September DVD Roundup

The month is over, and let's survey a few notable titles (or casualties?) from the past 30 days. First: Alec Baldwin is stuck in the '70s? Or is it the '80s? Lymelife makes it hard to tell. Baldwin plays the puffy, obverse version to his cutthroat salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross--a spec housing developer of middling success on Long Island, philandering patriarch of a struggling Catholic clan. His wife (Jill Hennessy) is unhappy and drinks too much. His sons are played by more of those Culkin kids--Rory Culkin as the younger 15-year-old obsessed with sex and Star Wars; Kieran as the older, tougher sib who drives a Camaro, has enlisted in the Army, and talks about going to war?

Going to war? In 1979? Vietnam is over. What war are we talking about? It's one of the several little slips that keeps Lymelife, despite solid acting and well-observed suburban details, from breaking out of its Sundance niche...

Though the film didn't score so well with critics (including our Scott Foundas back in May), it's well suited to viewing at home--where Baldwin is already such regular, welcome presence on 30 Rock. His well-meaning but fundamentally flawed father is incapable of guiding his two sons or being faithful to his wife. But even in transgression, he can't stray too far. (Temptress Cynthia Nixon, rocking some world-class feathered '70s bangs, lives on the same cul de sac.) When he builds an angular new spec house that looks nothing like the split-level neighbors, his younger kid snorts that it resembles the Millennium Falcon. "In a good way or a bad way?" asks Baldwin, touching in his uncertainty. He wants his son's opinion, but worries it'll go against him.

The script, by director Derick Martini and his brother, Steven, is autobiographical, they say. Only they grew up in the '80s, after The Ice Storm, beside whose somber tone Lymelife seems more seriocomedy. The younger Culkin does Taxi Driver-style monologues in the mirror. His crush on the girl next door (Emma Roberts) is merely every boy's coming-of-age tale. And the crazy neighbor (Timothy Hutton), possibly mad because of Lyme disease, belongs in an entirely different movie. Yet Baldwin makes all his scenes watchable, and the concrete details almost compensate for the limp screenplay. When Hennessy discovers her husband cavorting with Nixon at a local bar, a three-way dance-off ensues to "More Than a Feeling. Mom and dad. Infidelity. The music of Boston. It was that kind of decade. Or decades. (Screen Media, $27.98)

Away We Go (Universal, $39.98), written by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, got such scorn that I thought--reading reviews including ours from Scott Foundas--that it was a backlash. Writers hating on other writers, that kind of thing. Boy was I wrong. The road-trip movie, about expectant parents (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) looking for a new home and paradigm for parenting, rubs you wrong in every way. The framework isn't awful: two likeable, aging hipsters living in Quirkytown, who are, at some level, aware that they need to grow up and move out of Quirkytown. But their resulting survey of How Other People Live becomes a tour in condescension. Everyone else is found lacking. Every other model of parenthood--and by extension, life--is judged and rejected. (And it's very hard to like a movie whose rejectees include Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, and Catherine O'Hara.) That's what the entire movie is about: smug, judgy people constantly judging others. Can it be any surprise--and this is no spoiler--that our central couple's final paradise consists of moving away from other people? They have each other! (And, soon, a baby.) If the world doesn't measure up, they'll create a world of their own. Directed by Sam Mendes, Away We Go's insularity and inertia aren't his fault; that's just the way it's written. It's the kind of a movie where the heroine can ask her boyfriend "Are we fuck-ups?" and the answer is already reassuringly supplied. No, guys, it's just that other people aren't honest enough to admit they haven't got everything figured out. And thus is the special-dom of two very special people preserved.

British TV kicks American TV's ass from every direction. Each new DVD collection of what they're watching on the other side of the Atlantic either makes you A) insanely jealous, or B) fearful of how our domestic adaptation will ruin everything that made the original show so good. (Fans of The Office may choose to differ.) Sitcoms don't generally translate. And sketch comedy shows seem even more impossible, because the character types, accents, and British specificities of class and culture are so foreign to us. So where to begin with the curiously named Manstrokewoman (MPI Home Video, 29.98)? Or it could be Man/Woman. Or possibly Man Stroke Woman. I'm not sure, but you can search it up on Amazon by a variety of means.

The ensemble is divided equally among three women and men; the only recognizable face to most of us is that of chubby Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead). All of the cast are funny, but the show's genius is in the editing. Unlike the average SNL sketch, which starts promisingly, sags, then drags on far longer than its premise can support, Manstroke jumps into the middle (or beginning? or middle?) of the next sketch without any segue or transition. And then back. And then to something completely different. There's simply no slack time, no dead spots, no waiting for the next gag to emerge or the guest host to stop embarrassing himself. This is TV cut for YouTube attention spans, but in a good way.

There's a kind of structure to the comedy, since various characters and situations recur; it's like we keep encountering them at random on different days of the week. Thus, there's a guy who, when called to bluff, always resorts to lies involving the number four. A gaggle of cackling makeup counter salesgirls who seem determined to insult every customer. An ongoing game of "shag, marry, kill," in which two dudes try to assess what they'd do with trios of famous starlets. A guy who, when encountering the ex who dumped him, sobs uncontrollably; and she tries to guess what he's saying through his incomprehensible blubbering. A woman who keeps showing her husband her new outfit, each more bizarre than the next; he politely suggests she try another; and her crestfallen catchphrase is, "You can never just say I look nice, can you?"

The non-sequitur editing gives the show a kind of domestic absurdism: These are everyday behaviors and situations made very bizarre. And very funny. Twelve episodes on two discs equals over five hours of comedy. Yet the way it's edited, it actually feels like more.

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