Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Lemon (2017)

It’s been well over a decade of overgrown man-children running the show in mainstream comedies, thanks to the improv-heavy landscape sparked by the Judd Apatow crew, and it feels like that aesthetic has now officially spoiled in the public eye (likely because we have now have an overgrown man-child as President). Brett Gelman’s lead role in the grotesque character study Lemon is maybe the curdled the subversion of that trope we need in our lives right now. Selfish, depressive, pretentious about the art of theatre, socially inept, and prone to wetting the bed like a toddler, Gelman’s lead in Lemon is the culmination of the deeply upsetting, aggressively pathetic character work he’s been doing for years. The movie opens with him suffering a break-up with his longtime, blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), which would usually be played for sympathy in a typical modern man-child comedy. Instead, we can hardly blame her for leaving his dysfunctional, narcissistic ass, something that only becomes truer with time as you get to know him better. More disturbing yet, the movie expands its scope to reveal that Los Angeles is full of dysfunctional man-children just like him. He’s pretty much the norm.

To the protagonist’s credit, he at least supports himself financially through regular work. Between acting gigs advertising STD awareness & adult diaper brands, he teaches drama in a black box theater classroom, a space he mostly uses to express his jealous anger over his younger, more successful students. Most of his career envy is focused on a hot shot thespian played by Michael Cera (who looks like he’s secretly auditioning for a Gene Wilder biopic in the role), a relationship that often turns violent under its falsely cordial surface. This professional envy is even more grotesque in how it shows itself in his treatment of Gillian Jacobs’s theatre student, whom he shuts down, cuts off, ignores, and flat out berates in a way he never does with her male classmates. This toxic attitude towards women extends to how he idolizes his past, youthful romances in New York City and how he awkwardly proceeds to date future romantic prospects. It’s all one big, ugly state of juvenile angst that only gets uglier as you learn how it fits in with the similar shortcomings of his family & LA as a larger community.

It takes a moment to get into the stage play rhythms of Lemon’s dialogue, which can be as cruel & cold as anything you’d find in a Solondz or Lanthimos joint. Director Janicza Bravo, who has an extensive background as a costume designer, keeps the film consistently intense as a visual piece, elevating a (deliberately) pedestrian story with the intense lighting & near-artificial environments of a photo shoot. Bravo’s version of LA is just as beautifully curated as it is terrifyingly cruel, a point that’s driven home at a deeply tense Passover Seder I can comfortably call one of the most memorably nightmarish scenes of the year. As collaborators on the script, she & Gellman have skewered the modern comedy man-child trope so thoroughly that their film reads like an indictment of Los Angles as a city & an industry at large. It’s like a much easier to stomach version of the Neil Hamburger vehicle Entertainment in that way, lambasting all sides of the modern narcissistic entertainer’s existential emptiness, whether they’re a juvenile comedian hack or as self-serious thespian. It’s a harshly acidic, visually impressive picture that takes no emotional prisoners in its stage play cruelty & social criticism, cutting much deeper than you might first expect from Gelman’s Greasy Strangler-level awkwardness.

-Brandon Ledet

Cursed (2005)

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fourstar

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Full disclosure: I had pretty much completely given up on being open-minded about anything Wes Craven had directed post-Scream. Despite a deep love & appreciation for the meta horror of both Scream & New Nightmare and the childlike loopiness of The People Under the Stairs, I just never bothered to venture into Craven’s career post-1996. I think this may have been a combined problem of not wanting to risk ruining the good vibes I got from Scream with what could be diminished returns (and nu metal vibes) in its three sequels & associating his name too closely with dire production credits like Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster & Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000. Despite hearing good things about the in-flight thriller Red Eye, my entry point for post-Scream Craven wound up being the 2005 werewolf horror comedy Cursed. It turns out my concerns were mostly unfounded. Craven had certainly veered to a much lighter tone in this outing than the hard-to-stomach horror of early films like Last House on the Left & The Hills Have Eyes (thank God) & some of the film’s early 2000s CGI has aged a tad poorly, but for the most part Cursed is a genuinely entertaining creature feature with a pleasant tonal balance between humor & violence. Cursed is, in a simple phrase, good, dumb fun. That’s all I can ask for from any director, honestly, so now I’m deeply curious about what other late-career Craven gems I may have overlooked.

