by Paul Provenza
Penn Jillette—the more voluble half of the comedy-magic team
Penn and Teller, and producer of the The Aristocrats—points
out more than once in the film that “it’s the singer, not
the song” that makes the difference between a successful performance
and a bomb. In other, equally cliched, words, it’s all in
the telling—in this case, the telling of the most blisteringly
obscene, stomach-churningly disgusting joke you are likely
to hear in your life.
If you’re unfamiliar with the joke that gives this documentary
its title, it’s an old vaudevillean staple that’s become a
kind of “secret handshake” among professional comics. It’s
not one that they’re likely to incorporate into their public
sets (most pros think jokes, per se, are evidence of unforgiveable
hackery), but among themselves, they’ll break it out to test
one another’s improvisatory chops, their imaginations and
the depths of their depravity. The set-up’s simple: Guy walks
into a talent agent’s office to pitch his family act. He’s
met with an apathetic response, but convinces the agent to
let him describe the routine. And then there’s a torrent of
unbridled and relentless filth: The family’s act is, in the
words of comedian Dana Gould, “giddy, shit-covered incest.”
It’s this section of the joke in which the comedian goes for
broke, testing his or her own capacity for invention and offense.
When the shocked agent finally asks the name of the act, the
pitchman says, with a flourish, “The Aristocrats!”
Not really much of a joke. But in the minds and mouths of
some of the tellers, it’s a powerful thing. Powerful funny,
in some cases; but powerful, too, in other ways. Perhaps the
most resonant recitation of the joke, at least according to
many of the comedians in the film, was the one given by Gilbert
Gotfried at a Friar’s Club roast for Hugh Hefner a few weeks
after the Sept. 11 bombings. The assembled comedians were
having a tough night of it: Humor had evacuated Manhattan,
and what weeks before would have been titillating or humorously
provocative was that night seen as inappropriate, callous
and disrespectful. In an inspired bit of desperation, Gotfried
unleashed “The Aristocrats,” and—it’s long enough after 9/11
to say so—he killed. Footage from the roast is included in
The Aristocrats and the other comics on the dias are
literally falling out of their chairs.
The healing capacity of humor is something we’ve heard about
a million times before; but The Aristocrats presents
a subversive take on the “let a smile be your umbrella” philosophy.
If “The Aristocrats” were an umbrella you’d take the downpour
over the joke’s own, um, moistness in a heartbeart. It’s just
not appealling—from George Carlin’s startlingly specific scatological
rendition, to Steven Wright’s surprisingly and uncharacteristicly
ultra-violent take, to Lisa Lampanelli’s gleefully racist
riff, the joke’s plain gross. But it’s informative as a type
of literary criticism to see the way different stylists present
and alter the material, playing with it, tweaking it, revealing
bits of themselves as they wend toward the unchanging punchline.
Shot for somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, $180 or so,
the documentary is little more than stitched together interviews
of comedians filmed with handheld cameras. For all its crudity
of technique, it’s a sophisticated work in its timing and
slow build (not surprising for a film about professional comedians,
directed by a professional comedian). The Aristocrats can
be enjoyed just for the sheer juvenile pleasure of a truly
dirty joke, but also as a charming and subtle deconstruction
of an important, enduring, mysterious, potentially transformative,
craft. As they say, dying’s easy, it’s comedy that’s hard.
hit me? Murray in Broken Flowers.
by Jim Jarmusch
It’s one of those movie collaborations so perfect, you almost
don’t want it to happen for fear of disaster: actor Bill Murray
and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Well, it’s happened; Broken
Flowers is the result; and the result’s damned good.
Murray plays Don Johnston (as usual, Jarmusch puts his jokes
right up front), a wealthy, womanizing businessman who’s never
settled down or had kids, just drifted from lovely woman to
lovely woman for decades. When first we meet him, he’s being
dumped by a beautiful blonde (Julie Delpy) who criticizes
him for not wanting anything. Don’s reaction is typically
inert: He slumps onto the couch and sleeps for a day or so.
What brings him around is an anonymous letter, typed on girly
pink paper, from an ex-lover informing him that he has a teenage
son. His neighbor convinces him to visit all the likely mom
candidates, and discover which one sent the letter (and bore
his alleged offspring).
If you know anything about the filmmaker, however, you can
guess that the mystery itself is a sly bit of misdirection.
The real question is, who’s this Don guy, and, as his most
recent ex wonders, what does he want out of life?
Jarmusch’s storytelling is comically deadpan. With every shot,
the filmmaker announces: This is it. Do not look any deeper,
because there’s nothing else to be found. All you need to
know is right on the surface. What’s the film about? An aging
Don Juan. What’s Don watching on TV at the beginning of the
picture? The Private Life of Don Juan.
So, even though Jarmusch stages exhaustive establishing shots
of Don’s planes taking off and landing as he travels—presumably
across country—from ex-flame to ex-flame, it’s blatantly obvious
that every location in the film is somewhere in the New York
City suburbs. In other words, don’t look to the settings for
any clues. Most illustrative of this, however, is a brief
panning shot of Don in his car, zipping down a suburban lane.
The camera only follows the Taurus from the right side to
the center of the frame; the car goes off-screen left, while
the camera stops to linger on a big metal dumpster. Nothing
to see here, folks, ’cause the visual information is just
This works because it makes the viewer focus that much more
intently on everything the actors do, every nuance of how
they relate (or don’t relate) to each other. And what a marvelous
cast Jarmusch has assembled, from the prospective letter-
writing ex-girlfriends—Frances Conroy as an ex-hippy turned
real-estate agent, Sharon Stone as an ex-party girl, Tilda
Swinton as an angry redneck, and Jessica Lange as a “pet communicator”—to
Don’s amateur-detective neighbor Winston, played by an engaging
The center of the movie, obviously, is Murray. And Jarmusch
understands the important thing to working with this particular
comic genius: the less you ask him to give, the more he’ll
give you. Think of this as a kind of dime-store Zen approach,
one that works very well in Broken Flowers.
by Wes Craven
For Red-Eye, set aboard a late-night flight to Atlanta,
horror-meister Wes Craven foregoes the gore to craft a solid
gizmo thriller along the lines of Phone Booth (though
not as suspenseful) and Cellular (but not as funny).
The plot is by-the-book, yet for most of its brisk running
time, Red-Eye is adequately thrilling. Its sometimes
palpable sense of menace comes direct from Cillian Murphy,
who plays a highly self- controlled terrorist named Jack Ripperton.
Ably supporting Murphy’s spine-tingling intensity is Rachel
McAdams as Jack’s prey, Lisa Reisert, a workaholic hotel manager.
Stuck in the airport during a long delay, attractive, amiable
Jack strikes up a conversation, naturally enough, with gorgeous
Lisa, and they share a drink in the lobby bar. Yet something
seems not quite right about his gentlemanly but very focused
attentions, and later, Lisa isn’t sure she’s pleased about
being his seatmate for the flight.
Once airborne, Jack’s cordiality slowly but surely—and quite
creepily—turns to hostility. Lisa’s sickened dismay at realizing
that her charming acquaintance is actually a sociopath who
means to do her harm is the film’s strongest element, and
it later comes to fruition with a neat twist that plays on
personality rather than circumstance. Still, there’s plenty
of circumstantial turbulence, along with that ubiquitous narrative
short cut, the cell-phone-call-that-shorts-out. The squirm
factor is kept aloft almost single-handedly by Murphy, who
was unnervingly impressive as the insane psychiatrist in Batman
Begins, and whose glacial eye contact and hollow-soul
calm help the audience to ignore all the improbabilities of
Jack’s mission: His mysterious employers mean to assassinate
a high-ranking official of homeland security (Jack Scalia).
The official is expected at Lisa’s hotel, and Jack needs her
to authorize a room change that will leave him vulnerable
to attack. Jack’s leverage is that Lisa’s father (Brian Cox)
is within easy reach of a hit man. Jack’s obsessive preparations
to secure her cooperation are explained by his extreme professionalism;
this, rather than any sexual chemistry, is the frisson between
him and Lisa, who apparently puts career ahead of romance.
There’s a well-crafted chase scene that utilizes Lisa’s high-school
athletics background, as well as the fact that McAdams can
play rough-and-tumble just as convincingly as she plays poised
and beautiful. Craven also makes an appreciable effort to
enliven the limited, in-flight setting, although with waning
results. Any other summer, Red-Eye would be considered
unremarkable, but compared to such insipid recent fare as
Stealth and The Island, it’s practically a nail-biter.