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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Laughter in the Dark

I didn’t get it.

Ok, that’s probably not enough of a review. Still, it is succinct.

Vladimir Nabokov is one of those authors that every critic will tell you is a genius, to the extent that when you find yourself not enjoying or even liking what you are reading, it makes you feel self-conscious. If this is indeed genius, then my lack of understanding means that I am not even capable of appreciating genius. It is comforting in such times to conclude that it must be the critics themselves who are limited. Perhaps it is they who are limited, and that which they can’t understand they are premature to hail as genius.

Laughter in the Dark is a slight story, and not very original. Indeed, Nabokov essentially outlines the whole plot in the novel’s excellent first sentence. The author promises to fill the story with detail because that is what makes the story, but this declaration is largely unfulfilled. Nabokov writes so quickly, merely stopping to sketch in cursory details about the characters, setting and plot, that it seems as though Nabokov’s own interest in the story expired after that first sentence.

Albert Albinus is a married man with a large, inherited fortune who is bewitched by an immature and selfish teenager named Margot. In a short span of time he leaves his wife for Margot and dedicates his life and his checkbook to making her happy, including financing a film just so she can launch her doomed acting career. Margot spends the novel plotting ways to rob Albinus of his fortune and leave him for her lover, his friend Axel Rex, a cynical cartoonist.

Laughter in the Dark follows Albinus’s life as it spirals to its inevitable, disastrous conclusion, and if I was in a hurry to get to the end it was nothing to the hurry that Nabokov was in. There are little glimpses of humor here and there but by and large my reaction to the novel was a big: So what?

Maybe this is a great novel that went over my head, and maybe I’m not fit to review the work of a genius like Nabokov, but as far as I can tell, Laughter in the Dark is an unsatisfying piece of fiction.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Newsroom: "We Just Decided To"

There are many people who thought that the problem with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was that the setting didn’t match the author’s high-minded tone. The same speeches that sounded righteous and inspiring when coming from the White House Chief of Staff were made ridiculous and self-inflating when delivered by the head writer of a TV sketch show. These people will, presuming they find the world of journalism sufficiently worthwhile, be puzzled then by the shallowness of The Newsroom, the latest effort in eloquent lecturing from noted scold (and Oscar winner) Aaron Sorkin.

When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a popular cable-anchor known for playing it down the middle (“the Jay Leno of nightly news” as a minor character helpfully puts it) loses his cool at a college roundtable event, the resulting viral video leads to a massive shakeup at his show.

That viral moment is presumably meant to feel cathartic for the audience as well as Will. Finally, someone telling it like it is, yeah! Except that it the speech is so engineered by the use of the sorority-girl strawwoman that the rant becomes condescending, sycophantic, and demeaning. The points Sorkin is trying to make are undercut by his incessant need not just to have his character win the argument, but prove the other side indescribably stupid in the process.

McAvoy returns from his mandatory island vacation to find that his protégé has left for a show of his own and taken McAvoy’s producer and most of his staff with him. Luckily, stock-character type Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the veteran journalist with amazing stories to tell gruffly between plugs of whiskey, is there with a plan. He’s hired Will’s British ex-girlfriend behind his back.

The improbably named Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is just fresh from a tour in Afghanistan, and presumably that accounts for why her first act at the show is to stir up some office drama by trying to break up Will’s assistant Maggie (Alison Pill) and his former producer Don (Thomas Sadowski). It’s a problematic introduction to a character who otherwise seems blessedly competent at her job. Maggie too is further evidence that Sorkin might have a problem writing for women, as her boy trouble and emotional fragility seem to overwhelm any actual humanity.

It’s only when a news alert comes through about an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that it becomes clear that The Newsroom is actually set in 2010. Though there are obvious advantages in this choice, it also leads to an easy and in my opinion fair criticism. The show is already doing everything in its power to make these characters appear super-intelligent and upright, now it gets to basically grant them the power of foresight. Even then, the show undercuts its own advantage by basically having the story of the year fall into their laps through an outrageous narrative convenience.

Still, when the news show-within-the-show actually started, and Mackenzie and Will had to work together to get through the show, and Maggie actually showed that she might have some talent for this, and more importantly, when Will actually demonstrated a quick wit and humor that might actually draw people to watch his show, The Newsroom did pick up and become nearly irresistible television. Whether that is just the inherent drama of live television, or the promise of further things to come, will have to be seen.

There are still a lot of kinks to be worked out, and advance word from reputable critics is not promising. Will has to become more than just an angry man without redeeming characteristics (remembering the details of a baseball game is not quite enough.) The female characters have to avoid becoming depositories of personal conflicts and romantic drama. The show could stand to have a lot less name-calling and senseless yelling. And it would be nice if it didn’t treat anyone who disagreed with it like a mouth-breathing moron.

The Newsroom is unlikely to become as good as The West Wing, or Sports Night, but I liked both of those shows enough to watch in the hopes that it will get close enough to be enjoyable.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The problem at the very heart of Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is that it is a one-joke movie whose one joke isn’t really even a joke. In fact, Scafaria isn’t so much using her central premise as a source for comedy, but as an excuse for the film’s scatterbrained and implausible plotting. Though the film’s two leads are surprisingly credible, and the supporting cast does a fair job at carrying the film’s comedic burden, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is too slight to be taken seriously, and too deadly seriously to be taken lightly. It’s a movie that probably won’t really satisfy anybody.

Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) is a forty-something insurance executive whose wife literally takes off when the news breaks that the world is ending. Though his friends and neighbors (including several indie-comedy mainstays like Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, and Melanie Lynskey) try to cram in as much fun and consequence-free sex as they can before the end of days, Carell is in too much of a funk to join in. As he tells his cleaning lady (a downright offensive stereotype of a Latina cleaning lady) he regrets his whole life.

As chaos descends upon their city, Dodge makes a deal with his pretty young neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley). If she will drive him to see his old high school crush, he’ll take her to someone he knows with a plane so she can fly back to England and see her family. Carell has the good-guy, sad-sack archetype down so pat you wonder if he even has to work at it anymore, but the fact remains that he is a likable performer. Knightley is very talented and does what she can, but her character is a train-wreck of quirky-girl shorthand and bag-lady wardrobe. There’s no core to her, which is weird considering the movie was written and directed by a woman.

The two embark on a picaresque roadtrip which sees them encounter a suicidal truck driver, survivalist marines, a cop whose still trying to make quota, and a chain restaurant which the wait-staff have let devolve into an anything goes free-for-all. There is a tossed-off, arbitrary nature to these misadventures, as though they were written purely to pad the film’s running time and only made it in the final cut because nothing funnier was thought up in time.

Along the way, of course, Dodge and Penny start to fall for one another. This is in spite of the fact that the two of them seem to have nothing whatsoever in common besides the fact that, you know, they’re going to die in a week. When their final adventure turns out to be a visit to a person from Dodge’s past, that too is wrapped up in a nice bow entirely too quickly. Perhaps it is true that the apocalypse would sort of force things to a decision point, but the film relies on that notion too heavily.

T.S. Eliot once wrote that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does just that, whimpering off the screen to be forgotten shortly after. It’s almost an impressive feat, making so little out of the end of the world.

Mohawk by Richard Russo

I have resisted reading Mohawk for years because even though Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors it can be dissatisfying to go back to an author’s first novel. Often the talent is observable, but the rough edges have yet to be smoothed out. If you’re already familiar with the later artistic successes, watching the author struggle to wrangle together characters and plot can be disillusioning.

Such is largely the case with Mohawk. The classic elements of a Russo novel are all present: the dysfunctional families, the overbearing patriarchs and matriarchs, the thwarted ambitions, the lovable but frustrating ne’er-do-wells. Even Russo’s prose is just as readable and captivating as it is elsewhere. But Mohawk is too ambitious, the author’s confidence out of step with his material.

Mohawk takes its name from the upstate New York small town where the novel’s events take place, in two large chunks in 1966 and 1972. Russo follows a large cast of characters as their family secrets catch up with them and force the action to a head. There’s Dallas Younger, an irresponsible drunk and inveterate gambler; his ex-wife Anne Grouse, who can’t make her aged mother face the reality of her dying husband; their son Randall, whose youthful act of heroism can’t save him from the curse of his genes; Dan Wood, Anne’s old love, confined to a wheelchair and sharing a house with his prematurely old wife Diana and her seemingly immortal mother.

There are also the Gaffneys, a family which lurks over the novel rather than really inhabit it. Rory Gaffney, who has been stealing from the local tanneries for years with the tacit approval of his police-officer brother, and Rory’s son Bill, whose severe punishment for a mild childhood crime has left him brain-damaged and incapable of speech.

Russo weaves his tale in short chapters from multiple perspectives, and has a way of allowing all the most important events of the plot to happen offstage. He also frustratingly withholds key information from the reader for needlessly long stretches of time. The desired effect, to heighten the impact of the final revelations, is in fact thwarted by the mechanics of the device.

As the novel spirals toward its climactic tragedy, the flaw in Mohawk becomes glaringly obvious. There are too many people and too many stories to wrap up that no one is well-served in the end. The novel would need hundreds more pages to do justice to all the people and plotlines it cheerlessly discards.

Mohawk contains enough aspects of later, better Russo novels that it is obvious that Russo was a genius in the making, but Mohawk is not a fully formed product, and as such it disappoints.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Depending on whom you talk to, Philip Roth is either an unparalleled literary genius or a gross old man obsessed with sex. Exit Ghost seems to offer a third alternative: he’s probably both.

Nathan Zuckerman is back as the protagonist of Exit Ghost. An obvious stand-in for the author himself, Zuckerman has been narrator and relater of many of Roth’s best fictions, from The Ghost Writer through the trilogy of novels comprising American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Zuckerman is a famous and controversial author whose novels have sparked outrage over their portrayals of women and American Jews. The novels follow his heyday and lead to his eventual retreat to the Berkshires and the quiet life of the mind.

Exit Ghost takes place in 2004, eleven years after Zuckerman fled New York in response to threats on his life provoked by his fiction. Ill health is what has drawn him back to the city, as treatment for prostate cancer has rendered him impotent and incontinent (Roth is unsparing in drawing out Zuckerman’s humiliations in old age.) A chance encounter with someone he knew fleetingly a long time ago, in the time The Ghost Writer takes place, leads him to impulsively answer a newspaper ad for a house exchange and reemerge into society.

