Bad Cinema: Prozac Nation (Dir: Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2001)

“I remember being in a panic one day at school when I realized that I could not even fake being the old Lizzy anymore. I had, indeed metamorphosed into this nihilistic, unhappy girl. Just like Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’d become a six-foot-long roach, only in my case, I had invented the monster and now it was overtaking me. This was what I’d come to. This was what I’d be for the rest of my life.”

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For the 18 – 24 year old version of Jonathon Saia, Prozac Nation resonated more than any other book. I had finally thought someone had crawled inside my head and understood the deep, lonely misery of my depression – a depression that felt unwarranted. A depression that felt self-authored. A depression that made me feel important, like I was joining the ranks of the army of artists who had come before me and used their pain to create beauty. The pale september that I wore like a dress those years, proudly flaunting my depth, my mystery, yet gradually, then suddenly realizing that my salvation, while it may look like it can come from without, really only can come from within.

Wurtzel’s debut memoir is desperately self-aware. She is a brilliant woman who is writing with the hindsight of her problems. She doesn’t justify her irrational behavior as much as she explains it to the best of her ability. Her book is self-indulgent without being narcissistic, extremely personal without being insular, and romantic without ignoring that the romance from the movies is a lie. At every turn, she knows that she is to blame for her problems, yet never seeks our sympathy. What could come off as just another spoiled girl from New York City saddled with the remnants of her parents’ divorce, Wurtzel ends up being the voice of her generation, the embodiment that Reality Bites, an Anais Nin for the ’80s, showing us the complexities of living in the modern world with a cynical eye towards herself, reminding us all that depression – in all of its forms – is real, can affect everyone, and yes, can be overcome.

***

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Lizzy (Christina Ricci) is an up and coming writer with a scholarship to Harvard. Her piece about her parents’ divorce appeared in Seventeen magazine, complete with the heartwarming reunion between her and her father. Only this is a lie. Her father had abandoned her for four years. But Lizzy, knowing what the world wanted to hear and that it would be good for her career, decided to give them the happy ending they sought. Don’t worry about Lizzy. Everything is going to be just fine.

Only everything is not going to be just fine. Lizzy is suffering from depression. It takes over every aspect of her life. Her writing, her relationships, and her health. Her mother (Jessica Lange) tries to help her. Her friend (Michelle Williams) tries to help her. Her therapist (Anne Heche) tries to help her. Even her boyfriend Rafe (Jason Biggs) tries to help her. But Lizzy is deep in her own vortex, unable to see outside of her pain, taking drugs and drinking to help block out what has already knocked down the door and come inside.

While the film adapts most of the conventional scenes – overdosing in the bathroom, fights with her parents, falling in love, and various therapy sessions – what truly makes the book come to life are Wurtzel’s asides; her monologues to the reader regarding her emotional states and her decisions. Of course, these are the first things that always go by the way side when one adapts a book for the screen. These are seen as didactic and laborious for the viewer. But when you are writing a film about the effects of depression, to only focus on the external instead of the battle within her own mind that causes the spiral of events in the “real world” is a horrible mistake.

The film fast forwards through a series of unfortunate episodes that lack any kind of gravitas or resonance because we are not grounded in Lizzy’s struggle. Yes, she has told us that she is depressed. But we never feel that she is depressed. We never understand what that means to Lizzy, what she is really going through. All we know is that she is a mess who can’t get out of her own way. By neglecting the reality of her pain, the depths of it, we end up judging Lizzy, looking on her as a whiny girl who needs to just shut up and get her life together. The film strips any of the compassion we feel for Lizzy in the book and strips Wurtzel’s own humorous take on her disease in lieu of misplaced melodrama, wrought with overacting. She is the only character that is half-way developed and yet she is barely developed at all as anything more than a morose girl, full of promise. And then the film becomes this sudden indictment on America’s obsession with pharmaceuticals without seeing the changes – positive or negative – that Prozac brings. We are TOLD that she is different, but never SEE anything different about her except maybe she is yelling a little bit less at everyone.

Christina Ricci was the perfect choice to play Lizzy, a woman who has made her career on playing angst-riddled teens. Ricci has also been very public about her own history with depression. Ironically though, Ricci seems to merely be going through the beats of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown instead of fully embodying it. It’s not that she is incapable of playing a difficult character with layers. DeeDee Truitt (The Opposite of Sex) and Selby Wall (Monster) are both complex, angry, young, confused women to which she has given beautiful life (and been robbed by the Academy for nominations…). Yet Lizzy, a woman on paper that seems to be closer to anyone Ricci has ever played, comes off as false and without an earnest connection.

***

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Prozac Nation wrapped in 2000, yet didn’t get a release until 2004 when it went straight to Showtime. Wurtzel claims it’s because Miramax’s film probably sucked and they were afraid of releasing a dud; Miramax claims they withheld the film from theatres because of some incendiary comments Wurtzel made about 9/11 (“I had not the slightest emotional reaction…I just felt like everyone was overreacting…”). Both may be true, but I have to side with Elizabeth. This movie sucks.

***COLONOSCOPY***

Good Cinema: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Dir: John Hughes, 1987)

All Neal Page wants is to get home for Thanksgiving. To leave the hustle of New York, escape the drudgery of his advertising meeting, and dash to the airport just in time to hop his flight to Chicago.

Then he meets Del Griffith.

Del Griffith, the tacky shower curtain ring salesman who shucks his cheap plastic to anyone with a buck. Del Griffith, the type of man that you dread sitting next to on a plane. The incessant talker who refuses to acknowledge those blatant social cues – like, say, reading the vomit bag – that lets people know you are not listening to their gibberish. Del Griffith, the obnoxious optimist who has an anecdote for everything and sees life as a series of adventures. Del Griffith, the overweight slob who leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor and smokes in the car.

Del Griffith, the unlikely best friend who teaches you something about yourself you didn’t know you didn’t know.

***

John Hughes is the king of comedy with heart. His films are about growing up, whether his protagonists are snarky kids (Home Alone), self-aware teenagers (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles), or immature adults who realize that they still have a lot to learn about life (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Uncle Buck, Beethoven, The Great Outdoors). The greatest example of the latter category for me is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

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Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (the always excellent John Candy) meet-cute when Neal, rushing for a cab, trips over Del’s grip. Desperately late for his flight, Neal haggles with a man to buy the taxi he has hailed. Before either of them know it, another man has loaded his stuff in the back and sped away, leaving a red plastic shower curtain ring in the curb side puddle as the only proof that he was there.

Neal eventually makes it to the airport and plops down in the waiting area across from a man who looks awfully familiar. It is Del Griffith. Del, earnestly unaware that any cab theft was perpetrated, apologizes and tries to make up for it anyway he can. A coffee, a tea, a stick of gum, a Lifesaver, a magazine. Neal begrudgingly says thanks, but no thanks and returns to his newspaper. This defeat is the first of many moments where Candy shines as a man whose biggest downfall is that he wants to be loved at all costs. Del realizes that his normal gregarious charm is not going to work as easily on Neal Page.

Neal misses his first flight; therefore his first class ticket is bumped to coach. And guess who is in the seat next to him? Yep, Del Griffith. There he is chatting away, taking off his shoes, and drooling on his shoulder.

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A snow storm in Chicago lands them in Wichita. While Neal calls home to the wife, Del, the chronic charmer, calls his friend at the local hotel and books a room. He brings Neal along, hoping to swing a room for him as well, but of course, they are full. So Neal and Del, near strangers who don’t exactly get along, are forced to share a bed for the night.

Hughes really sets up Del’s character here as a man who lives on the road. He treats everywhere like his home (placing his wife’s photo on his bedside table and leaving his personal items strewn about) and treats everyone like a friend; his relationship with the hotel owner is obviously one of mutual affection and warmth. Just the way Del is greeted upon arrival gives you the sense that these men have shared things over the years, maybe even worked out the world’s problems over a hot cup of Joe. Del has this affect on everyone. Everyone except Neal. Which makes him try even harder.

After Del spills beer in the bed, uses all of the towels for his shower, and makes a series of disgusting pre-slumber noises, Neal finally lets him have it. He is fed up with his stories. Fed up with his slobbery. Fed up with his tacky charm. Martin delivers this monologue brilliantly. You would think a man like Del would crumble at this blatant attack on his character, incapable of saying an unkind word to anyone, let alone hearing his faults flung from a man whom he desperately wants to be his friend. But Candy and Hughes do something wonderful. Del fights back. He holds a mirror up to Neal and without being cruel, shows him to be an insensitive asshole. A man whose job requires him to suck up to everyone and wear a shit eating grin. But not Del. With Del, what you see is what you get. Always. He likes himself. His wife likes him. And his customers like him. He is not changing for anyone. Least of all some white collar snob. This scene alone should have gotten Candy an Oscar nomination. With some defeated clarity, they return to bed and shut out the light, like a married couple with nowhere else to turn but each other.

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The next morning, Del and Neal awaken snuggled up like love birds. Of course, the two men jump out of bed disgusted that they were ever so intimately entwined. Today, it would read as pretty homophobic and over the top, but I think Hughes handles this moment the best way he could in the 1980s. They have their freak out and then return to their lives.

