Difficult actor Dustin Hoffman takes on his truest role in Tootsie, wherein he plays a difficult actor. The same guy who slapped Meryl Streep on the set of Kramer v. Kramer and famously was told by Laurence Olivier to take it down a notch during filming for Marathon Man connects with the part of himself that abuses and alienates his costars, except Sydney Pollack’s landmark comedy treats it as a joke instead of a serious character flaw that finally bit Hoffman in the ass during the MeToo era. That Tootsie itself is a sharply edited, clever, and relevant comedy washes some of the bad taste from the viewer’s mouth at what looks like an attempt launder Hoffman’s own reputation. If I can laugh at my bad behavior, the film implies, why can’t you? That’s a lot of meta-text to bring into Tootsie, but satire like this wants the viewer to think about the broader world.
In his 2006 iconic phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat came from the backwards land of Kazakhstan to experience the joys of America, a place with hospitable people who often say horrible things. Americans, boorish and racist and consumed with empty courtesy though they may be, at least didn’t stage offensive parades and give wide swaths of their population over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. Thirteen years later, Borat returns to the US to attend anti-COVID-lockdown gatherings and hangs out with Qanon adherents who believe the world’s most powerful liberals distill the blood of children for precious hormones. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, America has turned into something like Cohen’s imagined Kazakhstan, except no one from the South Carolina tourism department is going to sue him for defamation. Cohen justifies his sequel by simply observing how strange and poisonous America has become, and then justifies it again by gaining a worthy sidekick. It takes more than one Kazakh to satirize America in 2020.
A new level of Jewish cringe comedy is reached in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. Seligman’s feature debut contains enough toe-curling awkwardness to make Larry David sit up and take notice, all contained within a party that’s not as extreme as the events of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but reminiscent nonetheless. Adapted from a short, Shiva Baby piles tension and complication on its protagonist, a young woman of little accomplishment who’s confronted with judgmental relatives and the thorny untangling of her sexual escapades. Seligman meticulously lays out scenario after scenario to bedevil her lead, and the result is a tremendously watchable film even if it must occasionally be seen through hands over eyes.
A charming Israeli comedy that teaches the viewer more about Judaism than nine seasons of Seinfeld, The Women’s Balcony illustrates the dramatic differences between a five on the religious conservatism scale and a nine. Emil Ben-Shimon’s superb debut is well-versed in the seductive power of charismatic leaders and the creeping language of repression while also being warm and funny. Assemble a minyan and be taken in by one of the best films to ever come out of Israel.
Wes Anderson meets Downfall in Jojo Rabbit, a film that, to its credit, I’m still turning over long after I’ve seen it. Something rankles in Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire about a young German boy who can’t make himself into the perfect Nazi soldier he aspires to be. The balls required to make a film about a member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler himself as an imaginary friend are considerable, but they shrivel up when confronted with a tone that can’t decide on stakes or jokes and in turn undercuts both. Armando Ianucci provided Waititi the way forward with his miraculous comedy The Death of Stalin, but Soviet war crimes have a harder time translating to the Third Reich.
Yorgos Lanthimos meets Fight Club in The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns’ deadpan satire of masculinity amidst a storefront dojo. Stearns constructs a world that could exist anywhere within the last several decades, drains it of any emotion besides repressed rage and dull bravado, and within this odd box, communicates a great deal about the lonely and despairing society so many real people live in. The Art of Self-Defense kicks with its comedic punches and punches with its incisive kicks.
There’s the Matthew McConaughey who travels the galaxy or hawks Lincolns, and there’s the Matthew McConaughey of The Beach Bum, in which he isn’t playing a part so much as inhabiting his true self. A Florida Keys poet and raconteur whose particular aroma of sweat and weed and sunburnt skin can be inhaled through the screen, McConaughey’s Moondog is the crystallization of the actor who portrays him, a man who was once arrested on a noise complaint because he was playing the bongoes too loud. In Harmony Korrine’s beachside adventure, McConaughey is doing the opposite of stretching his talents, but if his persona wasn’t fun to be around, the movie centering it wouldn’t be so entertaining.
James Gandolfini, harbinger of the Golden Age of Television and one of the best actors of his generation, died in June 2013, three months before the release of one of his greatest performances in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. I remember sitting down in theaters to watch this film, fresh with more grief than one would expect after the death of someone I’d never been within a hundred miles of, and loving Enough Said, not only for Gandolfini but for Holofcener’s script and the other performances in a hugely-talented cast. However, how could I not be suspicious of that appraisal, especially when Tony Soprano played such a huge part in my cultural life? On a years-later revisit, unclouded by grief blinders, my initial reaction was correct. Enough Said is one of the great underrated films of the last decade, a high-concept farce with vast wells of empathy for its middle-aged characters.
A famously instructive cultural scenario occurred on NBC in the mid-2000’s, wherein two new shows about sketch comedy debuted at the same time. One, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, made its writers into heroes battling the forces of ignorance, one comedy bit at a time. The other, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, deliberately made its show-within-a-show a badly-rated-and-received series of fart jokes and desperate attempts to create merchandising. Despite having less of a pedigree, 30 Rock ran for seven seasons while Studio 60 was quickly canceled. There were surely dozens of reasons for this divergence, but one was that Studio 60 never had a believable sketch show in its center, especially if it was going to be posited as some central part of American cultural life. A show can’t convince me that their writers or performers are some kinds of treasured icons and then include scenes from the show-within-a-show that make that treasuring implausible. Director Nisha Ganatra and writer/star Mindy Kaling haven’t taken this to heart in Late Night, a film about an inexperienced writer starting her first gig on a revered-but-fading host’s show. All involved need to convince the viewer that they’re good at their jobs, but Kaling may have been too consumed with her excellent work on The Office to pay attention to what was happening in NBC’s other time slots and file that information away for later use.
While romantic comedies are in the midst of a comeback thanks to Netflix’s finely tuned algorithm, Long Shot aims its genre attempt at the world of politics at a time when no script can match the absurdity of the real world. The film not only asks the viewer to imagine something like a return to governmental normalcy, but it also proposes Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen as a credible couple. These are big requests, one of which the film pretends doesn’t exist and the other it constantly interrogates. Jonathan Levine, a deft director who knows his way around the line between drama and comedy, accomplishes some of what he needed to with Long Shot, a film that entertains but doesn’t elevate.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.