Saturday, December 31, 2011

What 'Punchline' Has in Common with 'Talk Radio'



Sally Field doesn't play Tom Hanks' mother in this, the way she soon would in Forrest Gump--although she does play someone who's nearly old enough to be. This is something she reminds Hanks' character of before their love-interest relationship has chance to get off the ground as a full-out love relationship. (She does the right thing, and stays with her husband, played by John Goodman.) It's about the world of New York stand-up comedy clubs in the 1980s, and it is fascinating. The jokes are not hilarious--not even the ones told by Damon Wayans, pre-In Living Color--but, for the way Punchline evokes a time and a place, an ethos and a lifestyle, this movie sometimes makes you feel that it might just be great, even when you know it's not.

Fields and Hanks were coached for their roles as neophyte stand-ups by Susie Essman, who everyone now knows from Curb Your Enthusiasm. She's said that Hanks went full-Method, and in his preparation threw himself into stand-up performance for real in the clubs, while Fields was just too shy for that. (Chris Rock, who actually shared the stage with Hanks during one of his training performances, has gone so far as to say Hanks was the funniest stand-up he'd ever seen--which sounds suspicious, but is fun to contemplate nevertheless.) The difference in training shows, but that's only consistent with the way things play out in the movie. They got that part of it just right, the way so many things in Punchline are right.

There are some parallels to Talk Radio, the Oliver Stone film that came out the same year but appeared a year earlier on the stage, as written by Eric Bogosian. I've never seen the play, or read it, so I don't know whether these aspects mirror the movie and the play, or just the movie. They're subtle but inescapable. Both narratives are driven by the scenario of monied entertainment bigwigs coming to check out local talent: Barry Champlain's Dallas radio show is being considered for syndication in Talk Radio, while the comedy club in Punchlines is being scouted for a guest-performer on Carson. But the more subtle similarity came in the scene when Hanks is in the audience during a Fields routine, both silently and vocally urging her on, setting her up with shouted questions from the audience while at the same time providing the coaching she needs with body language. Something almost identical occurs at a similar place in Talk Radio, when Bogosian as Champlain shouts at his ex-wife during an on-air call-in while also encouraging her with hand gestures from where he stands on the other side of the studio's glass. These are probably just serendipities, mysterious and engaging the way all such serendipities are. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Bad Santa''s 'Taxi Driver' Ending


Why have I never noticed this before--and, much more to the point, why has nobody else?

I scanned the Internet looking for acknowledgement of Bad Santa's overt homage to Taxi Driver, in the form of its parallel ending, and was surprised to find that nobody, that I could readily find, had acknowledged this gift any more than I had. But it's been lying right there under the tree all along. 

Watching the movie just yesterday, for the first time in a few years, I started thinking Taxi Driver as soon as the camera went bird's-eye on the carnage of Willie (Billie Bob Thornton) lying there all shot up by the police. This line of thought was only encouraged further by what came next: the revelation that Willie has survived, and the way this revelation is made to the audience by a post-survival letter read in voiceover, and the way Willie's distorted priorities have been perverted to stand as a kind of heroism, and the way this is all a great dark joke, a Commentary on Our Society and all. It's never a happy occasion to have to admit that something so blatant has eluded you for so long, but the discovery itself is perfectly happy: as meaningless and wonderful as Christmas itself.