The slight novel follows Zuckerman’s stay in New York while he and the writing couple he has agreed to switch properties work out all the details. Zuckerman is inevitably drawn into their world, the world of the just-starting out literary people, a world he left long ago. Zuckerman, and one gets the sense Roth, find this world far worse off than when he left it.

The writing couple, mild-mannered pushover Billy and old-money seductress Jamie, are fleeing New York for much the same reason Zuckerman did: fear. Jamie’s worry over the potential of another terrorist attack, and her increasing lack of trust in the Bush administration, are affecting her work. Zuckerman, who watches the 2004 election results come in with the couple, has so far removed himself from the world that he barely knows anything about the campaign, and infuriates the younger writers with his seeming condescension.

Zuckerman also struggles with a fried of Billy’s and Jamie’s, who wants to write a biography of Zuckerman’s literary hero and one of the central characters of The Ghost Writer, E.I. Lonoff. Disgusted by the would-be biographer’s bald ambition and lack of consideration, Zuckerman attempts to corral his strength to oppose and defeat him, at the same time he’s trying to corral his manhood for one last attempt at a sexual dalliance with Jamie. (Thankfully, this remains a goal he achieves solely in his own fiction.)

Exit Ghost is a novel-length musing on the state of the literary world and the people who pursue it. Roth’s and Zuckerman’s position becomes clear in the novel’s coda, which spends a curious amount of time lamenting the passing, then recent, of George Plimpton, the stylized sophisticate who founded The Paris Review. Plimpton is an epitome of the kind of person who either does not exist in today’s world or does not receive anywhere near the same recognition. Roth, through Zuckerman, surveys the modern literary landscape and finds it filled with hustlers, charlatans, and sycophants. It may be the most high-brow version of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn ever written.

Adam Carolla and the "Women Aren't Funny" Claim

Today, Adam Carolla did something you aren’t supposed to do, he was honest about his feelings. Adam Carolla, like a lot of people apparently since this issue keeps coming up, doesn’t think women are funny, or at least, that there aren’t a lot of funny women, and he’s very sure that there are more men who are funny than women. Maybe his most troublesome statement is his contention that many women in the comedy world are there because of a kind of affirmative action for gender, and that if they were men they wouldn’t be funny enough to make it. He cites Joy Behar and Sherri Shepherd as examples of women who wouldn’t cut it if they had a Y-chromosome.

Tina Fey, who even Carolla admits is funny, probably had the best response to this line of thinking when she wrote in Bossypants: “I don’t like Chinese food, but that doesn’t mean I try to prove it doesn’t exist.”

That’s really the thing, isn’t it? If Adam Carolla doesn’t find very many women funny, he’s allowed to have that opinion, and even to express it if he thinks it will help him sell more books. But Carrolla’s error is in thinking that his enjoyment is the dividing line between funny and unfunny. There are women comedians I think are funny, and others I don’t really care for, but for the most part they all have their audience. Carolla seems to think that the goal of all comedy is to make him personally laugh. Hypothetically, suppose there was a woman comedian that only made other women laugh. Well, aren’t women half (or even slightly more) of the population? Isn’t there something valuable, in and of itself, in women having comedians that speak more directly to their experience of the world?

Again, that doesn’t mean Carolla has to enjoy it, or even pretend to in the name of political correctness. But the arrogance on display in his statements is preposterous.

Now, as to his statements about how he doesn’t like working with women comedy writers, I am slightly torn. In a perfect world there would be so many opportunities for funny men and women that one creator’s bias would be no big deal, and Carolla would be free to create his type of humor for his audience with people who match up with his sympathies. On the other hand, part of the reason Carolla’s line of thinking is as prevalent as it is, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, is that for too long there was extremely few opportunities for funny and creative women to thrive.

It would be a shame if Carolla’s close-mindedness remained pervasive enough to perpetuate the stereotype it created. The odd part of Carolla holding such a view is that he obviously styles himself a no-bullshit free-thinking truth-teller, but here he is obviously fitting a narrative to his closed-off worldview. To go from thinking a few women are unfunny to thinking all or even most women are unfunny is the very opposite of free-thinking. Imagine the absurdity of the reverse. Would anyone be taken seriously if they tried to claim men were unfunny on the basis of Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia?

Some people are funny, most people are not, especially. A good number of the funny people are women. A lot more funny women would be visible and known if there were a longer history of opportunity for women in comedy, which means that Carolla’s statements are only going to get even more wrong as time moves on. Hopefully the future societies run by women won’t judge us men too harshly based on the work of Adam Carolla. I suspect we’d be found wanting.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Based on a real classified ad that took off as an internet meme, Safety Not Guaranteed is a time travel movie that is less about time travelling than about the personal baggage that might cause a person to yearn for the possibility.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a disaffected twenty-something intern at Seattle magazine. Persistently cheerless and pessimistic due to the violent death of her mother, Darius has few connections with other people. Mostly she finds them uninteresting or unworthy of her attention. But her ears perk up when staff writer Jeff (Jake M. Johson) pitches a story about a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. Darius volunteers to go along for the ride, as does a bashful Indian-American student named Arnau (Karan Soni).

