Finally! Laughter and Romance: Crashers Proves It’s About Timing

072005 article sarris Finally! Laughter and Romance:  Crashers Proves Its About TimingDavid Dobkin’s Wedding Crashers, from a screenplay by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher, is the most exhilarating entertainment to emerge this year from the failed, forlorn factory town of Hollywood, largely because of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, the best high-low comedy team since the hey-hey days of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). The fun begins right at the outset, with Mr. Wilson’s John Beckwith and Mr. Vaughn’s Jeremy Grey cross-bantering as divorce mediators working side by side between two snarling marital combatants and their respective lawyers. I had almost forgotten what razor-sharp comedy timing sounded like until I heard Mr. Wilson and Mr. Vaughn bouncing their lines off each other and anyone else within earshot. The contentious couple is eventually worn down by the unremitting verbal barrage to the point that they’ll make any concession to get John and Jeremy to shut up.

Some reviewers have objected to the sexism involved in what John and Jeremy do in their spare time: assuming false identities to crash wedding parties for the purpose of seducing any and all erotically eligible females. As the two keep reminding each other, they aren’t that young—they shouldn’t be indulging in such immature horseplay. For some of the more captious reviewers, this applies even more to the actors than their characters. I disagree: It’s precisely because John and Jeremy are a little too old to be behaving so childishly that an undertone of depression begins to creep into the proceedings. It is near midnight for these frolicking Lotharios, and their hitherto unchecked libidos are about to be quashed by an unexpected surge of romantic passion. But the strenuous merrymaking is great fun while it lasts, though what impressed me most about the movie is that a certain level of physical exuberance is maintained even after John and Jeremy inevitably pair off with the loves of their lives.

Wedding Crashers has received some advance publicity for being a film intentionally designed to obtain the supposedly dreaded R rating (as far as box-office prospects are concerned). A scattering of bared female bosoms and one episode of simulated under-the-table masturbation reminiscent of Goodbye, Columbus is all that it takes to do the trick, but the pace and editing never falter and the sex never becomes unduly sordid or turgid. More importantly, the women never seem victimized or seriously deceived, and the two male leads are never made to seem unpleasantly complacent or contemptuous in their conquests. Indeed, there is so much energy expended in their masquerades that they inevitably seem on the losing end of the transaction.

There’s a cameo appearance by some celebrity I didn’t recognize as John and Jeremy’s mentor in the art of crashing weddings. (I know he’s a celebrity because Brian Lowry described him as such in his Variety review, while remaining Karl Rove–like in not actually providing his name.) As it turns out, this mentor is shown still living at home with his mother and branching out from weddings into funerals as opportunities for seduction. There is a curious gravity in these farcical proceedings that makes Wedding Crashers resonate with intimations of mortality—the elephant in the room at weddings as well as funerals.

Still, the film is undeniably vulnerable to the charge that it is “merely” a romantic fantasy. Where are all the boyfriends of these supposedly available women to serve as obstacles to the John-and-Jeremy sexual steamroller? There is one boyfriend named Sack Lodge (Bradley Cooper), who is obnoxious enough—and villainous enough—to make up for the absence of all the others.

When John and Jeremy graduate to crashing a high-society wedding, complete with Kennedy-like overtones, for a daughter of Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken, at his most dignified), John falls helplessly and hopelessly in love with Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams), a bridesmaid in her older sister’s wedding party. Jeremy provides comic relief by becoming entrapped by Gloria Cleary, another sister and bridesmaid, played by the diminutive Isla Fisher (who provides a Mutt-and-Jeff-style contrast with the oversized Mr. Vaughn). Whereas Claire is thoughtful and smilingly reserved, Gloria is sexually voracious to the point of subjecting Jeremy to sexual bondage after he has been battered by the aggressive Sack in a Kennedy-like touch-football game. (Sack’s last name—Lodge—is clearly no accident.)

The satiric treatment of the high and mighty is only mildly amusing, but you have to love a movie in which the Washington Monument is exposed as the towering phallic symbol it always has been. Even when the bullying Sack has been satisfactorily vanquished and the two couples drive away to share new lives together, there is one last burst of youthful high spirits to end the film as it began: with an ineffable lightness of touch that is so often attempted and so seldom achieved.

Sticky Fingers

Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, from a screenplay by Mr. Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, based on the film Fingers, written and directed by James Toback, is a comparatively unusual reviewing experience for me, because I am almost always patiently explaining to my readers why the latest American remake of a French film is inferior to the original. Now I’m confronted by a French film based on an American original—one I singularly loathed when I saw it back in 1978. To explain why, I must confess a hyper-auteurist lack of objectivity when it came to Mr. Toback’s first feature.

