Category Archives: Dramedy

Just watch it through your fingers: Donald Cried ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2017)

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In my 2014 tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, I wrote:

You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

There are many things about Donald Cried that will likely make you cringe. In fact, the film’s titular character (played by its writer-director Kris Avedisian) is the type of role Hoffman would have felt quite comfortable tackling…expressly for the purpose of making us feel uncomfortable.

A sort of twisty cross between Vincent Gallo’s cringe-inducing black comedy Buffalo ’66 and Miguel Arteta’s equally discomfiting character study Chuck and Buck, Avedisian’s story centers on a thirty-something Wall Street banker named Peter (Jesse Wakeman) who returns to the blue-collar Rhode Island burg where he grew up to bury his grandmother and tidy up all of her affairs.

During his taxi ride from the train station to his late grandmother’s house, Peter realizes (much to his chagrin) that he has lost his wallet while in transit. Quickly exhausting all other options for assistance, the panicked Peter has little choice but to walk across the street, where his childhood pal Donald lives. We quickly glean why he just didn’t go there first-Donald is beyond the beyond.

Donald is overjoyed to see Peter again after all these years. Disturbingly overjoyed, like a deliriously happy puppy who dances around your legs like a dervish because he was sure you were abandoning him forever when you left the house for 2 minutes to check the mail. In other words. Donald seems oblivious to the time-space continuum. While Peter has chosen to put away childish things and engage the world of adult responsibility, Donald was frozen in carbonite at 15.

Still, if Peter is to stick to his timetable of wrapping up the grandmother business in 24 hours, Donald (who has a car) looks to be his only hope. From their first stop at the funeral home, it’s clear that Donald’s complete lack of a social filter is going to make this a painfully long 24 hours.

The tortuous path of the “man-child” is rather well-trod, particularly in modern indie filmdom. That said, there is a freshness to Avedisian’s take, as well as an intimate authenticity to the performances that invites empathy from the viewer. Once you get past the cringe-factor, you actually do care about the characters, especially when you realize we’ve all known a Donald (or a Peter) sometime or another. Perchance we’ve even seen one looking back at us from a mirror, no?

Sunrise, sunset: Mia Madre ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2016)

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

–from the “Serenity Prayer”, by Reinhold Niebuhr

In my lukewarm 2012 review of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, I did give props to the Italian writer-director for “…humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.” I observed that Moretti’s protagonist was a (would-be) pontiff who “…elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity.”

Although Moretti’s latest effort is but the second film I have seen by this director, I’m sensing a theme. That’s because Mia Madre also centers on a protagonist who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility (in this case, a film director), and is depicted to be just as neurotic as anybody else. One could even say that a film set is also a “hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation” (of a sort). And indeed, over this cloistered, make-believe world, Margherita (Margherita Buy) holds sovereignty. But when it comes to her “real” life-not so much.

Every time she steps foot off her set, we sense Margherita’s power over her world diminishing. We see her literally gathering up the scant remnants of a failed relationship; dropping by her (soon to be) ex-lover’s apartment to collect some of her odds and ends. Her morose boyfriend (who, in a nice little directorial flourish, is sulking and listening to Leonard Cohen while she packs) gives her a desperate hug. “We know how things are,” she says a little unconvincingly, as she gently breaks away, “We’ve already decided.” To which he counters, “No…you’ve decided.”

Other aspects of her personal life are slipping through her fingers. She is stressed over the declining health of her hospitalized mother (Giulia Lazzarini), which in turn is exacerbating a gulf between Margherita and her teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini). The only rock she can seem to cling to in her destabilizing spin is her Zen-like brother Giovanni (director Moretti), who urges her to get a grip (he’s the only person in her orbit who intuits that she is headed for a crash).

We know Margherita is losing it, because she is having Fellini-esque, metaphor-laden daydreams suggesting as such (echoes of 8 ½). In fact, chaos (internal and external) seems to be a central theme. The fictional director’s film within the film is a polemic concerning factory workers in the midst of a tumultuous labor dispute; Margherita’s set itself gets thrown into disarray upon arrival of a mercurial American actor (played to the back row by the ever hammy John Turturro).

While Maretti’s meta-narrative of a harried director juggling creative and personal issues while slogging through a film shoot begs comparison to Truffaut’s Day for Night, he ultimately digs into more elemental themes, revealed incrementally. Maretti’s measured pacing may give you some pause, so be advised that it does require your attention (and patience) to fully appreciate the denouement: one word of dialog that not only packs an emotional wallop and beautifully ties the entire film together, but gives us all a reassuring moment of clarity amidst the chaos of adult life.

SIFF 2016: Home Care ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.

Paper ring: The 10 worst date flicks for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 13, 2016)

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To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

 –William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

You’re breakin’ my heart
You’re tearing it apart…so fuck you

-Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson, “You’re Breaking My Heart”

 Alright, I’ve covered the “warm and fuzzy” angle for Valentine’s Day. But there are two sides to every coin. This “holiday” depresses some people. It’s just a corporate invention; a marketing ploy to push overpriced cards and chocolates, right? So I say, embrace your melancholia! I mean, I may be “alone”, but I’m not “lonely”, right? Right? Anyone? Bueller? Hello? (tap, tap) Is this internet working?

Anyway…here you go, alphabetically:

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Baby Doll – In 1956, this deliciously squalid melodrama (directed by Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams) was decried by the “Legion of Decency” for its “carnal suggestiveness”. Granted, there is something suggestive about a sultry, PJ-clad 19 year old (Carroll Baker) sucking her thumb, while curled up in a child’s crib. This is how we are introduced to the virgin bride of creepy old Archie (Karl Malden), who is breathlessly counting down to Baby Doll’s next birthday. They married when she was 18, but Archie is beholden to “no consummation” until she’s 20.

In return, Archie swears to renovate his rundown cotton gin so he can bathe her in luxury, ‘til death do they part. In reality, Archie is as bereft of coin as he is lustful in loin. This leads to an ill-advised act that puts him in hot water with his prosperous business rival (Eli Wallach). Instead of getting mad, Wallach decides to get even…by seducing Baby Doll. The seduction scene is a classic; it doesn’t “show” you anything, yet implies much (it is largely left up to your imagination).

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Crazy Love – For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the Bizarro World “love story” of Burt and Linda Pugach, I won’t risk spoilers regarding this 2007 documentary. Suffice it say, if you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to obsession and dysfunction in romantic relationships, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. One thing I will tell you, is that despite the shocking and odious nature of the act that one of these two people visits upon the other at one point in their life together, it’s still not so cut and dry as to whose “side” you want to be on, because both of these people got off the bus in Crazy Town a long time ago. This film is the antonym for “date movie”. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens directed.

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Happiness – If you you’re partial to network narratives populated  by emotionally needy neurotics, this 1998 Todd Solondz film is in your wheelhouse. There are bold performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction, as you watch a sad parade of completely hapless individuals make desperate, cringe-inducing stabs at establishing meaningful connections sometime before they die (the human condition?). Standouts in the huge cast include the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker and Camryn Manheim. Keep a pint of Ben and Jerry’s handy.

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The Honeymoon Killers – Several decades before Natural Born Killers was even a gleam in Oliver Stone’s eye, writer-director Leonard Kastle made this highly effective low-budget exploitation film (based on a true story) about a pair of murderous lovebirds. Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) meet via a “lonely hearts” correspondence club and find that they have a lot more in common than the usual love of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. Namely, they’re both full-blown sociopaths, who cook up a scheme to lure lonely women into their orbit so they can kill them and take their assets. Stoler and Lo Bianco have great chemistry as the twisted couple. The stark B & W photography and verite approach enhances the overall creepy vibe. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but was quickly fired (!). This was Kastle’s only film.

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The Night Porter – Director Liliana Cavani brilliantly uses a story of a sadomasochistic relationship as both an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany and an examination of sexual politics. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. It’s disturbing and repulsive…yet still compelling.

