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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: Little Fockers, Casino Jack, How Do You Know, and Gulliver’s Travels

Little Fockers (One and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Paul Weitz (2010)

I wonder if there’s any real need to say anything at all about Little Fockers — the latest sequel to the Robert De Niro-Ben Stiller Meet the Parent-Meet the Fockers comedy franchise — except just this: This movie is not funny.

This movie is not even vaguely funny. If this movie and its representatives claim they are doing anything funny, they should apologize. And if your friends disagree with me, if they insist that I‘m a pompous snob, and that you yourself will attend the local showings of Little Fockers with lots of real people convulsed with real laughter and slapping real knees, you should get them to sign notarized affidavits explaining where all the jokes are. Or where they went.

I don’t say this as anyone hostile to the whole idea of the Meet the Parents-Meet the Fockers saga. I missed Meet the Fockers, but I laughed all the way through Meet the Parents. Now, that’s a funny movie.

Little Fockers has most of the same cast as Parents-Fockers — including Stiller as Greg Focker, beleaguered male nurse, once engaged and now married to Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), daughter of gruff C.I.A. operative Jack Byrnes (De Niro) — who thought Greg was an idiot or a traitor– and Jack’s nice wife Dina (Blythe Danner). There’s also Pam’s rich, persistent New-Agey ex-boyfriend Kevin (Owen Wilson), plus (introduced in Fockers), Greg’s one-time counter-culture Jewish parents, Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Roz (Barbra Streisand).

It also has one of the same writers (John Hamburg, joined by Larry Stuckey), and a new director (Paul Weitz instead of Jay Roach).

But, though the first two movies were big hits, and this one may be too (for a while) Little Fockers is just as bad as its title. It not only didn’t make me laugh. It didn’t even make me fantasize about laughing, except as a wistful daydream of possible relief from the clunker jokes falling in the theater all around me, flopping around like lame, flailing flamingos.

Here’s an example of an alleged Little Focker joke (or “fock-yock“). It’ll take a while to set up. Hard-ass Jack Byrnes, played by that inarguably great actor De Niro, has decided to put his affairs in order. So he calls in his sometimes accident-prone son-in-law Greg — whose five-year-old twins are the Little Fockers of the titles, and whose impending double birthday is the plot hook.

Jack tells Greg that though he was leaning toward passing the familial torch toward his “good” son-in-law Bob (Tom McCarthy), Bob’s sins of marital infidelity have disqualified him. Jack will now anoint his longtime butt/target, non-macho Greg — who has been pratfalling, wreaking unintentional havoc, damaging heirlooms and pets and otherwise fouling up since the series began.

Soberly, Jack tells Greg he will now be, as Jack puts it, The Godfocker (an actual joke from the movie). Bob had his chance; he could have been the Bobfather (another actual joke). Now the Godfocker , or maybe the Fockfather, or the Motherfocker, (my jokes, and just as awful) will be in charge.

What kind of baloney is all this? The actor Robert De Niro won an Oscar for The Godfather II, but the character Jack Byrnes, isn’t even Italian, and he‘s certainly no fan of the Mafia, or lawbreakers in general. Wouldn’t he want Greg to be the Big Shillelagh? Or the Big Duke? Or another Jack Kennedy? (What about Stiller’s Greg as Don Corneone, the Oddfather?)

De Niro doesn’t crack a smile during his Godfocker scene — that‘s obviously the way he‘s been directed — and yet the only way the joke could have worked is if Jack had smiled, as if he thought it was funny.

Nor will you chuckle when Barbara Streisand as Greg’s mom Roz, cavorts on her sex education TV show. (Imagine Dr. Ruth singing “People who need people are the luckiest people…“) Or when Hoffman as Bernie ambles around with a lecherous smile trying to promote flamenco (not flamingo) orgies. Or when Wilson as Kevin reveals the tattoo of Pam he’s got just above his ass. (By mistake, he insists.) Or when Jessica Alba (as a gal called “Andi Garcia”) comes bopping in, determined to hire young male nurse Greg as a celebrity spokes-rep for her product/client Sustendo (a sort of Viagra).

And I doubt you’ll laugh, unless you suffer from terminal Farrellyitis, when Jack pops some Sustendo, and gets a huge hard-on, and Greg has to jab Jack’s schlong with a hypo and young twin Henry wanders in and sees everything.

