First Movie Walk-out of the Year

January 3rd, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

It’s January 2nd as I write this, and Barb and I have already walked out of a movie. Make that two movies. Sort of. Kind of.

Now that I’m in the Writers Guild, I get to vote in several prestigious awards competitions, which means I receive DVD screeners. I’m gradually working my way through these, but I saved one – La La Land – to watch on New Year’s Eve with Barb. We had party mix and champagne ready (that’s about as festive as it gets in Muscatine, Iowa) and were really looking forward to this highly acclaimed, much-hyped film, which has a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is “a delightful extravaganza (that) revives the big-screen musical,” according to one critic, a rather typical reaction.

The problem is the movie blows. It’s a full-of-itself valentine to Hollywood (with occasional digs at the movie industry that, surprisingly, don’t ring very true) that is chock full of references to, and reminders of, classic films that this one is a bright-colored yet pale shadow thereof. My comments are based on the first hour, at which point Barb and I went to the kitchen for more festivities (cheese and crackers) and to refill our champagne glasses, and decided not to return to the film. We gave it a chance. We really did. And neither of us had said a word throughout, not wanting to spoil the other guy’s fun.

But when we took our break, it came out: the Emperor was stark staring naked.

First, a small detail: there’s no story. An aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz pianist – both narcissistic know-it-all’s – come together in a passionate, all-talking-all-singing bout of co-dependency. They are joined by no memorable characters. Their meet-cute, date-cute romance turns into occasional barely adequate dancing and singing – the songs are also barely adequate (with the exception of one romantic theme). The best songs are some New Wave hits that are being pimped out, seen as beneath the jazz pianist. An opening number of commuters stuck in traffic and getting out of their cars to sing (again, just adequately) and sort of dance (mediocre choreography) on and between their vehicles has a lot of energy and nerve, in service of not much.

The two leads (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) have some decent interludes of clever talk, though Ms. Stone has a terrible case of the I’m-so-cute’s. Still, these two have a nice chemistry that deserves a real, much-less-precious movie. The real problem is the self-indulgence of the director/writer, Damien Chazelle.

We’re in neither-fish-nor-foul territory here – not real enough, nor unreal enough, to work. I can accept singing and dancing breaking out – but not the expensive apartment the actress and her equally unsuccessful roommates live in. Or the stupid guy at the party who talks about his credits. Or the call-back for the actress where she is ignored. Or the inability of the jazz pianist to lower himself to making a living.

The filmmaker insists on reminding us of classics like Rebel Without a Cause, Singing in the Rain and Casablanca, as well as Astaire and Rogers pictures, only making us wish one of those is what we were watching.

Look, I like musicals. My list of favorite films includes How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (coming out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time!), Gypsy, Damn Yankees, Li’l Abner, Carousel and West Side Story. Those came from Broadway shows, but there’s also Hollywood originals like Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, and, yes, Singing in the Rain. Plus all those Astaire/Rogers flicks.

Maybe I’m wrong. But ignore this warning at your own peril.

Now, above I indicated Barb and I had walked out of two movies already this very new year. But the second walk-out came quite late – in fact, what was probably the last scene, although since we didn’t stick, I can’t be sure. It’s a comedy called WHY HIM? that pretends, in part, to be a Christmas film. I’m tempted to say it also pretends to be a comedy, but really it does have some laughs.

We went, largely, because we like Bryan Cranston, who here is revisiting his Malcolm in the Middle muse. He’s very good, as are Party Down’s Megan Mullally (as his wife) and Zoey Deutch (as his daughter). Cranston’s character owns a Midwestern printing company that is struggling in the new e-world, and is presented as a very straight, conservative, even dull businessman. He and his wife and teenage son go to visit their college-age daughter in California and wind up staying at the modern-art mansion of her boy friend, James Franco.

Now I like Franco. I’ve liked him since Freaks and Geeks. But he’s very one-note here, thanks mostly to a script in part by Jonah Hill. He’s supposed to be an idiot savant who as a teenager made a fortune in gaming. But here only the idiot side is on display. The big joke is how many “f”-bombs he drops. He also has a lot of tattoos. Also a mansion full of stupid paintings and statues, usually sexual in nature, a Japanese toilet that requires no t.p., and geek employees who lurk. Nothing about any of this coheres.

