So You Wanna Be a Country-and-Western Star

Michael Polish’s Jackpot , from a screenplay by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, reminds me of the old joke about academic disputes being so fiercely contested because the stakes are so low. The Polish brothers do not deal with academics, but their characters–here and in Twin Falls Idaho (1999), their previous film–play for stakes so low that they add new dimensions to being a loser.

Jackpot, Nev., is a town 100 miles south of Twin Falls, Idaho, and serves more as a metaphor than as a milieu for the frenzied efforts of Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) to become a big country-and-western singing star–even if it means abandoning his wife Bobbi (Daryl Hannah) and their adorable baby girl. He’s accompanied on the road to nowhere by his ever-hopeful business manager, Lester Irving (Garrett Morris), who is seemingly as deluded as Sunny. On their long drives from gig to gig, Sunny and Les take turns spinning windy monologues at each other. Their 1983 Pink Chrysler makes its own comment in long-shot as it traverses the vast expanses of the Far West, the part that is practically all desert. Sunny and Les need huge road maps to trace their routes from one C&W- cum -karaoke tavern to the next. After a night’s performance, some of the proprietors pay off only in home appliances and bulk-quantity detergents.

Curiously, despite the engaging talents of Mr. Gries, Mr. Morris and Ms. Hannah, the best thing about Jackpot is the generous spirit that pervades Sunny’s on-the-road encounters with three representative but strictly dream-level pick-ups. First there’s Janice (Peggy Lipton), a gorgeous waitress who is amiably philosophical when Sunny strikes out sexually from understandably sheer excitement; she even buys some detergent from him afterward. But the comic bonanza really begins one night after Sunny takes home a barfly named Cheryl (Crystal Bernard) after she passes out in the adjacent bathroom stall. Then, chez Cheryl, Sunny meets her underage daughter, Tangerine (Camellia Clouse), who sets out to seduce him by transparently asking him to join her in bed to sign her high-school yearbook. As she noisily flips page after page to get to her picture, and then blows on his bared midriff–sweetly explaining that she is giving him a blow job–the mixture of innocence and maladroitness provides one of the funniest non-sex scenes I’ve ever seen on the screen.

Indeed, the whole movie is bathed in a swirl of gentleness and infinite tolerance, performed with deadpan wit and executed with a formal circularity in the narrative. Adam Baldwin’s Mel James, a hot-air C&W critic, exists simply to saddle Sunny and Les with false hope, and Patrick Bauchau’s mysteriously fatalistic narration provides a spiritual enhancement to Sunny’s otherwise pathetic pilgrimage. Anthony Edwards, as Sunny’s even more fouled-up brother, is almost unrecognizable as the long-running authority figure in ER .

To put a point to it, the Polish brothers know what they’re doing in breathing new life into a hackneyed subject.

More Like Ghastly World

Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World , from a screenplay by Mr. Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, based on the comic-book series by Mr. Clowes, had already been praised to the skies by many of my esteemed colleagues when I finally caught up with it. Sadly, it turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the summer, though I would give it points for projecting its own heart of darkness with apparent conviction and an excellent cast–most notably the ever-reliable Steve Buscemi in the masochistic role of Seymour, a loser just born to be betrayed and humiliated by the wildly applauded teenage misfit, Enid (Thora Birch). But I’m sorry, guys–I found Enid smug, complacent, cruel, deceitful, thoughtless, malicious and disloyal. Worst of all, she’s rarely funny and never charming, even when she joins her more conventional blond chum Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) in jeering a former drug-addicted classmate making her gushy valedictory speech from a wheelchair.

Politically correct Ghost World certainly isn’t–even on matters of racial sensitivity and feminist dogma–and many of the film’s admirers may find this iconoclastic attitude refreshingly courageous. Enid’s favorite targets are people who are older, poorer or dumber than she is, which is to say that the California wasteland fashioned by Mr. Zwigoff and Mr. Clowes seems made up almost entirely of stooges for Enid and Rebecca to tease and taunt. (Actually, Mr. Clowes’ locale in the comic-book series was reportedly Chicago, which exerts its own social dynamic.)

Of course, I didn’t expect Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , but there’s a limit to the mean-spiritedness one can endure in a character one is supposed to find delightful. Indeed, some of the “practical jokes” Enid and Rebecca spring on their victims reminded me of nothing so much as the evil prankster in Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”–and that wretch is finally shot to death. On the home front, Enid’s father (Bob Balaban) is terrified of his surly daughter and hesitates to tell her that he’s decided to ask his estranged wife, Enid’s stepmother Maxine (Teri Garr), to move back in with them. All we know of Maxine is that Enid detests her, with all the force of the giggle-evoking sour expressions on her face–at which the viewers are invited to laugh in complicity. After all, what else are stepmothers with low billing good for?

But Enid’s most destructive acts are directed at poor Seymour, an early victim of her warped sense of humor. She telephones him pretending to be the older but attractive woman he met in an airport for a brief moment and then tries to meet again through a personal ad in the local paper. After luring him to a diner, Enid and Rebecca stand around being terribly amused by his discomfiture at being stood up, and then follow him home and invade his life–or what passes for it in Seymour’s buff-like obsession with old jazz records.

For me, Ghost World became more Seymour’s story than Enid’s when I recognized, from my own checkered past, all the ridiculously unsocialized loser types with whom Seymour fraternizes. Suddenly I remembered an early screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), where out of the corner of my eye I noticed Dwight MacDonald nodding laughingly toward me and two movie-buff friends for the benefit of Mary McCarthy. He had probably identified us as crazy Cahiers du Cinema types who regarded Alfred Hitchcock as a genius. On the other hand, I also remembered James Mason on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, graciously going out of his way to credit movie buffs with providing the impetus for the restoration of George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954).

Hence, when Enid persuades a male companion to take her to a video sex shop so she can smirk at the embarrassed customers, I truly hated her, as well as Mr. Zwigoff and Mr. Clowes. This is not to say that they are lacking in panache and originality. It’s just that Ghost World makes me wonder, for perhaps the first time, whether a film can be too personal an expression for its own good.

Venice Vacation

Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips provides, at the very least, a benign view of bohemian camaraderie–in, of all places, Venice, Italy–with a sunny Saroyanesque fable of the romantic regeneration of a neglected and discounted 40-year-old Italian housewife. After being left behind on a bus tour, she decides on a whim to hitchhike to Venice, a city she has never seen, and becomes a missing person. Her moderately concerned husband hires a bumbling plumber as a private detective to locate her and bring her home.

In Venice, the wife (Licia Maglietta) gets a job in a flower shop and cheap lodgings from a helpful waiter, with whom she forms a close friendship. I am very familiar with Bruno Ganz, who plays the waiter and has occasionally played angels in the past. For what it’s worth, the film, director and cast swept nine David Di Donatello Awards, Italy’s version of the Oscars. There is nothing particularly wrong with the film, but I found something soft in its attempts at whimsical humor. I suspect that its plot plays better with an Italian audience than with us hardened cinephiles over here.

Viewers who know Venice better than I do may find Mr. Soldini’s back view of its less fashionable inhabitants enchanting and entertaining in itself, but I am still stuck in St. Mark’s Square and the Lido, and I am too old and not poor enough to ever venture into the backwaters. But I do appreciate the joke of a plumber turned private detective who discovers that he can make a better living as a plumber anywhere in the world.

O Brother, Which Gang Are You In?

Takeshi Kitano’s Brother plays as a lyrical parody of the gangster film, seeking to transfer the yakuza ethos of Tokyo organized crime to Los Angeles through the forced exile of one of its members, Yamamoto (Beat Takeshi, a.k.a. Takeshi Kitano), because of a shift in yakuza leadership. Yamamoto sets out to find his brother Ken (Claude Maki), who, it turns out, is leading a low-level drug ring in L.A. On his first day, Yamamoto has a violent encounter with Denny (Omar Epps), an African-American member of Ken’s gang. But after Ken dies in a brotherly sacrifice for Yamamoto’s interests, Denny and Yamamoto become allies.

Much of the time, Brother is hampered by its awkward English dialogue, much as Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Westerns were perceived to be in the early years of their release. Similarly, the American players are less effective because they are temperamentally less in tune with the yakuza stoicism. But as an actor and writer-director, Mr. Kitano projects an amused irony that makes his films worth seeing, even when the proceedings become ultra-homicidal.

Not Bogart … Bogarde

The late actor Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) is being honored with an 11-film tribute entitled “Gentleman in the Shadows” at the Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, 875-5610). Particularly recommended are Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950), with Jean Simmons; John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), with Julie Christie; Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971); Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair (1978); and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), with Charlotte Rampling. Bogarde was usually on the cutting edge and then some.