I may be watching a man, a bearded man in his late fifties, tearfully put the finishing touches to an impossibly beautiful crossword. Or perhaps a plucky, articulate schoolgirl is charming the pants of a late-night petrol station employee with her encyclopaedic knowledge of Giallo. Perhaps a cat is wearing a tie as a twelve year-old boy contemplates his own mortality, and his testicles; who knows?
Chances are it’ll be accompanied by some mawkish din, a vague approximation of music as someone paws mundanely at an acoustic guitar, a spoken-word version of a Human League song accompanied by the sound of shattering teacups, or possibly a Belle & Sebastian record. Whatever’s occurring you can bet I won’t be enjoying it; I’ll be desperately trying to ignore the feeling of my very soul being digested by this infuriating slop. I’ll try to concentrate on something, anything that’s even slightly less frustrating than what I’m watching (my own hair getting longer perhaps, or my teeth slowly eroding), but I can’t, I’m stuck. I have to watch, and I’m expected to do it with a smile, with a knowing wink and an appreciative nod because, you see, this movie has “spirit”.
So-called “independently spirited” movies, more specifically the comedies (Juno, Garden State, Greenberg et al), have a real knack of getting under my skin. The “indies” distance themselves from the oafish, fart-gag crudity of the massively prevalent “gross-out” fare that plagues our grubby screens with an affecting mixture of heartache and humour; but consequently manage to drive themselves into leafy, suburban hell that often winds me up even more.
Out go the oriental gangsters, the cross-dressing gym teachers and the desperate virgins; to be replaced by middle-class intellectuals and charmingly articulate loners. Take for instance the almost universally-lauded, semi-autobiographical: The Squid and the Whale. Plenty of people watched this and saw: honesty, the often-familiar portrait of a broken family dealing with inner-turmoil. Love and loss in equal measure and believable, recognisable human beings with foibles and faults, deftly drawn in numerous, thoughtful shades of grey.
I saw Jeff Daniels complaining about his job, his money and his property and wanted to be sick.
Indie comedies often attract critical, if not always commercial, success. Take for instance the Diablo Cody-penned comedy hit Juno (which incidentally was a commercial as well as a critical success). Esteemed critic Roger Ebert awarded it a perfect 4 stars out of 4 and described it as “…just about the best movie of the year.” Hordes of cinema-goers seemed to embrace the titular character’s wit and feistiness, and rejoiced at the sassy, off-the-cuff dialogue. I, on the other hand, winced at the self-conscious “quirkiness” of lines such as: “Who’s ready for some chromo-magnificence?”, “Paulie’s great in… chair.” and “All I see is pork swords.”
So I was more than ready to fall back on my preconceptions when I took-in a recent showing of Our Idiot Brother. In which benevolent halfwit Ned (Paul Rudd), after doing time for selling drugs to a policeman, finds himself: dumped by his girlfriend, evicted, jobless, torn from his best (canine) friend Willie Nelson and reliant on the goodwill of his family to prevent him from starving to death right where he stands.
Ned’s family are a suitably quirky bunch: a bisexual, poetry-reading hipster who seems to be living in a public doss-house; a journalist who silently melts at the sight of her dashing neighbour but hides her feelings; and an exasperated mother who’s resorted to tactical bush-waxing in an attempt to interest her increasingly distant husband.
You needn’t be a genius to predict Ned’s intrusion into the carefully balanced lives of his nearest and dearest will end in disaster, or that the resulting mess of broken relationships and crushed fingers will be resolved with a nice, big family hug.
But despite having the potential to infuriate, I actually found it rather charming. Rudd wanders through the film perpetually wearing the listless, melancholy grin of a man who’s just solved a Rubik’s cube, then immediately dropped it into the toilet. It’s a performance, and indeed a film, that I assumed I would hate but, surprisingly, enjoyed.
I looked into Paul Rudd’s kindly face and found nought but pleasure. Which was strange for me really, as I’m generally pretty good at finding the worst in anything. Perhaps it’s time for me to give Juno and her ilk a second chance; perhaps my icy heart is beginning to thaw. It’s not impossible; I might just start watching movies, with spirit.
– Chris Banks.
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