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Bette and Joan play mothers in the third episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

The third episode of Feud: Bette and Joan – written by Tim Minear – is entitled “Mommie Dearest” and I’m sure it was impossible to go in that direction. The episode largely avoids references to the camp fest (except for a mention of estranged daughter Christina Crawford). The episode’s title is reference to motherhood – both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were famously difficult parents – both had children write tell-all memoirs, Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest the source material for the silly Faye Dunaway film. But Minear isn’t interested in camp; instead, he wants to show how difficult Davis and Crawford had it, trying to juggle motherhood and work. Minear also writes a tête-â- tête in which Crawford and Davis compare rough childhoods, giving some context to why these ladies are so hard.

Motherhood is obviously an important theme in “Mommie Dearest” and it winds its way throughout most of the episode. Crawford’s relationship with her kids is obviously more notorious, given that Christina Crawford memorably recounted the horrific abuse she received at the hands of her mother. Christina is only mentioned briefly, but there’s tension in the allusion: Crawford has to be convinced to send a note of congrats to her daughter when Christina makes her theater debut. Instead of signing the card bought by Mamacita, Crawford, in a gaze that could melt steel, starts to fume about how her own mother never gave her plaudits for her accomplishments. It’s a rough scene but it foreshadows her horrifying admission to Davis later, when the two meet for dinner. When asked by Davis when she lost her virginity, Crawford refers to being raped at 12 by her stepfather as her “first time.” Davis is human enough to be appalled at Crawford’s life and is shaken.

So motherhood is a complicated thing for Crawford because she had a neglectful mother who let her daughter be raped by her husband. So it’s no wonder that Crawford doesn’t really know how to be a good mom. And motherhood is a way to stave off loneliness, too. According to Minear’s script, she adopts her children so that she never has to be alone. And once the children start to grow up, she wants to adopt more, thereby continually keeping her house full of children. When age prohibits her from adopting any more children, she has to face a reality in which she is alone.

Davis, meanwhile, is much more together as a mother, even nurturing. B.D. Merrill, like Crawford, penned her own memoir that damned her mother, but in Minear’s script, the relationship, while fraught with tension and angst, has a base of love. Davis loves B.D., but like Crawford isn’t necessarily equipped to be a great mom (whatever that means). So, when B.D. is cast in a small role, and turns out to be awful, she rallies and supports her (even though, behind her back, she is appalled and free with her opinion). Davis was tough on her costars, especially those who she felt could imperil the success of her film (film folklore has it that she was so frightening to Marilyn Monroe during All About Eve that Monroe would regularly vomit from fright). And she finds a surrogate son in her costar, Victor Buono, who transfers the love he misses from his homophobic mother to Davis, who predicted her popularity among drag queens. Though Davis is far more nurturing than Crawford, she’s still an ambitious actress, and when B.D. wants to run lines, Davis is far more interested in working with Buono, who a) has a part of consequence in the film and b) is a fine thespian.

“Mommie Dearest” is a heavy show that gives both Davis and Crawford some space to feel out their characters and be quiet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the histrionic we expect: this is Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, after all. The filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was beset by the women sniping at each other and doing their best to sabotage the other. When Davis has to drag a prone Crawford out of bed, the latter weighs herself down with weights, causing Davis to wrench her back. And when Davis is called to kick Crawford around, she goes all Method and actually starts to savagely kick her costar in the head. The two haunt each other scenes, throwing the other off, and Crawford’s vanity means that as the film progresses, she uses tricks of the trade to pull, tighten, and pinch whatever is sagging or hanging, with the result being that as the film ends, Crawford has Benjamin Buttoned.

The third episode is continuing the awesome streak started by the pilot. Both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are wonderful in their scenes, and the latter especially gets to really develop her character into something interesting in this episode. For the first two, the balance has tipped slightly in favor of Lange’s Crawford: it’s the showier of the two roles, and Lange’s physical transformation is more drastic (the hair, the makeup, the eyebrows). For her part, Sarandon sidestepped much of Davis’ patented clipped speech (though it feels as if in this episode it’s stronger – “How nice,” she snaps at Hedda Hopper), and is more subdued. In “Mommie Dearest” she gets to explore many sides of her character’s personality, and does so with aplomb. As Victor Buono, Dominic Burgess is a find, while Kiernan Shipka is a brilliant sparring partner for Sarandon.

