Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara flail and fumble in ‘Hot Pursuit’

Hot PursuitSofía Vergara and Reese Witherspoon are two actresses who have charm and humor to spare. In their best work, they have proven themselves to be bright and capable comediennes. For some reason, together they seem to drain each other of their respective charms. In Anne Fletcher’s 2015 comedy Hot Pursuit, the two are paired for a strangely dour and unfunny comedy that feels as if it works to make the ladies as unlikable as possible.

Witherspoon stars Rose Cooper, a second-generation cop who is assigned to protect the widow of a drug boss (Vergara). It’s a formulaic buddy comedy that hopes to exploit the odd couple pairing of Vergara and Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s Rose Cooper is a priggish, uptight dummy. She’s pathologically by-the-book, and her obsessive attention is supposed to be funny, but it comes off sad, and then there’s Witherspoons Texas twang, which is broad and jokey.

Vergara, on the other hand, is tasked to play the comic foil to Witherspoon’s straight man, and she’s stranded by a terrible script and Fletcher’s lazy direction, which essentially results in Vergara playing a variation on Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family, but without her wit.

The convoluted plot has Rose thrown into a nutso caper in which she and Vergara’s Daniella are running away from members of a drug cartel as well as a band of crooked cops. On their way to Dallas, the two run into episodes of hilarity such as having a semi crash into their convertible setting off a mushroom cloud of cocaine, pretending to be lesbian lovers to distract Jim Gaffigan’s good ole boy, or commandeering a tour bus of seniors to escape from the assassins.

Like most buddy comedies, the energy from the story comes from the relationship between the two leads. And both Witherspoon and Vergara work hard, but because they aren’t reined in by their director, their performances devolve from simply broad mugging to lots of screaming. As the story chugs along, there are some predictable twists that are meant to be shocking, but because the screenplay feels like it’s been spit out of a machine, each turn feels ready made and cued.

Underneath the layers of mess, the script tries to make some point about dismissing women. Daniella is seen as an empty-headed trophy wife, but there are “layers” to her (but the shading of her character is so questionable, that one wonders if it wasn’t better to just maintain her as an empty-headed bimbo). And because Rose is short and pretty, she’s easily written off as a cute nothing. Both women prove to be more than just stereotypes, but they do so by the end of the movie, and at that point, it isn’t really clear if anyone will care.

Aside from the poor pacing and explosive mugging, there’s also questionable choices in the humor. We’re subject to lots of racist stereotypes of Latinx folks, there’s a shot of transphobic humor in the beginning, plus there’s a sprinkling of gay panic, too. In 1987, these jokes wouldn’t feel out of place, but in 2015, they contribute to the general staleness of the film.

The end of the movie has some bloopers – and to be honest, the loose playfulness of the costars on set is far funnier than anything that the two ladies did on screen. It’s too bad that we have to wait to the end of the movie to see Witherspoon and Vergara be funny.

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David Sedaris proves himself to be a brilliant diarist as well as humorist

David Sedaris has become a legend when it comes to creative nonfiction. Whenever someone hopes to be an essayist, his name usually pops up as an inspiration – it’s almost a cliche now. What sets him apart from his myriad of followers and imitators is his ability to mine deadpan humor and comedy from some of the most tragic and unfortunate circumstances. His collections of essays – including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day – have become canonical standards for the genre, and “The Santaland Diaries” has become a holiday classic.

With this in mind, I approached his latest, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977 – 2002) with enthusiasm. Though many of the stories and circumstances will be familiar with those who’ve read Sedaris’ body of work, his astute observations, even in the truncated and terse form of a diary entry, still find the funny in either mundane or disturbing situations. It’s also neat to stroll through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the 200s with Sedaris as he documents historical and cultural moments and milestones with the immediacy of experience them as they happen. Some of it is heartbreaking or chilling, as he recounts, almost off-handedly in 1981 that a new cancer was discovered that only affected gay men; or his reaction and grief in watching the Twin Towers fall while in Paris on September 12, 2001.

Other times, it’s neat to see Sedaris struggle and work, while slowly gaining a reputation as a comedic writer. It’s especially gratifying to read about his success, as they come hard earned. And the genesis of his two most notable essays, the aforementioned “Santaland Diaires” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” are documented in the collection, and provide hearty laugh-out-loud moments. We also get the courtship of Sedaris and his partner Hugh, as well as the gradual ascendance of his sister Amy’s comedy career as well.

It’s hard to tell if any of these stories have been sweetened for publication. But really, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still a lot of fun to read these pithy, funny, and witty observations from a guy who has been responsible for some of the funniest work in the English language for the last twenty years.

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Eleanor Coppola stumbles with ‘Paris Can Wait’

Paris Can Wait Movie POSTER 27 x 40, Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin , A, MADE IN THE U.S.A.Eleanor Coppola is married Francis Ford Coppola and is the mother of Sofia Coppola. So one would think that she might have picked up some pointers from her family when helming her latest, the romantic comedy road film, Paris Can Wait. Well, one would be wrong. It’s shocking how amateurish and sloppy Paris Can Wait is. Coppola assembled a strong cast: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, and Arnaud Viard, who each does his/her best, but the actors are stranded with an awful plot and aimless direction. The film is remarkable in that there are no stakes or conflict to speak of, and viewers will only be distracted by the parallel beauty of France and Diane Lane.

Lane stars as Anne, the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-power film executive. Michael is busy and we know this because his phone is plastered to his face. When he’s called to Budapest to oversee an overzealous director, Anne begs off the trip and instead agrees to meet him in Paris. Instead of taking the train, she is joined by Michael’s business partner, Jacques (Viard). The two set off on a road trip through France, stopping repeatedly to indulge in decadent meals.

Coppola’s script is plodding and episodic, lurching from one skit to another. It makes the film – which is only an hour and a half long – feel interminable. Each time Jacques suggests a diversion from their drive, Anne rolls her eyes and acts exasperated – and viewers will sympathize as it only puts off Paris, and means the movie will continue. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was any chemistry shared between Lane and Viard, but there isn’t. Jacques isn’t a character so much as a collage of French clichés and stereotypes (right down to his lazy name).

Watching Paris Can Wait is a frustrating experience because the film wastes a wonderful leading lady. Diane Lane – a patron saint of gorgeous, middle-aged women in European county sides – is saddled with a thinly-written character, and does her mightiest to do something with the character, but she’s stranded by Coppola’s indifferent direction and writing, and is gives a performance that looks strained and full of effort. We’re supposed to believe that Anne is a frustrated artist and talented photographer, but her constant picture taking of her sumptuous meals makes her seem more like a boorish American addicted to social media than a soulful creative type in search of an outlet for her talent. And Lane carries with her performance a bit of her patented pensive soulfulness (no one can gaze out into a golden sunset like Diane Lane) Some viewers will think that this movie will revisit some of the charm and winsome loveliness of Lane’s 2003 vehicle Under the Tuscan Sun. But that film – while no where near a classic – is still miles away from stale junk like Paris Can Wait.

Aside from Lane, the other major selling point of the film is the French countryside. The film’s script meanders through the country, from Cannes to Lyon, and through some ridiculously picturesque visions of the French pastoral landscape. Even a filmmaker as inept as Coppola can’t mess up the awesome beauty of France. Unfortunately, the arresting images of France are interrupted by the pointless jabber of Coppola’s writing and the yeoman efforts of Lane and Viard.

Buried underneath the layers of mediocrity is the kernel of a good movie. Coppola’s script needs higher stakes and some conflict. When the ending finally comes and Anne and Jacques come to some sort of revelation, it feels unearned and abrupt. Perhaps worried about Kleenex-thin script, Coppola throws in some heavy tragedy that feels smashed in and is handled so clumsily that instead of being affecting or moving, it feels like incompetent manipulation (though Viard and Lane do their best and just almost manage to push through the awful script to convey some emotion).

Supposedly a comedy, Paris Can Wait is not funny or clever. Nor is it particularly moving or interesting. Instead, it’s a film about two people – who despite being Hollywood beautiful – aren’t all that remarkable. I didn’t care about what would happen to them, nor did I care about how the movie ended. I was just glad when it did.

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Liberals and the very real dangers of echo chambers

Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields collaborated on a truly horrendous piece of work which depicted the comedienne holding the president’s decapitated head. It was disgusting, offensive, and stupid. Griffin quickly felt backlash not only from conservatives, but from liberals – including her fellow comics – and promptly apologized and took down the photograph. CNN slammed the photo and is considering firing her from its annual New Years television coverage. Griffin posted a contrite video, in which she admitted she went too far and appears chastised.

This story is depressing for a lot of reasons – one, I was always a fan and follower of Kathy Griffin’s, and enjoyed her specials, books, CDs, and her excellent reality show. I think that she’s smart and cutting and very witty. Which is why I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell was she thinking.

But Griffin’s act exposed something ugly in our culture that needs to be addressed: the dehumanization of public figures. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both dealt with the kind of ugly hate that Griffin and Shields exhibited with their work – both have been the subject of burning effigies, and in the context of this country’s awful history of lynching Black people, there have been memes, dolls, and mannequins depicting lynchings of President Obama. These examples of unbridled hate were disgusting and not enough people stood up to them.

And the same thing is happening with President Trump. Whether one agrees with his politics or his policies, we still have to agree that the president is a human being. Someone with family and friends. Think about Barron Trump, a child, who now will be able to see Shields’ photograph.

So how did we get to the point where a comic and a photographer both thought this monstrous show of disrespect would be okay?

Well, it’s a simple, thing really. It happened when they called the president King Cheeto, or President Cheeto (or any other variant on Cheeto). It happened when they reduced him to his hair, his tan, his body, his mannerisms. They slowly made him into a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional symbol of political frustration and political fear, and simply forgot – or chose to forget – that behind the memes, cartoons, and caricature, there was a human being.

I’m not defending Trump’s policies. My readers will know that I’m a liberal, who hoped that Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would’ve won. And when Trump did win, I was scared and worried for our country’s future. I still am. And I know lots of other people are too – including Griffin and Shields.

But that doesn’t mean that we can suddenly take leave of our senses and become hateful monsters.

Some of Griffin’s critics opined that her act has damaged the credibility of liberals. I hate this thinking because again, the credibility of liberals doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that someone did something unimaginable and awful. And worrying about how liberals will look is callous and unfeeling as well as self centered and selfish.

When Griffin apologized, she seemed genuine and sincere. And yet. She couched her apology as a response to the criticism and ensuing backlash. Her conscience didn’t prompt her to apologize, nor did her sense of fairness or decency. Instead, she apologized because she saw that many of her peers rejected her horrible act.

This is about more than just Kathy Griffin, though. This is about the steady degradation of a public figure, to the point where people forget that he’s a human being.

This fracas is also an opportunity for some introspection among many liberals, who, in their zeal and frustration, have become the bizarro version of the Westboro Baptist Church. How much did that echo chamber in which Griffin obviously existed, contributed to her myopia? If she, along with her fans, friends, and followers all provide a steady drumbeat of hate, does that naturally result in the kind of garbage that she and Shields created?

When there are instances of hate crimes, we ask that everyone look within themselves. And that’s important. We have to examine just what in our society creates Neo-Nazis, alt-right bigots, rapists, and queer bashers. It’s important because these people don’t just spring from thin air – they are a product, created.

But in the case of Griffin – and those who are still insisting that she’s done nothing wrong – we have to do the same kind of self-examination. Because she’s a product, too. She’s the result of months of constant slams, slights, and hatred that fooled Griffin into thinking that her space would be hospitable to a photograph like hers.

I’ve been thinking about the president a lot this past day or so after I saw the photograph. It made me sad and disturbed me. It was a spotlight on a kind of sheltered privilege that Griffin seemingly enjoys that protects her from understanding what it means to have a family member killed in such a way. Right now, there are organizations throughout the world who really do what Shields and Griffin only pretended to do. I thought about the president’s family and friends, all of whom love him, and had to see that awful image.

