Saturday, December 19, 2009


DUMB & DUMBER (1994)

The Writers

Peter Farrelly, Bennett Yellin and Bobby Farrelly

Why It’s Here

I saw Dumb & Dumber on opening night, back around Christmas of 1994, with my brother, sister and then sister-in-law. I vividly recall that after the film, we walked to my brother’s car, and we were unable to leave the parking lot for about ten minutes because all four of us were still laughing so hard at what we had just seen. Several times, the laughter would start to die down, but then one of us would say, through building giggles, “Hey, what about the part where…”, and as we filled the others in on the favorite nugget of comedy in question, we all collapsed in laughter again. We certainly would have all been killed if any of us had attempted to drive in that mirthfully convulsed condition. And that story will tell you as well as anything why Dumb & Dumber is on my list of my favorite screenplays. Is it a new benchmark in cinematic innovation? Nope. Does it spin a complex, compelling, never-before-told story? Don’t be ridiculous. But it’s one of the few films I have ever seen that made me laugh so hard I was literally in pain. It is still, for my money and fifteen years later, the funniest film I have ever paid to see in a theater.

The titular heroes of the film are Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), the two biggest nimrods in Providence, Rhode Island. These roommates are stumbling through a workaday life, getting bounced from a never-ending series of dead-end jobs and saving up money for their dreamed-of pet store (they’re planning to specialize in worm farms, and thus brand their proposed store with the appetizing moniker “I’ve Got Worms”). Adventure drops into their lives when Lloyd, working as a limo driver, gives an airport ride to Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly), a beautiful but clearly troubled young woman on her way to Aspen (when he hears this news, Lloyd enthuses, “Mmm, California…beautiful!”). Lloyd falls in love at first sight, and when he spots a briefcase she has mysteriously left behind at the terminal, he grabs it to return and just misses her plane…though he doesn’t miss the tarmac, as he runs off the jetway to find no plane waiting for him. Mary has seized Lloyd with “that old-fashioned romantic feeling…where I’d do anything to bone her,” and not wanting Harry to know that his main motivation is to see Mary again, he convinces his buddy that a trip to Aspen, “where the beer flows like wine,” will be just what they need to dig themselves out of their doldrums. Little do they know that the briefcase was a ransom for Mary’s husband, who has been kidnapped, and the two dullards are now being tracked by the thugs who were supposed to pick up the money.

Plotwise, that’s more or less it. Like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Dumb & Dumber is a road picture, and the format tends to work well for this kind of comedy, as its rambling nature naturally lends itself to the sort of episodic storytelling that serves this style of humor best. Screenwriters Bennett Yellin and the Farrelly Brothers, Peter and Bobby (Peter also, according to the titles, “durected” the film…even the credits of this movie are funny!), know that to get the maximum comic mileage out of Lloyd and Harry’s adventure, it’s not necessary to lard the picture with excessive plot complications and slamming-door-farce type of humor. In short, the plot is not what generates the laughs here; it’s Harry and Lloyd. These two are, to put it mildly, exceptional individuals. Like Forrest Gump was exceptional. Short-bus riders, I mean. And it’s enough to drop them into new settings with varied characters and to watch how their density explodes the circumstances into humor.

Through the course of their cross-country trek, we see Lloyd and Harry in a variety of venues. They stop at a country diner, where they alienate the waitress by calling her “Flo” (“You know,” a tittering Lloyd reminds her, “like…like the TV show…”) and get into a row with a bunch of hillbilly boys led by the hulking Sea Bass (former hockey pro Cam Neely), who later reveals himself to be, in classic hillbilly fashion, a fan of “manly love”. They get pulled over by a state trooper (Harland Williams) who spotted the open beer bottles in their van and who takes an investigative swig…only to find the bottles are filled with the dismayingly incontinent Lloyd’s still-warm urine. They crash a stuffy nature preservation society party in Aspen in pastel-colored tuxes and top hats, fencing with their walking sticks and accidentally killing one of the society’s endangered snow owls with a flying champagne cork. They can’t even stop for gas without turning it into a bizarre encounter, as Lloyd, spotting two tough-looking black kids outside the gas station convenience store, hails them with the inexplicably hilarious, “Hey, guys. Oh, Big Gulps, huh? All right! Well, see ya later!”

You can see from the above paragraph how easy it becomes, when reviewing a film like Dumb & Dumber, to just fall into writing a laundry list of your favorite jokes. But to be fair, a film like this really rises or falls on the strength of its jokes, and Dumb & Dumber has some of the funniest I’ve ever seen in a film. Students of comedy will tell you that creating smart dumb dialogue and characters is one of the great challenges of humor, and Yellin and the Farrellys have written some of the most brilliant stupidity of all time here. Some of Lloyd and Harry’s idiocy comes on a pretty basic level, their dialogue peppered with malapropisms like Lloyd’s mention of “tea and strumpets” or Harry’s recollection of a “John Deere letter” an ex sent to him. Then there are comic misunderstandings, like Lloyd, who has forgotten Mary’s last name (he only recalls that it starts with an “S”), checking the monogram on the briefcase and declaring, “Here is is…Samsonite! I was way off!” There’s jokes that play rather obviously on the boys’ out-of-it status, as when Lloyd spots a framed newspaper front page, about the moon landing, on the wall of a bar and declares in awe, “No way…” Then there’s Lloyd and Harry’s general ignorance about the realities of everyday life. Lamenting their recently fired status, Harry declares that he can’t believe there are no jobs to be had in town. Lloyd replies, with a scoff of disbelief and disgust, “Yeah…unless you want to work forty hours a week! They don’t seem to get that a heart-shaped hotel love tub is really not meant for two buddies to drink beer in together, and someone should have told Harry that tongues stick to frost, as he spends an entire afternoon frozen to an Aspen ski-lift pole. There are also wonderful moments where the film exploits the warped logic of stupid people. Needing extra money for the road, Lloyd sells a few odds and ends to the blind kid who lives in their building…including Harry’s dead parakeet Petey, whose head has been torn off by the hitmen as a warning. Lloyd figures the blind kid won’t miss the difference, especially since he stuck the bird’s head back on with a generous wad of Scotch tape. Then later, in Aspen, when the boys discover that the briefcase they’re toting around is full of cash, they decide to improve their circumstances with a suite at the poshest hotel in town and a $250,000 Lamborghini. But what’s the big deal? It’s not like they didn’t fill the briefcase with IOUs! Those are as good as cash, right? And of course, there are the expected scatological jokes like the aforementioned piss-drinking cop, but even these achieve a level of overstatement that verges on the sublime. Most memorable is Harry’s experience after Lloyd, jealous of his friend’s growing friendship with Mary, doses his tea with about half a bottle of “Turbo-Lax”, resulting in the most explosive bowel movement in cinema history…taken, by the way, into a toilet that Mary later tells Harry is broken and doesn’t flush.

