American Pie, Wild Wild West
American Pie directed by Paul and ChrisWeitz Humor, Pink& Black American Pie brings newmeaning to the phrase "coming of age," and provides the South Parkmovie with its only serious competition for the title of Grossest Film of theSummer. A precision-tooled yuk (and yuck) machine designed to pander to teensand teens-at-heart, the film takes the subtext of early 80s horndog high schoolmovies-Get Laid or Die!-and puts it right there on the surface. The four best-pal heroes,seniors in high school and cherries to a man, make a Little Darlingspact to lose the big V by prom night or dwell in the house of the lame forever.Their penises become narrative divining rods, pointing this amiably shaggy moviein the direction of box office gold whenever it threatens to stray. The JoeBob Briggs rundown goes as follows: two breasts, plentiful (mostly offscreen)nookie, masturbation fu (male and female), hard-on fu, scrambled tv porn channelfu, clueless parent fu, onscreen, offscreen and online nookie and thetitle-providing image, which has nothing to do with the Don McLean single andeverything to do with the tactile similarity of warm apple pie to the engorgedfemale nether regions. Schwing! What's odd and a bit sadabout American Pie is that it could have been more than a Farrelly-Brothers-in-high-schoolmovie. As a matter of fact, roughly half the film is fairly low-key, sweet andreasonably realistic; besides Porky's and its ilk, the central influenceis Barry Levinson's fondly remembered 1982 male bonding picture Diner,which American Pie blatantly references (an image of the tuxedo-cladheroes gathered together outside the high school gym during the finale echoesthe Levinson film's poster). When the film isn't being outrageously silly anddisgusting (sometimes amusingly so), it's an endearing look at young men's earnestobsession with getting laid and how that urge can obscure and destroy otherwisehealthy relationships with young women. Directors Paul and Chris Weitz and writerAdam Herz work equally well in both modes, but the film shifts between themso clumsily that whiplash doesn't begin to describe the effect on viewers. It's like somebody assembled alternate reels of Diner and Porky's andprojected them in no particular order. The male characters arewell written and acted. The closest thing to a hero is gawky schlemiel Jim (JasonBiggs), introduced in a pre-credits sequence whacking off into a sock whilepeering haplessly at a scrambled tv porn channel in hopes of spotting a flickeringflash of naughty bits. His buddy Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is marginally moresuave and even has a steady girlfriend named Vicky (Tara Reid). Utilizing carnallogic our Commander-in-Chief would surely appreciate, they call themselves virginsbecause they haven't had intercourse, even though Vicky has polished Kevin'sbishop on more than one occasion. Brawny lacrosse player Oz (Chris Klein) isa virgin more because of bad luck than any lack of charisma or poise; but toensure that he wins the contest, he improbably signs up for choir practice (chicksdig sensitive guys, right?) and sets about wooing a straitlaced aspiring singer(Mena Suvari). The quartet is rounded outby the film's most original character, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a small, slender,hard-drinking, pale-faced rich kid who grabs an early lead in the devirginizationrace by paying a female classmate to spread the word that he's hung like a Clydesdale.Thomas, a superb comic actor with a prematurely low, croaky voice, plays Finchas a guy who pretends to be old before his time, then wakes up one day and realizeshe really is old before his time. Finch carries a flask, dresses likea prep school refugee and practices his putts on school property. The actorunspools Finch's lines as if the character is never quite sure what he's goingto say next and is delighted that he can even get to the end of a sentence.The film has no interest in exploring the kid's painfully apparent alcoholism,which goes without saying; this is Porky's 1999, notDays of Wineand Roses. But Thomas' bleary-eyed puppy-dog vibe-he's like a pint-sized,teenage Nicolas Cage without the muscles and Brando mannerisms-indicates thatthis actor has already figured out how to tell truths a lazy script isn't interestedin exploring. The studio-manufacturedbuzz on American Pie includes the assertion that this is the rare teensex comedy that gives the female characters some backbone and actually goesto the trouble of understanding their feelings. Will anybody be surprised tolearn that this is utter bullshit? The filmmakers let the girls talk dirty andoccasionally stand up for themselves, but with rare exceptions they make themsecondary to the guys and their 'tang odyssey, and most of the women fall intoone of three categories: (1) sweet, bland virgins, (2) controlling prickteasevirgins and (3) good-to-go party gals, like the Eastern bloc exchange studentwho comes over to Jim's house for tutoring and, on being left alone in his roomto change, discovers Jim's stash of porn rags, plops down half naked on hisbed and begins masturbating. The film's best-maybe only-original female characteris a band geek who gloms onto Jim like a lamprey on a manatee and bores himsenseless with tales of band camp; the stunningly profane payoff to this subplotwould be twice as hilarious if the film's tv ads, theatrical trailers and one-sheethadn't already spoiled it. Wild Wild West directed by Barry Sonnenfeld [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="216" caption="(photo courtesy of Wiki)"][/caption] After hearing how mind-bogglinglyterrible Wild Wild West supposedly is, I was surprised to discover that it'sfunny, imaginatively designed and full of elements worth praising. I'm not sayingit's a classic-just that it's a proficiently executed time-waster. It's slightlyless of a movie than Men In Black, slightly more of a movie than the AddamsFamily pictures, and in the end, like much of director Barry Sonnenfeld's work,not quite a movie. It