The photograph is an extreme example of just how base and awful political discourse has become in this country. Griffin and Shields wouldn’t have felt a picture like that would be okay, if the two didn’t see evidence of something similar. As I wrote earlier, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton effigies burned at rallies, and Barack Obama mannequins strung up on trees. We’ve also seen memes of Donald Trump pinatas, waiting to be pummeled. None of this funny. None of this is productive. And none of this is fair. But just because Clinton and Obama suffered these indignities doesn’t mean Trump deserves to, as well. No one does.

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Celebrating the strange legacy of Tim Allen’s ‘Last Man Standing’

When ABC announced it was canceling Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing after six seasons, conservative viewers cried foul, insisting that the show was being canceled for its conservative point of view. It’s true – Hollywood tends to skew liberal (at least when it comes to the creative side), but we’re also looking at a season that saw the end of The Real O’Neals, a coming-of-age sitcom about a queer teen. Last Man Standing‘s cancellation is all the more surprising because even though it was a sleepy performer in its Friday night time slot, it was still pulling in an average of about 8 million viewers per season. ABC also canceled Dr. Ken, the other Friday night sitcom, which may mean that the network is looking to revamp its Friday night schedule.

Allen, the star and one of the executive producers of the show, has been an outspoken conservative in the last few years. He also discussed the difficulty in being conservative in Hollywood. He likened it to 1930s Germany, which goes to show you that though he’s a funny guy, he isn’t necessarily a smart guy. But Last Man Standing, which produced 130 episodes will now live in syndication on basic cable, alongside his other long-running sitcom Home Improvement, and will probably easily forgotten.

It’s easy to see why. It’s not a great sitcom. It’s an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom, filmed live in front of an audience, with a laugh track. The actors march onto the set, hit their marks, and announce their punch lines to the merriment of the studio audience. In light of single-camera sitcoms like Modern Family and The Middle, watching Last Man Standing can be a jarring experience. The laughter – which is probably genuine with just a touch of sweetening – feels aggressive and rote. The acting is broad. The sets are laid out so that everyone is facing the audience. There’s an artificiality to Last Man Standing that feels disruptive, and the show’s limits cannot transcend the issue.

Still, it wasn’t a terrible show, and it deserves some recognition of what it was trying to do. Tim Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, wasn’t the first conservative on a TV sitcom. Two of the most famous examples would be Archie Bunker on All in the Family and Alex Keaton on Family TiesAll in the Family aired for nine seasons, from 1971 to 1979. During that time the country saw three presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. For the bulk of the show’s run, Archie Bunker became a voice of the reactionary American conservative during the Nixon and Ford administrations. When show creator Norman Lear created Archie, he wanted to lampoon the knee-jerk response to the growing progressive movement. His show aimed to ridicule the backlash to anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and civil rights. But the writers and star Carroll O’Connor took what could’ve been a toxic character and imbued him with dignity and appeal. His conservatism was played for laughs, and the scripts always made sure that the audience knows that Archie was wrong, but he evolved into a nuanced and complicated character, who was able to outclass Lear’s oft-preachy tone.

But Tim Allen is no Carroll O’Connor. One of the main debits of the show was its star. On Home Improvement, Allen was able to parlay his comedic persona – the grunting, wannabe Alpha-male – into an appealing sitcom character. Home Improvement was a smash hit, lodged permanently in the top 10 for all of its 8 seasons (peaking at an incredible number 2 in season three). At one point in the show’s history, over 20 million people watched Tim Allen’s Tim Taylor hurt himself in a variety of ways by misusing and abusing power tools. Even though the show was a ratings hit, critics were dismissive, and though it pops up form time to time in syndication (often paired with Last Man Standing), it’s barely remembered as an important program of the 1990s.

Despite Allen’s presence, the show still manages to say something, despite its deadening blandness. Those who defend the show’s conservatism – and those who lambaste it – are missing the point. Yeah, Mike Baxter was a conservative and he hated Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the anti-liberal jokes were incredibly soft (this could be because as Allen pointed out, most of the writers were liberals) When Mike Baxter got on a rant against something – whether it’s political correctness, gender, or taxes – he morphed into the archetypal cranky old white guy. There was little bite to what he was saying, because he wasn’t saying all that much.