From the fourth episode on, it appears as if Feud will look at the publicity surrounding the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as well as the hubbub around Oscar nominations – it was touched upon in “Mommie Dearest” that both Crawford and Davis want Oscar nominations, and Crawford ingeniously drops a story in the press that Davis would graciously put her name up for supporting actress to let her costar get nominated for best actress. This disagreement allows for Lange to probably have the greatest line so far in Feud history when Crawford roars at Davis, “And it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not youuuuuu, bitch!” (1950 was a good year: Anne Baxter for All About Eve, Davis for All About Eve, Swanson for Sunset Boulevard, Eleanor Parker for Caged, and Judy Holliday who deservedly won for Born Yesterday) To see Davis yearn for an Academy Award is interesting because so far, all we see and hear is that Bette Davis is the great artiste and it’s Joan Crawford who is the movie star sell out.

 

 

 

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Second episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ raises stakes

The Other Woman thumbnailLast week’s pilot of Feud: Bette and Joan had our two Hollywood divas, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), compete in pissing contests to see who is the biggest queen of them all. While Crawford has the cunning and the calculation, Davis has the talent and the skill (plus the commitment to the craft), which means that by the end of the first episode, when Davis triumphantly marches onto the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in full Baby Jane Hudson drag, she won the first round.

The second episode works to balance that out, by having Davis be more vulnerable. In “The Other Woman” things start off strangely: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are on the same side. They form an alliance, understanding that they both are integral to the making of the film. It’s strength in numbers. Together they get a hot starlet fired, and show director  Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), that even though he’s the director, the stars are in charge. So, in an effort to undermine their united front, Aldrich plants an unflattering blind item in the press that cattily zeroes in on Crawford’s insecurity: namely, her aging beauty. Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, still flouncing and crazed) is the author of the piece, but it’s Aldrich who creates it: allowing Hopper to write that it may have been Davis who bitchily sniped that Crawford wears falsies.

There is a great scene in the film in which Crawford’s car screeches to a halt, in her parking space, right in front of the sign that reads “Joan Crawford.” I thought she’d knock the sign over. Lange is great in the scenes that show Crawford’s fear and vulnerability, but she’s especially effective in the scenes in which she channels the legend’s rage. She approaches Lear-esque delusion, paranoia, and self-aggrandizement, in these moments, and she’s a terror to watch. She’s careful to temper any operatic moments, so as not to plunge into camp – there are no shades of Faye Dunaway in any of Lange’s choices. But Lange also gets to play Crawford’s more cunning side in “The Other Woman.” Stung by Hopper’s piece, she deftly manipulates the gossip columnist into siding with her, by crying poverty – and Hopper’s just dumb enough to believe it.

And because Lange is so great, Sarandon’s Davis feels like a bit of a struggle. Sarandon has yet to hit her stride in the same way her costar has; she hasn’t shaken of her Susan Sarandon-ness. It’s possible that she is worried about appearing too much like a drag impression of Bette Davis, but she rarely hits the fantastic highs that Lange does. Still, it’s a solid job, and in this episode, Davis is the one that’s losing. Not only is she starting to feel some of the insecurities that Crawford is feeling, but she’s also contending with her difficult relationship with daughter B.D. Merrill (Kiernan Shipka). B.D. is beautiful and young and is a constant reminder of the passage of time. Davis seethes when she sees B.D. be the belle of the ball at the studio, and quickly ships her off to main. Sarandon and Shipka have a great duel on a stairwell, in which the latter rips into the former: Sarandon’s great in the scene, but it’s Shipka that’s mesmerizing, proving that her time stealing every scene she’s ever filmed in Mad Men wasn’t a mere fluke.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is also back with her bizarre impression of Olivia de Havilland, along with Kathy Bates fun – if inconsequential – Joan Blondell. The two start blathering on about women’s lib and feminism, and though de Havilland believes that in the 1970s things are much better for women in the film business, Blondell quickly tamps her optimism down, gravely noting that things aren’t all that different.

But that’s what Feud is really about. Sure, on the surface, it’s about two Hollywood icons duking it out to see who will prevail, but the show is also about how Hollywood is a mean business to women “of a certain age.” Their work is judged alongside their looks, and if they are losing their looks, the perception is that they are also losing their talent. Aldrich exploits this sexism by playing on the vanity and insecurities of his stars, in hopes of gaining control of his picture. Initially, he’s won – but it’s clear that he cannot underestimate his opponents, nor can he celebrate too soon. He may have gained some footing by playing Davis and Crawford against one another, but he’ll have to be careful if he wants to maintain his authority.

If “The Other Woman” feels a bit like a step down from the fantastic pilot, that’s only because the pilot was so good and it managed to do so much in about an hour. Still, “The Other Woman” is stellar TV watching because Ryan Murphy knows how to put on a good show. And he’s wise to knock Davis down a few pegs: it makes the rivalry between she and Crawford more interesting, and it allows for Sarandon to delve into the complicated woman she’s portraying. Davis is the seeming epitome of no bullshit strength: so it’s a fascinating wonder to see her falter when she’s going through a musical number with Aldrich, unsure of her talent and worried about looking foolish. Again, nothing in this scene feels like Bette Davis, but Sarandon does great work here showing a less strident side of her character.

The next episode is entitled “Mommie Dearest” – wonderful because so far, Feud has managed to escape the looming, kitschy shadow of Mommie Dearest or its dubious legacy. And even though B.D. Merrill and Bette Davis had a strained relationship, Crawford’s relationship with her daughter Christina was downright catastrophic. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, Christina was in her early 20s, already a traumatized survivor of her childhood at the hands of the gorgon-esque Crawford. It’ll be interesting to see how much Murphy and his screenwriters Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam pay homage to the loopy Mommie Dearest.

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Lifetime’s remake of ‘Beaches’ is an unfunny joke

Nia Long and Idina Menzel star in ‘Beaches’

Lifetime original movies are really a trip now, aren’t they. Once a haven for out-of-work TV actresses who flexed their acting muscles playing all kinds of abused/victimized women, Lifetime has since branched out, churning out tabloid trash biopics/docudramas and is now also working on remaking campy, soapy melodramas from the 1980s. First we saw a reasonably successful take on Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, and this past season saw Lifetime’s post-millennial take on Beaches.

The intended audience for this remake will probably have already seen the movie a million times, own the DVD, and the CD, and have memorized every line of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” so I’m still a little unclear as to why there was a need to remake Beaches. Also, the Gary Marshall original – released in 1988 – is an exceedingly mediocre film, and in no way was an update needed, as the original did what it set out to do: make women viewers and gay male viewers cry.

And as absurd, tawdry, and overblown as the original was, it had a major selling point: Bette Midler, in a tailor-made vehicle. She didn’t so much chew the scenery as chop down on it, like Ms. Pacman. The C.C. Bloom character – a raucous, campy, torch singer with a bawdy sense of humor – was a perfect fit for Midler, and really it was just an extension of her concert persona. The movie gave Midler a chance to sing, vamp, crack jokes, and just be a terrifying whirlwind of emotion.

In the new version, Midler is replaced by Idina Menzel, Tony-Award winning singer-actress, known for her turn as Elphaba in Wicked. And though she has the singing chops, her C.C. is distressingly boring and blah. She lacks Midler’s queer/camp persona and screenwriters Bart Barker and Nikole Beckwith aren’t sure how to figure out their version of C.C. There are visual cues that she’s a misft – her hair is wild and crazy, and her apartment is messy. But otherwise, Menzel’s performance lacks the charisma and star power of Midler’s.

And then there’s the best friend role, Hillary. In the original, poor Barbara Hershey was hired to be beautiful and to bravely brace herself at the onset of Hurricane Midler, before dying to the bathetic strands of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In the new version, Nia Long gets saddled with the thankless job of being C.C.’s wind beneath her wings, and though the actress tries to inject some life into the role, she’s constantly thwarted by a script that wants to force her into rote cliches.

