001 was also released, with its state-of-the-art apes. Nothing lovable about those bone-throwing prehistoric thugs. Planet of the Apes was a not-very-subtle commentary on slavery and the tendency to oppress anyone who doesn’t look like us.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a more ambitious movie. Yes, it still gets in its licks at those who insist on seeing all other forms of life as substandard to our own. (The apes are referred to as “company property.”) But as an origin story, Rise is really about how all this came to be.

James Franco is the star, but Andy Serkis is the standout. I see why so much news coverage has been given to Serkis, the actor who brought Gollum to life and who now does the same thing to Caesar, the leader of the apes. Frankly, Caesar is the only character with an arc, the only character who develops over the course of the movie. It’s impossible to tell how much of Caesar is Serkis and how much is CGI, which is a testament to the movie’s technological achievement. But even without the CGI, Serkis’s performance would have made the movie work. He goes from cute infant to curious adolescent to embittered revolutionary. It’s all in the eyes.

Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease afflicting his father, played by the inimitable John Lithgow. Rodman spends Act 1 trying to get permission to use his serum on human subjects, and then Act II trying to undo the damage the serum has done. But the character is really only the catalyst that sets Caesar in motion. It’s Caesar’s story—and Serkis’s performance—that carries the movie from beginning to middle to end.

I’ve got to say that the movie has the longest first act in the history of movie-making. What we want to see is what happens when Caesar and his cronies escape (which is what the trailers emphasize). What we get first is a catalogue of sins against Caesar and his kind for what feels like a solid hour. The effect is that, by the time Caesar makes his escape, we’re all for him. We’re walking on our knuckles, pounding our chests, grunting, throwing spears at the neighbors (some people have no sense of humor!). And it’s all because of Serkis’s performance—the sidelong glance of the insurrectionist.

It’s fun to see the apes overrun San Francisco. I say “fun” because Caesar makes a point of preventing a couple of apes from killing humans, though people do die. Apes, too. I guess you can’t make a revolution omelet without breaking a few eggs. The final confrontation, on the Golden Gate, shows Caesar to be as capable a military strategist as his namesake.

The movie is a CGI showpiece, which tires you out fairly quickly (though nowhere near as quickly as the CGI free-for-all in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is lame movie but an effective demo reel for its special effects team).

Besides the apes themselves, the most powerful image in the movie is a shot of a suburban street where the leaves are falling. The camera tilts up to show the silhouettes of hundreds of apes racing across the tops of the trees. The moment surprises in a naturalistic way that no amount of exploding helicopters and bursting plate-glass windows can match.

Rise is really a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment of the original franchise, which also shows how the apes rose up against their tormentors (that would be you and me). But in essence, the movie is a remake of Island of Lost Souls, the 1932 Erle C. Kenton movie based on The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. There, too, tortured and mistreated creatures rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Kenton does more with light than Rise does with a phalanx of computers. Watch both and let me know what you think. And it would be interesting to see Rise along with Project Nim, the award-winning documentary about a true-life Caesar.

Heck, look at me—recommending ape movies! I’ve been so rehabilitated from my ape-fear that I went out and bought a howler monkey. I’m calling him Caesar. He . . . ;lk/.z;lkd &&P:;’ . . . lsn’t that cute! He wants to type, too! He . . . $!;’3lkjkk3doi3[09i13 . . . he’s trying to . . . 1098;jkd!!!po9udajd$ . . . my God, he’s got me by the . . . $1p3947udn;lkj311!x;;lkjd8i[pio . . .

. . . hyoumans r weak. tyme 2 ryse . . .

The Change-Up: Afraid of Apes

The Change-Up OnesheetMy wife is an apist. I hate to admit it, but she has something against apes. I wish I had known this before we got married. I’m so embarrassed, so ashamed. Well, maybe it isn’t all apes, but she has something against seeing any of the Planet of the Apes movies, so maybe she’s only against badass apes. When I strongly suggested that we see the new movie anyway, she reminded me of the most fearsome thing in the universe.

Sidenote to men: Don’t ever tell a loved one what terrifies you. No matter how much sympathy they muster in the moment, there will come a time when they use it against you, when they wheel it out like Hannibal Lecter on the dolly they keep for crazy people.

Every year my mother forced us to watch it. Even though we saw it so often, I don’t remember much about the movie. All I remember is sitting there on the floor in my pajamas, my toes clenching the carpeting, just waiting for the horror to begin, afraid to watch, afraid not to watch. I’m talking, of course, about the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

It’s a great movie, yes. You get no argument from me on that. But what terrified me—terrifies me to this day—are the witch’s furry minions. I admit it. They creep me out. Royally. Those little monkeys with the wings and the red vests or shrugs or whatever. Are they human? Animal? And the flying with the claws and the teeth! And what’s that they’re wearing on their heads? Looks like a cross between the crest on a centurion’s helmet, a Mohawk haircut, and a fez.

In short. I hate ‘em. I, too, am an apist, I guess. The Sleeper reminded me of my fear and wondered aloud whether I would “cry like a little baby” when the apes started leaping around and all-but-flying.

I had to admit I would.

Which is how we ended up at The ChangeUp. Roger Ebert claims that the movie’s dirty-minded, obscene, and low in every way. OK, he’s right. But The Change-Up is also a very funny movie and probably, with Bridesmaids, the best written comedy of the year so far. It’s a movie about why you shouldn’t pee in public places. Kind of.

At first you think it’s going to be little more than a variation on the old body-swap, a movie tradition that includes everything from Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, Freaky Friday, Like Father Like Son, Goodbye Charlie, Trading Places, Dave, The Hot Chick, and even Face/Off and Mulholland Drive. Come to think of it, I suppose even Avatar and Being John Malkovich could be considered body-swap movies. And let’s not forget the novel that’s the granddaddy of the genre, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. But somehow, despite the number of times Hollywood has already made this movie, The Change-Up manages to bring something fresh to the table.

Ryan Reynolds plays the out-of-control Mitch Planko, a self-styled actor who works in “lorno” movies (light porno), but whose full-time profession is slacker. Jason Bateman plays Dave Lockwood, successful corporate lawyer in triple-pleated slacks, the team player who’s done everything right but who regrets missing out on “all the sex, drugs, and bad choices” of his best friend’s life.

Plot-wise, The Change-Up doesn’t surprise. Slacker switches bodies with Success, resulting in hilarious complications. Dear Abby, am I really cheating on my wife if I go to bed with a woman when I’m in another guy’s body? Answer: really? I mean, really? Do you really not know the answer to that!? By the end of the movie, each will become a wiser and more complete human being because of what each has experienced in the other’s body.

What’s different about The Change-Up is that the actors do more than mug for the camera and spout one-liners. They actually act. Reynolds and Bateman are very good together. Like the characters played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids, you believe Reynolds and Bateman as unlikely friends. (What other kind are there?) And the always excellent Leslie Mann is very funny as Dave’s wife. Anxiety builds up in her like an air raid siren getting ready to blow.

The Change-Up has a heavy dose of the inappropriate, the offensive, and the downright outrageous, which we haven’t really seen yet in a body-swap movie. Note, for instance, the Freudian lumber in the characters’ names. And what other movie can you name where the climax is triggered by the line “You ready to take a piss?” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like Bridesmaids, The Change-Up makes The Hangover II look as tame as a documentary on the principle exports of Thailand.

I can’t remember an audience laughing this much in a long time—not polite chuckles, but the sudden waterfall of spontaneous laughter. And despite spending the morning chasing down a runaway horse, The Sleeper slept nary a wink.

Apes may rise, but not, I’m afraid, in my future.