Bonus Features: Hello Again (1987)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1987’s Hello Again, is a fluffy romantic comedy about an undead but unflappable Shelley Long, one that sidesteps all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  Even after she’s resurrected from the dead, Long’s status as a medical phenomenon has less impact on the film’s tone & plot than her nature as a hopeless klutz among big-city sophisticates does.  It’s a dynamic that allows her to go absurdly broad in fits of Mr. Bean-style physical comedy, often to the point where you forget there’s any supernatural shenanigans afoot in the first place.  The film is less about her being undead than it is about her being adorably ungraceful.

What most surprised me about this fairly anonymous studio comedy is that there’s some shockingly substantial talent behind the camera.  Director Frank Perry began his career as a New Hollywood troublemaker, filming excruciatingly dark, uncomfortable comedies about The Human Condition.  Whereas Hello Again actively avoids the inherent darkness of its subject, earlier Perry films seemed to revel in the discomfort of their premises.  So, I used this month’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to dig a little further into Perry’s back catalog to see just how dark those earlier films could get and if they had tangible connection to the mainstream studio comedies he was cranking out by the 1980s.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see the darker side of its director.

The Swimmer (1968)

The most bizarre aspect of Hello Again is how matter-of-fact it plays the absurdity of Shelley Long’s return from the grave.  She’s not a decaying corpse; she doesn’t have magical powers; she’s just there.  That underplayed absurdism is something Perry had done before to much more sinister effect when he was still a New Hollywood buttonpusher (along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the majority of his early screenplays).  In The Swimmer, Perry cast Burt Lancaster as an aging suburban playboy who, on a whim, decides to “swim home” by visiting a string of friends’ backyard pools across his wealthy neighborhood.  It’s a boldly vapid premise that’s somehow molded into a low-key mindmelter of 1960s moral rot through an eerie, matter-of-fact sense of surrealism.

Like Hello Again, The Swimmer is more of a quirky character piece than it is concerned with the internal logic of its supernatural plot.  Instead of only traveling by the “continuous” “river” of swimming pools he initially envisions over his morning cocktail, Lancaster spends a lot of runtime galloping alongside horses, leisurely walking through forests, and crossing highway traffic barefoot.  He does often emerge from one borrowed swimming pool to the next, though, and along the way we dig deeper into the ugliness of his himbo playboy lifestyle.  He starts the film as a masterful charmer, seducing the world (or at least the world’s wives and mistresses) with an infectious swinging-60s bravado.  By the time he swims his last pool, we recognize him as a miserable piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to kiss the feet of the infinite wonderful women of his past who we meet along the way.  The overall result is sinisterly ludicrous beefcake melodrama, presented in lurid Technicolor.  Sirk could never, but Perry did.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Although it’s ostensibly a back-from-the-dead zom-com, the dramatic core of Hello Again is much less about the supernatural circumstances of Shelley Long’s second chance at life than it is about her transformation from a dowdy housewife to a fully realized, fully satisfied person.  And it turns out one of Frank Perry’s earliest professional triumphs is a much darker prototype of that same basic story.  Diary of a Mad Housewife is a woman-on-the-verge black comedy about an absurdly horrid marriage that drives a put-upon housewife to a steamy, but equally toxic affair.  Her husband constantly negs her in an abusive way; her side-piece boyfriend also negs her, but in a kinky way.  She emerges from the other end completely miserable, but at least finally having done something for herself.

Most of the humor in Diary of a Mad Housewife is wrung from just how obnoxiously awful the husband character is to his “beloved.”  From the second she wakes up, he floods her with a constant stream of complaints about her body, her clothes, her hair, and her behavior.  It’s basically an early draft of Mink Stole’s ranting complaints at the start of Desperate Living – hilariously unpleasant & cruel in its never-ending barrage.  Like in Hello Again, the titular mad housewife (Carrie Snodgress) struggles to rub elbows with elite sophisticates at the stuffy society parties her husband wants to attend (not to mention the housekeeping struggle of throwing those large-scale parties to being with).  This earlier draft of that tension is just much darker than anything Hello Again offers, including a stubborn refusal to offer its put-upon protagonist a happy ending.  Other highlights include a hunky-hipster Frank Langella, the world’s most rotten children, and a chaotic pre-fame cameo from “The Alice Cooper Band”.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Maybe Diary of a Mad Housewife‘s proto-Desperate Living opening was not happenstance at all.  The film very well may have been a direct influence on John Waters’s filmmaking style, as evidenced by Waters’s fawning commentary track on Perry’s most iconic film: the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest.  I’ve owned my Mommie Dearest DVD for at least a decade, have watched it lots, and somehow didn’t notice until this month that it includes a full commentary track from Waters.  He does a great job of quipping throughout it MST3k style while also genuinely attempting to revamp its reputation as a “so good it’s great” melodrama.  More to the point, he recalls early in the runtime that a critic once attempted to insult him by saying he’s not “the underground Russ Meyer,” he’s “the underground Frank Perry.”  Of course, Waters took that insult as a compliment, as well he should have.  Frank Perry’s great.

