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The Killing Joke
By John Rodat

The Aristocrats

Directed 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.


What hit me? Murray in Broken Flowers.

What About Don?

Broken Flowers

Directed 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 garbage.

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 Jeffrey Wright.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Cillian Kills

Red-Eye

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow


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