Junior (1994)

There’s no question that in the very limited subgenre of Ivan Reitman comedies where Arnold Schwarzenegger is teamed with Danny DeVito in a mismatched comedy duo, Twins is the crown jewel. Where does that leave its only competition, though? Much like how Twins finds it endlessly hilarious that Schwarzenegger is large & DeVito is small, the follow-up to that pairing, Junior, is tickled by the idea of the smaller actor getting the larger one pregnant. That’s not an idea that necessarily generates brilliant comedy on a joke to joke basis, but it does lead to very pressing questions like How?, Why?, and Wait What? that could never be fully answered by a single motion picture. Reitman & company were so amused by the idea of a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger that they never stopped to consider the reasoning or the implications behind the unholy creation, leading to an oddly tame studio comedy with an absurdly bizarre basic premise that’s made all the more jarring by the fact that it’s not fully explored. Twins is the funnier, more successful Schwarzenegger/DeVito comedy in Reitman’s catalog, but Junior is clearly the strangest.

Schwarzenegger begins Junior as a caricature of a meat-head supernerd near-identical to the one he played in Twins. The only difference is that this nerd is uptight, a cynical academic who’s nervous around the children & social obligations he encounters through his career in fertility research. As his foil, DeVito is also similar to the chauvanistic snake oil salesman he plays in Twins, except this time he works in the field of gynecology. In the name of saving their collaborative research project from having its university funding pulled (or some other such contrivance), the two goofs make the rash decision to experiment on themselves to prove their very sciency science serum is effective in increasing fertility. This leads to Arnold being impregnated with an egg stolen from a fellow researcher’s (and eventual love interest’s) competing project, fertilized by his own sperm. Their experiment is never supposed to continue past the first trimester, but Schwarzenegger’s shifting hormones convince him to carry the child full-time, against all logic & good taste. We watch in amusement/horror as pregnancy slowly opens his cold, dead heart to life’s simple joys and he finds true love with the researcher (a befuddled, Nutty Professor-mode Emma Thompson) whose egg he hijacked without consent. It’s all very conventional in a textbook romcom sense, except for the obvious deviation from that model in having the film’s emotional work carried on the back of a male, pregnant bodybuilder.

The strangest aspect of Junior is not the presence of a visibly pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the general absence of traditional jokes. Besides the absurdity of its premise and a couple stray jabs of gay panic humor, the film does little to reach for moments of over the top comedy. What’s left, then, is the uneasy feeling of watching DeVito & Schwarzenegger gestate a baby, which feels subversively bizarre only in the way it’s mostly played straight. DeVito compliments Schwarzenegger’s sperm in a flat, matter of fact tone, remarking “Strong swimmers. Big load. Way to go.” He penetrates Schwarzenegger’s abdominal wall to impregnate him with a giant needle, with little attention paid to how he will carry a baby without the help of a womb or umbilical cord. Schwarzenegger’s struggles with morning sickness, nipple soreness, and hormone-induced horniness are only amusing because of the physical presence of the actor conveying them. Besides a third act drag routine at an expectant mothers’ retreat or his action movie one-liner delivery of “My body, my choice,” there aren’t many comedic touches to his presence in the film. In fact, in a nightmare sequence where his face is superimposed over a screaming baby’s, a brief moment of mid-90s CGI, he can even be outright terrifying.

Junior‘s one joke begins & ends with its basic premise: Danny DeVito gets Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant. There’s something perverse about playing that premise straight instead of reaching for a laugh-a-minute giggle fest, but the fact of the matter is that the film’s main attraction is the absurdity of its own existence. If you want to see DeVito & Schwarzenegger bounce off one another as a top of their game comedy duo, watch Twins. Junior should be reserved for when you want something other than humor: unease, confusion, and (in the case of the CG Arnold baby) horror. The film feels like Reitman somehow got away with a longform prank on pop culture at large. I’m sure he was tickled with the results, but he rest of us can hope to muster stunned awe.

