Tag Archives: remakes

Farce Populi

This week, The New York Times ran a piece about the all-African American remake of the all-British farce, Death at a Funeral. Will it work?

Farce, like the human mind, needs repression to survive; it’s the coiled spring before it’s sprung. That’s why the British, and in the golden days of Feydeau, the French, do/did it better than anyone else. There was much to hide; there were appearances to keep up. But in here in America, where expression and individuality are points of national pride, and one film comedy after the next sees the ante upped on vulgarity, containment looks less like a virtue than a sin. We like to get things off our chest. Freud always liked that about us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some highly vulnerable, highly fulfilling comedies, like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Cassavetes’s Husbands (to name only two), feature the distinctly American quality of earnest, open expression. But one has to wonder, aren’t we ashamed of something? Don’t we have back boudoirs, dark, guilt-ridden consciousnesses that need liberating?

Few contemporary American writers and directors, with the notable exception of David Mamet, have acknowledged the embarrassing reality of American secrecy; that we, like the British, like every culture on earth, are still very much afraid of very much. Mamet’s film State and Main, and his plays November and Romance – the greatest farce American theater has produced in my lifetime – are predicated on political and commercial duplicity, and what could be more patriotic than that? These aren’t the bedroomdoorslammers of Billy Wilder – just what the doctor ordered for fifties America, when the country was fraught with sexual repression –but the modern equivalent, perfect for today’s America, a country enmeshed in perpetual masquerade – Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot – from sea to shining sea.

The original version of Death and a Funeral understood this notion completely. Frank Oz’s film combined the British love of propriety with the staunch formality of mourning – the perfect spring, double coiled – and pulled that bad boy back, back, way back to its breaking point. Oh, the release! The release! But what will happen in the new Chris Rock version, when the British funeral becomes an African-American one?

It’s an exciting idea. Has there been an all-black farce? Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor only dabbled in the form; Trading Places and Silver Streak are straight-ahead comedies with the requisite farcical outbursts, and they are as much about Dan Ackroyd and Gene Wilder as they are about Murphy and Pryor. The new Death at a Funeral is a whole new thing entirely.

What will an all-black farce even look like? How will the African-American brand of mainstream comedy, which relies on sexual forthrightness and a kind of flamboyant grandeur, be expanded to include the precepts of containment? I for one am excited to find out.

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The Passion of Anna

File this one under Good Ideas from Uninspired Executives. Anna Faris has been cast in the Private Benjamin remake.

I think I’m catching on. Hollywood is now a place wherein new talent is eschewed for new versions of old talent (ie Anna Faris is not Anna Faris, she is the new Goldie Hawn.) If new talent happens to slip onto the screen in Big Hollywood, it means someone was not doing their job, or they were looking the other way at the wrong moment. Originality, these days, is an aberration, someone’s mistake.

So while I’m excited at the prospect of Anna Faris becoming the next Goldie Hawn, I’m concerned that Faris, a comedienne of appreciable gifts, will be drawn into a kind of surrogate career, like Madeline, the Kim Novak character from Vertigo, who was possessed by Carlotta Valdez. But who was she really? Jimmy Stewart never knew.

Faris deserves her own persona. Though she shares with Goldie an affinity for easygoing sexiness, she has a tomboyishness, an up-for-anything quality that brings to mind Carole Lombard at her almost-best. If only Faris’s scripts were up to her potential, I’m certain she could one day turn out a performance as full and witty as Lombard’s masterpiece, Maria Tura in To Be or Not To Be, but in the meantime, relegated to the world of middling material and unappreciative executives, the actress will continue to produce, with industrial reliability, her particular brand of rock-solid comedy. But she’s capable of more.

I can already feel myself falling into the studio trap of identifying one actress through the work of another, which is I why I want to look at Faris in double counterpoint, from the perspectives of both Goldie and Lombard. First, a distinction: for all of her airy cuteness, Goldie Hawn is a naturalist at heart. She’s really messy underneath her composure (which is really what Private Benjamin is all about), and though she tries to put on airs, to keep it together, what she craves is simplicity. Among other things, it comes from having a terrific smile, a wailing whine, and sometimes even anger. She wants to be real; that’s what I mean by naturalist. It made her an ideal star for 80s anti-yuppie comedies, reverse Cinderella stories like Overboard (which, by the way, they’re remaking with Jennifer Lopez).

Lombard, on the other hand, is not a naturalist, she’s a fantasist, and as we see in her best roles, she better than anyone mastered the hair-brained antics of a genuine screwball. If she had to flip, slip, fall, she was best off doing them all at once, and then starting from the top and doing them all again. The more elaborate her actions the better. It made her an ideal star for 30s escapist comedies, which gave reality a good run for its money. Back then, more was merrier.

Our gal Anna combines them both. But we still don’t know who she is really. Why we don’t is due to her youth, and the movies they put her in. Scary MovieThe House Bunny, and Observe and Report – these pictures have given us glimpses at Faris’s potential, at the great comedienne to come, but they don’t give her the opportunity to showcase her unique talent, whatever that may be. And I know it’s in there. It’s going to take time, both for her to mature and Hollywood to grow up, but when it comes out – as it did, just a little, briefly in Lost in Translation – I think we’re all going to be very impressed.

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The Arthurian Romance

Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.

The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.

What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.

In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.

It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.

The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.

If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”

As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.