Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ballad of Will Ferrell

Gene Siskal often said that the two most subjective genres in film are comedy and porn. No amount of good reviews, Oscar buzz or repeated Skinamax showings can make you laugh at something you don’t find funny, or turn you on with something that…doesn’t turn you on. Even if I don’t enjoy a drama, I can appreciate objectively why it might be a great film, but no amount of arguing on earth will ever get me to laugh at Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the most depressing films I have ever seen.

There’s a certain kind of comedy that I really don’t like. Since I was a child I have been seriously bothered by what I call the comedy of humiliation and injury. I could not bear to watch The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals could make me cry, and to this day I cannot sit through an episode of I Love Lucy without getting a stomach ache. Write me all the complaints you like about how these are the most genius shows of all time. I cannot watch them.

By the same token, I have a problem with “Candid Camera” type humor: placing people in untenable positions and laughing at the result. Call me a wet blanket, but I can’t laugh at people’s humiliation, whether they are tricked into it or place themselves in the path of it. The suspense of waiting for a character to fall into a vat of chocolate and get coated with chopped nuts causes me more anxiety than waiting for Jason to jump out from the closet with a chainsaw. Even now I have moments watching beloved, and fine, sitcoms like Frasier, in which I find it necessary to channel surf away for a minute and not return until Frasier is through making his unwelcome pass towards the barista, or any other form of figuratively slipping on the banana peel.

Since I have a problem with this particular kind of comedy, it goes without saying that I have challenges with particular comedians who excel at this sort of thing. I am so disturbed by Jerry Lewis, I am afraid to visit France. Jim Carrey is the other obvious example. I have enjoyed some of Carrey’s more serious performances, and even some of his (few) more restrained comedies, like Bruce Almighty. But mostly, Jim Carrey makes me nervous.

I will never forget the first time I saw Jim Carrey. It was on the Wayans brother’s hit “In Living Color.” Obviously we are indebted to the Wayans for giving us the most famous Fly Girl, an adorable young thing named Jennifer Lopez, but they also gave us Fire Marshall Bill. In the Fire Marshal Bill skits, Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshal Bill would visit schools to offer kids safety lessons and, in the process, invariably set himself on fire or chop off a limb. (“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you accidentally fill the fish tank with gasoline.”) The first time I saw this skit, I was literally frozen in place, jaw hanging open. What I saw was a man possessed, a man in pain, a man in desperate need of psychological help, and I don’t mean Fire Marshall Bill. It was obvious to me that Jim Carrey was a genius, but equally obvious he was a man for whom the edge simply didn’t exist. It didn’t surprise me when Carrey became famous, but just watching the ads for movies like The Mask or Ace Ventura gave me the heebie jeebies.

All this is an extremely long and roundabout way of introducing today’s topic, which is The Mystery of Will Farrell. The mystery is not that Farrell has become famous, or that he is beloved by the world. The mystery is that Farrell is beloved by me. I think he is the funniest man alive. He makes me laugh. The ads for his movies make me laugh. The crappiest of his films make me laugh. Farrell, by every definition, is a master of the comedy of humiliation and injury, and he makes me laugh until I cry.

The quickest way to kill comedy is to over analyze it, but on the other hand, over analyzing things is pretty much why I’m here. It’s hardly a innovative realization that many of the most successful comedians are angry people. Through much comedy there runs a distinct vein of cruelty. This is something that both Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey have in common. Behind the eyes of Buddy Love or Stanley Ipkiss is a often a desperate rage, or a desolate sadness. Yeah, laugh at me you assholes. Aren’t I just so goddamn funny? You rarely get the sense that Lewis or Carey love the characters they play. They may love playing them, but if they happened to pass their alter egos on the street, they’d avert their eyes. They certainly wouldn’t have them over for dinner.

I think what makes Will Farrell such an enjoyable comedian is that instead of rage, beneath the surface of his over-the-top characters, which he throws himself into with reckless abandon, is actually a gentle soul. Ok, that’s sappy sounding I realize. But you never get the sense that the energy behind his characters is cruel. Silly, self important, clueless or insensitive perhaps, but not cruel. Beneath Ron Burgundy’s swaggering exterior is a sensitive jazz flute player. Old School’s Frank is a loon, but one gets the sense that even while streaking across town wearing nothing but his knee socks and Nikes, he’d stop to rescue a kitten from a tree or help an incredibly frightened old lady across the street.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a fine addition to the Will Farrell cannon. Ricky Bobby, forever scarred by his abandonment by his ne’r-do-well dad Reese (semi-pro race car driver and amateur tattoo artist), is a puffed rooster who lives by the motto “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Bobby’s life goes tits up when his swaggering ways runs him afoul of his NASCR team owner, and a dramatic wreck steals his mojo.

After a good start, the movie actually stumbles a bit in the first quarter. The jokes start to seem not just predictable but forced, the energy is off, and honestly I began to worry that the movie would disappoint. Salvation arrives from an unexpected source, the character of Jean Girard, the French Fermoola Ungh (that’s Formula One for them that don’t know French) driver, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G. I wont say that Cohen saves the movie, which would imply that only his scenes were funny. Instead his character seems to charge the picture, righting the energy so that we’re back to non stop gut busting laughter again.

Jean Girard turns the NASCAR scene on its ear, with his impeccable Italian suits and his mid-race macchiato. Elephant in the room: Jean Girard is gay. Let’s discuss. It’s easy to see where the idea of a gay NASCAR driver could go. Lame jokes about the fag mobile and a pit crew in hot pants and bondage gear. But the movie manages to avoid this. Girard isn’t wink wink, nudge nudge, pardon my feather boa gay. He’s “Allow me to introduce my husband Gregory” gay. Obviously they get some comic mileage from red neck horror at the homosexuals. But they get a lot more humor from pointing out the inherent contradiction of really really really straight men whose idea of a macho fun time is getting piss drunk and smacking each other on the ass.

Recently I had an interesting experience where, in a public setting in a group full of strangers, one of the people made a shockingly rude and bigoted comment about ‘faggots’. Most of the people in the room were stunned into silence, but the person who verbally smacked him down was a little old lady hooked to an oxygen tank. I was awed by this sassy grandma, and also inspired. Not so many years ago, no one would have said anything, and a few people might have laughed. Instead this bigoted butt munch got told off by a granny, and when you’ve got the grannies on your side, you’re on the way to victory. When an openly gay character in a movie celebrating NASCAR is not publicly humiliated but gets to wander off into the sunset hand in hand with his husband, we have reached a sea change.

Not all of the jokes work. There’s a weird bit about Halliburton reps sponsoring a racing team, which might have had some amusing political irony had, for example, the car been a Hummer and the pit crew National Guardsmen. An Enron car with a pit crew in prison garb, that would have been funny too. However, it appears that the actual managers of Halliburton were given walk on roles playing themselves, and I don’t think any of us are ready to find harmless fun in the idea of those guys in the sky box throwing OUR TAX DOLLARS around. Note to Halliburton PR firm: until those guys are in jail, we’re not laughing.

Ultimately however the film is great fun. The film also answers one of the great mysteries of all time: why George Bush suddenly took it upon himself to read Camus’ The Stranger. I will not spoil the joke for those who have not yet seen it, and if you missed it I guess you’ll have to go see the film again. I will say that in a brief moment, my world was righted again. Our President reading works of French existentialists only makes sense if he were inspired by a film about NASCAR racing. I’m only waiting for the quote where he announces he was disappointed there wasn’t more about cars in it.

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