But see, I’m doing it again! You don’t want me to tell you every joke in the movie, because then why would you want to watch it? Of course, it’s a much different experience to see these gags performed by Carrey and Daniels, who with this, their only film together, have made several major film magazines’ countdowns of the greatest comedy teams in film history. Indeed, the temptation is to credit the film’s success entirely to their work together, to discount the contributions of the writers, and in fairness, there are quite a few moments, like Lloyd’s encounter with the Big Gulp kids, that score their laughs primarily through the playing of Carrey and Daniels. But as I discussed in my earlier review of Happy Gilmore, my feeling is that comedies like this, if jokes were all they had going for them, would probably not endure, and it’s the extra undergirding of theme and character that helps Dumb & Dumber to rise above its genre and achieve true greatness.

Dumb & Dumber, strange as it may seem, has an oddly engaging love story as its driving force. Sure, Lloyd is a dimwit for thinking that one drive to an airport (with a married woman, no less) constitutes a potential basis for a romantic relationship, but his feelings are obviously strong enough to carry him all the way across the country to see this woman again. When he finally reconnects with her, he is surprisingly, touchingly earnest as he fumbles his way through a rehearsal of what he wants to tell her: “I feel like a schoolboy…a schoolboy who desperately wants to make sweet, sweet love to you.” Sadly, but true to form, he later botches this endearing declaration by blurting out to her that “I desperately want to make love to a schoolboy!” Still, our heart really breaks for him when she tells him their chances of getting together are one in a million (fortunately for his feelings, he’s oblivious: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”), and we don’t begrudge him his fantasy, when he sees Mary reuniting with her husband, of whipping out a gun and riddling the guy with lead. In its own perverse way, Dumb & Dumber makes a convincing statement about the foolhardiness of recklessly following your heart.

Early on in the film, the Farrellys and Yellin include a moment that seems at first out of place in this picture, but that we later realize underscores everything that follows, making it matter to us, making us care. Cursing the sorry state of their lives and not wanting to go to Aspen with Lloyd, Harry says they should just stay in town and look for jobs, and he declares that he’s “sick and tired of running from creditors.” Tears in his eyes, Lloyd says to him, “You know what I’m sick and tired of, Harry? I’m sick and tired of having to eke my way through life. I’m sick and tired of being a nobody. Most of all, I’m sick and tired of having nobody.” It’s an utterly disarming moment of seriousness, and it is honestly as affecting as anything in any of Carrey’s subsequent dramatic acting efforts. This moment, immediately followed as it is by Harry’s agreement to accompany Lloyd to Aspen, reminds us of the true dramatic engine of this story: Lloyd and Harry’s friendship. These guys are true-blue, go-to-the-mat pals. They communicate in ways that no one else would understand, or want to (as when they infuriate one of the hitmen, who they’ve picked up posing as a hitchhiker, by assailing his ears with “the most annoying sound in the world”), and they respect each other’s skewed-by-stupidity take on the world. Harry takes surprisingly little convincing to drive across the country to a place he’s never been to, and we get the sense that he’d never have done it if it wasn’t for his friend. It’s also illuminating that the film’s dramatic high points have nothing to do with the kidnapping plot or even with the Lloyd-and-Mary romance, but with those moments when Lloyd and Harry’s friendship is threatened. Harry blows up at Lloyd after, while driving, he takes a wrong turn and carries them halfway back the way they came; he turns tail and starts to walk home, and only forgives Lloyd when he shows up on a miserable little motor scooter that he traded for the van (“You know, Lloyd, just when I think you couldn’t be any dumber, you do something like this…and totally redeem yourself!”). Later in Aspen, when the broke Lloyd and Harry find themselves spending the night in a snowbound park, Harry again attacks Lloyd after finding out that he’s been wearing two pairs of gloves the whole time; as Harry strangles his buddy with his bare hands, Lloyd gags out, “Harry…your hands are freezing! The biggest betrayal comes, it would seem, when Harry apparently starts striking up a romance of his own with Mary. Lloyd’s devastation leads to his dosing Harry with the Turbo-Lax and results in them finding their way into the clutches of the kidnappers. Still, in the end, all Lloyd and Harry really have is each other, and the final image is not a kiss or a wedding (in classic comedy fashion), but Lloyd and Harry walking off down the road together, Little Tramp-style, sure that despite all their setbacks, “Our ship will come in some day.” Laurel and Hardy couldn’t have said it any better.

