Reel Time

The Human Comedy

Can we send Woody Allen a comedy CARE package? Plus, Miss Congeniality 2.

The Slatetwist endings contest is history, but one criticism nags at me: that perhaps I’ve helped to give the twist a bad name. It’s true: Many of our most cherished experiences at the movies are of having the rug pulled out from under us, after which our very senses were proven suspect. Mulholland Drive, suggested by some readers as one of the worst twist endings ever, is among my favorites. Sure, “it’s all a dream.” But this dream is unusually penetrating. The entire movie, we learn, is the dying vision of a Hollywood-eviscerated ingenue—an ingenue turned killer, who furiously rearranges the furniture of her mind as her body festers. Who needs Nancy Drew when David Lynch gives you Nancy Drew Goes to Hell? And for all my jabs at the Shyamster, I relish my memory of that “What the &%$!??” moment at the end of The Sixth Sense. For two hours, I chalked up the protagonist’s lack of interaction with other characters and the existential vacuum in which he moved to the director’s arthouse pretensions. So right—and so wrong!

But now it’s time for another—less glib—reader survey.

I was surprised to read so many positive reviews of Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (“You’ll laugh till it hurts!”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). It hurt, all right. I found the movie nearly as torturous as Phantom of the Opera: a fourth-rate Allen comedy side-by-side with a third-rate Allen drama, with only a handful of redeeming performances (by Radha, Chloe, and Chewey).

But the most depressing part of Melinda and Melinda by far was Allen’s view of comedy, which has value, he suggests, largely as a much-needed distraction on the road to the grave. Quite a message from one of the most gifted comic minds of the last half-century! And Allen has been giving interviews in which he says that he would much rather have been a tragic poet than a maker of flimsy comedies.

I’m not sure if Allen’s cerebral cortex has irreversibly liquefied, or if he’s just being typically self-serving, but there is a respectable body of scholarship to the effect that comedy can explore truths every bit as profound as drama.

There is a famous of story of John Guare watching, on successive nights, Olivier in Strindberg’s Dance of Death and in Feydeau’s rollicking A Flea in Her Ear and being inspired to write his great tragic farce The House of Blue Leaves as a way of splitting the difference. Guare’s subsequent Bosoms and Neglect is like Neil Simon rewritten by Strindberg—I’ve rarely laughed and wept as hard at a single play. And what about our greatest comedies? The Misanthrope? Borderline tragedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? One step removed from the bleak assertion that life is a dream and lovers are all interchangeable. Is The Marriage of Figaro a distraction on the way to the grave, or is it the whole damn point? Hasn’t Allen noticed that Waiting for Godot is an extended Laurel and Hardy vaudeville routine? In fact, Beckett presents the idea of comedy as a distraction from death in an indifferent universe as the cornerstone of modern tragedy!

When you think of powerful stories of sons trying vainly to live up to their overbearing fathers, do you think of, say, The Great Santini? I think of Steamboat Bill, Jr. And I don’t know that a week goes by when I don’t conjure with The Lady Eve, not just my favorite movie but also my favorite parable of faith.

I’m going to stop here because I’m interested in putting together a little CARE package for Woody Allen, who once said doing comedy meant eating at the children’s table, and he wanted to sit with the grown-ups. What laugh-out-loud film comedies should Allen watch as a reminder that what really lands you at the children’s table is trying to be something you’re not? … 6:37 a.m. PT

One definition of a star is someone you can’t bring yourself to hate even while watching his or her dimwitted vanity projects. Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (Warner Bros.) is enjoyable in patches, but only because of the goodwill that most of us still have toward Sandra Bullock. It doesn’t matter if she overdoes the snorty laugh and tries too hard to look adorably klutzy. She just seems nice, and nice in an unfake way. We root for her movies to succeed, even if it means thinking of them as one-quarter fun instead of three-quarters lame.

The plot of Armed and Fabulous forces both Bullock and her character, Gracie Hart, into an unnatural posture: As the new public face of the FBI, Gracie glams herself up (with the help of another queeny consultant—not, alas, Michael Caine) and forgets who she really is—i.e., a tough, straight-talking slob. It takes a glowering, hair-trigger recruit called, oddly, Sam Fuller (the formidable Regina King, of whom ol’ Sam would certainly approve), plus the kidnapping of her pal Miss U.S.A. (Heather Burns) and the Miss U.S.A. pageant emcee (William Shatner) to snap her out of her perfumed self-indulgence and back into no-nonsense dark slacks and bulletproof vests.

The snarling exchanges between Bullock and King are funnier (and snarlier) than they need to be (the director, John Pasquin, has a lighter touch than his predecessor, Donald Petrie), and Enrique Murciano makes an unusually likable male sidekick. On the other hand, Shatner is downright scary. He has one good line—”There’s a cannon in my porthole!”—but is otherwise a vision of pouffy decay. Note to future Shatner directors: Keep him in shadow like Brando in Apocalypse Now. Never photograph him in daylight! … 8:31 PT

Correction: In a column two weeks ago, I wrote that Danny Boyle’s Millions was reportedly recut by its studio for a more family-friendly rating. Those reports turn out to have been unfounded. You really have to take what you read on the Internet with a pillar of salt.