Friday, June 30, 2017

Neglected Gems #102/#103: Two Small Comedies from 1999

Dan Hedaya, Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in Dick (1999).

The inspired silliness of Dick emerges equally from the script by Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin, from Fleming’s breezy direction, and from the cast of clowns who perform it. It came out in the middle of the summer of 1999 and it’s the ideal summer comedy – though its jokes are so grounded in the culture of the Watergate era, when it’s set, that it never developed much of an audience, even among boomers when it got to the rental stores. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, both charming, play Betsy and Arlene, a pair of D.C. teeny-boppers. The Vietnam War appears on Betsy’s radar for the first time when her druggy older brother Larry (Devon Gummersall) gets his draft notice. Generally she doesn’t seem to have anything on her mind. Arlene, who harbors a crush on the bland pop singer Bobby Sherman, is, by comparison, the intellectual of the pair: she wears glasses – though she trades them in for contacts halfway through the picture – and we can tell when she has a thought because she blinks. They’re not usually her own thoughts, but at least she can repeat the popular anti-war clichés, which is more than Betsy can manage. Betsy’s the kind of bright-faced, all-the-lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home girl who, when her friend suggests they tell President Nixon to stop the war, flashes her prettiest smile and says, “Okay,” as if Arlene had just decided they should snack at McDonald’s. (To be truthful, McDonald’s gets a more enthusiastic reaction from Betsy: she looks almost transported as she murmurs, “Fries, fries.”)

The girls do, as it turns out, get a chance to tell Tricky Dick – yes, he’s the Dick of the title – to stop the war. The comedy is spun from the premise that history gets a swift kick in the ass from these two fifteen-year-olds; it’s in the form of young adult historical fiction with adolescent heroines. But it’s also a parody, and the way the story is written, you can imagine Arlene and Betsy thinking it up. Every step along the way, they provide the accidental impetus for the landmark events of 1972 through 1974. Arlene lives with her widowed mom (Teri Garr, who doesn’t have enough to do) at the Watergate Hotel, and the two girls are on hand when the burglars invade the Democratic National Committee headquarters; it’s because the girls were sneaking into the garage that the security guard notices the door has been tampered with and calls in the break-in. Then, on a White House field trip with their high school civics class, they happen upon G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer), whom they wouldn’t know from Adam, but he has a torn piece of paper stuck to the sole of his shoe that contains the names of the men the Committee to Re-Elect the President paid to execute the raid on the Watergate, and when he deposits it unknowingly in a corridor, they pocket it as a souvenir. Liddy recognizes the girls from the break-in and warns Bob Haldeman (Dean Foley) they’re suspicious. So they end up being summoned to the West Wing, where Nixon (Dan Hedaya) makes them his special project, wooing them with a made-up assignment as “special youth consultants” and with jobs as official White House dog walkers, caring for Checkers, who takes to the girls immediately far more than he ever did to his real master. (Our first glimpse of Nixon is of him complaining to John Dean, played by Jim Breuer, that the dog doesn’t like him, and in this case his infamous protests of persecution are justified.) The best running gag in the picture is that Nixon and his staff are so paranoid – especially about the American youth whose disapproval of them has been so vociferous – that they can’t distinguish between these two friendly teens with only the vaguest notion of world events and a couple of adult peers. So when Arlene screws up her forehead and repeats the popular poster slogan of the period, “War is harmful to children and other living things,” Henry Kissinger (Saul Rubinek) goes into Euro-academic lecture mode and starts to explain that Vietnam was the legacy of the last presidency and Haldeman, pissed, waves his arms around and tells them to go speak to Lyndon Johnson.

