June 30, 2013 [Husbands, Pineapple Express, The Heat]

I'm sorry I missed This Is the End last month—no, really I am. Pineapple Express made me laugh, still does—in large part because of its home-made feeling, as though the players have known each other for years—and for all I know maybe they have; in any case, it was as if an elaborate home movie had been found, something kids would do in their backyard—because it was juvenile and slapdash, but persistent in its efforts to make everyone comfortable with foolish fun. Most important, it felt improvised—but not lazy, the great danger of such freedom as cameras roll. And maybe a worse danger: not being funny, which Pineapple Express avoided because the actors were so generous with each other, and did everything they could to stick it out together.

Not to make too big a fuss about it (when have I ever?) but this kind of picture, as raunchy and gross and stupid as it may be, brings me back to John Cassavetes' work, in particular Husbands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself method-improvising their way through a long post-funeral meander. I went on YouTube and reminded myself that I hadn't imagined it: the three of them really did go on The Dick Cavett Show and wreaked havoc, maybe drunk, certainly in their own altered counter-culture-Stooges state, wrestling and yelling and mugging and even driving Cavett off the set for a while. As I reflect on that moment in 1970, it reminds me that the '70s had a spark of hope as it tried to smash foolish idols and find new kinds of comedy and tragedy. The cynicism and egoism that came with such efforts was inevitable, but sometimes I can look past that to the childhood joy of breaking windows that decade so often encouraged.

Now, one could argue that Cassavetes & Co. were geniuses, so such cinematic horseplay achieved a certain height—or depth, whatever. But Pineapple Express (and, I suspect, This Is the End) has own inspired height/depth aspirations. I said they were generous to each other; well, they're also generous to us, inviting us in and palling around the dangerous curves of the ad lib and the unexpected.

We went to see The Heat and felt a similar centrifugal force—or maybe, as the observers, it was centripetal—then again, when we laughed we became a part of the movie, so maybe the force is centrifugal only when I laugh, or—oh, screw it: The Heat moved like Cassavetes and Seth Rogan and James Franco and the others back there spinning and flinging us around. Melissa McCarthy, even when the physics are wrong—as they were with Identity Thief earlier this year—still sends off sparks, mumbling asides like Popeye and riffing on every little thing. In The Heat she seems to have regained her footing—only to jump straight up, yanking along Sandra Bullock, the two of them unashamed and even eager, like those guys in their ultra-R-rated bromances, to cast off all dignity in order to find something funny.

And one thought more: Sandra Bullock, the postmodern Lucille Ball, emerges in The Heat as one of the most generous actors I've seen. She lets McCarthy flop around like a fish (or pummel like a jackhammer) and keeps right up—and not merely by exercising her own freakout (although by the end the plot requires her personality to be McCarthy-ized); no, she accepts her straight woman role and finds its own awkward-embarrassed slapstick. McCarthy's sneering at Bullock's pajamas is masterful: she misunderstands the garment, then covers by mocking it, imagining a surreal bed-tuxedo, overstepping a little, as she often does—but here it works, because all Bullock has to do is wear the darn pajamas and let McCarthy put her foot in her mouth and mutter insults around it.  I won't hesitate to say that at these moments Bullock's touch is light and precise—again, allowing McCarthy's outrages to work.

Well, back to the '70s one more time: All these post-millennial comedies owe more to National Lampoon than to Porky's: the former peeps and giggles at girls, while the latter, both as a magazine and the force behind Animal House and Vacation, wanted to free the actors—especially John Belushi and Chevy Chase—so they could tear down the walls of propriety in their own way, which seems filled with a kind of joy, even if by the end all your idols are smashed.


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