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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 14, 2004

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


Starsky & Hutch, The Office, The Last Juror, and bad editing

The Passion of the Christ: the film made $264 million in three weekends. That's a lot of people willing to subject themselves to a serious movie that is meant to change or intensify the way they see the world.

Not an artily "serious" movie that is meant to make an artist famous.

So does this mean we'll have more ridiculous "religious" ripoffs like the pathetic Judas TV movie they dusted off and showed on ABC last week?

Or maybe, just maybe, will they let somebody create a few more serious films with religious themes?

*

Speaking of religious films ...

I never watched Starsky and Hutch when it was a TV series. And I haven't enjoyed Ben Stiller very often in the "comedies" he's starred in. So there's no way I was going to watch the Stiller and Owen Wilson send-up. The promos looked stupid. I have better things to do with my time.

OK, I don't. Friends were going to see it, and I thought, at the very least I can trash the movie in my column.

My bad. Inexplicably, somebody involved with this movie actually knew that parody only works if the funny version is also a good example of the thing being parodied.

So not only are the Starsky and Hutch characters hilariously exaggerated, with all kinds of dead-on gags based on the miserable television writing of the 1970s, but the movie also works as a good episode of the series -- they didn't lose track of the obligation to tell a story.

Snoop Dogg is so great as the cliche TV Black Dude that he would have stolen the movie if it weren't for the fact that Stiller and Wilson play their characters with such honest intensity that nothing could have taken this movie away from them. The characters' pain was real; their take had just the exact touch of comic edge, without losing the character.

What can I say? It's funny, it's smart, it's well-performed. I can no longer say that I don't find Ben Stiller funny. Now I know that what I've disliked about his previous movies was the writing or the directing.

And when Owen Wilson connives to get a guitar in his hands so he can sing a drippy ballad even worse than David Soul's pop records in the 70s, I enjoyed it way more than the twenty-somethings I was with, who of course had no memory of having to listen to Soul's creamy empty tenor voice on the radio day after day after day.

*

I'm not a fan of humiliation comedy -- it's only funny if it's truthful, but if it's truthful enough, it's too excruciating to watch.

The Office, the BBC series that won the Golden Globe this year, wanders back and forth over the line between dead-on and too much. This mockumentary of the management and sales staff of a paper manufacturing warehouse in England catches all the miserable excesses of an office run by people who think they're funny and instead are kind of tragic in their cluelessness.

Two supporting actors, Martin Freeman as the deadpan practical jokester and Mackenzie Crook (Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean) as the "team leader" with delusions of competence are absolutely brilliant, and always watchable. The other supporting characters are often even more engaging (though less funny), providing us with relief from ...

The lead actor, Ricky Gervais, whose portrayal of office manager David Brent is so cringingly real that after watching him, you want to apologize to everyone you ever told a joke to or tried to banter with.

Brent thinks he's a wit, but his jokes are never funny, and are usually offensive. He thinks he's trusted and loved by his staff, but he's despised and taken advantage of. He has an explanation for everything, but the only time he isn't lying to himself is when he's lying to someone else.

In the real world, a guy like this would never reach the position he's in, and, once in it, would never be allowed to remain. But that's only because his boorishness is so relentless. In truth, many a boss thinks he's a clever fellow, and because others are afraid of losing their jobs or simply don't want to give offense, nobody lets him see just how awful he is.

After watching three episodes on DVD in a room full of genuinely funny people (including members of the improv troupe that performed in Greensboro a few weeks ago), we started analyzing how the comedy worked, since we all admired the brilliant performances and often laughed, but also found long stretches to be cruel or almost too embarrassing to watch.

The trouble was that every word that came out of my own mouth made me think, Am I being the same kind of pompous, un-self-aware pinhead as David Brent? Are the others only pretending my comments are worth hearing because I'm the old guy in a room full of young people who were raised to be polite? I wanted to unsay every word the moment I said it -- so deeply had I personalized the pain of watching David Brent humiliate himself for an hour and a half.

