Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008)

Directed by Robert B. Weide. Is there any real-life profession more subject to cinematic mythology than the journalist? Is there any wider gulf than the one between the reality of the real-life journalist and the movie journalist? The lives of doctors, lawyers and even models and actors are portrayed more exciting than they really are, but writers -- man, this is a whole other league of fantasy. Ever since Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman tore it up in "All the President's Men," the Fourth Estate has been portrayed as a combination between a funhouse and the Playboy Club.

In a way this movie tries to correct all that by moving "The Devil Wears Prada" to a magazine (presumably based on "Vanity Fair," with Jeff Bridges in the Meryl Streep role being a big prick portraying VF's editor Graydon Carter). But by trying to create a fish-out-of-water plot for earnest newcomer Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), the movie just creates a whole new set of hogwash.

See, poor but earnest Sidney arrives at the magazine to find its writers and editors seem more interested in advancing their individual careers rather than putting out a good magazine. Articles are nothing more than promotional vehicles for media figures who have agreed to appear on the magazine's cover. Sidney is outraged! He offers chance-taking ideas and submits examples of a bold, new direction that are met with sneers and bullying. "I think you know how the game is played," he's told. At one point, a publicist sitting inside a limo closes the window on his fingers, forcing him to his knees on the wet pavement outside. "Beg me to write a profile of my client," she says, before driving off.

What it all reminded me of is people who are bitter about high school. Maybe they weren't popular. Maybe they wished they could hang around with the most visible people or go to the most visible parties, but they didn't. And they imagined that the people who did were evil and loved to hurt others, as opposed to simply enjoying themselves without a second thought -- a line dangerously close to being vapid and among many, an Olympic-quality broad jump over that line.

The real-life equivalents of the journalists and editors in "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" aren't evil, they're just vapid. They're perfectly happy to trade cover photos for interviews, pass off PR as gossip, and pass off exploitation as investigative journalism.

And it doesn't make a bit of difference. In the movie world, when a magazine article comes out, everyone knows about it, the phone is ringing off the hook, people are stopping the writer on the street and either buying him drinks or throwing garbage at him. It's just stupid. In real life, nothing happens. Writers go home. They go to bed. Nobody cares.

To be fair, the only way to accurately film a metaphor for the real life of a journalist might be to set up a surveillance camera in a hen house, where the chickens just sit in pens in the dark, dutifully laying eggs and getting fat. Though who'd watch that?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009)

Directed by Neal Brennan. I have read and heard through Hollywood gossip that Jeremy Piven (who stars in this movie) is an asshole, though the stories people tell to illustrate the point don't sound all that different from any other story you've ever heard of a Hollywood asshole. Which doesn't get him off the hook, it just means that he is probably not a unique form of asshole, just a bigger one than normal.

That's the way this movie is. It's not very good. It's one of those mean-spirited comedies where the characters are all cut from some weird one-dimensional cloth bought from that textile mill the Farrelly Brothers founded 15 or so years ago. If you fill a movie with enough of them, nobody has to have an actual conversation. Each character just needs to lean in every now and then and do something crazy that fulfills their wacky quirk: racist, creepy gay, child molester, sassy black, nutty Asian, evil boyfriend -- you get the idea.

Pretty much all of this flick takes place on a car lot, where I have been spending some time. I crashed my car on Route 128 just outside of Lexington, Mass. a couple of weeks ago, hydroplaning on some slush in the left lane, and sliding across four lanes of rush hour traffic and caroming off guard rails on both sides like a pinball, and forcing some poor soul in a minivan to T-bone the passenger side of my Mazda. Fortunately there wasn't even a ding. Just kidding, it was totaled. So I'm negotiating to buy a Prius, which goes sort of like this:

ME: "Here's a stupid low amount I don't expect to pay for your ugly ass car."
THEM: "Here's a broomstick I plan to shove up your ass, as well as a higher figure I know you won't pay for this death trap that you are a fool for buying."
ME: "How's about we split the difference?"
THEM: "O.K. Want a cup of coffee?"
ME: "I take it black."

And that's how it works. This movie may or may not have been inspired by the 2004 John Landis-directed documentary "Slasher," which I highly recommend. "Slasher" studies Michael Bennett, a sandpaper-voiced sales expert called in by used car lots to help clear out old inventory. As you might expect, a guy like Bennett has a complicated past and some personality issues and "Slasher" exhibits this with a detached fascination.

In "The Goods," Jeremy Piven attempts to portray the same sort of character, make you like him, and resolve the conflict. The problem is that handling this kind of mean-spirited comedy is almost like heart surgery and in the wrong hands it has no warmth, you don't like anybody and it just doesn't work.

Actually, this isn't 100% true. Will Ferrell has a surprise cameo and his boundless charisma pushes through the flick's limitations, easily making his two scenes the most likable, especially the laugh-out-loud first one. Try to find it on YouTube, otherwise don't bother.