Besides the blah casting, there’s also the weird fidelity to the original. Very little is done differently in the new version of Beaches, except some shuffling of events from the original. There are even echoes of some of the lines (none of the funny ones, though). The new film does nothing to update the film, save dress its heroines in contemporary clothing and have Minzel belt some already-dated AC/pop tunes (the less said about her reaching cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings” the better)

The theme of the story is about friendship – long-lasting friendship between two women that begins in childhood. The friendship begins on a Venice Beach boardwalk, with a 10 year-old C.C. busking for coins, and an awestruck Hillary watching. In the original, we have Mayim Bialik – who seemed born just to play Bette Midler as a child. Bialik was able to mimic Midler’s Borscht Belt/Catskills schtick perfectly. In the new version, we have the pretty Gabriella Pizzolo, who kinda-sorta looks like Menzel. Pizzolo does what she can but she’s not given much – the writers rush through the childhood scenes, so that we get Menzel and Long right away. In half an hour, so much happens! Childhood, marriage, divorce, and then we finally settle into the meat of the film, in which C.C. and Hillary profess their undying love for each other.

Throughout the film, I wondered just how the producers convinced such classy actresses like Nia Long and Indina Menzel to star in such schlock (I’m hoping each got such a huge payout for this thing that they can now buy private islands). The writing is superficial, glossing over any real examination of the friendship, and there isn’t a trope that the writers can’t resist: even if you haven’t seen the original, the minute Nia Long stops for a second to catch her breath, you know not to get too closely attached to her.

Of course the ending of the movie is supposed to be this huge emotional crescendo – the one where you reach for your Kleenix. But the film as a whole is so manipulative and cheaply-made, that instead of sadness or catharsis, there’s relief – finally, the movie’s over. There’s so little to recommend in this nonredeemable exercise in mediocrity. The actresses – so much better in other projects – flounder and looked confused because of the subpar material. The writing is paper thin and the recycled bits from the original just remind viewers of how much better the older movie was (and that’s not saying a whole lot). The only thing this film has got going for it, is the sets are sometimes pretty (the beach house C.C. and Hillary share is very pretty – the Hollywood mansion C.C. enjoys as a big time pop star is a tacky monstrosity, complete with an even tackier white piano).

The original Beaches is camp – it’s hokum, but camp. The new version – strangely amateurish, and feeling like a cheapo rush job, fails as camp and merely settles into crap.

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Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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Dreaming about being BFFs with Leah Remini

I must have had Leah Remini on my mind a lot lately, because I had a very vivid dream about being friends with TV comedienne and Scientology whistle blower, Leah Remini. It was a very vivid dream. So vivid in fact, that when I woke up, I realized that I hadn’t yet written a Christmas card for Leah. And I realized that I didn’t have her address, but still, in the fog of just waking up, I made the strange connection that Leah and I shared a mutual friend who lives in Atlanta (we don’t), and so I would send Leah’s Christmas card, addressing it to Leah, but in c/o of my friend.

In my dream, Leah had a gorgeous ranch home, somewhere warm. I’ll assume it was L.A., but I’m not completely sure – it could’ve been Phoenix (I flew out there to visit in-laws a few times). She was very sweet. In my dream, she still had her thick New York accent, but she wasn’t as surly as her comedic persona. Not surprisingly, she was gorgeous and funny – just like she seems to be in real life.

This isn’t the first time that I had a celebrity dream that felt so real that I was still confused waking up. Once I dreamed that I was spring cleaning my apartment with Sharon Stone (who was, like 6″ in my dream) and I had the television on in the background, and the promos for the final season of Sex and the City came on, and suddenly, in the dream, I got very upset because when Kristin Davis came on the screen, I started to rant to Sharon Stone, “Oh my god, I’ve been calling Kristen for days, and she hasn’t gotten back to me. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s my best friend, and she hasn’t gotten back to me in days.” And I woke up and was actually upset that Kristin Davis was shining me on.

Celebrity dreams are weird – a boss of mine used to have a Website in which he compiled emails by contributors. These emails were stories of celebrity dreams. I was still working with him when I had the Sharon Stone/Kristen Davis dream, so he included it in his site (with a neat caricature of Sharon Stone).

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Emma Stone makes a triumphant return to ‘SNL’

Emma Stone and Shawn Mendes Bumper Photos

Along with Justin Timberlake, Melissa McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and John Goodman, Emma Stone is a cast member that is so good at sketch comedy and hosting Saturday Night Live, that it’s curious that she didn’t pay her dues as a sketch comedienne before becoming an Oscar-nominated superstar.