Some time before its release—I can’t remember the exact year—I was attending a critics’ shindig when a youngish stranger came up to me, introduced himself and declared that he wanted to cast me as the lead in a movie he was making. This was bizarre enough, given my admittedly non-movie-star-like appearance—but when he added that his choice was between Pauline Kael and me, it was clear that he was putting me on. Needless to say, it was Mr. Toback. I was not amused, especially since he was hardly the first stranger in that turbulent period who had approached me venomously on behalf of Pauline. In some quarters, the war that began in the 60’s is still raging, but I have long since taken a more detached view of Mr. Toback.

Still, I was surprised to discover that Fingers was such a cult favorite in Paris. When asked by an interviewer what gave him the idea of remaking Fingers, Mr. Audiard replied: “My producer, Pascal Caucheteux, had just finishing producing Jean-François Richet’s remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13”—itself a remake of sorts of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). “He came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do a remake? If so, which would it be?’ Well, the answer was obvious. It would have to be James Toback’s Fingers. Why? Because the film had such an impact on me when it came out, of course. But also because it was a film that it is difficult to see now. It’s not shown much, so it has acquired a kind of aura of mystery. Basically, Fingers represents the tail-end of the comet of 70’s American independent cinema. The hero—Tom, or Johnny, I can’t remember the character’s name—is played by Harvey Keitel, just shortly after his performance in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Much of the rest of the cast comes out of Coppola’s ‘world.’ It’s a very well connected movie: When I screened it for Tonino Benacquista, I wondered if I hadn’t oversold it to him. The plot is full of gaps, the story’s got those great highs, but some real lows too. And there’s a certain amount of cinematic posturing that ages badly.”

“So why are you so fond of Fingers?” the interviewer asked, with some justification. Mr. Audiard replied: “Because of the various themes, both the obvious themes and the underlying things like: fatherhood, motherhood, what it means to be a son, how you can change your life. Also the price of doing what it is you have to do, the business of becoming an adult, how a man becomes a man …. ”

Well, I’m sorry: The conceit of a strongarm hoodlum doubling as a concert pianist seemed really silly to me back in 1978, and it seems no less silly today. I recall a lecture given by the late Parker Tyler at Columbia on the treatment (or, rather, the mistreatment) of artists in Hollywood movies. It was the period in which sensitive-tough-guy-type John Garfield was appearing opposite the suicidal society bitch played by Joan Crawford in Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque (1946). A question came up about Garfield’s character being both a violinist and a boxer, and Tyler startled us by saying that it required much more physical strength and stamina to be a concert violinist than a championship boxer. Perhaps, but I can’t imagine anyone easily making the transition from one arena to the other—and wedded as I am to some semblance of narrative plausibility, I cannot endorse either Fingers or the French remake.

Still, I didn’t loathe Mr. Audiard’s film the way I did Fingers. What I recall feeling at the time was a sense that Mr. Toback’s title referred not only to the main character’s street name, but to the digits he uses to grope and fondle a variety of willing and not-so-willing women as much as to produce beautiful music. There was something shameless about Mr. Keitel’s performance that repelled me; it was the same shamelessness I had felt in Mr. Toback’s personality, and in his confessional complicity with the considerably cooler Jim Brown. It was something I haven’t felt so strongly in any of Mr. Toback’s subsequent films. I have even come to respect—albeit grudgingly—most of his casting choices.

As for Mr. Audiard, he has made the far-fetched plot premise inherited from Mr. Toback seem marginally more plausible by the intense subjectivity achieved by Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, particularly his virtuoso work with a handheld camera. As Mr. Audiard’s protagonist, the tortured Tom of Romaine Duris, becomes increasingly isolated from the real world, he walls himself up behind his music-blaring earphones in a private universe of his own feelings and fantasies. In this way, too, Mr. Audiard can project the enormous changes between Mr. Toback’s time and his own in the technologies of social alienation and psychological displacement, as represented by the increasingly omnipresent cell phones and other remote-control devices that transform the immediate environment into an ever-agitated aggregation of disaffected strangers, even at the dining table.

In Mr. Toback’s film, Jimmy Fingers carries a boom box around with him, imposing the songs of his early childhood on strangers who angrily object to his intrusiveness. On one occasion, Jimmy almost comes to blows in a diner with a patron who vociferously objects to his noise-making. But Jimmy is at least connected to the people around him, however unpleasantly; Mr. Audiard’s Tom, by contrast, is more cut off from the world. It’s as if Mr. Audiard were a little embarrassed by the story’s assumptions and so was leaning on Mr. Toback’s precedent—part of the Hollywood mythology that generations of French filmmakers have employed to justify their own emotional excesses.

What I have belatedly realized, however, is that Mr. Toback somehow reversed the usual process by making a neo-nouvelle-vague movie at just about the time that the nouvelle vague itself had come and gone—except that his sensibility proved to be cruder and more self-serving than that of his craftier French predecessors. Who knew over here, for example, that the lovable François Truffaut—who seemed to caress the whole world—had previously functioned as the French John Simon among French film critics? The point is that much of film history is a series of unexamined and unresearched hypotheses that must eternally be revised in the flaming cauldrons of movie revivals. All that I can do as an aging critic is try to correct and refine the abstract criteria I have seized upon to determine whether a movie is good or bad beyond the telltale shiver up my spine, next to which everything else is rank rationalization. Hence, in view of my ever-increasing libertarian bias, I may have underestimated Mr. Toback’s boldness in pushing the envelope of male-oriented sensuality in a cinema that has since been engulfed in a commercially calculating PG-rating frenzy.

I find myself still squeamish enough to be more attuned to Mr. Audiard’s idealized romanticism than Mr. Toback’s harsh frankness. Perhaps, also, the sheer outrageousness of the subject plays better with distancing subtitles than in the native vernacular. In any event, Mr. Audiard and Mr. Benacquista have made enough changes in Mr. Toback’s narrative to render its improbabilities more plausible. Mr. Audiard’s women, in particular, are more complex and self-propelled than the lurid sex objects in Mr. Toback’s Fingers.

Mr. Audiard is particularly astute in establishing an almost impenetrable and hence purifying language barrier between Tom, with his tomcat tendencies, and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a Vietnamese pianist who serves as his teacher for an audition and evolves (mostly through wordless gesture) as the instrument of his ultimate fulfillment, both professionally and romantically. In lesser roles, Emmanuelle Devos—so memorable in Mr. Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001)—plays Chris, the embittered and thus susceptible wife of one of Tom’s philandering “business associates,” and Aure Atika plays Aline, the wistfully fatalistic mistress of Tom’s aging loan-shark father, Robert (Niels Arestrup). The father-and-son tensions, however, are almost as clichéd in Mr. Audiard’s remake as they were in the Toback original. Less banal and more refreshing—especially in these plutocratic times—is the French film’s deliciously satiric swipes at the bubbly and unsavory side of the real-estate industry.

Cruel Design

Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’Empereur), from a screenplay by Mr. Jacquet and Michel Fessler, based on a story by Mr. Jacquet (with a narration written by Jordan Roberts and delivered by Morgan Freeman), has made me think seriously about penguins for the first time since I read Anatole France’s brilliant satirical allegory of French history, Penguin Island, in high school. Penguin Island is little read nowadays (more’s the pity), but Mr. Jacquet’s magnificent exploration of the tortured life-and-love cycle of the noble emperor penguin soars as one of the most passionate and perceptive expressions of interspecies empathy in the history of the cinema. If you’ve ever cried during Bambi, you’ll shed buckets over the courage and gallantry that loving male and female penguins exhibit to bring just one new life into the world, especially given the exotic predators—leopard seals in the water and giant petrels in the air—that hunt helpless penguin chicks unprotected on the ice.

Over thousands of years, the emperor penguin has adapted to an unforgiving climate of extreme cold and turbulent winds with a prodigious array of natural gifts that enable it to swim short distances in the Antarctic Ocean, feeding itself on the small marine life it catches in the water. But to safely find and court a mate, the emperor penguin must forgo its limited flying skills and its Olympic-level swimming and diving abilities to trudge on its two feet (with the occasional belly flop) over enormous distances to reach a remote icy sanctuary. The penguins compete and collaborate with remarkable collective cohesion to find their mates, then to protect the single precious egg while their partner trudges back over the same fearsome terrain to get more food. A frozen death lurks at every turn for each male and female penguin and their solitary chick.

There has been much palaver of late about “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution. But if some intelligent creator designed the penguin, he can also be considered cruel and perverse in making it so marvelous in the water and so laughable on land and ice. Humankind has known the emperor penguin for little more than a century. March of the Penguins helps us to know this fabulous creature much better.