Category Archives: Comedy

Rat Race (2001, Jerry Zucker)

If you had told me there was a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as a plot point (a positive one), I don’t know I would’ve believed it. But if there is going to be a movie with John Cleese in funny fake teeth and Smash Mouth as in a positive cameo… it’s going to be a movie like Rat Race. Rat Race is a big budget situation comedy masquerading as a madcap comedy adventure. Cleese is a Las Vegas casino owner who sends six or seven or twelve random people on a race from Vegas to New Mexico. Whoever gets there first gets two million dollars. Little do the contestants know Cleese has arranged the whole thing as a bet for a group of high owners at the casino.

Though it wouldn’t matter much because the stuff with Cleese and the high rollers is just for interlude gags.

The main race contestants are Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jon Lovitz. Maybe not in screen time (but maybe in screen time, it’s not worth counting), but definitely in extreme gags. Gooding at one point has stolen a charter busload of “I Love Lucy” Lucy cosplayers and Lovitz kind of kidnaps his family to go on the race with him (he doesn’t tell them about the race because he’s Jon Lovitz and it wouldn’t work if he wasn’t a liar). Then there are the couples. Breckin Meyer is a pointlessly straight-laced young lawyer (his character details don’t matter at all) who gets helicopter pilot Amy Smart involved in the race; he’s crushing on her, she’s not crushing on him. Whoopi Goldberg was at the casino to meet long-lost daughter Lanai Chapman; not long-lost but Goldberg gave her up for adoption. Again, the character details don’t end up mattering at all. Once the couples are paired, they’re paired. Like idiot brothers Seth Green and Vince Vieluf (who apparently dropped his agent for not getting him more face time on Rat Race promotional material, but should’ve sued him for letting him do the role, which has him suffering from an infected tongue ring piercing and unintelligible the whole time—Andy Breckman’s screenplay never goes cheap or obvious when it can do both at once). Green’s the weasel, Vieluf’s the dumb lug. Evil George and Lenny, basically. They talk about splitting up for about a half hour of the film’s near two hour runtime but never actually get around to it. Breckman’s script also has its red herrings to fill runtime.

Because somehow it matters Rat Race goes on for near two hours? Like the runtime is going to give it legitimacy.

The last contestant is Rowan Atkinson, who appears to have done Rat Race in yet another attempt to breakthrough in the Colonies. Snideness aside, Atkinson’s great. Everything he does is great. Even when it’s in his dumb subplot involving jackass ambulance driver Wayne Knight and a transplant heart.

Rat Race is kind of a catch-22. The subplots are so bland, you need someone as bland as Meyer do one of them. And, frankly, Smart too. They’re both middling. She’s a little better, but only because Meyer’s unable to appear to listen or think. Green and Vieluf do a lot of terribly executed, large scale physical humor. Director Zucker isn’t necessarily really bad at the giant sight gags, it’s just he’s using CGI and it’s poorly done. And Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is bad. It’s more often less competent than competent. So you don’t care Green and Vieluf are one-note because the scenes are so perfunctory, even when they’re effective. Zucker’s got a couple good shots in the movie—establishing shots for the large-scale sight gags—and they’re the same shot. It’s like he has one good shot, but only two opportunities to use it. The rest of the time… middling direction.

Cleese too. He’s really funny. Especially with those fake teeth. But it’s a movie where the joke is John Cleese in some obviously fake fake teeth.

Dave Thomas has a really small part and, much like Atkinson, is able to get away successful. Goldberg isn’t bad, she’s just not successful. The movie ditches her and Chapman pretty quick, after one really funny sequence.

Gooding and Lovitz are both… inoffensive, while managing to also be the least sympathetic characters in the film. Maybe because Gooding’s supposed to somehow be inherently sympathetic because he’s a victim of unfair public shaming and because Lovitz is supposed to be saddled with an annoying family (wife Kathy Najimy wants to see David Copperfeld instead of gamble and spend time with husband Lovitz because… harpy?; the kids are just annoying, but end up being sympathetic because Lovitz is… Lovitz). I already said Atkinson is great. Who else is there… Green and Vieluf. Vieluf’s more likable than Green and probably better. Green just mugs.

Last thing. The music. Not the Smash Mouth performance, which sucks, but the “score” by John Powell, which reuses familiar classical ditties like In the Hall of the Mountain King and some also La Traviata. Trust me, you’ve heard the music. Probably in television commercials because it’s effective music. Just culturally rote. And that music ends up in some big set pieces, so it’s unclear what Powell’s actually bringing to the film other than making it sound consistent with a television commercial.

Rat Race is cheap and obvious but occasionally funny and usually inoffensive.

And Atkinson is exceptional.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Zucker; written by Andy Breckman; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Tom Lewis; music by John Powell; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Sean Daniel, Janet Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (Owen Templeton), Jon Lovitz (Randy Pear), Rowan Atkinson (Enrico Pollini), Breckin Meyer (Nick Schaffer), Amy Smart (Tracy Faucet), Seth Green (Duane Cody), Vince Vieluf (Blaine Cody), Whoopi Goldberg (Vera Baker), Lanei Chapman (Merrill Jennings), Kathy Najimy (Beverly Pear), Wayne Knight (Zack Mallozzi), Dave Thomas (Harold Grisham), and John Cleese (Donald P. Sinclair).


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Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You has four endings. Well, more like three and a half. They’re all good enough endings, except the last one, which is truncated and just reminds how iffy the entire third act has been. Until the third act, the film is going strong. Underdeveloped but affable lead Lakeith Stanfield–the character is underdeveloped and affable, not the performance; Stanfield’s performance is fantastic–gets a job as a telemarketer and finds out he’s a natural salesman. At least over the phone.

The film takes place in an alternate reality (of sorts). Mostly Sorry just seems like its set in 2028 but with technology from 2008. Smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. Actually, they’re not even present until writer and director Riley needs to use one for a plot point. But society is futuristic, in all the bad–and very realistic–ways, with rich White guy Armie Hammer and his company, which signs people into lifetime work contracts. People live in the warehouse, they work in the warehouse, they (presumably) die in the warehouse. And having a limitless supply of indentured laborers isn’t even enough for Hammer it turns out. Riley does really well conceptualizing the possibilities and inhumanity of capitalist greed, though he doesn’t really execute them particularly well. At least not once the third act hits.

Stanfield’s not thinking of signing up for the work-for-life thing. It seems to be more for people trying to get out of debt. They even take your kids. It’s a background subplot, which ends up figuring in a little, but only because Riley forces it. Riley’s not subtle about Chekov’s gun. Guns, actually. There’s also the most popular TV show in the world, where people get beat up on camera for… notoriety? It’s never clear. There’s a fame culture but without the new media infrastructure (even though YouTube gets a big mention).

So while Stanfield’s trying to make the telemarketer thing work (selling crappy encyclopedias–again, there’s no wikipedia?), his girlfriend Tessa Thompson is working on an art show while making ends meet as a sign twirler. She’s got a really undeveloped subplot about becoming an activist protesting Hammer’s work-for-life company. Her art show is also really undeveloped, though sensational when Riley finally gets to it. Thompson is, in general, really undeveloped.

Simultaneous to Stanfield’s rise to telemarketer success is the other employees (including Thompson) trying to unionize. Steven Yeun is the outside agitator who gets things started–by leveraging Stanfield’s success, which comes off as exploitative but goes unexplored–and Jermaine Fowler is Stanfield’s friend who stays true to his fellow workers. One of the big problems, which doesn’t matter because the movie’s so funny, is how unbelievable the telemarketing company comes off. It’s not believable anyone could sell the crappy encyclopedias, so how do they have enough employees to fill a call center. The always good, sometimes exceptional laughs fill in the spaces too wide for suspensions of disbelief.

Once Stanfield gets super successful he’s unknowingly put on a collision course with Hammer, who needs a good salesman like Stanfield. Just like Stanfield, who’s an affable Black man who can talk to White people the way White people want to be talked to. Riley’s commentary on capitalism and its disgustingly obvious roadmap takes precedence over any exploration of race. Race is always present–sometimes it’s on the fore–but it’s always secondary, even when it shouldn’t be.

Just like the comedy in the first two acts covers for the narrative leaps or avoidances, Riley uses sensationalism–absurdist sensationalism–to cover in the third. Because Stanfield doesn’t really get a character arc. He’s on a story arc, but he was so thinly established (Riley leveraging Stanfield’s performance) it doesn’t add up to much. And then three and a half endings muss things up more. Each in different ways.

All of the acting is strong. Stanfield’s a spectacular leading man. Thompson’s good, even if her part is only deep in exposition. Yeun’s good. Fowler’s somewhat inconsequential–Sorry feels like things got cut either from the final cut or from the script; Fowler’s just around. Omari Hardwick’s fine as one of Stanfield’s bosses, though he’s a sight gag versus the other bosses–Michael X. Sommers, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant–who are all absurdly funny. Hammer’s perfect for the part but almost brings too much self-awareness and humanity to it. Danny Glover and Terry Crews are great in extended cameos.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Riley’s direction, Doug Emmett’s photography, Terel Gibson’s editing. Especially Gibson’s editing, which does a lot but without any fanfare whatsoever.

Sorry to Bother You is really good. It’s almost great. But the third act is a mess.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Boots Riley; director of photography, Doug Emmett; edited by Terel Gibson; music by The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Riley, and Tune-Yards; production designer, Jason Kisvarday; produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker, and Kelly Williams; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr. _______), Terry Crews (Sergio), Kate Berlant (Diana), Michael X. Sommers (Johnny), Danny Glover (Langston), Robert Longstreet (Anderson), and Forest Whitaker (Demarius).


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Sensitivity Training (2016, Melissa Finell)

Sensitivity Training is… an easy (but not in a pejorative way) comedy with winning (but not in a sarcastic way) lead performances. It’s never daring, but it has some good laughs. It’s better than middle of the road but it there’s not much exciting about it. Director Finell does a great job with a low budget as far as the filmmaking goes–Finell and cinematographer Paul Cannon have nice widescreen shots, Finell and editor David Egan keep a brisk pace (the film’s eighty-six minutes or so). And Paul Chihara’s music is a great. Very energetic and emotive. It’s impressively executed, given its scale.

Which makes some of the script choices annoying, actually. Like, Finell writes way too broadly even in scenes where she could afford precision. The script’s too conservative for what the film can do. But the script’s still perfectly fine and often really funny. It gives leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jill E. Alexander decent showcase material. Gives them great parts, not great roles. Like, there’s a whole “everyone is a caricature” thing going on even though it’s all about Phillips having to learn empathy after she maybe causes a tragedy at work due to her personality.

Phillips is a very abrasive scientist who appears to be the only scientist in the world aware of an imminent bacterial infection. Sensitivity Training’s sunny world–where Alexander’s daughter, Courtney Fansler, would never actually get teased for having two moms–also appears to have cured childhood leukemia or something. There’s a lot of science going on in Sensitivity Training and it ostensibly means a lot to Phillips, but it doesn’t mean anything to Finell’s script.

Meanwhile Alexander is a sexual harassment counselor who makes sexually harassing men sign apology statements. It’s not until she starts trying to make Phillips empathetic she realizes it’s a terrible job–the sexual harassment thing–and bad. Alexander doesn’t get much character stuff to herself. Finell usually uses it for a joke, which is funny about–say, kids’ birthday parties–but less funny when about sexual harassment.

So most of the movie is Alexander trying to get Phillips to treat people nicer, mostly her lab workers–quietly essential Quinn Marcus (who doesn’t get enough to do) and background filler Amy Vorpahl and Andy Gala–but also her younger half-brother, Finnegan Haid. The stuff with Haid makes no sense in the narrative, but it’s fine. They play well off each other. Everyone works well with each other in their scenes, no crowding.

Eventually, of course, there’s crisis and drama and big-time introspective character development for Phillips, who’s otherwise had zero self-awareness in the film (to an absurd degree but still fine given the film’s soft take on reality), and a somewhat perfunctory wrap-up where Finell reveals she wasted like six of the eighty-six minutes on a total MacGuffin just for a couple smiles not even laughs. So. When the film’s really funny, those laughs have a lot of weight on them. And they hold up.

Phillips and Alexander are both good. But they don’t get anything too tough. Quinn gets the internal subplot but almost no time for it and she’s real good. Amy Madigan’s great as Phillips and Haid’s mom. She should’ve been in it more, especially how she and Phillips play off each other. Charles Haid’s fine as the dad, though just fine. He executive produced the film so if it’s a stunt cameo, it’s not a good one.

Finell’s a good director. Sensitivity Training is a good comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything but amuse, even when it’s got potential to do more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Melissa Finell; director of photography, Paul Cannon; edited by David Egan; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Richard H. Perry; produced by Finell and Megha Kohli; released by Random Media.

Starring Anna Lise Phillips (Serena), Jill E. Alexander (Caroline), Quinn Marcus (Ellen), Finnegan Haid (Ethan), Amy Vorpahl (Joan), Andy Gala (Dr. Hamilton), Michael Laskin (Dr. Donald Pierson), Gregory Itzin (Barry), Amy Madigan (Nancy), Charles Haid (Glenn), Courtney Fansler (Maggie), and Challen Cates (Dr. Laura Stern).


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Mikey and Nicky (1976, Elaine May)

The first hour of Mikey and Nicky is trying to decide if you’re going to like either of them. Because they don’t deserve sympathy, it’s just whether you’re going to like them. It’s possible to be sympathetic to Peter Falk (Mikey) while still liking John Cassavettes (Nicky). The movie runs two hours, there’s maybe fifteen minutes where you can do both those things simultaneously. And there’s time for being sympathetic to Falk, liking Cassavettes. Feeling guilty about both emotions. Mikey and Nicky doesn’t manipulate the audience–it’s very deliberate about how it sets things up, but the one twist comes really early on, with some exquisite foreshadowing from director May, both in the film and her script. And the actors too. There’s always a lot going on in the film for the two leads. The whole movie–not the plot–hinges on how their relationship develops (in a crisis) over the two hours.

