Monday, September 27, 2010

Into the Hollywood Abyss: You Again

The notion, stated by the lead character in You Again, that “who you are in high school determines who you are for the rest of your life” is hardly a new one in Hollywood-land,  but seldom has it been as clumsily dramatized as in this woeful comedy about teen rivalries revived among multiple generations of a California family. We encounter Marni Olsen (Kristin Bell) in a video of her awkward ’90s self, with oversized glasses and acne, being bullied by a cabal of cheerleaders chanting Queen’s “We Are The Champions” as they shove poor Marni out of the school.

Now a young adult, Marni has triumphed by becoming a pretty, successful PR executive in L.A.. Traveling home for her brother’s wedding, she learns his fiancée is Joanna (Odette Yustman), Marni’s erstwhile chief tormentor, who has wormed her way into Marni’s family’s hearts. Through a series of mirthless mishaps, Marni is restored to her bad-skinned, bespectacled high school self, laboring desperately—in appallingly implausible ways that include excavating a buried time capsule—to stop the wedding. Joanna’s glamorous Aunt Ramona (Sigourney Weaver) sashays in, reigniting her ill-defined ’70s-vintage rivalry with Marni’s mom (Jamie Lee Curtis).

The pairing of Weaver and Curtis is the movie’s big draw, but with Moe Jelline’s witless screenplay, Andy Fickman’s feckless direction, indifferent performances by the supporting cast, and some remarkably bad camera work, it’s a rickety vehicle indeed for these veteran actresses. Betty White, still riding the crest of renewed popularity, provides the sole laugh near the end, where she's reunited momentarily with an old co-star, but it’s a dreadfully long haul getting there. — Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hawthorne in Her Side: Easy A

Easy A

“John Hughes did not write my life,” laments Olive Penderghast, a high school student longing to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles rather than the scandalous harlot of Ojai, California’s senior high school in Will Gluck’s Easy A. The sentiment, part of a webcast Olive is making, characterizes this very “meta” movie, which winks at the conventions of movies— the 1980s teen wet dreams of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, and film adaptations of The Scarlet Letter, a 1926 silent version with Lillian Gish and a “freely adapted” version with Demi Moore, in which Moore spoke with an inexplicable English accent. Olive’s English teacher (Thomas Haden Church), opening a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel with an improvised rap, mocks himself for being a clichéd hip English teacher, “just like in every bad movie you’ve ever seen.”

Bert Royal’s irony-laden script has clever, straight-laced Olive acquiring her “filthy skank” reputation by accident. She invents an imaginary boyfriend and fake-confesses to her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she lost her virginity to him. The “admission” is overheard by the school’s Jesus-freak-in-chief, Marianne (Amanda Bynes).

Rumors of Olive’s loose ways spread like a text-message virus. Olive cements her bad-girl reputation by agreeing to let her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), who Olive describes as a “Kinsey 6 homosexual,” pretend he had sex with her so he can dodge the daily beatings he’s getting for being gay. Unwilling to do anything “half-assed,” Olive stages a fake raucous bedroom grunt-fest meant to be overheard by a house party of slavering classmates.

Soon Olive is being approached by all manner of nerds, fat boys and outcasts who want help acquiring an instant studly reputation. They begin offering her store gift cards (one hapless fellow can muster only a 20-percent-off coupon for Bed, Bath & Beyond) in return for the status-enhancing right to brag about having sex with her.

Suddenly awash in gift cards and condemnation (the Jesus-freak students pray for her and mount a picket line), virginal Olive decides to embrace her inner Hester Prynne. Whereas in real life high school girls have committed suicide as a result of such scorn, Olive cuts up her conservative wardrobe and starts wearing sexy improvised bustiers, each adorned with a huge red letter ‘A.’ She struts down the school hallways, turning teenage (or twentysomething playing teenage) heads.

These rather outlandish plot machinations are made quite tolerable by the witty writing—toned down considerably from the original script to avoid an “Easy R” rating—and a winning lead performance by 22-year-old Stone, whose sultry voice and oversized eyes make her an eminently appealing heroine. The supporting cast, too, is superb: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s tolerant, jokey parents, Malcolm McDowell as the beleaguered school principal, and Lisa Kudrow as the guidance counselor who’s a bit of a scarlet woman herself.

