A beautiful tribute to book, television, and movie critic John Leonard in Salon has this lovely quote from him about the books he loved:
My whole life I have been waving the names of writers. From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock, and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy, and amazing grace…The books we love, love us back. In gratitude, we should promise not to cheat on them — not to pretend we’re better than they are; not to use them as target practice, agitprop, trampolines, photo ops or stalking horses; not to sell out scruple to that scratch-and-sniff infotainment racket in which we posture in front of experience instead of engaging it, and fidget in our cynical opportunism for an angle, a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle, and strike attitudes like matches, to admire our wiseguy profiles in the mirrors of the slicks. We are reading for our lives, not performing like seals for some fresh fish.
It takes some brains to make a good dumb comedy. Paul Rudd, who has been the best thing in too many films that ranged from dumb, to awful, to wildly uneven, has co-created a film that manages to insult the intelligence of its characters without insulting the intelligence of its audience too badly.
I could have done with less emphasis on the inherent hilarity of hearing an angry little kid use bad language and make sexually precocious comments. And some of the double entendres were so nudge-nudge obvious they were closer to single and a fraction. But some good lines and sharply observed characters make it above average for its genre.
Rudd and Seann William Scott play Danny and Wheeler, who work for a company that sells a soft drink called Minotaur by visiting schools for a phony “don’t do drugs” talk that is really just a way to push their soda. Wheeler wears a Minotaur suit and Danny half-heartedly tells the kids to drink Minotaur instead of doing drugs and then they drive off in their Minotaur-obile. This is all just fine with Wheeler, a walking id who just wants to get high and have sex. But Danny once wanted more from life and when his increasing bitterness causes his lawyer girlfriend to leave him, seeing the Minotaur-obile towed away is just one indignity too many. He objects, leading to arrests, leading to community service at Sturdy Wings, a Big Brother-style place run by a former drug addict (Jane Lynch). Each is assigned a “Little.” Wheeler gets a precocious kid (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who swears all the time and accuses everyone of racism and child abuse. He is also way too fascinated with feminine anatomy, a trait they manage to bond over. And Danny gets Augie (“Superbad” McLovin’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a cape-wearing nerd whose life revolves around a Medieval-ish role-playing game
Director David Wain manages the tricky balance between having some fun with the conventions of the genre without getting mean about it. Yes, everyone learns a few lessons about self-respect and relationships (and sword-fighting) but when they do it in medieval role-playing gear inspired by a rock band, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Note, however, that a child actor’s bad language and sexual obsessions are more disturbing than funny and raise serious questions about whether the laws protecting child performers are adequate and adequately enforced.
Defamer revisits the first 40 years of MPAA ratings. In the first days of film there were no ratings or limits. After outcries over the spicy content of some of the early talkies, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code in 1930. The studios agreed to its voluntary but highly restrictive terms not just about sex and language (the only proviso for violence was that it had to be in good taste). But it prohibited portrayals of clergy that made them appear corrupt or foolish and depictions of inter-racial relationships. There are legendary stories of battles over whether Rhett Butler would be allowed to say “I don’t give a damn” in “Gone With the Wind” (he was) or whether Bette Davis could get away with murder in “The Letter” (she wasn’t). And writer-directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges prided themselves on getting past the censors with subtle double entendres.
In November of 1968, MPAA head Jack Valenti created the ratings code at a time of cultural upheaval. The studios wanted to be able to tell stories about and for adults. At first, the ratings were G, PG, R, and X. But when X was appropriated by the porn industry, the MPAA switched to NC-17 (no children under the age of 17). And the PG-13 rating was added after objections to some of the grisly images in the second Indiana Jones film, like the eyeball soup.
Defamer lists some of the ratings system’s worst and most absurd moments, including the R rating for the original “Thomas Crown Affair” based only on a sensual (and fully clothed,ending only with a kiss) chess game and the PG rating for “Facing the Giants” for evangelical themes.
The documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated documented the failures of the rating system but mostly focused on its secrecy and favoritism in applying the ratings to studio films over independents. Under Valenti’s successor, Dan Glickman, there have been some small improvements.
For me, the most frustrating aspects of the rating system have been the inconsistency of the treatment of material based on whether it is in a comedy or a drama (permitting PG-13 ratings for the extremely raunchy “Austin Powers” films when the same material in a drama would get an “R”), the outright stupidity in the treatment of the f-word (permitted once or twice in a PG-13 as long as it does not refer to sex, a rule you’d need a PhD in semiotics to understand and interpret), and the continual ratcheting-down of the ratings so that what would have received a PG-13 a few years ago now gets a PG. Here’s hoping for many more improvements before its next anniversary.
I was very sorry to hear about the loss of author/director Michael Crichton. He was a man of astonishing range and accomplishment. He wrote best-selling novels, including Jurassic Park and the The Andromeda Strain. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he created the television show ER. He became an accomplished director. One of my favorite of his films was the period heist story The Great Train Robbery. I am also a fan of his non-fiction book Travels, in part because his tireless curiosity and imagination were so engaging. His 1993 essay on the future of media was recently recognized in Slate as stunningly prescient. He was master of entertainment and a fresh and provocative thinker and will be much missed.