is, however, weirdlyoffensive, for reasons that have nothing to do with its entertainment valueor alleged lack of same. And I'm annoyed but not surprised that these reasonshave been raised by most film critics only in passing (if they were raised at all). First, the praise: Sonnenfeld,a onetime Coen brothers cinematographer whose resume includes all of the abovemovies plus the enjoyable Get Shorty-which was a movie, thanksto Scott Frank's script-specializes in star-packed diversions that are visuallyinventive and packed with nifty chain-reaction slapstick gags. He also knowswhen to quit, a rare gift in our age of blockbuster bloat. Most of his filmsclock in at around 95 minutes; you're in, you have a few laughs and you're outbefore your neck starts to hurt. In a recent Premiere interview, Sonnenfeldtalked about how he was originally supposed to direct Forrest Gump buthad to bow out because of scheduling problems; among his many tart observationsabout that Oscar-winning comic epic was that if he had directed it instead ofRobert Zemeckis it would have been an hour shorter. (Seems to me Sonnenfeldalso would have decided early in the game whether he was making a satire, andwhat, if anything, was being satirized-decisions Zemeckis postponed indefinitely,choosing instead to wreathe the script in a faintly melancholy nostalgic fogthat hung low over the film's politics, then lifted a few months later to revealsix Oscars.) Judged solely as a paradeof images, Wild Wild West is a treat. Sonnenfeld's budget ($180 millionby some estimates) means the original show's James Bond-meets-Jules Verne vibegets a major steroid injection, but unlike in, say, a Joel Schumacher movie,the images are controlled and witty rather than profligate and vulgar. Withhis elaborate design sense, whirling camerawork, fiendishly silly slapstickbits and love of wide-angle lenses, Sonnenfeld belongs to a minor commercial filmmaking movement that could be called contraptionist-a category that includesthe Coens, Terry Gilliam, the Wachowski brothers, Peter Jackson and the Frenchfilmmakers Jeunet and Caro (who made Delicatessen and The City ofLost Children). Contraptionism is a baroque style that's built for speedand impact. But it also possesses a magician's bravura and a certain goofy delicacy.The images are dense and elegant, but they move (and are moved over) lightly.Like a clock with a glass back, the display of whirring gearwork isn't a distractionfrom the point, it is the point-and the central source of audience pleasure. This movie is a contraptionistshowstopper-a toy store, a magic show, a children's pop-up book for grownups.The theatrical disguises, the preposterous attack plans, the tiny hidden guns,the razor-edged discs that track fleeing prisoners in magnetic collars, theamphibious tank, the 80-foot tall steam-powered tarantula robot-they all holdone's attention for a shot or two. That's what Sonnenfeld does: He keeps youinterested, maybe pleased, and that's it. He's Mr. Light Touch. Of course, one of the problemswith being acclaimed for a light touch is that nobody expects you to dig deeper-evenwhen you should dig deeper. As in The Fugitive and The Untouchables,West uses its tv source as a jumping-off point. But unlike the firsttwo, it doesn't jump far. Which is to say it lacks a strong rooting interest,much less anything resembling suspense or passion. Yet the material for sucha movie is there; it came into existence the minute the producers cast WillSmith as James West, who was played on tv by pint-size white stud Robert Conrad.The script, which I'm told was worked on by every writer in Hollywood with anagent, acknowledges West's newly darkened skin color, but it greatly underestimatesboth its importance to the story and its potential to yield original pop entertainment. In what strikes me as acrucial blunder, the filmmakers treat West's race as a comic (and childishlycomic-bookish) element-a casting twist that's good for a few whitey-baitingshowdowns and some enjoyably bitter repartee between the hero and the mad scientistvillain, Dr. Arliss Lovelace (Kenneth Branagh), a white Southern racist who'sin a wheelchair because of a military accident. If Wild Wild West hadbeen content to keep race percolating at a Blazing Saddles level, itwould have remained on safe but sensible ground. Unfortunately, the filmmakersdecided instead to saddle West with a back story so horrifying and tragic thatthe movie can't begin to imagine how to deal with it. West, we eventually learn,escaped slavery as a child and was raised by American Indians in the Southwest.Upon reaching adulthood, he journeyed back East to find the parents he lost.He found them in a town run by freed slaves-but the town was destroyed by Lovelessand his fellow racist ex-Confederates, who were trying out their experimentalmilitary equipment. Which means West, like Batman, isn't just some wisecrackingdo-gooder; he's also an orphaned child, all grown up and looking for the viciouslunatics who murdered his parents. And, by proxy, he is the avenger of two wrongedethnic groups, blacks and Native Americans. What's required here isthe coiled, righteous fury displayed by Batman, or Ice T's undercover cop inNew Jack City, or Indy liberating the enslaved children from the minein the second Indiana Jones film. Those films proved it was possibleto address overpowering emotional trauma in summer movie terms-to do justiceto a survivor's anguish without destroying a film's pop framework. But thattakes a hell of a lot more precision and conviction than anyone associated withWild Wild West can muster. Sonnenfeld and his writers-and Smith, a powerfulblack superstar who should know better-let the movie use race as a crutch insteadof a springboard. Rather than a thrilling, crazy, brilliantly original comicbook fantasy about a black avenger redressing the bloody injustices of the WildWest-what a breath of fresh air that would have been!-the screenplay settlesfor jokes about darkies and mud people and big black dicks.
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