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Tag Archives: Jason Segel
‘I’m very content to be a footnote in this legacy …’
Posted by James Rocchi Tuesday, November 22, 2011 10:52:49 AM
Lanky and affable, Jason Segel is, bluntly, having such a fortunate time even he can’t believe it. After his work on “Freaks and Geeks” and “How I Met Your Mother” on the small screen, he made it to movies in films like “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” — but Segel’s easy smile hides a deliberate work ethic that has made him the driving force behind this week’s re-launch of the late Jim Henson’s beloved characters in “The Muppets” as star, co-writer and producer. We spoke with Segel via phone; he was in New York after having hosted “Saturday Night Live,” buzzing with energy, and more than willing to talk about his personal intersection of hard work, good luck and ‘burning passion.’
When you host ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the second you’re done, does your entire immune system collapse? Do you fall down in a dehydrated heap?
Segel: The adrenaline keeps you going basically until the sun rises. There’s no way you’re going to go to sleep. I’m actually still on the crazy train where I can feel a giant sleep is coming right around the corner.
Like a huge nap in your footy pajamas?
Segel: Yeah, dude. Not even just a nap, a two-day sleep.
At what point do you go from saying to Disney ‘I know you guys own the Muppets …’ and them saying, ‘Well, give us a script?’ When you sit down to actually write that is it excitement or terror going, ‘Oh, I actually have to come up with a story now?’
Segal: To tell you the truth, my writing partner Nick Stoller and I cracked the story in ten minutes before we pitched it. The story came very easily. Writing, as you know, is a very fluid process, so over the four years, it’s gone through all sorts of iterations, but the basic premise — The Muppets aren’t famous anymore, a guy who’s a Muppet fan, gets them back together and they put on a show — that came instantly. It’s a very simple story at its heart. We figured out a lot of context to tell that story, but we knew that was the story instantly.
Watching “The Muppets,” the Jason Segel-spearheaded effort to re-launch Jim Henson’s furry friends and familiar faces into the new millennium after years of corporate tussling and fallow creative hibernation, I wasn’t pulled in by having emblems of my youth shoved down my throat with the sickly-sweet toxic oil of retrograde fond remembrance and fuzzy post-modern self-awareness. Instead, I was engaged by the characters, the plot, the message and the medium of the Muppets themselves — decidedly low-tech puppets in an age when computer-generated imagery makes the imagination both limitless and, too often, lifeless on-screen.
<iframe src=”http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=wwwrocchirepo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B006JTS5OO” style=”width:120px;height:240px;” scrolling=”no” marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ frameborder=”0″></iframe> I was hoping for a pretty good loving treatment of characters I loved; instead, I was reminded, through high-quality storytelling and real heart, of why I loved those characters to begin with, by an unexpectedly brilliant and touching mix of fun, feelings and felt. This isn’t nostalgia, and it isn’t irony — “The Muppets” may be one of the best films of the year, not judged as a children’s film, or a family film, but instead, simply as a film. If cinema is about taking the art and medium of motion pictures and, through technique and talent, evoking real feeling and wonder, then “The Muppets” is, unequivocally, a pure piece of cinema, one that not only rewards fans through its hard work (more than just its familiarity) but one that also strives to, and succeeds in, making new friends.
At first, though, we don’t see the Muppets — or, rather, the Muppets we know — except on TV, as Walter (a new Muppet, voiced by veteran Peter Linz) explains his youth and happiness with his brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller). A big part of that happiness was watching the Muppets, and as Walter explains, “As long as there were talking frogs and singing bears, Swedish chefs and boomerang fish, the world couldn’t be that bad a place.”
