Anti-heroes of various hues hit the multiplex this Easter weekend. Owen Wilson sneaks back into high school in Drillbit Taylor, another gene-splicing experiment on Hollywood formula from the Judd Apatow lab. Quebec’s Denys Arcand explores, and embraces, failure in Days of Darkness. And Gus Van Sant continues his low-fi romance with lovely, alienated youth in Paranoid Park. I haven’t seen the the Van Sant film since first screening it last May in Cannes, where it won a prize. To read what I thought about Paranoid Park at the time, click on Fellini Goes Skateboarding.
As for the the others. . .
Maybe it’s a trickle-down effect from the endless war, but kicking evil-doer butt seems to have turned into an all-ages event, now coming to a YouTube screen near you. Last week saw the release of Never Back Down, a high-school drama which fused Ultimate Fighting and March break madness. This week Drillbit Taylor offers a geeks-vs-bullies farce about two freshman kids terrorized by a couple of older, psychopathic student thugs. And, like Never Back Down, the action all comes down to an fight scene recorded by a mob with cellphone cameras. The Zeitgeist must be working overtime.
The novelty attraction here is Owen Wilson, making his first screen appearance since his suicide attempt—although this picture was filmed and wrapped long before that unhappy event. Wilson always plays the same character, the amiable imposter. After serving as a wedding crasher, and a home crasher (in You, Me and Dupree), this time he’s cast as a school crasher. As Drillbit Taylor, he’s a homeless bum who poses as a combat veteran, duping the nerds who have advertised for a professional bodyguard to fend off the bullies. And the story remains the same: the scam artist turns out to have a heart of gold
Spun off from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, Drillbit Taylor was produced by Apatow and co-written by B.C. bud Seth Rogen, who starred in Knocked-Up and co-wrote Superbad under Apatow’s tutelage. But teen comedy veteran John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club) has a story-writing credit (under pseudonym Edmond Dantes). It all adds up to quite the chemistry-class fusion of comic talent.
Rogen’s influence is palpable. One assumes he’s responsible for the bong-like dose of CanCon in the script (Drillbit is trying to scrape together enough money to go to “the Great White North” —“What about a British Columbian girl? Does that sound like pretty potent mix?”) And Drillbit Taylor looks a lot like Superbad Jr. Jonah Hill starred as a teen version of Rogen in Superbad, and here we get an even younger prototype of the curly-haired, overweight wiseguy in a kid named Ryan, played by Troy Gentile—who, incidentally, has twice portrayed Jack Black as a child (trivia for those of you writing theses on the fat-boy roots of frat-boy comedy).
As Ryan, a fledgling rapper who calls himself T-Dog, Gentile is paired with Nate Hartley, who plays Wade, a skinny, insecure geek with a dumb-jock step dad. Their enemy, incidentally, is played by Alex Frost, an actor who has a rather-too-convincing pedigree as a schoolyard psycho, having played a Columbine-type killer in (speak of the devil) Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
Drillbit Taylor is never plausible for a second, which is not supposed to matter, and the story sags in the middle like a slacker nodding off in class. But the movie muddles through on the strength of its gags and the charm of its actors.
And even if Owen Wilson is more a movie star than an actor —because he is always that same dude—he’s always uncannily convincing. Somehow he manages to be both likeable and credible in the most unsavoury and implausible situations. He tends to redeem cheap formula and turn it into gold just by showing up. I’m quite happy to watch him do just about anything.
But Drillbit Taylor, which is directed by Steven Brill (Without a Paddle), is the kind of movie you enjoy against your better judgement. It’s a shambling boys’ club of a comedy, with a couple of token females hovering around the edges—Wade has a crush on an Asian student who barely speaks and Drillbit hits on a gormless teacher (Leslie Mann).
Unlike the movies Apatow directs himself—such 41-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up—some of his other productions, like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, have a slapdash quality. They’re driven by gags, not character. And that’s the case here.
Days of Darkness (L’Âge des ténèbres)
It’s one of the most depressive, misanthropic films ever labelled a comedy. Yet its director, Denys Arcand, is one of most affable, good-natured artists you’d ever want to meet. He’s constantly joking and laughing, the kind of guy you’d like to share a glass of wine with and linger over lunch. Which is what a few of us in Cannes found ourselves doing last May at a restaurant on the beach. It was one of those perfect, sun-splashed Riviera days that made Cannes seem momentarily worthy of its myth. But dark clouds were alrealdy gathering over the film that Arcand was on hand to celebrate, even before its premiere as the festival’s closing night gala. After press screenings, critical response (mine included) was overwhelmingly negative. And there were damage-control rumblings that the movie would be re-cut before release. At the lunch, skirting around the bad buzz, I asked Arcand about how he came to make the film. A reprise of our conversation:
“It started when I gave one zillion interviews for The Barbarian Invasions and I was totally disgusted,” he said. “I couldn’t face another camera. For some bizarre reason I started to think, ‘Who would love to be in my shoes? Who would give his right arm to be doing what I’m doing?’ So I slowly built this character who has never been interviewed and would love to be interviewed and is totally lonely—his own children don’t talk to him.”