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Sid and Nancy – The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer (then again, that’s tonight’s theme), but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”). The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins.

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Smash Palace – Dramatic films about the disintegration of a marriage aren’t exactly a romp in the fields to begin with (and as date movies…it’s safe to say that they are right out), but can be particularly heart-wrenching when children are involved (e.g. Kramer vs Kramer or Shoot the Moon). Few genre entries I’ve seen are as raw and emotionally draining as this nearly forgotten 1981 gem from New Zealand.

An early effort from writer-director Roger Donaldson (The Bounty, No Way Out, Thirteen Days), the film features a tour-de-force performance by Bruno Lawrence, as an eccentric race car driver/salvage yard owner who neglects his wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) to the point where she has an affair. The cuckolded hubby (already a walking time bomb) does not react well. Donaldson sustains an incredible sense of tension. Riveting and unpredictable right up to the end.

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Swept Away – The time-honored “man and woman stuck on a desert island” scenario is served up with a heaping tablespoon of class struggle and an acidic twist of sexual politics in this controversial 1975 film from Italian director Lena Wertmuller. A shrill and haughty bourgeoisie woman (Mariangela Melato) charters a yacht cruise for herself and her equally obnoxious fascist friends, who all seem to delight in belittling their slovenly deck hand (Giancarlo Giannini), who is a card-carrying communist. Fate and circumstance conspire to strand Melato and Giannini together on a small Mediterranean isle, setting the stage for some interesting role reversal games. BTW, in case you are curious about the Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake? Here’s a two-word review: Stay away!

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”.   Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

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Your Friends and Neighbors – With friends and neighbors like these…oy. A very dark social satire from the Prince of Darkness himself, playwright-writer-director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty). As in most LaBute narratives, there’s nary a sympathetic character in sight in this study of two unhappy couples and their circle of unhappy friends. Everybody makes bad choices and generally treat each other like shit. Cynical, appalling, and perversely funny. You’ll love it! Aaron Eckart, Jason Patric, Amy Brenneman, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, and Ben Stiller make a crack ensemble.

…and now here’s the late great Harry Nilsson to sing us out:

Sit on this: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2015)

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the kind of film that critics elbow past each other in a desperate scramble to post the earliest time-stamped review that name checks Kierkegaard and Beckett. Just between you and me and the bird feeder, I find Kierkegaard unreadable, and once nodded off during a performance of Waiting for Godot. So rest assured, gentle reader, that you needn’t worry about suffering through smug references to long-dead existentialists and avant-garde playwrights…no siree, Bob.

You have to understand, I never went to college, or even film school. I’m just a simple farmer. I’m a person of the land; the common clay of the American West. You know…

A moron.

(Awkward silence). Give me a sec; I just need to come up with some clever angle now.

How do I summarize a film that is cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes which share little in common save for the fact that they share little in common, I’ll pick one at random, in which a girl recites the following “original” poem in front of her class:

A pigeon sat on a branch, reflecting on existence                                                        It rested, and reflected on the fact                                                                                 That it had no money                                                                                                              It flew home

Now I may not know Schopenhauer from Fahrvergnugen, but I do know Douglas Adams:

The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool                                                                 They lay. They rotted. They turned around occasionally                                  Bits of flesh dropped off them from time to time                                                 And sank into the pool’s mire                                                                                       They also smelt a great deal.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Or should I tell you the one about the two traveling novelty item salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, the titular “stars” of the film) who walk into a bar and begin their pitch, only to be rudely interrupted by a thirsty, horse-borne King Karl XII and his vast army (presumably on their way to Moscow), who have all somehow dropped in from the 18th Century? Oh, you’ve heard that one?

Then pretend I never said anything.

I could describe some of the other vignettes, some funny, some tragic, and mostly absurd…but I don’t see much point. Which I suppose is precisely the director’s point. There is no point in describing the pointlessness of it all. Therefore, he’s made his point.

So am I recommending it? You may remember this exchange from Play it Again, Sam:

Allan:  That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn’t it?

Museum Girl:  Yes, it is.    

Allan:  What does it say to you?    

