Sunday, August 17, 2008

Facing facts

The Tropic Thunder boys laid some smack on The Dark Knight, dethroning it from the top of the boxoffice charts. But the beancounters are no doubt wondering where the lightning is. It's by no means a huge opening, and the movie will struggle to recoup its triple-digit cost. The analysts are already analyzing. It opened too late; it's R-rated (last week's Pineapple Express took a sizable fall); the Northeast market is awash in glorious, stay-outdoors August weather; the controversy over Robert Downey, Jr.'s faux black character and "retard" jokes kept audiences away. And so on.

But it comes down to two basic things. It's a satire, and satire, even when pitched low to woo the 20-somethings who stayed away anyway, rarely does well. Well, maybe two-and-a-half basic things: I'd say another reason is Stiller-itis, as audiences tire of its star and director, who is approaching Robin Williams levels of annoyance.

The main reason, I think, is that movies (and TV shows) about moviemaking are toxic. Not actively so, like traditional musicals and Westerns used to be and maybe still are to a degree despite encouraging signs of rehab, but like a poisonous gas that if slowly released kills everything in its path. Audiences have learned to stay away in droves from the whiff of narcissism that accompanies them, even if they pretend to bite the hand that feeds them (the same hand that in this case gave its makers $100 million to produce the abuse). I can't think of one that's succeeded in years--maybe decades. (There's HBO's likable Entourage, but that's spent after several seasons, and is best when it's away from the soundstages). We're generations away from Sunset Blvd. and The Big Knife, when the scorn was fresh.

To paraphrase Gloria Swanson, these pictures have gotten small indeed, yet there is a seeming glut of them, on TV, the multiplex and the arthouse. In some cases, it may be that their young-ish creators have no other life experience to draw from, but why a veteran like Barry Levinson (of the failed Jimmy Hollywood and the more successful but not exactly barn-burning Wag the Dog) is going back to the well for a third helping with the forthcoming What Just Happened is a puzzle. If anyone needed a superhero picture to get back on track it's Levinson, and I'd (almost) rather see him attempt one than another tinseltown schmoozer.

By the same token, there is a heartfelt reminiscence in today's Times about the Promenade Theatre, which closed two years ago. That was too bad, as in its heyday it was worth making the journey uptown to see, say, Edward Albee's mesmerizing Three Tall Women, which filled the house in the mid-90s. But it had fallen on very hard times in the new century, with dreck like Morgan Fairchild and John Davidson in High Infidelity and an absolutely rock-bottom comedy about showbiz (natch!) and Communism that I am grateful not to recall the title of. I saw one or maybe two good shows there in maybe eight years, and that was hardly enough to break a spell of okay-to-rotten productions. The author laments that the Promenade is now a Sephora; I'd say only a perfume shop could have cleansed the foul odor that had regrettably doomed the space.

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