Unwelcome Guest: For Your Condescension
By Fernando F. Croce

Sooner or later, every satirical wag gets lazy and bitch-slaps Hollywood. For Christopher Guest, it was sooner: His 1989 directorial debut, The Big Picture, had a film-school naïf being taught to whore himself in Tinseltown while feigning integrity, and now consider For Your Consideration the result of a lesson well-learned. Ghosts from the past kick things off, a glimpse of Bette Davis flooding a TV screen in Jezebel while a has-been actress (Catherine O'Hara) forlornly mimics the words to herself; O'Hara then drives to the studio, only for a gate guard to clinch her Norma Desmondian role by mistaking her for somebody else, probably a more successful thesp. Human self-delusion in the face of aging and mediocrity has been Guest's theme -- the rock 'n' rollers in This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner directed, Guest provided the authorial voice), the wee community-theatre folks in Waiting for Guffman, and the dog-owners in Best in Show are clueless to their own absurdities, with the ensuing mockery cloaked as oddball-celebration. Guest's previous picture, A Mighty Wind, deepened, expanded this concept by adding heft not just to the characters' achievements (their songs were actually pretty good), but also to their dreams, so that caricature might suddenly give way to reveal flesh and blood. But For Your Consideration is back to snark with a vengeance, a condescending (and not funny) crotch-punch that pretends to deride Hollywood's hype-juggernaut and Oscar hunger while in reality only punishing the schmucks who dare to hope and dream.

In the wheezing insider-comedies arena, For Your Consideration makes Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending look fresh by comparison. (Unless that character is Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, having somebody refer to "the World Wide Inter-web" is inexcusable.) Anyway, the Internet is how Home for Purim, a mothball '40s-styled weeper that makes The Jazz Singer look like Pickpocket, begins to gather Oscar buzz, principally for its leading lady (O'Hara); a blogger mentions "nomination," and, before anyone can say Snakes on a Plane, O'Hara and her fellow cast members and C-listers (including Harry Shearer and Parker Posey) are doing the media rounds, where Tom Willard and Jane Lynch stomp on the evil Entertainment Tonight, as well they should. The rest of the Guest Repertory Company (Guest himself, along with Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and John Michael Higgens) is ready at hand, but everybody is having a collective off-night, with yawning gulfs between laughs. The softball premise, timed for the kind of Oscar season where crap like The Last King of Scotland and Little Children gets pitched as potential contenders, is further declawed by making the film-within-a-movie so obviously (and safely) abysmal that the blunt of derision ends up falling not on the shallowness of the system but on the pathetic souls who thought something would come out of it. One personal triumph, however: O'Hara understands her character, sees Guest's cruelty, and cuts through by pushing it to startling heights, becoming a cleavaged, face-lifted version of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughed. Her finale is out of a horror movie -- a Davis moment, the Davis of in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

*

Bobby, incidentally, is one of the films this season being carted around by the Weinstein Brothers "for your consideration." Bobby is Robert F. Kennedy, seen and heard throughout via alternately starry-eyed and sorrowful stock footage; 1968 is the country-tearing year, the senator is on his way to his tragic rendezvous with Sirhan Sirhan's bullets, and the Ambassador Hotel is stuffed with special guest appearances plugging away at their flabby little scenes. Manager William H. Macy cheats on beautician wife Sharon Stone with switchboard operator Heather Graham, Lindsay Lohan plans to marry Elijah Wood to get him out of Vietnam, Laurence Fishburne and Freddy Rodriguez ponder Race Politics 101 in the kitchen, Ashton Kutcher shows an outtake from Dude, Where's My Car? to Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geragthy, and so on. Also floating in the stew are Demi Moore, Christian Slater, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, and Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed; the basis is Grand Hotel, which I got right off the bat just because Anthony Hopkins has long turned into the Lionel Barrymore of our times. (Stone and Moore juggle Garbo duties in front of a salon mirror.) No points for guessing that Estevez, comes the shooting, is going to cram his characters in the kitchen like clowns in a circus car, so that the martyrdom of the Great Liberal Hope can bring forward all the parallels between Then and Now. The clichés clogging Bobby's earnest stabs towards Nashville resonance ultimately function best, like For Your Consideration's sub-The Player goof, as further reminders of why Altman will be missed.

*

Having seen just about every entry in this year's seemingly one-a-week bag of crappy animated features (Cars, Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2, Barnyard, The Ant Bully -- the list is fucking endless), I was ready to mail in my Happy Feet pan from the comfort of my home. Raves from reliable colleagues (along with the wrath of the Fox-News Channel Gollums) roused me out of apathy and into the kiddy matinee. I'm glad they did: George Miller's jubilant, eccentric film makes its CGI penguins vibrant, expressive, even cosmic. Miller's style is as dynamic in cartoon form as in the live-action netherworlds of The Road Warrior or Babe: Pig and the City: A reverse crane shot from a hatching egg to Antarctic vistas locates the tuneful penguin community into which the hero, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), is born an outsider, a dissonant voice, literally. Unable to warble, Mumble instead lets his feet do the singing, and, since the critter's tap-dancing has been modeled on the scintillating Savion Glover, the movements communicate joy, a sense of identity, and revolt (what one of the elders brands a dangerous call for "uprising"). Huge ships slicing through the ice or the hero emerging into a zombified zoo cage are remarkable visions, all fueled by Miller's feel for the oddness of the world and its many dwellers (including leopard seals, killer whales and sea elephants -- humans are the "aliens"); usually dull contractual obligations in animation, the songs here (from Prince's "Kiss" to "Leader of the Pack" murmured by Robin William's Latino-accented "amigo") are pop eruptions that tap straight into the characters' (and the planet's) metaphysical crises. Now if only the upcoming Charlotte's Web had been handed over to Miller...

*

The tedium of The Nativity Story, meanwhile, actually makes me wish Mel Gibson had dibs on the Biblical chestnut: Jesus being born probably doesn't tickle his spirit as much as Jesus being torn to shreds, but, hey, at least there's Herod's massacre. (Gibson was busy spreading the Passion all over the Mayans -- more on that next week.) Catherine Hardwicke, the Thirteen filmmaker, directed it as a series of tasteful, stultifying reverent postcards, shorn of life, awe, mystery; Oscar Isaac is not bad as Joseph, and Shohreh Aghdashloo is a pleasure to see (and listen to) in any picture, but Ciaran Hinds' evil King is his Caesar from Rome warmed-over and, more disastrously, Keisha Castle-Hughes' teenage Mary is a dutiful, unsmiling drone with barely enough energy to bite her lower lip when the angel Gabriel appears to her. Lack of imagination is a cardinal sin in cinema, a sin linking the piety of The Nativity Story to the decadence of John Stockwell's Turistas, where the noxious cliché of Brazil as a paradisiacal pussy-buffet is compounded with shoddy, neo-colonialist anxiety without the benefit of the implicating critique of Wolf Creek or even Hostel. Seemingly perched on opposite sides of the moral spectrum, both movies traffic equally on shameless pandering; accordingly, both provide dispiriting experiences.


Reviewed December 5, 2006.

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