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Gellar and Baldwin's Girl Trouble

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin in Suburban Girl

By Michelle Orange

After five days of complete Tribeca submersion, I have now jeopardized several friendships and developed a twitch in my left eye, all, it seems, to be the bearer of bad news about Suburban Girl, the adaptation of Melissa Bank's huge-selling The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. If you weren’t already gagging (via a spoon, ideally) on that title (why would they change it?), the sight of Sarah Michelle Gellar in various stages of clinchdom with Alec Baldwin just might do it. New York’s publishing industry is certainly ripe for its own Network (or perhaps more likely, Broadcast News), and this is just as certainly not it, though one could argue that it doesn’t aspire to be. The problem is it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and writer/director Marc Klein’s adaptation has taken most of the spark out of Bank's book, resulting in a tepid-to-smarmy chick flick.

Baldwin (in the Mr. Big school of New York high lifers) as Archie does his best to charm as mentor and lover to Gellar’s 24-year-old fledgling book editor, but the couple can’t overcome their soggy chemistry. Unlike Claire Danes’ mopey Shopgirl, Gellar’s editor is supposed to have her mind on her career, yet she hates her job and moves in with her raspy benefactor at the plot’s earliest convenience. Baldwin suffered some unkind jeering from the press screening jackals, but it is, sadly, a little rich to hear him talking about being a shitty father to (and leaving messages for) the daughter that will no longer speak to him. Suburban Girl more than meets the requisite gimme gimme girl movie quotient; I don’t know many associate editors who wear Christian Louboutin’s, but I guess they’re nice to look at, and New York is roughly sketched out in a host of visually flat clichés. Gooey chapter headings divide the film into episodes that find our young heroine coming of age via the guidance and foibles of a 50-year-old man. “A girl can’t grow up until she loses a father, and leaves an Archie,” Gellar says, by way of the standard “Let the River Run” epiphany. I’m sorry, but what a load of horseshit. No wonder it was a best seller.

Postcards from Tora Bora is a first person documentary that follows co-director Wazhmah Osman on her first trip home to Afghanistan since her family fled to America shortly after the Russian invasion in 1979. Osman’s voiceover is filled with keen observation about the relationship refugees have with their home country, and the complex business of returning from exile. The visuals, particularly the crude, child-like animations of bombs falling and the toddler Osman avenging her homeland (ostensibly conjuring the way a six-year-old might represent the conflict) are less successful, though the access Osman and her co-director Kelly Dolak get to ravaged Kabul, including a local prison, is depressingly impressive (a war museum houses ammunition from its decades worth of wars with various countries; it’s like an international house of land mines). The prison, however, is one where Osman’s own father was held captive and tortured for months during the Russian war, and upon his release he chose not to join his family in New York. The film begins to hit its stride about two-thirds of the way through, when Osman finally finds her father, a doctor and local hero, tending to one of his free medical clinics in Kabul. This man seems like the natural subject for Osman’s thoughtful but otherwise uneven documentary; estranged from his own family, he dedicated his life to the orphans of Afghanistan.

Lovesickness is billed as a “melancholy comedy.” I know this because I sought out the party line after sitting through this bewildering offering from Puerto Rican director Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz (and produced by Benecio del Toro). Combining three seemingly non-related story lines about love, betrayal, and obsession, Ruiz seems to be going for an eccentric, bittersweet humor that rarely finds its own level, both in general and in this film. Most successful is the love triangle set up when an elderly woman’s ex-husband comes crawling home after 30 years, only to find the mother of his children shacked up with her second husband, whom she also divorced -- 12 years ago. The two old men get in a pissing contest for Flora’s attention, and she is forced to reckon with her feelings for her wandering ex. Luis Guzman plays a cheating husband in the second story strand, who is found out by his wife on the way to her grandmother’s funeral. Attempts at “zany” humor in this scenario are more shrill than funny, though they look like a laugh riot compared to the third story, that of a lunk-headed mama’s boy who takes a bus hostage when the driver won’t agree to marry him on the spot. Lovesickness features editing that is well-paced but material that is not, and characters that, for the most part, are not given the opportunity to connect not only to each other, but to us.

Live! has more in common with recent docu-maybe-tery American Cannibal than I imagine star and producer Eva Mendes would like. It is also a behind-the-scenes satire of the television industry à la last month’s The TV Set. The question for me is whether anything new or cutting can be said about an industry that satirizes itself. Mendes sharpens her acrylics and tightens her skirts to play a reality TV producer pitching a game show wherein contestants play Russian Roulette, vying to (not) blow themselves away for millions of dollars. The whole process, from pitch to pilot, is being filmed by a documentary crew, who develop professional conflicts when they get involved in the production process. Too much of this film seems to be devoted to what amounts to scenes from the kind of reality shows I avoid at all cost. Mendes relies on some alpha dog tics (such as constantly stuffing her face) in playing the soulless big gun, but can’t freshen the essential staleness of the concept.

Michael Addis’s Heckler begins with promise, tapping into the fascination we have with the strange people who live to make us laugh exploited in Comedian and The Aristocrats. Using actor Jamie Kennedy as a lightning rod, Addis assembles a merry crew of pissed off comics to swap stories and philosophies about hecklers as democracy gone awry. There is some cogent insight into the actual and imagined functions of the heckler, and an entire culture’s mistaken belief that they have the right to never be “offended,” but all of this soon gives way to Kennedy’s ax with film critics, all of whom are lumped together with back-row hecklers, and all of whom he seeks to (tediously) confront for their blistering reviews of his film, Son of the Mask.

Even duller (if more nutritious) than watching Kennedy hijack what could have been a good documentary with his quivering ego is A Guest of Life, film composer Tibor Smezö’s instructive account of a Transylvanian explorer named Alexander Csoma de Korös’ journey into the Himalayas in the early nineteenth century. Some rather staid but colorful animation is varied with unexplained archival footage while PBS-style narration details what Alexander thought was a trip to find the origins of the Hungarian people but ended up being his discovery of Tibet and Buddhism as the world came to know it. As Scottish writer Rory Stewart chronicled his retracing of Babur’s medieval journey across Afghanistan in his book The Places in Between, Smezö seeks to recapture Alexander’s journey, step for step. Unfortunately the delicately groovy score is the liveliest thing this Life has going.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Suburban Girl
Postcards from Tora Bora
Lovesickness
Live!
Heckler
A Guest of Life


Posted at April 30, 2007 6:22 AM

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