In praise of Bob Denver.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Sept. 8 2005 6:07 PM

Man Overboard

Jackson and Levy play dumb; plus, the blithe idiocy of Bob Denver.

Who's the Man? 
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Who's the Man?

The Man (New Line), a mismatched-buddy comedy-thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy, presents a critic with a philosophical conundrum. Is it, given the high level of talent involved, much better than the stale material warrants? Or is it, given the high level of talent involved, much worse than it ought to have been? It's a chicken-or-egg question best considered by people with way too much time on their hands. I found it passable—just.

Levy is Andy Fiddler, an über-dork Midwestern dental-supplies salesman who journeys to urban, violent Detroit for a convention and, in one of those zany mix-ups, gets mistaken for an arms buyer. Undercover ATF agent Derrick Vann (Jackson) is thereby forced to use this sissified stumblebum to get to the villain who killed his partner. He has to keep the dealer from thinking that Andy is "the Man"—i.e., an undercover cop. But Andy also has to come off as "the Man"—i.e., a plausibly authoritative smuggler. The "Man" definition is kind of fudged, although there is a funny scene in which Fiddler is the Man and treats Vann as his "bitch." The expression on Jackson's face!

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That's half the pleasure—the barely contained rage on Jackson's face, the whites of his eyes looking as if they've been boiled. The humdrum obscenities that come out of his mouth don't do that visage justice. Levy is fun to watch, too, especially when he's deadpan. The best scenes of The Man are his little Jack Benny-ish pantomimes, the first in a diner where he keeps pushing away a proffered bag of guns, the second a muted tussle with a derelict over a bag of cash deposited dutifully in a trash can. When Levy is schmucky, he's hilarious. When he's stupid, he bombs.

It's amazing that the director, Les Mayfield, and the screenwriters, Jim Piddick, Margaret Oberman, and Steve Carpenter, manage to fill the 85 minutes. They kill some time with a car chase when Fiddler tries to escape, when he impels the cold and paranoid Vann to attend Vann's cute little daughter's dance recital, and when he eats meat and has … digestive difficulties. Actually, the big farting numbers work like gangbusters thanks to Jackson's expressions of revulsion. You take your laughs where you can find them.

The most hopeful thing in The Man is the presence of Susie Essman as Vann's lieutenant. Most people know her as the shrewish wife of Larry David's agent in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but she killed in The Aristocrats, and with her witheringly down-to-earth delivery and crack timing, she holds her own against Samuel Jackson and then some. I kept thinking, "She's the Man!" ... 3:03 p.m.

Thanks, Gilligan: I know, I know: It's depressing in this horrible week in which thousands of real human beings have found themselves castaways in their own watery city to have two eulogies in the same magazine for Gilligan, Bob Denver, the ultimate sailor-who-never-was-or-ever-could-be. My colleague Dana Stevens has written well and truly on Gilligan's Island and its title character's blithe idiocy—and on the actor's relentless buoyancy despite, by all accounts, a fairly dark temperament. On camera, though, he was cheerfulness incarnate. His Maynard G. Krebs in Dobie Gillis was a sanitized, de-sexualized Beatnik. And his Gilligan was the perfect mascot for the ultimate escapist sitcom: one that flouted the rules of logic (all those clothes for a three-hour tour?); one that remained happily divorced from its tumultuous time and place; and, most important, one that suggested that Darwin's theory of natural selection—popularly known as survival of the fittest—needn't be as cruel as all that. Despite the castaways' efforts to go back to civilization, we knew that they had it much better where they were. They had created an ideal society in which every day was an occasion for sharing, in which the conflict consisted of being whapped by a cap and was never, ever bruising. ("Skipper, watch out for that—" BONK! "Thanks, Gilligan.")

That and an endless supply of coconut cream pies.

Am I being too fanciful? Ah, but there is a reality that slaps you in the kisser. In the days before TV actors saw anything on the back end, the cast of Gilligan's Island never had a share of its immense syndication profits. Several would barely eke by—appearing everyday on television, beloved by millions, yet unable to work because they were indelibly typed: castaways of a different kind.

Years later, Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) capitalized on the popularity of the show with a tropical cookbook that contained no fewer than three recipes for coconut cream pie. But she was lucky. Tina Louise (Ginger) was so bitter (she signed up thinking the show was going to revolve around her) that she didn't even appear in the terrible late '70s TV movies and the short-lived Love Boat-esque revival. The Skipper, Alan Hale Jr., was reportedly the first to arrive at an autograph party and the last to leave. Gilligan was busted for drugs. Island sagas would soon traffic in different kinds of fantasies—adolescent sexual ones in The Blue Lagoon, yuppie-narcissistic ones in Cast Away.

And yet we cling to Gilligan's Island, among the stupidest shows ever made. We cling to it because the doe-eyed, brunette, small-town girl is so much sexier than the curvy red-haired movie star—at least to my adolescent eyes and, on the evidence of her mail, millions of others. We cling to it because there is an absence of any sexualized male to spoil this paradise. We cling to it because it shows us an orderly society in which the super-rich, the Howells, have their airs and their endearing obliviousness to those who labor on their behalf—but when all is said and done are literally in the same boat. Which is definitely not the society in which we live now. After all, says today's Mrs. Howell: Those people are so much happier in the Astrodome.

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