A far from mindless summer (pictures by Bergman, Van Sant, Jarmusch, Wong, Herzog and Apichatpong), so a little rest before moving on to Cronenberg, Malick and Egoyan. On with the comedy triple-feature, although it's a reminder of the genre's condition that none of them triggers more intentional laughs than The Exorcism of Emily Rose does unintentionally. The 40-Year-Old Virgin -- "the best reviewed picture of the year"? Lord save us. Actually, not a bad sample of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too subgenre that's bound to sprout since the box-office success of Wedding Crashers, the rowdy raunchfest with the close-but-not-quite-chick-flick marzipan center. Steve Carell, formerly a Daily Show mock-correspondent since taken to the big screen to filch scenes from Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell, is the eponymous bloke, his libido stashed away somewhere among his still-wrapped hero action figures following four decades of thwarted coitus attempts. To his work buds (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen), his ineffable oddness can be either homosexual or homicidal; the cat finally gets out of the bag during a guys-night-out poker session, as Carell tries to keep up with the macho talk only to compare the female breast to bags of sand. Branded with the "V" stigma, he reluctantly assumes the cherry-popping journey, staged by director Judd Apatow as a quest against "putting the pussy on a pedestal," one disastrous romantic fumble at a time.
The rest is Carell squirming while a boozed-up club hopper is behind the wheel (complete with projectile-vomit capper), Tourette's-type outbursts over chest hair removal (repeated about twenty times), gags about morning wood and peekaboo nipples. Occasionally, the movie rises to the level of, say, The Lonely Guy, thanks largely to Carell, who displays some of the mix of silliness and gravity of the early Steve Martin -- only without the smarm, never keeping a hipster's distance from the character. In fact, Carell's withdraw from the booty arena, for all his naiveté, dorkiness and toy collections, is hardly depicted as a one-way ticket to loserdom; if anything, he's something of a Holy Fool, his celibacy more balanced than all the frantic ass-tapping of his horndog pals. What separates the film from the I-gotta-get-laid vibe of just about every '80s jaunt is the respect it wrings for the main character's self-imposed asexuality, as if to revel in the pleasures of carnality with anybody short of your soulmate would degrade your spirit -- a notion that, in a world where little thought is given to the consequences of sex (if not to the act itself), makes The 40-Year-Old Virgin simultaneously subversive and reactionary. Still, almost all is forgiven for the sublime consummation (aided by Catherine Keener, who spikes her bland role with lovable eccentricity), where Carell at last experiences the physical rapture to go along with his emotional rapture. All as a Hair send-up. As a late bloomer myself, I approved: sex is comedy.
Pretty Persuasion, on the other hand, keeps Virgin's blue talk while doing away with the warm 'n' fuzzies. Not that the anti-heroine could be called chaste by any stretch of the imagination -- when not just below the frame supplying slurping sounds to assorted guys and dolls, princessy 15-year-old Evan Rachel Wood is strolling the grounds of her Beverly Hills high school, in all her rosy-narcissist glory. "I'm glad I was born white," she tells pensive, burkaed colleague Adi Schnall, but "the Devil wears a skirt," and soon enough Wood and fellow cockteaser Elisabeth Harnois are hatching a plan to conjure up phony sexual assault charges against their lecherous drama teacher (Ron Livingston). The inevitable media circus kicks off, all-too-game James Woods tugging under leopard briefs in between spilling racist drool and Jane Krakowski as an ambitious, gratuitously lesbian news reporter into "jailbait rug-munching." But why stop? Toss in Wood miming canine ecstasy from bestiality, a soldier brother killed in "Operation: Iraqi Freedom," and a faux-Columbine slaughter, whose listless culprit sums up the movie's approach to satire: "Just like shooting ducks in a carnival." Is that director Marcos Siega talking, or screenwriter Skander Halim? Difficult to tell where one's derision ends and the other's begins, yet both are equally smug about their "edginess," and equally guilty of what must be the year's most abysmal societal lampoon.
Interesting how critics brush off Romero's pulverizing critique in Land of the Dead but dig for relevance of a sick culture in easier-to-ogle Wood's leggy, soulless sophomore, who envisions the scandal as a launching pad for fame but is really a cry for attention, and an extended middle finger -- fractured families, greed and materialism reigning supreme, South Park playing on the telly and all that jazz. You need morals in order to be immoral, just as you have to sin before you can repent; Siega-Halim attempt Election by way of Bret Easton Ellis, with some Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin thrown in, but their cynical demolition of values isn't usefully debauched, only childish. Their frenzied miasma preaches against "moral decay," but only after much easy contempt is sprayed, democratically and aimlessly, though presumably never at the wiseasses in the audience who came to laugh at the idiot puppets while congratulating themselves for "getting" it. The gleeful button-pushing is much more timid in its exploration than the unveiling of romantic anxieties in Virgin, its comedy much more strained -- Wood explains the art of porno DPs to Schnall before the movie starts puffing relevance up its own ass and demands a sacrificial lamb, "We are all sinners" scrawled on a blackboard. "Oops. Rewind," the girls say following a slip, enough for critic Armond White to mine it for his customary hatred of youth. "Eject," says I.
Wilder and Tashlin get channeled again in The Perfect Crime, the latest splashily sardonic offering from Spanish prankster Álex de la Iglesia -- to better effect. (Can't we even beat 'em at riping off our own models any more?) Actually, the patron saints here are Buñuel, whose Ensayo de un Crimen provides the main template, and Hitchcock, whose Spanish title for Dial M for Murder (aka, The Perfect Crime) supplies a nifty gag, naturally lost in translation: the Hitchcock movie, rented as blueprint for a murder, misscanned at the video store and ringing up as "El Crimen Ferpecto." Perfection indeed is meretricious, along with beauty, as the main character (Guillermo Toledo), a self-satisfied smoothie running the ladies' department of a lush Madrid mall like his personal harem, is to find out. Stuck with the body of his obnoxious rival after a changing room scuffle, Toledo ends up at the mercy of fugly saleswoman Mónica Cervera, both life's messy reality and the antithesis to his obsession with inhuman elegance. Long ignored in favor of his babelicious employees, Cervera takes sweet revenge by yanking Toledo down to earth and into her nightmarish clan (where lil' sis casually announces that she's been raped at the dinner table), and the film takes her gleeful tone to heart -- de la Iglesia swings the sledgehammer as broadly as the Pretty Persuasion folks, but with more vigor and less pretension. Manic, comic-book scampering is bound to implode sooner than later and, accordingly, the satire dissolves long before the end credits; still, delirium is hard to find today, and de la Iglesia's is a cherry-bomb.
Reviewed September 15, 2005.