As a piece of writing, Dumb & Dumber suffers from some of the same weaknesses of many contemporary comedies. The two leads are given the burden of carrying most of the humor, resulting in extremely bland supporting characters who often spend much of the movie standing around watching Lloyd and Harry wreak their havoc (even Mary comes off as rather vanilla, a case not helped by Holly’s unremarkable portrayal of the role). The kidnapping plot, for all its usefulness in getting Lloyd and Harry on the road, does not really interest us in the slightest, and therefore, when the film is forced in the last fifteen minutes to kick in plot-wise and start tying up loose ends, some of the humor drains away and the results are a little fidget-inducing for the audience. And, as for any movie with this many jokes, not all of them land soundly. But the picture does contain one important lesson for the comedy screenwriter, a reminder of one of the central rules of storytelling that some of the best comedies have successfully broken. Screenwriting books and courses speak at length of character arcs, of the fact that a protagonist must undergo change and grow as a result of his journey in order for the story to be dramatically successful and satisfying for an audience. Well, comedies don’t always work that way. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. Many comedies find their humor in the reality of a chaotic, constantly shifting world butting up against a character who, through quirk of personality or idiosyncrasy or, in the case of Lloyd and Harry, extreme stupidity, are unwilling or indeed unable to change. Indeed, in many of these films, it is the character’s rock-solid personal identity that allows them to beat the odds and defeat their foes, who are stymied by the protagonists’ maddening consistency. Lloyd and Harry are a classic expression of this comic principle, as their bumbling, fumbling foolishness allows them to fend off Sea Bass, take out the hitmen, and bring down the kidnappers, as they all the while remain true to themselves and their friendship. Indeed, if Lloyd and Harry had learned some great lesson from their cross-country adventures, the film would likely not work as well as it does. But thankfully, these fellas’ bulbs remain dim to the end. When that Hawaiian Tropic bus pulls up, we think we know where the joke is

going. But then, we don’t know Lloyd and Harry.

Dumb & Dumber was Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s first produced feature. Starting with this film, and climaxing with their 1998 runaway smash There’s Something About Mary, they were arguably the most influential force in American film comedy until 2005, when Judd Apatow made The 40-Year-Old Virgin and switched up the game yet again. The Farrellys’ films established a template of combining knockabout gross-out humor with sentiment and romance that many filmmakers attempted to duplicate and very few came even close to matching, failing to grasp the delicate balancing act that made the Farrelly films work. Most would consider Mary to be the brothers’ masterpiece. But it’s my opinion that, with Dumb & Dumber, they hit their real home run their first time at bat.

By the way, did I mention that Lloyd and Harry's van is shaped like a sheepdog?

Friday, December 18, 2009

DAN O'BANNON: 1946-2009

Anyone who is a fan and friend of science fiction and horror cinema owes a tip of the cap to Dan O'Bannon. As director, actor, visual effects artist and predominantly screenwriter, he was a mind behind some of the most enduring genre cinema of the last thirty-five years. He is perhaps best known these days as the co-scenarist (with Ronald Shusett) and screenwriter of Alien, the 1979 classic that took the haunted-house picture into deep space and created an iconic parasitic alien monster (with a strong assist from H.R. Giger's stupendous creature designs) that has endured through three film sequels, two Alien Vs. Predator spinoff films, comic books, toys, and you name it. O'Bannon and Shusett were also credited as co-scenarists and screenwriters on 1990's Total Recall, the mind-trip sci-fi actioner that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the best roles of his career and made the world safe for three-breasted mutant Martian prostitutes everywhere. O'Bannon also co-wrote the underrated high-tech helicopter action flick Blue Thunder (1983) and the butchered-in-postproduction space-vampire epic Lifeforce (1985), and was the writer and director of the same year's Return of the Living Dead, a splatsticky horror bash that married zombies and comedy in a way that presaged such modern genre delights as Shaun of the Dead and this year's Zombieland. He even worked on miniatures and optical effects for Star Wars, giving him a role in creating arguably the two greatest science fiction films of the '70s. And of course, it all began with Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter's breakout feature as a director, which O'Bannon co-wrote with Carpenter and in which he played the indelible role of the daffy Sgt. Pinback, who spends much of the film chasing a beach-ball-bodied alien and who has a memorably hilarious psychotic breakdown, all captured on time-lapse videotape ("I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities."). Incidentally, he also worked as an editor and production designer on the low-budget feature. All of these things make Dan O'Bannon essential to any discussion of major genre filmmakers in the latter part of the twentieth century. But that's not the reason I'm writing about him here today. The reason I'm doing this is that Dan was also a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration at a time when my burgeoning screenwriting career needed it the most.

In 2001, I was a student in the graduate screenwriting program at Chapman University in Orange, CA. I had just begun my thesis screenplay courses, under the tutelage of the late Oscar-nominated writer Leonard Schrader (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mishima). During one of our first classes, Leonard mentioned to us that the school's "filmmaker in residence" was working on a how-to screenwriting book, and he was looking for a graduate student to assist him with editing and polishing the manuscript, as well as writing several analyses of films he wished to examine in detail for the book. During a break in the class, a number of my classmates, independently of one another, came to me and said, "You gotta do this, man. This is all you." When we reconvened, I told Leonard that I would be interested in pursuing the position, and he told me he'd pass Dan's contact info along to me the next time class got to gether.

Working directly with Dan wasn't going to be that easy, as at the time, I did not own an automobile. We met face to face in the course of my work about a half-dozen times or so, and every time I had to rent a car for the day and drive from Orange County to his home in Pacific Palisades (in later years, he moved away from the hills to a new home ironically not far from where I'm living today). The first time we got together, I arrived around noon to find him just wrapping up a viewing of Law & Order on A&E. About two minutes into our first conversation, Dan asked me if I'd ever taken any psychedelic drugs. I told him I hadn't. He smirked, looked me up and down. "I didn't think so. You look like Clark Kent." And it's nice to meet you, too, sir.