Watching Cranston find a million ways to react to the one grinning expression that Franco uses is an acting lesson in overcoming weak material while only occasionally going so far over the top that the desperation shows. Keegan-Michael Key is, as usual, very funny, this time as Franco’s ambiguously sexual, vaguely foreign assistant. If you see this, you may wish the movie was about him.

Here’s the kind of movie Why Him? is.

In the gaming multi-millionaire’s living room there is a dead moose behind glass preserved in its own urine. If you don’t know from the moment you see this gigantic urine-filled tank that it will, late in the film, break open and spill its gross contents, you should rush to a theater instantly and see Why Him? You will have many such surprises.

Speaking of surprises, major domo Key periodically sneak-attacks his employer Franco in elaborate martial arts displays that mimic those of Inspector Clouseau and his manservant, Kato. When Cranston points this out to them (“Classic Pink Panther!”), Key and Franco react with bewilderment – they’ve never heard of the Pink Panther!

Again, we’re in the area of a weak movie taking the insane risk of invoking much better movies. Similarly, it lifts two gags from Christmas Vacation regarding an oversize Christmas tree, as if the people watching this film would probably not have ever seen that one.

The ending, back at Cranston’s modest home, goes on forever and includes a cringe-worthy appearance by a couple of members of KISS. This includes a line by Cranston’s wife about giving him a hand-job on their first date after a KISS concert. That’s the kind of unfunny crudity that Why Him? offers in place of wit.

Hey, I’m no prude. I’ve dropped more fucking f-bombs than James fucking Franco, in my day. But this shit has to stop.

A final word – Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts, is terrific, and a must for Breaking Bad fans. He appears to have written it himself, and much of what he says about acting, and the actor’s life, applies equally well to writing, and the writer’s life. It’s as wonderful as Why Him? isn’t.

* * *

Here’s a lovely appreciation of (aw shucks) me.

And more of the same here, I’m blushing to say.

More praise for the Quarry TV show.

And still more here. Happy New Year!


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7 Responses to “First Movie Walk-out of the Year”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    We must have seen different prints of La La Land. The version we saw had a theater packed with people who were just nuts about the movie and applauded their hands off at the end. I personally found the hint of alternate realities to be to be provocative.

    Somebody once accused jazz alto saxophonist Gene Quill of merely imitating Charlie Parker. Gene handed the guy his alto and said, “Well here, you go imitate him.”

    Perhaps it comes down to a matter of taste. I have always been a jazz player, but it never really payed any bills. Hence the day job selling advertising.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Your results may vary. I have a feeling it will play better for sophisticated big-city audiences, although they have been conditioned by critics and hype to like it. With a movie like this, you have to take the ride…but we just couldn’t get on board.

  3. Thomas Zappe says:

    Well, we did see it at the Hi-Pointe in St. Louis which is family owned and operated, has real butter on the popcorn and that afternoon sported an audience which was at least 20% LGBTQ … yes, pretty sophisticated.

  4. Jacob Dzik says:

    Have y’all seen Manchester by the Sea? Also what are you reading nowadays?

  5. Max Allan Collins says:

    I have a screener of Manchester by the Sea that I’ll be watching. Mostly reading non-fiction, like the Bryan Cranston auto-bio mentioned above. Just finished a good book on Fleming and Bond — JAMES BOND: THE SECRET HISTORY by Sean Egan.

  6. Jacob Dzik says:

    Would really love to hear what you think about it when you watch. I have the Bryan Cranston novel as well and am looking forward to that. Got a lot of books for Christmas I am looking forward to reading. Thanks btw for all your advice you give fans on writing, I am working on it and appreciate it.

  7. David Laurence Wilson says:

    Thanks for the warning on La La Land. Your beefs with the product seem to mirror my own, in a general way, though I have an unnatural affection for Hollywood stories, filmed or on paper. I haven’t seen the cute offender, but I will, despite the warning. It seems that most people go to films because they want a story. I’ve got plenty of stories but they don’t move. I’m a sucker for three things – pictures, sound and a screen, so I’m going to try La La Land, also the new Scorcese on the basis of picture and sound. Portland is freezing and slippery and in no way prepared for an extended freeze. I’m dreaming of a long delayed interview with you, Max, maybe finally in 2017. Remember, you suggested it years ago.