-Brandon Ledet

Twins (1988)

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fourstar

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Comedic director Ivan Reitman is perhaps best known for his 80s trinity of goofball collaborations with sad sack enigma Bill Murray: Meatballs, Stripes, and (if the piss babies who light up internet message boards are to be believed) the most beloved comedy of all time, Ghostbusters. What’s funny to me is that Reitman has collaborated on just as many comedic properties with an entirely different type of 1980s personality: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first three Schwarzenegger films that could comfortably be considered straight-forward comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and Twins) were all helmed by Reitman. It’s a director-actor collaboration that may not have inspired much critical praise in its time, but did help steer & reshape Arnold’s career into the more kid-friendly (yet still violent) territory of titles like The Last Action Hero & T2: Judgement Day that inspired many lifetime fans of the Austrian galoot’s oddly affable screen presence (myself included). The first of these collaborations, 1988’s Twins, was a movie that had somehow slipped by me until now and I feel forever foolish for living so much of my life without it. I should have grown up with this Arnold-Reitman classic as a youngster. I really liked it as an adult, but I would’ve loved it as a scamp.

Twins’s living cartoon narrative is blatantly written around its improbable casting. The film is strange, modern fairy tale that starts once upon a time in a science lab where six successful, elite men (athletes, professors, the like) and one beautiful woman donate their reproductive faculties to an experiment meant to create the world’s finest human specimen. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays the result of that experiment (duh), the buffoonish supergenius Julius Benedict, who’s just as inhumanly strong & intelligent as he is devoid of common sense. The unintended side effect of the experiment and, naturally, Julius’s twin, is Vincent Benedict, a weird little sex magnet sleazeball played with pitch perfect hubris by Danny DeVito. Ignoring the “master race” Nazi ideal implications of this comedic setup, the casting of Schwarzenegger & DeVito in their respective roles as “the most fully developed human the world has ever seen” & “the crap that was left over” is pure, inspired genius, a dynamic that never stops being amusing over the film’s entire runtime. Twins finds particular delight in contrasting the two strangely loveable actors’ wildly disparate statures by dressing them in matching outfits & having them synchronize their movements in simple tasks like eating breakfast & washing their hands. It’s what the WWE refers to as “twin magic.” Not satisfied with hammering the point home in this endlessly repeated gag, the entire joke is capped off with the concluding punchline, “I just can’t get over how alike they are!” just before the end credits. It’s all wonderfully silly & relentlessly good-natured (except maybe for some stray Adventures in Babysitting-type indulgences in Reagan Era fears of the big city).

Twins ostensibly knows that the inherent silliness of its comedic setup doesn’t leave much room for small concerns like plot or character development, but instead of avoiding those storytelling requirements it doubles down & attempts to tackle them head on. There’s no less than four plots at work in Twins: one in which the titular duo embark on a cross-country road trip to meet their estranged parents; one where Vincent teaches Julian the value of street smarts & Julius returns the favor with the value of familial love; one where both brothers become romantic targets for women who find their respective physicalities irresistible; and one where they’re, no joke, hunted down by a mafia hitman from whom they unwittingly steal precious, illegal cargo. As if that all weren’t overwhelming enough, the film also attempts to have a lot to say about the nature vs nurture conundrum as well as the effect privilege has on someone’s life trajectory (the well-adjusted Julius was raised by a wealthy scientist; the slimeball Vincent was abandoned at an orphanage). It’s as if Twins knew its premise couldn’t possibly sustain any kind of worthwhile narrative or emotional investment, so it intentionally ate up its own runtime with an nonstop barrage of subplots & asides to hang its Schwarzenegger big/DeVito small visual gags off of. Whether or not this formula was intentional, it’s entirely successful and by the time it faces a climax at the same vague industrial complex all 80s films seem to end at, the whole thing feels remarkably silly & delightfully convoluted.

I’ve been doing my best in recent years to establish my own personal tradition of watching an annual Schwarzenegger film on my birthday, which is how I ended up watching Twins for the first time at the ripe age of 30. As an Arnold showcase, the film did not disappoint (no offense meant to DeVito, who was perfectly amusing as the con artist straight man). Casting the typically meathead-typecast Schwarzenegger as a supergenius was, uh, super genius enough on its own, but the film goes a step further by robbing him of common sense due to an extremely sheltered childhood, so that he’s some kind of an oxymoronic genius-idiot. This leads to a bottomless wealth of classic Schwarzenegger comedy bits, some as simple as watching him eat ice cream, pose with a Rambo poster, or misunderstand idioms in lines like, “Thank you for the cookies. I’m looking forward to tossing them.” The film even works in a reading of his classic Terminator line “I’ll be back,” because of course it does. Arnold’s consistently wonderful screen presence makes Julius an impossibly endearing goof, especially in moments when he butchers the Coasters song “Yakety Yak” in his incredibly thick Austrian accent or when he doesn’t recognize that he’s being shamelessly hit on by a ready-to-pounce Kelly Preston or robbed by violent street toughs. Julius will even go as far as apologizing when said robbery doesn’t go well, explaining of a fallen reprobate who fails to nab his briefcase, “I did nothing. Pavement was his enemy.”

Arnold had already halfheartedly tried his hand at comedy in his narrative film debut Hercules in New York, but that work is more unintentionally funny than anything & uses the bodybuilder exclusively for the size of his pecs, not his impeccable sense of comedic timing. Twins is where Schwarzenegger truly found his comedic voice and it arrived in a perfect moment for him to bounce that voice off his mismatched twin DeVito & a hilariously dated onslaught of cheesy 80s fashion & pop music trash. It seems that this good will won’t be forever buried in the oversized suit jackets & greasy ponytails of the past either. Just as Paul Feig was allowed to “ruin” childhoods in his recent remake of Ivan Reitman’s crown jewel, Ghostbusters, Reitman himself is attempting to revive the Twins property for a modern audience in an announced, decades-late sequel titled Triplets. The premise of Triplets would bring back Schwarzenegger & DeVito as Julius & Vincent, bowling them over with the discovery that they actually share a birthday with a third brother/wombmate, played by none other than Eddie Murphy. It’s a plot twist that makes absolutely no goddamn sense for so, so many reasons, but that didn’t stop the original Twins from being thoroughly delightful & I’m more than ready for Arnold to make a comeback to his comedy career, so I say bring it on. As long as the film ends with the line “I just can’t get over how alike they are,” I’m sure I’ll be happy.

-Brandon Ledet

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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threehalfstar

I was more than a little weary about venturing out to see Todd Solondz’s latest pitch black provocation, the ensemble cast “comedy” Wiener-Dog, last weekend. I hadn’t seen a Solondz flick since 2001’s mostly-forgettable anthology piece Storytelling and I’m a lot less cynical than I was in my college days when I would have listed Happiness as one of my all-time favorite films. I was right to worry too, not because Wiener-Dog is necessarily bad or mediocre Solondz, but because it’s very much steeped in the niche he’s carved out for himself as a storyteller. The writer-director works the absurdist cruelty that made him something of an indie scene name in the 90s with titles like Happiness & Welcome to the Dollhouse into the everything-is-connected (and equally hopeless) anthology structure of Storytelling, constructing an amusingly odd & deeply painful existential crisis that is unmistakably his own style & tone. What’s most interesting here, though, is how much of Solondz’s own personality is displayed & dissected onscreen. The director not only stubbornly recommits to the bleak trajectory of his life’s work; he also steps back to question why he would make such pointless, nihilistic art in the first place. Solondz coldly asks the audience what is the point of anything at all, but is smart to include his own art & existence in that query. The answer is far from concrete, but it’s haunting in its abstraction.