Every time we got together after that, something memorable always occurred. One time, he showed me the mounted sword hung on his office wall, one of several used in the production of Conan the Barbarian. He also let me take a look at several prints of Sir John Tenneil's original artwork from Alice in Wonderland; they were limited-edition pressings from the original engraving blocks, and they had cost him a pretty penny, but Dan said he couldn't resist having them. He was an iconoclast, a creative personality from Hollywood's golden age of artistic freedom marooned in a field now run by businessmen and bean counters, and he was never afraid to blast the dearth of imagination infecting the average contemporary studio executive...or to send a little disapproval in the direction of the audiences for not demanding better from their entertainment. (I remember him once doing an impression of an undemanding modern moviegoer, a series of loud peep-peeping sounds...a blind baby bird chirping for its daily regurgitated worm mush.)

My favorite day with Dan was when I dropped by to discuss Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), a film noir set in the world of boxing, which we would be analyzing for the book. When I arrived, he was just putting a videotape in the old VHS player in his study / office...but it wasn't The Set-Up. MGM was preparing to release a special edition DVD of Return of the Living Dead, and they had sent a VHS copy of the film to Dan in order for him to check out and approve of the digital remastering and color correction work they had done on the print. "You wanna check some of this out with me?" he asked. And I basically was treated to a live director's commentary as we watched Return and Dan spun plenty of colorful anedcotes about the film's production, the actors with whom he worked, and of course, the film's legendary "split dog" special effect.

And of course, we talked movies. Dan was a firm believer in the importance of a soundly structured screenplay, which is no surprise considering the airtight, elegant construction of his most famous script, Alien. Much of his book concerned his explication of "dynamic structure", the principle of screenwriting which he most adhered to in the design of his own work. He believed that his book would be more valuable to the aspiring writer than similar works by Syd Field, Robert McKee and others for one crucial reason. While many other screenwriting instructional writers seemed to fall into the those-who-can't-do-teach camp, Dan's method had been proven by him in the construction of numerous artistically and commercially successful films, pictures that everyone knows and that the other instructional writers even cite in their own works (McKee's Story includes a passage on Alien that runs for several pages). My main responsibility on the manuscript was to view and take "dynamic structure" notes on a number of films, which Dan would then write up in a manner that demonstrated his structural model in action. I looked at films great (Psycho), good but flawed (the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula), and frankly bad (I never realized until analyzing it for Dan what a mess The Phantom Menace is as a piece of writing). As the work progressed over the course of a little more than a year, mostly conducted by phone and via email, I learned a lot about how a master genre screenwriter made his stories tick, and he (I think) came to respect my view of cinema and how his method applied to pictures we both knew very well but hadn't examined closely in such a way before. We were master and student, we were colleagues, and I like to think we were friends.

I also became friendly with his son Adam and wife Diane, with whom I would occasionally exchange emails to catch up on my own career progress. She always let me know that she and Dan were both thinking about me and wishing me lots of luck in my career, as they felt that I possessed the necessary talent and perseverance to make it happen as definitively as Dan had. Dan struggled in the last few years with an increasingly difficult series of ailments; most of my communication with him was done through Diane, as he was frequently in and out of various medical centers. Sadly, the book we worked on together has yet to be published, as Dan had recently been too ill to work on it.

This morning, Dan succumbed to his illnesses and left us. He was 63 years old, three years younger than my own father. has pointed out the sad irony of O'Bannon passing on the same day as the release of James Cameron's Avatar, the latest work from the man who helped to turn O'Bannon's Alien creation from a classic film into a franchise, and a film with the potential to change the genre game in some of the same ways as Dan's own work. For my part, I am left with an autographed copy of Dan's original Alien screenplay (which was titled Starbeast, and which mentioned on a page at the beginning of the script that all of the roles were unisex and could be played by either men or women, thus paving the way for one of the first modern cinema action heroines). And I am left with fine and fond memories of a genuine talent, a mentor, and my first true "industry" friend.

Rest in peace, Dan. In heaven, no one can hear you scream. But hopefully, they'll be able to hear you chirping at them, and seek out better movies in reply.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009



The Writers

Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady; based on the television series created by Parker and Stone; song lyrics by Parker and Marc Shaiman

Why It’s Here

In every truly great film, there’s always that one moment, that one scene or line or image, where it clicks into your brain that this is no average piece of Hollywood product, that what you’re watching is one for the time capsule. In Casablanca, it’s the “La Marseillaise” scene, the moment when Rick begins his transformation from tragic hero to re-engaged idealist. In It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the dinner-table conversation between George Bailey and his father, maybe the greatest scene of adult child-parent relationship I’ve ever seen in a film. And in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the moment Saddam Hussein whipped out his cock and started waving it at Satan, the jury was no longer out, and I accepted that I was in the presence of a modern comedy classic.

To be honest, prior to the release of this film in 1999, I was not the world’s biggest fan of Comedy Central’s deliberately slapdash-looking, cut-and-paste exercise in scatology and outrage (at the time of the film’s release, South Park had been on television since 1997, and it’s still going strong, having just wrapped up its thirteenth season). Though I recognized that there were the seeds of something wonderful in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s chronicles of the adventures of a quartet of foul-mouthed Colorado third-graders, it seemed that too often the show was willing to coast on the fact that the show’s heavy profanity and sexual dialogue was escaping from the lips of children animated to resemble a project from a kindergartner’s art table. There was too much reliance on toilet humor, sometimes literally (one of the most popular characters from the early seasons of the show was Mr. Hankey, a talking piece of poop who comes to South Park to teach the kids the true meaning of Christmas, leaving little shit smears wherever he goes all the while). Though I often would laugh watching the program, I always had the feeling that this was a show that was going to burn out quickly, that once the novelty value of X-rated construction-paper cartoon characters wore off, there wouldn’t be much left to compel people to keep watching. But then came South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and the critical response was surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive, much more so than for the TV show itself. Many of the reviews I remember reading described the film in tones similar to those I detected seven years later in the kudos for the even more rapturously received Borat movie. Critics weren’t just laughing at this film. They were marveling at its subversive narrative, the way it took people’s primary objections to the television show and transformed them into a biting social satire while still rubbing the audience’s noses in all the violence and blasphemy the show always trafficked in…only this time, the f-words WEREN’T beeped out. This wasn’t just a funny movie. This was a movie that was getting away with something. And that, regardless of my feelings about the show, sounded worth checking out.

