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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 4, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


411, Games, Cheaper, and Something's Gotta Give

Have you dialed 411 lately on a land line? It's a nightmare.

You see, they have this great new voice-recognition software that lets a computer hear the name and city of the person or company whose listing you want.

The trouble is, they don't turn the voice recognition off while telling you the number. So any sound you make is interpreted as an attempt to stop the number.

What that means is that you can't repeat the number for somebody else to write down. When the directory assistance computer says "Five-five-five," if you then repeat "five-five-five," the computer stops giving you the number and tells me that your request was not understood. At that point you have to hang up and dial again.

So either you have to twist your neck to hold the phone so your hands will be free to write it yourself, or you have to memorize all seven digits and repeat them to somebody after the message is finished.

My wife has had a nagging cough for the past few months, and for her, getting a number from directory assistance is almost impossible. If she coughs, the computer tries to interpret it as speech. Oddly enough, it fails -- and so does her attempt to get the number.

Who was the bonehead at the phone company who decided not to deactivate voice recognition during the readout of the phone numbers? This is such an obvious and irritating mistake that it makes you wonder if the whole point is just to get people to stop using directory assistance at all.

*

Great new game we got at Christmas: Apples to Apples. You really don't have to know anything to have a great time playing. The idea is that you are dealt a set of random cards -- celebrities, historical figures, or things like "my bank account" or "my senior prom."

Then, when one player puts out a card naming some quality -- "cuddly" or "filthy" or "complicated" or "delightful" or "happy" -- you choose the card from your hand that you think best exemplifies that quality. (Or, failing that, the one that will get the biggest laugh when it turns up in the list.)

It's not a game about competition -- there's a winner, but it's pretty random and you don't much care who wins. What's fun is that when you win a round, you get to put that quality card in front of yourself, and pretty soon the other players start talking about how your list of qualities exemplifies you.

*

One of my favorite movie games is "Who Is the New?" And the game is free. All you need is a knowledge of actors from old and new movies.

The rules are simple. Pick a star from the past -- James Stewart, for instance -- and then ask a group of fellow movie buffs, "Who is the new James Stewart?"

This one is too easy, because it's hard to think of a serious candidate who isn't Tom Hanks. Hanks has the same kind of nice-guy, natural presentation that made Stewart so beloved; he also chooses the same mix of comic, heart-warming, and dramatic roles that made Stewart so unpredictable. They also had an eye for quality -- it's hard to find a truly bad Stewart or Hanks movie, once their careers had advanced to the point where they had script and director approval.

A harder one was, 'Who's the new Cary Grant?" A few suggestions, like Pierce Brosnan, satisfied some of the criteria, but not all. Certainly Brosnan's screen persona is absolutely modeled on Cary Grant's later shtick, but Brosnan doesn't seem capable of bringing off the Cary Grant of Bringing Up Baby or I Was a Male War Bride or The Bishop's Wife.

Finally, we realized the obvious answer: Hugh Grant. There is no Cary Grant role that Grant could not play; and there is no Hugh Grant role which, if it had been made forty years earlier, Cary Grant would not have been first pick to play.

It does not mean that Hugh Grant is "doing" Cary Grant -- one of Pierce Brosnan's weaknesses as an actor is precisely that (though it can also be argued that through most of his career, Cary Grant was "doing" Ronald Colman). Nor is Tom Hanks "doing" James Stewart.

Rather, they are playing the same kinds of roles, but in their own way. I could imagine the mature James Stewart playing Hanks's part in Road to Perdition, for instance. He would have been brilliant, but it would have been his own. Nevertheless, they both would bring that image of fundamental decency (which I think probably reflects a real fundamental decency) that made us care about someone who was, after all, a hired murderer.

So ... play the game yourself. Who is the new Bette Davis? The new Lauren Bacall? (Hint: It's harder with women.) The new Henry Fonda? The new Jerry Lewis? The new John Wayne?

*

The promos made Something's Gotta Give look like a leering, smarmy sex comedy -- and a sex comedy in which gorgeous young women are falling, not for Warren Beatty, but for Jack Nicholson strains credulity just a little too far.

It turns out, however, that the movie is much better than I feared. In fact, it tries to be an affirmation of love based on something more than sexual attraction; on the idea of finding beauty at every stage of life; and on the idea that while commitment puts you at risk of suffering great emotional pain, it is also the only way to achieve real happiness.

A very grown-up message -- though it says something depressing about our society today that the idea of commitment and marriage is the surprise twist in a movie where everybody sleeping together is taken for granted as normal.

The fact is, promiscuity is not normal and can never be normal in a civilized society. There is a fundamental expectation of fidelity that we can't escape, and those who are unfaithful -- who don't treat a sexual relationship as a committed and monogamous relationship -- simply don't get the same kind of respect, trust, and regard as the people who have grown up.

So in a way, movies like this one, that start from the premise that of course unmarried twenty-something daughters are sleeping around (a theme that also crops up, completely needlessly, in Cheaper by the Dozen) and it's a foolish parent who tries to resist it, are simply trying to pretend that Hollywood's values apply throughout America.

Not that there aren't plenty of living-together couples or promiscuous singles, who display their behavior quite openly. It's just that there are a lot fewer parents who fail to recognize their children's behavior as childish, dangerous, stupid, and weak than Hollywood would have us believe. It's the Hollywood myth of the "nice parent" -- i.e., the parent who doesn't criticize the child's misbehavior. Guess what? That isn't what a nice parent is -- that's a completely intimidated parent, or one who just doesn't care; or one who is desperate to be their child's "buddy" instead of fulfilling the parental role.

But that's Hollywood, once again trying to pretend that the wretched excesses of Hollywood society are somehow "ok" or at least typical of the rest of America. Sadly, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the more we see Hollywood films depicting this sort of thing as "normal," the more people think that it's OK to do things that generations of grownups have known lead to misery for everyone. What else could we expect? Hollywood movies are rarely made by grown-ups.

Something's Gotta Give tries very hard to be a grown-up movie, and it almost succeeds. Though at first I was scornful of the cheap jokes, gradually the characters -- especially Diane Keaton's beautiful, funny, and real best-of-career performance -- won me over. If you aren't bothered by brief nudity and a lot of sexual japery, this is a successful comedy.

Still, there are a couple of cheats. One of them is: If they had cast an ordinary 56-year-old female body in the Diane Keaton role -- say, Kathy Bates (or even Frances McDormand, who plays the acerbic sister so brilliantly in this film) -- there wouldn't have been a movie. The message is, it's ok to have wrinkles, but you better not have an extra ounce of fat anywhere on your body.

The other cheat is that the very last scene seems tacked on. Nothing in the scenes leading up to it prepares for it, and in fact what I saw in Diane Keaton's performance suggested that she was playing her part without the "twist" ending in mind. I think they audience-tested the real version and realized that they'd do much better business if they brought Keaton and Nicholson back to Paris (or a Paris set) and shot a scene that essentially denies the last third of the movie.

Here's the funny thing, though. The two most believable performances in the movie are the ones that will get the least notice. Keanu Reeves is at his understated best as the young doctor who falls for the aging playwright; and Frances McDormand does good-humored, cheerful mockery-to-the-victim's-face better than anybody.

*

Steve Martin is always funny. Even in a bad movie -- and he's made a few of them -- he's almost always the best thing in it. And at his best, there has been no better comic actor in movies, period. He should have won an Oscar for All of Me, and his L.A. Story is one of my favorite films.

And Cheaper by the Dozen is a good Steve Martin movie. Like Father of the Bride, it has a by-the-numbers script, but when you have a performer like Martin at the core of a movie, you can get away with that.

Martin's secret is the utter bewildered honesty he brings to his comedy. Instead of seeing him strain to get a laugh (think of Jim Carrey's usual desperate performance), instead he's straining to keep his dignity while coping with impossible odds.

So even though the plot is full holes almost as big as the holes in the less-funny, more-desperate, by-the-numbers Daddy Day Care (which Steve Martin, to his credit, had nothing to do with), I can affirm that this movie is indeed quite funny and ultimately has a pro-family message, in an inept kind of way.

Plot holes? Well, try this: The kids all hate their new city, which they moved to because of their dad's new job. So when that job ends (and believe me, this is not a surprise), do they move back to the small town they loved? No! They stay in the big city. With none of the problems solved. And the voiceover tells us that the dad turned down quite a few job offers in order to stay in that location ... which they hated.

Even worse was the absolutely absurd handling of the mother's publishing adventures. It just doesn't work that way. A book tour doesn't happen by surprise -- they would have been talking to her about it for months. Nor does she get the news that the book is being published and then fly to New York for a meeting (yeah, like that happens) and find that the book is already printed -- yet if she refuses to tour, then "there's no book."

Publishers who think a book is only worth publishing if there's a tour to support it do not print any copies until they have the author committed to the tour. And it wouldn't be two weeks, it would be two months (for that kind of book). I suppose the writers assumed that nobody in the audience would know the difference -- but for those of us who did, it was as grossly impossible as if the movie had shown someone plugging a floor lamp into a water faucet.

Also, babysitting services are not terrified by twelve-child families. They simply insist that there be one tender hired for each three or four. You want a dozen kids tended? We're cool with that -- we'll send you three of our best.

But mechanical problems like that are not my main gripe about this movie.

You see, I come from a big family -- six kids, not a dozen, but once you get past three, the same principles apply.

And I come from a culture where large families are still admired and aspired to. I've seen a lot of them. And I can tell you from experience and observation that this version of Cheaper by the Dozen is deeply ignorant about the dynamics that come into play in a large family.

