Viagra Falls

Viagra Falls

Viagra Falls

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Reviews of the latest films.
May 19 2000 9:30 PM

Viagra Falls

Woody Allen's take on The Honeymooners is sour and enfeebled; Road Trip is orgasmically challenged.

Small Time Crooks
Directed by Woody Allen
DreamWorks SKG

Road Trip
Directed by Todd Phillips
DreamWorks SKG

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It's a thrill to see Woody Allen back in the milieu of low comedy and farce; it's not such a thrill to sit through the finished product, Small Time Crooks. The film is reportedly the first in a series of comedies that Allen has signed to make for DreamWorks SKG, and it's clear from the subject that this once-unbeholden auteur is trolling for a wider audience after a string of box-office duds. I wish him Godspeed in this scary new marketplace, but his maiden DreamWorks effort is sour and mostly feeble, with a depressingly curdled worldview. It bears no resemblance to Allen's surreal, open-ended comedies like Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971); it's closer to the gripe-laden sitcoms of Neil Simon and to Allen's fledgling Broadway effort, Don't Drink the Water. Its unpleasant dissonances are the only things going for it—and they're, well, unpleasant.

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The movie opens with Allen playing a version of his own (reportedly nasty) old dad in a straightforward caper comedy—something like the Italian classic Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), in which a gang of dumb, working-class hoods dream of a big score and make an unholy mess of their break-in. But half an hour in, Allen pulls a witty switcheroo. The cookie business that the gang starts as a front for their robbery becomes a national sensation, and the movie abruptly discards one supporting cast (the hoods) for another (the beau monde).

Ray (Allen) and his wife, Frenchie (Tracey Ullman), are suddenly garish multimillionaires, and the film's focus becomes the couple's inability to adapt to their new culture. Frenchie longs to be a patron of the arts and begs an English dealer (Hugh Grant) to tutor her in the ways of high society. Ray, meanwhile, whines about wanting to drink his beer, watch sports on television, and maybe go back to doing something he thinks is real—i.e., stealing. For the audience, Ray is the real creep, but in Allen's parable it's Frenchie who gets the comeuppance for trying to rise above her station. Better to live among mean small-time chiselers than smooth big-time swindlers.

I'm uncomfortable with the punishment doled out to Frenchie, but this is otherwise not such a bad plot. So why does the movie seem so listless? Maybe because this is the first Woody Allen film in ages in which sex is not a driving force. (You learn a lot about an artist when his or her pet theme is left out.) More likely, it's because Allen isn't interested in exploring the world of high society and big business, only in taking easy potshots at it. It would have been fascinating to watch Ray and Frenchie running their new corporation—to see what low thieves make of the capitalist marketplace. Would they want to knock their competitors off the shelves? Steal secrets of the cookie trade? Or would that kind of pressure have come from the snooty Harvard MBAs?

Allen has said that he wanted the relationship between Ray and Frenchie to have a vulgar, Honeymooners-like drive. And there is some fun in watching the male puff himself up, deliver a manly ultimatum, and be instantly deflated—like a piece of poori—by the sharp honk of an unyielding spouse. But this isn't exactly fresh material. ("I'm gonna get violent!" "Please. With your hernia?") And it wasn't Jackie Gleason's vulgarity (or even his drive) that made The Honeymooners a classic. It was his raffish elegance. Trapped in Gleason's oversize, working-class frame was the soul of a bon vivant—a twinkle-toes. When Allen does working-class vulgarity, he's shrill and manic and oafish. He waves his hands at Ullman, and his gestures are so brusque and repetitive that he might be davening. Allen has never been too comfortable as an actor, but in his youth he cultivated a Bob Hope-like mock-suavity that dispelled all traces of self-loathing. Ray, on the other hand, is like Allen's worst view of himself combined with his worst view of his father. It's not much fun watching a schmuck-loser if there's no transcendent inner grace.

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Is anyone else fed up with the black-and-white credits and the scratchy, 78 rpm jazz standards? Every time the music started up I could picture a shaky old man setting a needle down on a gramophone. A shaky, mulish old man. It's time for Allen to hire a composer—someone who could underline his movies' themes or help to unify their disparate tones. He might also rethink his laissez-faire editing: Those long takes are increasingly hit-or-miss, and material this dodgy needs all the pepping up it can get.

Some of the low farcical bits catch fire: I liked the scene in which Allen tries to sneak up the stairs at an elegant cocktail party and keeps getting accosted, while his idiot sister-in-law, Mae (Elaine May), announces to anyone who approaches, "I'm a lookout." And the actors have fleeting good moments. Jon Lovitz—with his glassy, embalmed smile and sneaky eyes—brings an unexpectedly light touch to one of Ray's cohorts, and Michael Rapaport has an agreeable dufusness, like Woody Harrelson in Cheers. It's fascinating to watch Hugh Grant play a heel and nervously parrot the same adorably sheepish mannerisms he uses when playing a sweetie. (He must have worried he was exposing himself.) But the only real joy in Small Town Crooks is Elaine May, who arrives with her own poetic fog. Now 68, she looks alternately young and old—a little girl in some shots, a crone in others. That weird, off-speed delivery is ageless, though. May's Mae may be a dimwit, but she's a brilliant dimwit.

Speaking of age, Allen has been applauded for not casting himself opposite some blonde, twenty-something tootsie, pairing up instead with the "more mature" Tracey Ullman. Folks, Ullman was born in 1959. She was 39 when this movie was shot. Allen, born in 1935, is a quarter century her senior. Don't you think we're grading on an insane curve here? The double standard against actresses over 40 never seems more formidable than when filmmakers are speciously praised for declining to enforce it. 

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A lot of people are talking—some disparagingly, some hopefully—about Todd Phillips'Road Trip turning out to be this year's There's Something About Mary (1998) or American Pie (1999)—i.e., a top-grossing grosser-outer slapstick comedy. Which is my cue to say again how much I enjoyed those last two movies, which did a sterling job of portraying male sexual anxieties in ways that did nothing to dehumanize women. If anything, American Pie went in the opposite direction: Its males seemed like monkeys for regarding women as interchangeable sex objects, and its females were brilliant at taking advantage of their suitors' tunnel vision. Even the notorious "yuck" gags—the pie in American Pie, the semen coiffure in Mary—were ingeniously connected to the theme of sexual panic.

Road Trip doesn't belong in their company. The movie contrives an amusing setup in which the college hero (Breckin Meyer) innocently cheats on his long-distance girlfriend (Rachel Blanchard): He thinks she's with another guy, he has Amy Smart disrobing in his dorm room, etc. Then he has to form a posse to race to Austin, Texas, from Ithaca, N.Y., in three days to intercept an incriminating videotape. As someone who has driven in three days from New York to San Francisco, I didn't find the prospect of this puny odyssey too daunting. But the movie keeps piling on disasters, and whenever it runs out of gas (figuratively speaking), Phillips cuts back to campus where that bug-eyed MTV harlequin Tom Green is doing cretinous shtick. (He's obsessed with feeding a tiny white mouse to a large boa constrictor.)

This isn't an objectionable movie, just a mild, obvious, and rather limp one, with plenty of little jolts but no ejaculatory payoff. Here are examples of its humor: A skinny, wilting nerd (DJ Qualls) goes to bed with an enormous black woman. The posse needs gas money and happens on a sperm bank, where the hotshot (Seann William Scott) tries to pick up a nurse and ends up getting a prostate massage. A black woman on Amy Smart's bus offers the lovelorn young woman a vibrator. She makes more sense than anyone else in the picture: The only way to make Road Trip an event is to bring your own sex toy.