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The Lecturer
By Laura Leon

An Inconvenient Truth

Directed by David Guggenheim

A recent poll among Iowa Demo-crats suggested that John Edwards—you remember, John Kerry’s running mate—is leading Hillary Clinton as the preferred presidential candidate in that state. John Edwards? That factoid, buried by much of the press but talked about with great interest among political movers and shakers, combined with Al Gore’s stunning reemergence as a viable presence on the national scene, should have the female senator from New York at the very least puzzled, if not downright bothered.

By now, we’ve all heard that Gore has “all but ruled out” a second run at the White House, and that may be so, for the time being. Right now, he’s enjoying his own mini-celebrity, his own Bill Clinton moment, albeit minus the blue dress, as he tours in support of An Inconvenient Truth, a tidy little documentary promoting Gore’s long-held belief in the looming dangers of global warming. I don’t mean to diminish the message here, nor do I seek to undermine Gore’s politics or his science, but to pretend that An Inconvenient Truth is just about the environment is like pretending that the current Iraq war is just about weapons of mass destruction.

For 90 minutes, the self-described “once future President of the United States,” points and clicks at a plethora of scientific charts, photographs, bar graphs and what have you. The only weapon the audience has against utter glazing over is Gore’s innate good humor. Gore shows us stuff that should scare us sober, if not send us running for a stiff drink. It’s all there, mounds upon mounds of information, and he’s determined to make sure that we don’t miss a trick.

Therein, of course, lies the main problem with An Inconvenient Truth. It plays like a really long lecture. In a night class. You feel bad feeling this way, trying not to think about whether that tapping foot of yours is actually Restless Leg Syndrome. Because, of course, this stuff is critical, and it’s downright terrifying. Gore does, by highlighting the work of myriad scientists, make an excellent case for the the veracity of his claims about global warming, as well as about why and how this crisis has largely been ignored by the vast majority of Americans. And happily, his rationale for such avoidance is not all “them versus us”; rather, it taps into human frailty and basic psychology.

But as, dare I say, lovable as Gore comes across with his high-tech PowerPoint presentation, he does what I fear he did over the years in the halls of power: turn people off with just too much data. Tide charts, water-temperature graphs, photo comparisons from 30 years ago versus today—it’s like Ross Perot gone digital. His constant refrains of “scientists all agree,” and “a leading scientific study,” beg the questions: Which scientists? Who paid for that study? (To be fair, he does reference the 2004 Science magazine survey of all peer-reviewed scientific studies of climate change, which showed 928 papers supporting manmade global warming and none denying it.)

Again, it’s not that I disagree with Gore’s premise, but in attempting to convince the masses, he resorts to preaching to the choir and, I fear, will fail to capture the imaginations of the rest of us. But, with its side trips into Gore’s personal tragedies and how they propelled him to doing the right thing, not to mention the decidedly candid confessions, rueful musings and downright nostalgia for lost opportunities and a halcyon past, it does pose the former vice president as a well-meaning crusader who isn’t afraid to walk the walk. And that might be just the ticket for getting on the ticket in 2012.

Not the Greatest

Nacho Libre

Directed by Jared Hess

First off, let it be noted that I do not think that Nacho Libre’s Jack Black is a comedic genius. Secondly, I did not find director and cowriter Jared Hess’ previous cult hit, Napoleon Dynamite, quite so funny as others did—in that I did not find it funny at all. Thirdly, I’m not really amused by costumed wrestlers. And, finally, I don’t find Mexican accents inherently funny. The movie’s odds with me, therefore, were not very good.

On the other hand: Hess and his wife, Jerusha, cowrote Nacho Libre with Mike White, whose scripts for Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl were sharp, subtle and wonderfully perverse. The promise of his influence justified the risk—though, it turns out, it did not save the movie.

For the most part, Nacho Libre is exactly what one would expect: a festival of low humor, pratfalls and ironically intense/ intensely ironic mugging. Watching Black is like watching Brando do Jim Carrey (or vice versa, I don’t know). It’s exactly this self-conscious quality that “makes” Black as a comedian; but it undoes him as an comic actor. For comparison, think of how John Belushi played even more outrageous characters without the annoying virtual wink to the audience.

Black plays Ignacio, an orphanage cook who dreams of gaining fame in Lucha Libre, the world of Mexican professional wrestling. He enlists a partner, as skinny and incompetent as he is fat and incompetent, and they set out to win the big amateur contest. They hope to earn a shot at fighting the champion, so they can win money to buy the orphans a . . . something or other. By this point I had really stopped paying attention. There is little in the plot or dialogue to hold an adult’s attention.

That being said, when you ignore those elements, Nacho Libre is actually a very nicely filmed movie. Hess has an artistic eye, and his shots are surprisingly well composed and framed. The worn and poor Mexican village, with its ratty combination of religious iconography and tacky pop culture, is given a kind of faded dignity.

Sadly, this is far more than can be said of the filmmaker’s depiction of Mexicans themselves. Though Hess has seemingly taken some cinematography cues from Wes Anderson, he’s taken none of the respect that other director has for his eccentric characters. The accusations that have been made of this flick’s racism are pretty much right on. If you’ve got nothing to say, saying it in a Speedy Gonzalez voice doesn’t make it funny—and it’s bound to piss off some Mexicans.

So, while Nacho Libre isn’t bad to look at, it’s just horrible to watch.

—John Rodat

Like Father, Like Son

Keeping Up With the Steins

Directed by Scott Marshall

This mishmash of TV-comedy shtick, intergenerational melodrama, hoary cliché and—surprise—the occasional moment of genuine sentiment or religious insight is, at least, brief. Keeping Up With the Steins clocks in at under 90 minutes, which is still time enough to make you wish you never heard of a bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony in which a boy becomes a man. Speaking as a sympathetic gentile, the Jews deserve better than this.

As the title suggests, Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, nicer than on Entourage) feels highly competitive with his ex-business partner Arnie Stein (Larry Miller). So when the Steins put on a half-million dollar bar mitzvah for their kid, Fiedler goes a little crazy over his son Ben’s (Daryl Sabara) incipient manhood ceremony, and, for starters, rents Dodger Stadium for the after-temple party.

There’s some comic potential in this: Piven can be funny, and comedian Miller can play obnoxious as well as anyone. But this remains mostly unexplored, as it soon becomes clear that Keeping Up With the Steins should really have been called Growing Up With the Fiedlers. The film is narrated by Ben, and falls quickly into familiar “family dramedy” territory with the arrival of the clan’s long-estranged patriarch, Irwin (Garry Marshall). There’s bonding and laughter and tears and bonding and laughter and tears. As they say on a shampoo bottle, “rinse and repeat.”

This is too bad, because those scenes in which Ben struggles to understand what the ceremony means—what it means, in a larger sense, to be a Jew—are interesting. Richard Benjamin has a nice part as a self-satisfied rabbi who, prodded by grandpa Irwin, realizes he’s not doing everything he could to foster Ben’s spirituality. But, like most movies, spirituality is shunted aside almost as quickly as it is introduced; better to spend more time making fun of Irwin’s much-younger gal pal Sandy (Daryl Hannah) for her new-age beliefs.

Most of the rest of the picture is a hackneyed mess, enacted by a first-class cast with greater care than it deserves. Maybe the elder Marshall should send his director son, Scott Marshall, back to Hebrew school for a refresher course. It might focus his sitcom-addled mind.

—Shawn Stone


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