Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I start with a piece of good news. Now that I have fancy schmancy press passes, you need no longer wait until the following Monday for my reviews! This week I take a look at two indie comedies that differ wildly in ambition. One is a political satire, the other is a sex comedy. One has more than a dozen important characters, the other (barely) has five. What the comedies share (and what makes them funny) is a love of the profane, and sharp performances.
In the Loop is a screwball comedy about low-level bureaucrats, English and American, and how they inadvertently start a diplomatic meltdown. Comparisons to Dr. Strangelove are inevitable, yet this movie distinguishes itself with a unique perspective and with an abundance of profanity. What these frustrated government functionaries share is ambivalence toward war, and an obscene obsession with their careers. The ensemble includes a number of key players, some recognizable and others not, so the plot becomes overwhelming. Thankfully, most scenes are funny even if they stand alone, and the sharply off-kilter dialog gives the actors an opportunity to shine.
Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, an English political appointee who, in an interview with the press, makes the mistake of speaking his mind. Now it appears the Brits are openly discussing the idea of invading the Middle East, much to the dismay of profane Communications Director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). In an effort to correct the problem, Tucker sends Foster to the United States. Of course, hawkish Americans in the State Department, notably Linton Barwick (David Rasche) and Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), see the snafu an opportunity to further their agenda. Hapless subordinates become increasingly frustrated with their schizophrenic bosses. Soon the only recourse is for everyone to indulge in childlike behavior. Our only hope is a dovish general (James Gandolfini) who stumbles upon an anti-war memo written by underling Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky aka Vada Sultenfuss aka MY GIRL).
Director Armando Iannucci and his team of screenwriters essentially riff on the myriad ways a character can say “Go fuck yourself.” These bureaucrats are smart and selfish, and as they worry more about their reputation, their curses become increasingly creative. Capaldi shines as a supremely angry man, one who thinks nothing of berating anyway in his way. There are numerous digs at Washington politicos. One character says our city is run by children, and subsequent meetings prove the assertion accurate. I guess In the Loop says something about the big picture: even the most powerful political machine is prone to human error, and preserving the status quo can have disastrous consequences. Frankly, the movie works better as a tapestry of insult comedy than as a satire. Many plot lines go nowhere, and things get too confusing for any coherent statement. In the Loop will definitely make you laugh, just not necessarily for all the right reasons.
I always wondered what happened to the girl who played Vada Sultenfuss. What random mid-90s actress would you like to see in movies again? I’m thinking Larisa Oleynik (I still have a crush on Alex Mack).
Whereas In the Loop features complex bureaucratic shenanigans, Lynn Shelton’s new mumblecore comedy Humpday is blissfully simple. It tells the story of two straight men who decide to fuck each other on camera. Don’t think, however, that Shelton goes for cheap laughs and gross-out gags. Friendship and masculinity are at the center of her movie. In the midst of many funny moments, there are two sensitive men who worry about losing their youth and creativity. Even during outlandish scenes, the dialog feels authentic. I can even imagine real people having similar conversations (not that I know any straight dudes who fuck on camera).
Mark Duplass plays Ben, a happily married Seattleite with a nice house and a decent job. His wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) is funny and understanding – the two lead a comfortable existence. Then Ben’s college friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard) arrives, and the marriage immediately strains. Andrew is a free spirit, I guess, and his manner unnerves Anna, who dutifully tries to be a good host. The next day Andrew meets artists who live in a polyamorous group house. Ben shows up at the group house (unironically titled Dionysus), and everyone discusses HUMP!, Seattle’s amateur porn festival. Andrew drunkenly suggests he fuck Ben on camera, and Ben drunkenly agrees. The next morning, they still have a hotel room for the occasion, and the stupid suggestion becomes strangely serious. Of course, Ben still has to tell Anna about his bizarre idea.
For the first third, tensions will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a romantic comedy (You, Me and Dupree springs immediately to mind). Don’t worry – when Ben and Andrew awaken from their night at Dionysus, the movie takes on a life of its own. It goes without saying that any dudes who seriously consider such an idea must have a sense of humor – Ben in particular has a witty running commentary that frequently undercuts tension. We learn these guys were wild men in college, and are highly sensitive to their perception of each other. Ben worries he’s too straight-laced; Andrew sees himself as a hopeless hipster doofus. Shelton subtly changes the audience’s perception of her characters, so their development is uncommonly natural. A scene with Andrew and two bisexual women (including Shelton herself) highlights the anxieties and double standards most straight, porn-loving young men must have. Needless to say, it turns out that on a deeper level, broad caricatures don’t come close to defining Ben and Andrew.
Anna learns of her husband’s plan (shocker), and the revelation does not cause an argument but a discussion, one in which frank confessions are surprisingly funny. Then the Big Scene finally arrives. I won’t reveal what happens, except to say Ben and Andrew learn about their sexuality and friendship, as well as the possibilities of art. It’s rare to see dick jokes juxtaposed with introspective drama. Humpday takes bold risks, and the payoff is deeper than I expected.
Now that you’ve seen Humpday, I’m curious to know where you think the three main characters fall on the Kinsey scale.