Beyond the Multiplex

Howard Stern and Tiki Barber take in Adam Carolla's "The Hammer." Plus: A dark indie from an "Entourage" actor and a compelling doc about U.S. soldiers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 27, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

Spring has turned damp and chilly on the Eastern seaboard, and the go-to celebrities after two days of the Tribeca Film Festival seem to be Tiki Barber and Howard Stern. You can't get away from these guys! Here's what Barber and Stern said to each other as their orbits crossed while doggedly working the line of reporters and photographers outside the premiere of "The Hammer," a boxing comedy that stars Adam Carolla:

Stern: "Hey, Tiki."

Barber: "Howard! How you doin', Howard? What's up?"

Cold weather and bad B-list celebrity repartee might seem like a depressing combination, especially for the launch of an event that depends on a self-inflated sense of importance. But New Yorkers are a resourceful and resilient people, at least when it comes to self-inflated importance, and no one seemed perturbed. Large and cheerful crowds (although some distance short of a sellout) packed into the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for the festival's first two semimajor premieres.

There were artier flicks on display at several smaller venues, including French director Pascale Ferran's take on "Lady Chatterley" and Julie Delpy's trendoid romantic farce "2 Days in Paris." I plan to cover more serious fare (those included) in the days ahead, but hey -- it was opening night, and Tiki and Howard needed me at the velvet rope. I have no idea why they showed up for "The Hammer," in which Carolla plays a 40-year-old carpenter who tries out for the Olympic boxing team, but as mediocre comedies go it was perfectly OK. They couldn't possibly have enjoyed it as much as the woman I sat next to, who spat up bits of spleen into her Diet Pepsi at every one of Carolla's self-deprecating deadpan bons mots. (That joke about not talking about your hairy ass -- you're killin' the girls with that one, Adam.)

We'll get back to Carolla's simultaneously bland and troubling fight flick in due course. But the second underachievement-themed film of the night, "Gardener of Eden," which premiered late on Thursday before an even more boisterous gathering, strikes me as more important. Mind you, I'm not saying it's good. But it's not boring. Directed by Kevin Connolly (best known of late as the character Eric Murphy on HBO's "Entourage," although he's had many other film and TV roles), "Gardener of Eden" is one of those self-consciously dark indies that feel like a mash-up of numerous hipster films of yore. It has the lightweight suburban angst of Kevin Smith, the profanity and conversational backwaters of Quentin Tarantino and at least a little of the nightmarish vision of Darren Aronofsky. It also has that romantic subplot about the boy and girl who are thrown together by a mildly ironic coincidence, but you don't have to borrow that one. It's just there, like dust mites.

Lukas Haas, with stringy hair looped around his huge ears so he looks like an especially homely and especially large hobbit, plays a New Jersey teenager named Adam who has been kicked out of college. He works in a deli, lives at home and hangs out with a bunch of high school friends who are going nowhere special and beginning dimly to realize that what lies ahead isn't pretty. Giovanni Ribisi just about eats the movie whole in a few scenes, playing the cynical kid a few years older than they who has become the town's leading drug dealer.

Adam has a special destiny, or something. His life changes when he finds, er, when he touches ... well, let's just say when something really, really gross happens that Connolly's camera dwells on in hyperrealistic detail. (His cinematographer is the estimable Lisa Rinzler.) Or maybe his life doesn't change. Maybe the weird, gross thing just happens and ping-pongs around in Adam's head while he moves from one loserish episode to the next. Adam may be having a breakdown, or a breakthrough, that recalls Holden Caulfield and Donnie Darko and the Kevin Spacey character in "American Beauty," all at the same time. One night as he's wandering the streets, unemployed and angry, planning to commit a crime himself, he ends up accidentally apprehending the town's serial rapist. (Did I mention there's a little "Taxi Driver" in here too?)

So Adam gets to meet the rapist's last victim (Erika Christensen), and she's a cute college girl his own age with her feet on the ground, and they turn out to have another point of connection, and so -- well, so what? Is Adam going to go out with her and start acting normal? Or is he going to pursue his new identity as a half-baked late-night crime-fighting superhero? Of course the answer is both, but "Gardener of Eden" is so defiantly inconsistent in tone, and so immune to plot coherence, that I came out of it not even sure whether Adam is a good kid who does bad things or a dangerous psychopath. It resembles the stories told by my 3-year-old daughter: Events occur and reiterate, and then new events happen, but they don't add up to anything. Maybe that's fine: The movie's morbid, funny and well acted. It shocks you, makes you scream and confuses you. Then it's over and you wonder what in hell the point was. Rather like life!

As for "The Hammer," which was developed by Carolla and directed by Charles Herman-Wurfeld ("Kissing Jessica Stein"), the audience enjoyed it fine, and I've certainly seen worse. If you liked "Rocky Balboa" you should be in good shape, since it's exactly the same movie, just aimed at a teeny-tiny-bit younger demographic and with an affectless leading man who avoids hambone acting by not acting at all. I'm not sure why all boxing movies have to be about white guys in the first place (well, OK, yes I am). But this whole trend of boxing movies about out-of-shape, middle-aged white guys who summon up the guts and fortitude to thoroughly kick the asses of much younger, much fitter black guys -- what's that about? Is it as transparent and stupid and, frankly, embarrassing as it seems to be?

Set that whopping, glaring issue aside, and "The Hammer" is fun, at least in patches. Carolla's supposed to be an out-of-work carpenter named, well, not named Adam Carolla. Not-Adam was a promising amateur boxer 20 years ago and still spars a round or two here and there, and wouldn't you know it, even after all these years he's got a heavy left hand. Carolla doesn't do anything I would call acting, but he long ago mastered this self-deprecating regular-guy shtick, whether that involves hardware-store arguments about tenpenny nails versus flathead screws or showing up for a fight wearing a "Frampton Comes Alive" T-shirt.

Kevin Hench's screenplay largely sticks to the more appealing areas of Carolla's comedic persona. (He does have one long, painfully unfunny rant about the La Brea tar pits, so bad you're amazed that his date doesn't feign stomach flu and go home.) Mercifully, not-Adam isn't a homophobe or a xenophobe -- his Sancho Panza-esque sidekick is a Nicaraguan immigrant -- which makes him a veritable St. Francis of lad comedies. As the implausible boxing plot lumbers along it gets ever dumber, and the romantic subplot, involving the pixieish Heather Juergensen as a public defender who takes not-Adam's boxercise class, is pretty feeble throughout. Soon enough everything agreeable about "The Hammer" has given way to egregious fantasy, and it becomes the kind of movie in which the hero watches the sunset on the beach with his lady and then heads off to kick black people's asses and make them love him.

Documentary filmmakers keep churning out compelling, upsetting and often heart-thumpingly exciting pictures about the war in Iraq, but if Americans can reach consensus on one thing it is this: We don't want to know anything about it. So I shouldn't even bother telling you about "I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq With the 101st Airborne," made by veteran TV journalist John Laurence, which also premiered here on Thursday to considerable fanfare. Well, I won't, except to say that it's high-integrity, foursquare journalism of the old school, which reminds you how good straightforward nonfiction storytelling can be in the right hands.

Laurence, an American who has lived in Britain for many years, was embedded with the 101st Airborne during the initial phase of the Iraq war (you know, before we got "Mission Accomplished") and was invited back in 2005 to follow a small group of soldiers from training through a one-year tour of duty in Samarra, Tikrit and Baghdad. What results is a prodigiously vivid depiction of grunts'-eye Iraq, the best we're likely to see. The men Laurence meets go there with a certain degree of idealism and enthusiasm, and see it rapidly eaten away by the fear and doubt that cloud the whole place like flying grit.

George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein and WMD are barely mentioned in the film; these soldiers believe in themselves and their buddies, and to some degree in their officers and the legendary rah-rah spirit of the 101st (aka the "Rakkasan"). Not one of them ever talks about abstractions like "America" or "terrorism." Like men in any other war, they're mainly fighting to stay alive and go home. I have to say this, though: They also talk about Iraq and Iraqis with a shocking callousness, and if human sensibility and empathy are inevitable casualties of war, they are ones we can ill afford. Most of the men in "I Am an American Soldier" come home to tearful family reunions; a few come home in pieces. I came home from the film thinking that the dark cloud over our nation ain't going away for a long, long time. Next time I see Tiki and Howard, I'll ask them if they agree.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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