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The Sweet and Bitter Comedy
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's a distressing moment for the aging hipster when you realize that advertisers don't care that you exist anymore. As you edge deeper into your 40s, you start noticing that most popular entertainment is geared toward a generation infinitely more attractive to marketers than you are. As it should be, I know, for there's nothing more pathetic than an earring-wearing 50-year-old trying to "make it" at the scene. Still, it's a humbling sensation when you enter into the demographic that's only popular with insurance companies, golf club manufacturers, and the makers of Cialis.
This evolution is most profoundly felt at the Cineplex. I used to be a big fan of the occasional trashy summer blockbuster, but for a few years now I've gone through the prime film season without catching a single movie. Everything seemed impossibly dumb and impossibly loud, and just watching the trailers set my teeth on edge. Obviously, there's still the art-house movies, like Winter's Bone and Somewhere, but for the omnipresent, mega-budgeted, mega-audience grabs, I've been rendered obsolete.
The slate of films to be released in 2011 is sure to further my sense of alienation from the prime and coveted movie-going audience. There will be a record 27 sequels released during the year, and I swear I'm not trying to be snobbish when I say that there's not a single one I could imagine ever going to see, even on a bet. Another Transformers. Another Mission: Impossible. Another Pirates of the Caribbean. Another gray and grim Harry Potter movie. (What are we up to now, eight? It feels like 30.) Another round of annoyingly hip animation retreads (Cars 2, Happy Feet 2, Kung Fu Panda 2.) Another god-damned Tyler Perry movie. And then Alvin and the Chipmunks and the inevitable Twilight abomination. And on and on. It's hard for me to conceive of a more joyless line-up for any year. I foresee a series of bitter Friday nights in 2011, me plopped on a couch, with some arcane 20th century novel in my hands and a snarling look on my face.
There is one movie to be released in 2011 that gets me excited, a small, limited-release (I'm certain) film adapted from a novel by my favorite writer — Meeting Evil, from the book by Thomas Berger, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Luke Wilson. Meeting Evil was the first book I read by Berger, and it prompted me to go out and track down the rest of his oeuvre — nearly 25 novels that span a five-decade career. I've read 22 of them, and I'm taking my time in getting to the last three; I like his books so much that I'm actually sad at the prospect of finishing the list. To my mind, Thomas Berger is one of the greatest post-war writers that America has produced, right up there with John Updike and Philip Roth, yet I rarely run into anyone that's ever read his novels.
Berger had one out-and-out popular success — the picaresque comedy Little Big Man, which was made into a cult-favorite 1970 Arthur Penn/Dustin Hoffman film. While the movie brought great attention and financial success to the writer, it's hardly representative of Berger's peculiar and distinctive voice — Penn obviously wanted to turn the Western into an anti-Vietnam parable, with the genocide of the Native Americans doubling for the plight of the Vietnamese victims of the war. To reduce the complexity and tone of Berger's novel to a knee-jerk anti-war statement is artistically dishonest — Berger's gifts demand greater sophistication, and his trademark black humor was obliterated by the heavy-handed approach of the director.
The second movie made from a Berger novel, 1981's Neighbors, was an absolute disaster. Starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the Columbia Pictures release was hoping to capitalize on the success of The Blues Brothers and it was pitched as a zany buddy comedy, which was a million miles from the paranoid tone of the source material. Worse, the studio chose John Avildsen to direct, and while the filmmaker has proven to be adequate at super-obvious crowd pleasers (Rocky; The Karate Kid; Lean on Me), he's never shown a facility for social satire or irony. The result is a film that is all but unwatchable, and while it wasn't an absolute commercial disaster, Neighbors took such a drubbing from critics and fans alike that the negative publicity inhibited producers from taking a chance on any of Berger's other works. I'm hoping Meeting Evil will be successful enough to prompt a renewed interest in his books, and maybe further, adult-geared adaptations would be produced.
As bad as Neighbors is, though, it does provide some glimmers into what makes Berger so unique. Most of Berger's novels feature a not-too-bright "everyman" protagonist who proceeds to get the living shit kicked out of him by wild circumstance and unpredictability. The narrative never allows the hero to be degraded, however, and even during the most excruciating embarrassments, you never pity the main character. It's a tricky balancing act, to have your protagonist get pummeled by the capriciousness of life while never letting him get demeaned. And Berger's ear for dialogue is as sharp as his eye--what emerges from his novels is a pitch-perfect representation of 20th century American vernacular, from the small-town hicksterisms of The Feud to the upper-middle class rhythms of The Houseguest.
Berger has never really gotten his due, I think, because his novels are so deceptively readable. He's been publishing since 1958, and while he's never been a mega-selling writer, he's rarely gone more than 2 years without releasing a novel that manages to land on the nether regions of the best seller's list. The narratives are tightly built, and while it's dismissive to call anything a "page-turner," it's worth noting that Berger takes pains to keep things humming along. I usually finish a Berger novel in a couple of days but the stories linger in the memory.
I've never cared too much for Luke Wilson, though I think he might be the right actor for Meeting Evil – his bewildered turn in Idiocracy shows that he might be at home with the deep satire that Berger excels in. And Samuel Jackson is always welcome, especially when he plays a character suffused with menace. The director for the film, Chris Fisher, has mostly done TV work, so I'm a little skeptical of his appropriateness. In a perfect world, Thomas Berger's dark sensibilities would be developed by a directing team known for their morbidly funny tastes. Attention Joel and Ethan Coen: I have your next project.