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The Ever Elusive Balance Of Absurdism, Heartfeltedness, and Dick Jokes

On the one hand, growing up kinda sucks. What a profound and totally not predictable epiphany, right? Mortgages, forty/fifty/sixty-hour work weeks, friends live all over the map, and Kevin Smith movies get less and less funny. I'm not saying he's getting progressively worse as a filmmaker (his latest improves on the pointlessness of 2006's forgettable Clerks II). Rather, I feel I have grown out of his faux-subversive brand of scatological quippage altogether, past and present works alike. I type that sentence with only a tinge of regret, with regards to the original Clerks - a canonical modern indie film geek holy grail of sorts to many. But even that film, which taught my 14-year-old self that dialogue could be both dirty and intelligent, and that film doesn't have to look pretty to be beautiful, hasn't reeled me in for a repeat viewing since my college days ended. Now, his latest, Zack And Miri Make A Porno, is by no means a failure. Rather, it is simply a disappointing amalgamation of the pile-on-the-shock-value content Smith prides himself on and the manchild-has-a-heart sentimentalism that polarizes modern film geeks about the Apatow crop of films today (not to mention he uses Apatow's pal Seth Rogen as his lead).

Now I'm probably more pro-Rogen than pro-Apatow (I prefer the Rogen co-penned Superbad and Pineapple Express to the glossier and blander Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin), but overall, I like the movies that come from his crowd of cohorts. Now Smith did what Apatow got most of the credit for (injecting heartfeltedness into broad comedy) years before him, but I can't help but feel Apatow and co. improved on Smith's formula in a couple different ways: 1) the Apatow crew's onslaught of jokes doesn't always feel like insult contests between linguistically creative but eternally horny teenagers, and 2) the directors, writers, and actors all know how to balance the flow of funny vs. heartfelt, where Smith creates often stilted transitions between busting guts and tugging heart strings. Smith balances better in some movies than in others (Chasing Amy was a valiant and effective but still ultimately problematic effort), but almost always leaves extended scenes (like he does in Zack and Miri) where we're wondering if the funny will ever return and/or if the characters would settle down and act real for a second so we know they're not completely idiotic fantastical vehicle for toilet humor. I wanted to like Zack and Miri (and there are things to like: Craig Robinson, in particular), but even going into it I knew that Smith's self-professed laziness was going to keep me from really admiring it.

On the other hand, growing up is kinda satisfying. And I think Role Models director David Wain (Stella, Wet Hot American Summer) might agree. His troupe of actors and writers, which originates from the sadly DVD-less The State, is hopefully the curve ball to mainstream comedies that will help unite appreciators of the intelligently absurd and the absurd dick joke. Also it might give the Apatow clan some time off to regroup and reinvigorate their ideas before they run out of steam. In fact, Role Models lead actor Paul Rudd (dancing dreamily and hilariously here) is the crossover between the two groups that could just make this dream of mine a reality. Having McLovin in your movie doesn't hurt things either. You see, Role Models isn't just a better version of what Smith's been trying to do for years, or what Apatow's gang's been trying to do recently, but it's a nearly flawless heartfelt comedy, and these buffoons didn't even need to hire art house boy David Gordon Green to make it so. They just took a barebones, completely absurd premise and injected a brand of humor that's been largely absent in Hollywood: the funny kind. Not only that, but it's also wildly eclectic, ranging from physical gags to obscure pop cultural references to absurdist wryness and yes, even dick jokes.

First and foremost, Paul Rudd is a dreamboat. A disaffected, cantankerous dreamboat. His dry slacker delivery is balanced by his buoyant capability to be sweet and disarmingly charming and/or caring. Hopefully he will get his due and become a real life celebrity. Second and duomost, the rest of the cast is equally as brilliant - even Stifler. Specifically the smaller roles, like Christopher Guest staple Jane Lynch as a former coke addict turned mentorship organization manager and the disturbing A.D. Miles as a creepy guy who's reportedly gay for robots, are ebullient with equal parts energy and beautiful idiocy. Which brings me to the ultimate reason why David Wain should be put in charge of saving mainstream comedic cinema: he knows how to be slyly random as much as he knows when the sexuality of a bagel dog can elicit enormous laughs. His knack for nonsensical running gags, highlighting subtle facial expressions that rival some of the neighboring verbal jokes in hilariousness, and mounting a no-holds-barred comedic climax (what goes down in the live-action role-playing battle scene in the film's final moments is as funny as the final nude musical sequence of his last film The Ten should have been, but didn't quite achieve) is both accessible and multi-layered, making for that ever elusive perfect comedy formula.
Last and finalmost, there's that Apatow heart lurking behind it all. It's predictable, yes, immensely so, but the nuances in the characters (both written and performed) are what help it rise above the average problem/short-term-solution/huge-problem/transformation-solution formula that is basically inherent in every broad comedy. These guys aren't supposed to be role models, and they never really become such in a traditional sense, but they're able to bond with the kids who need a constant in their lives through jokes. Great, sex-oriented, ridiculous jokes. They screw up over and over again until things finally work out and they realize the importance of looking out for yourself and for others - big surprise. It's not technical, complicated, experimental, or even unique. But it gets infinitely bypassed by how real the characters feel, how honestly they react to their situations, and really - how funny those jokes are that they bond over. I'm already itching to watch Role Models again, and yeah it's mostly for the jokes and not the meaning, but at least there's real meaning there to make those jokes stick and it simultaneously didn't try to be anything more than what it is: 100 minutes of me almost wetting my own pants. So much for growing up I guess.

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  1. Blogger DoktorPeace | 1:33 PM |  

    Your Zack and Miri comments pretty much parallel my feelings of the movie. How did you write my feelings?

    I'm also a RuddF**ker (what we call our fan group), though I'm not sure he needs any more fame. He may have just the right amount to let him slide around on the tangent and do his thing.

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