I highly recommend watching Mommie Dearest with the commentary track flipped on, especially if you’re already seen it and want to spend some quality time with one of history’s greatest talkers.  Waters has some great quips about how Perry frames Crawford as “a female female-impersonator role” & a Strait-Jacket style horror villain, but I mostly just appreciated the way he tries to reclaim the film as a genuine crowd-pleaser.  Waters absolutely nails it when he explains, “There’s no better kind of movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.”  I’d also put Hello Again in that exact same category, even if its own campy humor is much more measured & straightforward.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man in the Hat (2021)

A few months ago, a friend recommended the low-key Euro comedy The Man in the Hat to me as “stress relief/anti-anxiety medication.”  One waitlisted library DVD loan later, I totally get what he meant.  The Man in the Hat is a fluffy, distinctly French comedy of whimsies (despite its British director). It follows a mostly wordless man’s casual escape from mild-mannered gangsters, both sides traveling in teensy tiny Euro cars across the French countryside.  There’s a vague threat of violence in that chase, and a hint of sadness in the affable protagonist’s desperate grip on a black & white portrait of his wife.  Those motions towards conflict are only an excuse for a provincial road trip, though, so we can eavesdrop on the quirky characters, feral kittens, and communal parties that decorate rural France.  It all amounts to an unrushed, calming amusement, interrupted only by snack breaks and an occasional folk tune.

The most obvious comparison point for The Man in the Hat‘s gentle, largely silent storytelling style is the equally French (“and fucking proud of it”) comedy of Jacques Tati, particularly the Monsieur Hulot series.  In practice, it reminded me a lot of the low-key dark humor of Aki Kaurismaki, especially in its clash of twee whimsy with crime-world brutality and old-fashioned rock n’ roll cool.  As calming & endearing as The Man in the Hat feels for most of its runtime, its central drama is hinged on some truly bleak motivators: a dead spouse, a botched suicide attempt, an accidental witness to a body being dumped into a city canal.  In the Kaurismaki version of this story (in the tradition of The Man Without a Past or The Other Side of Hope), there would be much sharper shocks of gang violence, character-quirk humor, and political commentary than what The Man in the Hat is interested in delivering.  This French/British echo of the Finnish humorist’s work is too mild-mannered to attempt anything other than self-amused twee, but it does match Kaurismaki’s eye for low-key romance & communal joy in the harshest of circumstances – even ending at an outdoor concert that feels like a direct hat-tip to his work.

To underline its function as “anti-anxiety medication”, The Man in the Hat often looks like a TV commercial for anti-depressants (or maybe just antihistamines, depending on the set-piece).  Most of the sun-dappled road trip through lightly breezy vistas is populated by cautiously optimistic archetypes learning to have fun again in open fields, European cafes, and spontaneous block parties.  Occasionally, the mood will shift in a wistful music video interlude lit by red brake lights or sparsely placed candles, but we’re often back on the road seconds later, “walking on sunshine” on our road to recovery.  This is by no means a flashy movie, nor a challenging one.  It’s just nice.  There are likely more effective “anti-anxiety medications” out there on the market, but none that would pair this safely with a glass of wine (much less any that you could access for free through your local public library).

