I try to be an equal-opportunity misanthrope, but sometimes my inner misogynist gains the upper hand in its fierce eternal war with my inner feminist. Now I've taken some flak for regularly resorting to cheap, regressive stereotypes in a desperate attempt to score laughs. A lot of different ethnic groups have attacked me on these grounds: drunken, agitated Irishmen; inbred, incestuous, toothless Appalachians; lusty, hot-blooded, candy-eating Spaniards; and thuggish, mob-affiliated Italians just for starters.
So I can assure you that in blatant defiance of stereotype, my inner feminist is a seven-foot-tall black man with an easy laugh and no interest whatsoever in softball, dogs, or the music of Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls. My inner misogynist, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for Tina Fey. All day long these two fight and bite, they fight and bite and fight, fight, fight, fight, bite, bite, bite and then have dirty, sleazy, thrilling, hate-sex.
So today I'm going to lay off the Demi Moores and Madonnas and Sharon Stone and focus on another aging glamourpuss, Warren Beatty, and not just because he's pretty, like a girl. Now some folks think I somehow lack respect for the artists I'm writing about just because I'm cruelly belittling their accomplishments. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have mad love for much of Beatty's oeuvre (heck, I'm even on record as finding Ishtar both a hoot and a holler), but I nevertheless imagine that Beatty wiles away the days watching Bonnie & Clyde on a perpetual loop in his home theater while nursing a glass of scotch and weeping bitter tears over his lost youth. I imagine Beatty calling out to his glowering manservant, an Erich Von Stroheim lookalike, and sadly inquiring, "You know how old I was when I made this movie, this movie that revolutionized Hollywood, do ya? Do ya?" to which the Von Stroheim doppelganger can only reply, "29, sir, the same as when you asked me that question yesterday."
Even more than his contemporary in handsomeness Robert Redford, Beatty is the Hamlet of Hollywood, a man who thinks long and hard about appearing in everything yet ends up appearing in just about nothing. According to notstarring.com, a maddeningly addictive website that compiles all the roles actors rejected or didn't get, Beatty has flirted with appearing in 33 projects, a figure that dwarfs the twenty-two films he's actually acted in. Most recently, Beatty opted out of the title role in Kill Bill. David Carradine did a fine job in the role, but I think Beatty would have injected the role with a faded, haunted, glamour, a dark romanticism irrevocably linked to the New Hollywood era he embodied.
Beatty has turned down plenty of other great roles as well, from the Burt Reynolds part in Boogie Nights to James Caan's role in Misery, yet he inexplicably said yes to 2001's Town & Country, despite the film having been rushed into production without a finished script. Beatty's like a guy who goes to an ice cream shop, spends an hour and a half sampling all the different flavors, then goes home and eats a cup of generic, freezer-burned vanilla.
Actually, Town & Country (a name that screams "boffo box office") is less plain Jane freezer-burned vanilla than an angry tumult of flavors clashing violently: strawberry cheesecake and bubble gum and Rocky Road and Mint Chocolate and Lemon Sorbet. It's less a savory treat than a sure-fire path to a pounding ice cream headache. Town & Country is the rare movie that can't seem to decide whether it wants to be Freddy Got Fingered or Hannah And Her Sisters.
Beatty here plays a super-rich architect whose rock-solid marriage to Diane Keaton is the envy of all of their friends. But when Beatty learns that best friend Garry Shandling is having an affair, his 25-year reign of fidelity comes to an abrupt end. The world suddenly comes alive with erotic possibilities. It's as if the ground cracked and up sprang fissures of sexual desire that had been repressed for decades. Beatty launches into an affair with daffy cellist Natassia Kinski, then more or less stumbles into a sordid fling with Goldie Hawn, Shandling's estranged wife.
If Town & Country had come out in the '70s, the casting of legendary lothario Beatty as a man hailed for his fidelity would have seemed deliciously ironic. But in 1998, when the film began a long, arduous, and rocky three-year road to a dismal theatrical release, Beatty was less the Western World's preeminent womanizer than a leather-skinned heartthrob for the AARP set, a sexy grandpa aided immeasurably by lighting that is downright Streisandian in its shameless flattery.
Beatty apparently thought he was making a contemporary version of Shampoo, but the film's aspirations to sophisticated social satire are undermined by a script that regularly trawls through the gutter. It's like a comedy of manners with Tourette's, a toothless send-up of the idle rich (for the rich, by the rich) littered with adolescent-friendly references to "cornholing," "muffdiving," and "pussy-crazed slob."
Miscommunication proves central to the film's stillborn attempts at humor. If people spoke clearly and directly to each other, Country's running time could have easily been trimmed by an hour. Instead the film's characters talk past and around each other: Shandling spends the entire film trying to tell Beatty that he's gay with little success, while Beatty constantly thinks Keaton is talking about his philandering when she's really talking about something else. This kind of comedy has to be quick, funny, and seamless for audiences not to fixate on the gimmicky, contrived nature of the set-ups. But Country is neither quick nor funny so its grinding, groaning, sputtering machinations become impossible to ignore.
After Keaton learns of Beatty's infidelities, he and Shandling head to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation. At this point, the filmmakers stop ripping off Woody Allen and begin stealing from the Farrelly Brothers. Beatty stumbles obliviously into a house of blue-blood grotesques when sexually voracious rich girl Andie MacDowell introduces him to gun-crazed nutjob dad Charlton Heston and her mother, a profane, drunken harridan who treats her mansion like a collision course for her motorized scooter and mocks Heston for his impotence. (The first time I watched Country, I remember finding these scenes egregiously awful. But watching it a second time, I found myself disproportionately grateful for their comic energy, no matter how vulgar or crass.)
Beatty then heads back to New York to save his marriage with Keaton, at which point the question becomes less "Can this marriage be saved?" than "who cares?" We're supposed to be rooting for the leads because they're Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, Clyde Barrow and Annie Hall, not because their brittle, unlikable characters have any chemistry.
Town& Country's jarring tonal shifts are at least partially attributable to its protracted and tumultuous production history. It was started without a finished script, shut down production so cast members could film other projects, then additional screenwriters like Buck Henry and script doctors like Gary Ross and Paul Annatansio were brought onboard to write additional scenes, filmed months or even years after shooting supposedly wrapped. So it's not hard to figure out why the film veers erratically from slapstick to farce to upscale satire to comedy of manners and back again.
True, Town & Country looks great, with lots of neat helicopter shots and impeccable production design that captures the blinding gloss of life among the über-rich. Watching the helicopter shots here, I found myself thinking about the section in The Devil's Candy, Julie Salomon's wonderful book about the making of Bonfire Of The Vanities, where a second-unit director obsesses over filming a single shot of a plane landing in perfect unison with the setting sun. The filmmaker ultimately nailed the shot, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Who cares if you nail a single shot if the movie that surrounds it's an outright disaster?
As I've argued before, comedies live and die on the basis of their jokes and scripts, not production values or style. When was the last time you heard someone walking out of a comedy saying, "Well the characters were awful and the jokes didn't work, but the lighting was exquisite! And those crane shots, they were a thing of beauty! I can't wait to see it again!"?
Country ultimately cost over a $100 million once marketing and distributions cost were factored in. So the question remains: why was the film greenlit, even at its original budget of 45 to 60 million dollars? In what universe is a light comedy about the romantic travails of the elderly starring a control freak who has had exactly one commercial success in the past 20 years considered a good way to spend the studio's money?
The answer, I suspect, has a lot more to do with image than finance. Beatty is still a Prince of Hollywood, a golden boy even in the winter of his life. Studios want to get into the Warren Beatty business even if it means losing a mint. Money comes and goes, but Beatty still oozes prestige and class, two qualities in short supply in Hollywood.
After suffering through Town and also Country, I watched the theatrical trailer. Seldom has the phrase "proudly presents" rang so bitterly ironic though I suppose a more honest line like "With bottomless shame and incredible remorse and trepidation, New Line presents" would have given the game away.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure