The first, or maybe second, third or even fourth Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of every month Nathan Rabin writes about three DVD premieres for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory. Today’s edition explores the post-fame, post-hope career of America’s sweetheart-turned-clown-faced ghoul Meg Ryan.
The Deal: Pity poor Meg Ryan. After dropping out of the public eye following the failure of Against The Ropes (who could have guessed that Meg Ryan+Boxing didn’t equal boffo box office?) she had extensive cosmetic surgery to make herself look like The Joker in a desperate bid to resuscitate her career by getting cast as Batman’s arch-nemesis in The Dark Knight. On one level she succeeded spectacularly: Ryan now looks more like The Joker than The Joker himself. The creepy perma-smile, the viscerally disturbing face, the utterly unsettling visage of the damned: she’s a dead ringer for the cackling super-villain.
Ryan went far beyond going The Full Retard or pulling a De Niro. But did Christopher Nolan reward Ryan’s dedication by offering her the role? No, he cast Heath Ledger, who took the coward’s route by becoming The Joker through make-up and “acting” rather than by having himself ghoulishly disfigured under a cosmetic surgeon’s knife.
So instead of stealing the second biggest box-office hit of all time and generating Oscar talk Ryan spent 2008 appearing in a critically reviled flop (The Women) and two direct-to-DVD movies: My Mom’s New Boyfriend and The Deal. I have a weakness for undistinguished Hollywood satires (though I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than an episode and a half of Lisa Kudrow’s painful The Comeback) so I was a soft touch for The Deal the latest screenwriting effort of the great actor and surprisingly prolific middling filmmaker William H. Macy.
Adapted from veteran television writer Peter Lefcourt’s novel, The Deal casts Macy as a suicidal has-been producer who gets a new lease on life when his idealistic nephew (Jason Ritter) shows him his script about Benjamin Disraeli. Unencumbered by shame or ethics, Macy gets it greenlit as a 100 million dollar action vehicle for L.L Cool J, a flaky mega-star who recently converted to Judaism. Ryan plays a studio executive who is initially repelled by Macy and his sleazy non-stop hustle but quickly falls into bed and then into love with him. Actually that’s not entirely accurate, as Macy first hides the Afikoman inside Ryan in a shower. Yes, The Deal features red-hot Macy-on-Ryan action and L.L Cool J in a yarmulke yammering on endlessly about his Jewish faith.
That element of novelty only partially redeems a script that hits all the expected notes: actors are crazy, producers are sleazy con men, the film industry is a flashy, status-conscious inmate-run asylum where art gets sacrificed to the Gods of commerce and so on. The Deal subscribes to the surprisingly popular notion that Jewish=funny, a concept I find a little meshuggah, though Elliott Gould has a fun supporting turn as an opportunistic Rabbi eager to break into show-business. Macy is perversely cast against type as a wisecracking, irreverent Bill Murray-style one-liner machine, an incorrigible smartass who initially plays Bugs Bunny to Ryan’s Elmer Fudd and Groucho Marx to her Margaret Dumont. Then the hot, hot fucking begins. Needless to say, the pairing of Ryan and Macy won’t make anyone forget Spenser and Tracy or even Travolta and Tomlin.
Nevertheless The Deal is energetic and zippy, if wholly unoriginal. I went in expecting amiable mediocrity. That’s exactly what I got.
Just How Bad Is It? Eh, it’s O.K
My Mom’s New Boyfriend: If I were Meg Ryan, I would send Tom Hanks flowers every day in the shape of the gaudy final box-office takes of Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Ryan must be doing something along the lines, because My Mom’s New Boyfriend marks the first Hanks/Meg Ryan movie in almost a decade. It’s a measure of how low Ryan has fallen however that the Hanks in question is not top box-office mega-star Tom but rather his son Colin, who unbecomingly channels Ben Stiller as a neurotic FBI agent who can’t handle mom Ryan’s brazen sexuality and out-of-control libido.
Is there a sweeter phrase in the English language than Meg Ryan in a fat suit? If so I don’t want to know about it. Ryan begins the film in a lumpy, disturbing fat suit that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding about human biology. When Hanks leaves home Ryan is a fat, chain-smoking, depressed loser but when he returns three years later she’s a skinny, oversexed harlot with an army of half-crazed male admirers. Hanks is all, “Oh my God, you’re so incredibly sexy!” and Ryan is all “I know, I’m all sexy. I’m having all this incredibly hot sex with my sexy new body. It’s posititively sextacular!”
Ryan’s sexy new sexiness wins her the fevered attention of suave international man of mystery Antonio Banderas, who can’t believe how sexy Ryan is. Banderas may or may not be an art thief planning a big heist so the FBI orders a mortified Hanks to bug his mother and listen to her and Banderas’ sexy sex talk before, during and after sex. Apparently most criminals blurt out the details of their next crime in the midst of orgasm. So it absolutely essential that Hanks listen to his mom have sex and that his colleagues do the same while making constant wisecracks about how they, too, would love to be having sex with Ryan on account of how sexy she is.
Even Hanks’ girlfriend (Selma Blair) gets into the act, at one point asking Hanks if he ever thinks about his sexy, sexy mother while he’s having sex with her. Boyfriend gives Hanks exactly one note to play: uptight sexual humiliation. Then again, for its first two acts, it only has one gag that it beats into a fine pulp.
Writer-director George Gallo, who wrote Midnight Run and a whole bunch of shit I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (The Whole Ten Yards, Code Name The Cleaner, See Spot Run, Wise Guys) boasts a sophisticated comic arsenal that leans heavily on Lubitsch-like touches like multiple spit takes and the skipping-record-needle zany sound effect synonymous with elegant comedy.
From its title onward, Gallo’s shameless Boyfriend feels like it should be the second-half of a driven-in double feature circa 1986. It’s so monomaniacally devoted to its schlocky high concept that it flirts constantly with self-parody. A sleepwalking Banderas in particular comes off like a second-rate actor doing a bad Antonio Banderas impersonation.
In its last act Boyfriend shifts gears and becomes first a deadly drama that asks audiences to seriously consider Hanks’ cartoon dilemma and then a punishingly arbitrary thriller, complete with a forehead-slappingly stupid twist (SPOILER, for those who inexplicably care: Banderas isn’t a suave international jail thief at all but rather an undercover CIA agent). Boyfriend is every bit as bad and dumb as it looks but oh man, have I mentioned how sexy Ryan is in it?
Just How Bad Is It? I’m guessing this Ryan/Hanks comedy might not do as well as the others
Lower Learning: For a solid month, every time I passed my promotional Lower Learning folder and notebook I chortled with glee over the Wildean wordplay of its title. I couldn’t wait for the moment in the film when one of its kooky educators—or should I say mis-educators!—would crack, “You’ve heard of higher learning, right—Well this is more like lower learning!” Oh, how I would laugh and laugh! Yes, the ability to amuse oneself for the flimsiest of reasons is an invaluable life skill.
Lower Learning provided me with hours of laughter and enjoyment even before I popped into my DVD player. Lower learning. Oh, that is rich! Hollywood, will you ever stop entertaining us? Will this current golden age never end!? I haven’t been so entertained by a title since I found out Howie Mandel’s prank show was called Howie Do It. Ha! See, the host is named Howie, which is guffaw-inducing in itself but it also refers to “how” Mandel “does” whatever “it” is that he does on the show. My guess: bring tears of laughter to his millions of adoring fans! I read in Amelie’s TV Club post that the show even features the Montell Jordan classic “This Is How We Do It”, a masterstroke that adds an additional level of Nabokovian allusion and meta-commentary to the irreverent potpourri of prankish perversity.
But Lower Learning has more to offer than perhaps the greatest title in film history. It takes place at Geraldine Ferraro Elementary, a crumbling institution built on the twin pillars of corruption and apathy that drunken, debauched Principal Rob Corddry runs as his own private fiefdom. Corddry is a cross between Richard Nixon at his most paranoid and deranged, Caligula and Mary Woronov in Rock And Roll High School. Corddry sells grades, commands an army of pint-sized flunkies and henchmen, snorts cocaine, guzzles expensive liquor and plots to have the school shutdown as part of a sinister scheme of downright Blagojevichian evil.
The school’s dispirited teachers stumble through their days in a haze of depression, drunkenness and moral dissolution until Jason Biggs and board of education investigator Eva Longoria Parker muster up the courage to fight Corddry and his evil scheme to kill the school. Just as I have a weakness for glib Hollywood satires, I have a fondness for ribald black comedies whose humor comes from adults cussing either at or within earshot of adorable tots, whether the film in question is Bad Santa, The Bad News Bears or the recent sleeper hit Role Models.
Lower Learning is a more than passable entry to this curious subgenre. A typical gag involves a peppy if deeply confused little girl obliviously asking Biggs for money for an abortion, then repeating a claim from the previous week that she’d gotten AIDS from sharing needles with a prostitute.
Jason Biggs is stuck playing the thankless Jason Biggs role of the hapless, long-suffering, good-hearted dope. I can easily imagine Biggs angrily yelling at his agent, “I’m tired of playing these Jason Biggs types! I want a decent role for once!” but Corddry is great fun as a malevolent despot and fellow Daily Show alum Ed Helms has a neat cameo as a teacher whose sole goal in life is to someday hang out with him. Lower Learning is ingratiatingly nasty and profane until it turns into a goody two shoes in its third act but it’s still a pleasant surprise. Besides, Lower learning! Oh man. Hilarity for days!
Just How Bad is It? Maybe it doesn’t live up to the hilarity of its title but what possibly could?