Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Feel Weird Film: Just Add Water

Five years of Hart Bochner’s life was spent on what he called a “feel-weird” film. He described the work perfectly—much better than the stock description I’m seeing here and there on the internet (“an offbeat romantic comedy”). The film was seamed together with quick, minimalist scenes and dark humor, my favorite. It was filmed, Bochner said, on less than a million dollars. (“Kids, don’t try this at home,” he warned—putting together a film is painful as it is, but scarce resources make it all the more discouraging, apparently.) The wonderful acting (including, but not limited to, Tracy Middendorf, Danny DeVito, Dylan Walsh, and Anika Noni Rose) reminded me why I can’t work with actors: they’re too damned talented—I’d fail to be anything but a drooling, speechless fan. Much of the film was funny as hell, and the fact that such a twisted film can attract such talent and a forum amid Sundance is nothing short of inspirational to me. Yet I started getting a creepy feeling from over-the-top dialogue, clearly intended to point disparagingly at the ignorance associated with poverty.

The story portrays Ray Tuckby, a naïve and well-intentioned man whose dignity is undermined by an adulterous wife, a careless son (not, the narrative reveals, his biological son), and the asshole-in-charge, a guy who operates a meth lab and brings in the town’s only real stream of money—a resource that allows the drug dealer to bait youth and oppress the town in general. With the help of a handful of townspeople, including an entrepreneur who opens a gas station (played by DeVito), Ray devises a plan to blow up the meth lab. The plan works—executed with humor and simplicity—and the town…well, the town lives happily ever after, despite continuing chemical contamination, an unexplained prosperity-found despite the end of the town’s only real channel for money, and the callousness of a population emotionally and intellectually stunted by drug use.

Sounds great, huh? And honestly, I laughed--out loud. But…okay, this is where I realize I’m irritatingly PC, which comes as a not so pleasant surprise to me. Middendorf’s character has lived in toxic, impoverished conditions for years only so she can wait in private anguish in improbable hope that her childhood sweetheart will finally leave his wife and cast his affections on to her (ouch--the feminist in me is prodding me with something sharp to go on, but I won't on this point). The only blacks portrayed in the film were two prostitutes and (by reference only) a medium. One of the prostitutes (R'ch'lle, played by Rose, or Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls) wants nothing more than to date an uninspired, lazy white boy (played by Jonah Hill, the spaz on Superbad) that, in any other town (city, state, country), she wouldn't likely consider remotely appealing. I could argue that almost all of the white people in the film (except for the wealthy investor) were portrayed as ignorant, shortsighted, and incapable, so to make Rose's character a schoolteacher or county worker or something might have seemed out of place. But that only brings me round to an even more bothersome complaint.

I guess I started getting conflicted most when Bochner spoke following the film, delivering what amounted to me (true, I have issues) as the first white-on-white “I love your people” speeches. Apparently, poor folk are so exotic that the characters portrayed in the film—inspired, Bochner suggested, by real townspeople he’d witness when he was forced to stay in the shit-assed town during a shoot—that they “had one of these things called a swamp cooler.”

And here I must reveal myself. Though I now have the luxury of central air, I went several years wishing I had a swamp cooler—and at least a couple of years saving up for some cheapest-in-class electric getup I could stick in my window (that is IF the windows were not painted shut by a slumlord). Yeah, my family hails from the wrong side of the tracks in the West: we say “I reckon” and “gimme a tall neck” and all that business. And I’ve seen poverty worse than mine—the kind of bare cupboards that make your jawbone grind at night, leaving you with a fine, polished, flat finish on your molars. But no adult I know is so out of touch they don’t know what a French kiss is, and the reason the neighbors aren’t paying the power bill is not to sun themselves lazily but because they’re dead-assed broke and hopeless. Also, the dialect here was not only uncomfortably exaggerated, but resonant more of the South--or, I should say, in cinematic (likely simplified) portrayals of the South. In other words, small-town westerners don't sound that bad.