Dick has a revue-sketch style; it’s like a first-rate Saturday Night Live routine, but – almost miraculously – it sustains itself for ninety minutes and never feels repetitive or padded out. Fleming and Longin just keep coming up with more ideas – some, inevitably, involve Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch), whom the movie portrays as superannuated competitive kids wrestling each other for scoops. Even when a bit is predictable, like the way Larry’s weed winds up in batch after batch of the cookies (“Hello Dollies”) Betsy bakes for Dick, it plays out in ways we don’t expect. (The climax of this particular gag involves Rubinek’s Kissinger and Len Doncheff as Leonid Brezhnev singing a chorus of “Hello, Dolly!”) But Fleming and Longin rarely rely on such obvious period markers; they’re quite inventive. They provide their own version of the Watergate era’s atmosphere of paranoia, and when the girls arrive at the same conclusion as the rest of America’s youth – “I hate Dick” or “I don’t trust Dick” – the revelation is so highly personalized that you giggle about it for days afterwards. And the way the movie explains the eighteen-and-a-half-minute erasure on the tape is sublimely ridiculous.

The cast is delightful, especially Hedaya – who ranks just below Philip Baker Hall (in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor) and Frank Langella (in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon) among the best Nixons on film – and the tag team of Foley, Shearer and Rubinek. Rubinek is a sight for sore eyes: a Canadian actor gifted at both comedy and drama, he shows up all too rarely in movies. Ferrell and McCulloch make you laugh, as does Gummersall and, as a frat boy Arlene and Betsy mistake for Haldeman’s college-age son, a young Ryan Reynolds. But the movie belongs to the two leading actresses, whose rapport is so sweet and unforced you have to fall in love with them. Dim as they are, the movie generously gives them a coming of age, a dawning of political consciousness. When Nixon resigns, they stage their own private farewell to the president everyone loved to hate, and when he looks down from Air Force One, ferrying him away from the White House, and sees them, the way they make him sputter with profane frustration takes you back to the triumph of Nixon’s disgraceful exit from power and it’s hard to suppress an urge to applaud. Or fantasize . . .

Ellen Barkin and Kirsten Dunst in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999).

Dunst also stars in Drop Dead Gorgeous, a spoof about a beauty contest in a small Minnesota town called Mount Rose. The sponsor is a cosmetics company called Sarah Rose, the winner gets to go to state and then, with more luck, to the nationals in Alabama. Dunst plays Amber Atkins, a sweet, unaffected girl from a modest background (trailer park, single mom) who deserves to win the competition. Unfortunately her chief competitor, Becky Ann Leeman (Denise Richards), is a rich, entitled girl whose mom (Kirstie Alley), a former beauty-contest winner herself, is the chair of the contest committee and seems to have everyone in her pocket. And as the big day approaches, disasters strike closer and closer to Amber. First a farm girl (Brooke Bushman) who bested Becky for president of the local gun club “sisterhood” blows up on her dad’s thresher. Then the football captain (Casey Garvin), who turns down a date with Becky to spend time with Amber, gets shot in a hunting accident. And finally the trailer where Amber lives with her mom Annette (Ellen Barkin) is mysteriously torched, almost killing Annette.

The movie, which was written by Lona Williams (she shows up as pinch-faced Jean, Becky’s dad’s unhappy secretary and one of the contest’s three judges) and is a first feature by Michael Patrick Jann, is related to two memorable Michael Ritchie pictures – the 1975 comedy Smile , a reworking of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt with a beauty-contest plot, and the 1993 TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Cheerleader-Murdering Mom , a satirical take on the story of the rabid Texas mother who hired a hit man to eliminate the girl most likely to beat out her daughter for chief of the high school cheerleading squad. From Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Williams borrows the idea of dramatizing the story though a documentary being assembled by a (mostly off-camera) crew, and the deadpan broad-parody style Jann employs seems to be based on Ritchie’s. The depiction of this Midwestern small town, with its Scandinavian cultural elements (the cafeteria serves lutefisk twice a week), its trumpeted right to bear guns and cut down wildlife, its bigotry and narrow-minded Christianity, and its rock-solid class system, is generally hilarious. For the talent category of the competition, Becky talk-sings “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” as a serenade to a stuffed Jesus on the cross. (A recorded chorus sings the more romantic lyrics while she dances with the Jesus puppet; she ends up marching offstage with the object of her adoration on her back.) Becky’s dad (Sam McMurray) is a caricature of a slimy merchant, a big fish in a little pond who exploits his Mexican workers, passes racist and anti-Semitic remarks, pinches Jean’s ass and is always either snockered or working his way there. Besides Jean, the judges are a chain smoker whose fixation on teenage girls makes him constantly anxious (Matt Malloy plays this man with deadly accuracy) and an obese hardware-store owner (Michael McShane).