Stone is funny, beautiful, and smart – a killer combination, and she got to show off all sides of her hilarious persona on last week’s show. Unlike a lot of gorgeous hosts, she doesn’t get marginalized by being shunted off into straight man roles (i.e. the exasperated mom, the exasperated girlfriend, the exasperated wife).

During her cute monologue, Stone informed her audience that it’s her third time hosting, and she called herself a vet of the show – I found it interesting that it was only her third time. Her monologue looked like it was going to be a musical – so I braced myself, but instead it was a funny riff on how SNL is like a high school. As she wandered the halls of the studio, she ran into cast mates who played the roles of high school archetypes (Vanessa Bayer was a mean girl, Kenan Thompson was a stoner, Bobby Moynihan was the brooding hunk).

Before, the monologue, we were treated to an Alec Baldwin as Trump sketch. I like his impression, and the sketch’s joke – that Trump will retweet anything – is salient and funny, but there needs to be more to the joke than what the writers are doing so far. Baldwin’s performance is brilliant and savage, but the writing is still weirdly soft. McKinnon’s wonderful Kellyanne Conway is great – and just like her Hillary Clinton, McKinnon is able to create a real, three-dimensional character instead of an accurate imitation (truth be told, McKinnon’s a virtuoso at characters, but not really all that great a mimic). The opener was funny, and I laughed (the Stephen Bannon as Grim Reaper sight gag was good), but it’s pointing to a future of softball lobs at the President-Elect.

The show’s first sketch was the recurring high school theater show. Lots of people are down on this sketch,and when it first came out, I didn’t like it much, either, but have since warmed up to it. The strident, myopic views of these supposedly progressive high school kids is a great parody of the dangers of forming one’s opinion in an echo chamber. Armed only with memes, Facebook posts, and buzz words, these kids are putting together a serious show, but undo any of their good intentions by being woefully misinformed (the kids think protesters at Standing Rock want the pipeline) or grossly inept at proving their point (shaming the audience into not being bilingual, the kids spoke Mandarin, but of course, it wasn’t really Mandarin). Aidy Bryant’s student then gets a monologue about HIV/AIDS in which her character starts off with an empowering message about the importance of destigmatizing AIDS (so far, so good), before her message gets away with her, and she urges everyone in the world to have AIDS before she announces  that “AIDS rocks!” (with triumphant fist in the air). As always, Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bryant as two disgusted parents do some great, understated work.

Another great recurring tradition is to fit the hosts into funny music videos. Cameron Diaz, Anna Kendrick, and Elizabeth Banks starred in some memorable music video parodies during their stints, and Stone this time stars in a 90’s Christian Contemporary music video with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. As per usual, the visuals are spot-on: the big hair, the oversized dress shirts, the vests – the faux snow scene (check out Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”). The song is about regifting a lame-ass candle from one coworker to another. McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong are great and sell the song despite the inanity of the lyrics.

Another Stone-heavy sketch has Pete Davidson as a high school kid having trouble with his math homework, and being inspired by the people in his posters, including McKinnon’s video game heroine, Mikey Day’s snowboarder, Thompson’s stand-up comic, and Stone’s bikini babe, all who lecture him about the importance of school and math. She dominates the sketch with a comically-porn squeal of a voice, as her character undermines the efforts of the other posters, who are sincerely trying to help Davidson.

As far as political sketches go, aside from the cold opener, we have a nothing sketch about a reality show that is looking to catch Hillary Clinton, as if she were Big Foot. Social media after the election has been peppered with stories of hikers and passersby spotting Clinton in the woods. It’s a pretty old joke that Twitter users already made, and the sketch – probably the bummer of the evening – didn’t do anything new with the joke (still, it was nice to see McKinnon as Clinton, even if all she did was stalk the forest).

I don’t like Weekend Update anymore – I just watch it for the correspondents. Leslie Jones didn’t disappoint, using her time to encourage men to be okay with the size of their endowments. She’s an ebullient, smart, and joyful presence and she’s a fantastic storyteller. The other correspondent was Bayer pulling out her great Jennifer-Aniston-as-Rachel-from-Friends impression, which was interrupted by the real Jennifer Aniston, who’s promoting a movie (in which Bayer is a costar). It’s a silly thing when the real person pops up next to the impressionist, but it was funny to see both Aniston and Bayer to a Rachel-off in which both descend into that high-pitched squawk of disbelief (at one point, Bayer seems to have some sort of Rachel meltdown as she sputters).

The rest of the show breezed through on the strength of the solid material and Stone’s great hosting skills. As a singing office cleaner with Jones and Cecily Strong (absent for most of the evening), Stone shone as the three cleaners guilted the office drones in their building to listen to their Christmas tunes, only to unveil a repertoire of holiday ditties that cast Santa as a big ole lech. The songs get dirtier and dirtier as the office workers get more confused and appalled as our trio belt out songs about how their chimneys only gone one way or that a line of elves are waiting for their turn after Old Saint Nick is done with them. A great bonus as Bayer’s clueless worker call the cleaners “Miss Thing” in a transparent attempt to hide that she doesn’t know their names.

From that winner comes one of the strongest of the evening – McKinnon’s return as Debette Goldry, an old Hollywood vet who recounts horror tales of Hollywood of yesteryear when women were treated as little more than objects (in fact, according to Debette, women were part of the prop budget and she sat on a table, labeled “woman). Stone, Jones, and Aniston appear as themselves and Zamata is the moderator of a panel of women in Hollywood, and while the three actresses talk about the challenges of being women in Hollywood, Debette trumps them with wretched tales of abuse at the hands of old time Hollywood studio execs, such as taking arsenic to keep her skin beautiful, or having pancake batter injected into her skin instead of Botox. Because she’s such a relic, Debette’s amazed when Aniston talks about sitting in the director’s chair – I loved Debette’s awed shock at this bit of news, which means a lot to her because she comes from a time when women were “just lying on a track waiting to get run over.” It would be nice if the stakes were heightened in the case of Stones, Aniston, and especially Jones, who actually did suffer from sexism and misogyny (her true experiences would give the scripted stuff thrown at Debette a run for its money). For many, the sketch feels like a way to say “Hey, actresses of today – you don’t have it so bad. Just look at how bad it was long ago.” And in a sense, that sentiment is correct: we rarely hear stories like that of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, thank god, and these sketches are a nice way to bring some much-needed perspective, especially when we hear Patricia Arquette talk about the wage gap in Hollywood (though, again, to counter any of that, the writers should’ve just let Jones talk about her summer, and Debette would’ve probably been like, “Yeah, you’re right…you win, I fold”).

The other pre-taped segment was a funny fake toy commercial. SNL has a long history of great fake ads – it’s one of the show’s highlights (back in the day, there was even a compilation show of the program’s greatest fake commercial hits). In this one, Fisher-Price has a new toy out for the holidays, a plastic well for sensitive little boys. While girls are playing with Barbies and other boys are playing with toy guns, what are the sensitive, melancholy boys supposed to do? Play with their plastic well, which gives them hours of fun, leaning against its side, running their fingers through the water, and being thoughtful. The kid who plays the pensive little tyke in the sketch is funny, as is his fiercely protective – and let’s just say it, awesome – mother, Stone is a hoot (“Everything is for you!” she rages at a little bully. “This one thing is for him!”)

And it’s fitting that a December episode would have a nativity sketch, with Stone playing Mary, who’s understandably irritated, tired, and undone by all of the guests marching into her manger to visit the baby. It’s not a funny ha-ha sketch – it makes total sense that’s shoved way at the end – but it’s very well-played by Stone and the message is pretty cool. For all eternity, we get the story of Mary being perfect, luminescent, meek, and compliant, and it’s great that in this sketch, Mary’s kind of a badass and totally relatable and sympathetic. It’s also funny that Kyle Mooney gets to be Joseph, but a total bro-ey Joseph, who doesn’t get why Mary may not want kings and wise men to traipse around her just after she gave birth (he even asks her to get them some drinks). Even if we’re meant to see Mary as “difficult” and a touch bratty, it’s a surprisingly feminist sketch, with Stone aces, conveying both the frustration of having to hold her shit together as well as the exhaustion of just giving birth and being a new mom. And the ending is fantastic with the Angel Gabriel’s condescending insensitivity when he asks, “Are you okay?  You look tired,” to which Mary fumes perfectly.