I think about a few films I love that depict poverty with humor. Drowning Mona comes to mind, as well as Welcome to Collinwood. Here, the dialogue and the stories were colorful and exaggerated, but not hollowed and sterotypical. Each character was distinct and felt authentic...though to what, I'm not quite sure. With Drowning Mona and Collinwood, I had the sense that at least someone involved in the script might have known, as the characters in Just Add Water are said to know, what having power shut off felt like. And when in Drowning and Collinwood a character said something within the dialectic of scarcety, they said it right. I wondered if possibly the dialogue became a little choppy during production—after all, Bochner said he had to shoot in less than thirty days. Or perhaps the actors had made changes. But when asked, Bochner insisted the dialogue was exactly as he'd writtten it and wanted it; I believe he said he hadn’t changed two words during filming.

Bochner said also that he wanted to portray Ray’s family with dignity. He really enjoyed the townspeople he’d worked with. For example, when he was scouting for people, he entered a house with a boy “who must have weighed 350 pounds." The boy participated in the film—in part to appear in a quick scene involving a young man moving cardboard boxes for the drug dealer; the local said that even though he didn’t get paid for his work (since, Bochner said, they hadn’t any money to pay him) it was the best experience of his life. (Anyone's jaw grinding yet?)Well, kudos for giving meaning to an otherwise (so I'm told) meaningless youth.

But imagine for a moment that a film had poked fun of the poverty of an American Indian reservation, crafting dialogue that describes some variety of ignorance and unwitting poor judgment. Oh. My. Hell. That would be bad. I can think only of a couple of reasons Bochner was able to get away with condescending to what he called “the common man” (whom, he explained, were very important to him—i.e., I love your people): first, he condescended foremost to other whites (I’m setting aside, for the moment, the implicit racism in R'ch'lle's role because I’m still too annoyed even to address it), and second, because he will never have to look back. That man--Bochner--has connections. I mean, just how silver is his spoon? I wouldn't be able to begin to say. If I had a memory (and my neurologist would tell you I don't), I’d recite the many filmmakers he said he’d worked with. But I'm forgetful, thank god. And, after all, I took a’likin’ to them scenes when that dialogue shut the hell up finally and 'llowed Dylan to exercise his tragic actor-learnin' front of the camera, his back to his cheatin' wife. By god, his face (and ever' one of his veins and twitchin' muscles and sech things) just turned all kinds a red and blue and gray and his crybaby eyes made a goddamned movin' pitcher of itself, they did. Good thing he didn’t et too much cuz then he had to work for the love of it instead of for the lunch of it, you know.

But again, I worry. About my own sensibilities, I mean. Why are Drowing Mona and Collinwood brilliant to me...why do they not raise my can’t-stand-a-classist red flags? It might be, as my IT husband would say, a user problem. After I'll, I've seen these films at least eighty times each, trying to understand how they operate, and Just Add Water I've seen once. Maybe I need to give it a second look, or possibly I need to broaden my range of tolerance for things that might be considered sexist, racist, and classist. But for now, I'm going with this: I think Drowning and Collinwood dignify their characters, fools though they may be, by giving them singular personalities and capabilities, along with the usual fears and insecurities we can all identify with. With these films, I felt I was laughing with the characters, and hurting for them, and when I saw Just Add Water I walked away feeling instead as I'd just made fun of someone...strange, unreal, head hung a little lower.

All that said, the acting is definitely worth seeing, and the composition of some of the shots was really terrific. Watch for the "cue"--for the scene with the stripper (who is the wife of the entrepreneur) as she distracts thugs. Funny, funny. Why did I quit gymnastics, anyway?

Just Add Water, World Premiere (2008, 90 min, USA)Written/Directed by Hart Bochner
Starring Dylan Walsh, Danny DeVito, Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Tracy Middendorf, Anika Noni Rose

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