My only consolation was that people who are really as clueless as David Brent would never see themselves in his portrayal. So the fact that I do worry about making a fool of myself as he does suggests that I actually don't. Or maybe it suggests that. Because it's also possible that this very explanation of why I might or might not be as awful as Brent is exactly the kind of idiotic rationalization that Brent constantly delivers during the show.

From this vicious self-biting cycle there is no deliverance except to mercifully stop.

I'm looking back over what I just wrote and trying to figure out if I recommended this series or not. I guess all I can say is, of this kind of comedy, which I usually find unwatchable, this is the most watchable I've seen.

*

John Grisham has his ups and downs. After suffering through significant portions of Testament, I was fed up with the downs and deliberately did not buy his next book. One must draw the line somewhere, and it seemed Grisham had forgotten what a story was.

With The Last Juror, however, I gave him another chance. Partly because I needed a book on tape and his was the most promising of the ones on the shelf in the bookstore that I hadn't already read.

Now I understand that Grisham is trying to write a different kind of story. With Testament, he utterly failed. Well, no, he succeeded in writing something different from his terrific legal thrillers -- he just didn't do it well.

With The Last Juror, he melds his courtroom writing -- the trial of a rapist-murderer in a small Mississippi town in the early 1970s -- with the kind of story he told in his The Painted House.

The result is that the verdict comes in about a third of the way into the book -- and the book obviously isn't over. So apparently it isn't about the trial.

Instead, it really is about the young newspaper editor/owner who is telling the tale. Having blown journalism school, he takes a low-paying job at a slowly fading weekly paper in the county seat of a backward part of Mississippi, and suddenly finds himself the proprietor.

We get to watch as he aggressively promotes the paper -- and deals with the fact that he's perceived as an outsider. (In fact, being from Memphis, he is called a "northerner.") Grisham does a good job of capturing that era, with all its conflicts and changes in the South, and all the idiocies of a young man who has discovered that he has opinions without realizing he hasn't earned them.

While the editor is well drawn as a character, Grisham is rather more false with the black matriarch who is the "last juror" of the title. She is so much of an icon, so very perfect, that she seems to come from fantasyland. Yet even her backstory is interesting and her dialogue engaging, and we don't want anything bad to happen to her because of her role in a death penalty case which manages to end in a way that irritates or infuriates everybody.

Grisham's triumph, however, is creating the feel of a small town. This is hard to do in fiction, and Grisham does fall into some of the traps -- creating "clown" characters whom the writer uses a few times too often for what he hopes will be a dependable laugh, but which instead gets something more like a sigh. But most of the townspeople are believable, and by the end, we understand the young editor's love for these people, despite their foibles.

Don't expect this to provide the gripping read of, say, The Firm or even Runaway Jury. But don't expect it to meander quite as pointlessly as The Painted House did. It gets somewhere. And I enjoyed it all the way through.

An added benefit for readers of the Rhino Times is that you can get an extra kick out of wondering just how much like the hero of The Last Juror our own intrepid John Hammer might be.

*

All I really need to say is, there's a new Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. It's been nearly twenty years since the Robert Urich TV series, and Parker has taken poor Spenser on a few rough journeys, including an utterly misguided thriller that almost wrecked the plausibility he had so carefully built up over the years.

But with Bad Business, Parker seems to have recovered from the mistakes of the past. What we have is genuine charm and wit, familiar characters in familiar relationships; it's like going back home for the holidays and finding everything exactly the way you remembered it when you were missing home the most.

Only one real irritant, and it's so tiny that I'm almost embarrassed to bring it up. But Parker makes a point of the fact that Spenser is well-read and in control of his language. So it was truly jarring when he used the word climactic when he meant climatic.

Was there no copy editor who could have caught the mistake and saved Parker (or Spenser) the embarrassment?

Or was this one of those mistakes that began as a "correction," with an ignorant copy editor changing Parker's correct reference to weather into an irrelevant reference to climaxes?

I mean, here at the Rhino Times, the ever-gracious Rachel Bailey has often saved me from embarrassing myself with inadvertent errors that she has caught. At the risk of some big New York publisher hiring her away, let me point out that she would never have let such a hyperconfessory mistake get past her.


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