Tag Archives: movie review

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, commentary, movie, movie review

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, movie, movie review, Writing

Molly Shannon broadens her range in Chris Kelly’s ‘Other People’

Image resultOther People is the kind of comedy that would fit into television in today’s landscape. Our diet for funny must include huge doses of tragedy. It’s a hilarious story dealing with a woman who is dying of cancer. Screenwriter Chris Kelly, newly-minted head writer of Saturday Night Live, took his experiences of watching his mother die in 2009, and took pen to paper and wrote this affecting and hilarious dramedy about a comedian who is suffering through his mother’s long and painful death.

Kelly’s onscreen persona, David (Jesse Plemons), is a comedy writer based in New York City. His career is struggling as is his personal life. David moves back to Sacramento for a spell to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). After torturous rounds of chemo, Joanne decides to stop, letting nature take its course. The household is fraught with tragedy, tension, and comedy. David’s dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is a loving husband and father to daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madison Beaty), but is distant with his son because he’s still hung up on David’s homosexuality.

While dealing with his mom’s illness, David is also nursing the demise of his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods). Throughout the movie, David is trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. He hangs out with bestie Gabe (John Early) whose tween brother Justin (J.J. Totah) is a fabulous drag queen. He’s also trying to make shape of his career – his Comedy Central pilot failed and he’s pinning his hopes on an ABC deal.

Films like Other People can crash and burn if not handled well. Chris Kelly wisely stays clear of the bathetic lachrymose that sunk films like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment. Despite his personal stake in the story, he’s very unsentimental and unsparing when showing his viewers Joanne’s decline. As a director, he’s still a bit green. He hasn’t figured out a consistent way to blend the comedy and the tragedy – both highly pitched – in a way that feels organic. At times, he manages, but often the tonal shifts feel abrupt.

Casting a film like this is hard stuff because it’s a challenge to get funny actors who can match the demands of the script. It feels like the film’s populated by wall-to-wall comics. Even in smaller roles like family friends or coworkers, we folks like Paula Pell, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Retta, Lennon Parham, Paul Dooley, Nicole Byer, Rose Abdoo, as well as, the aforementioned Early and Woods. And lead Molly Shannon – an SNL vet – proves to be yet another, in a long list of comedians who prove to be sterling dramatic performers, too. Her trademark goofy mugging – all arms and hands splayed – is effective when Joanne is healthier and stronger, but she adapts beautifully to the more concise and contained restraints that Joanne’s decline brings – her expressive face can convey a multitude of emotions without needing a single word uttered. Plemons and Whitford match her note-for-note, but gallantly allow for Other People to remain Shannon’s show.

Kelly’s script gives up the story’s ending in the first scene. It’s a wise choice because expectations are matched, and therefore the audience isn’t waiting for a twist or a surprise ending, nor are they expecting some neat or pat resolution. Instead we’re left to focus on the relationships, namely that of David and Joanne. It’s hinted in one touching scene that his coming out wasn’t smooth, and it’s clear that Norman still cannot seem to accept having a gay son (in one sad scene, he’d rather wait outside on a dark New York street than go inside David’s apartment which he shares with Paul). Though, this isn’t a gay coming-of-age story. Instead, it’s a touching, tiny, indie dramedy that left viewers gasping for breath from laughing and crying.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, movie, movie review, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

Melissa McCarthy charms in ‘Spy’

Spy (fka Susan Cooper)Recently it was announced that the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly was being canceled. Though it still pulled respectable ratings, it was clear that its star, Melissa McCarthy was slumming it, co-starring in a middling sitcom (for which she won an Emmy in its premier season). Instead of being a TV star, though, something far more interesting happened: Melissa McCarthy became a bonafide, box-office superstar. More than any other female comic in recent years, McCarthy has racked up a list of box-office smashes (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy) and is going to star in the remake of Ghostbusters. With this impressive track record, she’s joined the ranks of Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And like Sandler, Carrey, Apatow, and Stiller, the quality of the films – despite their financial success – ebbs and flows.