See, they’re both in the mob. Though more like work for the mob. It’s not too important. When the mobsters do show up–Sanford Meisner and William Hickey–it’s one of May’s almost straight gags. The film’s full of them, especially in the first act when Falk is trying to get Cassavettes to get out of town and Cassavettes won’t leave his hotel room because he’s been locked up in there for a few days and nuts. As the film goes on–it takes place over like nine hours–the characters get tireder and tireder, more and more stressed. Sometimes it’s with new characters who come in–once Mikey and Nicky starts introducing the women in the men’s lives, it doesn’t stop. They’re completely absent for the first almost half and then the rest of the movie is basically all about how these astonishingly broken and awful men abuse the women in their lives. It doesn’t become the a plot–which is about Falk trying to get Cassavettes out of town before out-of-town and unpleasant hit man Ned Beatty can get him. Of course, they don’t know how close Beatty is getting or even his identity. Cassavettes goes in and out of paranoia for the first forty minutes or so. The way the character development drives the subplots is phenomenal. Mikey and Nicky has some unstable elements–but May’s gently savage about character shifts and plot developments are always wondrous. Like, Cassavettes goes from being this potential scumbag at the beginning to this possibly likable one to a piece of crap as an aside, while family man Falk calling home is the initial scene focus. And the movie’s just got done with the big reveal. Everything else is fallout for the audience, but not the characters, which is just another layer for the audience. It’s breathtakingly.

Most of the movie is about whether or not Cassavettes is going to get killed; you can easily spend a third of it not caring, but also a third of it where you hope he does because he really deserves it. The film takes these vague caricature roles–background thugs–and fleshes them out in miserable detail. The film’s always aware of the crime genre and it respects it, but tries not to interact with it. It’s not against genre, it’s just not genre. At all. It’s comedy. Really, really, really dark comedy.

There are some smiles and maybe even a laugh at the beginning when it’s Falk and Cassavettes kind of being silly. You’re not sympathetic to Cassavettes, somewhat inherently, so you can laugh at him freaking out. But once the film introduces the women… well, you’re rooting for him to be in terror. Because about halfway through the film, Cassavettes takes Falk up to Carol Grace’s apartment. To have some drinks, be mean to her, but also for sex. Grace and the other two main supporting actresses have the hardest parts in the film. They’ve got to create a character where the stars–in performance, direction, script–don’t let them have any oxygen. It’s really unpleasant, because May doesn’t show them any sympathy. The film’s narrative distance to the toxic masculinity it showcases never wavers.

Joyce Van Patten plays Cassavettes’s wife and she ought to have the best performance in the film but there are all these visual flubs during her big scene. John Carter and Sheldon Kahn’s editing averages to be, well, pretty average but when they’ve got to deal with mismatched footage–from apparently two drastically different takes on the scene–it’s not good. They don’t get away with it and somehow they emphasize the mismatch, which is a bummer for the scene given how great Van Patten’s been until things get shaky. It still works for the film, because the film’s not about Van Patten at all. Except in how she’s a victim, just like Grace, just like Rose Arrick as Falk’s wife. See, Arrick shows up early when Falk’s calling home to check in. She’s established. And getting the reveal on her life towards the end is another of the film’s gut punches.

Gorgeous photography from… wait for it… Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Jerry File, and Victor J. Kemper. The styles never clash–five photographers is a shock–and the film always looks right for what it needs to do at a given time. According to IMDb, Ballard did the last sequence and he does great work (he gets to bring in the daylight).

Also impressive is John Strauss’s score. Even when it’s excessive, it always fits. May’s got a great looking and sounding picture, just one with never great cuts.

Of the actors, Cassavettes is better more often, but Falk’s got some amazing scenes. Falk’s best scenes are better than any of Cassavettes’s scenes. Beatty’s fine as the hit man. It’s like an extended cameo. May plays Beatty more for laughs, but mean ones. There’s a lot of meanness to Mikey and Nicky.

So the film gets to the third act with a whole bunch of baggage, with the baggage getting heavier later on as the film transitioned from the sort of black comedy “adventure” or quest to the reflective visits to the three destroyed women. And May delivers on the finish perfectly. It’s so good. Even though the editors screw it up a little.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and by Elaine May; directors of photography, Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Victor J. Kemper, and Jerry File; edited by John Carter and Sheldon Kahn; music by John Strauss; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver).


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