That last scene is the nadir of Little Fockers and maybe of Farrellyism in general. But, like I said, this movie is just not funny. Horny, maybe, but not funny. And with a cast like this (all the above plus Harvey Keitel, who seems to be around so he and Bobby D. can reminisce about Mean Streets between takes) the absence of laughter becomes almost eerie. Something should be amusing here, if only by mistake.

Some have suggested that Ben Stiller may have been swinging some of his new Hollywood weight to try to make Greg a more mature, more sensible character, a real role model of some kind — which, if true, strikes me as somewhat like trying to make an academic paragon of Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers, or naming Don Knott’s Barney Fife Law Officer of the Year, or having Ma Kettle write a sex manual (interviewed by Roz).

Anyway, I lied. I did smile at one thing in Little Fockers. I smiled at Jessica Alba — who was maybe a little too bouncy and silly, but oh so cute. I didn’t even need any Sustendo. The movie probably does though. Hey, listen, what about Streisand and Bette Midler as the Goodyentas? Or Dustin Hoffman as the Gonif-father?


Casino Jack (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: George Hickenlooper

Casino Jack is Jack Abramoff, a tasteless and inept phony of a movie producer (Dolph Lundren’s boss on the imbecilic Red Scorpion), as well as a long time Republican Party super-lobbyist — who wound up where most of these money-mad creeps swindlers and bribe artists belong: in the slammer.

The well-connected ex-richboy Jack, a fitness fanatic who tells us he “works out every day,” was some character. He parleyed his long history of G.O.P. activism (with a list of buddies that included baby-faced Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and overweight imp Karl Rove) and his good relationships with President George W. Bush and Congressional Majority Whip Tom (“The Hammer”) DeLay, Congressman Bob Ney and others (from both parties but mostly Republicans) into a lobbying empire that basically robbed his customers blind (including several native American tribes, in search of gambling franchises). Tough shit, clients. Jack and his right hand, Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper), bilked them of millions, while insulting and ridiculing them and spending all their money. They also got some of his lawmaker chums indicted, convicted and sometimes imprisoned — where they all belong.

This story was told brilliantly in Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, one of the best documentaries of the year, and one political movie everyone should try to see. It’s told somewhat less well in George Hickenlooper’s gutsy but disappointing docu-drama Casino Jack, which casts Kevin Spacey as Jack (a very good pick), and includes characters based on all of the others above, called by their right names (including John McCain), plus pretty Kelly Preston, as Jack‘s wife Pam, Graham Greene as skeptical Native American Bernie, Pepper as Jack‘s crooked G. O. P. crony and foul-mouthed operative Scanlon (a character less honorable than the same actor‘s Western bandit Lucky Ned Pepper in “True Grit“), and Jon Lovitz as sleaze-ball Adam Kidan, and Maury Chaykin as Big Tony, two other typical Abramoff associates.

Most of these people, at least the ones connected with government and the G. O. P., behave as badly as you’d expect, as badly as they always have and still do, as badly as many Democrats do too — though in the latter case, not quite as brazenly or brutally, not quite as deeply, bottomlessly hypocritical, greedy and immoral.

And since other Republicans, with the help of other G. O. P. super-lobbyists, amazingly obtained power again in the last election, after a frenzied explosion of more campaign super-spending, one can only say that maybe Lincoln was right. Even if you tip your hand as egregiously as the Abramoff scandal did, perhaps you can fool most of the people most of the time.

What goes wrong with George’s movie is that he and writer Norman Snyder (Dead Ringers) try too much to make it a dark comedy, even though Snyder isn’t really that good at jokes. The film doesn’t analyze either Jack or the lobbying world enough. It just keeps raking up muck, without explaining well enough that this muck is systemic, the creeps eternal.

Spacey is great at playing smug phonies and bemused exploiters, but he doesn’t have enough material here, enough juice. Neither does George. (Hickenlooper, not Bush.) The movie looks slick and well-tooled — but maybe it’s too slick. It isn’t as informative or as convincing as Gibney’s laser-eyed documentary. Still, it’s a good, brave film, in many ways.

I wasn’t at all happy writing this review. George Hickenlooper, who died two months before this movie was released (and whose Colorado politician cousin John Hickenlooper is in the cast), was a friend of mine and someone I‘ve known for years. His wife Suzanne was one of my editors on L. A. Style, a great magazine that is no more.

But, though I liked George, admired his talent and always sympathized with his projects, I never gave him that many good reviews, except of course for his best film, the classic documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker‘s Apocalypse.” I wish now I’d been more supportive, or laid out both sides better. I’d like to be able to tell George I admired what he was doing in films like this, and I did. It takes a lot of guts to make a movie like Casino Jack, even when it doesn’t quite work.


How Do You Know (Two Stars)

U.S.: James L. Brooks

I have nothing more to say about a new James L. Brooks romantic comedy — from the writer-director who made Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, but who here casts Jack Nicholson below (and gives him less lines than) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd — than just this:

“Hold the chicken! (You want me to hold the chicken?) I want you to hold it between your knees.”

No, let’s develop that thought a little more. Let’s imagine Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, the three stars above Nicholson, each doing that Five Easy Pieces truckstop scene. (I have nothing against any of them, by the way.) Wilson would play it a little confused and bemused, and even semi-reasonable, all the way though, and then finally explode frantically on “You see this sign?“ and the ultimate table-sweeping. Then he’d try to gather himself together. Maybe even apologize. Mr. Goof.

Rudd would probably do the scene haggard and a little unkempt as if he‘d been up all night and wasn’t quite himself. Then he‘d begin to stare and stare at the waitress as she kept frustrating him. Then he‘d say, with utter calm, “I want you to hold it between your knees!“ Then a fakey smile on “You see this sign?” before he sweeps the table — then another smile and some hand-waving. Mr. Charm.

Reese Witherspoon could do the whole scene cold, just like Jack, though maybe she’d remove her sun-glasses at some point, and give the waitress a long hard stare. And, after she swept the table, she’d give a little shriek. Ms. Attitude.

But I’d rather see Jack do the scene himself, as he is now. No one builds a tantrum like the Man. And I’d rather see Owen, Paul and Reese supporting Jack instead of vice versa. Know something? I bet they would too.


Gulliver’s Travels (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Rob Letterman, 2010

Last Jack of the day, guys. I promise.

For some reason, this big-time adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s oft-filmed fantasy adventure-political satire about Lemuel Gulliver — a lost sailor shipwrecked in Lilliput, land of the teeny people, and later in Brobdingnag, land of the humungous people — has become a romantic comedy vehicle for Jack (I kid you not) Black.

But it‘s been “modernized“ (i.e.: updated) into silliness. Jack B. is now Lem Gulliver, Manhattan travel writer, lost in the Bermuda triangle, and then an accidental voyager to Lilliput, where he becomes the Big Cheeserino — before finally getting stranded in Bagofcrap, land of the ridiculous cliché.

The director is Rob Letterman of Monsters Vs. Aliens, and the writers are Joe Stillman of Shrek, and Nicholas Toller of Get Him to the Greek, and they’ve all seen better days. (So has Jonathan Swift.) There is also a kind of traveling Gulliverette, played by Amanda Peet, as Lem’s editor, Darcy, who winds up in Lilliput too. Plus a best buddy role for Jason Segel of I Love You Man, — who nevertheless shouldn’t get typed as SuperPal. (Segel should play a worst enemy or two).

How big are the chickens in Lilliput, I wonder? Must be dinky little things. Meanwhile, Jack Black, who also produced, seems to like toying with all his fellow castmates, peeking into windows and defeating armadas. Keeping everyone on their toes, he clumps all around the movie, without ever stepping on those diminutive Lilliputians scurrying all around beneath him. (Does Jack have cat feet?)

The visual effects in Gulliver’s Travels are good, but the movie is sort of not too swift — though it might have worked if they’d done it in period. And, meanwhile, it doesn’t really matter how big a Lilliputian chicken is. (Probably as big as Casino Jack’s heart.) See this sign? Well, I want you to hold that chicken, Jack. I want you to hold it between your knees.

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One Response to “MW on Movies: Little Fockers, Casino Jack, How Do You Know, and Gulliver’s Travels”

  1. Hung Sumler says:

    What causes a dead tooth? I’ve had a black tooth for almost a year and it’s only getting worse. I went on a damn dental adventure the last time I tried to have it fixed. I need help.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon