Sunday, October 14, 2007

Omigod You Ugly Americans

Sorry. But I saw two very different things this week and thought I would comment.

First, The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson's latest, a story of a "spiritual journey" undertaken by three brothers (Jason Schwartzman as the Intellectual, Owen Wilson as the Businessman, Adrien Brody as the Craftsman) on a train to find their missionary mother (Anjelica Huston) in India. Anderson shot the film almost entirely in India, and his trademark neat-edged screen space and composition is still in effect, with an even better color palette (which reminded me of what I thought of Monsoon Wedding, that what this Indian film did with color alone made it better than most Hollywood films of that year. I don't think Darjeeling is quite that good, but it should satisfy the Andersons and -daughters out there, at least to a point.

Anderson's films often protag around a colorful outsider who feels he's stayed perhaps too long at the fair, like Steve Zissou or Royal Tenenbaum (or even Max Fischer, to a degree, since he obviously thinks he's wise beyond his years). The three leads in Darjeeling aren't that wearied yet, although all come with family baggage both literal and figurative, but the basic Anderson playbook is intact: need for familial connection, ritualistic introduction of your cast members (including a curtain call), short pans and long tracking shots, judicious use of slo-mo, a studiously chosen soundtrack (much of it music from Indian films, wow) and diorama-like production design. He gets away with the last one best in this film because most of it takes place on the train.

The three brothers act most of the time like Ugly Americans, disrupting much ritual and flouting many traditions along with acting out their expected family betrayals large and small that eventually surface (a running gag is one of the three telling another something about the third in confidence, which comes out about thirteen seconds later). Yet they are indulged for the most part by the "locals," who too often are depicted as noble color or background to the Ugly Americans. Which didn't seem like Anderson's point to me. (An exception is the train hostess, played by Amara Karan, who is the most stunning woman I've seen in a movie in quite a while. Holy moley.)

Not particulaly ugly was Legally Blonde. Which is ironic, since the taped performance was produced by and shown on that ugliest of consumer-pop cornholes, MTV. And I must say kudos to them for a surprisingly well-thought-out production of the show. The attractiveness of the show's demographic (soft-pedal-empowerment-minded tween girls and their moms)to MTV is obvious, but that still doesn't make it an obvious green-light decision to me. But green-light it MTV did, and I was astounded to see three entire musical numbers and their attendant dialogue go by before the first commercial break. Plus, very little of the choppy, ADD-happy editing that permeates just about everything "musical" these days (and which nearly ruined Chicago on film). On paper Legally Blonde isn't a great show; the score is indeed predictable generic pop with a couple of good lyrics thrown in, and the book, while it ties up a few loose ends from the movie and eliminates some characters and clutter, doesn't really improve on a screenplay that was fairly thin to begin with. (But judging from what I saw of Mary Fucking Poppins on the Tonys I would have given that last Best Musical slot to Blonde.) But that empowerment theme seems to resonate big time in the tween zeitgeist right now, cf. Wicked; as misinterpreted as it is on stage, I'd guess that Gregory Maguire is crying all the way to the bank, and the largely-teen-looking audience sure sounded like they were at High School Musical, even though Legally Blonde isn't quite a smash hit yet.

Legally Blonde benefits from very spirited direction by Jerry Mitchell (and, considering he started as a choreographer, not all that much dancing), and two knockout performances, from Orfeh as Paulette, the defeatist salon owner with a voice like a foghorn choir, and Laura Bell Bundy as our heroine, Elle Woods. She's onstage literally about 95% of the time, and she delivers the goods in fine style, winning the audience over as easily as did Reese Witherspoon in the film version. (And hey, why does Michael Rupert, as the oily lawyer Callahan, look so much like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show?) Bundy's got a funny-button nose, a round face and squinty eyes; she's cute but not gorgeous, which hopefully means Hollywood won't snatch her away and stick her on some production-limbo shelf somewhere. Which is maybe my wish for this whole happy occasion: Long may MTV wave this broadcast, and may Blonde's ticket sales go through the roof, spurring more networks to do what only Great Performances and the Broadway TV Network seemed willing to do in the past, namely, treat Broadway like anything BUT a Fabulous Invalid, and keep proving it a viable commodity. Good on MTV for presenting Legally Blonde with a miraculously low level of MTV-style pandering and bullshit.


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