Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Campaign, 2 Days in New York, and Celeste and Jesse Forever

   “It’s a mess!”
             Review by Ken Burke    The Campaign
American politics is absurd enough that you don’t need a satirical film to reveal it, but this one is hilarious and more worth your time than the actual TV ads that it mocks.

                                                         2 Days in New York
Just as a NYC couple is settling into their relationship along comes her French family for a visit; everything goes wrong in this crazy comedy about dysfunctionality.

                                                        Celeste and Jesse Forever
So, you’re getting divorced, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hang out all the time, does it?  But at some point the road divides and dramedy decisions must be made.

            If watching Bill O’Reilly on Fox and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC go after each other’s ideologies on a nightly basis (Not on the same channel of course, because we wouldn’t want any of those “Rachel, you ignorant slut!” moments now, would we?  [Or is it is “legitimate” slut now?]  Nor would either of their home bases want to dilute their ratings income [as I noted in my 8/15/12 review of The Bourne Legacy, the question of who’s truly innocent in any of these political games is an annoyingly-relevant “inconvenient truth” for all of us.) or being hammered by the ads of Obama, Romney, and their colleagues (at least for those of you in battleground states; here on the Left Coast we consistently vote blue so they don’t return much of our cash by buying TV time out here) doesn’t prove absurd enough for you then maybe you’re ready for an intentional comedy about the corruption of the American political system such as you’ll find in Jay Roach’s withering smackdown of the motivations and tactics that have made our system of government all but dysfunctional.  No one escapes unblemished here, beginning with North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) heading for a 5th term with his million-dollar hair and picture-perfect family (dominated by Junior-League-gone-commando-wife, Rose [Katherine LaNasa]) as well as his all-but-on-camera mistress.  Cam is essentially a George W. Bush-John Edwards mashup with a typical Ferrell character’s outsized/misplaced ego and a sense of morality that would make a coke-addled pimp blush, as he humiliates himself with a wrong-number, profanity-laden (as is the whole film, reveling in its R rating) call to the mistress, accidental knockout punches to a baby and Uggie the adorable dog from The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius, 2011), and being arrested for drunk driving, but ironically none of which damages his “reputation” nor exposes his non-agenda (except to get re-elected) enough to completely sink him in the polls before election day (real Missouri Congressman Todd Akin might want to call Cam’s campaign manager, Mitch [Jason Sudeikis], fairly soon; on second thought, I hope he doesn’t because that guy needs to be crushed in November).

            In fact, Cam wins, thanks to rigged election machines from the dastardly Motch brothers, Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Aykroyd, this time getting to be the manipulator rather than the manipulated as he was in John Landis’ 1983 Trading Places, where as as rising star Louis Winthorpe III he’s given a lesson in social engineering by Randolph [Ralph Bellamy] and Mortimer [Don Ameche] Duke who displace him on a bet for street-vagabond Billy Ray Valentine [Eddie Murphy]—a film well worth your time; check it out at  Cam is an self-absorbed idiot (a familiar role for Ferrell; you have to wonder if he didn’t hone his craft more so by attending legislative sessions than doing improv with L.A.’s The Groundlings and skits on Saturday Night Live) with a MIA good heart, long-encrusted with the benefits of power and the dispensation from actual accomplishments permitted by voters thinking he has served them well just because he promotes “America, Jesus, freedom” at every opportunity.  Cam is the epitome of the “win at all costs” empty-headed politico, a barracuda in a suit who still manages to win sympathy from the easily-manipulated populace after his opponent overdoes his misguided attempt at machismo by shooting Cam in the leg with a crossbow.

            As bad as Cam is, though, he’s no worse than his easily-manipulated surprise challenger, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifiankis, who finally shaved his beard for a role—not that I’m advocating such; I haven’t shaved mine since 1972 [although I do trim it regularly so as not to go into full mountain-man mode until after next year’s retirement, which will leave me even more time to write film review blogs … maybe you’d better take something for those heart palpitations, you don’t look too good all of a sudden]).  Marty seems to be in the race to challenge Cam’s hypocrisy and actually legislate for his district but in fact is just trying to shake off his wimpy image to negate the distain of his rich, pompous father, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), and is easily turned to the political “Dark Side” by the manipulative Motch (read Koch, as in the Kansas billionaires who have exerted plenty of influence in GOP races of late) siblings whose only goal is to have a Congressional puppet in place to further their scheme of bringing in illegal, underpaid Chinese workers (a process they want to promote as “insourcing”) so as further maximize their profits (“If you’ve got  the money, nothing is unpredictable.”).  Marty has never met an ugly sweater he hasn’t worn (although I’d like to think that I outdid him at a Christmas party competition a year ago when I used red duct tape on a green sweatshirt to “package” myself        [I was beaten by a friend, though, who came in a Christmas tree skirt, so I guess there’s no bottom to the world of ugly) nor a door he can easily open, but essentially he’s just a good soul, much like Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s 2011 Bernie, both in appearance and attitude, but rather than having to hide a dead patron he has to hide his own dignity as he plunges deeper into the political pit, guided in effective opponent-destruction tactics by the Mephistopheles-like “dirty tricks” master, Tim Whattley, played with menacing effectiveness by Dylan McDermott (Donald Segretti and Charles Colson would have been so proud; I guess Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are proud as well, that their superb postmodernism has been referenced here by co-opting Whattley’s name from the devil-may-care dentist of their hit TV series [“His telling Jewish jokes offends you as a Jewish person?” “No, it offends me as a comedian.”)  Marty’s never really comfortable with his new attack-dog persona (although he shows it off well in one of the film’s funniest scenes where he goads Cam into reciting The Lord’s Prayer to prove his Christian bonafides, with Cam providing a version that’s even worse than G. W.’s spontaneous remarks [or even some of his ill-considered scripted ones]), showing that such a vicious, take-no-prisoners attitude is what the voters respond to, as it feeds into a sincere desire to clean up Washington, hence his campaign slogan, “It’s a mess!”) ramped up to a Tea Party frenzy so appealing to his father's cutthroat attitudes.

            Through a very unlikely twist of fate (reminiscent of the last-minute rescue of Jimmy Stewart’s patriotic but naïve reformer in Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Marty does take the Congressional seat and manages to avenge his community on Whattley and the Motches, but this idealistic ending is just as satirically absurd as everything else in the film, given what we know about the relative invulnerability of society’s wealth-hoarders to be brought to justice (Bernie Madoff and a few others excluded), but the Motches’ smug confidence that nothing they did to buy elections is illegal allows one last punch at the system in reference to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, allowing the current tidal wave of secret financing that has wrecked damage on our campaign finance overhaul attempts in a manner reminiscent of the killer tsunami’s pounding of northeast Japan last year.  While it’s tempting to just be so disgusted with the superficial level of political discourse in both our election and governance processes as to not even want to be exposed to the exposés offered in The Campaign, I find this broad, wicked humor (sadly based in far too many political realities [and made all the more convincing by the cameos from real-life (is there such a thing?) news analysts such as Wolf Blitzer, Bill Maher, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O’Donnell, demonstrating the left-wing foundational tone of this film as Rush Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and their ilk are nowhere to be seen] in both major parties; in this film Cam is the Democrat, Marty the Republican, but it hardly matters which organization either is attached to, as we see toward the end when Marty refuses further manipulation from the Motches so they just shift their power over to Cam who welcomes the final boost [and assurance of voter fraud] for his re-election; after all, this is the same guy who screws Marty’s wife, Mitzy [Sarah Baker], on hidden camera, then lets the video go viral to undermine Marty’s manhood) to be liberating, even though others were not so swayed (Rotten Tomatoes 66, Metacritic 49, Movie Intelligence 63).  But then I howled with laughter at The Dictator (Sasha Baron Cohen; my review in this blog at May 24, 2012, along with Bernie) last spring while it was also not so well received by many of my fellow critics (RT 59, M 58, MI 60) so you might have to consider that my taste in comedies is as “unique” as my taste in ugly sweaters.

            Apparently my taste in another form of cinematic dysfunctional narratives, the crazy family comedy, isn’t quite in sync with the critical establishment either, as my 4 stars (80 on a 100 point scale, saving the precious 5 for the precious few) for Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in New York (where she functions as director, co-screenwriter, and lead female actor) is once again considerably higher than the national consensus (RT 69, M 61, MI 60; at least they mostly agree with each other, even though they’re obviously not as attuned to human accomplishment as I am or they’d have agreed with me, the poor misguided fools).  Maybe this film plays too much like a documentary for the sensibilities of many of my colleagues, especially with the understanding that the father, Jeannot, of Delpy’s almost-40 character, Marion, is her actual father, just as she cast him and her mother (Marie Pillet, now deceased) in her previous story of this family, 2 Days in Paris (2007, also written and directed by Delpy).  Other contributions to the verisimilitude of how these actors embody an extended family of blood relations and lovers include the seemingly random activities of this brood as they spill all over the small apartment shared by Marion and her current boyfriend, Mingus (Chris Rock), for some communal meals but then several of them go their separate ways in seemingly spontaneous fashion; the abrupt verbal and physical arguments that break out between Marion and her sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau, the co-screenwriter); the tension that’s felt by Mingus because Rose’s accompanying boyfriend, Manu (Alexandre Nahon, who provided the original story behind the script and contributed some additional dialogue), used to be with Marion briefly in her younger days (just as a major plot point in the previous film was how uncomfortable Marion’s then-lover, Jack [Adam Goldberg], was in Marion’s home where old flames pop up like fireflies on a summer night); and the ongoing reality that Marion has moved in with Mingus accompanied by her child (with Jack, whom she has broken up with while pregnant) just as Mingus also has a young daughter in the house from a previous relationship.  It also doesn’t help that Manu has very clumsy ways of expressing his admiration for Mingus’ African-American heritage, so that his statements come out as racist (which Mingus just barely tolerates, largely because he understands Manu to be more of an idiot than a bigot).  When you combine all of these combustible elements it’s natural that sparks will fly, which they do for most of the film, which is what makes it so attractive to me:  its utter unpredictability, its honesty-based hilarious dialogue, and its small ambitions to just show how knowing someone for a long time doesn’t necessary make you more compatible with them than with those whom you’ve only just begun to … live, white lace and promises, a kiss for luck and we’re on our way … sorry, I started channeling Karen Carpenter for a minute there, but that gives you the sense of the unpredictable that is infused into this charming film.  Delpy’s inventive structure also includes surprise interludes featuring quick collections of still images that break up the flow of the narrative with charming, graphically-interesting montages that add even more to the fascinating watchability of the film.