-Brandon Ledet

Together Together (2021)

The pre-packaged media narrative about what makes Together Together special is that it’s a mainstream comedy that cast a trans actress as a cisgender, pregnant woman.  That’s true enough, but what really makes the film incredible is that the actress in question is Patti Harrison, who’s just about the last comedian on the planet you’d expect in a mainstream role of any kind.  Harrison’s comedy is confrontational, absurd, and explosively funny.  Together Together is none of those things.  This is a very Sundancey comedy about two lonely people establishing an unlikely friendship in an intensely awkward scenario.  Harrison is cast opposite Ed Helms as her co-lead – a bland, safe, everyman comedian whose defining quality is that you always kinda wish he was Jason Sudeikis instead.  She’s asked to be earnest, muted, and vulnerably awkward, and she does so ably . . . but that’s not what you think of as Her Thing.  This is not at all the movie you’d expect from a comedian who says things like, “[I] feel very caged by [a lot of well-meaning social media liberals] who claim to be pro-my-autonomy. You’re pro-my-autonomy until it comes to my work, and then you can’t accept the fact that I love to joke about fucking dogs.” It’s extremely cool to see her land such a high-profile gig—complete with promotional interviews on NPR  (home base for well-meaning social media liberals) about the film’s cultural importance—but it’s also a little bit of a bummer that she couldn’t be more herself in that spotlight.

I don’t want to be too hard on Together Together.  It’s cute.  Twenty years ago, this soft-pedaled quirky comedy about an upper-middle age, upper-middle class tech bro (Helms) forming an unlikely bond with the twentysomething barista he’s paying to be his child’s surrogate mother (Harrison) almost certainly would’ve been a romcom, with the two leads falling for each other across generational and class divides.  Instead, they establish a low-key platonic friendship, which is much trickier to navigate but a lot less icky.  It’s mostly a film about boundaries.  Their employer-surrogate relationship is contractually defined by legal & therapeutic boundaries that are set in ink & stone, but once they start finding comfort & pleasure in each other’s company, those lines are hopelessly blurred.  They’re two deeply lonely people who very much need each other but don’t know how to express that need without violating the terms of their firmly established legal, financial dynamic.  The movie quickly establishes this uneasy rapport in an opening interview where the barista is hired for the surrogate mother job, then it gently tracks their friendship’s rocky development across the pregnancy’s three trimester-chapters.  It’s all very cute and charming and has no business being Rated R.

Even if another performer replaced Patti Harrison in the starring role, there’d still be something perverse about the way this movie assembles so many aggressively strange comedians for something so deliberately toothless.  Jo Firestone, Anna Konkle, and Tig Notaro are very funny people, so why are they given so little room to make jokes?  Julio Torres is the only comedian who’s fully set loose to be Funny here as Harrison’s spaced-out weirdo co-worker, while everyone else is mostly just asked to be awkwardly sweet.  Still, it was nice to see so many talented performers in one spot.  Hopefully it’ll be the kind of word-of-mouth charmer that’ll gradually make Patti Harrison a big enough name that she can star in a comedy molded closer to her own delightfully fucked up tastes.  She deserves it.  For now, this is decent enough as lazy-afternoon comfort viewing.  It feels condescending to label a movie “cute” and “nice”, but there really no other words for what Together Together offers.  I’m just a little confused why so many outrageously funny people had to be assembled to accomplish that.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hello Again (1987)

Britnee: There are many comedies that play around with the morbid humor of characters coming back from the dead. We actually did an episode of The Swampflix Podcast a few months ago where we talked about My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a great example of a film that makes that gruesome subject light and funny. While they can be hilarious, what My Boyfriend’s Back and similar films do that I’m not a huge fan of is attach their undead humor to traditional zombie lore (bodies starting to rot, hunger for human flesh, etc.). Thankfully, there is a funny movie about someone returning from the dead who is in great health and looks fabulous from start to end: Hello Again (1987). It also happens to be my second Movie of the Month selection that stars Shelley Long, the ultimate 80s funny lady.

Lucy (Shelley Long) is a clumsy housewife who’s married to her college sweetheart, Jason (Corbin Bernsen), a plastic surgeon rising through the ranks of high society in NYC. Lucy is constantly tripping over her own feet, spilling food on her light-colored clothing, and in one of the most memorable scenes, ripping her dress in two by stepping on the hem. She most certainly does not fit in with the snobby groups her husband rubs shoulders with. While visiting her occultist sister Zelda (Judith Ivey), Lucy chokes on a piece of a South Korean chicken ball and dies. Thankfully, Zelda comes across an ancient book in her shop in which she finds a spell that could bring Lucy back from the dead. In order for the spell to work, there are three things that need to happen approximately one year after death: (1) the deceased must have died before their time; (2) the person performing the spell has to have pure love for the deceased; (3) the Earth, the moon, and the dog star must be aligned in a perfect isosceles triangle. Zelda makes it happen, and Lucy returns from the grave. She then tries her best to navigate through life (again) while developing a romantic relationship with the ER doctor who witnessed her death (Gabriel Byrne).