TIFF ‘11 Review: Jeff Who Lives At Home Takes The Duplass Bros Mainstream For Their Best Film Yet (B+)
As surreal as it is to see a micro-budget Duplass Brothers film start with the stars and mountainous terrain of the Paramount logo, in many ways that contradiction and clash sets the tone for their new comedy “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” Strange things are afoot in the cosmos as Jeff (played with affable confusion and large-framed, good-hearted charm by Jason Segel) is trying to keep his eyes open for what the universe might be telling him, in terms of his destiny and purpose. Also, his mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon) would like it if he could get his ass off the couch in her basement and go to Home Depot to get wood glue to fix a broken pantry door slat …
It’s that mix of the big and small, the micro-to-macro zoom of the plot and themes, that makes “Jeff Who Lives at Home” as appealing as it is. Co-writers and co-directors Jay and Mark Duplass specialize in social discomfort (see “Cyrus”) and long takes of awkward social anxiety, and while that still applies here—when Jeff’s brother Pat (Ed Helms) tries to rationalize the purchase of a Porsche to his long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer), the laughs and cringes come in equal measure—there’s also something intangibly kind about the film.
The interconnectedness of all things and the nature of destiny are tough pitches for comedy—philosophy and pratfalls often don’t mix especially well—but as Jeff deals with his odyssey for wood glue and Sharon is confronted by a secret admirer and Pat discovers Linda has things she wants too, the movie becomes a philosophical comedy. It’s all in the vein of (if not quite at the level of) “Groundhog Day,” combining the Jungian idea of there being no coincidences and the Zen idea of being present to see the universe unfolding through those non-coincidences. The film takes place in a world that runs as if cause and effect took a couple of bong hits, and then got confused about which of them was supposed to do something and in what order.
Segel’s large, befuddled demeanor serves him well here—Helms at one point refers to him as ‘a sasquatch,’ and we laugh not only because it is unkind but also because it’s what we’ve all been thinking. For all of the film’s bigger broader bits—from Segel being drafted by a pickup basketball game, to an automotive disaster, to Helms doing the least subtle tail job ever captured on film—there are nice small moments here too, like Sarandon trying to dissuade a secret admirer over IM (“I’m old and I’m getting flabby …”) or the play of confusion and realization across Segel’s face repeatedly throughout. The cinematography, by Jas Shelton, relies on sudden shifts and zooms to re-set perspective, and you soon settle into the same rhythm as the film, where quick realizations mean fast changes of thought.
The climax of ‘Jeff’ will be argued over by the film’s fans—is it a too-big moment that punctures the amiability and shaggy-dog realism of the story thus far, or is it the ultimate point of what’s gone before? This writer is in the latter camp, but either way it’s worth noting that the climax—spoken of in broad, none-too-specific terms—is a quantum leap forward for the brothers Duplass in terms of technical resources and scale of filmmaking—no, they won’t be making a sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” anytime soon, but compared to the small-room scale of their earlier works “The Puffy Chair” and “Cyrus,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home” feels like “Avatar.”
In the denoument, the film doesn’t suddenly break your heart, but, rather, it suddenly heals it—with a moment of such delicacy and sincerity that you feel lucky to witness it. Human and heartfelt filmmaking is rare at any level of the industry, and even rarer in comedy—but the Duplass brothers manage to get laughs without resorting to cheap tricks or broad flailing. So many indie directors brush against big-studio Hollywood and get shattered by it—Justin Linwith “Annapolis,” Kevin Smith with “Mallrats.” But “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” brings big-studio moviemaking and big-name stars to the Duplass brothers, embracing their sensibilities and style without smothering them, and we in the audience benefit.
With 268 feature films, including 123 World Premieres, the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, set to begin on September 8th and to close on the 18th, seems too daunting for any one person to handle. And that initial impression, according to Toronto Star Movies Editor Linda Barnard, is definitively the case. “It is impossible to see everything — there’s no question it’s impossible. The festival, as far as I’m concerned, ‘blames’ great filmmakers. That’s why it’s getting so big, because it’s an embarrassment of riches, and you will see at this festival probably 90 percent of the Oscar winning films; you’re going to see without question all of the films that will be nominated for Best Foreign Film.”
For Mark Duplass, who’ll be attending TIFF as an actor in “Your Sister’s Sister” alongside Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt and as the co-writer of the Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon comedy “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” it’s a quantum leap from the more familiar territory of the smaller, more intimate Sundance Film Festival. “I’ve had heads-ups (from) people who know that I am used to Sundance. They’ve warned me that there are three times as many films there, it feels very big, and you should not feel slighted if your movie isn’t being talked about in every single corner.”
