Film

QUEER AS FOLK

Sad sisters, sixties minstrels and a psycho shrink bring it all back home

Brian D. Johnson April 21 2003
Film

QUEER AS FOLK

Sad sisters, sixties minstrels and a psycho shrink bring it all back home

Brian D. Johnson April 21 2003

QUEER AS FOLK

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Sad sisters, sixties minstrels and a psycho shrink bring it all back home

SO YOU’RE AT the multiplex, puzzling over the menu. You’ve heard good things about this small Canadian movie called Marion Bridge, but it deals with cancer, death, incest and alcoholism in a Cape Breton family. After going through the war and SARS and the cancellation of spring, you wonder if you’re in the mood for it. At the other extreme there’s Anger Management, a big, honking Hollywood farce with Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. You like Jack, but you’re not sure about Sandler, who’s prone to pee-pee caca humour when he’s not making dark, brilliant art-house fare like Punch Drunk Love. Finally there ’s A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about a reunion of ’60s folksingers from the folks who gave us SC7Y and This is Spinal Tap. If you’re torn between Canadian authenticity and American hyperbole, this send-up appears to be a heavenly compromise—a Canadian kind of American movie—and it looks hilarious.

But none of these films is quite what you would expect.

MARION BRIDGE is a modest but finely observed character study. Despite the bleak subject matter, it’s no bummer, and there’s a flickering sense of humour to take the chill off the drama. Directing with a quiet clarity, German-born Canadian Weibke von Carolsfeld makes her feature debut with this Chekhov-lite tale of three sisters. Agnes (Molly Parker) comes home to be with her dying mother (Marguerite McNeil), and runs up against her resentful older sister, Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins), whose husband has dumped her for a younger woman. The middle child is Louise (Stacy Smith), a slacker who’s retreated into watching TV and daydreaming about a girl with a pickup truck. Rounding out the family intrigue, Agnes keeps driving off to check out a puzzled 15-year-old (Ellen Page), a girl we presume to be her daughter.

As a skittish alcoholic, Parker is superb— especially when her character falls off the wagon and starts snorting coke with a Stoner played by Ashley Maclsaac. And as the

long-suffering Theresa, Jenkins complements her beautifully. They actually look like sisters, and they create a fractious chemistry that is dead-on. But the scenes around

the ailing mother are overwrought. And while screenwriter Daniel Maclvor, adapting his own play, has a facility for natural dialogue barbed with a subtle wit, the story feels meagre. It trickles along as a series of small moments in a parched emotional landscape that’s authentic, yet all too familiar—an East Coast hinterland of repressed rage and unexpressed desire. For a tale of alcohol, incest, cancer and cocaine, Marion Bridge is remarkably tame.

ANGER MANAGEMENT is quite the opposite, a movie from the hot, thumping artificial heart of Hollywood. It doesn’t have one plausible or authentic moment. But it does have some laughs, even if you hate yourself for giving in to them. Sandler plays mild-mannered Dave Buznick, who’s branded as an air-rage culprit after a misunderstanding on a plane. A judge orders him to undergo anger-management therapy with a whacked-out shrink named Buddy (jack Nicholson), who goads his patient into one incendiary confrontation after another, then hits on his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei). This abrasive buddy movie unfolds as a one-note plot, with a predictable outcome. But there are

some irresistible gags—such as Dave’s job, which involves designing cover-up clothes for overweight cats. There’s also a spirited brawl in a Buddhist monastery, and a running gay joke to the tune of I Feel Pretty.

What’s noteworthy about Anger Management is that it’s Hollywood’s first explicit post-9/11 farce. During the air-rage incident, the line “our nation is going through a difficult time” serves as a repeated one-liner.

And the climax takes place at a Yankees game, with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani leading a parade of cameos. Irony, it appears, isn’t dead; it just got really fat. Even Jack seems to be performing one massive cameo—in a riff on his own road-rage incident, he starts out to smash up a car with a golf club, then uses a baseball bat.

A MIGHTY WIND is a smart, shrewd comedy that may not kick up as many laughs as

Anger Management, but it’s far more satisfying. Directed by Christopher Guest, it was created with the improv techniques he honed in previous mock documentaries, This is Spinal Tap (1984), Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000). Once again, he cowrote a scene-by-scene story outline with co-star Eugene Levy, minus the dialogue, which the cast invented on camera.

The movie begins with the death of folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom. Irving’s son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), rounds up his father’s stable of has-been stars for a grand tribute concert in New York City’s Town Hall. Among them are: Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O’Hara), a sweetheart duo along the lines of Ian and Sylvia; a trio of purist troubadours called the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer); and the New Main Street Singers, a Florida “neuftet” led by a couple (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch) who have crafted a religion based on the power of colour.

The heart of this comedy is in the music. As a satirical rendering of’60s folk, it’s spoton. Guest, McKean and Shearer—best known as the power trio in This is Spinal Tap—are first-rate musicians. They understand that to parody music, you can’t play it badly; you have to commit to the form. As Spinal Tap, they forged heavy metal clichés that were often better than the real thing. Now, as the Folksmen, they’ve created another reallife band—a corny folk trio with catchy melodies, laminated harmonies and priceless lyrics. Their songs range from Skeletons of Quinto, a Latino Marxist dirge (“The silver tentacles of the moon’s rays haunt me”) to Blood on the Coal, the ballad of a train wreck in a coal mine (“Blood on the tracks/Blood in the mine/Brothers and sisters what a terrible time”).

As the divorced duo, Mitch & Mickey, SCTV veterans Levy and O’Hara form the linchpin of the plot. The big question is whether Mitch, still scarred from a nervous breakdown, will be able to perform. Levy goes far beyond his usual caricatures to create an exquisitely painful portrayal of a man almost catatonic with fear. And when he and O’Hara finally perform their lovebird duet, it’s more heartbreaking than funny. That’s the thing about good satire. When it’s that good, you’re not sure where to laugh. Only when you start to think, jeez, maybe these guys are serious, do you begin to appreciate just how funny it is. PI