Friday, September 25, 2009

Sulk Like It's 1999

       One of the few frustrating and disappointing aspects of the film-going experience is watching a movie that has an identity crisis. When a film does not live up to your expectations, especially one that had an over-the-top marketing campaign, we may feel misled, and in some cases like our trust has been violated. It is not uncommon to be inundated with quote-mined reviews from the critics, trailers that spoil all the fun, and misleading advertising. Of course sometimes the inverse is true, and a movie that was panned by the critics turned out to be wonderful.

However, on rare occasions, a film that looks absolutely dreadful turns out to be a gem. Such is the case with Blowin' Smoke (1999). This movie was originally released under the title Freak Talks About Sex, but was repackaged for the DVD release. This is the type of film that you would find in the bargain bin at your grocery store at 3 am, but it is not worth overlooking. Before this review goes further, the movie has to be defended. DO NOT pay attention to any advertising that went into the movie. Either you will be turned-off by the promise of promiscuous, pot-smoking debauchery, or you will be aggravated by its lack of promiscuous, pot-smoking debauchery.

The only honest statement this film proclaims is that it stars Steve Zahn and Josh Hamilton. Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a movie about sex. Or pot. In fact, both of those are tertiary plot-points, and they somehow became the advertising engine that forced this movie to the back of the shelves. First of all, the dame on the cover is not in the movie. Several people have posted comments on the internet wondering who the hell she is. Furthermore, the devil suit she is wearing and the cigar she is smoking have absolutely nothing to do with anything. At all. [When I showed this to my friend years ago, he was vehemently opposed to seeing it thanks to this marketing abortion. He finally came around though, loved it, and encouraged me to write this.] Now comes my favorite part. The cover clearly depicts Steve Zahn holding out a pack of cigarettes. However, here is no such scene, because it comes from another fucking movie from the same year.
Happy, Texas (1999)
(Please pardon the poor quality of this image)

     I am truly speechless. Go on, scroll up and compare the two. This is Bush-level dishonesty. Next on my list is the image of John Hamilton pulling up his pants, whilst on the phone with a sarcastic look in his eyes. To be fair, there was one very brief, tasteful, and ambiguous masturbation scene, but it was too subtle and barely noticeable to be put on the goddamn cover. And yet, this is completely unfair because the picture on the cover shows far more than is actually revealed in the movie. Next, the slogan reads, "A movie about life, lust and unbalanced hormones." Again, this couldn't be farther from the truth. What is this movie about? It's about the difficulty of growing up, of accepting responsibility, of letting go of your wicked past and being content with being an adult. If we are going to play this game, I want to join in; Die Hard is a parable on cultural relativism, urban architecture, and marital misgivings.

     Finally, the back of the box is just a fistfull of more bullshit, but I will only address one thing before I cut into the meat of this review: The girl on the cover is Photoshopped on top of Steve and Josh, who are sitting on a couch, making devil horns with their hands. Above them are the words "Live Long And Party!", which again, for Christ sake, is not a theme of the movie. This is a film about reclusive social misfits. Its as if the marketing department didn't want anyone to see this. In any event, it is rare for me to be so hard on a products packaging. The lesson learned here is that it is difficult to not judge anything by its cover, and 27 years on, I still do judge things by their cover. We all do. 

