A few shorter reviews this Friday, with three films I’ve caught recently on Netflix.
The Polka King
Jan Lewan (Jack Black) appears to embody the American Dream in the modern day: an immigrant, who, through hard work and graft with his polka music band, has struck it rich, with an adoring wife (Jenny Slate) and lots of fans. He even has enough going for him that he can operate an investment business on the side. But it’s all a house of cards: the “Polka King” is on the top of a Ponzi scheme, trying to make sure the bottom doesn’t fall out.
I haven’t seen much of Black lately, having once been a very big fan of his, back in the days when Tenacious D was a much bigger deal. Efforts like this might be part of the reason why. The Polka King seems like a disjointed tone-deaf thing, where the writer/director team of Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky can’t seem to figure out, like so many films detailing the rise and fall of criminals, just whether they want to condemn or praise the central subject. Sure, it’s funny at times (when Slate’s character complains about being associated with financial crime, Black snaps back “You don’t know anything! I barely know!”), but it’s hard to buy into what is being sold.
So, there is Jan the criminal who happily sucks in elderly investors in his Polka band to enrich himself, and there is Jan the loving husband who is just trying to make his wife happy. There is Jan the guy who actually tries to involve the Papacy in his schemes, and there is the Jan who is trying to just keep the band going. The problem is that, regardless of what Forbes/Wolodarsky want us to think, Jan is still an asshole who has no concept of the harm he is doing, to himself, his family and most importantly his victims, the real-life versions of which might not appreciate Black’s depiction of Lewan as a naïve, idealistic guy who just wants to make people happy (and of some of his investors as being too greedy for their own good). Much like The Wolf Of Wall Street, albeit much less in-your-face, The Polka King can’t get beyond the inherent contradiction.
Black at least plays him well, using that dynamic energy he typically brings to such roles (singing polka as well as he can rock it seems), and Slate is great as the wife who obsesses over having once won a beauty pageant when she was a teenager (something that ends up being the genesis of Lewan’s downfall), though the two don’t have the very best chemistry. All too brief inclusions for an excellent Jacki Weaver as Jan’s suspicious mother-in-law and a down-in-the-dumps Jason Schwartzman as Jan’s Polka bandmate prop things up nicely as well. The film doesn’t look especially great, shot in a rather flat, direct style, with a grainy filter that looks more cheap than period appropriate. But at least the music is good, or at least tolerable if you aren’t all that into polka.
In the end, you might expect more from a talent like Black, a former Simpsons writer like Wolodarsky, a director with the kudos of Forbes and a true story as mad-sounding as that this is based on. But the various elements just don’t come together, leaving us with a forgettable second-rate pass at the crime biopic. Not recommended.
A Futile And Stupid Gesture
In the 1970’s, Harvard grads Douglas Kenney (Will Forte) and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) start up the National Lampoon magazine, to forward their own unique brand of irreverent humor. Before too long, the Lampoon has gone from success to success, in print, on radio, and eventually even to the big screen. But the triumphs hide the sordid reality, as Doug struggles with the pressures of deadlines, fame and a whirlpool of chemical dependence.
Based on a best-selling book and following in the footsteps of Douglas Tirola’s documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, A Futile And Stupid Gesture is both a funny recap of the life of Doug Kenney and the National Lampoon in general, as well as being a surprisingly affecting biopic of a comedy mind so easily dragged down by the unbearable pressures of increasing notoriety and needing to keep a multimedia empire going.
It helps that the film is embodying Lampoon’s style even as it recreates it (the film’s poster is a fourth-wall breaking take on the magazine’s infamous “Death” cover: “If you don’t watch this film, we’ll shoot Will Forte”), with Martin Mull’s narrator looking back on his life and loves, and gleefully calling attention to such absurdities as Will Forte being 15 years too old to play Kenney, as if it matters. A host of well-known comedic faces line out the cast here, from Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, Tom Lennon as Michael O’Donoghue or Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts, among many others. It’s a generation of comedians essentially being the generation that inspired them, and there’s something fascinating in that. But it’s really Gleeson who rounds things out as the more stoic, if no less hilarious Beard, a definite straight-man to Kenney’s self-destructive cartoon.
And this is the Kenney story, from his early days writing Bored Of The Rings in college, all the way to Animal House and Caddyshack. Forte plays Kenney with that crucial sense of pathos, as he does his level best to avoid letting his manic-depressive side show, and never quite succeeds. The sad reality that so many geniuses of comedy suffer such mental health issues makes it all the worse to watch, as Kenney’s veers between being at the pinnacle of his craft and suicidal thoughts.
