Last Night (1999)’s Studio Comedy Equivalent in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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The Y2K scare in the late 90s lead to a brief cinema trend of End of the World features, but there weren’t many out there quite like our December Movie of the Month, Last Night. The Don McKellar-helmed black comedy strayed from the alarmist thriller beats of titles like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and End of Days to chase a much more realistic, resigned Gen-X vibe of sullen gloom & gallows humor in the face the Apocalypse. Much more recently, End of the World cinema trended once again, this time likely inspired by the supposed end of the Mayan Calendar in 2012. Among the traditional alarmist thrillers this time around (like the appropriately titled 2012) there were actually a good number of mainstream comedies on the topic: This Is the End, The World’s End, It’s a Disaster, etc. Only one of these Armageddon comedies of the 2010s managed to match the weirdly subdued in a time of crisis vibe of Last Night. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a much more minor & less stylistically focused work than Last Night, but it still makes for an interesting companion piece for McKellar’s Canadian cult classic. It not only reflects the way humor & pop culture attitude had shifted in the decade or so between their releases, but also points to how Hollywood convention could’ve made McKellar’s piece a much less interesting work if it weren’t a dirt cheap indie.

Both Last Night & Seeking a Friend for the End of the World center their tales of a world unraveling on a neurotic male protagonist who faces dying alone after the recent departure of his romantic partner & the impending doom of an inevitable Apocalypse. Unlike Patrick’s wife in Last Night, who died before the announcement of the world’s end, Steve Carell’s protagonist in Seeking a Friend loses his own wife to infidelity and she bolts from their marriage in the opening scene. In both features, the leads are neurotic men who can’t will themselves to join in the orgiastic parties surrounding them as they wrestle with their grief, but instead take unexpected comfort in newly-formed intimacies with total strangers (Sandra Oh in Last Night, Kiera Knightly in Seeking a Friend). News broadcasts continue to the bitter end in both films; insurance & gas companies continue to function; riots overtake the cities; characters obsess over curating their life-ending soundtracks, including off-screen radio DJs. What really ties the films together outside of their narrative details, however, is their general search for an authentic response to a world-ending crisis. Once the initial shock of a Doomsday scenario fades, what does worldwide grief look like and how can it be reflected in the personal response of a lone protagonist? Last Night and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World stand out from their temporal peers & reflect each other’s unique tones through this pursuit of a believable, down tempo Apocalypse.

As much as I enjoy Seeking a Friend as a down tempo comedy, however, I don’t think it quite measures up to the significance of Last Night as a unique work. Last Night is an odd little duck. It may feature a Gen-X 90s tone in its humor (along with a unfortunate influence from Woody Allen neuroticism), but it does carve out a very specific space that’s indicative of Don McKellar’s authorial voice. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, feels very conventional for a major studio comedy, a project by committee. Where Last Night finds small moments of shared, nonverbal intimacy, Seeking a Friend filters its entire plot into a familiar romcom formula. It also trades in Last Night‘s everything-is-connected ensemble cast structure for a more traditionally linear road trip narrative and unfortunately allows its female lead slip into something of a manic pixie dream girl cliché, which is far from the devastating performance Sandra Oh gives in her role. Most tellingly, Last Night never feels the need to explain how or why the world is ending because it doesn’t necessarily inform its characters’ behavior, but Seeking a Friend feels the need to spell it out in the very first scene. You can readily see exact gags that reflect each other in both works. The brilliant “Taking Care of Business” guitar jam gag in Last Night is reflected in Seeking a Friend’s End of the World Awareness Concert & its radio DJ promising “a countdown to the End of Days along with all of your classic rock favorites.” Craig from Last Night‘s pursuit of bucket list sexual experiences is represented in Seeking a Friend by a family restaurant called Friendly’s that’s devolved into a nonstop pansexual orgy. The movies do share a lot of content in their smaller details. However, Last Night employs them for a much more unique effect than the cookie cutter comedy beats of Seeking a Friend (as funny as they can be).

I think what’s most interesting here is just how normalized the idea of a low stakes response to the end of the world had become between 1999 & 2012. Don McKellar’s Apocalypse comedy is a dirt cheap production with a small cast & limited scope. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, features two recognizable stars (along with a long list of the time’s comedic up & comers: Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Amy Schumer, Gillian Jacobs, TJ Miller, I’m out of breath) and spreads its story out over a wide range of road trip-driven set pieces. It’s far from a summer blockbuster in terms of scale, but it still boasts the generic feel of a studio-funded romantic comedy, however dark. When Don McKellar made Last Night in 1999, concluding an ensemble cast black comedy with a bright light signifying the Apocalypse was weird fodder for an off-kilter, low budget indie production. By 2012, it was familiar enough territory for a major studio romcom starring two household names. That’s a fairly quick turnaround on pop culture sensibilities, all things considered.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Trainwreck (2015)

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Trainwreck is a weird movie. Culturally, we are no longer standing on the threshold of a new era in which comedy, especially raunchy comedy, is the domain of men—but we haven’t finished crossing into that new world on the other side, either. It’s likely we’ve all heard the story about how Amy Poehler took a definitive stance against subliminal sexism in the SNL writers’ room stating that she was there to be funny, not cute; we all know how Bridesmaids was a huge hit that surprised our dudebro friends who thought that women couldn’t be funny or gross, and how that opened the door for fare like Trainwreck (I personally prefer the widely-reviled The Sweetest Thing for its uninhibited provocativeness, but that’s neither here nor there). Comedy Central, formerly the home of media catering exclusively to douches and douches in training, now features transgressive shows like Key & Peele, Another Period, and Broad City, helmed by and starring women and people of color in the timeslots that used to feature Adam Corolla and Jimmy Kimmel mocking little people and ogling women on trampolines. Sure, Daniel Tosh still finds his home there, but he’s old news now, and I’d be surprised if Tosh.0 exists beyond 2017. And, of course, that’s where Amy Schumer’s series airs.

Inside Amy Schumer, recently having completed its third season, is easily one of the most insightful and thoughtful shows on air. A sketch comedy show featuring interstitial footage from Schumer’s stand-up routines, the show has skewered toxic patriarchy and the roles women are forced to play in society, from a sketch in which various successful women in STEM fields participate in a panel in which none of them can stop apologizing, portraying the way women are trained to be “sorry” about everything, to the now viral sketch parodying Friday Night Lights to address the issue of sexual violence against young women, at once targeting both rape culture and the deification of high school athletics culture, and the intersectionality between these two social problems. My personal favorite is the sketch in which Amy’s character attempts to play the military first-person-shooter that her boyfriend is obsessed with; she selects to play as a woman, and said video game avatar is immediately the victim of sexual assault. When given the opportunity to report the assault, the game’s narrator attempts to talk her out of doing so, asking “Did you know he has a family?” The pixelated assailant is convicted at court martial, but his commanding officer disregards the ruling while Amy’s soldier character is relegated to a lifetime of paperwork in retribution. Amy complains to the boyfriend, who runs off to check the message boards; they say nothing about this situation, so he declares she must have played incorrectly somehow. The sketch takes aim at so many things at once, it’s almost hard to keep track: the pervasiveness of sexual assault against women in the American armed forces, the horrible manner in which these women have their careers destroyed for reporting their assaults, the insular toxic “just us boys” attitude that permeates video game culture (the fact that the assault is a de facto result of playing as a woman, coupled the fact that there is no discussion of this gameplay mechanic online, implies that Amy is the first person to actually choose to play as a woman), and the act of “mansplaining.” Given how much of Schumer’s body of work takes aim at the absurdity and darkness of phallocentric culture and mocking that culture’s paradigms, it’s a surprise that Trainwreck follows such a standard romcom formula, albeit one populated by more colorful characters than is the norm.

The film opens with a flashback to the young Amy and her sister, Kim, being given a lecture by their father (Colin Quinn) about how monogamy is an unrealistic expectation, complete with an analogy about only being allowed to play with one doll for the rest of one’s life, especially when you occasionally want to play with a stewardess doll or the best friend of your main doll. As an adult, Amy embraces this philosophy, engaging in a series of one-night sexual encounters with various men with the caveat that she never sleeps over and never becomes emotionally attached. She’s also sleeping consistently with Steve (John Cena), who is completely oblivious to the closet that he’s living in, although this “relationship,” such as it is, comes to an end fairly early in the film’s running time when he discovers that Amy is not sleeping with him exclusively. Amy works for men’s magazine S’Nuff, where her boss, Diana (a perfect-as-always Tilda Swinton), assigns her to work on a story about sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), and implies that Amy is up for an editor position.

The film’s most emotionally and comedically satisfying scenes, however, center around Amy’s relationship with her family. Amy’s father has recently been admitted to assisted living due to deteriorating health. He’s a Mets-obsessed alcoholic with a heart of copper, and Amy has an amicable spiritual kinship with him, despite the fact that her sister resents him for his outdated bigotry and the way that his infidelity broke up their family when she and Amy were kids. Kim (Brie Larson, always a delightful screen presence) is now married to the incredibly dorky Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and has a young stepson (Evan Brinkman) whose fascination with esoteric miscellany Amy finds annoying. Both male characters are odd in a way that the audience can’t help but find endearing and charming despite the fact that Amy finds them, and the culturally normative lifestyle they represent in spite of their individual eccentricities, off-putting. Kim is genuinely happy with her family unit, soon to include a new baby; she also tries to convince Amy that she, too, will one day find fulfillment in embracing the narrative of domesticity. Amy’s having none of that… at first.

The plot outline of the romcom is nothing new, and there haven’t been many tweaks to the idea since the genre crystallized into a single formula as part of the Meg Ryan oeuvre. Woman is in an unfulfilling or boring relationship; this relationship ends, and Woman dedicates herself to the abstract art of self-understanding or focusing on her career; despite her protestations, Woman’s Friend or Friends manage to put her in a situation where she meets Love Interest; Woman falls for Love Interest, but forced drama and farcical misunderstandings push the two apart; finally, one party makes a grand sweeping gesture to demonstrate their love for the other party, they kiss, fin.

Since watching Trainwreck, a movie that I unabashedly enjoyed and found riotously funny, I’ve spent a great deal of time meditating on the ways that Schumer’s script managed to find something novel and original in that formula and exploring those nooks and crannies to mine for comedy gold—at least in the first hour. Like Greg Kinnear in You’ve Got Mail (and Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle, Liev Schrieber in Kate & Leopold, etc.), Cena’s Steve is a disposable love interest. Unlike his genre forbears, however, he does fulfill Amy in the only way she cares about, and he extricates himself from her life not in order for a new love to bloom, but because he can’t feel secure in their relationship (and because he’s totally, totally gay). He also elaborates on Amy’s apparent flaws, and that’s where my confusion about the film’s thesis lies; Amy likes to drink and smoke pot and have noncommittal sex, and anyone familiar with Schumer’s comedy knows that she views these activities as lacking moral or ethical components. Who cares if someone’s taking puffs off of a one-hitter during a pretentious indie movie called The Dogwalker, as long as it’s not hurting anyone? Right? But her inability to communicate with Steve because she is stoned does hurt him. And, at the end of the movie, she gives her liquor and drug paraphernalia away in order to take the next step in her life and commit to her love for Aaron, implying that being a pothead really was a character flaw, and not just a characteristic.

I’m not really sure what to make of this. For the last hour of the film, I kept expecting some twist to occur that would further subvert the tropes of the genre the way that the first hour had–maybe Aaron and Amy don’t end up together, or some other variation from the romcom norm. Instead, after Amy meets Aaron and falls into a relationship with him in spite of her misgivings about a heteronormative monogamous lifestyle, the formula plays out fairly standardly. There is something new about the way that the friction between the breeding couple comes not from lies (Amy makes no apologies for or attempts to hide her party-hard lifestyle) or misunderstandings, but from slowly building unspoken resentment of Amy’s choices on Aaron’s part and Amy’s struggles with grief over her father’s death, but this alone isn’t enough to mitigate the predictability of that final scene where Woman and Love Interest declare their love for each other. There’s just something about it that doesn’t feel like it was created by the same Amy Schumer who spent an entire episode of her show appropriating the structure of 12 Angry Men to satirize the way American men are socialized to treat women as sex objects, regardless of the lack of an inherent connection between talent and conformity to a particular beauty ideal.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a funny movie, probably the funniest I’ve seen in theaters in years. The comedy is sometimes broad, sometimes particular, always insightful, and biting; the relationships between Amy and her father and Amy and Kim are emotionally resonant in ways that are superior to most dramas. I just can’t help feeling a little let down because the movie wasn’t as iconoclastic or transgressive as I wanted it to be. It’s not an “anti-romcom,” it’s a romcom that’s smarter, funnier, and more inventive than its predecessors–but it’s a romcom nonetheless. That’s not a negation of the film’s inventiveness, but it is an accurate assessment. Regardless, it’s a delightful movie, and not to be missed.

–Mark “Boomer” Redmond

From The PG Era to a Solid R: John Cena’s Promising Career in Raunchy Comedies

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There weren’t that many surprises for me in the new Amy Schumer-penned romcom Trainwreck. As was typical with almost all Judd Apatow comedies, the film was generally pleasant and supported a wealth of great gags & a wonderful cast, but also was in desperate need of some third-act editing. Recent over-exposure to Schumer’s more unrestrained writing on her sketch comedy TV show had me looking for something a little more (excuse the pun) off the rails from Trainwreck than the usual Apatow fare, though, so my expectations for something more unconventional were more than a little off base. I liked it; I just wasn’t caught unprepared for most of its content.

However, I was taken aback by the comedic performance of pro wrestler/in-the-flesh superhero John Cena. My surprise with Cena began before even the opening credits, when a trailer for an upcoming Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy called Sisters featured the typically clean-cut wrestler decorated in neck tats & a beanie, informing a hot-to-trot Fey that his safe word is “keep going”. That was just the start. In Trainwreck itself, Cena is even more subversive in dismantling his squeaky clean persona by appearing as he normally would in public, but with much raunchier content backing him up. It was difficult to determine from the film’s trailer how just how much of Cena we’d be seeing outside of that quotable “Mark Wahlberg” one-liner, but it turns out that we get to see way more of him than most people would’ve asked for. His character, Steven, engages (with varying degrees of success) in dirty talk, fully-nude on-screen lovemaking, undercutting questions about his own sexuality, and an intense pantomime of an ejaculation that will . . . not . . . end. As a fan of raunchy sex comedies, I found these gags just the right tone of playfully amusing. As a pro wrestling fan, I found them downright shocking.

For anyone who (understandably) has not been paying attention to the WWE since the creative heights of its so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s/early 00s, John Cena has more or less dominated the company’s narrative for the past decade. Shifting away from some of the more gruesomely violent & overtly sexual content of yesteryear, WWE sorta-unofficially promoted Cena as the face of the company. With his classic military looks & his character’s (almost) forgotten beginnings as a white rapper, Cena has been scripted within the ring to be more or less a superhero for young children to look up to. His stubborn refusal to “turn heel”, constant sloganizing about never giving up & always being respectful, and his never-ending championship victories appeal directly to younger fans, which drives a lot of older, nerdier smarks to disgust, deeming his reign as The PG Era. This behavior has spilled outside the ring as well. In his WWE Studios movies, Cena has always played the unblemished hero, like in his action movie vehicle The Marine, or a superhero version of himself, like in the Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover where he defeats a robotic ghost bear & an Indiana Jones style bolder with his bare hands. Then, there’s the fact that he in “real life” has more Make-a-Wish Foundation charity work than any other celebrity on record. In short, he is a ludicrously wholesome persona inside the ring & out.

The thing about Cena is that he really is likeable. There’s just way too much content out there about him being likeable. If you religiously follow WWE’s two flagship shows, Raw & SmackDown, (God help you) then there’s six hours of content on a weekly basis about how likeable John Cena is. And that’s not even counting the monthly Pay-Per-Views or the reality shows. That’s gotta wear even the most enthusiastic viewers down after a few years. Fortunately, though, things seem to be (gradually) changing. Cena’s niche at the company has been looking more like a respectable midcard position for the past few months (although, as I’m typing this now it looks like they’re pushing another championship match for him at this year’s SummerSlam) and he’s been putting in some of the best in-ring work of his career & helping get over lesser-known talents through his recent John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge angle. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how he’s subverting his spotless image through comedies like Sisters & Trainwreck.

I first noticed this shift during the last few episodes of the now-legendary NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, where Cena appeared as himself on the episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (one of my favorite episodes of the series). Cena did little to taint his superhero image in that appearance, but there was a spark of hope there in his willingness to make a fool of himself, when he so often manages to land on top. It also helped that Parks boasted a deep roster of talented comedians that could land Cena bit parts in worthwhile bigscreen comedies through networking. It’s tough to say whether it was Poehler’s Parks connection that helped Cena land his part in Sisters or the odd fact that Amy Schumer once dated pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler that helped him land his persona-shedding role in Trainwreck, but it couldn’t have hurt in either situation. No matter what the cause, Cena now seems to have his foot in the door for a life on the bigscreen (as opposed to WWE Studios’ straight-to-VOD dreck) and his career could be at a pivotal point because of it.

It’s a very rare feat for the WWE to successfully launch a career in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan is certainly the earliest example, but even he had a tough time making a lasting go of it after his ridiculous start in titles like No Holds Barred & Rocky III. Outside of a couple 90s goof-offs like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, he hasn’t made much of a memorable mark outside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, on the other hand, has been a much clearer success story with his roles in franchises like The Fast & The Furious and G.I. Joe. Even The Rock’s been struggling to branch out & express himself as an artist, though. Despite a few wildly off-the-wall turns in films like Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, he’s been landing a lot of roles he would have been typecast in over a decade ago. Schlock like Hercules & San Andreas aren’t nearly enough of a step-up from his days as The Scorpion King, considering the talents he’s put on film in his his stranger roles.

Both The Rock & Hulk Hogan have long struggled to expand the scope of their acting careers once they got their foot in the door and now it’s John Cena’s turn to fight that battle. Starting his career in major films by degrading himself in raunchy comedies is honestly a brilliant first step in that direction. Cena’s showing us that his spotless superhero persona does not necessarily define him as a talent. Let’s face it; a lot of the kids who would’ve latched onto the original version of his current “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” routine in its initial run would be in at least their late teens now, so it makes total sense that his content would grow up with them. I could be wrong & Cena could be slipping back into his old ways (starting as soon as SummerSlam next month), but there’s at the very least a glimmer of hope for change in his roles in Sisters & Trainwreck.

I’ve recently grown to like Cena despite my initial misgivings. His repetitive nature really isn’t all that unique within the world of pro wrestling, after all, and he can be really entertaining when he puts in his best work. Besides, it’s really difficult to deny the power of those Make-a-Wish numbers. I’d just also like to see him continue to branch out into these filthy, degenerate characters in goofy comedies until it’s no longer jarring to the audience. It might be his best chance at establishing himself outside of his roles as a “sports entertainer” and an eternal “good guy”. As Hogan & The Rock have proved time & time again, the WWE ring will always be there with open arms for whenever he needs it. There’s no reason, then, not to go out there & make himself vulnerable in a gross-out comedy or two. Judging by his work in Trainwreck alone, he’s already off to a great start.

-Brandon Ledet