But Spy is an excellent outlier in the otherwise mediocre film oeuvre of Melissa McCarthy. It’s a spoof on the action film, but doesn’t rely on parody to tell its story. Instead, it’s that strange rare popcorn film that is smart, broad, funny, and progressive.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who must jump into the field as an undercover agent to stop the black market sale of a nuclear bomb. The plot sounds ridiculously far-fetched written down, but writer/director Paul Feig (reunited with McCarthy after Bridesmaids) has crafted a fantastic story. Susan could’ve easily been a joke, but instead, he writes a character that is smart, wise, and resourceful. When all of the CIA’s top agents’ identities have been compromised, it’s the normally-invisible Susan that is called on by her boss, Elaine Crocker (a snarky Allison Janney) to go undercover and tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, McCarthy’s costar from Bridesmaids), who may know where and when the nuke sale will take place.

Credit must be given to Feig, who creates a solid action caper. He sends his heroine to some ritzy locales in Paris, and poor old Susan has to don some pretty hideous wigs and costumes to pass as an assuming frumpy American tourist. As a director, Feig also handles the action sequences well – though it must be said, that for a mainstream comedy, it’s shockingly violent, and there are a lot of deaths – some of them quite graphic. The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed: there is one brilliant fight scene, in particular, set in a kitchen between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri (who plays a henchman) that benefits from some spectacular choreography, fantastic staging, and some nifty use of kitchen equipment as the two women go head-to-toe, brandishing cleavers, knives, and using skillets as shields.

Though not explicitly feminist, Spy has a great message and uses its star wisely. It’s tempting to use a comedienne like McCarthy for sight gags and physical comedy, particularly because of her weight – and in the past, McCarthy herself has leaned on that as a crutch. She’s great at playing very broad characters, but she’s always managed to imbue even the most cartoonish character with flecks of personality. In Spy, she’s finally gifted with a script that allows for her to make use of her considerable slapstick prowess, but yet, still build a character. She employs well-placed pauses and verbal inflections, and has an understated way of delivering her lines, which is a perfect balance for her more raucous moments of falling over, crashing through doors, or face planting on the ground.

And though McCarthy is the star, she gets some fantastic support from a well-cast supporting ensemble. Byrne, not most people’s first choice for comedienne, does bitchy very well, and is great as a straight man to McCarthy – the two, though adversaries in the film, make for a great comic duo – she serves up some deliciously cruel one-liners and the two bounce off each other well. And as Susan’s best girlfriend, stand-up comic Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) blesses the film with her ebullient presence. And as the male leads, Jason Stratham and Jude Law both show wiley, hidden comic chops – the former, especially, steals his scenes, as a disgruntled CIA agent, disgusted at Susan’s sudden professional ascent.

As a spoof, Spy works because it gently tweaks at the conventions of the spy genre, but it also transcends the film parody genre. Film parody is difficult to pull off because even if the jokes work, if the film serves merely as a way to make fun of something, without bothering to be any good, then the film ages quickly and doesn’t work after repeated viewing. What makes Spy so engaging is that though it makes fun of the spy genre, it’s also a legitimate entry, as well. It has all of the ingredients: a heroic lead, beautiful women, handsome men, luxurious locales.

But more importantly, along with the funny, we also get an important message about self-confidence and hard work. Susan is great at her job because she works hard and studies hard. She knows her shit. The only problem is that because she’s a woman and because she’s a woman of size, she’s marginalized by her colleagues. That is one of the reasons why as an undercover agent, she’d be a choice pick: who is more invisible than women of size? And the early scenes in which Susan pines for Law’s dashing agent are sad because she’s clearly under the mistaken assumption that because of his looks, Law’s character is out of her league.

And so Spy works on a deeper level because Susan learns about self-confidence and gains it as she gets better at her job. Quickly those who dismiss her or underestimate her regret doing so. Feig and McCarthy also take care to ensure that Susan isn’t the joke. There are no fat jokes, nor do we think Susan is anything less than gorgeous when she’s not done up in undercover frump drag. When she wants to infiltrate a fancy casino party, she ditches her drab gear and instead shows up in a sexy, open neck black dress, and owns the room. Later on, she gets done up in a sexy blazer and sports a chic bob (looking remarkably similar to fellow comedienne Dawn French). And it all feels right, and not of it feels condescending or pandering. Susan’s a catch. She’s dashing. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s brave. And she kicks ass.

Aspiring filmmakers should watch Spy to learn how to make a successful, compelling mainstream comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audiences, doesn’t punch down, or pander to the lowest common denominator.

Click here to buy Spy on DVD from amazon.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Celeb, Comedy, DVD, movie, movie review, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

‘The Help’ is a messy jumble of a couple good movies and a lot more bad ones

The HelpThe Help is the kind of movie about the Civil Rights Movement that mainstream white audiences love, because that complicated and difficult time is spoon fed to viewers with the kind of optimistic that lets people think that a) racial discrimination is over, a thing of the past and b) wow, weren’t those white people nasty, I’m glad I’m not like one of them. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is yet another in a long line of movies about the Civil Rights Movement in which a white protagonist takes center stage. We get to see the horrors of Jim Crow as well as the glimmers of hope through progress from the POV of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who aspires to be a journalist.

And that’s The Help‘s first problem. If we need another Civil Rights Era narrative film, then why do we need another one the centers on the experiences of a white protagonist? In the film Skeeter is the liberal conscious of the film’s white liberal viewers. She treats the maids kindly and is contemptuous of her racist friends. Viewers are meant to watch the film through Skeeter’s eyes and feel smug, like she, that they are not like the bad white people who wreak some awful havoc on the lives of the black characters.

As a character, Skeeter acts merely as a refreshing antidote to the bigoted atmosphere created by the other white characters, namely Hilly Walters Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the leader of the society of young southern belles. She rules in her kingdom with a cruel fist, casting anyone whom she feels is deserving adrift into social isolation. Her treatment of her friends is terrible, but her treatment of the black women in the town is criminal. And because she’s so powerful (though the source of her power is ephemeral), her legion of housewives dutifully follow suit. All except Skeeter, who remains the white moral center of the film.

But because this is about the Civil Rights Movement, we also are privy to the lives of the black characters – but not nearly enough. When we focus on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), then we have the kernel of a good film. Aibileen and Minny are best friends who support each other. And they need the support because they both work hard as maids: Aibileen for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O’Reilly), a neglectful mother whose young daughter adores Aibileen; Minny, on the other hand, has trouble finding permanent employment because of her temper but eventually finds work with the town’s social pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) – more on that later.

When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are on screen, there’s some movie magic, namely due to the actress’ skills. The writing often lets them down: they’re tropes and little more, but the two women have a chemistry that transcends the limits of the film, and they create a beautiful friendship. I wish more of their lives together was explored because a film about how two women support and take care of each other during difficult times filled with social unrest would be an interesting one to watch. But we don’t get to sit and watch Davis and Spencer interact because the film is far more interesting in how white folks saw Civil Rights.

The plot has Skeeter cook up a dangerous scheme of documenting the lives of the maids in town. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell her their stories – unvarnished stories of subjugation, humiliation, and class stratification. The risk is huge – the women could lose their jobs, even be victims of violence. Of course, Skeeter’s risk is low and that’s another problem with the film – the stakes are so low for Skeeter that though she’s supposed to be seen as a brave and inspiring figure, she merely comes off as privileged and a little opportunistic. When Hilly gets a black woman falsely arrested for theft, the other maids in town convene at Aibileen’s house and agree to have their lives chronicled, in hopes of exposing just how gross a life of servitude can be. We’re gifted with the briefest of montages in which the maids speak, but again, the film is more interested in Skeeter’s growth and development, so we don’t understand, see, or hear the indignities that countless black women had to shoulder just to ensure a better life for their children. We don’t get a sense of the violence or violation. It’s all skimming at the surface, enough to have most decent people offended, but not enough to really examine just how dysfunctional this kind of society really is.

Screenwriter Tate Taylor must’ve had a notebook bursting with ideas, because along with the Skeeter plot, the Aibileen and Minny plot, we also get the Celia and Minny show. In what is clearly meant to be a show of “love knows no color,” The Help also includes a story line that has Minny working for Celia, a beautiful, yet blowsy housewife who cannot seem to do anything. Plagued with a series of miscarriages, Celia is a pathetic soul – gorgeous, but dim. Kind, but naive. The women in the town eye her warily because she wears low cut dresses and totters around on high heels, and is married to Hilly’s ex, so naturally, she’s labeled a maneater, and the women guard their husbands jealously anytime poor Celia stumbles into the scene.

Minny arrives and  manages to shape things up, and predictably the two women overcome their racial, social, and economic differences to understand that they’re more alike than different. Minny becomes a surrogate big sister and mother to Celia because Tate Taylor doesn’t think there are enough black maids playing surrogate mothers to rich white women in film. The scenes between Minny and Celia all ring of treacle and feel contrived. Again, the only thing that elevates this to anything is the mighty work of Spencer as well as the beautifully-layered performance of Jessica Chastain, who channels a near-death Marilyn Monroe. Like her scenes with Davis, Spencer creates a solid bond with Chastain, though the writing is cliched with their scenes, that no amount of expert emoting manages to wrench their work free from the sap.

