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May 12, 2009

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John M

I always hope for the best, but the trailer for AWAY WE GO brought on some twee dry heaves. The sensitive whisper performances, the knock-off Nick Drake, the goddamn whimsical fonts, the whole NPR-ness of it all...perhaps I will be proven wrong.

What's funny is, I really liked Heartbreaking Work when I read it six years ago, but find the self-aware preciousness in the excerpt above distinctly off-putting. I can't remember: is the entire book like that? Have I lost my inner smart aleck? Or have I just grown up?

Glenn Kenny

@ John M—Indeed. When I took the book down to get the citation, I looked through it a bit, and shuddered kind of frequently. What seemed fresh and funny and, yes, groundbreaking and intimidating at the time now came off precious and smug and kind of like a deft but finally second-rate knockoff of Wallace. I have to admit I've never been able to get through anything subsequently published by Eggers. Not my cup, as it turns out.

That said, he is a genuine talent, as is his wife and screenplay collaborator Vendela Vida (who used to be a copy editor at Premiere back in the day). I, too, hope for the best from "Away We Go." (I think of that Mel Brooks song, "Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst.") But I just couldn't resist recalling Eggers' sneer at the screen trade.

Ellen Kirby

Actually the original reviews of "Heartbreaking Work" scared me off...way too ecstatic, and the descriptions made it sound so self-aware-of-its-own-convolutions (a genre in itself, of course), right down to the title (by calling it that he's saying he doesn't think it's really a work of staggering genius, though deeper down he actually does think it is, but...) that it made me want to, well "fwow up."

Glenn, I love that Mel Brooks song...catchy as hell, and a very useful philosophy.

CTR-PPN

Dave Eggers, The Writer, is the ne plus ultra of what Curtis White described as the "middlemind." As a publisher he is wonderful, but when I see his name attached to something that he wrote I tell myself to skip it. Without all of the DFW fireworks he cribbed, his memoir is just that, a memoir. And I don't understand John Krasinki's appeal. At all. Being tall will get you far in this country.

Dan

@CTR-PPN Indeed, my height is responsible for both of my sexual conquests.

Every time I see the trailer for "Away We Go", I think about "Lost In America", and then I think about how I really miss Albert Brooks as a director, and then I get depressed.

Glenn Kenny

@ Everyone— wow. It was so dispiriting I don't even know if I've got it in me to conjure up a proper review.

The first half was okay, given that pros such as Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, and Allison Janney got to take the material and shape it around their own performing personas. But soon after that, it became clear that this was a project by which Dave and Vendela were going to express their superiority to every other human being in North America, and Sam Mendes was gonna help. The nadir was the depiction a female character who had had five miscarriages and compensated by adopting a bunch of kids, drunkenly pole-dancing to the Velvet Underground's "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," with meaningful close-ups reserved for her dipping to the "ain't got nuthin' at all" bits. Yeah, we get it, Dave and Vendela and Sam and Kate—you're fertile. Good for you. Now fuck off.

Zach

Sigh...chalk up another point for expecting the worst. Lovely times we're living in.

However, in the spirit of hope: Perhaps this will at least cement Mendes reputation as the best damn mediocre director Hollywood has to offer.

Joel

Is it really that mean-sprited? I'm no fan of either Eggers or Mendes, but they strike me as artists who desperately want us to respect their empathy for every last suffering creature on Earth. The scene you describe sounded more like a half-assed attempt at ironic pathos, an expectation that the preview, with its awkward Wes Anderson-isms, does nothing to thwart. I adore Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, but Anderson continues to spawn some horrid imitators. Also, who is the DP? Mendes at least knows how to pick 'em.

S.F. Hunger

Joel--the DP is Ellen Kuras (she of "Eternal Sunshine" and other films by Gondry, Spike Lee, and others). Indeed, I've sometimes suspected that, like Woody Allen before him, Sam Mendes' films are visually interesting largely due to the director's excellent taste in cinematographers (Conrad Hall's work on "Road To Perdition" was a real eye-opener for me; I was 16 when the movie came out and it was the first time I'd really paid attention, consciously, to a film's visuals) rather than any particular cinematic acuity on his own part. That said, I wasn't nearly as put off by the trailer as you all seem to've been (yes, we have to deal with the Juno typeface and strummy trailer music for every indie film now, big fucking deal), and I've heard at least one positive take on the film by a respected critic (okay, it was on Twitter, but it was also Glenn's buddy Aaron Hillis, so...).

This is to say I remain optimistic, and am in fact seeing the film this weekend in a special Chicago fundraiser event for 826CHI, the local branch of Eggers' literacy organization. Eggers, Vendela, and Mendes will be in attendance, and presumably a Q&A will take place; any questions any of you would like me to ask??? (Nothing too hostile...unless I end up hating the film).

John M

S.F. Hunger: "yes, we have to deal with the Juno typeface and strummy trailer music for every indie film now"

Or just the smug, sickly-sweet ones. I'm pretty sure the trailers for Goodbye Solo and Ballast did without the Juno typeface.

The condescension's on pretty generous display in the trailer. Allison Janney's mom just seems like such a bad mother! Doesn't she know what she's doing?!? Doesn't she know she's ruining her kids?!?

Answer: no. Feel better now?

S.F. Hunger

Ok John, so I was using "indie film" broadly so I didn't have to type out more modifiers, but you know what I meant. And my point still stands--things like typeface and trailer music are nothing more than marketing and packaging, and shouldn't seriously affect one's consideration of a film. I can't blame Focus and the other indie studios for wanting some of that Juno money, at least not if they've got good movies to sell. And as for that Allison Janney scene, neither of us have seen it in context yet, but I think you're overthinking what appears to be a basic comedy setup. The "white noise" thing is a funny bit of comic business.

Glenn Kenny

@Joel—Not "mean spirited," not at all. More like smug in that "you poor thing, that can't bear children" kind of way. Which is actually more insufferable.

As I mentioned, Janney, Catherine O' Hara, and Jeff Daniels are the best things in the movie, putting their own very individual stamps on their characters. That stuff IS broadly comic, and it's all in the first half.

Also, this is going to sound like the weirdest kind of quibbling, but there's a scene in which Maya Rudolph's character is describing how her younger sister's breasts have been getting bigger, and how she's having trouble fitting into a bra, and instructing John Krasinski's character not to stare at said breasts. When the sister character turns up (Carmen Ejogo), she's beautiful, yes, but the B-cup bustline really isn't anything to write home about. Mongo confused.

Yes, I know Aaron Hillis likes it, and he is a buddy, but hey, contrary to some folks' beliefs, movie writers who are friends really don't agree on everything.

Joel

Glenn: That kind of smugness seems more like Mendes's style, and it is pretty insufferable. SF: I've got my problems with Road, but I actually liked Jarhead based solely on Deakins' work. Woody may have some sort of visa scam going with his revolving-door foreign DPs, but he's at least got his own style. Mendes is all taste, but no style; the look of each film belongs solely to the person behind the lens.

Tom Russell

I remember how some of my fellow pro-Swanberg commentators took Glenn to task for making a judgement after "only" four or five films, and I feel obliged to point out that I was not among the ones making that argument before I come out and say that after Mendes's first three films, I have no desire to see his fourth, his fifth, or any of his films to come. Yes, I'll grant that he's worked with some astounding DPs, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the films are facile, glib, and empty. Pretty-looking garbage, in the end, is still garbage.

When American Beauty came out, I will admit that I fell for it hook, line, and sinker; to a high school student, it seems so deep and witty and well-observed. And then it had the patina of the Academy behind it, which at the time seemed to mean a lot to me. Then I got to see all the actual great films that 1999 gave us-- films that weren't even nominated for Best Picture: Magnolia, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Straight Story. And I came back to American Beauty and realized just how empty it was.

