Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 3)
Flirting With Disaster
This is the movie that started the whole “underrated” thing here. I mentioned it to Dennis Burger, and he hadn’t heard of it—which didn’t surprise me since few people have.
I’ve more than once suggested watching Flirting With Disaster when I’ve been with friends only to have them nix the idea when they saw the program guide’s two-star rating. So there I was telling them it was a great movie, and they let themselves be swayed by some generic manifestation of mass opinion.
Screw the program guide. This deserves a gander.
Flirting is very early David O. Russell, and leagues better than the acclaimed The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle (or the unfortunate Huckabees and Three Kings). Ben Stiller plays the smart but put-upon nebbish he would draw thinner and thinner milk from in the unnecessary Meet the Parents series, Patricia Arquette is the slightly flaky but wise and long-suffering
wife, Téa Leoni is stunning as the beyond neurotic social worker, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore do an exquisite turn as Rob & Laurie Petrie having been ravaged by the intervening decades, and Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda are pitch perfect as the counterculture holdouts who aren’t really sure who they are anymore. (And, O yeah, Richard Jenkins, Josh Brolin, and Glenn Fitzgerald excel too—but I don’t want to give too much away.)
Flirting With Disaster was ahead of its time, and wouldn’t really make much of an impression until it worked its way through the creative unconscious and into TV series like Freaks and Geeks (see below) and The Office.
Please—ignore the dumbass star ratings and check this one out.
The Tick (2001)
It’s hard to believe this only lasted nine episodes—but given Fox’s notorious history with great material, I guess no one should be surprised. The Tick doesn’t pretend to be anything but infinitely silly, but there is something deeply satisfying about its whole “What do superheroes do when they’re not superheroing?” premise.
There’s a lot to watch this for—including the under-appreciated Liz Vassey as Captain Liberty and a pre-Dark Knight Nestor Carbonell as Batmanuel. But the standout—physically and in every other way—is Patrick Warburton, who never gets enough credit for his superhuman comedic timing.
“The Funeral”—where Captain Liberty is recruited to escort her idol The Immortal to a book signing only to accidentally polish him off in the sack when they decide to indulge in a quickie along the way, leaving The Tick to dispose of the body—ranks with the funniest stuff ever made. Ever. No point in giving it away, but it’s an almost perfect balance of physical and verbal comedy that could have easily veered off into the stupidly grisly but thankfully opts for character over gratuitous yucks.
I’ve already written these guys up, and, yes, they’re critically acclaimed, but that doesn’t help explain the look of blind incomprehension I usually get when I mention their name.
Freaks and Geeks
Another one of those things that’s critically acclaimed, and revered now, but was all but ignored at the time—and, like Dennis’s My So-Called Life, is probably for the most part still ignored. But not only did it launch the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco, it shows what an incredible career Linda Cardellini would have had if she hadn’t made the mistake of playing Velma in the Scooby-Doo movies. (The Founder?! Really!?!)
If you want to go right to the heart of what made the series (which only lasted 12 episodes) great, watch the scene in the Judd Apatow-directed “I’m With the Band” where the geeky kids try to figure out girls while munching on their freeze pops. Everything Apatow would go on to do is foreshadowed and embodied in that one brief scene.
And, O yeah, the show was created and guided by Paul Feig, who would become one of the prime forces behind The Office.
Freaks and Geeks is available on Netflix.
Ed Wood isn’t just Tim Burton’s best movie, it’s his only movie. (And most people don’t even know it’s a Burton film.) I know that’s hard for the legions of blindly devoted Burtonites to swallow, but the guy has made a career out of coasting, creating bright shiny surfaces for an increasingly superficial society. So, yes, you could claim he accurately shows us what we see when we look in the mirror—but I’m not convinced that’s a conscious creative decision. And there’s a hell of a lot more to life than admiring our own reflections.
This is Johnny Depp’s best performance, as he plunges with infectious zeal into playing an idiot who had to make movies. (The scene at the Brown Derby where he bounces up and down as a Latin band mambos by says it all.) Martin Landau is masterful as a both pathetic and tragic Bela Lugosi, introducing a depth into the proceedings that’s almost always absent in Burton’s work. And Bill Murray does a nice, if a little unfocused, turn as Bunny Breckinridge.
But, because Burton isn’t really that great at either casting or directing, the quality of the performances gets pretty uneven from there. Patricia Arquette, who’s flawless in Disaster, George “The Animal” Steele, and Lisa Marie in particular seem abandoned to their own devices and fail to make much of an impression.
But as a meditation on the endless depths of delusion, Ed Wood can’t be beat.
It doesn’t seem quite right to spotlight underrated gems without also drawing a little attention to stuff that’s been heaped with way too much praise.
The People v. O.J. Simpson
This deliriously over-lauded series was so eager to pander to the predilections of its audience that it ultimately turned out to be as inherently and completely dishonest as its titular character. Showing zero sensitivity for the important issues of race and community the Simpson trial brought to a head, it used Clark and Darden as poster children to promote some dubious current causes instead of admitting that the D.A.’s office was probably just in over its head. A more accurate portrayal would have inevitably been more interesting and insightful too—but never would have made it onto Fox.
Beyond that, the show just wasn’t very well made. Sarah Paulson is a good but not great actor who at least made the somewhat one-note Clark character interesting. But the rest of the casting is just sad, especially Cuba Gooding Jr., who doesn’t come close to capturing the essential denseness that defined The Juice.
“Another One Bites the Dust” to accompany images of the dwindling jury pool? An elaborate crane shot whose payoff was an image of a stack of magazines sitting in the back of an otherwise empty delivery truck? Stealing the ending of Barry Lyndon as if this self-important twaddle could ever deserve a place in the same universe as Kubrick’s work? The examples of creative laziness and blatant ineptitude go on and on, and yet a lot of people saw this weak stab at dramaturgy as somehow groundbreaking. (Ironic that the same guys who wrote Ed Wood penned this too.)
The People v. O.J. Simpson (aka American Crime Story) is available on Netflix.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and