All of this happens with the Civil Rights Movement playing in the background. Taylor uses the events of the 1960s as a way to frame the story as well as to give the film some forward momentum. But little is done to engage with the event, nor do the characters have any meaningful connection to the events. When Medgar Evars is assassinated, we get a glimpse of what could’ve been. Aibilieen is ordered off a bus and fearfully flees in the night to get home. As a director Taylor crafted a solid sequence of scenes that end in Minny’s house. The two women grieve privately, shielding their young children from the brutal realities of the world, and whisper their fears to each other. For The Help to function as a serious film about these times, we need more of this, instead of a pouting Skeeter giving side eye to Hilly after the latter spouts off another string of racial expletives.

When The Help came out in 2011, it got some great reviews and made over $200 million in the box office. Spencer (deservedly) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Chastain and Davis were nominated (and the film was up for Best Picture, for some reason). It’s understandable that the film mainly was praised for its actors but the performances are impeccable. That is one of the many frustrating things about the film – along with its tone-deaf approach to race relations and history, the film wastes a very talented cast.

Click here to buy The Help on amazon.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book, Comedy, DVD, movie, movie review

‘The Peanuts Movie’ is great, nostalgic fun

PeanutsWhen I heard that there was going to be a new Peanuts movie, I was worried. I was worried that the folks who have taken over Charles Schulz’s creation would do their best to modernize it, peppering the film with cynical and crass nods to contemporary times (which would then age the film quickly). I’m thinking of the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie series that has the chipmunks attended raves and shaking their furry, tailed butts. I was worried that the new Peanuts movie would have Charlie Brown and his pals gab away on their i Phones or scoot around on hoverboards while playing with their drones. It was an unappealing thought.

But I was wrong. The Peanuts Movie is utterly charming. It captures much of the melancholy that is associated with the characters. The episodic plot has Charlie Brown pining for the Little Red-Haired Girl, but feeling he’s just not good enough. His low self-esteem can be attributed, at least in part, to his friendship with Lucy van Pelt, the bossy a frenemy who perennially swipes the football away at just the moment when Charlie’s about to kick it. It could also be because Charlie Brown doesn’t really know just how special he is. Every child feels this, only cartoons aimed at children tend to gloss over feelings of angst or worry, hoping to distract them with bright colors, raucous music, and potty humor.

But The Peanuts Movie is fine moving at a leisurely pace, establishing the characters and their relationships. Any excitable action comes primarily from Snoopy’s subplot, in which he imagines himself being the Flying Ace, saving the lovely Fifi (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, who primarily yelps and yips during the film) from the Red Baron during WWI. The script is written by Cornelius Uliano, along with Shulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. It doesn’t aim for anything than humor and emotion. There’s nary a nod to its 21st century, and that shows just how timeless Charlie Brown and his pals are. It’s nostalgic, but it doesn’t feel weirdly anachronistic. The major concession to contemporary times is the animation – done by Blue Sky Studios (responsible for the Ice Age movies). The new animation lifts the familiar 2-dimenional world of the Peanuts into 3-D, and it’s not an intrusive change. Using 3-D animation can often render characters zombie-like and off-putting (I still have nightmares from Polar Express), but with The Peanuts Movie, the film’s director, Steve Martino, employs his technology with an even hand – he lets the animation tell the story as opposed to trying to wow his audiences with what he can do (which is a lot of what kids movies do now). The animation is great, but not dazzling – but it’s not supposed to be. The only time it really is put to some use is during Snoopy’s Flying Ace sequences. Otherwise, the animation has little effect on the story. But that’s okay. The main charm of Charlie Brown is how low-key it is.

