movieguru (2008-07)

The Not-So-Wild WestQuiet City/Dance Party, U.S.A.

Movie Guru

Vince Vaughn flubs his bandwagon comedy-tour documentary

by Dave Prince

Iâ’m not a big fan of bandwagons. Two decadesâ’ worth of trend-focused American pop culture has burned through whatever circuits I once had in my brain that correspond with the fad-lust of your standard-issue human. Next Big Things just make me twitchy and irritable. (And no, itâ’s not because Iâ’m getting older. Iâ’m still hip. Really.)

But see, thereâ’s a problem: As little as I like the idea of Vince Vaughn and company jumping on the record-a-comedy-tour-and-release-it-commercially bandwagon, by voicing that same disappointment, Iâ’m dangerously close to jumping on the anti-Vince Vaughn bandwagon. (You know the one: â“Vince Vaughn plays the same guy in every movie.â” â“Vince Vaughn exploits solid casts to make himself seem better.â” â“Vince Vaughn goes after Brad Pittâ’s sloppy seconds, which is a terrible thing to say, as Jennifer Aniston is a beautiful woman, a talented actress, and should totally send her phone number to me c/o Metro Pulse, Knoxville, Tenn.â”) Itâ’s every criticâ’s nightmareâ"my conflicting aversions have painted me into a corner, and the only way to salvage my credibility is to abandon my pessimism and judge the film on its merits.

Giving this one a chance ultimately doesnâ’t pay off, though. Vaughn bills his Wild West Comedy Show as a documentary about a comedy-themed revival of Buffalo Billâ’s Wild West Shows (obviously), but aside from a few passing similarities, the theme comes up empty. Thereâ’s just nothing particularly wild or western about the show. Performing 30 dates in 30 cities might be a maverick concept, but itâ’s definitely not the sole province of the cowboy. Another part of the source material may have a more tied-together version of the live show, but if that part exists, it didnâ’t make it beyond the cutting room floor. Without a theme more cohesive and more original than the one it has, nothing differentiates Wild West from its predecessors. â“Why,â” I kept asking myself, â“is this a feature film when it would have made perfect sense as a Comedy Central special?â” As intelligent and handsome as I am, I couldnâ’t come up with an answer.

To be a standout entry in the budding ensemble-cast comedy tour documentary genre (a la The Original Kings of Comedy), Wild West needs two things: stellar on-stage performances, and something more than the regular old backstage hijinks. Unfortunately, it comes up short on both counts. All of Vaughnâ’s comedians (Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco) are solid performers, but none of them have the kind of consistent, rapid-fire act that would work in the limited time theyâ’re given. Theyâ’re likable, but they would have been better served by more stage time in the filmâ’s final cut. Maybe thatâ’s the pointâ"giving the audience a taste and hoping theyâ’ll pay more for the real thing sounds good on paper. But isnâ’t that why I paid $9 at the door?

To its credit, someone on Wild Westâ’s production team recognized the importance of a fleshed-out offstage elementâ"Wild West is stuffed with candid shots, interviews, and post-show reactions. They also shot a few benefit shows immediately following Hurricane Katrina; but even this doesnâ’t add the life Wild West desperately needs. I know weâ’re dealing with a group of performers who, talented though they may be, arenâ’t yet household names, but the abundance of non-comedy material feels overblown and unnecessarily self-serving. Given the ratio of comedy to non-comedy, Wild West definitely could have been scaled back in favor of beefing up what should have spoken for itself: the anemic comedic element.

Despite the depressing sameness of the entries so far, Iâ’m sure that we lucky patrons will be seeing even more of these concert-tour movies. Itâ’s a finicky market, studios are demanding less risk from their productions, and thereâ’s really nothing less risky than recording something that would happen anyway. Someone out there could turn the whole idea on its ear and make it work, and Iâ’d like nothing more than that. But Wild West isnâ’t the one to do it.

Rental Hygiene

Jamie (Erin Fisher) lands in New York to visit a friend, and the young stranger (Chris Lankenau) she buttonholes and quizzes on directions knows the diner where sheâ’s supposed to rendezvous; when Jamieâ’s friend doesnâ’t show, the stranger invites her to crash on his couch. They talk, eat coleslaw, go to a party, she flies home. Nothing happens, but everything changes in small ways.

Whatâ’s most impressive about â“mumblecoreâ” auteur Aaron Katzâ’ 2007 feature Quiet City is what doesnâ’t happenâ"namely, what you expect. Thereâ’s no soul-baring, no consummating clinch, no plot. Instead, Katz and his stars/co-writers accumulate a string of inarticulate moments that speak volumes about what it is to be young and feeling your way forward in the world, toward some idea of who you are, and toward other people in any sense deeper than a post-party hook-up. Katz gets to have it both ways, lensing a rom-com-ready New York autumn in low-budget digital video and creating what amounts to a Park Slope take on Lost in Translation without having to oversell his modest assets, most especially Fisher, whom the camera, at any price point, just loves.

Katzâ’ 2006 Dance Party, U.S.A., bundled onto a second disc, is literally the teenage version of Quiet City. Asshole Gus (Cole Pennsinger) finds himself genuinely drawn to quiet, blond Jessica (Anna Kavan), and even after he spills one really good reason she should stay far away, she seems drawn to him, too. Thereâ’s too much conscious effort to shock, and way too much talking, but a handful of the scenes display the kind of watchful patience that pays off throughout Quiet City. Of course, Kavanâ’s presence suggests that maybe Katzâ’ greatest talent is casting novice actresses you would watch do anything, or nothing. â" Lee Gardner

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