Friday, October 10, 2014


David Fincher's The Social Network feels like history in the making and is prescient, forseeing the sea change in social interaction fomented by Facebook and everything since. Fincher's Gone Girl tackles the current television equivalent of yellow journalism but the film feels almost like a relic. Fincher takes on the transition of journalists into sensationalists and scolds but this not only reflects the current info-tainment (emphasis on the “tainment") convention, it also harks back to the nasty little reporters and gossips of classic noir. Burt Lancaster's Walter Winchell inspired character J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success comes to mind.

Ben Affleck's natural smarminess propels him. Rosamund Pike is a convincing old school femme fatal. Neither performance is particularly nuanced but both suffice in giving the film a 1930's murder mystery vibe. Integral to the plot is the couple's move from Manhattan to a small town in Missouri but unlike most of Fincher's other work, Gone Girl never really nails a sense of place. What is compelling however is an extraordinary supporting cast. Kim Dickens is wonderful as the unflappable,warm but cautious Detective Boney. After playing a hooker with a great business plan on Sons of Anarchy and a sexy chef onTremeGone Girl gives Dickens a fabulous vehicle to demonstrate her range. Boney's deadpan underling is played by Patrick Fugit who is best known for the Cameron Crowe role in Almost Famous and seems to have been under-appreciated ever since. I hope this performance establishes Fugit as very desirable for more quirky adult-type roles.

Affleck's twin sister is played by Carrie Coon. I'm probably the only person on the planet who endured every episode of “The Leftovers.” Coon, as the tortured Nora Dunne, is a standout on this series. She beefs up her role in Gone Girl by infusing the character with great balance of strength and frail humanity. Sela Ward and Missy Pike are both terrific as callow, power tripping TV personalities. Tyler Perry has a blast as a super star criminal defense attorney. Neil Patrick Harris and his opulent lakeside retreat may have been in a different movie but Neil sure can do “creepy” and I'm a sucker for the palatial prison device.

The film is compelling though and genuinely funny in parts. The screen play is adapted by Gillian Flynn, the author of the successful novel. There may have been a few scenes a more objective writer would have cut in a nod to cinematic economy but the two hour plus film never bores me. Perhaps Gone Girl isn't one of Fincher's masterpieces but it certainly a fun film to herald the winter season of movies for grown ups.

But for every movie I see there are oodles of worthwhile television programs to choose among. We don't have to wait until Sunday night for the new Sopranos any more. Now we can binge on intricately woven long form stories. Episodic TV pioneer Jill Soloway produced Six Feet Under. She lives in the 'hood and the characters in her Amazon series Transparent talk about the Hyperion Reservoir, the JCC and the Ivanhoe School. Soloway's feature Afternoon Delight as well as Six Feet Under are also L.A. centric. For the most part, Soloway achieves a convincing read on the pulse of local denizens. The culturally Jewish Pfefferman family portrayed in Transparent is well observed and feels authentic. They squabble constantly about money and food. They take sides and fight dirty. The betrayals are as egregious as the love is fierce. They turn on one another and practice divide and conquer. And in a way that feels particularly Jewish to me, gallows humor suffuses all of it. The miraculous Jeffrey Tambor plays patriarch Mort who becomes matriarch Maura. Early in the series when Tambor first appears dressed as a woman it is hard to get over his unattractiveness. As the series progresses however, the character's sweetness and solidity is redemptive and you not only accept Tambor as Maura, there is relief that he is able to become her.

Judith Light brings a remarkable physicality to the role of Shelly, the mother. Every gesture is perfect as is the explosive laughter that issues forth from her at the most inappropriate moments. The three adult kids are played by Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker. The three are spoiled, self centered and sexually confused. I do have a bone to pick with Soloway, something that bugged me about Six Feet Under too. Maybe it's just my own prudery but the preponderance of kinky-ish sex feels gratuitous. It just goes too far and feels facile, a perverse shortcut, a distraction from a not fully formed character.

Gaby Hoffman is the daughter of Warhol darling Viva so her credentials have gravitas. She plays Ali, the youngest Pfefferman. She's permanently scarred and immobilized, maybe because her bat mitzvah is canceled. The thirteen year old blithely questions her belief in God to father Mort. Dad seizes on her uncertainty as an excuse to nix the affair so he can attend a camp for cross-dressers. Gaby is big shameless girl. She plays Adam's lunatic sister on Girls. Flashing her bush is nearly a signature. Hoffman rips voraciously into her oddball roles, becoming nearly feral. Sometimes Hoffman goes over the edge and you get the feeling that her character is so awful and over the top that the writers are on the verge of killing her off but they don't want you to feel too sad about it.

Ali is confused. She plans a threesome with two hunky guys and dates a transgender butch and decides on the “Pegasus” model dildo. In her 30s, Ali is supported still by Mort/Maura. She burns through people,money and avocations. Her best friend is perhaps my favorite character on the show. Syd is played by an absolutely incandescent Carrie Brownstein, who it is revealed had a thing with brother Joshie.

Jay Dupless is Joshie, never Josh. He is successful in the music industry until his love addiction puts him out on his ass. It is revealed that the 15 year old Joshie lost his virginity to a nanny and the sweet faced lad has fallen in and out of love with regularity ever since. We think he may have found the real deal with a beautiful rabbi but it may be just another notch on the belt.

Oldest sister Sarah, played by Amy Landecker impulsively throws away a long marriage to a sweet goofy guy when her lover from lesbian college days appears at the nursery school. Ex-girlfriend girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin) is a radiant wasp with a long history of failed marriages. She re-sweeps Sarah off her feet and before you know it they've set up housekeeping.

Every character except Mom Shelly has unresolved sexual issues. I just find the resolution of family issues, particularly given the fascinating Pfeffermans more compelling. There are however some gorgeous touches. Shelly's second husband Ed is a vegetable who she's stuck caring for. There is a flashback of Ed in the final episode. The three young teen kids are sitting across from him on a couch, perhaps meeting Mom's new beau for the first time. Shelly is at Ed's side, prodding him to tell a joke. The joke is a tiny bit dirty for kids so young. I think it's slightly funny. I'm not sure what the kids think but you can see Shelly's desperation for them to like her new man and Ed's ernest effort to make them laugh. The kids used in the flashbacks are not only talented performers, uncannily they're dead ringers for the adult Pfefferman siblings.

The last episode also has an amazing scene of a body being placed in a traditional white shroud. Then the Jewish thing goes off the rails. Control freak waspy Tammy takes it upon herself to turn sitting shiva into a rainbow sharing of feelings. In the final scene, a guest of the Pferrermans leads them in grace, giving thanks to Jesus. I can see the deliciousness of the contrast between Jewish and non-Jewish characters but it seems very inauthentic that two gentiles, no matter how bossy, would commander a Jewish ritual with which they are unfamiliar. It's the subtle differences that are the most funny anyway.

While both of the dark comedy of Gone Girl and Transparent miss the mark in some ways, both are solid entertainments and showcase some wonderful performers. A less available but no less rewarding work, Please Like Me is a horse of a different color. The show is the creation of the 27 year old Australian comedian Josh Thomas. There is nothing Jewish or arch about it. I've seldom been so charmed by a show. I can make no defense for Please Like Me not being twee but it's twee in a good way, a confection. The Josh of the show, like Ali Pfefferman, is casting about, albeit much younger than Ali. Josh lives with roommates in a house his dad owns. His friends and family are nonplussed when Josh breaks up with his girlfriend and accepts that he's gay. Josh suffers awkwardness when he begins to date. His father's young Thai girlfriend has just had a baby and Josh's mom is in and out of a mental institution.

The show has a leisurely pace. Josh cooks and dances. He dresses up his little dog and when he babysits his new half sister the baby and dog get a montage with matching outfits. The cutest are the striped jail uniforms but Josh takes some heat from his dad and stepmom for drawing prison tattoos on the baby. I don't remember another show in which every character is completely likable. And relatively polite despite being direct and sardonic. While a comedy and a very funny one, Please Like Me takes the subject of mental illness head on. The cast even does PSAs for NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Health). The scenes of Josh's mom and her fellow patients are very funny but Thomas is meticulously sensitive, although not inhibited by an allegiance to political correctness, in depicting about what mental illness really looks like.

Thomas's repartee evokes the heyday of screwball comedies, but dirtier. The entire cast is enormously likable. Usually there are characters which are particularly compelling, like Carrie Brownfield in Transparent or Kim Dickens in Gone Girl but I can't get enough of anyone in the cast of Please Like Me. The show is on Pivot TV and also available for streaming from Amazon. If Please Like Me doesn't make you like it, then you're like my husband.

1 comment:

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

That is some last line. I have never commented on the Aussie show one way or the other as it plays in the background. It seems affable and quirky and perhaps meets the diversity standard more gracefully than the one set in the 'hood. The evolution of that term bugs me: very urban hipster, as if the ghetto is anywhere now where graffiti can, as the bumper sticker in such enclaves as the Pfefferman mishpoche may urge, "co-exist." On a related note, the Eastside is not east of the 405 or La Brea but east of the L.A. River, but the newly independent Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC wanted to insist otherwise, in defiance of the posh Westside. But I digress.

I do get awful tired of people moving here to show us Angelenos how kinky we are, but then, half of who lives here, at least, move here from somewhere else, right? I guess the Jill Soloways who crowd our streets and build their lofts fulfill our need to hear their tales. Without them, no Hollywood, except for a few homegrown offspring of celebs, machers, and moguls. Rob Reiner or Drew Barrymore can't make films alone.

I recommended "Gone Girl" to some students last week for various reasons. A student who works at a theater agreed with me about the third act problems of when to end, but nobody else had seen it. I thought it caught best the nature of how we rush to judge or praise based on a snippet the media share with us, and how rapidly the news cycle shifts. More of this reaction from the flyover folks besides the Ozark trailer park denizen might have made this more convincingly, but the movie seemed to enjoy itself sending up the same genre it delighted in itself.
Have fun in the desert. xxx me