The Farrelly Brothers have always intentionally made comedies that walk an ever so fine line between being mean and good natured, whether it’s delightfully offensive (Me Myself & Irene) or benignly reined in (Stuck On You). They just understand and have this certain symbiosis with off colour humour and the fact that most of the films would be boycotted out of the theatres in this age of hysterical hyper sensitivity is a fair reminder that jokes are just jokes, everything is fair game or nothing is fair game and hey, fat jokes are just plain hilarious in the right dosage. Shallow Hal was a pleasant surprise for me, it’s their most compassionate and mature film while still retaining that edge where you’re not sure if they’re laughing at the disabled, blind, fat, deaf or what have you or with them. They’re laughing with them.
Jack Black is Hal, a man whose dying father (Bruce McGill) imparted words of wisdom to him on his deathbed at the age of nine, telling him to never ‘settle for average poon tang’ and always go for ‘hot young tail.’ Well you can imagine how that could fuck with someone’s head at that age and as such he grows up into a superficial snob who looks at women with skin deep lenses and has no use for anything but physical attraction. After he’s stuck in an elevator with self help guru Tony Robbins (self help guru Tony Robbins) and given a little hypnotic boost he can now only see inner beauty in anyone he looks at, and vice versa. When he meets three hundred pound Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) he perceives a slim supermodel type while everyone around him can behold the real thing. It’s a tricky concept that you shouldn’t put too much thought into lest you think too hard and logic sets in but it’s a breezy film that is more interested in the implications of its concept rather than semantics.
Black is good enough in his first big time starring role and the Farrelly’s populate the film with an ever eclectic bunch of people like Joe Viterelli, Susan Ward, Kyle Gass and Jason Alexander as Hal’s asshole buddy who..ah… well I won’t spoil it but it’s a classic Farrelly sight gag. It’s actually Paltrow that grounds this thing though, the film has great compassion for her character despite ruthlessly making fun of her the whole time and like I said it’s a very fine line but it somehow works. She’s very aware of her weight, her situation and even cracks self deprecating jokes. She’s smart, funny, caring, compassionate and the film asks you to see those qualities set apart from her physical appearance. The best scene in the film sees Hal visit a children’s burn ward for the second time. Of course the first time he went he couldn’t see their obvious scars and as such treated them as he would any other adorable kid. When the spell Robbins put on him is lifted and he can see everything again a small girl who he played with last time approaches him and wonders why he hasn’t visited since. Of course he can see her scars now and doesn’t immediately recognize her, but when she reminds him of her name and he does… well it’s the sweetest, most honest moment of the film and hits the main point home hard. (Also the only time in any Farrelly film I’ve teared up by the way, but shhh). So the film has this irreverence that’s always there in their work, this cheerful aim to make fun of things you’re ‘not supposed to laugh’ at. Anything out there is to laugh at though and that’s just the way the world works. The film understands this as well as compassion, perspective, understanding, character while still being an off the wall, bonkers comedy and I loved it for that.
There’s a turn of phrase that I like to avoid in where a writer compares any eclectic crime film they can find to the work of Quentin Tarantino by labelling it a ‘Tarantino knockoff’, or any variation in vocabulary. I renounce this lazy, unimaginative jab as it’s based in the worst form of criticism, that of negative comparison and ignorance of a film’s original qualities. However, in the case of American Strays, even I have to concede that it’s a blatant, unapologetic ripoff of QT’s style that makes no efforts to mask the plagiarism or do it’s own thing. He should sue. Not to mention the fact that on it’s own terms it’s just a horrible, boring, awkward fuckin piece of shit movie. It’s set up in the same anthology sequence except none of them are even connected, let alone make sense. Two nimrod hit men (James Russo and Joe Viterelli) drive through the desert engaging in strained extended dialogue that’s neither funny nor stimulating. A psychotic vacuum salesman (the great John Savage) goes door to door harassing people until he meets his match in a femme fatale housewife (Jennifer Tilly). A stressed out family man (Eric Roberts, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else) drives his dysfunctional brood through the desert. Elsewhere, Luke Perry plays a depressed, suicidal weirdo who sits around in a shack with a guy he’s paid to literally beat the shit out of him. The worst is a cutesy pie, insufferable Bonnie and Clyde style couple that are so obviously emulating Clarence and Alabama from Tarantino’s True Romance that you begin to wonder if they gave up and just set the script on autopilot like one of those knowingly ridiculous knockoffs you see on Netflix that are simply there to decoy you out into clicking a title that looks *almost* like what you want to watch (TransMorphers, anyone?). None of these vignettes are remotely engaging, it’s like a parade of shitty, awkward, misguided SNL skits from a dimension where humour and wit don’t exist. Every actor just looks tired, every line lands with a hollow thud. Just. Don’t. Bother.
Eraser is a top notch Schwarzenegger vehicle, and in a year where the only other Arnie entry was the mind numbing Jingle All The Way, it supplies 1996 with that jolt of action from our favourite Austrian juggernaut. Here he’s John Kruger, a US Marshal who specializes in an obscure wing of the witness protection program that literally wipes people’s memories clean before replacement. The technology is naturally hoarded over by big old corporations which as we know aren’t to be trusted in these type of films. During a routine mission to help beautiful client Vanessa Williams, Kruger begins to suspect his own colleagues of some shady shit involving the sale of high grade weapons, and before he knows it he in the crosshairs and on the run with Vanessa tagging along. It’s all smarmy James Caan’s fault really, who plays his devilish, treacherous superior officer at the WitSec agency, a classic case of ambition gone rogue, his villainous cackle trademark of someone you just shouldn’t trust, even before his true colours are bared. The action is fast, furious and rooted in 90’s sensibilities, with all manner of attack helicopter chases, massive artillery fired off at a whim and the the near SciFi concept frequently smothered by the shock and awe campaign of each set piece, which is fine in an Arnie flick really, I mean they can’t all be Terminators and Total Recalls. There’s a neat rogues gallery of character actors filling in the wings in addition to the big guy, Williams and Caan, including Olek Krupa, Patrick Kilpatrick, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Viterelli, Mark Rolston, John Slattery, Roma Maffia, Tony Longo, Melora Walters, Camryn Mannheim, Skip Sudduth and Nick Chinlund as Caan’s unwitting henchman. There’s also a delightful cameo from James Coburn as the WitSet CEO, doing the same pleasant ‘sort of a villain, but also sort of not’ shtick he did in Payback. One of Arnie’s more low key efforts, but still more than serviceable and a slam bang damn great time at the action races.