Herzog, Pixar, and Assorted Bucketheads
By Fernando F. Croce

Werner Herzog has always been a man of exploratory visions and impulses, the stranger the better. In his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, he journeys to Antarctica to make a National Science Foundation documentary; not having to deal with the damn penguins is his own rule ("My questions about Nature are different"), but then he breaks that by spotting a solitary bird that gets away from the colony and rushes, repeatedly and inexplicably, to the mountains in the distance, "toward certain death." Herzog is visibly unhappy with McMurdo Station, dismissed as a muddy mining town ("It even has an ATM machine!"); he welcomes a snowstorm and takes off to giant icebergs, volcanic craters, and the Pink Floyd-like groans of seals. Fellow wanderers are interviewed -- some are viewed as simpatico (one fellow is identified as a "philosopher and forklift driver") while others are lumped with the director's despised "whale-huggers," yet all are embraced as searching poets. The mutton stew cans from Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic Endurance expedition are contemplated, the extraterrestrial element from The Wild Blue Yonder is pursued: Divers piercing through the gelid surface are variously dubbed "astronauts" and "priests," a whole universe ("horrible and violent," natch) lies under the frozen sky. Next to Herzog's recent documentaries-ruminations (Grizzly Man, Wheel of Time, White Diamond), Encounters at the End of the World is minor stuff, rather diffuse and easily distracted. It's caustically enchanting all the same, a crotchety tribute to the boundaries of the planet and to the bucketheads who, groping in the dark, stumble upon so much beauty.

*

Never imagined a Pixar product could sit side by side with Herzog in the wonder department, yet here we are with the captivating WALL-E. As in the German auteur's greatest films (and in Finding Nemo, director Andrew Stanton's previous picture), there's an unsettling feeling for the vastness of the world, and, furthermore, our existential smallness before it. It's been some seven centuries since the human race has ditched the planet as the film opens: All that's left of civilization is rubble, the tiny, forlorn robot WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class) mops up the decayed surfaces, accompanied by an imperishable cockroach and nostalgia stirred by Streisand songs. The mechanical janitor's melancholy pantomime has been not undeservingly compared to the great silent comics, and the film's first movement reminded me of the sublime "Valse Triste" segment from the Italian animated smorgasbord Allegro Non Troppo. WALL-E's lonely junkyard tour is interrupted by EVE, an egg-shaped automaton with anime eyes and a mighty blaster. The romance between two mechanical appliances is a noble sliver of hope in the void -- if the robotic couple is offered as an appealing alternative to futuristic humans (lazy, blobby versions of their former selves), it's in a kinder, less grandiose manner than Kubrick's Starchild (2001 is referenced throughout, along with Dark Star, Silent Running, and This Island Earth). Giving a soul to machines, long a Pixar objective (in Cars, most blatantly), is finally achieved here. And to think that for months I dreaded this thing as a CGI version of Short Circuit.

*

Not content providing the vocals to a puke-green merchandising monstrosity, Mike Myers returns to live-action with the authentically repellent The Love Guru. As Guru Pitka, an oily Deepak Chopra wannabe, the comic wears a putty beak, a mossy beard perpetually about to fall off but great for accumulating bits of food, and enough mocking-everybody-but-himself vanity to supply the rimshots to his own jokes. With an eye on landing a spot with the Oprah show, he takes an assignment with the Toronto Maple Leafs, helping a troubled player (Romany Malco) while falling for the owner (Jessica Alba) of the hockey team. Somehow, this makes it okay for Justin Timberlake to show up as a kind of Québécois John Holmes with a Céline Dion fixation, Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer to yet again flip viewers a stubby middle finger, and Myers to play a sitar version of "Space Cowboy" that feels as long as Berlin Alexanderplatz. I am still not convinced that any of this was even meant to be funny: When Myers deconstructs one of his deplorable jests ("Alligator soup, and make it snappy. Because alligators are snappy, and at the same time I want it prompt"), is he experimenting with a kind of so-unfunny-it's-lacerating style? If so, a shot of Ben Kingsley shouting "Drama!" into the camera while doing a cross-eyed goof on his Oscar-winning role is far more fertile. The Love Guru shows how grotesquely You Don't Mess with the Zohan might have turned out -- instead of that movie's spilling-over generosity, there's only the vacuum left by a comic's inflated ego.

*

Steve Carell is another comic with self-fondling tendencies (in a sneakier way, his The 40-Year-Old Virgin script is as egotistical as anything in the Mike Myers oeuvre), although at first the Get Smart movie gets it right by keeping him at The Office levels in Control, the super-secret intelligence agent from the Sixties TV show ("Freaking agents, man," one of his fellow drones fumes). Then Carell's Maxwell Smart is elbowed center stage, and one remembers why the comic is best in sidekick roles that take up 20 minutes, tops. In all fairness, he displays a fairly respectable deadpan with lines like "Well, that is a sucker punch to the gonads," and can pull a double-take by shifting his eyes back and forth while standing at the urinal. Still, would Don Adams, who originally gave the character some cagey crispness, ever be caught dead milking pity from audiences by staring at a puppy? And, despite Anne Hathaway's wiles as Agent 99, the hostile repartee between the characters is as ungainly as director Peter Segal's lumbering action sequences. One appreciates Alan Arkin's dryness, or the attempts at taking the mickey out of the Bourne films, or the Richard Kielesque giant who cries on the hero's shoulder. But The Nude Bomb, the series' reviled 1980 big-screen effort, was a good deal funnier. Would you believe...?


Reviewed July 3, 2008.

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