With planes grounded in Chicago, the boys decide that land transportation is going to be their best bet. So they hop a train. Del naturally books the tickets with his friends at the station, but the new girl doesn’t seat them together. Neal is more than thrilled at this happy accident. They say their goodbyes and go their separate ways. Until the train breaks down a few miles up.

Del secures them a ride in the back of yet another friend’s pickup to the car rental place where again they plan to go their separate ways. But the car that Neal has rented is mysteriously not there. And boy, does Neal let the customer rep have it in the film’s most famous scene.

But of course, Del gets a car and back together they ride.

Things continue to get worse for these two as they are robbed by some kid and their car erupts in flames, forcing them to hitch a ride in the dead of winter to Chicago in the back of a refrigerator truck.

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But through all of the misery, they have formed this bond. Two men who are just trying to get home to their families. Neal has learned how to be humble and Del has learned to have a few boundaries. They tenderly embrace and send their love to each other’s wives.

As Neal finally gets his long-awaited moment of silence, he reflects on his time with Del. Suddenly, he realizes what has been going on here all along. He rushes back to the train platform.

And there is Del, alone and lost with nothing but his luggage. He has no home. His beloved wife Marie has been dead for eight years. And Del has been roaming ever since, reaching out to share his love with anyone he can.

Cut to Neal and Del carrying Del’s baggage – the thing that first began this crazy journey of self-discovery – together down Neal’s street. They enter to a crowd of love. Neal’s wife Susan descends the stairs. Neal proudly whispers, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.” And Susan, with so much wisdom, so much empathy, whispers back, “Hello, Mr. Griffith.” Hughes ends the film on Del’s face. After so many years of searching, he has finally found a home.

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***

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

Bad Cinema: Tyler Perry’s Temptation – Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (Dir: Tyler Perry, 2013)

In David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Tyler Perry plays Ben Affleck’s attorney. There isn’t much to his character, but Perry proves one thing: he is capable of capturing our attention without donning a dress and mugging as a Mammy.

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Tyler Perry is one of the hardest working men in show business. He has four TV series currently on the air, has Oprah in his back pocket, recently produced his 19th play, and cranks out movies at a faster clip then Woody Allen. And if he we are talking dollars and cents, Tyler Perry is easily the most successful black filmmaker and producer in film history (sorry Spike…).

Unfortunately, he achieves these accolades by, as Mr. Lee says, engaging in “coonery buffoonery”. While Perry is definitely to be commended for making his black characters smart, sophisticated, and beautiful and giving them prestigious careers like doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, Perry then simultaneously turns around and punishes his successful characters if they ever turn their hearts away from the almighty wrath of the Lord. Through Him all is possible and without Him, all is lost. His favorite sin to exploit is adultery and his favorite method of punishment is HIV. Never one for subtlety, Perry hits you over the head with his proselytizing, ruining any chance of walking away from his film’s feeling empathy or love for his characters or their struggles.

Now, I realize that I am not his “traditional” audience. One, I am white. Two, I am an atheist. And three, I am a homosexual – although if Tyler would come correct, I would at least we included in that demographic (Who are you fooling, Tyler? You have way too many half-naked ripped men in your films for this to be an accident…).

With very few exceptions, Tyler’s camerawork and direction are amateurish and do not translate well to the screen. His framing is poor and seems improvised while his characters are unbelievably broad, shucking and jiving through their scenes like they just escaped from the plantation. I cannot believe how many black people pony up by the millions to be insulted in this way. Perhaps they see it as satire, some kind of Mel Brooks’ style – and forgive the pun – black comedy. Perhaps they enjoy seeing white people made out to be the fool in egregious ways (I guess it’s only fair after 150 years of Sambo and Aunt Jemima…). Or perhaps I am just an overly sensitive West Side liberal that harbors too much white guilt to get on board with this minstrel show. And not to question Tyler’s own religious convictions, but there is a level of manipulation happening in his films that feel like he is using God to sell tickets rather than to spread His message. Maybe I am just too cynical to appreciate earnest Christian belief when I see it. Any way you slice it though, his films feel belabored and insulting.

***

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Emblazoned with his name, as if we could mistake it for anyone else, Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor starts off promising. It tells the story of Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a marriage counselor whose own ex-marital dalliance costs her her husband and her health.

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Judith, nowhere close to living up to the strength of her Biblical predecessor, mopes through her soul sucking job at a matchmaking firm, mopes through her mediocre marriage to a pharmacist, and rolls her eyes at God – yet stands in self-righteous indignation that anyone would dream of having sex outside of wedlock.

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Enter Harley (gorgeous gorgeous Robbie Jones), a millionaire who is looking to invest in their company. Janice (Vanessa Williams) sticks him with Judith to come up with some kind of computer program. It is unclear exactly what this is for when she has already built a compatibility survey that does the same thing. No matter. It’s all a convoluted conceit to get them to flirt with one another and to unwittingly share details about their personal lives.

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Trouble is a foot at home with Brice (Tyler Perry stalwart Lance Gross – a very misleading name, I might add). She feels he doesn’t emotionally support her. She is bored with their lovemaking. She is upset that he doesn’t yell back at cat callers in the street. She is pissed they he forgot her birthday (OK, this one is pretty bad). And she feels stuck at her job because he doesn’t make enough money to help her open her own practice. Welcome to marriage, honey. And after six years of marriage, you need something to shake you up and make you take hold. So she puts on her fuck me pumps and struts into the arms of Harley.

Now, what’s funny is that she goes on this sexual journey with another man in retaliation for her husband’s “neglect” and a cry for his attention, yet SHE is the one who ends up paying for it in the end. This could not be just some normal affair where everyone grows and figures out their shit and realizes that maybe Oz isn’t all it is cracked up to be. No, no. Not in a Tyler Perry movie. Judith is punished in the worst way possible.

Despite the warnings from her mother, the Rev. Sarah (Ella Joyce), Judith cajoles with the Devil (and Tyler actually paints him as Satan, complete with a conveniently prominent fire during a drug-fueled orgy – see the poster for further proof…). She is verbally abused by Harley, yet takes it because apparently the D is that good. And she has never had a man taking charge like this. She is excited, enticed, turned on by his brute masculinity. He takes her to New Orleans where she experiences alcohol for possibly the first time. He gives her cocaine. He has awakened this new and daring side of her. And then he almost beats her to death when she threatens to leave. Oh, and gives her HIV.

The film of course ends up with her returning to church with her Mama where she belongs. But not until picking up her T-cell meds from her local pharmacist. I bet you can’t guess who…

***

In Temptation‘s defense, it is definitely a step forward cinematically for its director. It has this sweeping cinematography complete with a sepia lushness, dripping with eroticism; the perfect look for a romantic drama. There are moments that you feel like he had an Adrian Lyne marathon right before shooting began. And the acting has some really great scenes; the two leads are excellent throughout their cat and mouse seduction. Their passion seeps through the screen, leaving you feel spent.

But of course where the film falters – as all Tyler Perry films do – is its writing. Now, I am not (merely) attacking Temptation for its gross insertion of God and His power to heal every ill, yet punish His flock at their slightest transgression. No, Temptation‘s writing is just plain bad. The plot is weak and the dialogue worse.

I must share a few examples:

“If smiles were dollars, we would have had millions.” – Judith on her wedding to Brice

“Sometimes you don’t know who you’re married to.” – the obvious tagline woven into everyday conversation

“You want to growl at something, growl at this sandwich.” – Brice, after Judith comes home horny as hell and wanting it bad

-“I don’t just want a good guy. I want a phenomenal guy.” – Judith to Brice, once again severely not in touch with the realities of marriage

And the litany of ridiculous jabs from Kim Kardashian’s character Ava, a gay man’s take on what he thinks a woman talks like (#pagingsexandthecity):

– “A degree on the wall without labels on your back is NOTHING!”
– “You don’t breath in Hermes!”
– “Is your fashion icon Delta Stewardess?”
– “That’s not make-up. That’s make-down!”
–  “You’re wearing flats? Push me out the window why don’t you?”

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Oh, and of course the film’s message:

– “Thank you for sharing your story with me. I’m going to end this almost-affair and stay with my husband.”

The film is told in flashback to one of Judith’s patients as a warning not to stray. To stay the course and work things out with your husband. Because who knows. You might just end up with AIDS if you do.

Maybe some day Tyler Perry will realize that he is capable of getting our attention with good storytelling and craftsmanship instead of schlocky moralizing.

***CAR CRASH***

Bad Cinema: Ishtar (Dir: Elaine May, 1987)

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There are a small handful of films that enter the pantheon as abject failures. Some films are considered failures because of their box office returns, movies whose ballooning budgets could not compete with its audience’s apathy. Some films are considered failures because critics have chimed in and told us they are bad, unfunny comedies or unintentionally humorous dramas that test the at times limited perceptions of the journalists who become our taste makers. Ishtar is considered both, a film that has become short hand for Hollywood excess and vain megalomania. The Golden Girls even have a joke about how awful it is.

