Laughter after irony

Are new movies like "Holy Smoke" and "American Beauty" reinventing screen comedy?

Published January 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Early on in "Holy Smoke," her latest, darkest foray into the battle of the sexes, director Jane Campion brings us to a quiet street in the Sydney suburb of Sans Souci. The houses there are indistinguishable -- low-level designs tucked behind square patches of lawn -- but one house sticks out. Outside it is a large sign advertising pet grooming and veterinary services; inside poodles scurry around and animals caterwaul in the background.

But it's the human members of this particular household who seem most out of place: Miriam Barron (Julie Hamilton), the doughy, befuddled matriarch; her husband, the bikini-clad Gilbert (Tim Robertson); the gay older son Tim (Paul Goddard); the floozy sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee), and of course the faithful family friend -- a man whose long blonde tresses and thick muscles have earned him the nickname Fabio (Simon Anderson).

Watching this crew of oddballs and eccentrics assemble, we laugh. They have gathered to bring the youngest sibling, Ruth (Kate Winslet), back from India, where she's fallen in with a religious cult, and place her in the hands of cult deprogrammer P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) -- but it's pretty clear that these folks would have difficulty getting off a bus, much less extricating a loved one from a cult. But then the tone shifts. Miriam travels to India to bring Ruth home, and just as she's about to enter an assemblage hosted by Ruth's cult leader, she panics and runs away.

Chirping children trying to sell Miriam trinkets run alongside her; she loses her shoes; she makes a desperate but failed attempt to find her asthma inhaler; eventually she passes out. And through all of this we come to feel the stinging anxiety of a woman faced with the possibility of losing her daughter forever. Later, the men in the film get their dramatic due as well -- particularly when they form a human circle around Ruth (now back in Australia) and force her to submit to P.J. Here, Campion mixes up close-ups and overhead shots -- and in both the glimpses of the men's determined faces, and in the forceful physicality of the camera work, she shows us depths of seriousness and violence we never would have anticipated.

For many viewers and critics all of this is going to be too much; some reviews of "Holy Smoke" have argued that its over-the-top humor and unsteady tone constitute nothing more than an unholy mess. But others, I hope, are going to lock into the unevenness, and possibly even be reminded of two other, equally all-over-the-place, equally triumphant recent works -- Sam Mendes and Alan Ball's "American Beauty" and Todd Solondz's "Happiness." What these three films have in common is not only that each is engaging with comedy's ability to make us laugh at people and with them; it's also that they are doing so in a way that is consciously in disarray, consciously uneven.

In "American Beauty," we see this in the treatment of Annette Bening's Carolyn -- a woman who begins as a vile Martha Stewart-gone-mad suburban career mom, but who ends, clutching her dead husband's clothing, as a tragic portrait of self-hatred. In "Happiness" we see it in the scene-to-scene (sometimes shot-to-shot) switches from contempt (a psychiatrist falls asleep listening to his patient), to bemusement (a housewife brags about having it all while her husband is off masturbating to teen heartthrob magazines), to screwy empathy (as when that husband confesses his pedophilic crimes to his son).

Indeed, in any one of these films we might watch one scene played as screwball farce, the next played as high drama and the next as overwrought camp. Yet in the end we come upon startlingly coherent, overwhelmingly moving visions of modern culture, ones deeply attuned to the fractured, rapid-fire manner in which life in the new media age is so often lived and experienced.

Defining a new kind of comedy, of course, is a dicey game, so I won't go any further without attempting to distinguish these three films from works that have come before them, namely the "black comedies" they seem most explicitly to draw from. To be sure, there are long traditions of screwball comedies of humiliation (from the silent-era farces of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton to modern classics like "There's Something About Mary"), gallows satires (see the works of Robert Altman or Luis Buquel), and hipster exercises in irony (Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers). But none of these comparisons completely work for me -- and the difference has everything to do with tone.

A film like the Coens' "Fargo" or Buquel's "Belle de Jour," for instance, establishes its tone of glib distance early on, and sustains it -- coolly, often hilariously -- to the end. But Mendes, Campion and Solondz do something different. In fact, they do everything different. There are never more than two or three consecutive scenes of tonal consistency. We might get a mean-spirited joke (Jon Lovitz's suicide in "Happiness," which inspires his co-workers to ask one another, "Which one was he?") followed by a cartoon love scene (Bening fucking "The King" Peter Gallagher in "American Beauty") and then a bizarre and disturbing narrative non sequitur (as when the family visits a disco to celebrate Ruth's deprogramming in "Holy Smoke").

In each of these films the makers juxtapose absurdity and gravity, and mix up their essentially realist visions with sequences that seem piped in from another planet. The end result, as in such unsettling classics as "M*A*S*H" or "Viridiana" or "Stranger Than Paradise," is completely alive to the unsteady, exciting range of emotions that comedy can produce. But like no filmmakers before them, Campion, Mendes and Solondz have sought out an aesthetic to match that unevenness. They've turned the quality of being out of control into their triumphant virtue.

Yet I don't want to suggest that the comedy in these films has come out of the blue -- or that it can't be understood as building upon other comic traditions. To that end, it's interesting to note that the portraits of family in "Holy Smoke," "American Beauty" and "Happiness" have their roots in television sitcoms. Take, for instance, the scene in "Happiness" in which Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) discusses the future with her sister Joy (Jane Adams). As Campion does in "Holy Smoke," Solondz introduces these characters as cartoon extremes -- the too-happy house mom versus the lugubrious, mousy folk singer.

But Solondz's strategy differs from Campion's in that he pushes these extremes as far as he can -- and in doing so generates all the scene's nervous tension. Trish tells Joy that she's worried about her; Joy says she plans to get a new job and move out of their parents' house soon. To which Trish responds with pure passive-aggressive venom, chirpily telling her, "I always thought that you would never amount to much, that you would end up alone ... But now I see that's not true. There's a glimmer of hope for you after all."

How do we react to this scene? Probably with both laughter and revulsion -- as we try to figure out if we're watching a winking burlesque of supportive sisterhood or the most mean-spirited take on sibling rivalry ever seen. The point, of course, is that it's both, and that for Solondz family interactions can only be expressed in such a schizoid manner. But it's in this respect, I think, that "Happiness" could easily be described as a kind of sitcom of the outri -- because essentially we're seeing the banal television conflicts of families, friends and lovers being played out in increasingly twisted ways. Imagine it as a hyper-real, hyper-nasty episode of "Seinfeld." Imagine it, in fact, as the episode in which Jerry comes to terms with his predilection for girls one-third his age.

And imagine "Holy Smoke" or "American Beauty" in the same way: the former, with its cast of oddballs fluttering around two individuals engaged in an epic sexual grudge match, could be seen as an alternative to "Cheers" or "Mad About You," just as the latter, with its indelible portrait of one weird suburban street, might be a variation on "All in the Family" or "Married With Children."

Each of these films seems to acknowledge that sitcoms understand the broadness, randomness and sheer goofiness of modern life better than anything else out there: the way the modern workplace has come to approximate, and sometimes supplant, the family unit ("Just Shoot Me," "Sports Night"); the way race, sexuality and class all bump together incongruously in the cities and suburbs ("Ellen," "Married With Children"); the way a family can seem to fracture and fragment and yet continue functioning ("Roseanne," "Everybody Loves Raymond").

"Holy Smoke," "American Beauty" and "Happiness" incorporate all these themes, while pushing them farther than even current TV can. They free the sitcom emotions from the constraints of the 22-minute format and the propriety of network standards and practices. We end up with a new kind of sitcom -- one played out as messy, turbulent, distinctly R-rated real-life drama.

Take, for instance, the portraits of homosexuality in "Holy Smoke" and "American Beauty" -- essentially comic portraits that are nonetheless laced with paranoia and fear. Jim and Jim (Sam Robards and Scott Bakula) in "American Beauty" are terminally happy, fresh-pasta-eating exercise junkies; Tim and Yani (George Mangos) in "Holy Smoke" strut around in chaps and skintight, see-through shirts. At first, these stereotypes seem playful -- not unlike the outlandish, self-deprecating humor on a sitcom like "Will & Grace." But whereas sitcoms trip over themselves in the rush to outdo one joke with the next one, these films are more interested in lingering on the tension or anxiety that produced that joke.

"American Beauty" serves up a throwaway gay-basher joke ("What is this, the gay pride parade?" Chris Cooper's marine asks upon seeing the gay men jogging); "Holy Smoke," a kooky-creepy gay kitsch image (the two bare-chested men playing cowboy games with their nephew). In both cases, our laughter rapidly turns sour. We can't quite figure out if the filmmakers are indicting homophobia or endorsing it -- and we're probably not supposed to. Instead, we're left with a strangely accurate vision of the way homosexuality operates in contemporary mainstream culture -- it is partly tolerated, partly ignored, partly derided.

It seems to me these filmmakers are trying to explore the divided emotions of a society being increasingly (and ever more rapidly) pulled in a multitude of different directions. But it's here, too, that we can distinguish these works from any number of other wildly inventive, off-kilter recent works, such as "Being John Malkovich," "Magnolia" or "Titus." These latter films possess much of the same freewheeling spirit as "Holy Smoke," "American Beauty" or "Happiness." But their outlandishness is never quite reined in. (Indeed, in "Magnolia's" plague-of-frogs sequence, the outlandishness is cast so far out that it's virtually impossible to know how to respond.) As filmmakers, too, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson and Julie Taymor are looking outward -- toward new technology ("Malkovich"), fate ("Magnolia") or the nature of performance ("Titus").

But in the final moments of "Happiness," when the child-molesting psychiatrist frankly discusses his aberration with his pubescent son, and "American Beauty," when Kevin Spacey's Lester, having just found a way out of his midlife crisis, is murdered, the irony and invention give way to tragic, deeply personal emotions. In "Holy Smoke" this also happens, although with an important difference. Campion's film makes something clear that may be harder to see in the two other works -- her playfulness and abrupt shifts in tone have actually made the emotional release possible. In all three films the seemingly scattershot narrative approaches have yielded an understanding of modern life steeped in truthfulness and intimacy.

In the final 30 minutes of "Holy Smoke," Campion brings all the irony and weirdness into confluence with a deeply sincere emotional agenda -- which is to show human desire at its most frayed and desperate, and to show a younger woman and older man enabling each other to grow more mature and wise. At this point in the film, P.J. has broken the cardinal rule of deprogramming -- he's had sex with his case subject. He and Ruth are at a crossroads: Ruth's family is beginning to get wise to the affair; Waters' wife has shown up on the scene; and yet the two of them need to sort through their emotions before they can move on.

So begins a stark, dazzling pas de deux: Ruth dresses P.J. as a woman, making him up with a red dress and matching lipstick; P.J. writes the words "BE KIND" on Ruth's forehead. She cries; he consoles her. One minute Ruth is in complete control of the situation; in the next P.J. delicately toys with her feelings. Back and forth it goes, with Campion paying precise attention to every subtle shift in the balance of power. And as the situation progresses into ever more bizarre territory -- including a desert chase, P.J. resorting to violence and Ruth even getting locked in his car trunk -- we continue to laugh.

Yet, at this point, it's an almost dizzyingly complicated laughter. Partly, we're relieved after the anxiety of such an intimately wrought sequence. Partly, we view these people with horrified recognition, as they flail, desperate and grotesque, like ourselves in our most vulnerable moments. And partly we just laugh at the farcical, delicious silliness of the situation. The point for Campion, perhaps, is that you can't have one kind of laughter without the other, that it's all part of the rich and schizophrenic stew that is turn-of-the-century life. Her great achievement in "Holy Smoke" is to express the world as most of us feel it -- as flashing moments of comedy and drama, fear and comfort, hostility and empathy, and irony and sincerity, all linking together in a not-quite-coherent whole.

Do these films point in a direction where other filmmakers will want to go? This question is unanswerable for now. There certainly have been other glimpses of new humor -- in the acid-tongued narration of Don Roos' "The Opposite of Sex," in the flights of violent fantasy in David Fincher's "Fight Club," in the high octane war-adventure antics of David O. Russell's "Three Kings." But whether other filmmakers will follow these leads -- and whether they will display the kind of control and authority Campion, Mendes and Solondz show -- is anyone's guess.

Yet a few things do remain certain. Love them or hate them, we have before us three of the most audacious movies of the 1990s; these filmmakers are seeking daring new aesthetic approaches to a new millennium. Perhaps the real question, then, is not whether there will be more such works, but whether audiences are ready for them. Or, to quote Yvonne of "Holy Smoke," just before she goes down on P.J. one lonely night in the desert: "Do you have a Web site?"

By Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly is a writer-at-large for the Texas Monthly.

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