In the mood for an old-fashioned ’70s-styled political drama with movie-star power? George Clooney‘s second directorial effort, “The Ides of March,” has Ryan Gosling as a young political operative whose support for a presidential candidate (Clooney) turns into a raw, rough game of tricks and truths. Looking for historical dramas seething with modern subtext? David Cronenberg‘s “A Dangerous Mind” gives us Kiera Knightley as the patient whose madness and desires fascinate Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender), or you can take in Andrea Arnold’s version of “Wuthering Heights,” with Heathcliffe and Cathy on the moors seen through the eyes of the talent behind “Red Road” and “Fish Tank.” Genre fans can bite into “Extraterrestrial,” the one-night-stand sci-fi follow-up from “Timecrimes” director Nacho Vigolando, while those looking for slightly more realism can choose Sarah Polley’s “Take this Waltz,” a bruising drama of desire and fidelity with Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams. Or perhaps you’d like to see the toast of Cannes , like “The Artist,” Michael Havanacius’s love letter to old Hollywood with a star turn by Jean DuJardin, or the Dardenne Brothers’ wrenching “The Kid with a Bike.” And take in the breakout hits of Sundance, like the powerful coming-of-age story “Pariah” or the broodingly beautiful “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
That only leaves you with 259 feature films left to see. Matt Price, a film lover and co-host of the Mamo Film Podcast who’s attended TIFF for 20 years (this will be his 19th Festival ) has seen TIFF change from a follower of other film festivals to a leader in its own right: “The biggest change was that it went from being a greatest hits of other festivals to (being a) juggernaut programming force (so) that other festivals now pay attention to what Toronto picks. The original intention of the festival was, ‘Let’s find out what everyone else thinks is good, and just play that.’” Now, according to Price, the Toronto Film Festival’s higher number of premieres and higher rate of social-media chatter mean that, combined with the Festival’s change from an early all-access pass to individual tickets, the chances to respond to buzz during the later days of the Festival are tougher and tougher to manage.”A lot of stuff does sell out, and it is hard to course correct midway through. It’s more like a big boat now instead of a little skiff, and you can’t really turn the big boat.”
For Duplass, the hope is less about catching buzz than building it, with the cosmically random deadpan big-name comedy of “Jeff” and the rough-and-tumble “Sister.” “These are two of my favorite movies that I’ve worked on in the last five years. ‘Jeff Who Lives at Home,’ for me … you never want to be this guy, but it basically encapsulates what (brother and co-writer) Jay (Duplass) and I are into and about, and we got to make our favorite movie. With Lynn Shelton’s movie, ‘Your Sister’s Sister,’ it was the chance to make one of our smaller-style movies and bring some movie stars into the process. They were both epic for me.”
On the other side of the equation, Barnard notes that the festival can be a grind for press, with a majority of big-star premieres and interviews scheduled the festival’s first week, and hopes filmmakers can have a little sympathy for the devil. “Try and understand that there are more than 300 movies and there’s only a relative handful of us. If we can’t spend time with you or spend time with your movie, it’s not that we don’t love you; it’s just that it’s impossible. If you please come back to Toronto, if you please think about doing media in the future with the film, if you give us another chance, if you give us a phoner, give us another opportunity, because we hate to miss.”
As Price notes, the sizzle and spark of the fest has, in recent years, gone from being driven by the Festival’s programmers and the media to the fast-moving world of instant communication, as well as the old-fashioned method of keeping your ears open as you wait in line. “The first phase was where you learned everything about the movies from people standing beside you in line… now I feel like we’re in (the) phase (where) I learn almost everything … from social networking and Twitter, in terms of what to see.” Price laughed: “It’s a light year this year, (with) only 50 films this year for me. Granted, one of those films is 15 hours long, but still …” (No, that isn’t a mistake or hyperbole; director Mark Cousins’ “The Story of Film” is 900 minutes, shown broken up over several days of the Festival. As Price says, “when else am I going to do that? That to me is why people have film festivals, so I can do that.”)
