Friday, June 26, 2009

Greg Clarke, Jack Black, Year One, and the tedium of Christian themed comedies up against date rape drugs

Year One is positively the last kind of movie I would ever bother to watch. Jack Black jumped the shark so many years ago, it was even before he could nuke the fridge.

Which of course is why I watch slacker movies all the time. The Hangover was such fun, as it explored the existential dilemma of boys in Las Vegas (what happens there stays there) doing a buck's night that turns into a nightmare of lost mayhem. The gag is they've dosed themselves up on a date rape drug, and then spend time trying to work out what they got up to, which happens to include getting punched out by Mike Tyson, extracting a tooth, meeting a tiger, marrying a pole dancer, wrecking a car, stealing a cop car, and so on.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an outrageous rip of the original film noir DOA storyline, and none the worse for that, and after you've watched it, and been distracted and laughed, you can forget all about it. Job done. 

But then I also enjoyed The Proposal - that's right a Sandra Bullock movie - which hit its secretarial targets with amiable accuracy, and left me gently sobbing as she and sweet Ryan Reynolds get hitched after enduring all the agonies only the well off can suffer. So what hope is there for me. 

Sure she's showing her age - it's almost mature woman porn, Ryan is such a babe - and sure it's total fluff, and totally predictable - like watching a transformer unfold - but who can ever get enough of the story of a martinet high heeled executive class New York bitch from hell discovering the joys of true love in Alaska.

Both The Hangover and The Proposal are clever comedies, knowing exactly how to target and score in their chosen demographic. 

There's not many around that can do this, but it reminds me that sword and sandal pictures are a great home for lost slacker souls in search of cheap jokes, just as jurassic movies have sheltered the likes of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. and the immortal Richard Starkey in Caveman.

One thing you must never ever do is take any of these shows seriously. Which is why it's such fun to watch Greg Clarke attempt to discover some layer of significance in a movie like Year One, which by definition can only work by being an utter waste of time. 

This is the usual form of Christians anxious to generate a "popular approach" and beguile readers with how hip they are, and modern and now and real and into things.

You can read the full critique in Year One: a parody of biblical proportions but permit me to sample a few of the more boisterous lines as we watch Clarke anxiously dissect the story of Zed, a primitive slacker mistaken for the Chosen One and his sidekick Oh, a nerdy geek:

Both Zed and Oh are still interested in the reality of God; they are by no means hardened atheists but ‘soft humanists’. They question God’s existence, but they pray nevertheless. This suggests to me that there’s still some real spiritual questing going on in the midst of the crude stupidity; in fact, I speculate that some of the crude stupidity is a kind of anxious reaction in those behind the film (and the audience they represent) to the very seriousness of the God question.

Er, actually Greg, as the suits sat around anxiously contemplating the script, someone asked how the show would go with the mid-west Christian belt. After all, if you lose all the Christians, especially the college crowd, you lose a significant slice of the box office.

So what to do? Well you can send up all the authority figures, but you have to dissemble and be ambivalent about the question of God's actual existence. You can be sharp and acerbic and cornball but you can never go too far. Think orange more than lemon in your level of citric acid.

You can see this kind of dissembling calculation continually at work in The Simpsons where the religious figures regularly cop a bucketing, but then just at the brink of things going too far, the scripts pull the characters back into a kind of loving embrace (a typically cunning exercise comes in season eight, in the episode Hurricane Neddy, where Ned's Leftorium shop is looted and a hurricane wipes out his home, and the neighbours - led by Homer - rebuild it, but even the Reverend Lovejoy has been given his redemptive moments of insight and understanding).

Please be assured that the crude stupidity on view in Year One is simply ... crude stupidity, albeit of a quite harmless kind, and is in no way consistent with an anxiety attack or allergic reaction to the very seriousness of the God question.

The whole approach to religion in The Year One really is vulgar and unfair, but this is comedy so we don’t mind. And, because, we live in a society that is conditioned by the largely Christian-ish attitudes of tolerance, generosity, and the pursuit of peace, no-one gets a fatwa put on them. Just the awful condemnation of … two stars.

Now please don't try to get in the comedy game yourself. We live in a society conditioned by the largely Christian attitudes of tolerance, generosity and the pursuit of peace? Except when fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan or indulging in a bit of curry or poofter bashing? If you want to take the credit for tolerance, generosity and the pursuit of peace, will you also take all the credit for the pursuit of violence and war?

But then Greg is a tad confused himself. At first he bemoans people for not knowing much about the bible, saying that the film requires you to know the stories recorded in the book of Genesis, noting that not many people these days do, and then he goes on to say that the film actually only works if you don't know much about the Bible account, because it mangles every character and story in order to get the joke. 

It's a playground parody of truly Abrahamic faith: Judaism, Christianity or, in fact, Islam.

Lordy, lordy, could I have been wrong in thinking Flying High was an incisive demolition of unsafe practices in the airline industry?

The film’s second assumption is that you will find its ridiculing of religion funny.


Some of it worked for me (being partial to a circumcision joke), but I would be supportive of the Jewish person who found the film’s treatment of Abraham insulting, degrading and belittling. It is hard to imagine a defence of this film in court: “Your Honour, the bit of the Bible about the foreskins, we all know that’s kind of stupid, don’t we? Besides, we cut out a lot of the bestiality jokes”.

There’s a lot to laugh about in religion. Christopher Hitchens does it in a more witty manner in his book God Is Not Great, but the method is the same: find a culturally weird element of a religion; talk about it without any explanation of context, history, meaning, cultural development or ethical dimension; get an easy laugh at the God-fearers and their ludicrous practices. It’s easy to crack jokes at circumcision, but much harder to work out what this practice was actually about.

There you go again you hipster, finding Christopher Hitchens witty. You sure do know how to send him into a frenzy. 

But you'll have to learn to lighten up about Abraham - after all, if you can't get to chortling with laughter at Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, you've never lived or smoked a joint.

But back to matter of defending Year One in a court. Actually there's only one court that counts for the show, and that's the box office, and sad to say - as boxofficemojo put it - the show lacked stones. It did okay on debut, hauling in $19.6m on 3,600 screens, but for a summer Jack Black that's pretty thin, especially if you put it up against The Hangover, which hauled in $152.8 million in 17 days. As you'd expect the Jack Black audience skewed male (57%) and under 21 (47%).

But the days of Black being a box office killer are in recess - remember the dire Nacho Libre only took just over $80m, up against the also average $81m for School of Rock, though neither are as dire as the $32m haul of The Love Guru, which marked the end of another box office career.

Sorry Greg, sad to say, for all the lather you whip up around it, even a slacker comedy about Christian themes doesn't cut it these days. 

Time perhaps to explain the metaphysical significance of date rape drugs ...

(Below: back in the days when they could make a truly inspiring stone age slacker comedy. You just had to be stoned back to the stone ages to see the humor in it).

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