I think "smug" is the word for him, smug and judgmental and superior, but that special kind of smugness in which he thinks he's being quite magnaminous.

Road to Perdition, besides being a terrible movie, has what is likely the worst commentary track I've ever heard (yes, worse than those Mel Brooks commentary tracks where he spends the whole time retelling you the jokes you just heard ten seconds before)-- so pretentious, so vapid, going on-and-on about water symbolism, as if it is some great artistic act to turn on a faucet, as if that makes up for a lack of anything interesting to say. And, if memory serves, THE COMMENTARY TRACK WAS SUBTITLED. I understand doing that if, say, the commentary track was in a language other than English. I guess his words are just so important he doesn't want us to miss a single mind-blowing perception-altering syllable.

Josh

Or, it could have been for the hearing-impaired. Just saying.

Tom Russell

@Josh: That's very true, and I withdraw those last three sentences in shame.

John M

I agree that the "white noise" bit is clearly comical in the trailer, and I'll take Glenn's word for it that the stuff with Janney is mostly just for good laughs, but make no mistake that in that clip we're being asked to look right on down our nose at that bad mother, and John Krasinski's there to help us.

Krasinski's character on THE OFFICE serves the exact same function--he pops open his eyes and purses his lips, so that we know, hey, THIS guy, THIS guy right here, is a loser. It can be funny, sure, and it's worked on me more than a few times--and worked very well on the original series--but it's gotten so egregious that "Krasinski" and "middlebrow condescension" have started sounding like synonyms. The combination of him, Eggers, and Mendes is almost unbearable.

And Glenn, your quibble reminded me of something, which is a weird--albeit a little lazy and probably unintentional--Mendes coincidence. In AMERICAN BEAUTY, doesn't Thora Birch's character sort of whimsically fantasize about a boob job? (That's Alan Ball's shorthand for a suburban teenage girl's empty empty dreams.) We see in a later scene, though, when Ms. Birch drops her cover, that she is, shall we say, in little need of augmentation. Can't a brotha get a rewrite?

Dan

@S.F. Hunger

I disliked the trailer for itself. That said, the "hipster with an acoustic guitar" thing has gotten REALLY fucking old.

bill

John M - I like "The Office" and Krasinski on it. I think you're reading too much into his looks when you say that we're supposed to read "This guy here is a loser" into it. Besides, given the kind of thing he's faced with every week, do you really think you'd react any differently?

As for "American Beauty" and Birch -- I noticed the strangeness of her enhancement dream too, and have heard it mentioned by others before, and I think the consensus ended up being that SHE DOESN'T EVEN REALIZE THAT SHE DOESN'T NEED IT! Which is an interpretation that somehow makes the whole thing a little stupider.

John M

Bill: It's weird, I like Krasinski a lot too on THE OFFICE, and of course his reactions make sense. As I said, I've laughed many a time, but the humor is always a kind of low-humming self-satisfaction. Which, okay, The Marx Brothers' humor comes from a loony sense of superiority, so's most satire, but it's the minimal delivery from Jim and Pam, at the expense of what used to pass for wit, that really irks me. Apparently, all you gotta do for a laugh now is look at the camera, or spin a little quiet sarcasm. It's reality, sure, but throwing up a little squeamish reality minute after minute is neither clever nor productive. And it puts the writers in a bind: there's almost no reason, at this point, for JIm or Pam to stay on at Dunder/Mifflin. They're pathetic, but--god forbid--never in a repulsive way.

I guess I'm saying I've just grown really tired of it. The whacko hijinks of 30 ROCK, which used to grate, seem like pure imagination in comparison.

bill

To each his own, but I think "The Office" has real heart, and I don't find any of the characters repulsive. And it has some of the best acting on TV right now, comic or otherwise. Steve Carrell continues to amaze me.

bill

Oh, and I like "30 Rock", too. Some of the wackiness goes off the rails, or can be pretty tired at times, but more often than not I think it's really clever, with some great writing. This is a small one, but I loved, during Jon Hamm's recent guest stint, when Liz tried to get across how handsome he was to one of her co-workers by saying he looked like a cartoon pilot.