But as Barnard points out, the public’s opportunity to enjoy chance discoveries is predicated on the TIFF programming staff’s willingness to take chances. ‘The programmers for this festival and … certainly the main players of Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, they really know what they’re doing. They tend to bring very good movies here.” At the same time, as Barnard notes, there are plenty of places for the less-star driven films to find an audience, from the Vanguard narrative selection’s stories lost souls, strangeness and shattered lives redeemed by grace to the more lunging thrills offered by the Festival’s latest-starting set of screenings, Midnight Madness: “Toronto always aims to start a conversation and to get people talking about movies and to try and program things that are impactful and frightful, things that will get people talking. The Midnight Madness program is a classic example of that: The best of offbeat, quirky, art house horror. Where else are you going to see a movie about killer, blood-sucking sheep?” (That film, the 2006 Midnight Madness offering “Black Sheep,” also let Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes indulge his inner P.T. Barnum, with a red carpet featuring livestock for atmosphere along the filmmakers.)
That kind of showmanship isn’t just about fun and games, though –it’s also about Toronto’s role as a major acquisitions market, where independent films hope to find distribution. Duplass’s “Jeff Who Lives at Home” may be a Paramount release (as he charmingly notes, “Yes, we are a Paramount movie and the mountain does appear before our movie starts, but it was made quite independently, actually …”), but “My Sister’s Sister” will be looking to make a deal. “Toronto will be the big sale for it. We made the film with private equity, completely independently, and we’re taking it out to sell.”
And as Barnard notes, the whispers of backroom deals are nothing compared to the roar of the crowd in Toronto’s theaters. “I have to say that I always live in fear that I’m going to miss that great movie, and you do. You just have to accept that that’s going to happen: You’re going to be stuck somewhere else, a movie’s not going to get on your radar, and you have to let it go with regret and accept that you missed that great moment. I’ll always be grateful that I was sitting in the Ryerson theatre the night that ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ premiered. To be there on the ground for that was really thrilling.” For Price, the constant balance of finding something amazing versus missing something rumored to be even more so is what Toronto’s all “I would say that without a doubt, the thought that I might see or experience something that I am absolutely not expecting and that it might actually go to my core and rewire my brain a little bit? The excitement of thinking that might happen is the best part about this.” Even Duplass isn’t immune. “There are bazillions of films that I want to see.” Fortunately for him, and fortunately for everyone who loves movies, that’s exactly what the Toronto International Film Festival offers.
Asked if it’s a nice change to open up a script and know from the outset that the film makers are unabashedly shooting for an ‘R’ rating, Cameron Diaz — who plays self-absorbed, self-medicating and selfish Elizabeth Halsey in the hilarious, no-holds-barred “Bad Teacher” — leaned forward, eyes lit up. “This is a beautiful thing, because it does not happen that often. It’s usually the other way around. You open a script, you start to read, and you’re like, ‘They could just go a little further.’ Then they promise you that they will… or they say they will, and then you show up to the set and supposed to be able to be an ‘R,’ and they keep cutting down and keep cutting you down; they pull you back and they pull you back and they say, ‘You’ve got a PG-13.’ You’re like, ‘That’s not the movie I wanted to make.’ This movie, on the other hand, was all about the ‘R,’ and they let us go for it.”
For all of “Bad Teacher”‘s reveling in a new-school set of three ‘R”s — rough language, raunchy sexuality and recreational substance abuse — it’s worth noting that the whole film’s also driven by a great sense of character. As Diaz’s Elizabeth connives to win a teacher of the year award — so she can use the bonus to pay for surgically-enhanced cleavage — she manipulates fellow faculty like Justin Timberlake‘s uptight, uncool but well-to-do substitute teacher Scott Delacorte. Timberlake gets to play the fool in “Bad Teacher” — including a fully-clothed awkward thrust-and-grope session that may be, I suggested, the worst sex scene of 2011.
Timberlake laughed: “I’m hoping to shoot for a higher — for All-Time Worst Sex Scene. It’s pretty bad. All I remember from that was our director Jake (Kasdan) laughing behind a monitor in another room, shouting out, ‘Uglier face!’ — right on my close-up — ‘Uglier face! Uglier face! Strain your neck more! I need to see veins popping out of your head.’”
