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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 16, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Dumb Stuff

OK, when you decide to go to a movie called Dumb and Dumberer, and you know that it's a prequel that doesn't include any of the actors who made the original a huge hit, and you know it's already got bad reviews, then you have no right to complain if it's ... dumb.

But here's the thing. The reason the original Dumb and Dumber was so funny was that it was actually a very smart comedy -- smartly written, smartly directed, and very smartly acted.

Somewhere between the original and the prequel, somebody failed to notice that.

So what we end up with is a script that makes really bad teen comedies look smart.

And on those rare moments when the script offers a funny line or a funny sight gag, the director points it up so ham-handedly that no humor manages to survive.

And the acting ... well, I think every actor in this movie is capable of doing good work. But nobody ever told them that when you're playing a character who is really really dumb, the only way to make it funny is to play the character as if he thought he was really really smart.

To his credit, Eric Christian Olsen (the one doing the Jim Carrey character) gets it. And he's funny. Indeed, he's the only funny thing in this movie -- and the times he's funny are the times when he's simply cavorting. In other words, when they pointed a camera at him and let him do his own thing.

Derek Richardson (playing the Jeff Daniels character) does a fair Jeff Daniels-as-Harry imitation, but he is never able to get out of the box the script and directing put him in.

As for Eugene Levy and Cheri Oteri, accomplished comedians both of them, they do the best they can, but they are the ones most victimized by the horrible stupidity of the script.

Now, remember please that this script was meant to follow in the footsteps of the Farrelly brothers, who have found that borderline between comedy and degradation, and crossed over it repeatedly.

Something About Mary, for instance, was excruciating to watch -- but really funny to talk about afterward.

Dumb and Dumber remains the best of their comedies. However, on that script the Farrellys had a collaborator: Bennett Yellin. I'm not sure what Yellin's role was in the writing process, but whatever he did, the Farrellys desperately needed it to be done.

However, Dumb and Dumberer was beyond saving. Once they made the decision that the villains in this comedy would be even stupider than the main characters, there was no hope. Why? Because the point of these movies is that these ludicrously dumb guys actually end up outsmarting genuinely smart villains.

But when the villains are clearly dumber than the "dumb guys," where can the story go?

This is not the worst movie of the year. If you are desperate for an excuse to eat popcorn in a big room with noises and flickering lights, by all means go see this movie.

*

Last Saturday I made the foolish mistake of taking I-40 to Apex to attend a wedding.

So I got to spend half an hour traveling two miles, because a fender-bender had tied up one of the two lanes that passes through the construction zone before I could get off at the first possible exit.

Fortunately, I was able to use the car phone to call my wife and son, who were in a separate car some miles behind me, and warn them to get off the freeway at the 15/501 exit. Even so, it took them thirty minutes to get to that exit -- even though they had already passed the sign saying one mile to 15/501 when I called them

In other words, a horrible traffic jam.

Now, this sort of thing can happen whenever there's a construction zone that narrows a freeway down to two lanes ...

Oh, wait a minute. The freeway along there was only two lanes in each direction to begin with. So this is exactly how it would have been even before the construction.

Anyway, as I crept along, I had time to contemplate the fact that this section of freeway -- linking I-85 to Raleigh -- isn't that old.

Raleigh -- the capital, the second largest city in North Carolina -- and when they built the freeway that linked it to the entire western portion of the state -- the freeway that also linked the center and west of the state to the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks -- apparently it never occurred to anybody that it needed any more lanes than, say, Interstate 94 through North Dakota.

I'm sure there were budget tradeoffs and maybe there wasn't enough federal money to make it wider at the start. But you know what? Maybe the state legislature should have swallowed hard and paid for doing it right in the first place.

I mean, when they first built it, making it six lanes instead of four wouldn't have inconvenienced anybody or caused any traffic jams because it was a new road and nobody was trying to use it while they built it.

Now, however, they're widening a road that already exists, so they have cars whizzing (or creeping) by throughout the process. Such waste of time and money. It's now costing far more to widen it than it would ever have cost to build it wide enough in the first place. And the need for it was completely and absolutely predictable.

But that's the way roads are handled around here -- do as little as possible right now, and let somebody else fix the problems later.

*

I have good news and bad news for readers of naturalistic fantasy (i.e., those who appreciate George R.R. Martin or Robin Hobb or Charles de Lint as opposed to, say, David Eddings).

The good news is that Sean Russell is doing some brilliant, powerful work with novels like The One Kingdom and The Isle of Battle.

The bad news it that these are the first two books of a trilogy (presumably), and the third one isn't published yet. Worse yet, Russell doesn't make even the slightest effort to bring each volume to some kind of closure. He likes cliffhangers.

I don't.

And yet I must recommend these books. Russell is an extraordinarily talented writer, and instead of having a Dungeons-and-Dragons mentality -- you know, have wizards throw a bunch of spells at each other all the time -- Russell is very stingy with the magic in these books. Mostly his characters live in the real world, and magic is done only rarely, and at great cost.

