Two unsuccessful comedies
IN BRUGES — Martin McDonagh, Britain, 2008, 5
SEMI-PRO — Kent Alterman, USA, 2008, 2
As the headline says, I didn’t think either of these two comic films worked, but I would actually recommend IN BRUGES to most people because it’s obviously the work of talented people who made some bone-headed missteps that just blew the film apart. I accept as possible that I just “didn’t get it” or saw it on a bad day. SEMI-PRO, by contrast, isn’t just bad, it’s lame, and lazy. There isn’t anything even there “not to get” or to blame on circumstance. I try to avoid the school of criticism that awards points for ambition. But seeing these two comedies a few days apart, I couldn’t avoid it — the British film is at least trying while the American film isn’t.
I didn’t laugh very much at IN BRUGES — two Irish gunmen hide out after a hit in the eponymous medieval Belgian town; one takes to it, the other conspicuously doesn’t and it’s familiar fish-out-of-water, contrasting cop-buddy territory. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as the mismatched set of killers and have great fun with McDonagh’s words — the film’s strength is the screwy dialog they toss around and riff off like “the patter.” The best: a scene in which Gleeson reads aloud an expletive-written telegram in the tone of the world’s most contemptuous phone-solicitor reading his pitch script. The spectacle of assassins reciting stylized, hyper-sprung dialog reminded me a bit of Vincent and Jules in PULP FICTION.
And that comparison is the key to IN BRUGES’s failure and why mentally, I was telling myself throughout the movie “this is not working.” Tarantino kept his creations in Movieland or otherwise at a distance; IN BRUGES has scenes in which it comes out that Farrell botched the hit on a priest and killed a bystander child, waiting in the confession line. And he cries in Gleeson’s lap over it, has “inner struggles,” and wants to get out of the assassin lifestyle. The film’s denouement involves two suicides, one of them an attempt to save another character, the other an on-principle atonement. I guess we’re supposed to take that seriously, but this is a movie that features midget jokes by the thimbleful. All-over-the-map, uncontrolled or inconsistent tone is a thing I just can’t tolerate. Comedies can be serious, of course, but they have to do it by indirection while maintaining the comic veneer; not by explicitly trying to tug on the heartstrings and tear-ducts. I refuse to take seriously the wailing and gnashing of teeth and noble deaths in the same movie as jokes about what a shithole Bruges is, and scenes of sharing whores with dwarfs on coke conversing about a race war. The end scene in particular grated on me, given … I will be vague … what McDonagh’s idea of Purgatory is, and whether it’s meant seriously or just another cheap bit of tourist humor.
IN BRUGES probably rewards thematic analysis — as I say, I would not exactly warn people away from the film and I may take another look at it myself some day. There’s obviously a lot of the Graham Greene world in there — atoning death, sin’s wages, death of a priest. There are several scenes set in churches and Bruges’s medieval character is constantly pointed out. But Greene understood that you can’t put clowns at the center of such a scenario (yes … I hated hated both ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and WAITING FOR GODOT).
Still … better ambitious failure than lazy failure. I couldn’t believe what I was watching in SEMI-PRO. I’ve never been the biggest Will Ferrell fan, but couldn’t he see that he doesn’t have a character to play, that the movie has no script and not even really much of a concept, and that there are no supporting characters bizarre enough to take over the movie, like Sacha Baron Cohen did TALLADEGA NIGHTS (a much better Will Ferrell sports film). Compare the two Flint Tropics sportscasters with Gary Cole and Jason Bateman in DODGEBALL (which I saw parts of again recently) for another sense of just how underwritten and phoned-in SEMI-PRO is. In fact, just compare the film with DODGEBALL, period. SEMI-PRO is a mere sitcom episode padded out with some montages.
It is also filled with mistakes or scenes that make it look like the film was tampered with, mid-shoot — Ferrell’s character wears a wedding band in some scenes, but not others; he gives a late speech about “the anals of history,” without having been a malaprop-machine to that point (as say Derek Zoolander was; hey … there’s another vastly superior ridiculous comedy — “cut me, cut me”); Woody Harrelson throws a necklace with an NBA championship ring on it at another character, we later see that character give back the ring alone and then later-still see Woody wearing the necklace; we see the other players on the team having quirks, like being a devout Bible reader, that look like setups for comic threads that never materialized; Harrelson acts surprised at the climactic moment to learn that Ferrell shoots free-throws underhanded (he sees this for the first time in the 84th game of the season?) and ridicules it, apparently unaware that this era’s best free-throw shooter was Rick Barry, who shot them that way and had led teams to both ABA and NBA titles by 1976.
I laughed a couple of times at SEMI-PRO — the reappearances of the bear (not the actual bear-wrestling scene, which of course goes nowhere once the premise is set up); the Russian Roulette game; “she looks structurally unsound”; Ferrell in a Dumpster, singing his former hit song with new lyrics. But the film really exemplified its title. It looked like the half-assed work of a bunch of bush-leaguers. And unlike IN BRUGES, I have no reason to think I may reassess that opinion or any real incentive to want to find out.