And though the movie’s targeted at the younguns, there’s a lot for grownups, too. There are nods to the classic strip and the iconic TV specials – as well as acknowledgements of the legendary Vince Guaraldi soundtrack. And some of the sadder themes of alienation and pining will strike a chord with the adults. The ending is suitably happy and victorious for our hero, and leaves the viewers with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, DVD, movie, movie review, Writing

‘I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story’ – a review

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney StoryI Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an affecting documentary that tells the story of the man responsible for two of Sesame Street‘s most popular characters: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The popularity of the characters rested on Spinney’s ability to create three-dimensional personalities that spoke to children’s feelings of confusion, insecurity, curiosity, and displeasure. Big Bird especially launched Spinney’s career and turned him into a folk hero among puppeteers. The documentary shows the beginnings of these characters and how Spinney was able to flesh them out into recognizable icons of children’s entertainment. The film also goes into Spinney’s life, which was marked by abuse, bullying, and contemplation of suicide. Though a generally enjoyable film, I Am Big Bird is also a very sad one.

Like many artists – particularly artists who work with children – Spinney’s childhood was wretched. Though gifted with a supportive and wonderful mother, his father was an abusive tyrant. His interest in puppets from a young age made him a target for schoolyard bullies who taunted him. His adulthood wasn’t that much better: an emotionally abusive first marriage almost drove the man to suicide. All of this context makes watching Sesame Street all the more poignant, especially when looking at Big Bird, arguably Spinney’s greatest creation.

What makes Big Bird so relatable is that he’s an everychild. Children learn about the harshness of the world and all of its confusion through Big Bird’s perspective. The show is able to impart some important life lessons using the 8-foot tall Muppet, by addressing important issues, but unpacking them as a child would. It’s important to note, that never does Big Bird talk down to children – one of the greatest things about Sesame Street is that it assumes the audience is bright and intelligent. Spinney, along with the group of gifted writers, has created an instrument for children to process the world around them.

In I Am Big Bird, the audiences see some of that building of character. We see early incarnations of Big Bird that make him almost unrecognizable. We also see the tedious and physical work Spinney has to do to be Big Bird – this includes strapping on a tiny monitor, putting on the suit, and keeping his arm raised over his head to operate Big Bird’s beak and head. A marvel of graceful aging, at over 80, Spinney is still doing a lot of the work (though some of it is supplemented by “apprentice” Matt Vogel). All of this minutia and details is interesting because it shows just how committed Spinney is to his craft.

And though the bulk of the film is focused on Spinney, the film also looks at the iconography of Big Bird and how that changed Spinney’s life. Before the rambunctious red-furred Elmo, Big Bird was Sesame Street. There is archival footage of Big Bird touring the country and performing at state fairs, opera houses, and theaters. The human cast of Sesame Street also add some valuable insight to the popularity of Big Bird, and attest to the cultural phenomenon Big Bird became. The actors – including Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, and Loretta Long – all offer fun and sentimental memories of going on the road with Big Bird. They also join the chorus of folks who sing the praises of Spinney, who not only is a great artist, but a very popular guy to work with.

Because of its subject matter, some may want to watch I Am Big Bird with their children. I’d caution those folks, because as lovely and as wonderful as the film is, it’s also very sad. It feels like every passage in the film somehow slips into a tear-jerking moment. Because Spinney’s life was so difficult, his vulnerability imbues the film almost as much as it did his characters. We watch as Spinney struggles with depression, or when he butts heads with directors, or when he mourns the passing of his dear friend Jim Henson. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Spinney describes an awful moment when during one of his appearances as Big Bird, he left the costume with a group of ROTC cadets during a lunch break, only to discover that the kids maimed, plucked, and destroyed his beloved alter ego (he went so far as to compare it to a rape of a child – an assertion that the filmmakers should have questioned and pushed but didn’t). The memory brought fresh tears to his eyes.

The film moves toward a conclusion that leads with Big Bird’s gradual descent in popularity. To attract younger viewers and to keep up with changing TV viewership, Sesame Street shifted its focus and tweaked its format, highlighting Elmo at the expense of Big Bird. These slights cannot be easy for a man as committed to his work as Spinney, and some of the cast members sympathize with the man – McGrath, who has also been steadily marginalized, likened his late work on the show as a hobby – and it’s clear that the film is leading its viewers to Spinney’s eventual retirement. It’s heartening to see that despite his age, Spinney seems remarkably spry, and still willing to do the physical work of being Big Bird.

Though there are some ugly moments in I Am Big Bird, the film works as a loving, respectful tribute to a man whose vision and talent has inspired, enlightened, and entertained millions of children for generations.

Click here to buy I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story on amazon.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Book, commentary, Documentary, DVD, movie, movie review, Nonfiction, Television, TV, Writing