Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crazy love, but not crazy enough

A couple of unrelated observations about crazy people in love.

It's Kind Of A Funny Story (2010) seems to be the official demarcation of Zach Galifianakis as a film object. It is not necessary to have a well-written role for him, or something that interesting or unique for him to do. (The height of eccentricity in this movie consists of patients wearing doctor's scrubs - Wow, is that Zany!) No, you simply hire Galifianakis to certify that your film is quirky and offbeat whether or not it actually is. It's a sad degradation of an artist who is dangerously close to leasing out what is valuable about himself to entities who don't appreciate it. Robert Benchley, one of the finest writers of light humor was an alcoholic who couldn't deal with his belief that he had drunk his talent away and spent the last 7 or 8 years of his too-short life appearing in Hollywood movies not worthy of his talent.

Where he is usually a strange and primordial presence in most films, here he gets heartfelt and sincere advice and has a balanced perspective on himself on his illness, confusing ZG with any old actor out of the casting files. I have to assume the man has tax problems.

What's worse, whether he means to or not, the mere presence of Galifianakis pulls the entire film off-balance and away from the sweet if flimsy teen romance that is meant to be the center of gravity. It's as if you cast Robert DeNiro is the kindly man next door. Not only is it a waste of resources, but everybody will be waiting for the moment when that guy next door goes OFF!

The real problem with this movie about crazy people is that it's not crazy. It does, however, have one of the best-ever uses of the "object of reconciliation." This is a hoary old storytelling device, though it usually works very well. There are lots of ways to get there, but in essence you need (a) a rift between two characters; and (b) an object loaded with significance for one of the characters, but not for the other. It is best if the object is obscure and difficult to obtain so that the character for whom the object has no meaning must go through many trials in order to obtain this talismanic thing and then present to the other at the most emotionally critical point. In IKOAFS, the object is Egyptian music which, upon being played during a party on the ward lures the hero's reclusive and depressed roommate from his room. I don't think I ever saw music used as the object and worked like a charm. Unless maybe it was a song from childhood. Rats, it's not unique as I thought. Still worked.

Elling (2001) on the other hand, does involve actually crazy people, much to its merit. It was the number one film ever produced in Norway, which is why me and all my friends rushed out to see it. (Not really.) Also, it won an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

I sought out this film because it is based on a novel which was also the basis of a spectacular Broadway flop in the 2009-10 season. (To be fair, the play was a hit in London, but in a different production). It tells the story of two men completely unequipped to adjust to life on their own being forced to adjust to life on their own. One seems to be somewhere between autistic and OCD and the other is just a plain old-fashioned foole.

And if Elling had been produced in the 1920s or 1930s, they would have just been a pair of fools. But today we give such characters a medical diagnosis and put them in realistic situations and realistically limited options for solving them. This has its rewards in grounding comedy in the plausible and the natural, but it has its drawbacks in closing off the realm of the fantastical, which was available to the great fools such as Laurel & Hardy, Jerry Lewis and Ed Wynn.

But this is not an American film, it is a Northern European film, a world of limited resources and constricted dreams, compared to the mythos of the great American landscape and dreams of freedom, success and escape which lives in every American psyche. So their adventures -- going on a car trip, having a relationship with a woman, maintaining an apartment -- are plausible and relatable, and the film is likable. But this viewer would have liked an over-the-moon adventure (as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), a little romance, a little poetry.

The diagnosis for both films -- terminal niceness. Could use a dash of real madness.

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