So the character, played by Quebec TV star Jean-Marc Leblanc is an antithesis of the director, but Arcand admits it’s also something of a self-portrait.
A telling detail in the film is the character’s wife—a workaholic real estate agent (the third top-ranking suburban real estate agent in Canada)
spends all her time on a cell phone and serves her husband frozen TV dinners. Arcand’s partner and producer, Denise Robert, is a workaholic famous for never being off her cell phone. I ask the director if there’s an element of his wife in the character. He laughs, unable to deny it, then says: “I refuse to answer this without a lawyer being present.”
Later Denise Robert comes sits down at the table. I ask her the same question, about seeing herself in the character of the workaholic real-estate agent.
“Ask the director, he’s the one who wrote it. I’m the one who inspired him.”
“I don’t think you’ll get anywhere with this,” says Arcand
“C’mon, be honest, Denys,” says his wife.
“I know it’s you totally, dear.”
“I’m the contrary of what she is. I cook meals.”
Laughter all around. Of course, they’re joking.
A few minutes later, Robert comes back the subject. “Referring to your question earlier on, the only true part is her going to Toronto and having an affair.”
“Ah, la femme qui parle!” More laughter.
* * *
Recently I had a chance to see Days of Darkness a second time. I couldn’t tell what had been cut, but my opinion of the film has not changed significantly. The film recycles some of Arcand’s pet themes but also breaks new ground. Although he calls it the third part of a trilogy with The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, this time his point of view isn’t dispersed among an ensemble cast. Instead, Arcand pulls his entire vision into the narrative vortex of a single character played by comedian Jean Marc Labreche—a bored civil servant trapped in a loveless marriage, who works in the concrete ruins of the Olympic stadium and lives in a suburban wasteland of cookie-cutter houses clad in angel-stone.
A Quebecois Walter Mitty, Arcand’s protagonist imagines being adored by a bevy of beautiful women and being honoured with prizes, accolades and power. He fantasizes that he wins the PQ leadership and receives France’s top literary award for a novel called A Man of No Interest. Much of the story unfolds as a scattershot satire, lashing out at myriad targets such as political correctness, Quebec’s language police, anti-smoking regulations, racial profiling, immigrant injustice, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the warehousing of the elderly, the idiocy of speed dating, and the absurdity of medieval reenactments. Nudged just slightly into the future, his Quebec is an Orwellian bazaar of alienation where the population goes to work and school wearing surgical masks to protect them from a SARS-like epidemic. It all adds up to a full-service rant. You get the sense that Arcand has thrown everything at the screen that was on his mind.
Unfortunately, despite its Fellini-esque scale, this misanthropic satire is not particularly funny. It’s too cerebral and too smug. The central character, and the only character we’re expected to care about, really does come across as a man of no importance, a sad petit-bourgeois with fantasies worthy of Playboy or American Idol.
But even if Days of Darkness is a failed movie about a failed man—and perhaps an unconscious self-portrait of the artist as a publicly funded bureaucrat with dreams beyond his means—there’s a deeply affecting personal film buried beneath the satirical dross.
Without giving too much away (and there’s really nothing to give away), the protagonist’s tortured odyssey eventually takes him away from the suburbs and the city, fleeing to the bucolic banks of the lower St. Lawrence River, where he finds some tranquility in its grey horizons.
Like Decline and Invasions, which also end at the water’s edge, this film sloughs off its satire in the third act to strike a chord of plangent melancholy, as a soul finds its reflection in nature. It’s a beautiful moment, reminding me that I’ve always preferred Arcand, the tragedian, to Arcand the satirist. And this particular scene struck me as a personal meditation on his own roots.
A few years ago, over another lunch (in a Montreal bistro), Arcand told me about his childhood growing up in a rural parish, the son of a river pilot who married a nun. As he told his story, it sounded like movie dying to be made, his own Mon Oncle Antoine. It’s the kind of personal tale that most directors would choose as their first feature — a romance between a river pilot and a convent girl who see the world change through the eyes of their children. Arcand told me he’d considered it. “I always thought it would be my last film,” he said, “like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.”
Why wait? Perhaps now that he’s got this urban darkness out of his system, he can finally give us the story that begins, not ends, by the water’s edge.