Jason Segel, who plays relaxed gym teacher Russell Gettis — who may be the only person who sees through Elizabeth’s perverse plans and faked feelings — cut in on Timberlake with a little self-mockery: “I would just be doing regular scenes, and (Kasdan would) be yelling out, ‘Better-looking face! Better-looking face!’ I’d be like, ‘There’s nothing I can do, dude. This is my face; this is my human face.’”
For Timberlake, playing Delacorte — a strange, strained man — was perhaps too much fun. Timberlake joked about how he prepared to play a substitute teacher: “Yeah, I did substituting —different substituting. I would show up and bag groceries. I’d be like, ‘Hey bro, take a break. I’ll take over at Whole Foods for a half hour.’ Then I’d show up, ‘Hey man, what’s up with this? I’ll pump the gas. Let me substitute for you.’ I walked around town, walked around L.A. doing things … I substituted myself, which got weird.” Timberlake laughed, recalling his character’s bland surface — and deep flaws: “Scott Delacourt is a weird dude.”
That kind of joking apparently kept up on the set; according to actress Lucy Punch, who plays too-perfect teacher Amy Squirrel, it was very difficult to not crack up in the face of Diaz’s dead-eyed, dead-souled deadpan as Elizabeth: “It is hard. She was absolutely hilarious and very professional. She wasn’t cracking up at all. She’d laugh at the end; you’d say ‘cut’ and she’d dissolve into giggles. I find it hard with Justin: I had a lot of scenes with Justin, and I had difficulty keeping it together. He made me laugh a lot. I’d say most of the time we were fairly professional.” Punch paused and pondered. “Professional-ish.”
Diaz, for her part, claimed just as brutal a struggle with the giggles as her co-stars: “It’s really hard, because I’m the worst at that as well. They were so frickin’ funny. Between Jason and Justin — singularly, just the two of them by themselves, but then combined. And then Phyllis (Smith) and then Lucy — it took everything that I had for us to even get one good take without me laughing over what they were doing. They’re hilarious; it’s like the highest pedigree of comedians.”
Diaz didn’t exactly experience any flashbacks to her own adolescence, as her character Elizabeth’s style of education was, fortunately, something she never experienced. “I never had a teacher like her — thank God. The funny thing is what I love about this, how this is about the lives of teachers. You always had teachers and you never knew — you just thought that’s all they did. They only existed in the classroom. It’s fun to see these characters as human beings, on the outside — which is really fun because it still exists in a bubble, it still lives inside of this microcosm that they’ve created. It’s still a lot of fun to see that.”
It’s also fun to see Diaz, Timberlake and the other teachers of “Bad Teacher” as grownups trapped in school’s more childish modes of behavior — from tattling to cheating, from rumor-mongering to the violence of dodgeball. So, I asked Segel, did he enjoy dodgeball in his youth — or was he more often hit than not? “I certainly played dodgeball, but I was actually very good at it. I’m lithe — agile as a gazelle.” Not to be outdone, Timberlake tried to one-up his co-star: “I was pretty awesome at dodgeball, which is something to be extremely proud of. When it comes to dodgeball?” Timberlake indicated himself with his thumbs: “King.” Segel, not to be outdone, kept the ‘rivalry’ going. “When it comes to dodgeball?” He indicated himself, two thumbs aloft: “Prime Minister. So that makes me more relevant.”
As Elizabeth is driven to more and more extreme acts in pursuit of happiness in the sealed world of the John Adams Middle School, the film ramps up the comedy. How, I asked Diaz, did she shake off being such a horrible human being the next day? Diaz’s laughing answer also explained director Jake Kasdan’s fast-and-loose directing style: “You roll into it the next day. The great thing about Elizabeth is she says the truth, she says it how she sees it. There’s great wisdom in what she says, in fact. It’s how she delivers it, which I’m sure would be more effective or more appreciated if she delivered it in a less cutting way — but that’s not who she is. The fun thing is that she ends up understanding herself better, knowing her truth and realizing what she has to offer. I appreciate that she chooses not to change how she delivers it.”