This is a movie best appreciated for its texture rather than its silly plot, but as with all comedies, attention must eventually be paid to the story. Combating the calumny of her classmates, Olive realizes she would really rather be romanced by someone like John Cusack in Say Anything, and sets her sights on the object of her girlhood crush, Todd (Penn Badgely), who stays nobly above the gossipy fray. She also muses that life should feature the kind of nonsensical musical number that climaxed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so the movie obliges, providing her with a steamy show-stopper that gets her escorted off the gym floor. As if to underscore how much the world has changed since John Hughes’ heyday, Olive’s dance number is also a commercial for her free confessional webcast. -- Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Robert Schimmel, 1950-2010

It was sad to learn of the death September 3 of comedian Robert Schimmel, 60, after a car accident. This is an interview I did with him in 2002, a conversation that I found very moving.

Death Takes a Holiday

Robert Schimmel, a “comedian’s comedian,” talks about sex, success and surviving cancer.

By Pamela Zoslov

Think of it as a cosmic joke— God having a bit of fun. A guy’s at the cusp of a brilliant career, and he finds out he has less than a year to live. It happened to Robert Schimmel, the comedian. And, this being God’s joke, the timing was perfect. It was 2000, and Schimmel was living every standup comic’s dream. He had toiled for two decades on the yuk-club circuit, won numerous comedy awards, had his own HBO special. He wasn’t yet a household name, but he was generating buzz as a “comedian’s comedian,” a smart, no-holds-barred performer whose straight talk about sex, relationships and matters scatological endeared him to Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern, who made him a frequent (and brilliant) guest on their shows. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Jimmie Walker are fans, and Jerry Lewis, asked to name his favorite comedian, said “Robert Schimmel.”

So what happens? Schimmel gets within millimeters of comedy’s brass ring: his own TV series. Fox wants to star Schimmel in a sitcom, and they shoot a pilot. It gets picked up for 13 episodes. And then he gets the diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a deadly cancer of the lymphatic system. The kind of cancer that killed Jacqueline Onassis. He has a year, at best. “Everything had to go on hold,” Schimmel says on the phone from L.A. — the sitcom, his tour. He endures a series of chemotherapy treatments, and now cautiously celebrates 17 months of remission. In the hospital, needle I his arm, he had a lot of time to think about life, death and comedy. “I found humor in what I was going through,” he recalls. “It’s hard to take if you don’t find humor. If you really think about what it is you’re going through and how terrifying and hopeless it could be, it would be hard to recover from. So I never dwell on the negative.”

If he wanted to dwell on the negative, Schimmel has a hell of lot of material. His life has been a litany of death, disease and disaster, enough to give Job (a guy who never got his own sitcom) a run for his shekels. Born in the Bronx 52 years ago, Schimmel is the son of Holocaust survivors. His 11-year-old son, Derek, died of cancer. At 48, Schimmel had a heart attack. His wife suffered a nervous collapse, and the couple separated after 23 years.

Even his comedy debut was marked by disaster. In 1981, he was selling stereos in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he went to L.A. and killed at open-mike night at the Improv. The club gave him an open invitation to perform anytime, so he quit his job and moved his family to L.A. He drove up to the club and found it bordered up and smoldering from a fire the night before.

But Schimmel figured if his parents could survive concentration camps, he could learn not to be bitter. After his diagnosis, Schimmel says, “I had a decision to make. I could feel sorry for myself, say that life sucks — I have good reason to say that life sucks. But life doesn’t suck. As shitty as it can be sometimes, life is still worth living.
In a way, being raised by Holocaust survivors influenced his comedy. “I’m the butt of all my jokes, which makes me the victim — which is what they were. I learned a long time ago that you get a bigger laugh when you’re making fun of yourself.”

He certainly has no patience with those who blame God. “Every time something happens, the insurance companies say ‘It’s an act of God,’ he muses. He gets the blame. When I go to the Pearly Gates, I want to be standing behind an insurance agent, and I want to hear God say to him, ‘Wait a minute: didn’t you blame me for that fire in Malibu in 1993?”

Like Lenny Bruce, Schimmel exposes what he considers to be the truth about men — that they’re all perverts who will have sex with anyone or anything, and who foolishly expect their women to perform like porn queens. Their fixation on physical perfection strikes Schimmel as absurd. “You’re always looking for something you’re never going to find. Nothing is perfect. Well, there is something perfect: real love is perfect. Then none of those things — sex, size, performance — none of it means anything.”

He is also realistic about success. Having your own sitcom is supposed to be every comedian’s dream, but it doesn’t mean that much to Schimmel now. “You do a sitcom, you’re there for 12, 13 hours a day, five days a week. You could be a household name, like Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld, but you can get stuck in a rut. It means a lot to me to be live in front of an audience, because I’m happy to be alive. A lot of those sitcom guys, you never see them live. Being super-big doesn’t mean that much to me.” If financial success did mean a lot to Schimmel, he says, he wouldn’t have chosen to do such risqué comedy. “I think I’ve done okay for somebody that isn’t really mainstream, but this is me, and that’s what I love doing. I only want to do stuff onstage that’s me. I don’t want to go out there and recite.”

What does mean a lot to Schimmel is helping other people with cancer. Listening to comedy and music helped Schimmel get through chemotherapy, so he is asking fans to bring new or used comedy and music CDs or audio books to the Improv, which he will donate, along with CD players, to local cancer treatment centers.

Comedians always complain about life on the road —Steve Martin once said it was like rock and roll without the chicks — but Schimmel relishes it. “I just finished 14 weeks on the road. I live for it. I can’t imagine not doing it, like I can’t imagine not breathing. I used to dream about it, so I still get goose bumps when I hear the emcee announce my name.

“Knowing you can make people forget about their problems for a little while — no matter if you’re a middle-aged, balding, pudgy Jewish guy that people wouldn’t give a second look at walking down the street. For that one hour, you’re Matt Damon and Brad Pitt.”

But don’t women always say they like a guy with a sense of humor? “Women say it’s number one,” he replies thoughtfully. “Guys usually think the dick is number one, and the sense of humor is number two.”

Going the Distance: Separation Anxiety

Barrymore and her boytoy are bicoastal lovers in Going the Distance

By Pamela Zoslov

The lengthy running time (102 minutes) of Going the Distance, a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and her current boyfriend, Justin Long, coupled with its wearily predictable ending, allows the viewer ample time to think about the relentless demands of commercial moviemaking. In this case, a gifted documentary filmmaker, Nanette Burstein, whose portraits of young boxers (On the Ropes) and high school students (American Teen) were noteworthy for their emotional realism, is given the difficult task of making something new and different from the formulaic story of a couple separated by miles and trying to make a long-distance relationship work. With first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe, Burstein tries mightily to bring some believability to the story — witty, improvisational-style dialogue, an acknowledgement of the sagging recessionary job market — only to be largely defeated by the necessary clichés of the Hollywood rom-com.

One necessary evil is the casting. Barrymore, never quite as talented or charming as her family legacy implies, looks a bit haggard for the ingénue role she’s playing, and Long has a long way to go before being considered leading-man material. Barrymore and Long, despite being a real-life couple, generate little charisma or erotic heat. Barrymore plays Erin, a clever 31-year-old graduate student who is a superannuated intern for a mythical New York newspaper, the “New York Sentinel.” She meets Garrett (Long), an indie record-company employee freshly dumped by his girlfriend, and they bond over shared interests in circa-1980s music and vintage arcade video games. Their budding romance is narrated with the help of a montage of New York romantic cavorting, in which Burstein resurrects split-screen techniques that hark back to Pillow Talk. Six weeks into this romantic idyll, Erin must return to California to finish school (Stanford, no less), leaving Garrett to his goofy pals Dan (Charlie Day) and Box (Jason Sudeikis) and his unrealistic music-industry job.

Another necessary evil is plot mechanics, which require a labored exposition of the challenges of Erin and Garrett’s separation, handled with frequent phone calls, texts, split-screen guffaws over a sneezing-panda YouTube video, sexual jealousy, comically failed phone sex, and occasional sex-charged reunions. Since the couple are less interesting than the supporting characters — the funny Sudeikis and Day, and lovely Christina Applegate (Married With Children) as Erin’s sister, who’s saddled with the sole unfunny trait of being a hygiene freak — our emotional investment in the couple’s eventual success is limited.

The relationship reaches a crisis point when Erin, attempting the quixotic feat of obtaining a full-time job as a newspaper reporter, receives an offer from a major paper that will keep her on the West Coast, leaving Garrett to sulk petulantly in his dumpy Manhattan apartment and consider seeking solace with a pretty co-worker (Kelli Garner). Burstein and LaTulippe’s efforts to bring realism to the rom-com is again subverted: with one hand the movie acknowledges that newspapers are going the way of the buggy whip, and with the other performs a bit of movie magic as dated as the 1980s-style music of the bands the couple enjoy.

Overlong and meandering, the movie has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Naturalistic scenes reside uncomfortably beside slapstick sequences — Garrett dodging wild spray at a fake-tan salon, Erin and Garrett caught screwing on her sister’s dining-room table. And yet, with all its problems, the movie has an appealing texture. The jokey, sub-Judd Apatow banter, unusually frank sexual dialogue (feisty Erin lamenting the problems of men dawdling while performing oral sex, or screaming “Suck my dick!” drunkenly at an angry biker in a bar), strong supporting cast and general amiability liberate the movie somewhat from its genre-dictated confines.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.