"Stuff Happens": Superbad, No End in Sight, The Invasion
By Fernando F. Croce

It's not too difficult to see why Judd Apatow movies have become the new template for what passes for great comedy nowadays -- they offer the grubby yuks and but-seriously-folks heart of the Farrelly brothers with none of the weirdness or transgression. Superbad, hopefully the last movie to feature Seth Hill or menstrual blood gags in prominent roles, follows the recipe and adds no new flavors. Having apparently forgotten everything about filmmaking in the decade since The Daytrippers, director Greg Mottola cedes auteur duties to producer Apatow and Knocked Up star Seth Hogen, who based his screenplay on his own growing pains (and, possibly, memories of The Last American Virgin). The plot follows a trio of high-school seniors (manic douchebag Hill, stammering double-taker Michael Cera, and neo-Eddie Deezen dweeb Christopher Mintz-Plasse) on a dash to dispose of their virginities, passing through creepy parties, goofy cops, and a trainload of cock jokes along the way. The affable trajectory covers enough guffaws to balance out the flattest visuals this side of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but Superbad mostly reminded me of how little patience I have with the whole horny-teenager type of humor, with its chummy enshrinement of limited horizons and view of girls as titillating-alarming Others. When the freaks and geeks reach the party and helplessly reveal the insecurity behind the randiness before the girls of their dreams, the film momentarily gropes for grace in vulgarity; my favorite scene has Cera locking himself in the bathroom and making himself drunk in order to remain "ethical" towards Martha MacIsaac, who's already wasted and ready to go (their aborted encounter in bed gets to the fumbling center of first-time sex, and for once lets a woman be funny, too). People who still laugh at Yoda impressions will shoot it to the IMDB Top 250, though, when it comes to sexual attitudes, it looks like corduroy vests and funky tunes weren't the only things Superbad replicated from the past.

*

"Stuff happens" is how Donald Rumsfeld summed up the staggering mess of the Iraq War in an infamous 2003 press conference, lacking even the honesty to say "shit." Such gorge-raising footage abounds in No End in Sight, but the tone of Charles Ferguson's documentary is one of cool disbelief at the parade of sheer arrogance, incompetence, and evil imbecility that's characterized the ongoing fuck-up in the Middle East. The lies, greed, and immorality leading up to the invasion aren't the subject, the amazing blunders of the Bush administration after it are -- Saddam's statue is toppled and, as the Shiite zinger goes, "the Small Satan has left, the Great Satan has come." Interviews with generals, journalists, officers and specialists lay out the nightmare: Oil facilities protected while Iraqi cultural heritage is decimated, a ruler who refuses to flip through documents ("to lead, not to read," per The Simpsons Movie), connected "pretty boys" handed city-planning jobs, a country readily shut out of its own reconstruction. Insurgency is fueled by national de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi forces, U.S. soldiers have to face the consequences while from the safety of the White House Bush crows, "Bring 'em on!" Ferguson's bulletin-like reportage is virtually neutral, like Errol Morris contemplating the inventor of the electric chair -- the data speaks for itself, the dunces in charge refuse to come defend it. Can such inquiries ever turn irrelevant while this madness continues? The President has recently invoked Vietnam... to justify Iraq. No end in sight.

*

The Invasion does see an end in sight, even if it's thanks to aliens who shoot gooey Saran Wrap from their maws: Transformed into drones, those damn fool humans shape up and not only do the U.S. troops promptly leave Iraq, but North Korea relinquishes its nukes while Bush and Chavez shake on an oil agreement. Not a bad joke, but it's one mangled beyond recognition over the course of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers regurgitation, screaming "troubled production" (German director Oliver Hirschbiegel had much of his original cut worked over by the Wachowski brothers and their lackeys) even before it sputters to the most pusillanimous wrap-up of the year. Jack Finney's original story is so trenchant that it can be filmed every decade or so (Siegel, Kaufman, and Ferrara have provided superb screen versions) without losing its potency; shoddy and soulless, this latest adaptation is foremost a set-up designed to trick you into thinking of Nicole Kidman as the warmest person on the screen. A space shuttle brings a parasitic force with it, and people are soon turning into "pods," empty shells of their former selves bent on conquering humanity -- civilization is a "game of pretend" but a possible vaccine lies within the heroine's moppet son, whom Kidman must protect through a maelstrom of projectile puke, adrenaline syringes and sloppily shot car chases. By now we need a Cronenberg to give us the pods' viewpoint, because if I want dead-eyed ghouls with weird enunciation and cups of chunky coffee I can just go back to art school.

*

A few random notes on the last couple of weeks. Stardust: Not nearly as cogent a fairy-tale analysis as that SNL skit envisioning Claire Danes as a drunken, aggravated Tinkerbell, but Michelle Pfeiffer's witty villainy burns through decaying-crone make-up, and Robert De Niro's riotous "woopsie" turn almost exonerates Meet the Fockers. ... Talk to Me: Surprisingly shallow view of forgotten activist-radio personality Ralph "Petey" Greene, presented by gifted Kasi Lemmons like Good Morning, That '70s Washington. Don Cheadle saves it, loose and frisky till he hears of the Martin Luther King shooting and crumbles into himself before the mike: "They got him, y'all." ... The Ten: My guess is that the filmmakers gulped the bong water, watched Perverted Stories 19, and decided to remake it with a bunch of folks striving for hipster cred. If not, then I just can't explain Winona Ryder with that ventriloquist's dummy. ... Hot Rod: Pretty much a Buster Keaton two-reeler, worth it for Ian McShane's Freudian razzing alone. Funny, doesn't labor for "poignancy," and gets while the getting is good -- watch and learn, Apatow. ... Becoming Jane and I Know Who Killed Me: An odd double bill, or perhaps not so odd. Both deal with budding young writers, Anne Hathaway in a corseted attempt at Merchant-Ivory tastefulness and Lindsay Lohan in a tawdry excuse for a mindfuck; neither movie is good, but watching them back-to-back got me thinking about how passages and images from one suddenly complement the other, how they're less about plot than about former Disney ingénues on variously winding roads toward leading-lady territory. Liberating the senses like that is one of cinema's great gifts. Otherwise, we're often stuck watching Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 3 walking "funny" after Roman Polanski's cavity search.


Reviewed August 24, 2007.

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