Diaz also praised Jake Kasdan for keeping the film light on its feet — and screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky for sticking to their guns. “Lee and Gene did an amazing job at creating these characters, and there was really nothing (changed) — they would come to set and throw out some alternative lines, and that was it. That was all. They’d be, ‘Ah, say this!’ during the middle of the take, and we’d start laughing and go, ‘Okay, I’ll try to get it out without laughing.’ That was about it. It was really such a pleasure to do it. We did this movie very quickly. We were hauling ass; we went non-stop. There was not a moment of downtime. I knew that going in, that there’s not very many takes, — we all had to come hit the ground running every day, we packed a lot in every day. It was a small film. We made it work because that’s the luxury of having a great script. Oftentimes on bigger budget films where scripts are not working, they have the money to go, ‘We’ll fix it as we go.’ You spend a lot of time on set trying to figure it out and unravel the mystery of the characters and the plot, as you’re filming. We’re really lucky. We went, ‘Let’s just take this as is and shoot it.’”
Finally, Diaz tried to sum up exactly why she loved being a “bad Teacher” — and why she had to agree to play a horrible human being without predictable Hollywood sentiment and soft-eyed redemption tacked on to the end of the film. “That was the beauty of this script. Reading it 30 pages in, I was like, ‘This character … I can’t … because how can I redeem this person from all the horrible things she’s doing?’ By the end, I was like, ‘Yes! No redemption whatsoever. I don’t have to apologize. How genius is that?’ Usually you’re apologizing, (in) the last 20 minutes of the movie, for the first hour and a half of the movie. We don’t have to do that with this. There’s a very minimal character arc.” Diaz beamed with the joy of an upstart student eager to enjoy their detention: “So it’s beautiful.”
If any one piece of footage brought the house down at CinemaCon — in my opinion, anyway — it was the footage from Disney’s upcoming “The Muppets,” introduced by writer-star Jason Segel and Amy Adams. When I got to talk with Adams and Segel, I asked him if CinemaCon was an important step in bringing the Muppets back to the theater as an event, as opposed to their familiarity on DVD and YouTube over the years. “It is,” he said. “I hope that it’s not going to be too much of an effort. I think that when people see that we’re bringing the Muppets back to (being) these iconic figures that we remember as kids, people are going to want to go see them in the theaters for themselves and also introduce their children to the Muppets. So, I’m not too worried about that. I think we worked as hard as we could to do justice to the Muppets.”
Adams expanded on the point: “I feel like the Muppets are timeless. We really talk about that in the film, that it’s a plot point, as Jason was saying, that they’ve — I wouldn’t say fallen out of favor …” Segel stepped in: “They’ve gone their own separate ways.” Adams continued: “We definitely address that they haven’t been as out front as they used to be. That’s the goal of the story line in the film, that they’re working to come back together and to get their message out there about friendship and about dreaming big and all of that.”
And Segel feels like there’s a real hunger for the Muppets to come back. “The fact that somebody of Amy’s caliber would want to do the movie and somebody of Chris Cooper‘s caliber would want to do the movie and people would turn out to do these cameos — Academy Award winners are coming out to do cameos in this film — I think speaks to maybe (that) we’ve captured a moment where people are excited and ready for the Muppets to come back. It’s been over 10 years since the last Muppets movie. I think — with no insult to any of the previous movies — the pantheon is ‘Muppet Movie,’ ‘Muppets Take Manhattan,’ ‘Great Muppet Caper,’ and then the Muppets changed hands and something changed a little bit. I think what this movie’s trying to do is hearken back to the spirit of those original three.”
Finally, I asked recent mom Adams on a half-serious note, between the height of the average Muppet and the height of the 6-foot-4 Mr. Segel, did she get occupational neck pain? “You know what, now that you say that, I do have a crick in my neck, and I blamed it on my daughter, but I think maybe that could be definitely part of it,” she joked. Segel shrugged: “I am gigantic. There’s no two ways about it. It was actually, funny enough, logistically very difficult to get me in a frame with the Muppets, because some of them are” — Segel held his hand 2 feet off the ground — “this tall, and I’m 6 foot 4.” Adams offered how she was willing to take a bit of discomfort for the cause in terms of her wearing high heels: “It’s funny, because they were originally going to put me in flats. I was like, ‘Excuse me, I don’t think that’s going to work, because you’re never going to get us all in the same screen. It’s just not going to happen.’”