    This brilliant piece of work is about the arrested development of two friends, both in their mid-to-late twenties, both lost in an ocean of boredom and loneliness, waiting for life to get good. One of them, known only as Freak (Steve Zahn) is a fun-loving, unemployed pothead slacker. He apparently never went to school, lives in his mothers basement, and spends the majority of his time contemplating sex and women. As crude as it may sound, all of this is rather tastefully written. His best friend is David (Josh Hamilton), a sincere, but perpetually depressed, lovelorn loner who spends all of his time with Freak when he is not at his horrendous retail job or walled-up in his apartment. He has already graduated from college, and spent the two years in Arizona, on a failed journey of self-discovery. Defeated, he came home to Syracuse. The movie begins some time after his return. There is a greater subtext here that few films rarely touch upon: the lingering jealousy that consumes us when the people closest to us are where we want to be but cannot seem to get. Both of them need each other because each of them are where the other wants to be; Freak is looking to grow up, get an apartment with his girlfriend, get a job and earn his independence. David on the other hand is looking for a girlfriend, trying to find a way to leave his job, and just be happy. He is physically trapped in his small Syracuse neighborhood for reasons that are revealed in the movie. As the movie progresses, we are forced to ask what it really means to be grown up. Is adulthood a mental or material checkpoint? At what point have we reached maturity. The closing dialog rather seriously addresses this issue, and leaves us wondering where we--the viewer--are. The target audience of this movie seems rather narrow. If you are a post-graduate, or looking to get a degree and feel like the world is passing you by; like you aren't as mature as your age, then you would probably identify with this film. Additionally, it is made for those of us who are disaffected, empty and just plain unmotivated. If you ever felt like you will be alone forever, and you have not outgrown the morose and gloomy days of adolescence, then this movie is for you. This is a charming, somber and delicate movie that somehow doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, it is a comedy, but a comedy with a heavy heart.

     For those of you who are interested, the soundtrack also plays a vital role in this film, almost becoming a character itself. It is not simply hip filler music. Each song was carefully selected. Here is the tracklisting:

        1. Tugboat Annie - "Stay Inside"
        2. The Wrench - "Girl"
        3. Scary Chicken - "Favorite Channel"
        4. Chic - "Le Freak"
        5. The Tortillas You Wanted - "Girls and Cars"
        6. Blondie - "Heart of Glass"

We give this movie 15 McGivnies and encourage you to get your hands on it.

(Unsurprisingly, this trailer does not do the film justice either.)

     Just notice the not-so-clever jump-cutting of dialog, that pathetically attempts to fool you into thinking that what you hear plays out the same way in the movie. This schizophrenic method of trying to create an internal-narrative has always aggravated me. Example: David announces he has gas, then in a different \location, someone else tells him "too much information." 

     It is interesting to note that in 1995, Noah Baumbach--Wes Anderson's protege--wrote and directed a film called Kicking And Screaming, (DO NOT confuse this with Will Ferrell's Kicking & Screaming), which also starred Josh Hamilton. In this movie, his character is named Grover. However, the two are so similar, and having seen Blowin' Smoke, and subsequently this film upon recommendation from a fan of the former, it became easy to forget that these are different stories. Whenever Grover's name was said, I thought to myself, "Who the hell is Grover? His name is David!" So with that said, Blowin' Smoke, was essentially a sister-sequel to this. The two are so close together, so relevant both in narrative and continuity, the overwhelming parallels are comforting and well-rounded. Its unsatisfying to know these movies have nothing to do with each other. DO notice though, that both trailers use the same song. In-ter-es-ting. 

  In Kicking And Screaming, Grover has just graduated from college, where he has the same gloomy outlook on life. The movie is basically about his inability to be positive, alienating himself from his girlfriend, setting the tone for Blowin' Smoke a few years later, where he bemoans his past loves. Essentially, Blowin' Smoke picks up where Kicking And Screaming left off, except that nothing has changed. Grover is just now older, more cynical, heavier and more disheveled. They are only related by accident, but it is rather ironic, so watching both would be helpful. Kicking And Screaming is intensely deeper and more philosophical, and for many, the over-reaching deliberately dense dialog comes off as forced, insincere and pretentious. However, the movie is earnest, and for that, I applaud it. It tries hard to convey a difficult point, and does so through deep discussions, whilst keeping the muted-tonality in other Wes Anderson pictures. In what seems like a motley arrangement of colorful characters, each character uniquely portrayed in the vain of Breakfast Club, you will surely identify with one of the characters. The film stands on its own, it is just rather dry. However, that is another review altogether.
(In another interesting twist, notice the trailer song is the same!)

Blowin' Smoke can be found on Netflix, Amazon and several other retailers.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to have to check out Blowin' Smoke. The absolute dishonesty utilized in its promotion astounds me though.