So this story of feud-upon-feud, dangerous resurrections, court intrigues, and errands gone awry allows you the chance to come to know and believe in some interesting characters. Not that Russell is yet as masterful with characterization as, say, Robin Hobb; nor does he delight us with charming grotesques as George R.R. Martin does. But he's not far, and has gifts of his own to bring to the party.

I'm in the midst of an earlier work of his right now, World Without End, which has a companion volume, Sea Without a Shore. This is also an intriguing world that we haven't seen in fantasy before, set at a point analogous to Europe as it teetered on the brink of the industrial revolution.

The hero is a young scholar who is caught up in the "empiricist" movement -- this culture's term for what we call "scientist." Committed to finding nonreligious, nonmagical explanations for the natural world, he is dragged into court intrigues that gradually involve him in uncovering some of the secrets of the old mages, who apparently weren't charlatans after all.

The trouble is that Russell has chosen to write this as if it were a novel of the late 1700s or early 1800s -- which means that it takes an excruciatingly long time to get from event A to event B. It might be different if, like Jane Austen's characters, Russell's hero were proactive, trying to take control of events. But instead, when he's not being driven to act, he does absolutely nothing -- to the point that the author skips over those weeks and months. It's hard to get involved with a character who makes no attempt to live his own life.

Yet I make these complaints in the midst of continuing to read the book, so obviously the problems aren't that bad.

The real surprise for me, in reading Russell, is that a writer so gifted in the nuances of English has not mastered some of the rudimentary rules of the language. For instance, he has a very clear conception of the past tenses of "lay" and "lie" -- but unfortunately, his conception is the exact opposite of what is correct.

And when I found that in his world, someone is to be found "pouring over" a book instead of "poring over" it, which can lead to a very sodden library, I began to wonder.

Is the problem that Russell is ignorant of the difference between various homophones and the distinctions between transitive and intransitive pairs (lay/lie, set/sit, raise/rise)?

Or is he simply a victim of the very low quality of copy editing today?

Now, there's no such thing as a writer who does not need editing. Heaven knows, the estimable Rachel Bailey at the Rhino Times has saved me from many an embarrassment.

But the overwhelming majority of copy editors these days seem to be graduates of schools where grammar was never mentioned.

I have repeatedly had copy editors "correct" my correct usage, introducing errors where there were none.

Having once been a very good copy editor myself, I not only know the rules backward and forward, I also know just how little authority copy editors have in the world of book publishing.

I know that if a copy editor and I disagree about points of language, I can always get my way. The author has all the authority, the copy editor none at all.

But Russell may simply not know this. He may be a person so humble and modest that when a copy editor changes his perfectly correct laid and makes it lay, or his lain and makes it laid, Russell simply assumes that the copy editor must be right.

Or he may think that it's simply the lot of the poor author to have editors mess with his text.

But if, on the other hand, these errors are Russell's own, then shame on the copy editors who did not save him from embarrassing himself.

And if they tried to save him, and he arrogantly refused to learn the clear distinctions in English grammar and usage, then shame on him.

Grammar is the tool set of the language, and while writers have enormous authority to change the language (I've never written a novel in which I did not coin many words that are unrecorded in any dictionary, but which were necessary for the telling of my tale), we are fools indeed if we don't hold on to the useful distinctions in the language.

Those who write "backyard" when they mean "back yard," or "everyday" when they mean "every day" (distinctions which we easily make when speaking, without error) reveal their contempt for the very language with which they attempt to make a living.

(For those who care, the word "everyday" is an adjective, while "every day" is an adverbial phrase. So we say, "I do that every day," in which the syllable ev and the word day have equal stress. But when we say, "That's an everyday task," the phrase "everyday task" has the same stress pattern as "terrible twos" or "wonderful town" -- the syllable day is unstressed.

(We make the same distinction with back yard/backyard and back seat/backseat. When we tell a kid to "get in the back seat," we give back and seat equal stress, while in the phrase "backseat driver" the syllable back is stressed and the syllable seat is not. We go out in the back yard -- both words equally stressed -- but we have backyard barbecues, with the syllable yard unstressed.)

Ordinary speakers of the language don't have to know the rules about how to distinguish between these two usages in writing, just as nonmechanics don't have to know what cylinders and valves and rings are in a car engine.

But even though a writer is free to break any rules he chooses to, he's a fool to break them without first knowing what they are. Because it interferes with his ability to make fine distinctions in the language.

Who would want to chop down a tree with a dull axe, or tighten a nut with the wrong size wrench?

Yet an astonishing number of writers and editors try to work with the English language when their own skills are dull or broken.

Of course, when I make a complaint like this, I am inviting every curmudgeon in my audience to open my books and search for errors.

So let me repeat that all writers make mistakes, and even the best copy editors miss some. Let me also repeat that writers can break rules all they want, if it is necessary to achieve a purpose (thus I deliberately colloquialize the language of my Alvin Maker books).

It is the pointless, harmful mistakes that sadden me, when I find them in the works of writers as talented as Sean Russell.

Of course, he is a Canadian ...


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