After some investigation, during which Darius reveals a real knack for reporting, the man who placed the ad is revealed to be grocery-store clerk Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). Kenneth is obsessed with the possibility of time travel, and seems to be slightly cracked, mentally speaking, but his earnest good will and enthusiasm appeal to Darius. After Jeff fails to convince Kenneth he is actually interested in time travel, Darius steps up and manages to ingratiate herself to him, joining him for weapons training and learning the complex details of his plan.

A lot of the plot is downright absurd, but a strong script and stellar performances all around lift the story to unexpected heights. As written, the main quartet of characters are all revealed to be damaged individuals, stuck against their will in a present they have reason to rue. In what might seem a tacked-on side plot, Jeff’s reason for suggesting the story is revealed to be a ruse to drop in on an old girlfriend. Over the course of several scenes, this encounter serves to soften his brash, jaded character and become a nice companion to the scenes between Kenneth and Darius. In his own way, Jeff is attempting to travel back in time as well.

The movie soars to its highest highs when Duplass and Plaza share the screen. Duplass has such a tricky role that his naturalistic performance deserves immense credit. He is not a stock character nor is he merely a collection of tics and eccentricities. His Kenneth is a real person who has experienced real suffering and emerged from it worse for the wear. Meanwhile Plaza exquisitely portrays Darius’s hesitant loosening of her guard.

As the story progresses and Kenneth turns out to be more than he seems, the plot coalesces into a theme of sorts. Jeff’s experiences have instilled in him a desire to seize the day, which he imparts first on the terminally shy Arnau, and then watches as Darius is forced to decide whether to accept what the world tells her is true or to trust someone she truly cares for.

It would be counterproductive to spoil the ending here, but let me just say that it is a bold decision, and one that I am not sure I find supportable from the rest of the film. I have essentially decided, though, that it was thrilling enough to watch that I will let the movie get away with it.

I guarantee you’ll enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Here’s how badly I yearn for the return of the screwball comedy, with its lightning-fast patter dialogue, high-strung protagonists, and farcical delights: I am willing to watch a show about a woman taking over a ballet studio just to get a taste.

Bunheads was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, which also featured elements of screwball comedy. Like that show, Bunheads features a winningly awkward female protagonist in a small-town setting she simultaneously finds charming and limiting. Sutton Foster, a theater star, makes the transition to leading role on TV as Michelle, a Vegas showgirl who, at a time of desperation, agrees to run off and marry Hubbell, the overly earnest guy who has been obsessed with her for months. It’s only after she’s got a ring on her finger that she learns that her new husband comes as a package deal with his overbearing ballet-teacher mother Fanny, played by Kelly Bishop, who was the imperial mother type on Gilmore Girls as well.

Though the cast is filled with small-town eccentrics like those of Stars Hollow, the featured players are rounded out by a quartet of students from Fanny’s advanced class, who quite neatly occupy the typical personas in your average Behind the Music special. There’s the aloof phantom at risk of squandering her gift, the hopeful ingénue with more desire than talent, the smart and sarcastic one, and the wildcard. Honestly, future episodes of the show could stand to differentiate even more between these four, as their lack of diversity could make it difficult to readily tell them apart.

The problems with Bunheads so far seem more inherent to the pilot form than any inherent problem with the show itself. The need to get all the pieces in place within 60 minutes necessarily renders Michelle’s decision-making too absurd to be believed, and makes Hubbell seem several shades too creepy for the big twist ending to have the impact it wants to have.

It seems likely that continuing to watch Bunheads is going to require a willing suspension of disbelief, as the idea of Michelle’s staying to teach the dancers is a lot to swallow. But like I said up top, I’m a fan of this style, and I’m willing to meet the show halfway.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Trumpeted as “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War” on its cover, my expectations were high going into Ben Fountain’s new novel. While it may be unfair to expect any book to live up to such acclaim, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk certainly does not. Despite the writer’s command of his story and an endearing lead character, the gimmicky prose and omission of key scenes and details ultimately keeps the novel from justifying the effusive praise.

Billy Lynn is nineteen and a soldier. He and the surviving members of his squadron are in the United States on a whirlwind tour to celebrate their acts of heroism, which were helpfully recorded by an embedded Fox News team. The novel takes place near the end of this propaganda tour, when the soldiers, weary from the constant interviews and fawning interactions with the public, are forced through one more awkward and humiliating ordeal. They are to be part of the halftime event at the Thanksgiving Day football game at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. (The novel is set in 2006.)

The novel’s satire, such as it is, consists of making the rather obvious point, over and over again, that since such a small percent of the country is serving in the war, many of us in civilian life are either unsure how to deal with our military personnel or absurdly sure of the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing over there. Time and again, Fountain wrings everything he can out of the clichéd, tortured interactions between civilians and the members of Billy’s squad.