The film never lets up with the funny, just as the Lampoon never did, famously cracking jokes at their co-founder even after his death, but there is a serious side to A Futile And Stupid Gesture that should not be ignored, weaving its way around the drama: Kenney struggles with a marriage he committed to a bit too young (at one point, it’s disintegration is portrayed via a Lampoon style photo comic), with colleagues that get more of the national spotlight than him (Kenney’s jealousy of Saturday Night Live hiring the Lampoon’s best talent is hilariously portrayed) and with the Hollywood machine that doesn’t really get his vision (A drug-induced hallucination on the set of Caddyshack features Paul Scheer crooning about Kenny’s failings on a piano). And, at the heart of it all, there’s a very human desire to just have the approval of his parents, who don’t seem inclined to give it.
The final joke of A Stupid And Futile Gesture naturally revolves around Kenney’s final days (he died at 33 from what was ruled an accidental fall from a Hawaiian cliff; some of his colleagues posit he must have slipped while looking for a better place to jump). The film doesn’t belabour its focus and, in one of the few moments of sentimentality, offers a simple visual tribute to Kenney’s last moments, before going right back to its absurdist leanings. Even then, its committed to the idea that you have to smile, and laugh, even at the worst times.
Some will certainly by thrown by the tonal extremes exhibited here, as the director positively delights in those absurdist leanings even while Kenney’s mental collapse plays out, but it’s true to the very thing that defined Kenney’s life. The golden age of comedy that he helped to usher in is long since over, but his role in shaping what has come after resonates. A Stupid And Futile Gesture might be flawed, but that seems oddly appropriate givens its strengths. Recommended.
The Cloverfield Paradox
In the not-too-distant future, a world poised on the brink of war awaits the outcome of an experimental particle accelerator onboard the Cloverfield space station, which has the potential to provide infinite energy. But when an activation of the device seemingly makes the Earth disappear, the stations crew – among them commander Kiel (David Oyelowo), engineer Ernst (Daniel Bruhl) and comms officer Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – must confront the reality of other dimensions.
Ah, the “Cloververse”. If there’s a term that can sum-up some of Hollywood’s worst franchising instincts, it’s that. A film – originally called The God Particle – that JJ Abrams and his production company latched onto after it was originally completed, The Cloverfield Paradox may well have been just another forgotten indie effort, but for Abrams’ intervention and the Superbowl stunt surrounding its streaming release.
If only the actual film was good enough to justify Abrams’ involvement and said PR stunt. But it really isn’t. What it is, instead, is a B-movie about jumping between dimensions, that has suddenly been elevated to the status of a near-blockbuster in streaming terms, a pedestal any film made like this one was is going to struggle with.
You can tell what this wants to be. The lower billed Mbatha-Raw is actually the main character, a woman dealing with a heart-rending tragedy in her past that the idea of colliding universes might actually have an impact on: all the while, the physical realities of two spaces smashing into each other is being played out before her eyes. Solaris, Sunshine, a bit of Interstellar, but most especially Event Horizon, it’s all here. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as The Cloverfield Paradox has the pretensions of just following their footsteps and being an intelligent science-fiction horror with disturbing implications.
But alas, The Cloverfield Paradox is caught out too many times explaining things to the audience that don’t really need to be explained, right from an opening scene where a strangely cast Donal Logue outlines what are, essentially, the rules of the film. From there, we’re just spending the better part of two hours dealing with bland, flavourless characters interacting with each other, and largely failing to get us swept up in any sense of urgency with their frequently explained mission.
The cast is doing OK, with Oyelowo, Bruhl and Mbatha-Raw treating the material they have been given as seriously as they can, which actually does help, but the others, most notably Chris O’Dowd, seem to have figured out early that this film wasn’t going to be doing anything for their careers, and perform accordingly. O’Dowd seems to be the designated comic relief (in the sci-fi horror movie) but chooses to say his lines in a deadpan monotone at all times, up to and including the scene when he witnesses his own arm crawl off and operate independent of his body.
Such silliness undermines much of The Cloverfield Paradox, but the narrative structure does plenty of undermining itself, with the additional material, wherein Hamilton’s husband (Roger Davies) deals with an apocalyptic scenario down on Earth that ties into Cloverfield – Guess who’s back, and bigger than ever? – barely trying to hide the fact that it is remarkably tacked on. The final scene of the production is almost laughable, as the “Cloververse” connections are pushed as strongly as possible.
This increasingly ill-judged anthology will rumble on later in the year when Julius Avery’s Overlord is released, though at least JJ Abrams had a bigger hand in that from its beginnings. This series wants to be The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, but on the basis of this installment, it’s considerably more half-assed than that. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix.)