There’s not much explanation of how the magic works post-resurrection, except that Lucy needs to find true love before the next full moon. Nothing is mentioned on how long her new life will last, if she will continue to age, etc. I love that the film doesn’t spend a ton of time getting lost in some bizarre, made up lore. Instead, we get to watch Lucy be an undead klutz with the most incredible fashion sense, and it’s wonderful.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on how Hello Again handles the subject of coming back from the dead? Was it boring or creative?

Brandon: I didn’t find the way it handles Lucy’s resurrection boring or creative, really. That’s because I’m not sure the film handles that subject at all.  Lucy could’ve just as easily been deep-frozen, or lost in the woods, or simply comatose for a year and it wouldn’t have had that much effect on the film’s tone or plot. Hello Again is less about her being undead than it is about her being unflappable, sidestepping all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  And it’s cute as heck.  We already have plenty gory screwball comedies about the decaying bodies of the living dead — from Death Becomes Her to Dead Man on Campus to Idle Hands to the aforementioned My Boyfriend’s Back.  This particular zom-com feels way more fixated on how much your life & social standing would change if you unexpectedly disappeared for a year than it does on the practical, grisly details of its supernatural conflict, and that’s fine.  If anything, the last 18 months of global social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that thought experiment more relevant and relatable.  Watching Lucy emerge from the grave to feel out her place in a world that has moved on without her is eerily reminiscent of what it currently feels like to leave my house to see friends & family for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a little awkward, a little absurd, surprisingly sad, but ultimately good for our souls.

If there’s anything I wished Hello Again would’ve pushed a little harder, it wouldn’t be the flesh-decaying zombie angle, but rather the Mr. Bean style physical humor Shelley Long gets to indulge in as a hopeless klutz.  She’s incredibly loveable (and funny!) as a clumsy goofball who can barely keep herself together among the big-city sophisticates she refers to as “jazzy people.”  I guess my ideal version of the film would be a Mr. Bean-meets-Groundhog Day premise where Lucy repeatedly dies in pathetically silly ways (steps on a rake, drowns in a birdbath, gets crushed by a falling piano, etc) only to get resurrected for yet another chance at self-actualization/true love until she gets it right.  Instead, the movie brushes both its supernatural & slapstick shenanigans aside for some heartfelt melodrama about Lucy re-establishing her place in the world (with a brief flirtation with tabloid fame along the way).  It’s cute, but not nearly as funny as watching her split her dress open at a fancy party to expose her underwear to all the major financial donors at her husband’s hospital so they can drop their monocles and exclaim “Well, I never!”  The only other major Shelley Long star vehicle I can recall seeing is Troop Beverly Hills, and it’s only Lucy’s unfashionable clumsiness that really distinguishes those two performances for me (as adorable as they both are), so I would’ve loved to see it exaggerated to greater effect.

Hanna, what do you think Shelley Long brings to the table as the central performer here?  Hello Again asks a lot of her as its star.  She has to convey sincere romance with a dead-serious Gabriel Byrne as a rival doctor at her husband’s hospital; she has to comically outshine a wide range of the exact quirky side-character archetypes that she usually plays herself (especially Judith Ivey as her sister Zelda); she has to pose both as a dowdy housewife and a burgeoning fashionista.  Does she somehow pull it all off?  

Hanna: I’m not super familiar with Shelley Long (apart from her role in The Money Pit, which I love), but I was super impressed by her tireless commitment to the various zany demands of Hello Again. Her adaptability in whatever situation she’s thrown into is key to her character and the success of this movie; it seems obvious that one of Long’s strengths as a performer in general is being totally game for anything (including making a fool of herself), and that quality carries over to Lucy’s indomitable spirit in the face of heartbreak, fame, and the occult nonsense that brought her back to life. It helps that Long is eminently likeable! She’s especially charming when she’s living my nightmare of exposing her big white panties to a slew of hot-shot doctors at a dinner party, but I was just as happy to see her strut around her sister’s bookstore in an absurdly fabulous dress after her Big Makeover.

Even though Long obviously did a great job, I’m not sure if all of the threads of Hello Again came together in a satisfying way. Like Brandon said, there’s a lot going on: Lucy’s story is picked up by the global news and becomes a viral celebrity, forcing her to dodge paparazzi at the hospital; Jason (Corbin Bernsen) shacked up with Lucy’s opportunistic best friend, Kim (Sela Ward) in Lucy’s absence, then tries to win Lucy back once she becomes famous; and of course there’s the love subplot with the dreamy ER doctor Gabriel Byrne, which includes a Beauty and the Beast-ish threat of Lucy being sent back to the grave if she fails to find true love before the next full moon. There are a few more tiny subplots, but for the most part they were a little underdeveloped, and sometimes forgotten. This is especially true of Lucy’s love curse, which is briefly mentioned to add some stakes to her living situation but largely goes unaddressed without consequence. I really loved the characters in Hello Again and I was entertained by each scene individually, but I never felt like I had a firm grasp on the overall direction of the story. But! That’s okay – it was an absolute delight anyway.

Boomer, do you think Hello Again could have used a little more development, or was it perfect as an erratic late-80s comedy? Is there an element of Lucy’s life after death that you wish had been explored further?

Boomer: There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and one of the topics of discussion that we have danced around is Long’s big performance near the end in which she is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Kim’s latest (dead) husband. It’s a true delight in which she shows off her talent for funny voices and physical comedy that’s very large but refrains from going too broad. In a movie that is, in many ways, largely unfocused, it serves as a capstone on the various small bits of physical comedy scattered throughout. That’s kind of the film’s bread-and-butter, though, as it moves from a small, heartfelt reunion, to scenes of Lucy speaking with her former boss about how, despite being irreplaceable, she was replaced within two weeks of her death, to her realization that her understated suburban housewife style has become all the rage in Los Angeles, for dubiously believable pop psychology reasons. It’s fair to say that by the time they’re having a full-on Oh God! style press conference, things have gotten pretty muddled. 

I did think that the brevity of the time between Lucy’s death and resurrection was a bit of a misstep. This is a bit of a strange reference point for a film in this genre, but I kept thinking about Flight of the Navigator, and how that film’s eight year jump forward allowed for the passage of enough time for significant changes to occur and thus return that film’s protagonist to a world that was sufficiently different and alienating. It might have been weird, narratively, for Zelda to still be clinging to the idea of bringing back her sister after so long a period of time, but while it’s not inconceivable that a year might be enough time for, say, a playground to be converted into a fairly-far-along construction site, it does seem like far too little time for various other events to have occurred. The one that seemed the most unbelievable to me was that her son, who was presumably 17 or 18 at the beginning of the film given that he was still deciding whether or not to go to college, had compressed what, in the real world, would be at least six years of professional development into a mere twelve months. A longer time before resurrection would also go some distance toward making Kim and Jason a little more well-rounded and multi-dimensional, as opposed to their largely static roles in the film as it exists now. In the film, the Jason moves on so quickly that it would probably raise a few eyebrows, and instead of having Kim simply hop into bed (and matrimony) with Jason, she could have had a scene with Lucy in which she talked about having a hard time finding her footing and eventually falling for Jason because the two spent so much time together after Lucy’s passing. I could definitely see both her and Jason played more sympathetically, with both of them as flawed individuals who brought out the worst in each other as her lust for wealth cross-pollinated with Jason’s ambitions to create an LA power, and powerfully misguided, couple. 

Lagniappe

Brandon: Even if it can be narratively frustrating, there is something charming about how disinterested Hello Again is in its own plot vs. how in love it is with its collection of quirky characters.  One of the funniest line deliveries in the entire film is when Zelda crashes a stuffy society party and introduces herself to the shocked sophisticates, “My name’s Zelda! I have a story for you. Hey, don’t worry. I’m just Lucy’s eccentric sister.”  I love how blatant the film’s priorities are in that exchange. 

Boomer: I literally said “Oh my god, Sela, you look amazing” the moment she appeared on screen. I also love Judith Ivey. If you’re able to track it down, I’d recommend giving her audiobook version of the Stephen King short story “Luckey Quarter” (sic) a try; it’s very charming. 

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November: 
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Loves of a Blonde (1965)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss breakout Czech New Wave director Miloš Forman’s classic romantic dramedy Loves of a Blonde (1965).