Part of what frees Cursed from feeling like a run-of-the-mill werewolf picture is that it spreads its story so thin across so many different creatures that it feels more like a pastiche than a direct genre film. A typical werewolf movie will follow the gradual transformation of one painfully conflicted protagonist/antagonist as they discover the world of werewolfdom. Cursed, on the other hand, gets greedy and follows the monster movie mayhem of at least four different wolves. It at first teases itself to be a classic predatory-wolf-terrorizes-a-local-population (Los Angeles, in this case) story, but then that wolf ends up infecting several other innocents. These leaves room for a proto-Twilight supernatural romance, a beastly catfight centered on petty jealousies, and (most amusingly of all) an unofficial Teen Wolf III situation where an unpopular student uses his werewolf abilities to excel at high school wrestling (as opposed to the basketball & boxing victories of the first two Teen Wolves). Just in case you might mistakenly assume that this all-inclusive tour of werewolves past were at all accidental, the film makes room for a wax museum version of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man character to make a posthumous cameo. Cursed is well versed in its lycanthropic history & it wants you to know it.

At first it’s difficult to tell for sure if Cursed is asking to be taken seriously or if it wants to play as a horror comedy. Its monster movie mayhem is never gore-obsessed, but it can be gruesome at times, especially in an early scene involving victims trapped in an overturned car. When about a third of the way into the picture the aforementioned teen wolf is testing out his newfound abilities by howling at the moon with a pack of stray dogs, however, it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to operating within a certain sense of morbid humor. Much like its sleek-goth look, the film’s comedic/horrific tone calls back to late 90s titles like The Faculty, Idle Hands, and (duh) Ginger Snaps in a way that manages to feel way more charming than outdated. When our howling teen wolf is caught googling lycanthropes, his sister jokes, “Why can’t you just download porn like other teenage boys?” Later, another woman muses “There’s no such thing as safe sex with a werewolf.” By the time the film stages its climax at a strange nightclub/event hall hybrid that doubles as a haunted house with funhouse mirrors and a wax figurine “Diva Room” for statues of folks like Madonna, Cher, and Xena: Warrior Princess, the film proves itself to be an enjoyably silly, bloodsoaked work of deadpan horror comedy.

What personally struck me most while watching Cursed was its ludicrously stacked cast of welcome faces. Joining the always-delightful Christina Ricci were forgotten early 00s personalities like Dawson Creek‘s Joshua Jackson, Gilmore Girls‘ Milo Ventimiglia, Mya, Craig Kilborn, and (briefly) Lance Bass. Before-his-time Jesse Eisenberg has a lot of fun with the howlin’/wrasslin’/werewolf-Googlin’ teen protagonist (although his straightened hair in the film was a huge stylistic mistake) and there are similar early glimpses of Nick Offerman in a bit role as well as three actors from Arrested Development: Scott Baoi (as himself), Portia de Rossi, and Judy Greer. If I had to single out a most valuable player here (besides maybe the down-for-whatever Eisenberg) it’d have to be Judy Greer. She rarely gets much of a chance to shine (see, for instance, her diminished role in Jurrassic World) and Cursed really allows her to run wild with an Ice Bitch role you can tell she had a lot of fun sinking her teeth into. I mean, she really chewed the scenery. Seriously, she ate up the compe . . . you get the picture.

I wouldn’t rank Cursed up there with Wes Craven’s best or anything like that, but I don’t think the director was aiming for that kind of accolade with this film anyway. Cursed finds Craven relaxed, having fun, and paying tribute to the monster movies he grew up loving. Throw in a time capsule cast & some classic werewolf puppetry/costuming from special effects master & John Landis collaborator Rick Baker (when the film isn’t indulging in ill-advised CGI) and you have a perfectly enjoyable midnight monster movie pastiche. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed a straight-forward Teen Wolf III high school wrestling picture in its place.