And there was so much potential. The show ran during the Obama Administration when so much of the country was divided by a backlash against his progressive policies and against the fact that a Black man was running the country. Mike Baxter could’ve been a voice for that backlash – a humanizing voice that would complicated the image of the eccentric and violent yahoos who burned effigies of Obama at protests. Because the show is centered on an upper-middle class family, none of the economic issues that the country faced, namely the crawling recovery from the Great Recession, are handled in any sort of meaningful manner. During the Obama administration, queer rights had made some startling leaps forward, and the show barely mentioned queer people. The reason for this is probably because Friday nights on ABC tend to skew to family-oriented shows. In its salad days, ABC marketed Friday nights with a bloc of family sitcoms, TGIF. Such classics of mediorcrity like Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, My Two Dads, and the magnus opus of suckitude, Full House were event watching for a lot of 80s kids. So the real estate probably wasn’t the most hospitable for a hard-hitting, socially relevant sitcom.

But there’s another show in Last Man Standing, a far more interesting show that hardly anyone looks at: and that show stars Nancy Travis. Travis is TV’s most appealing character actress/comedienne, whose career is marked by an inability to find a sustaining vehicle for her abundant talents. The fact that Last Man Standing gave her work for six straight years is reason enough to praise the show because Travis is a find.

On the show, Travis played  Vanessa Baxter, a geologist who is married to Allen’s sporting goods store exec. It’s with Vanessa that the show starts to gel into something somewhat interesting. The story of how a moderately progressive, intelligent scientist can stand being married to a sometimes-blowhard like Mike Baxter makes for some solid TV watching. Unfortunately, despite Travis’ lovely presence, too often, she was pushed into the role of the straight man to Allen’s grumpy goof. Her politics skew center-left, and she supported Hillary Clinton – though her liberalism is treated much like Mike’s conservatism, it’s a trait, like “blonde” or “pretty” and there is precious little exploration into why Vanessa likes Clinton outside of her being a woman and a Democrat. One episode decent episode explored Vanessa’s personal convictions well. In it, she had to defend her support of fracking to a group of high school kids. Fracking is indefensible, and I think this was probably Allen’s influence, but it gave Vanessa some shading – something that doesn’t exist in the fictional world of Last Man Standing. If Travis was spun off into her own show, one of say, a recently widowed Vanessa Baxter working as a geologist or high school teacher, and juggling the demands of motherhood (and grandmotherhood), then I’d probably watch that show.

But Allen was the star of Last Man Standing and his comedic fingerprints are everywhere. He never worked to challenge his audiences, nor did he want them to question their assumptions. Instead, he was a genial, if slightly insufferable, dad who would grouse  about how weird kids are nowadays. Last Man Standing could’ve been a good show if it found a strong voice and stuck to it and was committed to it; instead, it coasted on being mildly dickish, sticking it to liberals, when really, they weren’t watching it anyways.

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Melissa McCarthy steals the show on her 5th ‘SNL’ hosting gig

HOST and MUSICAL GUEST Bumper PhotosMelissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).

As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.

McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).

The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.

McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.

But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.

Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.

The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.

Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.

The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.

Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.

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The Divas and the Bee Gees

In the 1970s, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Alongside Donna Summer, the band dominated the pop charts with a string of hit single (24 of their singles hit the US top 20 and 26 hit the UK top 20) and multi-platinum albums, most notably the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

With the disco backlash, came an unfair revisionist assessment of the Bee Gees that lumped them with trashy disco artifacts like Disco Duck, Ethel Merman’s disco album, and the Brady Bunch variety show. That’s unfortunate because the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin, Maurice – were among the craftiest and most professional songwriters in pop music history. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the pillowy ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and tell me you didn’t swoon.

But starting in the 1980s, the Bee Gees started to experience a decline in their commercial fortunes. But the Gibbs were ace songwriters so they were never in any danger of fading away. Even though pop radio lost interest in their music, they turned to producing other artists, and enjoyed a healthy second career in the 1980s as go-to songwriters. One of their biggest and most recognizable hits of the 80s was the classic Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream” (which appeared on Rogers’ 1983 Gibbs-written album Eyes That See in the Dark). 

The Brothers Gibb also found themselves working with three pop divas, revitalizing their careers and bringing them back to the top of the pop charts. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female acts of the 1960s and for a large part of the 1970s. But by 1980, they started to feel a similar dip in their sales as the Bee Gees did. The trio of legends felt a jolt in their careers with their Gibbs-helmed records: Streisand’s Guilty, Ross’ Eaten Alive, and Warwick’s Heartbreaker.

GuiltyStreisand’s Guilty (1980) was the most successful of the three albums and one of the most successful albums in Streisand’s career (it went on to sell over 6 million copies). It went to number on the album charts in the US and the UK, and it spawned a string of hit singles, three of which found their way into the top 10. By 1980, Streisand had cemented herself as a crossover superstar, winning Oscars for her movie work and a bunch of Grammys. During the 1970s, she shifted away from her supperclub pop of the 60s, and became a soft-rock/adult contemporary star. Hooking up with gooey songwriters like Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlish, and Michel Legrand, Streisand was the proto-Celine Dion, releasing albums of fillers larded with hit singles. Like a lot of mainstream pop singers, Streisand joined the disco craze and found success with some dance songs, including the monster duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer.

But by 1980, Streisand, though still massively popular, looked like she was in a rut. Enter Barry Gibb – that hairy-chested Adonis of pop who completed Streisand’s Malibu by way of Brooklyn transformation. Guilty is easily one of the most sublime and listenable pop albums of the last 40 years. Gibbs joined their longtime collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to produce a light and frothy record that works as a breezy soundtrack to a casual jaunt down Rodeo Drive.

Guilty sounds like high-quality leftovers from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibb trademarks are all there: the shuffled percussion, the frothy synths, the simple chord transitions, airtight backup harmonies. Streisand does a great job in easing up on her famous histrionics, too. The danger of pairing a powerhouse like Streisand with a seeming lightweight like the Gibbs is that she has the potential to overwhelm the music and production (the audio version of a bull in a china shop). But Streisand’s heavy, gigantic belt is kept in check, as she ably reigns in her near-operatic voice, sounding like a credible fourth Bee Gee.

As a duet partner, Barry Gibb proves to be a capable counterpoint to Streisand. Their voices blend perfectly and seamlessly, as if they were blended in a recording studio Kitchen Aid Blender. Streisand never goes full disco, though “Promises” with its galloping gait comes very close as does the plastic faux funk of “Never Give Up,” that fails to be convincing but is an admirable failure.

No, people listen to Streisand to luxuriate in that brassy voice, and she sounds best on ballads. Good thing the Gibbs are great at building solid slow dance songs. They’re corny, sappy, but impeccably crafted. And Guilty would be one of the few times in her career when Streisand doesn’t sound totally lost jumping on current pop trends.

HeartbreakerEven though the Bee Gees were known for their funky music, let’s be honest, they were squares, which is why it makes sense that they were a match made in heaven for Streisand as well as Dionne Warwick, a singer of uncommon talent and tonality, but one that not necessarily the most soulful on the radio (despite being tangentially linked to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, and Whitney Houston). Warwick’s early 1980s career was a strange animal. One of the leading hit makers of the 1960s, her 70s output slowed down, but then she hooked up with Clive Davis and Arista, and suddenly, she seemed somewhat relevant to pop radio again.

Like Streisand, Warwick found that hooking up with the Bee Gees would prove to be a commercial crafty thing to do as 1982’s Heartbreaker sold over 3 million copies. Its title track was one of Warwick’s biggest hit. Like Streisand, Warwick feels more at home in slower numbers, and so Heartbreaker is filled with romantic ballads. Unlike GuiltyHeartbreaker doesn’t feel quite as ambitious or well made. Nothing is wrong with the album per se, and the title song is infectious, but the album as a whole feels like a collection of songs that Streisand rejected for Guilty.

But like Streisand, Warwick’s voice is a perfect compliment for the slightly gauche production of the Brothers Gibb. She has a loud, husky voice that sounds at once affected and distant. Her phrasing is distinct and precise and there’s a chasteness in the way that she sings her love ballads. In the 1960s, she was paired with her musical kindred spirit Burt Bacharach, and he was the only musician who could make her dry delivery sound impassioned and urgent (“Don’t Make Me Over” is a gorgeous plea that Warwick sells beautifully). The Gibbs aren’t as successful and the result is that Warwick’s arch delivery sounds drained and mechanical. The whole affair feels drab and rote and the result is a parody of Adult Contemporary conventions (the songs – including a slick version of “Our Day Will Come) sound like something that would be played during the slow dance at cruise ship.

Eaten Alive (Expanded Edition)

Diana Ross is the only singer of the three had has the chops to do dance music. In fact some of her best solo work as been for the clubs. Like Streisand and Warwick, Ross also saw her audience shift as musical trends moved around. By 1985, when her Gibbs-produced LP Eaten Alive was relieved, Ross was in commercial limbo. She left Motown for RCA and her seemed to become merely an extension of her celebrity. She sold well, initially, but Eaten Alive came at a time when Ross was struggling to keep up with young pop divas like Madonna or Jody Watley. And unlike Streisand and Warwick, Ross always dove headfirst into pop trends, chasing them for pop success (she was rewarded for her foray into post-disco dance with the Chic-produced diana which sold four million copies and spit out a string of top 10 dance hits including the classics “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”)

Eaten Alive is the least successful of the three albums covered, both artistically and commercially. By 1985, it seems as if the Bee Gees had given their best work to other artists and struggled to find something good for Ross. The title track is interesting because it not only features work by the Bee Gees, but superstar Michael Jackson. His fingerprints are all over the angular dance track; in fact, his tight-fisted, clipped sound crowds  out the Bee Gees pretend-soul  (Jackson’s soulful growl ends up stealing the show at the song’s end, despite Barry Gibb’s caterwauling). The other dance number “Crimes of Passion” works a little better, but that’s because Ross’ impassioned performance makes the slight song seem better than it really is.

The ballads aren’t any better. Often the production overwhelms and buries Ross’ pretty croon, and she can sometimes sound muffled. This is never more true than in “Experience” a by-the-numbers love song with Ross sounding lost in the song’s mix (there’s a crazy echo that acts like a reverb, rending her nearly incomprehensible).

But there is one unequivocal triumph: “Chain Reaction,” a cracking number in which the Bee Gees do a beautiful job aping Holland-Dozier-Holland, and give Ross a stomping Motownesque number that sounds like a top shelf song she would’ve recording with the Supremes. The production is grand and dramatic, and Ross is engaged and fantastic. It’s nostalgia at its best, and its brilliance overshadows the rest of the songs on Eaten Alive (and is easily Ross’ best single post from the mid 1980s) and is the best and most innovative song from the trio of albums reviewed. It also went to number 1 on the UK charts.

As they continued with their own recording career, the Bee Gees continued writing and producing for other artists, but Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive was the last time that the band devoted its combined talents to update an iconic pop diva’s sound and career. Streisand, Warwick, and Ross moved on from their brief Bee Gee sojourns with varying success. Streisand, followed up Guilty was a long list of platinum albums and reunited with Barry Gibb on the sequel Guilty Pleasures (2005). Warwick’s career continued to coast with periodic blips of huge career success, peaking with 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” a treacly ballad she recorded with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, which was a gigantic hit (the proceeds went to AIDS research). Ross had arguably the most fitful and frustrating career of the three. After the relative failure of Eaten Alive, she bounced back with the gold-selling Swept Away, which featured her last US top 10 hit “Missing You.” She then failed to ever regain her commercial fortunes in the US (though in the UK and Japan she was still a reliable hit maker scoring top 10 hits all the way into the 200os).

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