The story goes that producer and star Warren Beatty backed Elaine May’s newest project – a take on the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road pictures – as a thank you for her Oscar nominated work she did on his film Heaven Can Wait and her script doctoring on his opus, Reds. Elaine May, once known as one half of the brilliant improv duo Nichols and May (with legend Mike Nichols), had been practically blackballed from Hollywood after she was fired from her last film, Mikey and Nicky, for going over budget and six months over schedule. But Beatty believed that May had never gotten a fair shake. So he recruited his friend Dustin Hoffman as the co-lead and the three of them headed to Morocco.

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Problems persisted throughout the shooting, including feuds between May and her cameraman, Vittorio Storaro (who had worked with her and Beatty on Reds and later shot Beatty’s Dick Tracy) over the look of the film; feuds between May and Columbia over the immense amount of footage she was shooting; feuds between May and Beatty over how she was shooting the footage; and feuds between May, Beatty, and Hoffman on the cut of the film, which eventually led all three to have their own editor working on a print. Bad press began to leak about the troubled production and unlike the scandal surrounding the making of Cleopatra (1963), another infamous Hollywood bomb, audience’s stayed away from Ishtar in droves. The 40 million dollar movie ended up making 12 million dollars and Elaine May never directed again.

But what about the movie itself? Does it deserve the bad mouthing, the thumb biting, the complete disregard it receives? The answer is no.

I contemplated including Ishtar in Good Cinema instead, not because it is a great film that needs exposure and recognition, but it is a film that is much better than it gets credit for.

***

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Lyle (Beatty) and Chuck (Hoffman) are two terrible songwriters hoping to make it big in New York. With nowhere else to turn, their manager gets them a two week booking in Ishtar, a mythical country near Morocco, at a restaurant for American tourists and GIs. While there, they get caught between a secret CIA operation to keep an American appointed Emir in power and a revolutionary coup to overthrow him. Shenanigans ensue as both sides look for a map that threatens to create a civil war. The boys are pitted against each other with the CIA trying to kill them for what they know and the leader of the rebellion (Isabelle Adjani – Beatty’s then girlfriend) using their limited intelligence to her advantage. The movie ends with the boys and their agent black mailing the CIA to back their album and a promotional tour in order to keep quiet. And one of them gets the girl. The movie doesn’t say which, and it really doesn’t matter.

As you can see, the plot is all over the place and not what one would call logical. But anyone looking for logic in the film misses the point. As homage, Ishtar captures the spirit of the Road to… movies, which relied on the personalities of Hope and Crosby (and Lamour) to carry the films. While some have complained that Beatty and Hoffman don’t capture the essence of Hope and Crosby – Beatty is too attractive to be the schmuck (or as Lyle would say “s-muck”) and Hoffman is too ugly to be the lethario Crosby – I would once again have to say this misses the point. Ishtar is not trying to remake Road to Morocco; it is satirizing it. If Beatty were meant to be Hope, Lyle would be full of zingers and sarcastic asides; if Hoffman were meant to be Crosby, Chuck would be a lot more assured. Instead, Lyle and Chuck are two complete losers who seem like slightly more functional versions of Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber than anyone else. Casting Beatty and Hoffman against type only furthers the satire and both of them more than competently fulfill their roles, particularly in the New York scenes where we see them write and poorly perform their songs in what feels like real time (the songs were written by Paul Williams…).

The scenes in New York are really where the film shines. May and her cast hilariously lampoon the shuck and jive of trying to make it in the city with no talent. Their act is so awful it could be handled by Broadway Danny Rose. If the film falls apart – and it definitely stumbles – it is when they go to Africa. It’s not that May is incapable of shooting action sequences, but she definitely is more at home with the two person repartee she famously honed with Mike Nichols.

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Some critics have complained that Beatty and Hoffman seem to be winking at the audience; that they come off as removed from the film in a negative way. First off, Hoffman is never winking at his audience. He is too Method for that. But I can see what they mean. The film is blatantly satirical and at times it seems when all else fails they are satirizing themselves, but this doesn’t mean that they are “superior” to the material as some critics have surmised. Does anyone accuse Clooney and Pitt’s constant on camera tomfoolery as “superiority”? No. I think a lot of critics had it set in their minds that they were going to hate this film going into it, knew that the stars and their director were responsible for the negative press, and looked for ways to put the blame on Mame.

At the end of the day, despite the unfortunate legend that surrounds it, Ishtar entertains. In fact, it reminds me of a slightly worse version of Spies Like Us, the really fun espionage comedy with Dan Akyroyd and Chevy Chase as bumbling government agents sent as decoys for an important Soviet take down. But Spies Like Us doesn’t have Charles Grodin. Seriously, I need to see everything he has ever done.

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