Brian

"And it puts the writers in a bind: there's almost no reason, at this point, for JIm or Pam to stay on at Dunder/Mifflin. They're pathetic, but--god forbid--never in a repulsive way."

I don't know-- I think the recent arc of the last five or six episodes involving Pam (which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it) was an attempt to address that sense of stasis. I think the slow engagement process (and buying his parents' house) is another level at which the writing staff is thinking about Jim's fear of change. And so was Idris Elba's recent arc-- that here was someone who, as Dwight put it, "didn't find Jim adorable," and Jim wasn't sure how to respond. And I think the pathetic thing is kind of interesting-- some of the best moments of the last couple of years have been when the writers have dropped hints that Jim (despite his veneer of cool distance) is slowly turning into Michael-- that Michael is what Jim will be in five years. That could generate interesting stories if they choose to pursue it.

Honestly, I get a far greater sense of hipster smugness from 30 Rock. When Alec Baldwin compared Tina Fey to Elaine May at the Emmys last fall, it was a sweet gesture, but also a revealing one, because I think the show has a similar feel of insider superiority that some of Nichols & May's stuff did (which is not to say that N&M-- and 30 Rock-- aren't often very, very funny)-- that this is what we're "supposed" to like, and find smart, even if its shallow archness is occasionally, to use John M's term, repulsive. I love Baldwin and Fey on the show, and find there's something oddly entrancing about Tracey Morgan's loopiness, but it still feels to me like a wonderful two-person act in search of an ensemble.

Christian

30 ROCK has some real wit, far too often covered up in obvious dick and fart jokes smothered in smug by people whose asses have been kissed too much. THE OFFICE is worst and can't touch the British version. Last great TV comedy was THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. And KING OF THE HILL.

John M

Just saw AWAY WE GO.

Kenny 1
Hillis 0

JC

"...but it still feels to me like a wonderful two-person act in search of an ensemble..."

I could not agree more with this statement: Love Baldwin and Fey, but find the rest mostly grating. As for The Office, I've seen the UK version about three times (in its entirety), and feel the more exaggerated US version stands up just fine against it. Carrell is a less unique presence than Gervais, but, to me, it's a toss-up between Krasinski and Freeman, and Fischer wipes the floor with Davis, mostly because she's been permitted far more emotional range than just being mopey and occasionally sarcastic. Dwight is over-the-top but consistently played (thus generating well-earned laughs of recognition) and, at times, strangely sympathetic, whereas I just find weaselly Gareth to be unpleasant, gross, and not much else. The rest of the supporting cast, US is far more fleshed out and interesting, but that's down to the nature of the long-running format...still worth noting, though. Also, the UK version fell back on the David-Brent-says-something-non-PC-and-everyone-stares-blankly gag ad nauseum in its short run, whereas the US version found far more creative variations on that narrative angle. Plus, to me, the UK Office didn't hit its stride until its second series, with too many episodes in the first series stepping away from the office environment. Had they attempted to produce 22 (or more episodes) of that version in a year, it inevitably would've grown extremely repetitive, with the lack of variation in tone and style. I can honestly say I've gotten more pleasure, overall, from the American version, and am more invested in the personalities of the individual characters, even if they're less realistic at times (though -- let's be honest -- Gervais was doing shtick much of the time).

Larry Sanders was a compelling, influential show, but I've never considered it the be-all-and-end-all of television comedy, and it could be considered as smug as just about any other inside Hollywood series I've seen. I've never understood the appeal of King Of The Hill; the first words that spring to mind when I think of that show are "bland", "sentimental", and "poorly animated". And so it goes.

As for Away We Go, the ad certainly made it look like it fits the Sundance template to a tee, but I might give it a look at some point (on DVD), as I neither love nor hate Mendes, and feel it, at least, looks a bit scruffier than his earlier films. Glenn's comments certainly give me pause, though.

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