From the day it first aired, South Park was attacked by parents’ groups, right-wing politicians and cultural watchdogs who expressed worry that the family-friendly look of the show would encourage kids to watch and repeat the “horrible” words that they heard. The series hit the airwaves at the height of one of those every-so-often cultural moments when the content of entertainment was being heavily analyzed for its effects on the minds of the youth. Just two months prior to the release of Bigger, Longer, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two deeply troubled teenagers from Littleton, Colorado (the hometown, incidentally, of South Park co-creator and Bigger, Longer co-writer Matt Stone), showed up at Columbine High School armed with a small arsenal and opened fire on their classmates, eventually killing twelve other students and then themselves. Though obviously the work of two grossly damaged young men, the shootings were blamed on everything from violent video games like Doom to the music of Marilyn Manson, and if the boys had been shouting profanities when they shot their classmates, it’s possible that South Park would have been held accountable for Columbine’s fourteen deaths as well. (Stone was later interviewed about the Columbine High massacre in Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning 2002 gun-culture documentary Bowling For Columbine.) Parker and Stone were clear-eyed enough to realize that when kids are far enough over the deep end to start gunning down classmates, there has to be more at work here than just the influence of some loud music or video games, and that in the face of such tragedies and violence, does it really matter whether a little kid made out of construction paper uses the f-word? From this seed of a concept, Parker and Stone, along with co-writer Pam Brady and lyricist Marc Shaiman, created one of the greatest American social satires ever made.

The world of South Park changes forever when Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman (along with Kyle’s adopted Canadian brother Ike) con their way into a screening of Terence and Philip: Asses of Fire, the new film starring a Canadian comedy duo whose entire act basically consists of them farting on each other. But in the movie, they’ve got a new four-letter trick up their sleeves, and from the first lines of Terence and Philip’s song “Uncle Fucka” (a screwloose sendup of the hoedown-style tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma), the kids can’t stop themselves from spewing all the foul filth that they heard on the screen. (It really must be emphasized here that, in an era when The Simpsons represented as far as American mainstream animated comedy would go content-wise, the sight and sound of these kids using the f-word truly was a shock…and a delight.) The kids eventually get in trouble at school for their new vocabulary, but school counselor Mr. Mackey’s musical attempt to wean them off dirty words doesn’t take, and after another screening of the film, Kenny, who was brutally killed in the course of each early episode of the show, here dies by trying to light a fart on fire, just like Philip does in the movie. Upon learning about this, Sheila Brofslovski, Kyle’s crusading harridan of a mother (major kudos to the late Mary Kay Bergman for this ferocious comic voice performance), naturally sets her sights on the most logical party responsible for the corruption of the town’s youth and the death of Kenny: Canada, the home of Terence and Philip’s comedy. South Park’s crusade against Canadian smut eventually devolves into an honest-to-God shooting war, set to climax at a USO show which will feature as its main attraction the execution of the fart-happy comedians. But Kenny, trapped in hell with Satan and his oversexed asshole of a lover, Saddam Hussein (and this was eight years before the man’s actual execution), has learned that the death of Terence and Philip will be the seventh sign heralding the coming of the desolate one to Earth and a thousand years of darkness. So, as is often the case on the show, the kids have to be the voice of reason, uniting their fellow eight-year-olds as “La Resistance” to rescue Terence and Philip and prevent their parents, who have caused a war just to keep their kids from hearing the f-word, from destroying the world.

It is to Parker, Stone and Brady’s credit that, in writing Bigger, Longer, they were not content to merely make a feature-length episode of the TV show. They concocted a plot that depended on the freedom of the film format for its full impact, a story that they could not have told as well on television, and in doing so were able to make a clear, incisive statement not only about the excessive nature of the protests against their show’s content, but about the loss of perspective and misplaced priorities that rule the day when tragedy strikes children and parents look to anyone but themselves and the kids for a place to stick the blame. The war caused by Sheila Brofslovski’s protest against trash television is a hideous morass of carnage in which soldiers are gutted with chainsaws, black troops are lashed to tanks and planes as part of “Operation: Human Shield”, and even the Baldwin brothers and Conan O’Brien are casualties of war. Mrs. Brofslovski claims at all times that she is only on this mission to make the world better for her sons and all the children of America, but it’s telling that during a speech at a Canadian-stuff burning rally, Kyle’s every attempt to get his mother’s attention and tell her about the coming apocalypse is drowned out by Mrs. Brofslovski’s impassioned insistence that this intolerance and violence is all for the good of “the children”. Not only that, she is willing to vilify her own adopted son’s people to try to make his life better, a perfect example of “destroy the village in order to save it” thinking (we even see a newsreel in which Canadian citizens are herded into American internment camps…which would be hilarious if we didn’t remember that Americans actually did this to the Japanese during World War II). Mrs. Brofslovski, who is willing to see the whole world destroyed just so she can be right, is the mouthpiece for the script’s most direct statements of the writers’ theme of society’s misguided blame-placing in the face of tragedy. In the final line of the Oscar-nominated song “Blame Canada”, she leads her fellow South Park parents in singing, “We must blame them and cause a fuss / before somebody thinks of blaming us!” Later, in a speech at the USO show, she reminds us that we should “Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!” It would all seem completely ridiculous, if we didn’t actually live in a world where the same people who allow thousands of American soldiers to die in a war against a government being blamed for an attack they had nothing to do with, are the same people who blow their collective tops and try to bring down the entire medium of television because someone showed a partially naked breast for about three seconds. And all of this happened several years AFTER Bigger, Longer was released, which means that not only did the writers have a clear understanding of this cultural problem, but they also realized that it wasn’t likely to go away any time soon.