Museum Girl:  It restates the negativeness of the Universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man, forced to live a barren, Godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless, bleak strait-jacket in a black absurd Cosmos.

Allan:  What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum Girl:  Committing suicide.

Allan:  What about Friday night?

Or you can look at it this way: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch made $8,119 last weekend. Minions made $115,718,405. What does it say to you? Oh, OK. What about Friday night?

SIFF 2015: Diner **** (Archival presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives. All are slogging fitfully toward adulthood. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

The twee of life: God Help the Girl ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2014)

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I love Scottish pop: God Help the Girl

As far as plot-less yet pleasingly pastoral Scottish musicals centering on mentally unstable young female protagonists yearning to become pop stars go, you could do worse than God Help the Girl.  An oddball cross between Alan Moyle’s manic-depressive 1980 music biz drama Times Square and Gillian Armstrong’s kooky, sunny-side-up 1982 new wave musical, Starstruck, the film (written, directed and scored by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch) stars Emily Browning as Eve, a clinically depressed young Glaswegian with musical inclinations…and the soul of a poet. Oh, and a cool beret.

When we first meet her, Eve is in hospital for psychiatric counseling and treatment for an eating disorder. She has a habit of sneaking out to hit the live music clubs when no one is looking. During one of these excursions, Eve Meets Cute with a bespectacled, nebbish-y singer-guitarist named James (Olly Alexander), but not before witnessing the onstage dissolution of his band (an argument over volume levels results in show-stopping fisticuffs with his drummer during their opening number). James quickly intuits that Eve has a decent voice, a unique charisma and a natural gift for songwriting. He introduces Eve to his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray), an aspiring singer. Guess what happens next…

There’s not much of a “story” to speak of, but Murdoch does sustain a kind of baroque mood throughout; an impressionistic rendering of a bittersweet, youthful summer idyll informed by Browning and Murray’s dreamy, airy, vocal performances and Murdoch’s lovely chamber pop-influenced melodies (and he’s not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve…in one of the music sequences, he has Browning hold up a 45 RPM copy of “Pretty Ballerina” by the Left Banke). I found the baroque vibe a  pleasant invocation of Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street (yes, I’m one of those contrarians who actually dug Sir Paul’s dreaded “vanity film”). While the jury is still out on whether this is a rock ’n’ roll fable aspiring to be a musical, or a musical aspiring to be a rock ’n’ roll fable, if you accept it as a construct of endearing music videos,  linked by a loose narrative, you just might get away with calling it entertaining.

No, seriously. I really do love Scottish pop:

Die bummelant: A Coffee in Berlin ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  28, 2014)

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Have you heard the good word? There’s this trendy new food pyramid that apparently keeps you energetic and svelte: Vodka, cigarettes and chewing gum. This appears to be all that sustains Niko (Tom Schilling), the Millennial slacker hero of writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut film, A Coffee in Berlin (known in Germany as Oh Boy). Oh, you are allowed to drink coffee…if you can get your hands on a cup. This is proving difficult for Niko, as we follow him around Berlin on (what we assume to be) a typical day in his life.

“I’m late…I’ve got a million things to do,” Niko tells his skeptical (and soon-to-be ex) girlfriend after she catches him giving her the early-morning slip (her Jean Seberg haircut is no accident; from this opening scene onward, Gerster’s camera movements, black and white photography and jazzy score leaves no doubt that his film is a paean to the French New Wave). Niko doesn’t seem to have much of anything going on, except maybe the rent. Even that is doubtful, after an ATM machine confiscates his debit card, much to his puzzlement.

In a Benjamin Braddock moment set at a posh country club, Niko gets an explanation, along with an admonishment from his father, who has figured out his deadbeat son has in fact not been spending his 1000 Euros a month stipend on law school for the past two years. Niko’s day has barely begun; many more such encounters await him, each more discombobulating than the last.