In a basic, structural sense Wiener-Dog is a road trip tour through Todd Solondz’s America. Similar to the black comedy Baxter, the film follows its titular dog, a dachshund, as it changes ownership though various tragedies & betrayals, providing a window into the dreary homes & familial structures that typify a nation Solondz finds . . . distasteful. A young cancer survivor (whose visage playfully cribs from the Linklater landmark Boyhood) falls in love with the dog as his first pet; an old woman tenderly cares for it as her last. A vet tech takes the pup on a road trip; a lonely college professor contains it in his tiny office & apartment. Every owner the dachshund encounters is vulnerable & alone in a cruel world eager to punish them for any display of open-hearted earnestness. Together, they form an American patchwork that paints the country as “lonely”, “sad”, “depressing”, “like an elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” Solondz’s America is brimming with strip clubs, alcoholism, superhero movies, hipster irony, mental disability, misogynistic video games, heroin, diarrhea, and a beyond-broken economy. People lie, threaten, and manipulate each other in a never-ending cycle of cruelty and the folks who suffer the most damage from that time-honored American tradition are the ones most capable of empathy & selflessness. The one exception might be Solondz’s surrogate, a frustrated film school professor who can’t overcome his own bitterness, lest you think the director himself wasn’t also complicit in that cycle. It’s dark stuff.

So, where does the innocent wiener-dog fit in all of this? As Danny DeVito’s bitter film professor/Solondz surrogate puts it, “You need a schtick. Everyone loves a little schtick.” If in Solondz’s America the earnest & the eager are the most harshly & frequently punished, a dog is the best possible manifestation of that concept, since all the little pups of the world really want to do is please us & be loved. Watching the wiener-dog ride skateboard or wear a cute costume is a great way to grab an audience’s attention & force them to focus on something uncomfortable, a gimmick Solondz pulls off openly & deliberately. During an old-fashioned intermission our canine talisman is represented as a larger than life, fiercely American tall tale with her own theme song, a moment that reinforces the empty artificiality of filmmaking as an art. After this break, the dog’s ownership changes hands without explanation, moving away from the linear storytelling of the first half & becoming an explicit plot device (quite literally in one particular moment of workplace terrorism, yet another American pastime). Solondz gets bored of his own structural schtick & begins to point his cinematic weaponry back at himself, asking questions like, “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” and addressing criticisms of his work like, “The general consensus is that you’re too negative.” By the last shot the dog doesn’t matter at all and is reduced to the most meaningless of abstract art piece reflections on the mundanity of existence & mortality. It wags its tail & barks, but that action signifies nothing.

It’s difficult to figure out how to sell Todd Solondz’s films, which tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between comedy & tragedy that’s more likely to make you squirm than laugh or cry (despite what their oddly generic trailers indicate). Wiener-Dog seems to be a self-examination piece on the cruel stage play absurdity & ultimate pointlessness of that art/schtick’s place in this world and, more specifically, its function within a spiritually drained, soulless America. Just as I questioned what significance a modern Solondz work could possibly hold in my life, the director himself seems equally eager to prod at that conundrum in the context of life at large. There are some great performances along the way (DeVito, playwright Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burnstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig in an all-growed-up Welcome to the Dollhouse role), that might each have served as a worthwhile character study in an indie dramedy had Solondz followed through on any particular full-length narrative, but the director doesn’t seem to think telling these stories from front to end is worthwhile. Exhausted with the soulless journeymen efforts of “What if? Then what?” screenplay writing, he instead reflects on an artform & a nation that he feels have failed us all. You can see that despair plainly in a tender, delicate pan over an endless display of canine diarrhea.  Solondz displays the skills required to deliver a great film were he interested, but the exercise seems increasingly empty to him. Watching him mull over that emptiness and the great, hopeless expanse of the country & mortality that contain it is largely what makes Wiener-Dog fascinating, if not soul-crushingly depressing, which is par for the course in the context of Solondz’s catalog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that kind of dispirited existential crisis & self-examination sounds at all palatable to your tastes for an evening’s entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet