Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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Life is a Custard Pie

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"Life is a custard pie. Sometimes you get to eat it, and sometimes it smacks you right in the face." — Lori Heine

In my first eighteen months of life, I never took a step. I didn’t even crawl. Mom would set me down somewhere, and I would stay there, like a doll, until somebody picked me up again. My parents took me to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t walking yet. He told them to stop worrying over me, and to just let me do it when I got good and ready.

One afternoon, I sat out on our driveway, where I had been plunked. Beth Ann Kahn sat facing me, and we were playing. “Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . baker’s man,” I sang as she smacked each of my palms with hers — as if to compensate for not walking, since well before my first birthday I’d been an eloquent singer.

My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway.

“Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” Beth Ann murmured, casting a glance at the clown getting out of his car at the curb across the street. She scooted closer to me, watching the stranger in the polka-dotted jumpsuit.

“Hidy-ho, there, girlies!”

He waved a white-gloved hand.

The little girl who lived there was having a birthday party. My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway. Fwap-fwap . . . fwap-fwap went his gigantic, floppy shoes.

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

Beth Ann began to whimper. “That’s Curt the Clown,” my mom explained from the folding chair on our lawn. “I’ll bet he’s going to make animals out of balloons!”

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Beth Ann burst into tears. Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

“Oh, honey!” I heard Mom say.

“Where you goin’?” sniffled Beth Ann.

Curt the Clown was going to go inside, and I wouldn’t see him anymore. He was almost to the front door. Maybe I could catch him, if I ran!

The world flew past as I strained forward. Faster — faster! “Hey!” I called to the retreating clown. “Hey, there!”

I reached out for him. That was a mistake. Not just because he was still too far away, but because the driveway tilted. It rose up to meet me, and I landed smack on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

“Oh, my baby!” Mom swept me up into her arms. “You walked! You ran!”

Mrs. Kahn was out of the chair beside my mom’s and she had picked up Beth Ann. “Lori doesn’t do anything halfway,” she noted, holding her sobbing daughter close.

I scowled at Beth Ann. She was the baby. Mom hoisted me into the air and laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

For obvious reasons, I have loved clowns ever since. I’m well aware that many people think clowns are creepy. It’s become a sort of collectivist prejudice. We’re simply expected to find clowns creepy because “everybody” says so. But like everything collectivist, I think that anti-clown hysteria is creepy.

Curt the Clown has gone on to that great three-ring circus in the sky, so I can’t thank him personally for the role he played in getting me on my feet. But in his honor, I’m on a mission to redeem clowns’ reputation. I’ve written a young-adult novel, appropriately titled Good Clowns. It’s being published September 10.

The Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit.

Is Good Clowns a “libertarian” novel? It’s libertarian in spirit, if not in letter. Riley Brannigan, its 9-year-old heroine, is the daughter of professional clowns. She’s bullied for this at school, because most of the kids agree that “clowns are creepy.” In the parlance of young-adult fiction, my book takes on the issue of bullying.

“We’re a clown family,” Riley’s mother reminds her. “Clowns don’t fight.” This appears to put our heroine at a disadvantage, because the chief bully is more than willing to fight. But the Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit — which call for far more courage than violence.

The Brannigan family may not know they’re libertarians, but since I created them, they certainly are. I won’t give away too much of the plot, as I hope as many as possible will read through to the conclusion for themselves. In any case, may we all persevere in handling the political violence we face daily with dignity, grace, and wit. May we never take ourselves too seriously. And may we eat the custard pie more often than we take it in the face.




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Hi. I’m Me. Where’s My Prize?

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I heard the bad news on the radio, but the press confirmed it: David Letterman has been selected to receive something called the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award won’t be presented until October 22, but to satisfy a world breathlessly awaiting news about this coveted prize, the media were activated early. Way early. Well, bad news usually arrives with haste.

Here’s part of the announcement as it appeared in the Washington Post. Have towels ready, because this is a gush:

David Letterman, who reinvented late-night television with his irreverent and distinctly original comic sensibility, will receive the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Letterman, 70, will be honored with the 20th-annual prize at a gala performance Oct. 22. The event will be televised later nationally. [I take that as a threat.] The Twain, considered the most prestigious honor in the world of comedy, will be awarded to Letterman five years after he was made a Kennedy Center Honoree.

“Reinvented”? “Irreverent?” “Sensibility?” You gotta be kiddin’. The guy isn’t even funny. Tell me one funny thing he’s ever said. See! You can’t.

And why drag Mark Twain into it? I don’t especially like Twain. Some of his stuff is good; lots of it is simply tiresome (and there is lots and lots of it). He’s seldom funny, and never so seldom as when he insists on telling you that this is what he’s being. But some of his aphorisms are memorable: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And as I was taught — I believe by a professor with the unusual name of Blake Nevius — Twain actually did “reinvent” something. Before Twain, America’s professional humorists made money by laughing at people who were socially inferior to them. Twain made money by laughing with people whom he treated as social equals. As Nevius put it, “unlike the others, he wasn’t above his material.”

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one.

The really horrible thing, however, is the idea of somebody deciding to give an award for American humor at a “gala” at which people in tuxedos will schmooze and chuckle, presumably about how much better they are than people without tuxedos. There are far too many awards, anyway — and for humor? Gimme a break. Anybody with a sense of humor has already gotten the point of the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz, the awards-giving scene. The point is that awards are silly and unnecessary and unconsciously funny. If you have the qualities for which an award is given, you should probably laugh at the very idea of an award. If you don’t have those qualities — well, do you think that giving a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will inspire some wannabe comic to become the next (ugh) David Letterman? It won’t happen. Such awards have no purpose — no legitimate purpose, anyhow.

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one. I’m picturing a mob of creepy-looking guys in monkey suits who, contrary to all evidence, think they’re cool, talking about how funny David is, and never having a clue that they are the funny ones. Well, they, and the president, and Congress — all of whom should be getting an award, if you’re giving out awards for laughs.




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The Less You Know, the Better

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My daughter Hayley wrote her senior thesis demonstrating an inverse relationship between how much a movie trailer reveals about the movie’s plot and the quality of the film; if you can predict the whole plot just from watching the trailer, it’s likely to be a dog. Conversely, the less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie. Test her theory for yourself, and you’ll see that you could save yourself a lot of money on predictable (and predictably bad) movies.

Better yet, test the reverse of her theory by going to see the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! this weekend. As I watched the trailers over the past month, I had no idea what the movie would be about. Roman epic? Backstage musical? Film noir? Time travel sci-fi? Hayley’s theory holds up: Hail, Caesar! is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable comedies to come along in ages.

What’s not to love about this movie? Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit. Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s nemesis, Newman) reclining in a toga. Scarlett Johansson struggling out of a mermaid suit. Ralph Fiennes keeping his upper lip stiff as a snippy, officious, British director. A producer named Skank. A singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who is simply swoony with his curly hair, dimpled chin, and aw-shucks accent. Tilda Swinton portraying not one, but two, gossip columnists. Frances McDormand cameo-ing as a gruff, chain-smoking film editor. And let’s not forget George Clooney, whose kidnapping early in the film drives the plot (yes, there is one.)

The less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie.

Anchoring the frivolity are two meaty themes that kept my audience-mates — mostly intellectual film buffs — chortling for two hours. (Who but intellectual film buffs comes to the movies in the middle of the afternoon on opening day in a college town and laughs knowingly throughout the film?) I laughed knowingly right along with them.

The first theme has to do with the film’s inside look at the art of filmmaking in the 1950s, and despite the fact that it’s a self-deprecating comedy, we observe some serious skills displayed by the fictional directors, actors, and editors of the movies being made within the movie. It is an impressive reminder that moviemaking is a true art form, one that we often overlook as we are drawn into the magical world presented to us on screen.

The other theme involves a decision that studio exec Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) faces. As a production manager, his job is to keep every film on schedule and under budget. That means he has to wrangle thespians who drink too much, box-office stars who can’t act, extras who aren’t paid enough, starlets who get into trouble, and gossip columnists who could torpedo a movie with one disparaging article about its leading man — and that’s just what Eddie does before lunch. Meanwhile, he’s being courted by a big corporation that wants to hire him as a top executive with job security, high pay, good retirement benefits, and the promise that he can be home in time for dinner with the missus every night and baseball with the kid every weekend. Should he take the offer?

His dilemma leads to a powerful speech about the factors of production that would make the whole film worthwhile — even if it wasn’t one of the wittiest films I’ve seen in months.

Oh — and did I mention those communists from The Future?

 

Hail, Caesar!, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2016, 106 minutes.




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The Tyranny of the Sensitive

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It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think.

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

If you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again.

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.


Editor's Note: Review of "Can We Take a Joke?," directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015. 75 minutes.



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