            What’s not so charming for most of these folks, except Jeannot who’s not about to let age spoil his lust for life (which he sometimes carries around with him, including the many sausages he tries to smuggle into NYC, possibly because he can’t believe that the New World could possibly provide the pleasures that he requires, even if it is enticing enough to have drawn his older daughter away from home).  His younger daughter has all she needs with her own body for her pleasures, which mostly amount to a need for plenty of sex, supposedly with Manu, but given her lack of inhibition in walking around nude or bottom-open-to-the-breeze when anyone’s around, including just her and Mingus on the first morning after the family’s arrival, she’s a disruptive force for more than just her quarreling photographer sister (who has an artist’s sensibility for capturing the human condition with a camera but is often a mess of emotions where interactions with her connected humans are concerned; as she reads a bedtime book to the actual kids [not Manu and Jeannot, who act like kids a good bit of the time, especially socialist kids determined to make their displeasure known to the capitalist Establishment] she sarcastically remarks that fictional stories wrap up with “happily ever after” endings because they don’t want to get into the reality of marriage with its trials and tribulations, such as the ones that she and Mingus have separately encountered in their previous relationships as well as now, even though they’re not formally married).  Her professional life has its problems as well because her long-sought gallery show is resulting in no sales, compounded by her angry dismissal of an important art critic who says that he admires the long-range concept of her exhibition (overhead shots of her in bed with the men in her life) but not the execution of the work itself.  However, to save herself from an equally angry neighbor she makes up a story about having brain cancer which manages to circulate through the gallery with the result that her photos are suddenly snapped up with cynical hope from the buyers that her imminent death will increase the value of the images.  All comes together at the end for Marion and her family even more symbolically after she rescues a pigeon trapped on a small roof in Central Park, in hopes that it will somehow fly to be with the spirit of her dead mother.  (An admission that she’s not completely rooted in her atheistic stance of no afterlife to be found, a follow-up to an amazingly strange sequence where another part of her gallery show is to sell her [non-existent, as far as she’s concerned] soul to the highest bidder, who turns out to be indie-filmmaker/actor Vincent Gallo [Buffalo ’66 (1998),The Brown Bunny (2003)].  She then decides she has to have it back but he refuses to the point of eating the contract.)  We don’t know if the pigeon has made contact with Mom but it certainly seems to now be in the family, shown in the final shots dropping poop on the customs cop who confiscated the sausages, the art critic, and Gallo.  Some might feel that this film is as messy as the pigeon excrement, but I loved it.

            Two late-20-somethings who love each other but in a manner as messy as the situations in the above-reviewed films are the lovers headed for divorce but not true separation in Celeste and Jesse Forever, where once again the female lead is essentially responsible for the concept of the film, as co-writer (along with Will McCormack who also plays Skillz, a close friend of the soon-to-be [?] non-couple), although this one is directed by someone else, Lee Toland Krieger.  Celeste and Jesse Forever plays with one of the least explored ideas ever seen on screen, a couple who are such good friends and have so much in common that they never really consider being apart, except for the clumsy fact that their 6-year marriage is set to terminate because as much as Celeste (Rashida Jones) is bonded to Jesse (Andy Samberg) she also has grown tired of his juvenile, slacker tendencies (even though he needs a job he puts his energies into a great surfing opportunity and re-watching the 2008 Olympics) which don’t seem to predict an evolving adult relationship over more decades of being together (they’ve only had about 2 so far, as high-school-through-college connections who just assumed that they’d be perfectly compatible … “forever”).  Except that forever is functioning well on the compatibility scale but not on the growth scale that Celeste has determined that she wants—and she determines a lot throughout this film, just as Holly Hunter’s TV news producer, Jane, did in a maddeningly self-destructive way in James L. Brooks’ 1987 Broadcast News, an admitted influence on Jones (you can get more on this in the August 10, 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly p. 59 for the print version or electronically at,,20618576,00).  Yet, even with her high-visibility job as a marketing firm’s “trend forecaster,” her status as the not-yet-best-selling-author of the culture-chronicling book Shitgeist, and their 6 months of “separation,” she doesn’t insist on Jesse moving out of their garage apartment which he uses as a studio for his artwork (that is, if he actually finishes something).  In fact, when Jesse finally decides that he should branch out and start dating, then ups the ante by accidently reconnecting with Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), a brief secret fling from 3 months ago who’s now pregnant as a result, Celeste can’t stand the actual separation so she wavers between enticing him to a rekindled night with her (resulting in after-the-fact anger on his part) and then her own attempts at dating (culminating at one point with what starts out as sex with a handsome, well-known photographer, then degenerates into him simply wanting her to watch him masturbate—as she hits the road quickly).

