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 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.

Horrible Bosses: The Perils of Improv

Horrible Bosses OnesheetHorrible Bosses has a lot going for it: a catchy hook, a talented cast, and a slew of one-liners that would have Don Rickles taking notes. And yet, there’s something missing.

The central idea is a variation of Strangers on a Train, which the screenwriters pay homage to at one point in the dialogue. I’m not giving away anything you can’t see on the trailer when I say it’s about three well-meaning, hard-working guys who plot to murder their horrible bosses.

And they’re horrible bosses indeed, with Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and an all-but-unrecognizable Colin Farrell committing every kind of enormity a boss can commit. In fact, their performances are the highlight of the movie. I mean, we want—we need!—our heroes to succeed at murdering these bosses.

The three friends are played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day with the right mixture of likeability and zaniness. And in smaller roles, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, and Bob Newhart are all great.

The central idea of the movie speaks to a feeling that has probably floated through lots of besieged workers’ minds at one time or another. And as quickly as their scheme takes shape, it begins to unravel, which is just what you want in a comedy.

And the writing is often very clever. Kevin Spacey gets many of the best lines in a role he has played so often he should take out a patent on it. But Jennifer Aniston is very funny, too. And Colin Farrell’s role is an extended visual joke, complete with the mother of all comb-overs. At the showing I attended, they played a preview of Fright Night, in which Farrell plays a vampire. The contrast is so sharp, you have to slap yourself to realize both characters are played by the same actor.

In short, I laughed. Not big belly laughs, but laughs. And The Sleeper stayed awake throughout, despite having spent several hours cleaning stalls and training her new horse.

But I can’t help thinking—now indulge me for a moment—that the movie could have been better. The credits include a few outtakes, and in them, it’s clear the actors are improvising their lines. You see this in the outtakes for many recent comedies, including The Hangover II, Date Night, Dinner for Schmucks, and others. And I can’t help thinking that this sort of thing is only occasionally successful. A talented actor can come up with a funny line now and then, but mostly those lines are going to sound like the funny stuff our friends say when we’ve been drinking (to paraphrase poet Donald Hall); we have to get drunk again to think they’re funny. I notice, for instance, in the outtakes for Date Night, none of the improv is done by Tina Fey, a truly funny writer/actor. I’d like to think she respects the hard work of writing too much to toss off lines from the top of her head (though I’d pay top-dollar for a condo in the top of that head). [Note: OK, I checked—I’m wrong. She does some very funny improv during the credits.]

It’s almost as if movie producers sometimes buy a comedy script that has an inherently funny idea but may not be executed all that well. They must think that a cast of talented improv actors will punch up the script on the fly, during shooting. Which results in lines that are funny sort-of, but never funny ha-ha.

Or maybe the problem is we’ve seen too many of these bad boy comedies. The characters, plots, and world-views run together. If I’m not mistaken, our country’s subtitle is “Men Behaving Badly.”

One of the things that makes Bridesmaids so appealing was the fact that it’s about women. In bad boy comedies, the women are never more than prostitutes or disapproving voices on the other end of a phone. Bridesmaids is about more than its one-liners and shocking visuals; it’s about the nature of women’s friendships and about how hard it is to find love and fulfillment. In other words, it’s got interesting ideas and characters who change and grow over the course of the movie.  We care about the Kristen Wiig character, about the survival of her friendship, and about her chances for happiness. In Horrible Bosses, each actor shows up with a clip full of one-liners but not much else.

Still, I enjoyed it. I mean, you won’t find me pounding the ticket counter, demanding my money back.

I just want more.

P.S. Are we going to have these generic titles for comedies from now on? The Hangover, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses. Whatever happened to evocative titles like Throw Momma from the Train, A Fish Called Wanda, and Young Frankenstein?

Hangover Part II: The Funny Fell Off

The Hangover II Onesheet  The Hangover II is about a group of friends who go to Thailand to help one of them get married. They have a few drinks. Before they know it, they wake up in a hotel room with no memory of what happened the day before. It turns out they’re implicated in a murder, conspiring to hide the body; one friend gets shot; another’s face is tattooed and he’s taken advantage of sexually; and yet another seems to have lost a finger and been kidnapped, maybe killed, by Russian mobsters.

That’s right–it’s a comedy. A very bad comedy.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I know the movie is making a gazilliion dollars at the box office, which means many people are enjoying it, right? Well, actually it means many people have succumbed to the hype and paid to see it. Not the same thing as enjoying it. I heard no laughter in the half-crowded theater, only a few expressions of good-natured revulsion.at some of the movie’s more blatant attempts to shock the audience. This movie is no more than a lame haunted house in a seedy amusement park.

But maybe I’m just too sensitive to edgy comedies? Listen. I came of age in the Sixties. My generation invented sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. I ain’t shocked by anything. What I am is over-sensitive to bad comedies, to movies that will do anything to assault you at the expense of story, characters, and even laughs.

On top of that, The Hangover II, llike Sex and the City II, is overwhelmed by its exotic setting. The movie takes place in Thailand, encouraging every bad stereotype about the place as a den of thieves, drug dealers, and sex-workers. Even the Buddhist monks delight in beating people up. Message to the Thai tourism board: if you paid anything to the film company to promote the image of Thailand around the world, you need to ask for your money back.

One of the rules of comedy is that the actors should play their parts as if they were in a drama, no matter how ridiculous the situations in which they find themselves. No winking and nodding to the audience. (Are you listening, Jim Carrey, Russell Brand, etc.?) That’s pretty much what the actors do here. The trouble is that the situations are not ridiculous. They’re scary and violent, the stuff of crime stories and thrillers. The Hangover II is a gross-out comedy without the comedy. Over and over, it seemed, the characters took turns crying out, “How’s any of this possible?” and “What are we going to do?” Two good questions. The Hangover II was made possible because you went for the short-end money, probably signing on before you even read the script. What am I saying?–before the script was even written. And what are you going to do? You’ll probably buy bigger houses and go on to make bigger travesties. And here’s another question you might have asked: “What happened to the funny?” Here’s what I think: at some point in the filming, the funny accidentally got lopped off the movie like that finger and rolled under the couch. Apparently, no one even noticed it was gone.

P.S. Hard to keep track of how many times The Sleeper nodded off, since I kept nodding off myself.

P.P.S. Message to Crystal, the monkey: Loved you in Night at the Museum, and is that you in Pirates? Great work! But Crystal, The Hangover II? Did Pacino do Dog Day Afternoon II? Did DeNiro do Godfather II II? You’re better than the room, babe.