Following Dave Chappelle’s near-perfect episode and Kristen Wiig’s excellent outing, this is the third great show in a row. The next episode features John Cena, the wrestler-turned action star who has proven that he has decent comic chops (Sisters), and SNL has a history of doing right by these kinds of performers (The Rock has had a solid turn at hosting).

A random thought:

I love Cecily Strong’s Planned Parenthood t-shirt at the goodbyes – speaking of Strong, usually a heavy hitter, was quite absent

 

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Melissa McCarthy graces solid ‘The Boss’ with a wonderful performance

Melissa McCarthy’s career is a series of performances that outclass her films. With the exception of Spy and Ghostbusters, none of McCarthy’s films matched her talent, commitment, and verve. 2016’s The Boss is a solid comedic outing that works as a fun – if undemanding – vehicle for the comedienne’s vast talents. Written by McCarthy, Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband and the film’s director), and Steve Mallory, The Boss is a sprightly, breezy way of spending a couple hours.

McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, a character she created while a member of the legendary The Groundlings. Michelle is a multi-media tycoon – a lampoon amalgam of Donald Trump, Suze Orman, and Martha Stewart – who is arrested for insider trading. After serving a sinfully short sentence of merely five months, she’s left broke, alone, and homeless. With few prospects, Michelle turns to her former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), a single mother who’s perennially overworked and exhausted. Michelle – used to the finer things in life like owning her own helicopter or skyscrapers – has trouble adjusting to the simpler life of sharing Claire’s relatively iddy bitty apartment (in what looks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood).

Frustrated with little outlet for her talents, Michelle eyes the local girl scout-esque troupe in which Claire’s daughter Rachel is a member of; poaching members of the troupe, Michelle births a new startup – Darnell’s Darlings – a girl scout troupe that sells Claire’s amazing brownies. Before Michelle realizes it, she falls for her former assistant and her cute little tyke and the three form a quirky family. Looming in the background is Peter Dinklage’s Renault (or Ronald), Melissa’s former lover-turned-rival who’s plotting to muscle in on Michelle’s new business venture.

The Boss is an undemanding, unambitious little film that serves dutifully as a funny entry in McCarthy’s oeuvre. The script – some of it feeling improvised – is solid, though it starts to lose its logic in the final act, where it sends its characters on a caper that culminates in a surprisingly violent sword-fighting scene between McCarthy and Dinklage. And though the screenwriters are capable of penning a solid script, it doesn’t take much time to develop Michelle’s friendship with Claire, nor does it take enough time to show the growth of their fledgling company (its huge success feels too fast and unearned).

As a director, Falone (who has a cameo as Michelle’s much-abused lawyer) doesn’t show much personality or distinction. It’s a nondescript effort, but he’s smart in that he lets McCarthy do her thing – and she does it beautifully. Even in the most mundane situation, the comedienne manages to perform movie magic. Her Michelle isn’t much of a character (and there’s some forced backstory stuff about Michelle having a wretched childhood in a series of foster homes that doesn’t feel earned or natural), but even if the role doesn’t tax McCarthy’s acting skills, she gets to show off her estimable comedy chops. As support, Bell is fine and Dinklage has some goofy fun (and in a smaller role, Kathy Bates chews up some scenery as Michelle’s mentor/mother figure). But this is clearly McCarthy’s show and she’s a whirling dervish of mugging.

At this point in her career, McCarthy has graduated from mere talented character actress to a full-fledged movie superstar. The Boss is an enjoyable effort, but one that is strikingly mediocre, which is a somewhat disappointing theme in her film career. The film did well in the box office (as do most of her films), but it would be nice if she veered more toward smart, funny, and thoughtful movies like Spy or St. Vincent or even Bridesmaids. Her box office appeal shows her having the kind of commercial legs to compete with the likes of Will Ferrell or Seth Rogan, but given how smart she is – both as a comic and an actress – it would be nice to see her avoid easy junk like this and hold out for smarter projects.

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