-Brandon Ledet

Grandma (2015)

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three star

Director Paul Weitz has a confusing list of credits. The only connection I can draw between his works (which include American Pie, About a Boy, Down to Earth, Little Fockers, and Being Flynn) is that they tend to be underwhelming films with phenomenal casts. There’s nothing particularly distinct about Weitz’s aesthetic or choice in projects, but he has had the good fortune of working with such diverse talents as Robert DeNiro, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Scarlett Johansson, Willem Dafoe, John C. Reilly, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, and the list goes on. Too bad few (if any) of his films have been worthy of the talent involved. It’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to the theater for Weitz’s latest picture, Grandma, based on the strength of its two leads alone. It’s also no surprise that the film was okay at best & survived solely on the strength of its lead performances & long list of cameos. If Weitz has a shtick or a calling card as a director, that reaction was pretty much par for the course.

Always dependable comedian Lily Tomlin plays Grandma‘s titular matriarch, a misanthropic lesbian poet who was “marginally well known 40 years ago”, but now suffers an over-the-hump slump of nonproductive self-deprecation in the wake of her longtime partner’s death. Saddled with the lingering debt of her deceased partner’s medical bills, Tomlin’s poet protagonist barely gets by on one-off gigs as a guest lecturer on college campuses. This perilous financial situation is strained even more by the unexpected appearance of her teenage granddaughter Sage (Electrick Children‘s Julia Garner), who only has a few hours to raise over 600 dollars for an appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. What results is a sort of Day in the Life roadtrip comedy-drama as Sage tags along on her miserly grandma’s attempts to hit up ghosts from her past for spare cash. Grandma not quite as funny or as transgressive as the multi-generational roadtrip debauchery-fest Tammy or the frank abortion comedy Obvious Child, but it is a mildly enjoyable picture that leaves room for welcome extended cameos from folks like Laverne Cox, Judy Greer, John Cho, and Sam Elliott, not to mention the killer lead performances from Tomlin & Garner.

When I say that the cast is what drew me to the theater for Grandma, what I really meant is that I wanted to see more from Julia Garner, who was absolutely stellar in Electrick Children, a film I loved enough at first sight to be the first title included in The Swampflix Canon. She’s honestly just as effective here, even if the quality of the material is far from comparable. Grandma is, of course, also a rare treat as a star-vehicle for Lily Tomlin, who hasn’t headlined a film in nearly three decades. Tomlin is funny enough in the titular role, but her character is a bit much to handle for long stretches of time, given her tendency to slip into curmudgeony rants about Kids These Days with their Googles & their Ebays & whatnots. In a telling exchange, Tomlin’s flower child poet is annoyed that her granddaughter has never heard of The Feminine Mystique, while Sage is equally annoyed that her grandma doesn’t know that Mystique is also an X-Men character. It’s not too hard to see who the film sides with there.

Worse yet are casual platitudes like, “I like being old. Young people are stupid,” “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?”, and the biting, career-specific insult, “You’re a footnote.” Tomlin’s protagonist is the first to admit that she’s “a horrible person”, but her constant attempts to be seen as a hip grandma (including her dragonfly tattoo, her old Dodge hotrod, casual marijuana use, and incongruous affinity for rap music), all downplay the heft of those statements. Although they’re given a lot less to do, most of the film’s pathos is conveyed through turns from Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, and Judy Greer, who help balance out Tomlin’s more jaded notes of emotional detachment, age-specific bitterness, and outdated feminism. Grandma is an enjoyable, modest film with its own interesting visual language (poetic in the dragonfly imagery, subtly funny in visual gags that include a polar bear painting & a toy Jeep) as well as an admirably casual/balanced approach to its themes of abortion & sexual autonomy. If you’re looking for a calm, pleasant picture with a rarely-seen featured performance from either Tomlin or Garner, Grandma is serviceable. As with everything else I’ve seen from Weitz, it’s a decent enough film with a stacked cast of actors that could probably do much better. I’m not sure that the film would pass The Gene Siskel Test (“Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”), but at the very least it’s a close call.

-Brandon Ledet