            Things get even worse for Celeste as she makes some tragic errors with her company’s new client, Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), a young singing sensation with a huge ego and, ultimately, low self-esteem (although the unnoticed graphic on her new CD cover does gain Riley a new audience segment: gay men—“Cock in the butt is going to be huge!” [So to speak.]).  She also has difficulties connecting with a guy that does attract her after her initial rejection, Paul (Chris Messina), because the more Jesse distances himself from Celeste the more she desperately wants him back (although Paul does impress her when she meets him again at a Halloween party because he’s dressed as a “cereal killer” with a bunch of bloody breakfast packages attached to his chest—she’s clever as well, wearing a large garbage bag as “white trash”).  Ultimately this is just a simple story about intimacy—and the yearning that comes with the lack of it—just as The Campaign is a simple deconstruction of the emptiness behind the façade of contemporary politics and 2 Days in New York is a simple story of a family increasingly at war with each other until the most troubling agent in the mix, Manu, gets himself deported.  The intimacy focus in Celeste and Jesse Forever is strengthened by the camerawork, which is mainly about tight closeups on a wide screen, captured by a slightly jiggling camera; the characters want to be close to each other (in varying combinations) just as we want to be close to them, to appreciate their seriocomic encounters and their troubled abilities to make decisions, then stick with them.  Celeste doesn’t really have much in common with Riley (except mutual breakups), but her tart retort to Celeste’s attitude-laced actions, that she offers “contempt prior to investigation,” finally gets under Celeste’s protectively thick skin (which thins out considerably when she’s alone), forcing her to realize that she was right to break it off with Jesse because they were not longer able to move beyond connected attraction to a higher state of expanded explorations and understandings, a heartbreaking situation when both must realize that something inexplicable keeps them stalled at a solid but limited level, that they need other people to allow themselves to break free of their natural tendencies with each other.  (Paraphrased dialogue—Celeste: “Why couldn’t you have tried to be more mature with me?” [instead of Veronica], Jesse: “You never really wanted me to grow up.  You enjoy being in control.”)  When I saw The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) as a college junior in 1968 I felt that a work of any type of art had reached me on a personal level that I had never felt before (in a metaphorical way; I had nothing to do with “plastics” or any situation even resembling Mrs. Robinson).  Maybe I’m assuming things that I don’t really understand, given the 40+ years gap between then and now, but for me at least Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like what I’d want to see now if I were in my 20s to be able to get that Graduate feeling in a contemporary context.  As Andy Samberg playing Nicholas Cage would say, “High praise.”  (I’m even a bit more in line with my 4 stars on this one compared to the “informed” critical consensus, although my approximate 80 is still notably higher than RT 70, M 62, and MI 68; damn, it’s lonely being right all the time).

(The formatting of the reference links this week is in a wacky inconsistency that I've been unable to correct on 5 different computers in 2 different cities using 4 different web browsers including Google Chrome, so I'm convinced that there's a ghost having a delightful time with me [the intended blue for the links comes closest to working on Safari; Firefox and Chrome turn most of it to green, making my color scheme as ugly as one of Marty's sweaters]; Google Blogspot has outdone itself in making me crazy with a constant flurry of inaccurate error messages on the Compose page and absolutely no response to any Help posts I've offered.  This is the best I can do this week; "It's a mess" for sure, but at least that's appropriate for this review.  God [and Google, which I hope aren't the same but sometimes I wonder] knows what happens next week so stay tuned for the results.)

            If you want to know more about The Campaign here are some suggested links: (short interviews with cast and crew)

            If you want to know more about 2 Days in New York here are some suggested links: (30 min. interview with director/writer/actor Julie Delpy and co-star Chris Rock)

            If you want to know more about Celeste and Jesse Forever here are some suggested links: (interview with writer/actor Rashida Jones and co-writer/supporting actor Will McCormack [strange set-up where the interviewer is well-miked but the interviewees are a bit hard to hear at times])

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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