Comedy is tragedy plus time.
- Woody Allen

Kiss Kiss Squirm Squirm

Latter-day remarks appended at the end.

9 December 2005

Last night we went to see a film called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is actually a James Bond joke no one gets. We saw it because my friend Jette - possibly the only person in the universe who can get me to see a film based on a single personal recommendation - told us we had better not miss it.

You can read Jette's comments on the film here [N.B. Still up as of 2014, mirabile dictu!] - in fact, you might want to do that first; they will be an interesting counterpoint to mine.

What follows has spoilers, but in a minor way. That is, I am not going to spoil any of the important plot points or good bits of the film; only the needless, annoying, squirm-inducing, and otherwise worthless bits. In other words, I'm going to mostly talk about the parts of the film I didn't like.

I don't regret seeing this film. I am glad I saw this film, and if you like snappy patter and improbably pulp-novelish plots, you will want to see this film too. However, I came close to wanting to walk out of this film before the credits began, and I wanted to either walk out or hide under my seat from discomfort many, many times thereafter. In a way that is the finest tribute I can give this film; it was good enough to keep me riveted despite consisting of 30-40% material that was extremely hard for me to watch, because of personal tics of my own.

Actually, this film has proven very useful in allowing me to finally codify these tics, so here they are, where they may be used as a future reference.

1. Except where it is ABSOLUTELY required by the plot, having your sympathetic character be embarrassed or humiliated is not useful, not desirable, and (most importantly) not funny. I have discussed elsewhere that I do not see the humor in other people's humiliation. It's far worse when it is their own self-inflicted humiliation. I mean, Robert Downey's character is clearly the sympathetic character in the film. We like him. But is it necessary, absolutely necessary, for him to end up in some of the situations he ends up in in the film? For plot reasons? No. He's in those situations because some misguided writer thought it was funny to put him there, and apparently a large number of misguided audience members agree. Which makes me despair for my countrymen.

The acid test is this film's very first scene, before the credits. If you watch this scene and laugh at the situation and the girl's line, you are one of Them, and we will probably never see eye-to-eye on humor (and I may secretly suspect you of pulling the wings off flies for enjoyment in your spare time). For me, that scene instantly took me back to being seven years old and all I could think of was how the poor boy must have felt - his act ruined, the horror for the period when he thought that something had seriously gone wrong, the public embarrassment, that sinking feeling - no no no no. That scene ruined the wonderful opening credits for me, and I swear I really did almost get up and leave. It hurt.

If you think it was funny, clearly you actually had friends as a child and managed to stumble along socially. Clearly you were never ostracized or humiliated. You were picked for sports once in a while. You cared whether you were picked for sports once in a while. You actually had conversations with people your own age occasionally. You were not, in other words, an alien outcast. Good on you. Go play with the other cool kids. Somewhere else.

I have issues here, is what I'm saying, and they are not going to change at this point, so I'm reminding you that films which use a lot of this are simply Not. Going. To. Work. for me.

2. Verbal diarrhea is also not funny, and gets annoying very fast. OK, look. In the real world, some people do get very verbose as a means of coping with situations where they are stressed or panicked or in general out of their depth. Downey's character spends the whole movie out of his depth, and he talks a lot, often spewing random things that just get him in more trouble or make the situation worse. I do not like this. In fact it is the primary reason I have never found Woody Allen funny, because his whole career has been based upon this schtick. (This sort of crap has for years been tagged as "Hitler or Tampon" dialogue in my head, after one of the few scenes in The Tall Guy I absolutely can't stand because it suffers from this problem.)

Make no mistake, I love some of Downey's bits. The meta-commentary about the structure of the film, and being a bad narrator, is hilarious. But the best scenes in the film are the ones where he's going back and forth with Val Kilmer's character precisely because Kilmer says one word to his five and makes that one word count more (also because he's the only character in the movie who regularly tells Downey to shut up).

This is why comparing this to Ocean's Eleven, as Jette has done, is spurious. In Ocean's Eleven, dialogue was everything, yes, but it was very spare; every word counted. Here most of the dialogue is Downey's stream of consciousness, and a great deal of it serves no other purpose except to make him look like a fool needlessly. See above.

It is worth noting that in the movie's two best scenes, Downey says very little and neither does anyone else. I don't want to spoil either of them - they are both crucial moments - but one involves a woman with pink hair, Downey hiding under a bed, and what he does afterward; the other ends with the line "There. All done." These are both cases where Downey's character reacts, for a change, to extraordinary events without frothing at the mouth. Perhaps I reacted so well to them precisely because they were a change of pace, and if he hadn't babbled through the rest of the movie, they wouldn't have worked nearly as well. Perhaps. But it was still a lot to have to sit through.

And of course the absolute worst points of the film are when Downey's babble collides with issue number three:

3. I am opposed to certain types of romantic tension which strike me as needlessly artificial. This one requires more explanation; if I italicized the rule as it actually works in practice, it would be three paragraphs of italics.

Back in the day, kids, there was something called a "screwball comedy," and one of the Guiding Principles of such comedy was that the romantic leads would begin the film hating each others' guts, spend the whole film telling each other with diminishing sincerity how much they hated each others' guts, and eventually (possibly by way of a precipitating crisis) eventually fall into each others' arms and admit that they were Deeply In Love. Curtain. This formula is apparently much too sincere and old-fashioned - not to mention too good and useful - for the modern post-ironic audience, which is why we do not have screwball comedies anymore.

This was replaced by the other time-tested formula where one of the romantic leads really has the hots for the other but assumes that True Love Could Never Work because they have really bad Ugly Duckling Syndrome, class barriers, horrific self-image, etc etc etc. Apart from my sometimes wanting to slap some sense into the protagonist and hand them a functioning mirror, this formula can still work for me, especially if everyone properly comes to their senses at the end.

[Example of a film where it doesn't work: The Truth About Cats and Dogs, because Janeane Garofalo's character is so obviously more desirable in a relationship than Uma Thurman's unless the gent in question is very shallow, which Ben Chaplin's character clearly is not, so the whole premise of the film falls apart instantly. Ditto Roxanne; not surprising, since it's the same plot. Strangely the Depardieu Cyrano does not have this issue so much, because Depardieu manages to play up Cyrano's other dislikable qualities (his temper, notably, and general loose-cannon aspects) such that you can understand why he might not be the obvious relationship choice to anyone with a functional brain, and he doesn't appear unduly hung-up on one minor aspect of his physique.

But I digress, and moreover I've done the Cyrano rant already elsewhere recently. Point is, I will take the clever and intelligent person over the drop-dead gorgeous one every single time, so if the plot depends upon the assumption that the other person in the love match will make the opposite choice ... well. Suffice to say that my reaction is usually akin to, "Honey, if he only wanted a partner because they were sexy, then he wasn't worth being in love with anyway. Can we go be in a different movie now?"]

Aaaaaanyway. The most recent wrinkle, for the post-ironic (god, I hate the post-ironic), is to have the love interest set up between two people who already realize they are attracted to one another but who, through a series of allegedly comic mishaps, are temporarily put off one another or thwarted through other means. This is idiotic and, yes, I realize that people are often actually idiotic in romantic matters, but nonetheless, it is not amusing to me. I am referring here specifically to 1) the sequence with the spider in the bra and 2) Downey sleeping with Our Heroine's friend, neither of which was at all necessary, and 2) Downey being pissed off when he finds out her Minor Past Secret, which I am not at all convinced he would even care that much about lo those many years later.

Essentially, since both of our romantic leads in this film already have a healthy dose of "I'm not good enough for him/her" Ugly Duckling Syndrome, that should have sufficed to serve the basic plot need of all this crap, which is to have the couple not get together successfully until the end of the film. It was not necessary to throw all the artificial sex-comedy-mishap stuff in. If I want that sort of material, I will go see American Pie, which remains the only film where I have ever been able to tolerate that material in bulk (probably because the film makes all its characters so darned likable - and even so I squirm every time Jason Biggs gets caught in a compromising position).

Short answer? Well, too damned late for that, eh? But I shall attempt to summarize:

I know that in the real world people are not always smart and do not always do the best thing in any given situation. And I realize to have a film where people are always on top of their game and never say or do anything stupid would probably get dull very fast. But there is a line, and that line is drawn at the exact point where the audience is told to laugh at someone being made to look the fool. That is the part where I feel like the audience is laughing at me, and I feel like I am sitting in a theatre full of monsters, and I hate you all. And this, dear filmmakers, is not a good way to make a paying customer feel.

This film is what the screwball comedy has become, for the generation that finds happy endings trite and True Love passe. I don't so much have a problem with that; it's better than not having the screwball comedy carry on in any mutation at all. But in screwball comedies, remember, the leads were always likeable, sometimes despite themselves. Katherine Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby is a direct predecessor of this film's lead female: flighty, impetuous, hazardously random, rather annoying at times. Yet you love her. Both of the leads in It Happened One Night are a pain in the rear, yet you want them to get together and have a happy ending (hell, they deserve each other).

I made it through this film because it pulled off the trick: It made me want a happy ending for the protagonists, it made me care what happened to them and their romance. But an ounce more of the humiliation and pain, and I would have had to stop caring about them just to save myself. And the movie would have been a lost cause - yet another in an endless stream of There's Something About Mary clones where I simply refuse to sit through the alleged comedy long enough to get invested.

14 June 2014

In 2010 I added:

"It may strike you that this essay doesn't have much to do with the theme in these pages of 'how films change when viewed on the small screen' - and you'd be right; it doesn't. On the other hand, while I made it through this film, I have never been able to watch it again or even contemplate doing so, just as I made it through High Fidelity despite myself but have never been able to contemplate watching that again - so this is important to the idea of repeated small-screen rewatches, if only to categorize some of the things which are deal-killers."

I'd like to add that - not through purchases I've made - we own both Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and High Fidelity on DVD. I've been far more tempted to rewatch Cusack's moping than RDJ's verbal discomfort. I have rewatched and enjoyed Grosse Pointe Blank several times since the theatres, and it suffers from many of the same issues, so there's always hope.

That said, there have been two movies - actually, one is a series of movies - since then where RDJ's babble actually suits the part perfectly and where I have enjoyed watching it immensely: The Iron Man films and Sherlock Holmes. (And RDJ's Holmes is absolutely hated by some parts of Holmes fandom - to which I have belonged since childhood - so it just goes to show you that I am nothing if not perverse.)

It occurs to me that the character of Harmony in this film might very well be an example of what we later learned to classify as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype I find actively detrimental to both men and women (but that's an essay for another time). To confirm that, though, I'd have to watch the film again. Maybe one day.

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