This weekend marks a showdown between two goofy Hollywood comedies about mild-mannered bozos endowed with extravagantly fake professional lives: Get Smart and The Love Guru. Aside from offering a choice between a spy who uses a shoe phone and a self-help pundit who glides around on a motorized hassock, these two movies present two distinct options: smart or dumb.
For a film derived from a vintage TV series, Get Smart is more original than you might expect, with a deft script and an elegant performance by Steve Carell. Mike Myers is no dummy. But in The Love Guru, as if sending up hockey and self-help is not enough, he smothers his wit with the kind of crude puns, penis jokes and toilet humour that became a staple of the Austin Powers franchise. Maybe he’s got his audience figured out. Who knows? If it worked before, maybe it will work again. But I’m beginning to wonder if a special restricted rating should be created for movies like this—preventing anyone over the age of 14 from attending.
Meanwhile, if you’re willing to venture beyond Hollywood, there’s a third comedy option this weekend that offers a far superior brand of hyperbole. My Winnipeg, an extraordinary feat of documentary delirium by Guy Maddin, is smarter and funnier than both other films combined. It’s a brilliant work of stunning originality.
Long before Austin Powers spoofed James Bond, there was Get Smart. I’m old enough to have fond memories of the TV series, from its original broadcast, not syndication. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry in 1965, it belonged to a wave of spy shows in the ’60s—along with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers—that either aped or mocked the James Bond fantasy, and gave TV viewers their first mainstream taste of quirky, post-modern style. Get Smart was a pure send-up. And despite a flimsy concept, what the series won our affection via the deadpan charm of the actors: Don Adams as the bumbling Maxwell Smart and Barbara Feldon as his foxy sidekick.
Recreating their oddball chemistry with new faces four decades later seems an unlikely proposition. But without being too derivative, Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway do a decent job of channeling the kooky spirit of Agents 86 and 99 while fleshing them out for the big screen in a contemporary setting. Carell’s precise, fine-tuned performance seems almost gyroscopically controlled. And Hathaway is a good foil, echoing Feldon’s sexy, feline composure in the original series.
Carell’s acting always tends to be more subtle and sophisticated than his material. He’s the new Steve Martin in a way, a comic actor who likes to underplay the jokes, guarding a reserve of intelligence that seems acutely present even when he’s doing pure physical pratfalls. There’s a hilarious scene of him trying to overhear a conversation in a men’s room by stopping and starting his urine flow—one of those simple but inspired gags that it makes you wonder why you haven’t seen it before.
But the film goes beyond the glib, post-modern wit of the original series. As a full-service summer blockbuster, it’s obliged to double as an action movie, and while the action scenes are bloodless they’re hard and heavy enough to feel genuinely violent. The movie also seems obliged to be a romantic comedy, so the deflective banter between Agents 86 and 99 gets pushed beyond zero-sum flirting to a blossoming of true love, which kind of violates the spirit of the spoof. Carell pulls it off, finessing a narrative arc that allows a romantic hero to emerge from the shell of the repressed klutz. But whenever Hathaway gets sincere and breaks out her big Julia Roberts smile, generic movie star charisma overwhelms the particular conceit of Agent 99, and the character collapses.
So there’s a bit of tonal problem with this bundled blockbuster. It’s a Transformer comedy that morphs from zany spoof to action movie to romantic comedy, in a transparent effort to please all the people some of the time. As it follows the money, it doesn’t seem to give a damn about dramatic (or comic) consistency. But at least it maintains a sense of style. It’s divinely art-directed and costumed. There’s a fabulous scene of Hathaway in a silver sheath of an evening gown slithering and vaulting through a maze of lethal red laser beams like an acrobatic sex bomb, followed by Carell, who makes a fine art of bumbling grace. It’s easy to settle in with these two likable actors, who are trimly offset by Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL and Terence Stamp as the villainous mastermind of KAOS. And fortunately the film’s blockbuster mandate doesn’t completely overwhelm the coy modesty of the property.
Director Peter Segal, who’s paid his dues working with Tom Arnold and Adam Sandler, makes sure the actors aren’t upstaged by the action. And the script, by TV writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember has some sharp edges. When it strays from the foundation of broad farce—with outré bits of dialogue about spider milk and dusty ovaries—it gets smarter not dumber.
The Love Guru
The opposite is true of Mike Myers latest vehicle. This movie has been a long time in gestation. As Myers explains in an interview with me in this week’s Maclean’s, the character of Guru Pitka originated at the same time as Austin Powers, after the death of father in 1991. And the two characters are akin in some ways. They’re both arrested adolescents, poseurs and naughty provocateurs. And both think there’s nothing funnier than a bad pun or a dirty double entendre.
But Guru Pitka is no Austin Powers. To begin with, behind the beard and the low, soothing voice, it’s much harder to locate the character. Austin Powers is a flat out parody of a ’60s Brit playboy from the un-hip side of Carnaby St., with allusions to James Bond and the narcissistic photographer in Blow Up. His flamboyance is infectious. Pitka is more conceptual notion—an American raised in an ashram who’s trying to achieve celebrity and break out of his rut as the world’s second best self-help guru. Like Austin Powers, Pitka is a character whose clearly meant to win over our love, not just our laughter. But frankly, this sleazy self-help merchant is a bit creepy, in a way that Austin isn’t. It doesn’t help that Myers seems torn between satirizing his self-help philosophy and preaching it.
The Austin Powers movies are spoofs that piggyback an entire genre (the James Bond spy formula), but The Love Guru is a grab bag of comedy that doesn’t have a genre to latch onto. I suppose you could say it’s a sports comedy, however it’s not enough of a sports comedy to milk the formula—one that Will Ferrell has made his own.
Myers has a habit of working with novice directors, and this is no exception. The Love Guru marks the feature debut of a some guy named Marco Schnabel, no to be confused with Julian Schnabel. One suspects that Myers, who is reputed to be a control freak, doesn’t want a director getting in his way, and there’s no danger of that here: the direction is so shabby it’s virtually non-existent.
The Love Guru has a few funny moments, and Canadians may appreciate the wealth of hockey references. Finally Myers gets to make a movie about his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s also some novelty in seeing an unrecognizable Justin Timberlake playing a massively endowed French Canadian goalie. But the gag-driven comedy soon wears thin. The script makes a fetish of bad taste—casting a dwarf (Verne Troyer of Austin Powers) as the Leafs’ coach only to ridicule his stature, and treat him like a human hockey puck. A crap-fest of naughty puns and scatalogical gags is no substitute for wit. It just seems an abject bid for the lowest common denominator at the box office.
No doubt, I’m not the target demographic for this movie. And I could be wrong. But I’d be shocked, and dismayed, if it’s a hit, and even more shocked and dismayed if it begets a new Mike Myers franchise. Don’t get me wrong. I like Mike Myers. I think he’s brilliant, and he seems to be a very decent human being. But like his beloved Maple Leafs, he’s in a severe slump.
Fortunately Canadians have another hometown hero they can root for. With My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin is at the top of his game. Sometimes Maddin’s eccentric wit is more clever than funny. This time around it’s both. With it’s unique mix of documentary and fantasia, Canada’s art-house darling has made the most richly entertaining film of his career.
Mixing fact and fiction until you can’t tell them apart, it exists in a genre all its own. My Winnipeg unfolds as a delirious fever dream, slipping from memoir to rant to surreal confabulation. Maddin, who serves as the film’s narrator, has spent his life in Winnipeg, and like the rest of its frozen residents he says he’s unable to escape, trapped in a sleepwalking trance by a confluence of occult forces. It all comes down to the forks of the two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, and the mythical underground rivers alleged to exist beneath them. In Maddin’s vision, these forks are a Freudian slipway, a pubic cleft that locks the city’s inhabitants in their frozen slumber—”the lap, the fur, the frost, the forks, the forks beneath the forks.” (I’m not being metaphorical here: he keeps flashing between a map of the rivers and shots of a woman’s vagina). At any rate, it adds up to one wild conspiracy theory.
But there’s some genuine archival history threaded through the fantasy. The film documents the sad destruction of Maddin’s childhood landmarks, from the legendary Eaton’s store to the hockey “cathedral” that was home to Maroons, and later to the Jets. “Demolition,” he says, “is one of our growth industries.” Hockey was the city’s sacred trust, and as far as he’s concerned, teaming up with the nefarious N.H.L. was the beginning of the end, just one more sell-out engineered by a mysterious cabal of Masonic politicians who have betrayed Winnipeg’s soul.
Maddin’s father was, in fact, a hockey coach, and this epic home movie delves into intimate details of the director’s childhood, with the emphasis on his mother, who ran a hair salon that adjoined to the family home. Caricaturing the world of the salon as a malodorous nest of femininity, Maddin talks about the traumatizing influence of showing up at school reeking of women’s hair products. And he dramatizes (or invents?) buried family conflicts with archly contrived gothic re-enactments.
In many ways, this film resembles his purely fictional films, and its faux-vintage shooting style often makes it impossible to distinguish his own archival fabrications from the real thing. There’s are extraordinary images of race horses fleeing a fire and become trapped in river ice, frozen to death so that their heads are left all winter protruding through the ice “like knights on a white chessboard.” The archival photographs of the horses’ frozen heads look shockingly real, and the story seems to strange to be invented. But with Maddin, you never know.
As much as I’ve admired Maddin’s earlier body of work, I’ve often found it too cerebral, too clever, and difficult to enter emotionally. My Winnipeg is another matter. Maddin’s deliberately overwritten narration and conspiratorial mania turns into a kind of confessional self-parody. And the director lets his vulnerability shine through. Meanwhile, the visual virtuosity that has become his signature is present in full force—this is film of dazzling beauty and kinetic grace. But because the terrain is so transparently personal, beneath the glittering surface of irony and wit, there’s powerful undertow of candid emotion. There’s rage, regret, sadness and fear, and even if these feelings are couched in self-conscious mock hyperbole, they don’t feel faux. The most ambitious film of Maddin’s career was The Saddest Music in the World (2003), starring Isabella Rossellini and it too was a comedy. But My Winnipeg is both funnier and sadder.
It’s hard to convey Maddin’s peculiar genius and the bizarre world it conjures up. It’s like trying to explain an oyster to somebody who’s never eaten one. If you’re already a Guy Maddin fan, you’ll need no persuading to catch his latest work. But if you’ve never seen one of his movies, and wonder what all the fuss is about, there is no better place to start than My Winnipeg.