00:00 Welcome

02:30 Possessor (2021)
03:30 Millennium Actress (2001)
05:45 The Green Knight (2021)
11:22 Greener Grass (2019)
14:40 A Classic Horror Story (2021)
18:20 The Suicide Squad (2021)
28:08 Sound of Violence (2021)
31:10 In the Earth (2021)

34:30 Loves of a Blonde (1965)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

I love the 1996 sci-fi comedy film Space Jam, by which I mean I was 10 years old in 1996.  Even as an adult, I find the movie fascinating as a corporate cashgrab mash-em-up of two disparate but popular brands—Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan—that accidently stumbled into sublimely silly post-modern absurdism.  The contortions Space Jam forces itself into to highlight both a post-baseball, career-reflective Michael Jordan and a hyperviolent, physics-defying cartoon bunny are incredible to watch, both from a place of ironic detachment and as in-the-moment entertainment.  Of course, it’s impossible for me to claim that Space Jam is objectively good, considering that anyone who was not a child in the mid-90s seems to despise it as a cultural scourge rather than just a middling, studio-made kids’ film.  I just want to confess up-front that I’m a Space Jam apologist; I even prefer it to the Joe Dante Looney Tunes film that supposedly fixed all its faults (according to more respectable tastemakers).  That way I can I credibly say I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy genuinely hopeful that I would enjoy the experience.  I did not watch this long-delayed sequel just to lazily dunk on it or call it out as the death knell of modern cinema.  I thought it might be fun.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is devoid of fun.  It succeeds neither as intentional comedy nor as accidental absurdism.  It lacks the shameless commitment to its own crass commercialism that the pushed the original Space Jam to the point of post-modern delirium.  Like the worst cash-grab sequels, it does its best to retrace the steps of its predecessor while suppressing all its strangest, most exciting ideas to the margins.  A New Legacy simply subs out Michael Jordan for his modern-day equivalent in LeBron James, then hangs up the towel.  James teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters to win a cosmic game of basketball so he can get back to his family . . . except this time the game is staged in a computer server instead of outer space.  That venue change allows the new Space Jam to rope in as many background characters as it can from the full library of Warner Bros. Entertainment IP including blasphemous “cameos” from “cinematic universes” like The Matrix, The Devils, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  That’s the kind of naked corporate-synergy flexing that has professional critics decrying the film as “an abomination”, “an apocalyptic horror movie”, and a “swirling CGI garbage tornado.”  Those layup hit-pieces were preloaded before the movie was actually screened for critics, though.  What really holds A New Legacy back is that it keeps its only new, exciting idea—that intrusion of characters from classic films outside the Looney Tunes brand—relegated to the background.  King Kong, The Penguin, and Baby Jane Hudson should have been shooting hoops alongside LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, not cheering them on from the sidelines in blurred-out crowd shots.

It’s most widely being compared to Spielberg’s post-apocalyptic VR thriller Ready Player One (which is much more critical of this kind of self-aggrandizing IP worship than it’s given credit for), but the basic premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy actually lands much closer to the underappreciated sci-fi bummer The Congress.  In a dystopian vision that only rings truer to out shithole reality every year, The Congress imagines a world where celebrities no longer physically perform in mass-distributed art, but instead are scanned-into a computer system that simulates their screen presence in AI emulations.  It’s the ultimate movie studio power grab, one we’ve seen echoed in real-life simulations of deceased performers in films like Rogue One (Peter Cushing), Furious 7 (Paul Walker) and, most recently, the ethically-shaky documentary Roadrunner (Anthony Bordain).  In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is offered the same opportunity: being scanned into the Warner Bros. “serververse” so his likeness can be plugged into whatever intellectual property the mega-corporation can scoop up before Disney gets to it first.  A New Legacy even maintains some of the dystopian undercurrent of Ready Player One & The Congress, with human beings cheering on the Looney Tunes team on one side of the court, fictional-product characters cheering on the opposing team of villains, and Don Cheadle orchestrating the entire event from the center as an evil algorithm MC (the film’s only decent, fully committed performance).  No matter how much its pile-on of disparate IPs in a single locale is supposed to register as Fun! and Cool!, the Warner Bros. studio itself is clearly positioned as the main villain of the piece, in direct opposition to its human, terrified audience, which it literally holds captive. 

