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4 Stars Movies

The Time Has Come to Act: The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors

“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.

An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors

“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

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0 Stars Movies

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby fails to amuse

What was I thinking when I rented this turd? Oh yeah, that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby might be a funny, entertaining diversion. One can’t always watch grim tales of abortion in Communist Romania or the death of a small town’s entire generation of children. I had long since tired of Will Ferrell, once a treasure on the Saturday Night Live cast, but long since devolved into a movie factory that produces mostly crassness for crassness’ sake. But I had heard Talladega Nights also featured good turns from Molly Shannon, Amy Adams, and Sasha Baron Cohen, and I had also recently enjoyed John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. All fail to amuse here.

The ensemble obviously improvised whole chunks of the movie, but not really to its benefit. I counted only two bits that made me laugh: Bobby extemporizes the commercial endorsement “If you don’t chew Big Red, *BLEEP* you!” (a line so aggressively stupid I laughed on impulse), and later, his poncy French rival Jean Girard (Cohen) reveals his corporate sponsor, Perrier. These two gags should make it clear that although Talledega Nights is not the first comedy to parody extreme product placement, it does drive it to a heretofore unexplored new level of absurdity. Finally, it dispenses with its relative subtleties altogether and simply cuts to an actual Applebee’s commercial.

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3 Stars Movies

Cleavon Little is the new sheriff in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles

On rewatch as an adult, Blazing Saddles didn’t quite live up to my childhood memories. For instance, I recall the infamous bean-induced fart sequnce being a veritable symphony of bad taste; alas, the real thing is just a minute or so long at most. But it turns wonderfully crazy near the end, finally becoming funny as the cast crashes postmodern-style into another movie set and an actor shouts “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!”

Gene Wilder proves his range by gives the polar opposite performance than in Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Stoned mellow, he graciously supports star Cleavon Little. Still, Wilder gets to wrap up the picture by kicking up his heels (still munching the popcorn from their movie date) and confessing his longing to ride off into the sunset with Sheriff Bart.