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

EPSON MFP image

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

twostar

“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet