Monday, July 18, 2016

FEMALES, FEMINISM AND FUN ON FILM IN 2016

Original caricature by Jeff York of the new GHOSTBUSTERS (copyright 2016)

Why is anyone still questioning if women are funny?

Or for that matter, why are any of us concerning ourselves with the petty gripes regarding such matters by sexist Internet trolls? For almost two years they’ve been foaming at the mouth over the thought that talented comedic actresses like Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig would dare pick up the mantel where Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray left off in the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. The original 1984 movie may be a beloved classic, but giving it a ‘sex change’ is hardly worth all the anger and ink expressed over it. It’s laughable how vicious the hysteria over central casting has become.

So…you want to know what’s really funny?

The fact that the problem with the new GHOSTBUSTERS movie lies not in its cast of McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. It’s in its screenplay.

A rather tepid script is why this much-anticipated remake opened to just good reviews, and not great ones. And that’s more than likely the reason it came in second at the box office. (Although it did haul in an admirable $50 million in its first weekend.) The new take on Manhattan’s paranormal gunslingers isn’t anywhere near the dog that all those S.O.B.’s on the Internet predicted that it would be. Still, it’s not a homerun either. It may be frothy, summer fun, but it should have been a lot smarter and yes, a whole lot funnier too.  

As the saying goes, if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. And the page here is filled with all kinds of errors, from continuity issues to wide variances of tone. You may think that just because it’s escapist entertainment that one shouldn’t judge it too harshly, but even fluff needs to be whipped into a concoction that goes down smoothly. And this one doesn’t quite do so.

For starters, a movie that is a horror comedy should be scary. And frankly, there’s one good scare in it, in the first 10 minutes when the ghost is trying to escape in the museum. The original GHOSTBUSTERS had quite a few frights in it, what with Gozer and those demonic hounds growling during the climax, let alone the genuinely unsettling vision of the satanic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering maleficently through Times Square. I wish this one had more at stake with ghosts other than fear of being merely slimed with green goo. Who you gonna call? More like a good dry cleaner. 

Even a comedy needs decent character arcs too, and this one doesn’t really have any to speak of. Really, what’s at stake for Wiig and McCarthy’s lead characters here? Reconciling with each other after going their own ways? Well, that happens in the first 30 minutes. And after that? Not much. They beat the ghosts back to hell, but still…

Also, both of those women are essentially playing ‘straight’ here. Where’s the fun in that? Why are they both playing the wet blanket, the scold? McCarthy’s specialty is playing the wild card. She doesn’t impress in this confining role, and even Wiig has played prissy and put-upon better elsewhere, most notably that of her wonderful screen work in BRIDESMAIDS. The failure to really utilize either of these great comic talents is not a casting issue as much as it’s a screenwriting issue. If they had better written roles to play they, and the movie, would be more uproarious.

And then there’s the cartoonish miscalculations of the Kevin character, played by Chris Hemsworth. When needed to eke out laughs in the THOR movies, he’s got a light touch and is charming as hell. But here he’s playing the ridiculously caricatured himbo secretary working for the ghostbusters and every scene he’s in brings the movie to a screeching halt with how utterly dumb his character is written. He doesn’t know how to answer a phone? That’s funny? And to make matters worse, the worthless villain of the piece (not even worth going into) becomes a ghost and inhabits Kevin so we have to watch Hemsworth strain to be a vampy villain. He's directed to pummel every joke with more impact than Thor's hammer. Painful!

Kate McKinnon comes very close to playing a cartoon herself here, though one could argue she’s just exploiting a certain New Yorker kind of eccentricity. She’s amusing, lurking around the edges of the frame like the bastard child of Harpo Marx and a Manson girl, but more often than not she doesn’t seem to exist in the same world as her ghost hunting cohorts. Zany can be grounded, just look at Zach Galifianakis’ character in THE HANGOVER. He was odd and outrageous, but he still stayed tethered to the other players. Here, McKinnon struggles to define her character as a believable creature. 

And heavens, where are the quips? Bill Murray riffed through the first one like a modern Groucho Marx. He was playing the scene and making fun of it at the same time. No character gets that fun task here. As for any clever dialogue, forget it. A few scattershot lines register, seen in the trailer so there’s no surprise, and instead laziness seems to seep in far too often. When McCarthy has the invading ghost who's taken over her body EXORCIST-style slapped out of her by Jones, all she can say is, “Oooo, that’s going to leave a mark.” Really? That 's the line? That line that has been around for two decades? It was most memorably uttered, of course, by Chris Farley in 1995’s TOMMY BOY, but joke writing today shouldn't simply reboot old lines too. At least if you’re going to use that line, create a running gag where McCarthy’s face shows a mark and everyone asks about it. Instead, that opportunity dies on the vine too.

