“No man,” Dr. Johnson assures us, “is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” I try never to disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll freely admit that along with hot dogs, fireworks, small-town parades, and old-fashioned country music, I dote on the kind of lowbrow comedy that can best be described as dumb, as in “Oh, why don’t we just rent a dumb movie tonight?” I rarely write about such movies in this space because I tend not to have anything trenchant to say about them. Films like Animal House, Airplane!, or There’s Something About Mary don’t exactly lend themselves to Orwellian pop-culture analysis, much less the spiritually informed aesthetic commentary Crisis pays me to dispense. As the U.S. Supreme Court once said of pornography, they have no redeeming social value, save for the incalculably high value of distracting careworn viewers from the infinitely more consequential stupidities of daily life. When you live in a place like New York, sometimes a dumb movie is the best possible thing to see on Friday night.
All this is prelude to the confession that I loved Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which may possibly be the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen, up to and including Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. As is usually the case with dumb movies, Anchorman is about dumb people, and since the idiots in question happen to be TV newsmen, it might actually have some redeeming social value. Anything that makes TV newsmen look bad, after all, is good for America. (It was a happy day when I first learned that cynical off-camera technicians habitually refer to the on-camera talent as “meat puppets” and “twinkies.”) On the other hand, Anchorman is set in the seventies, meaning that it’d be a bit of a stretch to draw any invidious conclusions about Peter Jennings from the antics of San Diego’s most trusted name in news, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), a blow-dried airhead whose knuckle-headed antics made me laugh so hard that my glasses fell off.
The wonderful thing about Anchorman, in fact, is that it has no agenda of any kind other than to induce life-threatening laughter in its viewers. I briefly feared the worst when Ron’s boss (Fred Willard) hired Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), a feminist newsperson who longs to become TV’s first anchorwoman. But Veronica turned out to be as goofy as Ron, and when she hopped in bed with him the first time they went out, I knew I needn’t fear any stealthy at-tempts to raise my consciousness. I don’t go to dumb movies to have my consciousness raised.
Like most latter-day dumb movies, Anchorman is rated PG-13 for “sexual humor, language and comic violence,” all of which are present and accounted for. One of the film’s biggest laughs, for example, occurs roughly five seconds after Veronica is tipped off that Ron is so thick-witted that he’ll read absolutely anything he sees on his teleprompter, even if it isn’t FCC-approved. Now, consider it stipulated that you don’t have to use Words Like That to make people laugh. The funniest movies ever made, the old screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, were spotless in word and deed, if not necessarily in implication. (I watched Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride on TV the other night, and it was all about sex, even though the newly married Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan weren’t having any.) Nevertheless, I laughed—very, very hard—at that scene, and at the rest of Anchorman. What’s more, I defy you not to laugh at it, too, even if you prefer not to let your kids see it. As Christopher Morley said of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is pure anesthesia, guaranteed to efface the day’s woes.
Conversely, Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite is an unusually smart movie masquerading as a teen-angst farce. As I wrote in this space a few years ago, the best high-school flicks “have a way of being quite unexpectedly touching, and sometimes even subtly observant (Heathers was one of the smartest movies of the past decade), and if I had to choose between, say, Saving Private Ryan and Dazed and Confused, or Bulworth and Clueless, I’d opt for the feather-light soufflé over the heavily earnest main course every time.” Napoleon Dynamite, an independent comedy made by a bunch of Idaho-based crazies, is as good as or better than those fondly remembered films, and it also has a touch of strangeness—even surrealism—that makes it pleasingly tricky to categorize.
The underlying plot mechanism is lifted from Revenge of the Nerds, but the title character (exquisitely well-played by Jon Heder) is so extreme in his geekery that he never engages your sympathy—nor does he try. That’s what makes Napoleon Dynamite interesting: Though it’s pulverizingly funny, it’s not a feel-good movie. Instead, it combines the sharp-eyed small-town spoofery of Waiting for Guffman with the tough-minded social satire of Election and Dana. Yet none of these cinematic reference points, relevant though they are, can fully convey its special quality. I don’t know when I last saw so fresh a genre film, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Writer-director Richard Linklater also makes genre films, among them Dazed and Confused and The School of Rock, both of which I enjoyed pretty much unreservedly. Alas, I can’t say the same for Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise, the 1995 gabfest in which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on the Budapest-Vienna train, fall in love or something like it, and part with a promise to meet again in six months’ time. Well, it seems their rendezvous fell through—the karma that day must have been bad—and a devastated Jesse retreated to America, there to lick his wounds and write a best-selling novel about Celine. Nine years later, the two meet by chance in a Paris bookstore for a second encounter, this one filmed, á la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, in something closely approximating real time.
Most of the big-name critics ate up Before Sunset, and I admit to having liked some of it as well (you can’t not like Julie Delpy). Even so, the premise is pat, just as the dialogue, written by Hawke and Delpy, isn’t quite as sophisticated as its actor-authors seem to think. Nor was I even slightly disarmed by the revelation that Jesse got married on the rebound, had a child, fell out of love with his wife, and is now giving increasingly serious thought to dumping Mrs. Jesse and staying in Paris with his long-lost dream girl. Anyone who finds that romantic is in urgent need of a good marriage-preparation course.
This isn’t to say that Before Sunset is devoid of interest, or even charm. Hawke and Delpy play their parts with care and conviction, and though I’m not a fan of the elaborately artificial pseudo-realism of real-time films, Linklater stages this one with impressive smoothness. Somewhat to my surprise, I got caught up in the unfolding situation for long stretches at a time. In the end, though, Before Sunset doesn’t add up to much. Shorn of its obsequious reviews, it’s Sleepless in Seattle for the art-house set, a slickly sentimental piece of audience manipulation that longs in vain to be something more.