You may not recall much of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the 1726 fable by Jonathan Swift. Maybe you can see, in your mind’s eye, shipwrecked traveler Lemuel Gulliver on the beach, bound by hundreds of the tiny Lilliputians, residents of the first strange shore he washes up on. Or perhaps you see Gulliver, now himself small, among the giants of Brobdingnag. You don’t really have to recall much more than that from your long-ago slog through the book in high school or from one of the many filmed versions; the people behind this new 3-D version, modernized and starring Jack Black as Gulliver, certainly don’t bring much more than those two images from the book to the table. Instead, “Gulliver’s Travels” is an incredibly costly, special effects-laden plotless muddle of a film that might as well be called “In the Name of Jesus, Doesn’t the Prospect of Leaving the House and Not Having to Talk to Your Family for 90 Minutes During the Christmas Holiday Sound Appealing?”
Directed by Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Shark Tale“), “Gulliver’s Travels” casts Black as Lemuel Gulliver, a mail room employee at a New York newspaper, who, desperate to impress comely travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet), fibs and plagiarizes enough of a writing career to get an assignment to investigate some phenomena near the Bermuda Triangle. Adrift — literally, once he gets aboard a boat — and unprepared, Gulliver is picked up by a waterspout that deposits him in Lilliput, where everyone is one-twelfth the size of a normal human and yet 100 percent as worthy of consideration and the truth.
Neither of which Gulliver extends, fibbing himself into heroic status and saving the day in several unlikely ways. This impresses the King (Billy Connolly) and his daughter Mary (Emily Blunt) and the lowly worker Horatio (Jason Segel) he befriends; it does not impress Gen. Edward (Chris O’Dowd), the leader of the Lilliputian armies, and a bit of a blowhard and a boor. O’Dowd is a very funny actor, and his general is a fairly funny performance — imagine Michael Caine from “Zulu” as a John Cleese character — and any time O’Dowd, or anyone on-screen, does anything you might want to watch and enjoy, the film gets self-conscious and hurries to provide another pee, butt or belly joke.
Which is the strangest thing about watching “Gulliver’s Travels”: Everyone in it is really good. Connolly, Peet, O’Dowd are all comedic talents. Blunt has a real presence. Segel is somehow charming and yet foolish, silly and sincere. And while a little of Black’s boastful bragging and rubber-faced clowning goes a long way, they are hardly the worst thing in the world to watch. Nicolas Stoller and Joe Stillman have written a script full of tiresome platitudes and special effects-aided urine jokes, each there solely to move toward the closing dance number and credits with a minimum of fuss. The message of “Gulliver’s Travels” is, apparently, “Just be yourself” and “Don’t lie.” Considering that the budget for this film is tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, I would like to let 20th Century Fox know that I will tell kids “Just be yourself” and “Don’t lie” for half of what they spent on this film and its green-screen effects and marquee-name musical numbers.
The great irony is that Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” to satirize the social order of his day. Now, this 2010 version, bloated with pixels and hurling itself off the screen in 3-D, feels like an unintentional satire of modern kids-movie excesses and banality. When the film needs to end, it’s not the culmination of several plot threads; it’s a musical number, a happy sing-along version of a song released in 1969. A “giant” Lilliputian robot is added for ostensibly comedic effect. Gulliver’s journey to Brobdingnag gets short shrift. And again, the traditional problem of big-budget family entertainment arises, where the grown-up jokes are too grown-up for the younger kids in the audience and the jokes for kids are too insipid and simplistic to appeal to grown-ups. It’s as if Stoller and Stillman wrote some billboard-ready, poster-ready and trailer-ready scenes for the marketing department to use and then stopped. Like I said, you probably don’t recall much of the original “Gulliver’s Travels.” The good news is that even if you get dragged to this big-money modernization of the tale, you won’t recall much of this version, either.
“I was always picked last for teams, and it was devastating. I gravitated toward comedians, because they were the ones who were pointing out hypocrisy and lying. I needed someone to tell me it was O.K., because I felt really bad.” — Judd Apatow
“Someone from my high school
Must have really hurt me too
Maybe that’s why I
Will always stand by you.”
– “High School,” The Flashing Lights
Knocked Up’s proven itself to be one of the biggest hits of the summer; Superbad will land at theaters on August 10th perfectly-timed to make up for lame, unfunny summer 2007 comedies like License to Wed and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. In other words, it’s Judd Apatow’s world — we just live in it.
Or at least it’s felt that way to me recently, what with my watching the complete series of Freaks and Geeks on DVD. Created by Paul Feig, Freaks and Geeks was a brilliant-but-canceled NBC series about life in Michigan’s McKinley high school around 1980. Judd Apatow — the director of Knocked Up, producer of Superbad — was the executive producer of Freaks and Geeks, and his comedy sensibility — frank and blunt, but warm and honest — is in every episode; if you haven’t seen Freaks and Geeks, or only saw it during the cut-short original run on NBC, I can’t recommend the DVD series enough.
Freaks and Geeks was a nearly impossible sell — a series about teens for grown-ups. It followed the siblings of the Weir family: short, scared and nerdy Sam (John Francis Daley) and smart-but-somewhat-lost Lindsay (Linda Cardellini). In the pilot, Sam’s just trying to get by and stay out of the sights of bullies alongside his friends Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr); Lindsay, upset and unmoored by the death of her grandmother, is being drawn to the sketchy tribe of undermotivated kids at the periphery of the school’s social set — moody loner Daniel (James Franco), his girlfriend Kim (Busy Phillips), druggy drummer Nick (Jason Segel) and hulking wiseass Ken (Seth Rogen).
And, compared to the normal practices of TV about teens — following the perfect and the pretty through statistics-laden Very Special Episodes — that focus on the far reaches of the social spectrum makes Freaks and Geeks a revelation. The other thing that makes Freaks and Geeks so compulsively watchable is the fact that the characters aren’t always perfect, aren’t always likable, aren’t always right. Lindsay’s thoroughly sincere expressing sorrow at the passing of her old friend Millie’s dog — and she’s also capable of turning Millie’s need for friendship into the lever that gets her parents to consent to her going to a Who concert.
Freaks and Geeks is also, hands down, the best evocation of ’80s teen life ever seen on screen. From disco hysteria to punk rock’s arrival, Reagan-era young Republicanism to the arrival of Atari video game consoles on American shores, it’s all in there. And it’s not window-dressing, either; they’re all part of the character’s lives. The Atari 2600 console in the episode “The Garage Door” isn’t just a minor piece of set dressing; it’s a gift from a guilty adulterous father to a son on the verge of learning about his dad’s betrayal. Who could have thought that a game of Asteroids could have such emotional resonance?
No laugh track, no easy answers, no big stars, no chance: Freaks and Geeks was canceled after the 13th episode. But the DVD set includes all 18 episodes, plus multiple commentaries on every episode. If you can beg, borrow or steal the limited edition 8-disc set that was available only via the show’s website, though, get that — packaged to look like the McKinley High yearbook, it includes all 18 episodes with commentaries and deleted scenes, plus two entire discs of extras — including auditions, outtakes, an hour-long cast and crew Q&A from the William Paley Museum of Television and Radio celebration of the show plus weirdly insiderish footage like the cast and crew’s farewell speeches from their last day of shooting after cancellation came down and wrap party dance numbers.
The cast and crew of Freaks and Geeks haven’t entirely gone their separate ways — Apatow’s seeded Freaks and Geeks cast members in Knocked Up and Superbad and Rogen and Franco will co-star in the upcoming The Pineapple Express, another Apatow-backed comedy. Apatow’s pretty far from his childhood in Long Island — getting picked last for teams and losing himself through watching stand-up comedy — but don’t we all remember the slings and arrows of teen life and carry them with us for the rest of our days in ways large and small? Freaks and Geeks works because it manages to speak to the two seemingly contradictory truths of teen life: High school is horrible, but better things are coming someday. That balance is what makes the show so watchable and fresh even this many years after it was canceled, a brilliant mix of painful honesty and desperate optimism. Apatow probably hated high school, but watching Freaks and Geeks, you can witness bone-deep pain turned to brilliant comedy before your very eyes.