Fountain also uses the pomposity and grandeur of our new national pastime to cut through the absurdity of our modern American way of life. When Billy and the others are brought into the Cowboys’ locker room before kickoff, Fountain’s satire is at its sharpest. Looking at the super-sized human gladiators before him during the team owner’s insipid speech comparing the bravery of the soldiers to his team’s courage on the field, Billy wonders why America doesn’t send these freaks of nature out to fight the Iraqis.

Even here, though, Fountain’s targets are obvious, and his points belabored and well-worn. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk feels like a commentary for NPR that somehow got turned into a novel. Especially galling are Fountain’s lame attempts at dialect and slang, a tack that explodes in his face during his halftime song for Destiny’s Child, which is rendered unreadable by Fountain’s preening attempt to capture it in the vernacular.

There is surprisingly little at stake for a war novel. For indecipherable reasons, Fountain decides not to show the reader the raid that launched Billy into heroism, nor does he give the rest of the soldiers anything but the barest outline of the personality. The only reason the reader cares for these characters is because they are soldiers. Much of the plot concerns whether or not a studio will pay Billy and his friends for the movie rights to their story. A story line about Billy’s sister trying to convince him to desert is a complete non-starter. At the end, Fountain doesn’t seem to stake out any position for himself. It’s as though he’s a guy who’s just telling you that the world is crazy and then shrugging his shoulders, like “What are you going to do?”

Maybe it’s realistic, but it doesn’t make for compelling fiction.

Mad Men: "The Phantom"

Coming on the heels of the back-to-back sucker punches to the gut that were “The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”, the finale of Season Five could be deemed uneventful, and perhaps even lackluster if we’re being completely honest. But in the closing sequences the episode gave fans much to look forward to in Season Six.

Let’s start with the ending, which gives us as much of a cliffhanger as a show like Mad Men ever will. While it seems highly unlikely that next season’s premiere will pick up with Don’s answer to the beguiling women at the bar, that pause of contemplation does give fans their own pause. Will Season Six Don be back on the prowl?

It’s a disconcerting moment, since it comes right after we see Don cave in and give Megan what she wants, a chance at the Butler shoes commercial. We are not shown to what extent Don had to push for Megan or whether she earned the job through her skill, but it seems pretty clear that Don has had to do something to get her in the spot. If so, we know that would mean Don had to give up something of his precious image. Don values being the calm, cool, collected man above the fray, the guy who doesn’t want anything and never needs a favor. It’s the Don Draper persona, the suit he puts on in the morning to keep anyone from seeing the whore’s child Dick Whitman.

It’s telling that it took so much for Don to get to this point. Not only did Lane have to kill himself, in a way that essentially made Don feel partly responsible, but his dead brother Adam had to appear before him in a dentist-induced hallucination, and he had to see just how messed up wife’s relationship is with her mother. He also had to hear Joan’s heartbreak over Lane’s suicide, including wondering whether she could have made him happy by giving him what he wanted, the same thing that the Jaguar dealer wanted. Finally, he had to see his wife’s smile on the projector and realize that if he had it in his power to make her happy he should do it.

Given that realization then, what is he going to tell the blonde? Is he alone? Well, yes, but so is everyone, really. Don’s decision will depend on whether his new philosophy to make people happy extends to himself. Perhaps he will realize that he’s not happy in a monogamous relationship, or perhaps he will realize the opposite, that a happy wife makes him happy.

Don’s not the only person struggling to find happiness, and to do it without hurting other people. Roger is finding bachelorhood wanting, but he can’t convince Madame Calvet to drop LSD with him. Peggy seems to be a little stressed over this whole women’s cigarette thing. (I assume these are Virginia Slims, and it seems fitting that Peggy might be the one to come up with, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”) Of course, Megan can’t get what she wants without screwing over the blonde bombshell who asked her for the favor in the first place.

And then there’s Pete Campbell, who gets knocked out for the second time this season, this time by someone who seems far too egotistical to go hanging himself in his office. Howard Dawes is the kind of man who doesn’t seem to broken up that his china doll wife is off getting shock treatment in the hospital, and even though Pete is essentially guilty of the same crimes, he takes offense, baiting his fellow commuter into a fight he must know he can’t win.

The scene where Pete pours his heart out to the recently wiped clean Beth is the first time in a while that the show has succeeded in making us see Pete as a somewhat sympathetic figure. Pete’s self-realization, that his marriage and family are just a temporary bandage on a permanent wound, serves as a nice serve-up to the audience. Pete’s shallow need for attention, gratification, and even adoration obviously all go back to a lack of parental love and support. Pete’s father was openly dismissive of his advertising career and his mother seemed to think of it as an amusement. They both felt it was beneath his blue-blood pedigree.

It’s another way in which we see the similarities between Pete and Don, however little Don would credit the idea. Witness how chipper Pete is when informing Don that, thanks to expansion, Pete will soon have the same view, and Don’s gruff, unimpressed reply. Don’s response to a childhood short on love was to burn the bridges to his past and create a whole new persona, one that needed nothing and no one. Pete instead tried to earn the love that was not forthcoming, and in doing so wound up becoming needy and insufferable. But somehow they seem to have reached the same conclusion, that they are not the men they think they are, that the lives they’ve built are cover stories, and that maybe it is time to let the real men out.

It’s a testament to the brilliance of the show that the final music cue of the year is so apt. “You Only Live Twice” both encapsulates the theme of the episode (everyone is negotiating the space between their real life and the life they dreamed of) and establishes the comparison of Don, the impossibly suave ladies man, to that other fictional creation, James Bond. The question as we head into Season Six is, will Don be a double agent?

Other Thoughts:

-“What is Regina?” Roger gets line of the night yet again.

-I’m sure someone smarter than I am can explain the thematic relevance of the scene where Peggy watches two dogs going at it. Also, are we to take Peggy’s going to bed alone as a sign that Abe is out of the picture?

-When the “brief nudity” disclaimer popped up before the show started, how many would have bet on Roger Sterling’s ass being the occasion?

-The moment when Pete, and by extension the audience, realize that Beth doesn’t remember him at all was extremely well-executed.

-Next year, on Mad Men: Cooper gets an office! Harry Crane provides exposition! Megan Calvet is cast in the off-Broadway production of Hair, leading Don to have a heart attack! Pete Campbell gets punched again!

-It’s been really fun writing these reviews, and I’ve been really pleased with the number of people who are reading. Thank you all, and please, feel free to leave comments, ask questions, etc. I love talking about Mad Men with people who love the show. See you all in Season Six.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

It’s extremely difficult to describe with any feeling of accuracy just why Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t quite work. There are a number of rather fine elements at play, and the film’s second-half builds nicely to a rousing climax and a poignant finale, but the whole thing never coalesces into a cohesive statement.

Right from the start, Moonrise Kingdom lays the whimsy on thick, with its self-consciously composed vistas, off-putting narrative devices, and egregiously unusual characters. Some of these tricks have been used by Anderson to greater effect in other movies, specifically Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. But in the first-half especially, their usage in Moonrise Kingdom grates on the nerve.

The film begins by introducing us to the worlds of its two pre-pubescent protagonists. Suzy Bishop (Kara Heyward) is the troubled daughter of a loveless marriage between too dispassionate attorneys. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is an orphan who has been rejected from several foster homes for unpredictable behavior. A chance meeting during Sam’s scout troop outing leads to the two becoming pen pals, and they plan their getaway through this correspondence. Moonrise Kingdom follows their escape and its aftershocks, as the Bishop family, the local police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s scout troop (led by a khaki-shorts wearing Edward Norton) take up the search.

The sense one gets during this initial build-up is that the on-screen action should be a lot less affected and a lot more involving. The main problem seems to be that everyone on-screen seems to know that they are in a Wes Anderson movie and that things are probably going to work out mostly alright. Norton and Willis are essentially used as sight gags instead of characters, as though the very idea of these two accomplished stars as down-and-out sad sacks was funny enough on its own. Bill Murray is also criminally wasted as Suzy’s father, who has very little to do except discover his wife’s affair with Captain Sharp.

Though occasionally the script, written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, too blatantly puts big-picture thoughts into the mouths of its young characters, the duo deserve credit for writing such an unexpectedly moving love story between two very young kids. Of course, perhaps even more credit should go to first-time actors Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward, for absolutely inhabiting their characters and making their awkward first steps toward adulthood (at the same time they are retreating from the adults around them) so realistic and engaging.

The script is rather daring when it comes to the physical nature of the love affair between Suzy and Sam, but it never feels voyeuristic or perverse. It’s actually quite touching to watch these two characters discovering the likeness of their own soul in the body of another, and it’s thrilling to watch them fight against all the forces that would keep them apart.

Whenever the action returns to the adult world, or lets adults infringe upon the world of two Suzy and Sam have created, the difference in the film’s impact is jarring. None of the adult characters are as realistic as the children, and many of them seem to act in entirely incomprehensible fashion, purely out of a desire to help Anderson move the plot along to where he needs it to go. Jason Schwartzman shows up to play a particularly unlikely role in Suzy and Sam’s adventures, and Tilda Swinton is reduced to a one-note joke about her character being a nameless functionary of an indifferent state government. (Though her character is memorable only for not having a name, it is worth mentioning that the other adult characters were so forgettable I had to look up all of their names just hours after seeing the film.)

Moonrise Kingdom is the kind of film that is better having been seen than seeing. In the rearview mirror one can look back and recall the charge that came from watching something that felt remarkably like true love, and conveniently forget the halting, awkward first steps that led up to it. For that reason, it is worth seeing. Just be aware of what you’re getting into.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men: "Commissions and Fees"

Can an episode of television be truly great if any part of it is terrible? That’s the question I find myself asking about “Commissions and Fees”, an episode of Mad Men which saw several cast members reach new heights of dramatic acting, but which also made the unfortunate choice to rely a little too heavily on creepy Glen Bishop.

Speaking of creepy, how downright weird is it that Matthew Weiner casts his own son to play the off-putting boy next door? It’d be weird even if the kid could act, which it seems pretty clear that he can’t. Marten Weiner can’t hold his own in a scene with Kiernan Shipka, how in the world can he be expected to share the screen with Jon Hamm?

