Judd Apatow is the Starbucks of American Comedy

schumer lebronSo “Trainwreck.” It’s a fun movie. Lots of laughs. Amy Schumer is a joy to watch, as is (surprisingly) LeBron James. Will LeBron turn out to be Judd Apatow’s greatest contribution to American cinema? Probably not but you never know. The guy’s got game.

But “Trainwreck,” the dressed-down romantic comedy directed by modern comedy hero Judd Apatow and starring the aforementioned plus SNL vet Bill Hader among other fun/good actors, is quite a bit short of being really good, let alone great or even worth talking about once you’re back in the parking lot.

It’s too ordinary. Look beyond (Schumer’s) sharp dialogue and well-timed jokes and what you’ve got is upscale entertainment product. A step-by-step re-creation of standard rom-com beats and characters, right up until the dread sequences of learning and hugging that bring the whole thing to a sodden end.

Five points to consider:

1. Apatow is one of the least adventurous directors, ever. As opposed to Edgar Wright (“The World’s End,” “Shaun of the Dead” and etc., check out the brilliant/hilarious ‘Every Frame a Painting” episode about his work linked below ), even Apatow’s funniest scenes are visually flat — mostly characters gathered in groups of two or four having witty conversations. Hardly anything, or anyone, moves. . To the point where “Trainwreck” would work just as well as a radio show. Really.

2. Bill Hader, for all his talents, makes for a dull romantic lead. He’s good at being bemused, but in this role at least he radiates the romantic need/passion of my dog Ralph, who is currently sleeping near my desk. It’s irrelevant that Ralph farts a lot — apparently that’s expected from any dog with Boxer in him – but he’s much more fun, and less smelly, when he’s awake. Please wake up, Bill.

3. And I don’t think it’s all Hader’s fault. His superstar orthopedic surgeon character Aaron is barely written at all. He’s a loosely aggregated set of psychological prototypes whose central characteristic — he’s like the world’s greatest knee surgeon, so extremely skilled as to be the only suitable option for the world’s greatest, if shattered/torn athletes — is contradicted/trashed by the writers the moment the plot requires a mini-crisis. No surgeon in the world, let alone one whose profile is as high and his reputation as profound as Aaron’s, would EVER do the shit “Trainwreck” requires Aaron to pull. This is Amy’s first movie script but Apatow has been around the track a lot and he should know better. Instead, he did the e-z thing, and now American suffers. What about the children, Judd? Think of the children.

4. Stunt-casting: LeBron works magnificently, and it is sort of better that he’s playing himself. But WTF is the point of tossing in Chrissie Evert, Marv Albert, Matthew Broderick and the other self-portraying celebs? Does Aaron really ONLY know celebrities? Isn’t it lazy to lean on pre-existing punchlines (they’re famous! they’re making fun of themselves, sort of!) rather than write original characters with original personae/jokes/etc?

5. So Schumer’s delightfully louche character (sex-crazed, boozer, pothead, etc) can only find happiness when she renounces her indulgences and conforms to all the Traditional Values? Hmm. Okay. Well, that’s….ordinary. Moderation, as per the vast majority of people, isn’t an option? There is something fundamentally wrong about a sexually-empowered woman? Did you get that from the Texas Republican Party?

C’mon Judd, c’mon Amy. You’ve done so much better. You’ll do so much better. Just please try.

Here’s the (priceless) Edgar Wright video:

 

The David Show: More on David Lipsky’s David Foster Wallace

The David Foster Wallace movie “The End of the Tour” is based on the David Lipsky book discussed here. Originally posted in 2010.

 

The real story in David Lipsky’s “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace)” turns out to be the budding/ultimately unrequited love story between the two writers. Throughout the text, which is almost entirely an edited version of Lipsky’s interviews with DFW in the course of a days-long roadtrip through the midwest, the author is careful to note the evidence of their growing friendship. DFW’s compliments; the many hours they spend smoking, eating, smoking, talking, musing together and smoking some more. “I can’t win an argument with you,” Lipsky reports DFW telling him. DFW frets that every person who sees them traveling together will assume they’re gay. DFW says he’s particularly eager to follow Lipsky’s career now that he knows the extent of everything his interlocutor knows about literature and life.

It’s not like Lipsky doesn’t know what’s going on. DFW is flirting with him, subject-to-journalist. DFW is extremely flattered by the attention,  despite all of his better intentions, and is extremely, almost dysfunctionally, eager to see himself look cool in the pages of Rolling Stone. Lipsky offers these observations in brackets, along with self-lacerating notes about his own behavior and motivations. He’s got a tremendous writer crush on this guy, who is almost exactly his age, has almost all of the same experiences but is just. . . better, in nearly every way.

I ploughed through the book over the weekend, reveling in the scattering of DFW gems among the pages. For instance, here, on p. 198, is DFW on lovelorn country music:

“What if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing is to themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, I mean they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it just to make it salable. . .(but) they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it. Than just, you know, some girl in tight jeans or something.”

That’s exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about DFW, isn’t it? And God love Lipsky for dusting it off and putting it out there where we can find it and realize again how close cultural revelation is, if you know where to look. I look at crappy country music and see a bunch of suburban cowboys in acid washed jeans. DWF looks and sees. . . magic.

And here’s Lipsky tagging along for five days. He knows DFW is him, only better. That they’ve gone to the same schools, focused the same amount of energy into their writing, both emerged as phenoms, shockingly promising from the earliest possible age. Only DFW has been touched by the light and Lipsky realizes he’s reflecting a dimmer glow. Which isn’t to say that he’s a loser, by any stretch. Check out the nuclear-powered author bio on the back flap, with its many awards, top-rank magazines, the one bestseller, drawn from the Nat’l Magazine Award-winning story. It took a while, perhaps, and he’ll never be the rock star that “Infinite Jest” made DFW, but Lipsky is right up there. Way above me, for instance. And so there it is, and the challenge in life is to be okay with that.

The power of the book, and between DFW’s words and Lipsky’s yearning it’s a hell of a bracing read, is how vividly it captures that primal struggle. The quest to be so okay with your inner world that the externals just don’t matter any more. DFW wants desperately to be okay inside. Lipsky seems a bit closer, according to DFW, and also their relative experiences in life. At least the book’s dedication implies a wife and kids to whom he extends a very sweet kind of affection.

But that drive. The thing that pushed and tormented DFW. The thing that makes Lipsky want/need/hunger for his new friend’s approval. The tentative affection they share, never to meet, speak nor share it again. “I never saw him again, except on television once.” A very sad and lonely (to cop a DFW-ism) observation, indeed.

It’s a frustrating book, at times an angrifying one (did Jann Wenner really assign the profile based only on seeing a picture of DFW with long hair? Did he kill the piece for a better reason? Or any reason at all?) . Life is frustrating and angrifying too. Especially when DFW, the accidental meta-critic of country music, dies by his own hand at 46. Hearing his voice again (on the page) is sweet and wonderful and very sad. I don’t want the trip to end. Don’t want the book to end. DFW was the best voice of my/our generation. That fact (to say nothing of the brainpower it indicates) was no comfort to him in the end.

In Ikea no one can hear you scream.

ikea_2-levels

The movie’s imaginary but the trailer is oh-so-fun. Plus, there are meatballs.

Does anybody have a dime? – Your ‘Blazing Saddles’ moment for today

blazing

Toll booth sequence: 30 seconds.

Rock Docs as liturgy: Big Star and Drive-By Truckers

rockdocIn the new Big Star documentary, “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” one of the rock era’s least-known-but-most-influential combos comes with a loser’s tale like no other. A tuneful-but-rocking Memphis band featuring local star Alex Chilton (known internationally for his teenage work with the Box Tops, particularly his lead vocal on “The Letter”) works hard, makes beautiful records, gets head-spinning raves from virtually every important critic in the USA and still flops, badly. Both of the songwriters/visionaries in the band are what you might call less than 100 percent stable, but the real damage comes from the music industry. Record labels go bankrupt. Distribution warehouses are padlocked just as the band’s album is ready to ship. Call them Bad Star and you’ll get the picture. The universe was aligned against them. And never wasn’t.

The film, has great music and some truly fascinating stories to tell — particularly a strangely compelling digression about Memphis’s art-freak community, which deserves its own film. Certain terrain, e.g. the bits that might wound the memories of surviving family members, seem underplayed but that’s a smallish beef. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

Check out the trailer:

The Drive-By Truckers documentary “The Secret to a Happy Ending” has been around for a couple of years but I don’t think it ever played here in Portland and I certainly didn’t know about it until a random Google search uncovered it last Friday night. I rented it from iTunes and stayed up watching until 1:35 am or so, then spent the rest of the night dreaming of stock cars, beer and industrial damage. “You’ll come for the golf, but you’ll stay for the cancer!” then-DBT member Jason Isbell (chunky, baby-faced, sweet-natured and increasingly bleary-eyed and stumbling as time passes) jokes of the band’s north Alabama homelands.

The film is full of such vivid details, and includes more than enough concert footage to portray the band’s powerful-yet-intricate three guitar attack and the emotional/intellectual complexity of  their Faulkner-esque stories. Tales of incest and Biblical tornadoes; of family feuds and race car drivers, of indulgence, sin, sacrifice and the sacred bond of kin. “The duality of the Southern thing,” as co-founder and Garcia-like figure Patterson Hood described it in song. There’s plenty of love on the screen. For all the group’s good ol’ drinking and partying (that witnesses admit to never, ever telling anyone about in detail) they’re also smart and thoughtful artists whose best work — “Southern Rock Opera,” a 2-disc concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the modern south, “Decoration Day” and “The Dirty South” — presents a distinctly new take on the south’s various historical legacies. And this is where the movie falls a bit short. Rather than dig into the origins and deeper meanings in the band’s strikingly original voice, we hear far more about the joys and pains of the road and their fans’ wild-eyed devotion to the group. Typical rock stuff, in other words, which misses the core of the DBT’s animating spirit.

That said, the concert sequences are exquisitely shot, the performances live up to the hype and any two hours spent in the company of a man as sweet and joyous as Patterson Hood is time well spent.