Funnily Enough

Comedy is a funny thing. Even when not ha-ha. Fever Pitch and Look at Me give us two contrasting examples, one American, the other French. If you were to install a laugh-meter in equally crowded auditoriums for each of them, the American would doubtless emerge the clear winner, or at any rate the clear louder. If, however, you were to put a mike on only me in empty auditoriums, you'd hear the frequent cackle and chuckle during the French, while during the American you might wonder whether my attention had shifted to working a crossword puzzle. The truth is that I was producing silent smiles and muffled snuffles just slightly less frequent than the audible cackles and chuckles. I enjoyed both films, but, strange though it is to say, funny though it is to say, the American seemed to me the more abstract, the more theoretical, and the French more human and therefore funnier. In relationship comedy, as opposed to physical comedy, that's what counts; that's what scores. Or maybe that's just me. This is not, in any event, strictly a cultural difference. Had the French film in question been made by Francis Veber, it would compete well enough on the laugh-meter, with no boost from me. Not for nothing does Hollywood turn so often to the French in search of something to remake.

Fever Pitch, a men-are-from-Mars-women- are-from-Venus romantic comedy, certainly deals, underneath it all, with a substantial subject. It tells you a lot about the film, though, that the gist of it may be summed up in the title of a pop-psych best seller. The particulars shape up as a purely hypothetical case history. Our Martian man, a middle-school math teacher, is also (note the year: 2003) a Boston Red Sox fan who emphatically brings home to you the term's derivation from fanatic: his apartment is wall-to-wall team collectibles (baseball-cap lamp, baseball-glove telephone, and so on), right down to the New York Yankee toilet paper. Our Venusian woman, an up-and-coming corporate dynamo, is defined nonetheless by her manlessness at age "twenty-ten," is habitually disappointed in her relationships with her male mirror- images, is willing out of desperation to give an uncompetitive Nice Guy a try, is even willing to assimilate in toto his lore and legend of Fenway Park (the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, the Curse of the Bambino, "Bucky Friggin' Dent," Bill Buckner, etc.), while expecting no comparable contortions on the part of the guy. Both characters are completely revealed to us at a glance -- two-dimensional cutouts, shadowless stereotypes -- though the depth of the man's obsession dawns on the woman only by degrees. (Her offer to whisk him off to Paris on a business trip conflicts with a home stand against the Mariners during the September pennant drive.) Jimmy Fallon brings little to his role beyond his Saturday Night Live résumé, an automatic passport, it would seem, to feature films. And Drew Barrymore, explicitly described in the script as "cute" and "adorable," is no more than an A-list actress who's not going to let a part as a type-A careerist alter her trademark dippiness.

The dialogue displays a clarity of intent and a force of impact that eliminate the need of a laugh track ("Ted Williams would roll over in his freezer if he saw this"). You could set your watch by the rhythm of the plot developments, from boy-meets-girl (meets-cute, needless to add) to boy-loses-girl (and drowns his sorrows in a video of Buckner's boot in the '86 World Series) to boy-gets-girl -- and without either of them, especially the guy, having to make any real compromises for a Happy Ending. Your watch says it's time for that ending, and the chimes shall ring on schedule. Any psychological interest will have to be transferred onto the filmmakers themselves, in their setting-up of frighteningly confident and successful female characters and then vengefully subjecting the entire sex to just-for-fun physical abuse: beaned by a football; pukingly food-poisoned; dropped twenty feet to the floor at an indoor rock-climbing exhibit; knocked flat on the back by a punch at the gym; knocked unconscious by a foul ball.

In fairness, this is pretty toned down for a Farrelly brothers comedy. (And with Matthew Leonetti doing the camerawork, the image has been considerably toned up.) There are no bona fide Farrelly gross-outs (the food-poison puke is decorously off screen: "You were very ladylike, hardly any chunkage"), and the brothers' signature fascination with handicaps and physical defects is limited to a little boy in a leg brace singing the national anthem on Opening Day, and to the black-shoe-polish Bela Lugosi hair dye of the heroine's father. Presumably the softening of tone owes to the fact that the script was placed in other hands, those of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who must have had to rewrite on the fly when last October's playoffs yielded a Happy Ending that even Hollywood would have scarcely dared dream up.