All of this sociopolitical analysis makes Bigger, Longer sound about as fun to watch as your average C-Span congressional session broadcast. But this is one of the funniest films of the last decade, as the writers, again taking full advantage of the loosened restraints of the film medium, push the movie to the screaming edge of the R rating at every possible turn. It’s not just the foul language, though it was honestly a treat, after three-odd seasons of bleeped obscenities, to hear some of the baroque profanities uttered by these kids unobstructed (Cartman at one point quotes a line from the Terence and Philip movie about a “testicle-shitting rectal wart”). This is the type of film where half the time you’re laughing with amusement, and half the time in shocked disbelief at what you just saw on the screen. This is a film where a pint-sized Terence and Philip fan wears a “Cockmaster” t-shirt to school. Where a giant talking clitoris dispenses sage advice in a voice like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. Where a chain-smoking eight-year-old known as “The Mole”, one of the leaders of La Resistance, boasts of surviving his mother’s coat-hanger abortion attempt and curses God as a bitch and a faggot and worse. Where the kids, searching online for information about said clitoris, uncover a fetish website that features a video of Cartman’s mother getting shit on by German porn stars. Where Winona Ryder, performing at the USO show, dazzles the troops with what looks like a wholly inappropriate ping-pong ball trick. Where the denizens of hell who greet Kenny upon his arrival include not only expected subjects like Hitler and John Wayne Gacy, but Gandhi and, for no reason that I can figure out, George Burns. Brooke Shields is slapped, Bill Gates shot point-blank in the head, and did I mention that Saddam Hussein waves his dick around? The same dick we at one point hear him shoving into Satan’s rear end (accompanied by a loving, “Yeah, you like that, don’t you, bitch?”)? Top it off with the most profanities ever uttered in an animated film (399, according to Guinness, including 146 uses of the word “fuck”), and the facts are inescapable. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is every bit as foul and crude as its critics attested. And you know what? Nobody died as a result of that. I’ve seen the movie several times, and I am neither dead (except in the zombie sense), nor have I been compelled to kill others. Cartman was right all along: “Who cares? It doesn’t hurt anybody! Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck!”

The writers do an excellent job of giving all four of the kids an important role to play in the story. Stan, desperate to win back the attention of his beloved Wendy Testaburger from a bright, politically active new kid, is the major driving force behind “La Resistance” and pushes the kids to new levels of commitment to the cause of freedom. He also embarks on the quest for “the clitoris”, which he believes will help him to win Wendy’s heart and which turns out to have great advice that motivates him to continue his quest to save Terence and Philip and the world. Kyle has to learn to stand up to his mother, who has terrified him his whole life and who is now ready to send the world into a thousand years of living hell, all the while claiming, as parents often do, she’s just doing it for his own good. Cartman, who is not surprisingly the most egregious profanity-slinger among the kids, is implanted with a conditioning chip that blasts him with an electrical shock every time he uses a four-letter word (the scientist who implanted the chip tests it out by getting him to say “horse-fucker” and “big floppy donkey dick”, much to his pain and anguish), a curse that turns into a blessing when the chip’s electrical discharge proves a potent weapon against the demons. And Kenny must not only return as a spirit to guide his friends toward the defeat of the evil that is to come, he also plays Dr. Phil to Satan in his checkered romance with the brutish, sex-crazed Saddam. (This aspect of the film, with Satan and Saddam portrayed as a dysfunctional gay couple, was one that received major criticism in the gay press, and to be fair, there’s no real reason Satan has to be seen during his big musical number on a gay cruise ship called the S.S. Manhandler…though I have to admit that I laugh every time I see him reading a book called Saddam is From Mars, Satan Is From Venus.) None of the main characters is short-changed in this story, and early-season fan favorites like Ike, puppet-wielding teacher Mr. Garrison ("All the Baldwins are dead?!?!"), and the inimitable Big Gay Al all get their moments to shine as well…none more so than Al, who almost walks off with the movie in a huge production number called “I’m Super”, complete with dancing waiters, water sports, and, of course, a long look at Big Gay Al’s little gay wang.

These songs, co-written by Parker and award-winning composer Shaiman, also elevate the movie into the realm of something truly memorable. I never would have imagined that a show scored to the wonky strains of Primus would have spawned a film with such richly melodic and memorable songs, but Bigger, Longer’s score, honored with awards by the Chicago, Los Angeles, and online film critics’ organizations, is chock-full of flat-out showstoppers from beginning to end. From the anthemic “Mountain Town”, which opens the film with a clever send-up of Beauty and the Beast’s curtain-raising “Belle” number, to Satan’s power-ballady “Up There” (he belts it out like a demonic hybrid of Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey), from Mr. Mackey’s buoyant anti-swearing number “It’s Easy, Mmmkay” (“Fuck is the worst word that we can say, fuck is the worst word that we can say / We shouldn’t say fuck, no we shouldn’t say fuck, fuck no!”) to the brilliant “La Resistance Medley”, a parody of a similar summing-up song from Les Miserables, Parker and Shaiman’s score is infused with a genuine love of the conventions of classic showtune writing, all the while using that style to their own slyly comedic purposes. These songs advance the story, build the characters, set our toes tapping and send us out of the theater humming…and they’re funny as hell on top of all that. It’s been almost ten years since I first saw the film, and I still know almost every word to every song in the picture. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m gonna say it. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is the best movie musical since Beauty and the Beast, and one of the greatest of all time.

The only major objection to be raised against the film is one that’s almost out of its control, and that’s the dated nature of some of the jokes. Any film or television show that trades in satirical humor runs the risk of its jokes quickly becoming passé as the cultural figures and conventions that spawned them fade from the public memory, and Bigger, Longer is no exception. Sure, they can still get away with featuring Bill Clinton as a character in the film, but who these days is gonna get the gag when Saddam and Satan have a Skeet Ulrich poster over their bed? Who’s gonna truly appreciate the cultural impact of Canadian fighter pilots bombing the Baldwin brothers? To say nothing of the song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”, a hymn to the gold-medal-winning American figure skater which, to be honest, was dated even in 1999.

But the film’s message of tolerance for freedom of speech, even in the face of those who would stifle your individuality and suppress your self “for your own good”, is a timeless one, perhaps even more timely now than it was then. It certainly did a world of good for Parker and Stone to share this story with the world. In the years following Bigger, Longer’s release, the television show itself has evolved from a potty-mouthed but inconsequential comedy to TV’s fiercest and most consistently biting satire, taking on everything from Scientology to the Terri Schiavo controversy to the Danish Muhammad-cartoon scare, and pushing the content envelope with episodes like “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, in which Cartman, to get revenge on an older kid who bilked him out of sixteen bucks, chops up the kid’s parents into chili and feeds it to him. I first saw South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the theater on the Fourth of July. And honestly, fireworks and barbecued hot dogs are nice, but I can’t think of many better ways to celebrate the freedoms that our founding fathers struggled to win for us than laughing along with a film that realizes that hearing a word, even a word that starts with f and ends with u-c-k (and that ain’t “firetruck”) is hardly the coming of the devil himself.

AWARD NOMINATIONS): Annie Award, Outstanding Achievement in Writing in an Animated Feature


At his best, Clint Eastwood is a filmmaker refreshingly willing to deal in moral ambiguity. His Oscar-winning Unforgiven and Mystic River are clear-eyed examinations of the ethics of vigilante justice, while his Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima presents one of the greatest battles of World War II from the point of view of "the enemy". Letters' companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, takes on the cynical calculations of wartime propaganda, while The Bridges of Madison County turns an adulterous affair into an all-time great modern film romance. I make this point because moral complexity is exactly what's missing from Eastwood's new film Invictus. This straight-down-the-middle combination of sports melodrama and historical biopic is set against the backdrop of black and white Africans learning to coexist after the end of apartheid...and if there's one thing that this film's portrayal of that conflict can be described as, it's black-and-white.

After 27 years in prison for crimes against the white Afrikaner government of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is released and subsequently elected president in the nation's first-ever free elections. Mandela inherits a country reluctantly united and potentially on the brink of civil war. The South African blacks instinctively (and fairly) mistrust their former oppressors, who now find themselves thrust into the uneasy roles of equals and sometimes subordinates. For their part, the Afrikaners suspect (again fairly) that this new Mandela-led government will be nothing but a forum for legally sanctioned revenge for decades of racist subjugation and violence. Mandela needs a means to unite his people, to show the world that his strife-torn nation is indeed a nation, not merely two collections of enemies hemmed in uncomfortably by one border. He finds his country's salvation, quite unexpectedly, on the rugby field. South Africa has been chosen to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the country's team, the Springboks, are therefore guaranteed a berth in the tournament...the only way they'd get the right to play, as the team is a stumbling, perpetually overmatched gang of also-rans. Mandela, however, is less dismayed by the failures of the players than by the actions of their fans; the Afrikaners cheer heartily for their lovable underdog team, while the black Africans, viewing them as nothing but a symbol of their decades of oppression, will root for anyone who's not the Springboks (something Mandela himself remembers doing while listening to games on the laundry room radio in prison). The president has an epiphany and, with the assistance of the team's captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), decides to send a message to the world by doing the impossible: uniting his entire country behind the Springboks...and taking the team to World Cup victory.

Anthony Peckham's screenplay, based on John Carlin's non-fiction book Playing the Enemy, cannot reasonably be blamed for the formulaic quality of the film's underdog-triumphant sports narrative. After all, how can you help but follow a formula when history has done the same? What Peckham can be held accountable for, however, is the way in which his script relentlessly trades on moral absolutes in its characterizations and dialogue. Granted, it's not as if the history of apartheid provides a tremendous deal of gray area; it was a pretty straightforward case of a people being battered down for decades because of the color of their skin, and finally achieving the justice they deserved. But this is a film set not during the actual years of apartheid, but in the times immediately afterward, when the certainty of knowing what side you were on gave way to two historically opposed factions being forced, for better or worse, to work together to achieve single nationhood. Such politically complex times would provide rich fodder for a more ambitious screenplay, but Peckham chooses to define pretty much every character by a simple equation: are you with Mandela or against him? And he makes it awfully hard to be against Mandela, since pretty much every other time he opens his mouth here, he is delivering an eloquent, writerly defense of justice, tolerance, forgiveness, and nationhood. Such speeches would be much more effective if the film built to them more organically, through a more complicated narrative, but Invictus hits us with them right out of the gate and never grapples with or challenges these statements in any dramatically interesting way.