The original Cheaper was based on a true story about an efficiency expert in the 1920s who fancied himself master of his own house. It was funny, truthful, and utterly tied to its time period. So unless you wanted to make a sort of Merchant-Ivory period comedy out of it, the story had to be updated.

Making the dad a football coach was fine -- it's a demanding job, and he's used to being in charge of organized chaos and dealing with a lot of tender egos. It drove the story well.

But what the writers of the updated version completely missed was the family dynamic. Even in dysfunctional large families -- in fact, especially in dysfunctional large families, the older children take on a co-parenting role. So in the early scenes, I just had to shake my head at the way the older kids (those over ten) were allowed by their parents to be completely self-centered.

It's fine for Hilary Duff's character to be obsessed with her appearance and take too long in the bathroom -- large families have constant struggles over bathroom time, unless they have a thirteen-bathroom house. What's not believable is that the moment she came into the kitchen for breakfast, she seemed to have no duties except to sit down and eat.

But let's suppose, since we're in movie fantasyland, that for the sake of laughs, we'll let the family be more chaotic than large families usually are.

It's still irritating how bad the parenting is. Your kid comes to you, obviously upset about something in school, and you blow him off? A head coach has assistants, for pete's sake. He's the one guy in the coaching organization who can step away for a few minutes to hear his kid out.

Ditto for when daddy is diagramming plays and a kid comes in with a homework question. Dad might balk at helping with the whole page, but he would certainly help with one problem, and he'd make darn sure that someone was helping the kid.

Which brings me to the kid nick-named "Fedex" (supposedly because he's so different-looking from the other kids that Federal Express must have dropped him off). I find it impossible to believe that parents who were worth anything at all would allow that nickname to be used a second time -- because the first time the kid using it would have been stomped on so hard that he wouldn't dream of saying it again.

Here's the speech that mothers give at such moments: "I wish he had been delivered by Fedex. I wish all of you had been left at the door by UPS or stuffed in the mailbox by the Postal Service. Because I have distinct memories of every excruciating moment of each of your grand entrances into the world. But if anyone ever again implies that Mark or any of the rest of you is not my child, he will wear dirty underwear for the rest of his life, is that clear?"

End of nickname. Because big families are not school, they're families. There is teasing, there are quarrels, there are rivalries -- but there is also commitment and a sense of inevitability that forces all but the most pathological family members into forming a modus vivendi.

Oddly enough, large families often avoid some of the most intense conflicts precisely because there are so many alternatives -- if you don't get along with one sibling, there are always others to hang out with. There's also, in a weird way, more privacy -- because there are so many distractions around that you can usually find a way to be ignored if you want to be.

But the most dishonest thing in this movie was the mother's book.

First of all, not one of the kids seemed even a tiny bit concerned about what Mother might have said about them.

Second, in the real world, she could have told the publisher, "My husband is starting a new head coaching job and there's no chance that I'll be touring for Christmas sales, because that's football season. Besides, this isn't a Christmas book, this is a Mother's Day book, so let's do this in the spring."

And even if the publisher said, Christmas tour or no book, then she would not have gone back to her husband and said, "It's what I've always dreamed of, but I'll turn them down for your sake, dear" -- which is how a passive-aggressive person says, "Let me do this or you'll pay." The family was already committed to the move to the big city and she knew Dad had to concentrate on the new job. So she would have told the publisher, "No book, then."

So why didn't that happen?

Because this script is by the numbers. "We have to have some reason for Mom to be away so Dad has to cope on his own," the writers and producers said to each other.

Then one of them shouts, "I know what! She writes a book called Cheaper by the Dozen and then she has to do a book tour!"

"But publishing doesn't work that way," says someone who has had experience (like Steve Martin, for instance).

"Oh, who cares," says a Hollywood Person, "the audience won't know the difference."

The thing is, almost everyone in the audience comes from a family. And if you think about any of the behavior you saw in the family in the movie, do you really believe it? Sure, it was funny -- great sight gags, and so on. But in fact these children functioned as if they had only met on the first day of filming. Not for once moment did these "parents" and these "kids" behave like people who had lived together for years and years.

Which is why this movie is fun to see once, but will ultimately be remembered as one of Steve Martin's embarrassments. It isn't going to hold up over time. Like Titanic and Independence Day, once you've gotten over the sight gags, you're left with the stupidity.

You want to see Steve Martin in a great comedy about family? Rent Parenthood. It has its weaknesses, too -- but there is more truth in every three minutes of Parenthood than in all of Cheaper by the Dozen. I'd gladly trade in the puke scene from Cheaper for the grandma-talking-about-roller-coasters scene in Parenthood any day. Maybe it's not a fair comparison, but the puke scene was one of the few truthful moments in Cheaper by the Dozen.


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