It’s a shame that idea wasn’t pushed further.  If the entire point of this movie was for Warner Bros. to show off its extensive collection of intellectual properties, it should have just flooded the screen with them to the point where the audience was crushed under their immensity. Instead, it just sweeps them to the background so LeBron James can cosplay as a late-career Michael Jordan by recreating the exact plot beats & character dynamics of the original Space Jam in a new locale.  At least doubling down on its grotesque display of corporate synergy could’ve been memorable. As is, there’s nothing offered here worth sitting through A New Legacy to see, which I’m saying even as the rare dumdum who loves the original Space Jam, The Congress and, to a lesser extent, Ready Player One.  There are technically jokes in this movie, but none of them are funny (save maybe a couple throwback Silent Cinema gags featuring Wile E. Coyote).  It’s a full half-hour longer than the original, sacrificing the breakneck pacing that makes it such a breezy watch.  LeBron James is too concerned with being lauded as both the greatest basketball player to have ever lived and the ultimate family man to do anything risky or interesting with the material.  Even with all those missteps, though, A New Legacy‘s greatest sin is that it doesn’t push its one deviation from the original Space Jam to its furthest possible extreme.  Humorless movie nerds were already going to be pissed about it dragging characters from beloved classics down to the level of a Space Jam sequel no matter what, so there’s no reason for the movie to be timid about its shameless Warner Bros. IP promotion.  Fuck it.  Show Pennywise spin-dunking in Immortan Joe’s face, then high-fiving Free Willy and planting a sloppy kiss on Lego Catwoman’s blocky lips.  If you’re going to be blasphemous, at least have fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lapsis (2021)

The daily experience of working and living right now is exhausting on a cellular level.  I’m not even referring to the specific context of the ongoing global pandemic, which has only amplified problems that have been humming in the background of our lives & work over the past couple decades.  Everything is fake now.  Meaningful, tangible experiences have been distorted and “disrupted” beyond recognition by the most power-hungry dipshits among us – tech bro vampires who mistake their inherited wealth for personal genius.  Most jobs aren’t really jobs anymore; they’re one-off assigned tasks performed by “independent contractors” for mega-corporations with incredible talent for innovating new ways to avoid taking care of their own.  Most personal interactions have lost their intimacy; they’re abstracted and commodified for social media broadcast, creating a constant pressure to be “on” all the time that makes even our idle hobbies feel like a secondary mode of labor – paid out in likes.  The modern world is uniquely empty and cruel in a way that’s becoming increasingly difficult to satirize.  There’s no artistic parody that could truly match the exponential inanity of the real thing, at least not in a way that won’t be topped the very next week by some other cosmic Internet Age blunder.

Lapsis gets close.  A high-concept, low-budget satire about our near-future gig economy dystopia, it’s a bleak comedy but not a hopeless one.  The wonderfully-named Dean Imperial stars as an old-fashioned working class brute who struggles to adapt to the artificial gig work of the Internet Age.  Our befuddled, belly-scratching hero takes on a new job running cables in the woods as infrastructure for a new, so-called “Quantum” internet service.  His daily work is assigned through an app that gamifies grueling, daily hikes with a point system and a competitive social media component with fellow contract “employees”.  He struggles to comprehend the basic functions of the app, requiring constant assistance from younger hikers who find smartphone tech more familiar & intuitive.  Yet, he ignores their attempts to unionize, focusing instead on sending all his hard-earned digital money back to a younger brother suffering from a vaguely defined type of medical exhaustion with the world called “omnia”.  The app heavily regulates hikers’ rest, like Chaplin being chided for taking an extended bathroom break in Modern Times.  They compete for tasks with automated delivery robots that trek on in the hours when their human bodies need sleep.  Their wages are taxed into oblivion by small, daily expenses that should be funded by the mega-corporation that “employs” them.  It’s all eerily familiar to the inane, artificial world we occupy now, with just enough exaggeration to qualify as science fiction.

