Robin Williams’s Undervalued Restraint in The Birdcage (1996)

Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.

If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.

The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.

There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the haunted house creeper A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and where it fits in with the modern wave of internationally exported Korean genre films.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet

The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

It’s very difficult for a horror movie to shock a modern, jaded audience, but The Babysitter 2: Killer Queen eventually did drop my jaw in astonishment. It wasn’t any of the film’s over-the-top gore gags or rug-pull cameos from the original cast that shocked me, but rather the name under the Directed By credit in the concluding scroll: McG. After suffering the stylistically flat, aggressively unfunny 140-minute eternity preceding that credit I was genuinely shocked to be informed it shared a director with its predecessor. If The Babysitter was helmed by the deliriously fun, bubblegum McG who directed the Charlie’s Angels movies, then Killer Queen was clearly the work of the flavorless-gruel McG who directed Terminator: Salvation. It was an appalling step backwards for a filmmaker whose sugary music video aesthetic had finally found its niche, only for it to be immediately abandoned.

Is there any point in recapping the plot, bloodshed, or aesthetic choices of this disposable novelty? Doubtful. The same overlit Burger King commercial visuals, empty nostalgia signifiers, and hack writers’ room humor that plagues all straight-to-Netflix trash is carried over here in the exact ways you’d expect, which is a shame since the first Babysitter film felt freshly exciting & playful in its own distinguishing details. The only standout aspect of Killer Queen is that it oddly feels nostalgic about its own predecessor, a fun-but-forgettable sugar rush with the cultural longevity of cotton candy in a rainstorm. Instead of pushing The Babysitter’s Satanic teen cult absurdities into new, undiscovered territory, Killer Queen merely retraces its steps to provide additional background info & throwaway gags for every returning character, no matter how inconsequential. It’s only been three years since the first Babysitter film—a frivolous diversion meant to be enjoyed & immediately forgotten—yet Killer Queen treats it with the glowing “Remember this?!” reverence of an I Love the 80s VH1 special.

I initially thought Killer Queen’s diminished returns were a result of the charisma vacuum left by Samara Weaving—you know, the titular babysitter—but even when she returns to the screen in a contractual act of charity here the result just feels like a waste of her valuable time. It’s also tempting to blame the film’s shortcomings on its four(!) credited screenwriters. The lack of imagination on how to expand or push the teen-cult premise forward in any way is damaging enough, but the joke writing is somehow even less inspired. The most consistent line of humor involves a middle-aged stoner who loves his hotrod more than his teenage daughter; but we all Get It because it’s a really cool car! That’s not a joke that becomes any funnier the second dozenth it’s repeated, but that writers’ room vapidity should never have been a factor in the first place. McG’s breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic should be beating you over the head with so much giddy, hyperactive inanity that there’s no time to notice minor concerns like plot, dialogue, or character development. Instead, you can practically hear him snoring in his La-Z-Boy director’s chair just outside of the frame.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast: Zombi Child (2020) vs. The Zombie Diaspora

Welcome to Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss Bertrand Bonello’s new film Zombi Child (2020) and the ever-broadening zombie genre’s diasporic exodus away from its Haitian Vodou roots. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

24 Hour Party People (2003)

Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.

I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.

No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.

-Brandon Ledet

Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

The House Bunny (2008)

The first time I ever really took note of Anna Faris was in 2009, watching the cult comedy Observe & Report with a few friends in an otherwise empty theater. Until then, I was mostly aware of Faris from the Scary Movie franchise, where she was burdened with performing a brutally unfunny parody of the Final Girl archetype from teen slashers. In Observe & Report, Faris found her sweet spot in a much darker, more incisive parody of the Dumb Blonde trope, a truly amazing, upsetting performance that haunts you long after her punchlines are supposed to relieve that tension. It felt like the delayed arrival of a formidable comedic talent, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up and give her bigger, more complicated roles to extrapolate on that dark, chaotic humor.

It turns out I may have missed out on Observe & Report‘s closest competitor as a darkly funny Anna Faris showcase by just a year. 2008’s The House Bunny even features the underutilized actor as its titular lead, a performatively ditzy (but secretly sharp-witted) Playboy Bunny who struggles to adapt to life in The Real World once she ages out of her usefulness as eye candy at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. She quickly adapts by finding a new coven of undervalued women who need her aggressively bubbly outlook to survive life & men’s nonstop cruelties: an unpopular, poorly funded sorority house on a nearby college campus. The resulting underdog story is a classic Animal House-style college campus comedy, in which a small crew of nerdy outcasts learn self-confidence and earn their right to exist in spite of the protests of The Dean & the more popular (i.e. wealthier) kids. And Faris is dead center of this slobs vs. snobs battleground, living her full Marilyn Monroe smart-ditz fantasy.

Sounds perfect, right? How I wish it were. The House Bunny shows flashes of the dark, subversive humor I was hoping to see more of after Observe & Report – a feminist streak assumedly stirred up by screenwriters Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, the same writing team behind Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, that sentiment is openly at war with the Bro Humor of the film’s production company, Happy Madison, which plays to the ugliest, most politically malevolent tendencies of mainstream American comedy. The very first gag of the film is Faris explaining in voiceover that she was abandoned at an orphanage’s doorstep in a basket, then her birth parents asked for the basket back. It’s a funny, concise, familiar introduction to the shitty life she’s endured since birth, conveying the exact lack of a safety net that would drive a person to survival-based sex work (even at as seemingly quaint of an institution as Playboy). Then comes a rapid series of jokes at the expense of homeless people, Latinx day workers, trans women, and the very sex worker contingent the movie initially seemed sympathetic toward.

I’m not going to exhaustively catalog the various moral or political offenses The House Bunny racks up over its 100min runtime, if not only because moral offense is the exact transgression these bro-friendly Sandler Crew productions thrive on. It’s just worth noting how deeply strange this film is in its continuous self-conflict. There’s a violent tug-of-war between it sympathizing with a ditzy blonde archetype that mainstream cinema usually treats as a passive, victimized sex doll and punching down at the expense of anyone who’s not Normal (read: straight, white, cis, attractive, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.), including that very same ditz. Ultimately, the Legally Blonde Redux undertones win that battle, if not only because Faris is funny enough to pave over the mood-killing Bro Gags that frequently interrupt her schtick. There are plenty of genuine laughs throughout. At the same time, the film often feels like a time capsule distillation of the worst impulses of the Paris Hilton 2000s and the Happy Madison brand at large (I didn’t even get to the grotesque ad placements or the bargain-bin CGI). I almost wish it were made a decade later so Faris’s darkly subversive performance could have shined without all that baggage.

Maybe now that Faris has recently freed herself from CBS Sitcom limbo (after 152 episodes of Mom) she can fulfill her obvious potential in a comedy with a lot fewer groans. It’s been a long, frustrating wait knowing she’s great and not seeing her given the proper space to shine. Although glaringly imperfect, at least The House Bunny tried.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Equation to an Unknown (1980)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond