Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wain's World

In the annals of filmmaking, the Ten Commandments have proved to be very durable subject matter. Cecil B. De Mille directed two spectacles based on the Biblical story, one silent and one with sound, and Krzysztof Kieslowski made it into a ten-part series, The Decalogue.

But neither director thought to explore the thematic possibilities of the Book of Exodus with prison rape, a summer sex fling with Jesus, a ventriloquist's dummy as a fetish object or a drug-dealing animated rhino. Those interpretations spring from the fevered imagination of David Wain, director and co-writer of The Ten. The movie, which Wain wrote with Ken Marino, is a wildly funny, unapologetically raunchy series of stories, each based loosely — very loosely — on one of the Big Ten, and threaded together by Paul Rudd's casual narration.

Why the Ten Commandments? "It wasn't actually our idea originally," Wain remarks dryly. "The original commandments came from God, and we kind of did a rewrite on it and expanded it a bit so we had an hour-and-a-half movie. It was very solid, time-tested source material."

Wain, 38, whose father is Cleveland radio entrepreneur Norman Wain, grew up in Shaker Heights and lives in Manhattan. He has had a variegated show-business career as a writer, director and actor. He's best known for his 1991 summer-camp movie Wet Hot American Summer, as well as the sketch-comedy television shows The State and Stella. As an actor, he's played roles in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Keeping the Faith and Reno 911! Miami. "I don't think I'm the best actor," he says, "but I really enjoy seeing how other filmmakers work."

Most of Wain’s projects grew from his involvement with a group of like-minded friends he met while attending film school at New York University. With them, he founded the sketch comedy group The State, which turned into an MTV series. After that show ended, Wain and group members Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter formed the comedy trio Stella, which had a series on Comedy Central.

For many comedy writers, humor springs from a deep well of bitterness and despair. Not so for Wain, who reflects that his twisted comedy is the product of a childhood spent in the comfortable, leafy suburbs — the insistent "normality" of which tends to inspire an absurd worldview. "We all grew up in suburban environments," he says of himself and his creative cohorts. "Something about that bonded us together. I grew up in a very functional Shaker Heights household, and my comedy doesn't stem from anger and pain so much as looking at things from a silly perspective."

Silly doesn't begin to describe the surreal insanity of The Ten. The commandment against worshiping false gods is illustrated by the story of a man (Adam Brody) who, as a result of a skydiving accident, becomes permanently stuck in a hole in the ground. He becomes a media sensation and stars in a sitcom (Goin' Nowhere), becoming a sort of "false god" to the public. The law against murder becomes a black comedy about a surgeon (Ken Marino) who kills a patient, and his entire defense at trial is, "I did it as a goof!" The commandment against coveting your neighbor's wife is dramatized with the same Dr. Richie, this time as the prison "wife" of a brutal fellow inmate. In one of the most outrageous sequences, a woman on her honeymoon (Winona Ryder) falls in love with a ventriloquist's dummy, then runs away with the wooden man. Which commandment is that? Oh, yes, Thou Shall Not Steal.

Many of the members of The Ten's cast — Ryder, Liev Schreiber, Gretchen Mol, Oliver Platt — are better known for dramatic roles. Yaron Orbach's cinematography also lends the film a sober look that contrasts amusingly with its ridiculous content. "That was definitely intentional," Wain says. "We also did that on Wet Hot American Summer, and I really enjoyed the results. For the audience to see the actors do the serious treatment of our very silly material, and the way we shot it — I'm pleased with how it came out."

Early reactions to The Ten have been sharply divided. Many people posting online have praised it enthusiastically, while some have walked out of screenings in a huff. Wain is accustomed to inspiring polarized reactions. "My history with everything I've done is that half hate it, half think it's amazing. I think it's the nature of this kind of comedy." He takes a perverse pleasure in a scathing review of Wet Hot American Summer, in which Roger Ebert badly parodied Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" summer-camp song, with the memorably clunky couplet, "Watch David Wain's direction falter/Despite the help of co-writer Showalter."

"I think it's awesome that he took the time to figure out a whole rhyme scheme to say how much he hated the movie," Wain muses about Ebert. "He had a lot of choices. Like, 'I'm not going to review this.' But no, he's like, "Really, I want to eloquently express in a poetic way my distaste for this movie.'" Notwithstanding Ebert, Wet Hot, as it's known among its fans, has become a cult favorite.

Wain's parents are enthusiastically supportive of his work. "Beyond belief," he says. Are they at all troubled by the raunchiness of his material? "I think they are, actually. But it's overshadowed by the fact that they're proud to see their son's name in lights."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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