Comments like the one above present a minefield for the reviewer, since some pundits lack the incisive abilities to see that if you criticize the film's portrayal of Mandela, you are not necessarily criticizing the man himself or what he stood for. Mandela is a great man, to be sure, a Gandhi-like beacon of reconciliation in a violent, revenge-driven world, but that doesn't change the fact that he is a man, not a waxworks icon, a fact that Invictus seems frustratingly unwilling to address. On several occasions, Peckham's script comes tantalizingly close to granting Mandela some all-too-human complications. There' s a great moment early on when Mandela, out for his morning walk on his first day in office, sees a newspaper headline asking the blunt question: "He Can Win an Election, But Can He Run a Country?" Mandela wearily notes, "It's a fair question." Another intriguing but barely addressed aspect of Mandela's life is his seemingly tangential relationship to his own family; he has a tense encounter with a young woman who I believe was his daughter (in a better-written film, I would have been sure who this woman was), but his then-wife Winnie is basically nowhere to be seen, an omission made glaring in a party scene where we see Mandela dancing and flirting with a woman who is obviously not his wife, even going so far as to lament the fact that he cannot be a polygamist the way his father's tribe once permitted. More such scenes would have made Mandela more human and relatable, but the fact that he fell on the right side of history's moral equation seems to have scared the filmmakers off from making him more than a mouthpiece for platitudes.

This is not a criticism of Freeman's portrayal of Mandela, which is pleasingly low-key and free from actorly grandstanding. He soft-pedals Mandela's distinctive accent, but still gives his speech enough African inflection so we know who it is we're listening to, and his body language is that of the man himself, deliberate and unhurried, exactly what one would expect from a man who spent 27 years of his life with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. Freeman has already received some acting awards and nominations for his work here, but I figure these plaudits are probably more an acknowledgement of who he is portraying rather than in praise of the actual performance, which is light on much of what is commonly regarded these days as "acting". There are big speeches, yes, but no shouting, no histrionics, and little deviation from Mandela's cool, calm sense of right and justice. Damon basically disappears into the role of Pienaar, with blonde hair, a prosthetic nose, and a thick and (to these ears) perfectly authentic Afrikaner accent. He is likewise convincing in the rugby scenes, having built his body into a blocky chunk of muscle and throwing himself around in bruising and painful-looking fashion. The rest of the cast ranges from nicely subtle (Adjoa Andoh makes a strong impression as Mandela's assistant Brenda Mazibuko) to uncomfortably strident (Robin Smith grates as a TV sports commentator critical of the Springboks), with everybody seeming to realize that this really isn't an actor's show. They're here to tell an important story, and they mostly serve the material rather than using it to serve them.

Eastwood's direction is much like Freeman's performance: easy, deliberate, and willing to go for naked sentimentalism when it best suits his purposes. He gets the maximum emotional impact out of the right moments, as when the Springboks go to a black township to provide a rugby tutorial for poor children, and the cheering kids mob the team's one black player, Chester Williams (a moment that would have been even stronger, I think, if the hiring of Williams had been made more of, instead of him just showing up in the locker room in one scene). He also understands the value of silence, as when Pienaar brings home tickets to the rugby final for his parents, his girlfriend...and the family's black maid, who responds with nothing but a beaming smile that speaks volumes. Pienaar also figures in the film's single most powerful scene, when the Springboks take a trip to Robben Island, the prison that held their now-president and number one fan for almost thirty years. Seeing Pienaar standing in the tiny cell (he can just span its breadth with his outstretched arms), with its floor mat and window looking out onto a barren yard of broken rocks, it's a mute testimony to the power of the human spirit to overcome any hardship...even more so when you know that this scene was shot in Mandela's actual cell.

Other aspects of the filmmaking, however, are more problematic. I was surprised to find that Invictus, at least to these eyes and ears, didn't capture the feel of South Africa all that well. Coming several months after the masterful sci-fi picture District 9 ground our noses into the reality of South African life, this film seems a little too polished, a little too clean...a little too Hollywood. Eastwood's filming of the rugby final, on the other hand, is all Hollywood, chockablock with slo-mo shots that are at first dramatic, but then (when we're seeing super slow motion of Pienaar's parents cheering) become a little overbearing. It also didn't help that I don't know much about rugby, and Eastwood and Peckham don't bother to teach me what I need to know to follow the games. I just watched a 135-minute film about rugby, and I'm still not clear on how exactly the scoring works. (There is a mention of a game that the Springbok's final opponents won by 90 points, and given the structure of the game as near as I could discern it, I don't even see how that's possible.)

There is one element of the film, however, that works flawlessly, and that is a subplot involving Mandela's black security detail, led by Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge, in the film's best performance), learning to work with Mandela's newly hired additional guards...white Afrikaners who might very well have been among the brigades bashing in black skulls just several years before. These guards, led by the bluff, crewcut Etienne Feyder (Julian Lewis Jones), have a job to do and intend to do it, even though their initially tense body language indicates that they are just as uncomfortable being there as the black guards are having them there. But soon, their duty to the president becomes a sense of pride that forges into unity, and in a great moment, Mandela watches from his office window as the black and white guards share a game of rugby in the presidential residence's yard. They have united in play, and they likewise come together on duty as we see them deal with the security at the rugby final and address a potential threat in the scarily future-foreshadowing threat of a low-flying airliner. In this subplot, Eastwood and Peckham work subtly, complexly, and with the kind of room for multilayered human emotion that one wishes they had brought to the rest of the production.

Invictus is the kind of film that's made to win awards. It's a serious telling of an inspirational story with political overtones and inadvertent timeliness in light of this year's inauguration of America's first black president. It foregrounds a major historical figure, played by a legendary Hollywood talent, and is directed by an equally venerated award-winning filmmaker (who is to be celebrated just for still being a maker of major films on this scale at the age of 79). But a film that's made to win awards is not the same as one that deserves them, and Invictus, earnest and sometimes skillful as it may be, is not in the pantheon of Eastwood's best works. The road to Oscar may be paved with good intentions, but true cinematic greatness often demands much sterner stuff.

Note: Eastwood's "Changeling" was no. 6 on the Zombie's list of the best films of 2008. Read his entire list here.