Comedy of the subversive

Nothing better illustrates the contrast between indie comedies and the standard comic studio fare than a scene late in David O. Russell’s whimsically catty “Flirting With Disaster,” when Patricia Arquette’s Nancy — now at a low point in her marriage to Ben Stiller’s Mel — has her armpit licked by Josh Brolin’s Tony.

“I originally wrote the scene so Nancy was making out with Tony,” says Russell, “but that’s the usual kind of scene. We really labored over that moment. I wanted it to have the effect of subverting our expectations.”

Which, according to indie filmmakers who have opted for the often treacherous waters of comedy, is perhaps the central value of the non-studio film. Bucking the expected formula is especially difficult in comedy, since the twin juggernauts of TV sitcoms and bigger budget, hyperactive “dumb” movies threaten to squeeze the subtler, character-based comedies right out of the marketplace.

Bucking formula risky

Take, for example, Alexander Payne’s superbly observed satire, “Citizen Ruth,” which, despite Laura Dern’s star power and the marketing clout of Miramax, sank virtually without a trace after its Christmas opening. And despite the built-in cult following of “This Is Spinal Tap,” Christopher Guest’s mockumentary followup, “Waiting for Guffman,” is being handled gingerly by distributor Sony Pictures Classics, with limited runs in such specialized art venues as the Nuart in West Los Angeles.

Notably, Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” is the only bona fide American indie comedy on view at the Berlin Film Festival, typically an annual haven for a broad swathe of indie titles.

Even comics working inside the studio system, such as Jim Carrey, may be doubly shy of reaching for a darker, less mainstream style after the box office disappointment of “The Cable Guy.”

Typically, though, writer-director Smith believes “The Cable Guy” is just the kind of comedy studios should be attempting: “Carrey was violating his sacrosanct position in comedy, and I thought what he did with that movie was very ballsy. But ‘ballsy’ isn’t what studios want.”

Rebels with a cause

Thus, the comic rebels persist, each with a distinct personality and approach, suggesting as eclectic a variety of American film comedy as has existed since the heyday of Mike Nichols, Milos Forman and Woody Allen in the 1970s.

“That may be,” says Russell, “but if you look at most of the comedies out there, they’re so broad they’re about nothing. Which is why a Woody Allen, by contrast, retains his strength.”

Although Guest’s favored style of mockumentary and improv is a far leap from Smith’s verbal gyrations among randy twentysomethings, or Russell’s neurosis-tinged stories, or Payne’s political satire, their work collectively taps into various elements of the American zeitgeist and is armed with topicality and points of view that defy a mass-marketing approach.

“What I do is just naturally a tough sell,” says Smith, whose “Chasing Amy” depicts the stormy, unlikely love affair between two comic book artists — with the twist that he is straight, while she is lesbian, but falls in love with him anyway. “The studios don’t know what to do with my stuff.”

Russell chuckles recalling how he tried selling his first film, “Spanking the Monkey,” to studios: “I absurdly thought they would buy this script about a son who ends up making love to his mother. And then, after Miramax picked up ‘Flirting’ and did really well with it, all the studios began to put their own ‘Flirting’-type movie into the pipeline. I met (Paramount chief) Sherry Lansing after it came out, and she was saying how she would have made this movie in a second, but I told her that Paramount passed on it. She was a bit flummoxed for a minute.”

Flawed, sometimes ugly heroes

Precisely what gives the best indie comedies their human accent — flawed, even slightly unlikable central characters — is what a filmmaker like Payne finds separates the indies from the studios. “My co-writer Jim Taylor and I kept hearing from executives about ‘Citizen Ruth,’ ‘You have such an unsympathetic protagonist.’ They said it like a mantra. It’s like making movies under Communism, because the studios impose a certain ideology that you must follow, especially in comedy.”

Payne’s Ruth is pure trailer trash, a loser who sniffs glue even when she’s pregnant, totally incapable of getting control of her life, and as Payne terms her, “a picaresque character who’s a weasel, going from adventure to adventure, putting one over on people. She does venal things, but she can’t help it.” And the comic trick of “Ruth” is that we end up liking her anyway, since the pro-choice and anti-abortion activists who use her to prop up their own causes are even more despicable.

“I’m not delivering a message either for or against abortion here, because the comedy is elsewhere — it’s directed at people’s endless ability to be fanatical and selfish,” says Payne, which he reckons explains why a few critics refer to him as a misanthrope. “I’m happy to make a funny and accessible movie, but if it were devoid of the anger I feel inside, then I wouldn’t be satisfied.”