Though the scenes with Glen had me largely rolling my eyes toward the ceiling, I did appreciate the plot line for what it gave us between Sally and Betty. Mrs. Francis’s reaction to her daughter becoming a woman is just about the best mothering we’ve seen from her in the entire series, but of course Betty can’t resist rubbing it in to Megan that Sally came to her when she really needed a mother.

Megan herself doesn’t seem sure how much of a mother she wants to be. She’s upset and offended that Don and Betty just assume she’s on call to watch their daughter, and when she takes Sally out to lunch she wavers on how much to be a protective mother (keeping her from her friend’s dirty jokes) or just a cool older girlfriend. She might have hit the right blend when she counseled Sally on what she should be looking for in a boyfriend. (Hint: better acting skills and a less creepy wisp of a mustache.)

Luckily the other two-thirds of “Commissions and Fees” were damn good television, right up there with anything else the show has given us this year. There was intrigue, drama, black humor, and outstanding acting all around.

The intrigue mostly surrounded Don’s desire to actually see the firm get bigger. Jaguar is nice, sure, but he’d rather have Chevrolet. A great scene between Don and Roger leads them to schedule a meeting with Ed Baxter at Dow Corning, who just happens to be Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law. Ken has always had an understanding that he won’t mix business with family, but some cajoling from Roger, and a promise to keep Pete off the account forever, and Ken is in.

The meeting with Dow Corning is rather absurdly brief, considering that Ed Baxter power plays them by making them wait almost two hours. But Don seemed to know what he was doing, tapping into the inherent desire of big corporations to keep pushing until they have everything. It’s a feeling he’s becoming familiar with himself, but if it seems unlikely that SCDP will actually land Dow on the strength of Don baring his teeth, it at least seems possible that this combined with Jaguar will get the firm past Don’s self-serving tobacco letter.

But of course, all of this drama pales in comparison to that surrounding Lane Pryce’s dark night of the soul. Don catches on to his embezzling, and despite Lane’s heartfelt explanations, justifications, and pleas for leniency, Don is insistent that Lane has to resign. After all, what if a client found out?
Lane’s pleas for mercy also serve to illuminate for the audience just how he came to be in this predicament. It seems he wasn’t really kidding when he told Joan that he had made the mistake of not asking for enough. Despite being primarily responsible for the very creation of SCDP, Lane had had to sell off his British portfolio to keep the company afloat, and he couldn’t pay when the taxman came calling. Don isn’t necessarily wrong to take the position that he does, but Hamm does a wonderful job showing just how close Don comes to forgiving, to agreeing to bend the rules to help his friend.

When Lane stumbles home to find his wife exuberant and insistent on going out to celebrate, only to reveal that she just wrote a check to buy him a Jaguar of his own, Lane’s problems come to a head. Lane has for too long been too proud and too stubborn to ask for help. Even Don wonders why he didn’t just ask him to loan him the money, and he’s too proud to tell his wife what their finances are really like.

Lane’s suicide has been long foreshadowed, and many superfans have been speculating that it would indeed happen this season, but in a way that almost makes it more surprising. Matthew Weiner has never before seemed to take the path everyone was anticipating. Of course, this show being what it is, they can’t just give us what we may have been expecting, they have to go to the incredibly dark and funny place of having Lane try to commit suicide by car, only to have his Jaguar stall out. (A moment made hilarious by Bert Cooper’s dismissal of Jaguars as lemons that never start several episodes ago.)

As much as I might have laughed at Lane using his broken glasses as a monocle to try and fix his engine, the episode still managed to make his actual suicide, by hanging in his office, a truly sad occasion. Poor Joanie, who has really had a tough season, had to be the one to first realize something was off with Lane’s door being locked. And it fell to Pete, Ken, and Harry to confirm her worst fears.

Don’s reaction was the most fraught, as of course he must blame himself for forcing Lane into this decision. He insists on their cutting Lane down from the hook, and his face goes paler than even Pete Campbell’s.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Don handles Lane’s death. Will it tamper his recent enthusiasm for pursuing new business? Will Don see Lane’s suicide as an effect of his cold, relentless pursuit of success, and retreat to the lax Don we saw at the beginning of the season? Will he tell anyone what he knows about the reasons for Lane doing what he did? Megan is sure to put the two together, but to the other partners this seems inexplicable. Don can offer them illumination, but at the cost of sullying their friend’s reputation. He may well have to carry the burden of what he knows alone.

Like Roger Sterling, I am afraid I don’t quite understand what Commissions and Fees means, but it seems to be about the price you pay for being what you want to be. Don wants to be a hard-charging success, but he’s just realized the very steep personal cost that can incur. Megan wants the freedom that Don’s success can provide her, but isn’t sure she can handle the mothering duties that are part of that package. What Lane wanted was to be a respectable member of the upper-class, and he worked so hard to maintain that façade that when it crumbled he was left without a vision of himself he could live with.

Other Thoughts:

-Joan is paying a price, too, for the way she became a partner. Don makes reference to it in her first partners’ meeting (Should I just leave so you can do whatever you want?) and though Lane’s comment about her in a bikini was probably just a product of too much to drink in a short time period, Joan clearly took it as a reference to what she’d done.

-Similarly, Ken Cosgrove is disillusioned by what’s going on at SCDP. Offered a partnership for steering Dow to the firm, Ken demurs. “I don’t want to be a partner. I’ve seen what’s involved.”

