Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Eighty One
Rob and Jon are playing catch-up this week, as Jon recuperates from illness. So as the boys deliver instalment 81 of this immensely popular podcast, listen in as they cover the spectrum: from the death of Burt Reynolds, to the retirement of New York Mets captain David Wright, to Rob welcoming another cat into his family (!), onto the primary elections in New York and reviews of albums from both Bird Streets and The Artisanals – as well as “In Our Heads”… there is NO shortage of material or a slowdown in the conversation as the duo pick up the conversation as if a week hadn’t skipped by.
So, as always, listen in and enjoy. And please – let us know what you think. It matters.
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Eighty One
The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.
I saw a lot of amazing musicians when I was a kid growing up in Atlantic City in the 1960s. Every summer, the city’s famous Steel Pier became the epicenter for shows by some of the best-known artists of the day. There were appearances by Chubby Checker, Duke Ellington, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles among many others. Dick Clark even brought his Caravan of Stars to the Pier every summer from 1960-1964. Those shows included artists like the Shirelles, and the Crystals.
One group that I remember seeing at Steel Pier on several occasions was the Vibrations. They first got together in Los Angeles in the 1950s and called themselves the Jay Hawks. They had a Top 20 hit in 1956 with “Stranded in the Jungle” on Flash Records. By 1961 they were known as the Vibrations with a lineup that included Jimmy Johnson, Carl Fisher, Dave Gowan, Don Bradley, and Ricky Owens. That group scored with the #25 hit “The Watusi” which was released by Checker.
In a rather unique twist, that same lineup had another hit in 1961 with “Peanut Butter” (Arvee Records) only this time they were known as the Marathons.
It was a move to Atlantic Records in 1964 that brought the Vibrations their biggest hit. “My Girl Sloopy” was written by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns. The Vibrations recorded the song in January 1964 and the Atlantic release reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart and #26 on the pop chart. But the Vibrations original was not the most successful version of the song. A year later a band from Dayton, Ohio called the McCoys took a retitled and edited down version of the song, by then called “Hang on Sloopy,” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Although they never equaled the success of their earlier records, the Vibrations scored again with “Love in Them There Hills” in 1968. “Cause You’re Mine” (Okeh Records) and “Surprise Party for You Baby” (Neptune Records) also made some noise and helped to make the Vibrations records a staple spin on the UK’s Northern Soul scene.
The Vibrations split up in 1971 when Ricky Owens left for an ill-fated stint with the Temptations. Before long, Owens returned, the group re-formed, and the Vibrations found success as a nightclub act in the 1970s before dissolving for good in 1976.
Mark Knopfler is a pretty understated guy, and has been getting increasingly understated with each album project — until now, that is. After three years of relative silence, he’s about to release his ninth solo effort called Down The Road Wherever on November 9th. I pre-ordered the CD today and it came with an mp3 download of the song, “Good On You Son.” I’ve given the song quite a few spins throughout the day and it harkens back to Knopfler’s Dire Straits days. The song is upbeat, the guitar playing much more rhythmic, and there’s even some tasty sax work by Nigel Hitchcock.
After Knopfler’s last record, Tracker, it’s really refreshing to hear the music on “Good On You Son” so upbeat. Some of the songs on Tracker were quite good, but oh-so-sleepy. “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes” was a nice riff on Dave Brubeck, and his duet with Ruth Moody, “Wherever I Go” was excellent. But Knopfler seemed stuck on that record — like he lost his sense of groove. Now, not having listened to Down The Road Wherever in full, I can’t say that he won’t go back to Sleepytown, but if “Good On You Son” is any indication, looks like, at age 69, Mark Knopfler still knows how to craft upbeat, catchy songs that kind of swing.
Singer-songwriter Emma Charles has released, “Far From Here,” which pairs her strikingly clear vocals along with producer Doug Schadt’s sophisticated wide screen sound on this contemplative, melancholy-inflected song. Popdose is happy to bring this to you as we always strive to present new(er) artists.
Charles began her career with a slew of well-received singles as Emma Charleston early on as she studied at the Berklee College of Music; she is now on the cusp of graduating and honing her image and style for a full time music career.
Charles explains the moody tone of the song commenting that “Far From Here” was “written in a moment of desperation, at a time when all I wanted to do was run away from the reality I was in—to feel less alone, and to hopefully touch others so that they feel less alone.”
Emma Charles grew up in a music-filled house that fostered creativity. At age eight, she made guest appearances at Lincoln Center, singing background vocals with her mother, famed vocalist Rondi Charleston, and her jazz quartet. Charles has since created, performed, and interpreted different styles of music as a classically trained singer, with forays into R&B, jazz, and in particular, musical theater, having produced a number of revivals on campus and regionally in the lead roles including “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”, “Hair”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Avenue Q” and Urinetown. Charles recently starred as Veronica in “Heathers: The Musical” at Berklee.
No one has ever accused Tom Clancy’s novels of being subtle. They are action-filled tales where good guys fight bad guys and the good guys usually win. These comfort food stories are effective because they rarely require us to think beyond a white hats versus black hats paradigm. Now that Amazon is a player in creating movies and TV shows, they can take chances on certain projects, but they also know there needs to be bread and butter shows for those who like their heroes to be uncomplicated. That’s why “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” falls mostly into the comfort food zone. John Krasinski plays the role of Jack Ryan, and on the surface, it seems like an odd choice. After all, the Ryan character has been played by a number of heavy-hitter actors like Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Krasinski, who is trying come out from under the shadow of the Jim Halpert character he played on “The Office,” has made bold career changes to remake his image. Writing, directing, and co-starring in the film “A Quiet Place,” and now taking the lead role in “Jack Ryan,” it’s clear that these moves are designed to showcase his talents beyond the work he did on “The Office.”
Alas, it doesn’t always work in “Jack Ryan.” Krasinski has been working out a lot, and he gets to show off his body in the series, but even when his character is in a high-level security meeting, there’s more than a hint of expectation that he’s going to look at the camera with that Jim Halpert deadpan. Acting aside, the story arc of “Jack Ryan” is pretty simple: there are some ISIS-like terrorists who are plotting something big in the U.S. and Europe. Ryan, who has been tracking money transfers as a member of the Terror, Finance, and Arms Division of the Counterterrorism Center Washington D.C., makes the connection between the money transfers and the leader of this new terrorist group — who is known as Suleiman. Just what is Suleiman up to? Well, that’s where the story jumps into high gear to discover. The cast includes Wendell Pierce as Ryan’s boss, James Greer. Abbie Cornish as Cathy Mueller, a doctor and Ryan love interest who works with infectious diseases. While 90 percent of “Jack Ryan” stays within a standard action-adventure mold, there are a few wildcards that attempt to freshen up the genre.
While the temptation to portray a terrorist like Suleiman as a one-dimensional character is there, the creators of “Jack Ryan,” Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, make the decision introduce some gray areas into an otherwise black and white universe. Showing Suleiman’s backstory from a child who liked “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, to surviving an airstrike the killed his mother and injured his mother, to struggling financial analyst in France whose ethnic background is a barrier to economic and social advancement humanizes the monster he becomes. Also, Suleiman’s wife, Hanin, is a much more complicated figure who flees from her husband after she finds out that he’s up to no good. Credit the performances by Ali Suliman (as Suleiman) and Dina Shihabi (as Hanin) for bringing a needed corrective to otherwise stock characters.
“Jack Ryan” tries to defy expectations (having Jack’s counterterrorism boss being a Muslim is another example), but too often a plays right into them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but considering Amazon is bankrolling this series, one would expect to find more surprises. The action sequences are often nail-biting and tense, the overall story arc does have moments of intrigue, but far too often “Jack Ryan” feels like it’s playing it safe by being predictable. The show is headed for a second season with a whole new “Big Bad” for Ryan and Greer to combat. One can hope that Cuse and Roland will see opportunities to breathe new life into the second season — since the first season felt a little too much like “24” at times.
No one can doubt how prolific Stephen King is as a writer — even after his announcement he was retiring in 2002. After putting to bed the Dark Tower series, a collection of short stories, and a novel about another evil car, King said, “then that’s it, I’m done . . . done writing books”.
Well, that didn’t last long.
Since 2002, he’s published 16 books — with a 17th on the way in October. He can’t quit words — and I’m sure Hollywood hopes he doesn’t any time soon. Sure, there’s still gold to be mined with his more current novels, but King’s work has been in the popular culture for so long that something like “Castle Rock” on Hulu seems inevitable. It’s not so much of an adaptation as it is an easter egg strewn series that takes characters, places, and even some events from King’s novels to create a stand-alone show. Put an executive producer stamp on it from J.J. Abrams and suddenly you have the imprimatur of a “bankable” project.
Season 1 of the series concluded on Wednesday night, and while the series did have many compelling moments, and a knockout, Emmy-worthy performance by Sissy Spacek, it kind of a ended with a thud — or maybe more like a shrug…from the audience. The story centers on Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a death-row defense attorney who comes back to his hometown of Castle Rock after the town’s prison warden kills himself and a young man — known as The Kid (Bill Skarsgård) — is found in a cage in the bowels of the Shawshank prison. He’s mostly mute but does utter Deaver’s name during an interrogation by prison officials. Soon, Deaver is heading back to Castle Rock to see his mother, Ruth (Spacek) — who is suffering from dementia. While there, he reconnects with a childhood friend Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), offers his services to The Kid, and comes to terms with a death of his father that happened when he was a boy.
In addition to The Kid’s presence (who is evil personified), it’s Deaver’s boyhood that serves as a kind of mystery in the series. Deaver — who was adopted by Ruth and Matthew (Adam Rothenberg) — went missing for weeks after he and his father went into the woods near the town when he was about 10-years-old. Henry has no real memory of where he was and how he went missing, but through a series of flashbacks — and a persistent high-pitched tone that only he seems to hear — Henry starts to piece together what happened on that trip, and how his father died in the aftermath of it. Like many of King’s novels, “Castle Rock” deals with childhood abuse, evil, supernatural events, and, of course, horror. Readers of King’s work and viewers of the adaptations know this well-trodden path. And maybe that’s why “Castle Rock” feels a little too predictable when these themes are woven into the big arc of the show. The acting is good, the production quality is high, and even parts of the story are very captivating, but it leads to an ending that was flat. When you have 11 episodes to create conflict, and really pile it high with a number of complex elements, you better deliver in the end. However, for whatever reason, Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason — who created the show — let the air out of the proverbial balloon in the conclusion. Instead of a pop, however, we got a monotone squeaking that sputtered to a flaccid end. Sure, the series set itself up for a second season with a minor character, Jackie Torrence, saying she was going “out west” to do some research for a horror novel she’s working on, but other than that, there wasn’t much to write home about, except this: Sissy Spacek’s performance in “The Queen.” She basically gave a master class in acting in that episode as Ruth struggled through the fog of dementia to know what was real and what was a memory. Explaining to her grandson that her coping mechanism was to have breadcrumbs to help her. Those crumbs were chess pieces, and through the episode, the chess pieces give us a window into Ruth’s backstory, her struggle with her twisted marriage, how she fell in love with the town’s top cop, and even Henry’s disappearance. After watching that episode, I was struck by how well Spacek handled the material. She had to shift from lucid to lost often in the course of one scene — and do it in a convincing manner without overdoing it. That takes a lot of talent, and Spacek certainly has the gravitas to deliver what, to me, should get her an Emmy next year.
As far as the “Castle Rock” the series goes: just know that you’re getting set up for an ending whose subtlety will leave you wondering what all the hubbub is about.
Wilson Turbinton was born in New Orleans in 1944 and raised in that city’s Calliope projects. His older brother Earl played the saxophone and by 1960 formed the Seminoles. The younger Turbinton had the good fortune of having as a music teacher the legendary Harold Battiste. History tells us that Battiste was an excellent judge of talent and when he saw it in Turbinton he added the young man to his AFO (All For One) Band. The band also included the New Orleans icon Ellis Marsalis on piano.
As a part of the arrangement with Battiste, Turbinton, by then Willie Tee, recorded for the AFO Records label. In 1962, Tee released his debut single for the label, “Always Accused.” It wasn’t a hit but it served to establish the blend of jazz and R&B that Tee would pursue for the balance of his long career. It wasn’t long before Tee left AFO. He played with a band called the Souls for a little while and then signed with the NOLA label. In 1965, Tee released his first single for NOLA and “Teasin’ You” became the label’s first hit. Somehow the local hit found its way to L.A. and the Righteous Brothers covered it on the Shindig! television show.
The success of “Teasin’ You” came to the attention of Atlantic Records and they made a deal to distribute the single nationally. With a B-side called “Walking Up a One Way Street” the single didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts but it came very close to the Top 10 on the R&B chart. Tee’s next single for the label was “Thank You John” and it failed to chart at all but it became a classic in the canon of Carolina Beach Music and was covered by Alex Chilton.
Atlantic gave up on Tee after his next single, “I Want Somebody (To Show Me the Way Back Home),” also failed to chart. Tee returned to NOLA Records and released “Please Don’t Go” on the label’s Hot-Line imprint but neither that single or the follow-up, “Ain’t That True Baby” managed any charged success. By 1968, NOLA was out of business and Tee was on his own once again.
Tee hadn’t found much success as a recording artist so he turned to production. He worked with Margie Joseph on her 1969 Volt Records classic “One More Chance.” Tee’s piano playing eventually came to the attention of Cannonball Adderly who helped Tee to get a deal with Capitol Records. There, in 1970, he released his first album I’m Only a Man. But success as a recording artist continued to be elusive for Tee and his time with Capitol was short.
Tee then re-formed a band he had been in earlier with his cousin Ulis Gaines. Gatur released the ballad “The Man That I Am” and followed that with the funky singles “Your Love and My Love Together” and “Swivel Your Hips” that pointed to a new direction for Tee. In 1973, the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian Band enlisted Tee to put together a backing group for an album they were recording. He brought his older brother Earl and guitarist Snooks Eaglin and composed all of the music incorporating elements of funk and Afro-Cuban music and rearranging some New Orleans classics. The resulting album became one of the most beloved albums in Crescent City music history. The album was noted for spreading the Native American Mardi Gras culture to a worldwide audience.
In 1976, Tee decided to try his hand as a solo artist again. He signed with United Artists and released his second album, Anticipation. It was the last album he would ever make for a major label but he continued to play the clubs with Gatur. In 1988, Tee and his brother Earl made a jazz album for Rounder called The Turbintons. Eventually, Tee became a favorite on the Northern Soul scene in England and his music was sampled by hip-hop artists like Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Geto Boys.
September is here, which means there is still a “back to school” feeling in the air, even for people who work year-round.
I still have a wistful sadness at the end of Summer. It still represents a moment of freedom in people’s lives. They can briefly abandon their responsibilities to travel and make childish mistakes that they’ll end up laughing at on their next trip.
For many years, I thought that growing older meant I’d finally have the experiences I saw in these movies. High school and college were places where I only had to intermittently attend a class. It would be a time to find my true self, show those evil popular kids who the real boss was, and find out that attractive women only exist to further my sense of self-worth.
But now, as I look back at some of these moments, I wonder if I wasn’t lied to about what to expect in my formative years. Correction – I KNOW I was lied to. So were a lot of people, and now it’s coming back to haunt them. These same producers who bankrolled teen sex comedies thought it would be hilarious to reenact some of the more graphic scenes with actual teenagers. The result, not surprisingly, is jail time.
But then how do we contend with some of the films that helped shape these ideas but are still considered classics? And how do we contend with the fact no one took the time to explore whether the debauched sex comedies from their youth were indirectly responsible for teaching a generation that it was OK to stick their genitals in freshly baked apple pies?
But then the other side is – even if the films caused bad behavior, is that necessarily their fault? So long as the film accomplished the goals it set out to and found some sort of emotional honesty, then it can’t possibly be a bad movie. Besides, I’ve never been a proponent of blaming a film or any piece of media for someone’s actions. If we’re going to go down that path, it will end with us accusing Martin Scorsese of trying to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
But it is fair to evaluate if a film that is primarily going to be seen by younger people to shape their expectations of the future. And, as we’re have a much-delayed national conversation about sex during people’s formative years and how, far too often, people take advantage of people who can’t properly consent.
A discussion of how well the following four films have aged should be a part of that conversation. We should talk about the impact these films had and how we should examine them to see if the jokes they’re making won’t work on a modern audience.
Animal House – dir. John Landis, 1978
National Lampoon’s Animal House seems to be the first film mentioned when anyone wants to discuss “problematic” comedies. And yes, there are a few moments that would not be attempted by any filmmaker today. Yet most people who complain about the scenes of John Belushi spying on a sorority house or sitting under the bleachers to look up cheerleaders’ skirts have missed the joke.
Animal House is a free-wheeling comedy about Delta House at Faber College. Every Delta brother is a debauched burnout. They’re poor academics, they’re not respected on the campus at all, and Dean Wormer wants nothing more than to expel them. They end up pulling a massive prank during the homecoming parade after they’re removed from the school, but it seems trivial to describe the plot.
The joke isn’t that the mayhem they caused is something that should be celebrated – although it is undeniably satisfying to watch the Deltas play pranks on the upper-class twits that make up the Omega house. The point is that these kids took what they learned and still managed to become sane adults. One of the biggest laughs comes from the end, where we see these same weirdos that we watched drink their cares away becoming respected professionals in their field.
The film also has many great jokes at the Omega’s expense that would fit right into any modern comedy. One early scene has Flounder and Larry being stuck with the “undesirable” pledges at Omega. All of them happen to be minorities or have a disability. It’s clearly a moment that’s meant to make the Omegas look like the awful people they are. The scene in which the Deltas go to see Otis Day at a black club showed the white people as the outsiders who were utterly clueless about how to act. And, despite taking place at a time when the Civil Rights movement was getting started, no white character makes any inappropriate comments about it.
The female characters are also, for the most part, treated well. They’re allowed to comment on the men around them in the same way men talk about their desires. Karen Allen, for example, constantly questions her relationship with Boon. Other women openly tell the Deltas to “go away” when their flirting doesn’t work and, compared to other films on this list, there’s surprisingly little nudity. Even the young cashier that Larry dates is clearly the more dominant one who can express her interest in him. Besides, Larry backs away from taking advantage of her while she’s passed out.
Finally, we should talk about Belushi and his iconic performance. Yes, he does play a character who drinks constantly, destroys guitars, and barely seems to know where he is at any given moment. He’s become the most iconic character in the film, so many believe that he’s the character that’s meant to exemplify the film’s themes. That’s not the case. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time and when he does, the other characters treat him with skepticism at best. They openly call him a pig and wonder what motivates him to say the dumbest things they’ve heard. (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”) Even the peeping tom scene is a joke at his expense. He’s the only character willing to do something so perverted. The fact no one notices him, even while they’re looking right at him and when he’s making too much noise to be ignored, is what we’re meant to remember.
Animal House takes the idea of “stupid college kids trying to find their place in the world” and runs with it. They manage to pull off some memorable pranks, but that’s not what defines their lives. They all leave college and find success. It’s the people who demand success to soon because of their family connections, like the Omegas, that are punished for their hubris. That is a timeless message.
American Pie – dir. Paul Weitz, 1999
American Pie is another film that most audience don’t understand. People once again decided that the terrible characters like Stifler are meant to be exemplars of teenagers and that the only thing worthwhile in the film is all the young women ready to remove their tops at a moment’s notice.
That’s completely wrong. At its core, American Pie is a sweet coming of age comedy about teenagers of both genders who are figuring out exactly what it means to have a relationship.
Yes, there are several moments of nudity and a scene of a teenager humping an apple pie. But most of the film is very much influenced by Kevin Smith’s indie films. The most shocking part is the honest dialogue, where men compare their sex lives and women are openly allowed to talk about how their boyfriends aren’t satisfying them.
I mention Kevin Smith because American Pie could have been directed by him and there would have been very few changes. Smith’s films were marked by people coming of age who still clung onto childish views and expressed them in the frankest manner possible. American Pie works much the same way. The characters can’t get any real advice from their parents because they’re either too oblivious to address it or, in Eugene Levy’s case, end up making the situation far more awkward than it needs to be.
But even though the driving item behind the film is a pact that all of the main characters will lose their virginity by prom, none of them take any extraordinary or cliched measures to do so. In fact, it’s something that encourages them to meet new people and really find out what matters to them.
Also, yes, there has been a lot of discussion around the scene in which a European exchange student named Nadia is tricked into appearing on a webcam where men watch her masturbate. But the joke isn’t on Nadia. Rather, the joke is on the pie humping Jim, who embarrasses himself in front of his entire school after he…how do I put this…departs the car while it’s still in motion. Twice. Obviously, this is something that could not be played straight today. But even at the time, the filmmakers don’t punish Nadia for masturbating on camera. Rather, they punish Jim for his scheme.
Plus, we need to talk about Stifler. His character somehow found an audience, but no one seems to remember that Stifler was meant to be a pathetic jerk. The film certainly treats him like one. He’s the only one of the main characters who doesn’t end up with a partner at the end of the film. In fact, he walks in on one of his friends having sex with his mother. Everyone he treats badly ends up in a far better place than him. Stifler remains an idiot man child while everyone else learns something about adult relationships.
American Pie is more intelligent and far sweeter movie than it gets credit for. The characters – male and female – are not only allowed to be honest about their feelings but can explore their sexuality. The sequels and spin offs stumbled because the filmmakers got lazy and figured the only thing anyone wanted to see was boobs. They missed the point of the original, which is that sex isn’t always the goal.
Back to School – dir. Alan Metter, 1986
Rodney Dangerfield was a diamond who was frequently treated like an old hunk of feldspar. I believe he had a statement about the respect given to him, but I can’t quite remember what it was.
Anyway, after starting his film career with Caddyshack, Dangerfield was very in demand in the 1980s. Most of his films saw him playing a variation of his Caddyshack character – a rich man child who was obsessed with youthful endeavors. Which makes sense; if you’ve found what works, why try to change the formula?
The basic idea – a successful businessman who goes to college as a way to encourage his son – is a very typical ‘80s comedy plot. Also typical were the jokes no one would try today. Dangerfield runs a chain of big and tall clothing shop, which leads to a lot of fat jokes. There’s only one scene of explicit nudity, where Dangerfield walks in on a woman taking a shower and proceeds to make a quip about her body.
This film exemplifies the male-dominated attitude most ‘80s comedies possessed. The women in the movie are conquests for the male characters. We have Dangerfield’s son attempting to attract a Brooke Shields look-alike (it’s actually Terry Farrell from Hellraiser 3) and Rodney Dangerfield is attempting to seduce one of his professors. There’s also a strange subplot with Dangerfield’s economics professors, in which they fight over each other’s business tactics.
Why this conflict exists is beyond me. Wouldn’t an economics professor want to pick the brain of someone who managed to build a clothing empire. The film is at its funniest when it does things no one else would have attempted, like getting Kurt Vonnegut to film a cameo. Also, Oingo Boingo shows up in this movie to play “Dead Man’s Party.”
If it seems like I’m struggling to figure out what to say about Back to School, that’s because I don’t understand what it was meant to artistically do. It was practically a paint-by-numbers comedy that hit all the major points comedies had to hit at the time. The stuff about how work would only make you lose your soul, about how it was far better to question the system, and about how the spirit of youthful rebellion should be kept. But it doesn’t really have anything to say about any of these themes. It just sort of presents them as a comfort food.
I do like Rodney Dangerfield. He was someone who could make the dumbest borscht belt joke sound like a Bill Hicks routine. After decades of performing, Dangerfield had found what he was best at and perfectly translated his act into films. But ultimately, the scripts he was given were not capable of keeping up with his energy. Dangerfield was at his best when he was given a rough outline and told to go have fun. But Back to School tried to fit him into too specific a persona. Dangerfield played a good game but he was never allowed to truly be himself.
Ultimately, Back to School feels endlessly stuck in first gear. I like Rodney Dangerfield, but I hate it when comedians don’t challenge themselves. Back to School feels like Rodney Dangerfield on auto pilot. Besides, the narrative choices made by the movie could not be played straight today. Everyone would have to reference how weird it is that Dangerfield decided to go back to school, and how it’s a reflection of his massive wealth that he’ll be able to cruise right through care free. None of that is present in Back to School. It’s another slobs vs snobs comedy that’s only remembered because Dangerfield is the one pushing everyone’s buttons.
Van Wilder – dir. Walt Becker, 2002
Ironically, it’s the most recent film in this article that’s aged the poorest. National Lampoon’s Van Wilder took everything that came before it and learned the opposite lesson that it was supposed to learn. Instead of recognizing that Animal House was about a phase in people’s lives, it celebrated the debauched attitude of the Delta House. It treats its female characters very badly, it treats the existence of minorities as a joke, and it treats sex in the same childish way that everyone accused American Pie of treating sex. It’s exactly the sort of teen comedy that gives teen comedy a bad name.
Van Wilder follows a student who has been at college for seven years – the same amount of time Bluto from Animal House stayed in college. He refuses to graduate because of his status as the big man on campus. He is challenged by a promising journalism student played by Tara Reid, which is in no way a joke. His wealthy dad cuts off his tuition, so he’s forced to raise money to stay in college however he can. This leads to…nothing. He maintains his lifestyle until he’s almost expelled and only then does he decide to finish his course work for graduation.
Ryan Reynolds, who plays the title character, did not find a film that matched his talents or ambitions until Deadpool. He plays Van Wilder in the same way he later played Merc with the Mouth. Reynolds exists on a completely different plane of existence from everyone else. He’s a sort of genie who has a supernatural ability to make people realize their lives are far too complicated. But he never acknowledges the impact this has on him.
The premise of Van Wilder may sound like a deep analysis on the people who peak at college fraternities but end up in a dead-end job. That would be a fascinating movie. But no – Van Wilder is more content to show Wilder barely acknowledging the problems with his life. So, what if his dad cuts him off? He barely takes notice and instead just starts charging for parties. So, what if he actually acknowledges his attraction to a woman who hates him? She falls in love with him by the film’s end with barely any effort on his part. So, what if he’s expelled? The entire student body wants to keep him around and even the economics professor that hates him votes to keep him in school.
It’s exactly the sort of dishonesty that Animal House avoided. The loser Deltas grew up. We get no information about where Van Wilder will end up or if he’ll be truly happy with his life.
That’s the biggest flaw with Van Wilder, but there are many. Kal Penn’s Taj is a pathetic attempt at the race baiting humor that was barely acceptable when Peter Sellers did it. He wants nothing more than to have sex so he can say that he’s had sex. This leads to a scene where he lights his own back on fire but set up is not nearly as funny as it sounds. Tara Reid’s character follows the whole “I have a bad unsupportive boyfriend, so it’s time to find someone new” character arc, which was played to death in the 1980s. And, of course, there’s the John Waters-esque scene in which Van Wilder uses dog semen, straight from the source, to fill pastries that he feeds to his rival. Part of the appeal of Waters is the fact that you’re actually witnessing the depravity he puts on display, and the fact that depravity meant something for the characters. Here, the act itself is meant to garner a laugh.
Van Wilder is exactly the film that people think of when they hold their noses at teen comedies and demand more inclusivity. Van Wilder plays like something written by a 13-year-old who believes maturity looks like the videos with the pizza delivery man he saw on PornHub.