While you could say that the film is about “nothing”, it manages to be about everything. Perhaps it is the sheer breadth of the vignettes that make up Niko’s day; from the bathos to the pathos. From moments of silly slapstick, like Niko’s attempt to appear casual whilst dipping back into a homeless man’s hat to retrieve the change he had donated a few moments before his fateful encounter with the ATM machine, to an extraordinary monologue from an elderly barfly recounting a suppressed childhood memory of Kristallnacht, it collectively adds up to a summation of the human experience.

Visually, the film evokes Wim Wenders’ moody Wings of Desire; which has everything to do with the location photography. Berlin, like New York or Paris, is a metropolis that is most likely to reveal its true colors when viewed through a stark black and white lens. It’s tough to explain why such an episodic affair, wherein the dramatic tension derives from whether or not the protagonist will find an uninterrupted moment to enjoy a cup of coffee before credits roll, is one of the freshest films I’ve seen this year, but I believe I just did.

Involuntary simplicity: The Discoverers **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  21, 2014)

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Writer-director Justin Schwarz is the love child of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne. Actually, this is pure speculation, based upon viewing his dramedy, The Discoverers. It’s the oft-told, indie-flavored tale of a quirky, screwed-up family who embark upon an arduous trek, only to discover that all roads eventually lead back to Dysfunction Junction. However, as the rules of this film genre dictate, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Griffin Dunne stars as Lewis, a man in crisis. In the midst of a divorce and nearly broke, he barely scrapes by as a part-time history teacher at a Chicago community college. The only light on the horizon is that he may have finally found a publisher for his 6,000 page magnum opus about an obscure historical figure named York, a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their trek to the Pacific (his obsession with this decades-long research and writing project has essentially destroyed his marriage). When he is invited to present a paper in Oregon, he decides to make it a “family road trip”, dropping by his estranged wife’s house to scoop up son Jack (Devon Graye) and daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin).

Soon after they hit the road, they encounter their first detour. Lewis gets a frantic phone call from his smarmy yuppie brother (John C. McGinley), who asks him to check on their parents in Idaho. Lewis is reticent at first, as he has been estranged from his father (Stuart Margolin) for a number of years; but dutifully complies. What he discovers is not good; his mother lying dead on the bathroom floor (from natural causes), and his grief-stricken father, who remains silent and glowering while Lewis tends to the funeral arrangements.

His father only breaks his silence once, to insist that Lewis’ brother read the eulogy at the service (even though Lewis wrote it). After the burial, Lewis’ busy brother simply must dash, dumping their traumatized father into his charge. The next morning, Lewis’ dad pulls a disappearing act, but is located with a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors off on an annual “Discovery Trek” that recreates the pair’s epic journey. In an attempt to snap his father back to reality, Lewis talks his reluctant teenagers into tagging along, (not an easy sell, as all  are required to eschew modern amenities).

If you’re thinking this all sounds like Little Miss Sunshine meets Moonrise Kingdom by way of Nebraska, you would be correct. And as in those aforementioned films, the literal journey undertaken by the protagonists becomes a figurative journey of self-discovery; a mapping out and circumnavigation of roadblocks in their lives that are inevitably attributable to family dysfunction. These are the types of characters that make you wish you could reach through the screen, grab them by their lapels, and let them have it with that classic exhortation from Tootsie…”I BEGGED you to get therapy!”

The film would not have worked as well without Dunne; his penchant for projecting wryness in the face of existential despair (which made him the “go-to” guy in the 80s to play the Hapless Urban Everyman) remains intact. This is also a comeback for the 74 year-old Margolin, most recognizable for his TV role as the sidekick on The Rockford Files. He gives a touching, resonant performance.  And Schwarz earns extra points for injecting overly-familiar material with enough freshness and heart to make it quaffable.

Beginners and losers: Alan Partridge ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 19, 2014)

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The drinkin’ I did on my last big gig

Made my voice go low

They said that they liked the ‘younger sound’

When they let me go

-From “W-O-L-D”, by Harry Chapin

Four score and seven years ago (OK…1974) I was a neophyte DJ working the midnight-6am shift at an AM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The call letters, KFAR, were apropos; this was about as far fucking north as you could live on planet Earth and still have a radio career. I have never forgotten a nugget of wisdom imparted to me by a veteran jock, who, perhaps sensing my Pollyanna enthusiasm , took me aside one day. “You’re still young,” he said with a world-weary sigh, “So I’ll tell you something about small market radio stations, Dennis. There are  two types of people who work here: Beginners, and losers.” I was the beginner, so…I assume he knew of what he spoke.

No character embodies this axiom better than Alan Partridge, the creation of droll English actor-comedian Steve Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci (the comic genius behind the BBC political sitcom The Thick of It). A smarmy, egotistical “program presenter” of middling talent and perennially underwhelming accomplishment, Alan (played by Coogan) nonetheless persists in orbiting about the showbiz peripheral like an angry bee, despite continual failure. This stalwart refusal to surrender dreams of stardom makes Alan oddly endearing, despite the fact he’s a self-absorbed asshole. UK TV viewers (and Anglophiles like yours truly) have become fixated on following Alan’s ever-downward career trajectory. It began in the mid-90s, with the one-season BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You, which “documented” the eponymous ill-fated variety program created (and ultimately destroyed) by its prickly, passive-aggressive host.

Several years later, Coogan and Iannucci resurrected the character in I’m Alan Partridge, a two-season series that picks up Alan’s story as he moves back to his hometown of Norwich, in the wake of his humiliating failure as a national TV personality. He has managed to snag the graveyard shift on a local radio station (see paragraph 1) where he spins 80s synth-pop hits for residents of the sleepy little hamlet. By season 2, he’s living in a trailer with his young Ukrainian girlfriend, picking up whatever gigs he can in between making desperate pitches to stone-faced BBC executives. Whereas Knowing Me Knowing You was more showbiz satire, I’m Alan Partridge has darker tones; Alan emerges more as a figure like John Osborne’s Archie (or a character from a Ray Davies song). It’s a ‘cringe-comedy’; funny, yet discomfiting  (like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

The most recent chapter of the Alan Partridge saga was parlayed via the 12-episode series, Mid Morning Matters (2010-2011), which finds Alan wearily settling for his career as a radio personality at a small market station, hosting a slightly higher profile air shift on “North Norfolk Digital”. Coogan and Iannucci ease up on the pathos that informed I’m Alan Partridge and go for the belly laughs in this series. And the laughs are plentiful, mostly thanks to Alan’s interaction with fellow staff, particularly “Side-kick Simon” (Tim Key) and Alan’s inability to complete one single interview without somehow offending his guests. Which brings us to a new feature film called Alan Partridge (which was released as Alpha Papa in the UK this past fall).

In the film (directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and twin brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons) we find Alan (Coogan) still ensconced in the air chair at North Norfolk Digital, with Side-kick Simon (Key) covering his flank. Alan is waging his usual charm offensive, with song outros like “You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond…truly the ‘King of the Jews’!” and challenging his listeners to ponder and weigh in on the big questions like, “What is the worst ‘-monger’? Iron, fish, rumor…or war?”

However, it is not business as usual with upper management, who call Alan into a meeting  to inform him North Norfolk Digital is about to be absorbed by a media conglomerate, who want to make some staff cuts. Alan dodges the bullet, but his old pal Pat (Colm Meaney) is not so lucky. The new owners want to pick up younger listeners, and Pat is seen as too stodgy. Pat doesn’t take it so well; he comes back with a gun and takes hostages. Alan becomes the reluctant liaison between Pat and the police in the resulting standoff; hilarity ensues.

I know that may not sound like the setup for a riotous comedy, but it works as such, thanks to the sharp writing, smart direction and deft ensemble work from the cast, right down to the smallest roles. Meaney (a fine actor equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles) plays it fairly straight, lending the film an edge and genuine poignancy at times. Still, this is ultimately Coogan’s show; he’s inhabited this uniquely weird character over so many years with such commitment that it’s nearly impossible to figure out where Coogan begins and Partridge ends, or vice-versa (like Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas). But you needn’t ponder that. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of laugh therapy…something we could all use.