The distance between Drop Dead Gorgeous and something like Cheerleader-Murdering Mom is mostly in the tone. Jann and Williams locate something genuine at the heart of the all-American phoniness and hypocrisy (the contest’s theme is “Proud to Be an American”) and – of all unlikely places – it’s at the trailer park. Amber, who works in the school caf at lunch and for an undertaker after school (as a beautician!), is a sweetheart who has a touchingly close relationship with both her mom and her mom’s best pal, Loretta (Allison Janney). When threats of violence weaken Amber’s resolve and she thinks of quitting the competition, Annette – from the hospital bed where she’s recovering from burns and other injuries in the trailer explosion – is adamant: she’s damned if her daughter is going get stuck in this dead-end backwater the way she did. As the eruptive, beer-swilling, nicotine-addicted, ferociously loving Annette, Ellen Barkin does her best work after her first major role, in Diner, seventeen years earlier. She and the lanky, towering Janney make a wonderful Mutt-and-Jeff duo; you believe absolutely in their squabbling camaraderie. Since Annette is temporarily disabled, it’s Loretta who gets to play mom to Amber and guide her through the contest’s obstacle course. Loretta is a tough broad with a maternal warmth to balance her healthy cynicism: when Amber gives her a hug and tells her that she deserves to have her own kids, Loretta replies, “Well, God love you to think that I still could!” Janney gives Loretta dimensions; her throwaway realism provides the grounding the character needs. And her scenes with Dunst (who couldn’t be better) and with Barkin ground the movie – they give it heart.

Kirstie Alley and Denise Richards have such different styles that they make a compellingly oddball mother-daughter match. Alley’s Gladys Leeman is a scene-stealer par excellence, and such a booming, outsize personality – Ethel Merman crossed with Loretta Lynn – that she can’t hide the knife’s edge of her ambition and venality. (Actually, it’s more an axe than a knife.) Alley carries off the climactic scene where she reveals that she’s a bigger bitch – and a bigger psychopath – than anyone guessed. Richards’s ace is the blasé flatness at the center of her debutante act. Gladys is a fake, but her behavior is fueled by a desperate, grasping need to repeat her own teenage triumphs; Becky acts like she already owns the world and it isn’t that big a deal. She lacks even her mother’s worm-eaten heart. The movie is extraordinarily well cast. Mindy Sterling, with her wizened doll’s face, plays Iris, Gladys’s best friend and associate. Brittany Murphy is Lisa, who worships the brother who “followed his dream all the way to New York” – to perform in drag. Amy Adams is the hottest of the girls, Leslie, who shakes everything she’s got and can’t keep her hands off her boy friend (John T. Olson). Shannon Nelson is Tess, a fanatical dog lover who defends the German shepherd that bit a hunk out of her belly on the grounds that she had beef jerky in her pocket at the time. Alexandra Holden is the anorexic who, as last year’s winner, gets leave from her hospital ward to perform, for the last time, her act: lip-syncing to “Don’t Cry Out Loud” under a curly wig to hide her baldness. (This scene is authentic black comedy.) Mary Gillis is the rasping-voiced choreographer with a soft spot for Amber. Adam West plays himself with a parodist’s spark and Nora Dunn and Mo Gaffney turn up as the coordinators of the state final.

Jann and Williams make only one major miscalculation, though I’m not sure how they could have avoided it. The picture moves away from Mount Rose when the contest winner goes to state and then to Alabama, and though the arc of the story needs to take us out of the town, all the best ideas have been used up by that time, and the true climax occurs at the parade the day after the local beauty queen is announced. So the final twenty minutes or so are a bit of a letdown. Otherwise the movie is a small comic gem.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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