Look at Me is very different, revealing itself gradually, organically, unfolding like life. The characters and their relationships cannot be taken in at a glance; and all of them will stay true to themselves throughout, stay consistent, without being at all narrow, constrained, predictable. The unpleasantness in a taxi cab at the outset is already funnier, because truer to life, than anything in Fever Pitch, while at the same time it introduces the elemental human theme of domination and submission: a self-important novelist, en route to the premiere of a film adapted from one of his books, cows a churlish cabbie into civility. There and elsewhere the novelist can be a sympathetic figure: his embarrassment over the cinematic simplification of his work, for instance, or his middle-aged dread of going "downhill," being unable to remember, unable to write: "I had two good lines, then I realized I wrote them in another book." Although thorny and threatening on the outside, he is capable of extending largesse within his sphere of influence. Yet he is not capable of extending it to his own older daughter, the child of a previous marriage, an overweight failed actress now in training as a classical vocalist. He can find no time, over months and months, to listen to the demo tape she has given him, and cannot even bring himself to lie about it. This does nothing for the daughter's self-image: "I'm a zero." Nor does the weight-consciousness of her slim young stepmother, who, though a bit of an alarmist about the calorie-intake of her own small daughter, can nevertheless show compassion and generosity towards her self-loathing stepdaughter. The original title in French, by the way, Comme une Image, or Like a Picture, stresses the unattainable ideal, as distinct from the neediness stressed in the American title. The title in Italy, meantime, is Così Fan Tutte, or Everyone Does It, stressing commonality. Other potential titles, as disclosed in the press notes, included The Right Reasons, In Their Place, and Girls' Tears and Boys' Anger. No single title was going to cover all the film's facets.

The picture-imperfect daughter, to return now to our evolving web, believes that the sole reason other people would ever take an interest in her is to get to know the Great Man. She is not far wrong. Her voice coach, a genuine admirer of the writer, and at first unaware of her student's relation to him, uses the connection to advance the career of her husband, an unsuccessful writer and self-described "kept man," who has his own problems of self-image; and the daughter's new boyfriend, a chance acquaintance who responds warmly to her anonymous act of kindness towards him, has his own aspirations in the publishing world. So, no: she is not far wrong, and still she is wrong -- as will finally come out at the climactic choral concert and its aftermath, when the characters show their true colors. Some of this is too painful to be funny. But our recognition of human strivings and failings can touch off moderate mirth, if never violent hilarity, anywhere along the way, on no set schedule.

The artists most responsible for this wise, wily, observant, truly adult entertainment are the writing and acting team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui, who previously wrote and acted in Un Air de Famille, Same Old Song, and The Taste of Others, the last of which was also Jaoui's first directing job. Look at Me is her second, and is as fluid a job as you could desire, even if you might desire an image a little less jaundiced. In front of the camera, Bacri of course takes the role of the literary lion, and cements his position as the cinema's supreme sourpuss. Jaoui is the voice coach, a delicate part played with quiet finesse. And newcomer Marilou Berry, daughter of the actress-writer-director Josiane Balasko, plays the hefty daughter, with no fudging of her heftiness: no mere plumpness passed off as corpulence; no padding for extra poundage. She thus falls in line with the likes of Romane Bohringer (The Accompanist), Sylvie Testud (Murderous Maids), Roxane Mesquida (Fat Girl), not to mention her real-life mother (Too Beautiful for You), nonlookers of various types who seem to gain access to French screens more readily than their counterparts do to American. In her role here, she is not the sort of endomorph who is comfortable in her stretched skin: stout and proud. She carries a boulder-sized chip on her shoulder, and she slumps under the weight of it. In her father's eyes, "She's anger on wheels." She is not, in anyone's eyes, easy to like. One of the many strengths of the film is that it grants her, and us, all the time and help we need.

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