Tag Archives: John Cleese

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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The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.

Anyway.

Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).


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Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an excellent collection of very funny sketches on a theme. It’s really funny. It’s often exceptionally well performed–acted is a bit of a stretch–and it’s got a wonderful tone. It also lacks narrative momentum, which is kind of extraordinary since it’s about the quest for the Holy Grail. The Pythons sort of drain any epical structure. It’s a fine approach. It leads to some great sketches, but it just doesn’t connect all its pieces.

Did I say “it” enough? We needed to get past some things.

There’s a certain meta thing the film does–from the opening titles and the end credits–but it’s just filler between the sketches. The meta element is conceptually amusing, never funny, while the sketches are always funny without having much conceptual amusement. I think one of the transitory cartoons has more depth in a pun than anything in the film proper.

Unfortunately for Holy Grail, the comedic intensity of the sketches is unsteady. The finale is nowhere near funny enough to finish the film. There’s spectacle to it–extremely well done spectacle, probably directors Jones and Gilliam’s best work in the film–but there’s not the right kind of humor. Is everything before it great? No, especially not some of the stuff in the second half of the film when the quest gets more underway. But the first half is pretty spectacular and there’s still some strong material in the second half, just not as much as in the first. And there are some pacing issues with the sketches.

Holy Grail’s other problem is it’s too well-produced. Terry Bedford’s photography is exceptional, John Hackney’s editing is better. The fine production design is part of the joke–these six jackasses are funnier in a realistic tenth century than they’d be in a stagy one–but the editing almost gets distracting at times. It’s too good.

As far as the aforementioned jackasses go–and Holy Grail is jackass humor more than anything else; the idea being you act like a jackass long enough, eventually it’s funny. And Grail waits. Directors Jones and Gilliam take their sweet time waiting for the pay-off. They even joke about it after a while. Because jackasses make you wait to laugh.

Anyway, Graham Chapman’s a fine King Arthur. He’s the straightest man in the picture. John Cleese’s good. Eric Idle’s good. Terry Jones is kind of annoying. Michael Palin’s great, of course. Terry Gilliam’s actually not annoying. I always assume I’ll find him annoying but I don’t.

Connie Booth’s got a nice part in one of the sketches.

Holy Grail is a funny effort. It’s not quite successful–if only because it’s disinterested in trying to be anything but funny, even if it’s smart funny. But not always. Smart, I mean. It’s always funny. Even when it’s annoying.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Gilliam, Jones, and Michael Palin; director of photography, Terry Bedford; edited by John Hackney; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; produced by Mark Forstater and Michael White; released by EMI Films.

Starring Graham Chapman (King Arthur), John Cleese (Sir Lancelot the Brave), Eric Idle (Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot), Terry Gilliam (Patsy), Terry Jones (Sir Bedevere), Michael Palin (Sir Galahad the Pure), and Connie Booth (The Witch).


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The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)

The Great Muppet Caper is rather easy to describe. It’s joyous spectacle. The film has four screenwriters and not a lot of story. Instead, it’s got some fabulous musical numbers. Director Henson really goes for old Hollywood musical, complete with Miss Piggy doing an aquatic number. It also has a bunch of great one-liners and visual gags. The finale isn’t some masterful heist sequence, it’s the Muppets being really funny in their environment and to one another. It’s delightful. Henson is primarily concerned with creating delight. Not entertaining. Being entertaining, being diverting, these two things are very different from creating delight.

Muppet Caper is also technically excellent–Oswald Morris’s photography, Ralph Kemplen’s editing. Henson directs the film in a matter-of-fact, expository nature, then turns it around and makes the viewing of the film engage with the acknowledgement of that exposition. Down to Diana Rigg explaining to Miss Piggy her dialogue is expository. It’s got to be Henson’s way of making the film appeal to both children and adults. Maybe more to adults and their children than the reverse. The human actors relish their roles–and how awesome is it the film pairs John Cleese and Joan Sanderson as the doddering English couple–and their enthusiasm carries over regardless of if a kid is going to fully appreciate it.

Though the best cameo might be Peter Falk just because he’s got an impossible monologue to deliver and he sells it perfectly.

The Great Muppet Caper is about singing and dancing and making people happy. And Charles Grodin having the hots for Miss Piggy. Sure, you need to be a little familiar with Charles Grodin to fully appreciate having him have the hots for Miss Piggy, but only to fully appreciate it. Muppet Caper only gently relies on its pop culture references. The Muppet Performers are so exceptionally good at what they do, at creating these wonderful felt creatures, the artistry is always there. Henson knows how to make this film; his confidence is stunning from the start.

Because it’s a delight from the start. The delight even gets it through some of the rougher songs–Joe Raposo does have a few great numbers, but the rest are mostly mediocre. Muppet Caper is awesome. Of course it’s awesome. It’s called The Great Muppet Caper and it’s directed by Jim Henson. What else would it be.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; written by Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Jerry Juhl and Jack Rose; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Joe Raposo; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by Frank Oz and David Lazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Oscar The Grouch).

Starring Charles Grodin (Nicky Holiday), Diana Rigg (Lady Holiday), Jack Warden (Mike Tarkanian), Erica Creer (Marla), Kate Howard (Carla), Della Finch (Darla), John Cleese (Neville), Joan Sanderson (Dorcas), Robert Morley (A Gentleman), Peter Ustinov (A Lorry Driver) and Peter Falk (A Tramp).


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