Tucci for the Money

Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Albert Brooks. Jacques Tati. Sydney Pollack. Warren Beatty. Clint Eastwood. Mel Gibson. Recognize the pattern yet? How about actors who are also famous for directing—many times in films they themselves star in. They played iconic roles like the Tramp, Monsieur Hulot, Dick Tracy, Braveheart and many more. These are huge names that bear much weight whether they are exercising their skills behind the camera or in front of it, but for every big name that crosses the rift from actor to director (or vice versa) there is a sea of smaller names that have also dabbled on both sides. Danny DeVito is remembered more for his appearances in Taxi (TV), Batman Returns (1992), or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (TV) and most Americans probably don’t hear his name and instantly think of the director of Matilda (1996) and The War of the Roses (1989), but even Danny DeVito is still a fairly famous name. Raise your hands if you know and love Mr. Stanley Tucci.

I probably first saw Stanley Tucci in the family comedy about the lovably large St. Bernard, Beethoven (1992). Tucci played one of the sleazy, comic henchmen. Despite his seemingly small role in a quaint little dog movie, he and fellow henchman, (played by Oliver Platt) stole every scene they were in. Tucci is one of those great and talented character actors who you see in every movie, but whose name you always have trouble recalling. From flicks like Undercover Blues (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julie & Julia (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010) and many more, Stanley Tucci is an extremely enjoyable performer to watch. Which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to Big Night (1996) and The Impostors (1998), both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Big Night was co-written by Joseph Tropiano and co-directed by Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, who also has a small role in the film). It is the intimate story of food, family, and all other things Italian (I admit my bias here). Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Tucci) are two brothers who have immigrated from Italy to find a new life in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo is chasing the American dream while Primo cooks tirelessly away in the kitchen of their Italian restaurant. A particularly humorous gimmick comes from Primo’s disdain for change and the simple American palate that cannot appreciate his authentic cuisine. Their restaurant is losing money and to make matters more degrading, their pandering competitors across the street have booming business. Secondo goes behind Primo’s back and makes a deal with Pascal (Ian Holm, Alien), the seedy owner of the other more popular restaurant. Pascal claims he can get jazz singer Louis Prima to dine at their restaurant. All they have to do is invest everything they have left and blow it all on one big night to save them from bankruptcy. The film follows all of the preparations for the big night, from inviting guests and ordering flowers to the meticulous creation of all of the wonderfully appetizing foods. Folks show up from all over as they patiently await the celebrity’s arrival and enjoy mouth-watering Italian dishes: the prized dish being the legendary timpano. They dine and dance the night away and the courses of food and entertainment just keeps on coming. Hearts will be broken, dreams will be crushed, backs will be stabbed, and serious lessons about food, family, and pride will be learned before it all comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Big Night is a quiet and modest film with much substance and subtlety. It creates many small human moments and maintains an endearing intimacy. Big Night knows that a great Italian dinner does not just involve food. It is a delicate sculpture, a calculated symphony of smells and sounds. We start with the appetizers and gradually build until we reach the main course…but it doesn’t end there. More courses of good food come out to ease us out of the dining experience. And then we breath deep. We talk. We laugh. We cry. We play games. We tell stories. We have drinks. Tucci’s film is a bittersweet one and it will be hard not to be enchanted by its good-intentioned charms. The cast includes Tucci, Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Ian Holm (Alien), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Allison Janney (Juno), Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger), Marc Anthony, and Liev Schreiber (Sphere).

After the success of Big Night Tucci returned to the directing chair for a pleasant throwback to classic screwball comedies with The Impostors. Tucci plays Arthur, an out of work actor in Depression-era New York City. When Arthur and his roommate, Maurice (Oliver Platt), accidentally insult a hot-headed Shakespearean drunken hack (played by Alfred Molina) they find themselves fleeing from the police and wind up stowing away on a cruise ship inhabited by a cracked assortment of peculiar personalities. Like Big Night, The Impostors has assembled another great cast of wonderful character actors. In addition to Tucci, Platt (The Three Musketeers), and Molina (Chocolat); Tony Shalhoub (Galaxy Quest) is a Russian spy bent on blowing up the bourgeois pigs aboard the ship; Lili Taylor (The Addiction) is a soft-spoken stewardess in love with a guy who can barely speak English (Matt McGrath); Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) is an abused actor; Campbell Scott (in one of his best roles this side of Rodger Dodger) is a deranged, fascistic German crewman; a shrewish gold-digging Dana Ivey (Home Alone 2) and her exceptionally morose and homely daughter played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt) are the destitute aristocrats; Allen Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) is the timid captain who pines for his lost love; Isabella Rossellini (The Saddest Music in the World) is a deposed queen running away from it all; Steve Buschemi (Fargo) is suicidal crooner, Happy Franks; Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) is an aggressively sexually ambivalent (or perhaps not so) tennis enthusiast; Michael Emerson (Lost) is Molina’s long-suffering assistant; Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) are tough-talking criminals; and Woody Allen (Bananas) is a neurotic New York playwright (what else). The cast alone is reason enough to watch the film. Tucci is a very generous director in that he gives each performer plenty of time to shine and have fun with their screwy roles.

The story is little more than a set-up to get talented character actors to play funny personalities and do slap-sticky things in quick succession. The Impostors is another modest film who finds the most joy in just assembling the characters and having fun (during the end credits the entire cast dances off of the set and into the street). It is very apparent that everyone is having a great time and it’s quite infectious. The gags are clever and refreshing. At times the film is reminiscent of Hope and Crosby, at other times it is like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and there is even a silent movie scene at the beginning that hearkens back to the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Impostors is a fine throwback to classic comedy and the humor is refreshingly gentle and nonabrasive.

Some have complained that Tucci’s directorial work is very stagy (in these two examples as well as in Joe Gould’s Secret and Blind Date). The whole spectacle seems to be rather distant and stagnant at times, as if the material were better suited to a theater performances. This may be the case, but I would never kid you by saying that the simple approach is not effective or enjoyable. Tucci seems to write and direct more for the actors rather than for the razzmatazz of the camera. His camera does not employ grandiose sweeping shots and it is not full of intense closeups. The technical wizardry is minimized completely. Tucci’s films are more about watching the actors create characters using only what abilities God has given them. The photography and editing are merely there to format the story for a cinema screen. I happen to find his technique refreshing and very effective for the flavor of stories he is telling. So maybe Big Night and The Impostors are stagey. Kill me, they’re still wonderful movies. Watch ‘em.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 10, 2011

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.