-I got a laugh out of Betty chiding Sally for being immature while behaving incredibly immature on the phone with Don.

-One week after supporting the push to get Joanie to sell her body, Roger is really sweet to Joanie, offering to take her home when she’s so distraught over Lane.

-Roger’s enlightenment may be wearing off, but his desire to foul things up for Campbell seems to be enough motivation.

-No Peggy this week, but that makes sense in such an office-centric episode. She has to back though, there’s no way the show would cast off two actors as good as Moss and Harris in back-to-back weeks.

-Seriously, Mr. Weiner, you might want to get your kid interested in writing, if you want him to have a future in television.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


All it took for the Mets to throw the first no-hitter in their franchise's history was:

-their best pitcher in probably two decades throwing a career high number of pitches in just his 11th start since coming back from shoulder surgery

-a ball that hit the line being called foul by the third-base umpire, a call so egregious that the game had to be delayed so that Cardinals 3rd base coach Jose Oquendo could be dragged away from the umpire.

-a fantastic catch made by Whitestone, NY native and lifelong Mets fan Mike Baxter, who laid on the ground in agony after crashing into the wall with an apparent shoulder injury. He held onto the ball though.

-Johan Santana throwing his 132nd, 133rd, and 134th pitches for strikes after falling behind 3-0 to last year's World Series MVP, David Freese. The last changeup was an absolutely beautiful pitch which fell off the table just before crossing home plate.

I don't know at what point in the team's history it became such a noteworthy fact that they had never had a no-hitter, but I've lived most of my life as a Mets fan in awareness of the lack of it. There were close calls from the likes of Rick Reed, Glendon Rusch, John Maine, Steve Trachsel, Bobby J. Jones (I was there), Tom Glavine and R.A. Dickey, but it always proved elusive. Every time I had tickets to a game, I always dreamed of it being the night. Every time a Met pitcher got through the first few innings without giving up a hit, I struggled to keep perspective and not get my hopes up.

But now the Great Santana has stepped up and filled the void. No more counting the games, no more Curse of Nolan Ryan, no more ridicule for going so long without. You're up, San Diego!

Friday, June 1, 2012

In One Person by John Irving

John Irving is well-known for his plots. He famously says that he never starts a novel until he knows how it will end, and usually pre-writes the last sentence of the novel. Such extreme attention to plot makes Irving more like nineteenth century novelists like Charles Dickens than any of his contemporaries. When the other aspects of the novel are as well-constructed as the plot, Irving’s books hum along with an extraordinary wit and joyful verve. But when, as has been more often the case among his later works, the characters and the dialogue are slaves to an orchestrated plot, the result is a disappointing, didactic story that sacrifices believable, relatable characters for a pre-conceived political point.

In One Person is the pre-conceived plot of William “Billy” Abbott. Billy grows up in the small town of First Sister, Vermont during the 1950s and ‘60s, and comes of age at an all-boys private school where he begins to discover his unusual sexual attractions. Billy is attracted to both women and men, including some of the boys at his school. Writing from the present-day, with the perspective of time, Billy takes frequent forays into his later life as a bisexual man, from his firs sexual experiences with a woman through the hey-day of the sexual revolution and to the horror-show unreality of the AIDS epidemic. But the heart of the novel is set at that private school, where Billy’s future self is formed by a series of cataclysmic events.

The problems with In One Person are myriad. Though the prose is definitely readable (no matter what, Irving is a fine writer) the events of the novel veer from the entirely predictable to the absolutely ludicrous, with no in-between. As Billy comes closer and closer to discovering all the secrets his close-minded family has kept from him, each revelation causes one of two reactions: “Well, duh” or “What the fuck?”

At some point, the degree of, shall we say, sexual differences, among Billy family and schoolmates beggars disbelief. Especially since none of the novel’s characters, including its protagonist and narrator, are well-developed or sympathetic.

Irving is writing from a political standpoint instead of an artistic one. He has always been on the vanguard of acceptance of out-of-the-mainstream sexuality, which is a fine thing, but when your goal in writing a novel is to get your political point across, the quality of the story inevitably suffers. In One Person suffers from Irving’s need to bludgeon the reader with Billy’s sexual history in an attempt to make the reader completely accept anything and everything he does. The result is that most of Billy’s encounters are depressingly clinical and unemotional. Billy is rendered unsympathetic, not due to any prejudice on the part of the reader, but because he just seems so cold and indifferent.

Irving’s over-reliance on plot has the consequence that many things the characters do seem only to serve Irving’s need to have certain things happen at certain times. This extends even to how long the characters live and when they die. There is an unreality to when Irving’s characters exit the stage, something that he might be able to get away with if these characters had any other role than to service Billy’s story. Very few of them seem to have any discernible desires or needs, and thus the reader is left alone with the plainly unlikable Billy.

In One Person is a political novel that arrives past its expiration date. A novel this supportive of the LGBTQ community might have been controversial and explosive twenty or even ten years ago, but this novel will be read only within the echo chamber of people who already agree with Irving’s point (a thankfully growing segment of the population) and even they might expect to be entertained.