The only other modern labor-exploitation satire I can recall in the same league as Lapsis is 2018’s Sorry to Bother YouLapsis doesn’t aim for the laugh-a-minute absurdism of Boots Riley’s instant-cult comedy, but it’s maybe even more successful in pinpointing exactly how empty and draining it feels to live & work right now.  Visually, it makes the most out of its budget in its art instillation set pieces that juxtapose its hiking-in-the-woods nature setting with impossible tangles of internet cables and the imposing cube-shaped modems they link to.  Satirically, it’s most impressive for walking a tightrope between observational humor and moralistic allegory.  Despite all of the tangible, recognizable parodies of modern gig-work tech it lays out in its early stretch, the film is most commendable for its more abstract, big-picture metaphors about inherited wealth, capitalist exploitation, and soul-deep exhaustion with modern living – all of which play out within the absurdist specificity of its near-future premise.  I was especially delighted that it strives towards a hopeful solution for our fake-as-fuck hellscape instead of just dwelling on its compounding problems.  It dares to sketch out a hopeful vision for labor solidarity between young, very-online Leftists and more traditional working-class Joe Schmoes, where it could just as easily point out the specific ways things are fucked right now without bothering to offer an exit strategy.  We need that kind of hopeful vision right now, even while we acknowledge exactly what’s wrong with the world as-is.

-Brandon Ledet

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

I wonder if anyone’s ever put together a definitive list of The Most Floridian Films of All Time.  If so, I’d like to nominate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar for inclusion in that canon.  While other recent Florida-as-Fuck movies like Magic Mike, The Beach Bum, and The Florida Project have understandably centered their stories on the beach state’s burnout locals, Barb and Star dares to explore its function as the nation’s largest tourist trap.  The hotel tiki bars, by-the-hour boat rentals, boardwalk souvenir shops, and Lisa Frank color palettes that overwhelm the screen are all hyperspecific to Floridian tourism.  The authenticity of that setting includes the characterization of the titular tourists as well: two clueless but sweet rubes from the Midwest with absurdly superficial notions of what a getaway vacation adventure should look like.  You could remake this entire film on a cruise ship without having to change many of its gags or locations, which is how you know it perfectly captures the tacky surrealism of the modern tourist industry.  This is the fantasy version of Florida presented in all-inclusive vacation package pamphlets, and it’s wonderfully bizarre to see actual human beings navigate those flamingo pink waters.

Of course, the main concern of this absurdist buddy comedy is neither to capture the spirit of Floridian tourism nor to drum up tension in its superfluous sci-fi espionage plot.  It’s simply trying to make you laugh, and it ably succeeds.  Kristen Wiig and frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo co-lead as Barb & Star, a pair of middle-age, Midwest besties whose co-dependent life together has hit a spiritual rut.  In search of a “soul douche” meant to rediscover their inner “shimmer”, the gals head off to the gift shop-lined beaches of Florida.  There, they learn to have fun without hanging onto each other 24/7, thanks to the help of a sexy himbo staying in the same hotel (Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan) and an exponentially out-of-place terrorist plot orchestrated by a James Bond villain (also played by Wiig).  It’s a delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore, where a pair of Good Buds bounce inane in-jokes off each other, unaware of the deadly-serious crisis that orbits around them.  I’m thinking of titles like Zoolander, A Night at the Roxbury, Dude Where’s My Car?, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Re-Union Like all those previous examples of its ilk, it’s destined to gradually build a cult audience, one that will likely outlast the cultural impact of Wiig & Mumolo’s previous, more commercially successful screenplay collaboration, Bridesmaids.

If I have one complaint about Barb and Star, it’s that it’s one song performance short of being a full-blown musical.  Why stop at two break-from-reality musical numbers?  A third one would have really rounded out the show, especially a grand musical blowout finale.  And no, Richard Cheese’s cameo as a boobies-obsessed lounge singer does not count.  Otherwise, it’s a perfect, traditional buddy comedy – one bolstered by its excessively Floridian set design, which strives to outdo The Birdcage‘s commitment to that pleasure realm aesthetic in every new locale.  This might even be the best vehicle yet for the normcore-parody comedic sensibilities Wiig honed on SNL, considering that most of her film work since that show has been focused on darkly funny indie dramas (give or take a MacGruber).  Any minor complaints about where it falls short in its musicality or narrative structure are entirely besides the point.  It’s simply fun.  Or, in the movie’s own words, it’s “a real tit-flapper”.

-Brandon Ledet

Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)

If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max.  Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.”  In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair.  In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary.  The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure.  It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers.  That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge.  There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.

Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch.  We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom.  Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice.  It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence.  Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera.  Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks.  It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.

Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto JubileePepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life.  Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated.  Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same.  Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them.  The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks.  Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street.  And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline.  It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.

I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise.  I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile.  You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”.  Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach.  The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget.  Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop.  Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.”  If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.

-Brandon Ledet