Did the studio interfere? Did director Paul Feig and fellow screenwriter Katie Dipold overreact to all the web complaining? They acknowledge it more than once in the film, so it would seem so. It’s unfortunate, as is the clumsy editing, not to mention the egregious continuity errors that none of Feig’s previous work ever suffered from. At one point the female characters in this one complain about being called ‘ghostbusters’ by the media and then as they go outside to their souped-up hearse, it’s emblazoned with a paint job that has the Ghostbusters logo on the side as well as the term “Ghostbusters” on the car door. Dumb.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. (copyright 2016)
Two other talented actresses struggle to transcend their so-so material as well, this time Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza in MIKE & DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. Kendrick and Plaza are two of the sharpest and confident talents working in the entertainment business today, and in this dirty R-rated comedy they have a field day tallying up all kinds of debauchery: binge drinking, sexual trysts in the sauna, getting stoned and swearing like sailors. They’re as bad as the boys who are their doofus wedding dates (Adam Devine and Zac Efron). The girls are so hilarious here, they not only eclipse the guys in laughs, but you wish they were the stars of the movie instead.

The film seems to be content with letting them be as outrageous as their male counterparts, but the two talented actresses imbue their characters with sly layers of nuance that Devine and Efron just can’t manage in their creations. The actresses add a sense of hurt and self-awareness to their plight, as if they are doing all the things they do to run away from the boys who want them to be squeaky clean to take them home to mother. Is such pain informed by the difficulty of working in Tinsel Town where every actress is judged just as unfairly on their worth? Even here, these two women have to show off their bikini bods in slow motion, better for all the junior high boys who snuck into the theaters to ogle them, of course. No wonder Kendrick and Plaza paint bitterness around the edges of their characters. They know where they are coming from.

And how wonderful that their characters refuse to conform to those perfect ingĂ©nue types that Mike and Dave want them to be. It’s actually quite feminist in how the girls here stiff the boys, and do what they want, how they want, utterly unapologetic in their hedonism. Well, not until the end when the screenwriters insist on a Hollywood ending where everyone is happy of course. But up until those final moments, Kendrick and Plaza seem to be playing on a whole different playing field. And they're kind of giving the whole movie their middle finger. (I guess they're the ones picking up Bill Murray's vibe, commenting on the movie they're in while they're in it!)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kate Beckinsale in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.
It’s funny, but the best and most modern comedic portrayal of a woman in a movie so far this year concerns a woman from the 19th century. It’s the portrayal of Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman’s sublime Jane Austen adaptation LOVE & FRIENDSHIP that is the true revelation. In the movie, Lady Susan finds herself a widow, and desperately in search of a new husband to keep her in the style she’s accustomed to. To keep up her status quo, she starts an elaborate scheme to get exactly what she wants, even if it requires pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. It’s her only recourse of course, as in those days the options for a widow were paper thin. Thus, she chooses to play their confining game with the intent of beating all the one-percent white males at this asinine and rigged game.

It all makes for a hilarious comedy of manners, as Lady Susan has only her brain and verbal dexterity as a weapon to fight society, but my what weapons they are. And use them she does, with the precision of a ninja, to cajole and convince everyone that her way is the best way and to get exactly what she feels she's due.

Kate Beckinsale has never been better on screen, clearly delighting in all of these verbal acrobatics, and she stays controlled and deliciously cool the whole time. (If there’s any justice in awards season, she’ll be remembered come winter.) We root for her to win, even though Lady Susan is actually quite monstrous. But this vampire, leeching off of the kindness and gullibility of the upper class, never bares her fangs. And Stallman keeps it all subtle and straight too as he refuses to let her show sideways glances or arch a knowing eyebrow. He instructs her to play it utterly straight, and Beckinsale does so perfectly. She may be pulling off a ginormous ruse, but Lady Susan never gives up her tell.

The closest Stillman comes to commenting on her villainy is in her costuming. She's almost always swathed in black. Sure, it’s ostensibly because she is a widow in mourning, but it’s really there to reveal the color of her soul. Even her outlandish hats are symbolic – they match the huge and outrageous scheme she’s concocting, one she wears upon her person wherever she goes.

She bests everyone throughout, and at the end, surprise surprise, she wins. And without anyone really becoming the wiser to her charade. She’s like a master magician in that, pulling off an incredible trick, yet a feat that no one can truly see how it is being accomplished.

How ironic that in the modern world of 2016, when the argument is still being waged about a woman’s worthiness as comedian or whether or not an actress can properly head up franchises and tentpoles, a 200-year-old comedy sets the best example of how it should be done. All it takes is the right script, a complex female character, and a well-cast, accomplished actress to create the perfect storm for film comedy. Let’s hope there are a few more hurricanes left this cinema season.  

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