Guest’s group of small-town amateurs in “Waiting For Guffman” might be viewed as even lower on the scale than fanatics and hypocrites — they’re pathetic, believing that their paltry musical tribute to their hometown of Blaine, Mo., will actually go to Broadway. Like the fictional metal group Spinal Tap, the troupe’s total clumsiness is charming and winning, echoing what Guest calls “a larger idea than just this group of little people in a little town. It’s not about offending hicks in the sticks, but seeing how it’s human nature to want to be a star. I mean, if a group of professional actors see Martin Scorsese walking in the room, they go crazy, too.”

Guest’s longtime friendship with Castle Rock co-founder Rob Reiner (director of “Spinal Tap”) saved him the chore of shopping for funding for the approximately $2 million-budgeted “Guffman.” Reiner understood Guest’s strategy on “Guffman,” which was to further develop the “Spinal Tap” style of combining mockumentary filming with acting improvisation based on a loose yet outlined script.

“I simply told Rob the idea, and he immediately said ‘Go make the movie.’ Besides, there would simply be no discussion with studios about this movie. I would have nothing to say to them, and they would have nothing to say to me. People have been under the misperception that because ‘Spinal Tap’ was this cult hit, it opened doors. But if you brought the ‘Spinal Tap’ idea to studios today, they’d say ‘Where’s the three-act script? Get out of here.’ ”

The studio dance

Ironically, Guest has just finished directing “Edwards and Hunt: The First American Road Trip” for Turner Pictures, starring comedy mainstreamers Chris Farley and Matthew Perry. “It’s what you might call a ‘normal comedy,’ but it has my sensibility. I’m not going to start, though, making movie after movie after movie, like studio directors do.”

Smith has already had his taste of studio directing, with his second movie — and first flop — Universal’s “Mallrats,” and he says now that it may have been viewed as a disaster, “but it actually was liberating. I would wish a flop on everybody, because you feel afterwards like you have nothing to lose.”

His entry into indie cultdom, “Clerks,” was so cherished that he was included as a running commentator in John Pierson’s book on the indie scene, “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes.” (Smith returns the favor by having actress Joey Lauren Adams, as lesbian Alyssa, wear a button touting the book in “Chasing Amy.”).

“I had things in ‘Clerks’ I wanted to say about growing up in the Tri-City area of central New Jersey,” says Smith, “but my idea to get money for more movies was to say that it was part of a trilogy, which was actually horseshit at the time. With ‘Mallrats,’ I just wanted to make the kind of kids-lost-in-a-mall, John Landis-type comedy I grew up watching in the ’80s. I mean, I wore the studio label like a badge of honor, but I got crucified for it.”

Smith felt such heat from the perceived sell-out of “Mallrats” in the indie community that he made a public — and fairly tongue-in-cheek — apology at last year’s Independent Spirit Awards. By contrast, the recent Sundance screening of “Chasing Amy” received a standing ovation.

“Now it’s ‘Oh, Smith redeemed himself.’ I don’t feel like I’ve redeemed myself. I feel vindicated, after people wrote me off.”

Return to indie roots

The sexually charged, adult, emotional material of “Amy” — which shifts for the first time in Smith’s generally lighthearted movies into drama — is deliberately designed to confound expectations, he says. “It’s easier to be daring in comedy — dare, in the case of ‘Amy’ to maybe really piss off some people — and crash and burn, but as you fall, you fall into a pillow. And the pillow is humor.”

While Smith can never envision himself straying far from comedies or indie producers like Miramax, Russell says he is “burned out on neurotic comedies,” and is instead readying a movie for Warners about a heist set in the aftermath of the Gulf War. And, after that, a period drama. “I was offered — and turned down — a lot, and I mean a lot, of money to do another neurotic family comedy. It’s important especially for independent filmmakers to resist typecasting.”

Payne, who is also readying another politically tinged satire, “Campaign,” under development at Paramount, feels optimistic “that studios can return to making character-based films, as they did in the ’70s. Things don’t stay the same forever, even in the studios, and there may be a shift going on. The Coens and Scorsese are studio filmmakers in the classic sense, so it’s kind of hard to totally trash the studios.”

“Actually,” counters Guest, “it may be worse now (pitching studios on cutting-edge comedies) than it’s ever been, because of the conglomerate nature of the studios. They’re seduced by expensive projects, and it’s really sad, as if it’s a disgrace to make a movie for $2 million.”

The increasing production pipeline for the indies, however, has filmmakers like Russell worried. “With comedy in particular, it is so important to have the script nailed before you go into production. Probably the worst thing going on with the studios is how they rush scripts into production. But I’m afraid the same thing is starting to happen in the independent film world.”

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