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Friday, December 08, 2006

Don't Be Stupid, NBC!

There is a rumor going around the net that NBC might cancel Aaron Sorkin's latest smartass liberal project, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." While I often get the urge to pull Sorkin's soapbox out from under him and beat him like a dead horse (an act that Sorkin himself is no doubt familiar with), I will say that "Studio 60" is a great show that demonstrates a potential for brilliance. After eleven episodes, it is not quite there yet. Give this fledgling program a chance to finish out the twenty-two episodes season before you pull the plug, you corporate goons!

"Studio 60" follows the adventures of a sketch comedy show (similar to Saturday Night Live) in Los Angeles as the program and the network both go through a regime change. Wes (Judd Hirsch), the head producer and father of "Studio 60" has a Peter Finch inspired meltdown on the air and is fired for criticizing the "lobotomized" programming and telling his audience to change the channel. Matt and Danny (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) are brought in as head writers. At the same time, the network, NBS, has a spunky new president (Amanda Peet) who is, of course, at odds with everyone, including NBS chairman, Jack (Steven Weber). She wants to Sorkinify the network, putting on intelligent programming (including an hour long drama about the UN called "Nations"). Of course, the network would rather have reality shows that will make them lots of money. Philistines. The cast of "Studio 60" (including D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson and Nathan Corddry) is genuinely funny and talented. Like SNL, many of their sketches are only marginally funny, with the occasional spot of brilliance. Their "Santa: to catch a predator" sketch actually made me laugh to the point of choking. Oh, and the "Meet the Press hosted by Juliette Lewis" sketch deserves its own hour, by the way. Some viewers have complained that the sketches aren't funny enough--personally, I think if they were any funnier, the show would not be realistic.

I avoided "Studio 60" at first because I was doubtful. While I loved "Sports Night" and miss it dearly, do we really need another show-within-a-show? Meta is getting kind of old, isn't it? What Sorkin knows, however, is that the metashow is one of the best ways to critique out popular culture and the medium of television itself; not to mention that he knows that world so well that he could write snappy backstage dialogue in his sleep. The acting is strong, the casting is great and the writing is good enough to make seemingly boring storylines interesting. Everyone in this show has, at some point, carried another show. That can be dangerous, because everyone associates them with their previous starring roles. The characters on "Studio 60" are strong enough to avoid this pitfall, however. What results is an incredibly strong and talented ensemble cast with a chemistry all its own. My biggest beef with the show is its depiction of women. don't get me wrong, I think Sorkin writes well for both men and women, but "Studio 60" has a tendency to put women in servile, objectified positions. The male characters act like juvenile jackasses and the women sheepishly smile and laugh that "boys will be boys." Besides this annoying characteristic, however, "Studio 60" is pretty awesome, and I hope NBC decides to keep it around for another season.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Life imitates art in Marc Forster’s latest film Stranger Than Fiction. It’s very sweet and funny, and deserves a lot more publicity than it has received thus far. Sadly, it was unwisely advertised as a zany comedy. Mr. Ferrell, who is normally all schtick, turns in a very reserved and sophisticated performance that may not appeal to the viewers who come to the theatre expecting Ricky Bobby or Ron Burgundy. I hope that people will give Stranger Than Fiction a chance, however, if only because it is a very intelligent little meta-movie that is neither condescending nor preciously clever.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a mild-mannered IRS agent with a mundane and lonely life. One day, Harold Crick hears a voice narrating his actions. She knows everything about him, including his thoughts. What he does not know is that the voice is that of Karen Eiffel, a neurotic J.D. Salinger type whose brilliant new novel is supposed to end with his poetic yet violent death. Suprisingly, Harold freaks out a little but insists that he is perfectly sane. Rather than seeking therapy, he decides to seek another authority— English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).

The basic plot of the film is familiar: a repressed man finds out that he is going to die and decides to live it up while he still has the time. What saves it from being trite, however, is the sheer surrealist idea behind the machinations of his impending doom: he’s in someone else’s novel. The third-person omniscient narrator is his God, and she‘s going to smite him down for the sake of a literary theme. While trying to figure out how to prevent his death, Harold falls in love with Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a Harvard-educated baker with more than a touch of Henry David Thoreau in her.

Mr. Forster, who directed such films as Monster’s Ball. and Finding Neverland, has both a flare for the dramatic and the ability to depict the gravity and tragedy of everyday life. If you think that sounds like an odd match for a comedy, you’re wrong; to the contrary, the dramatic heft behind Stranger Than Fiction is precisely what keeps the audience engaged and the characters sympathetic. Interestingly, Stranger Than Fiction is a film without a villain. Karen Eiffel is not a malicious character, as she does not know that Harold really exists. She wants to end the novel with his death because she always ends her novels with death; in a way, the only villain in this film is unoriginal story telling. Tragedies end with funerals, comedies end with weddings; can Harold escape the “fate” of literary cliché?

The amount of money I would pay to see this movie: $9