THE WEEK OF – A CRASS ADAM SANDLER MOVIE WITH A GEM AT ITS HEART

SHORT TAKE:

Adam Sandler semi-slapstick about a working-stiff middle class Dad trying to provide the kind of wedding for his daughter which will impress the family of his wealthy son-in-law to be.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Only for adults and then only for those who do not take offense at tasteless humor, raunchy sight gags, strippers, or bad language.

LONG TAKE:

The pickings were very thin this week at the movie theater so I decided to think outside the box and try a Netflix original.

There's an old Jewish folk tale called "It Could Always be Worse" wherein a poor farmer, grieved that his house was too small and his pantry too bare, seeks advice from his Rabbi. The Rabbi advises him to invite his lazy brother to come visit and open his house to his obnoxious neighbors and demanding friends. Reluctantly the farmer went home and told his wife, who, desperate to cheer her husband up, agreed. Soon every room in the house was taken up with noisy people who raided their pantry and slept in their beds and on their sofas and sprawled on their floor. Soon losing his mind the farmer returned to the Rabbi.

This time the Rabbi shocked the farmer by advising he bring all of his animals into the house as well – the chickens, the goats, the cow, the family dog, and all the cats. Soon even the obnoxious neighbors were complaining about the crowding and having their toes stepped on by cow hooves, the mooing and the barking in the middle of the night, and the smell.

After a full week the farmer was at his wits end and more miserable than he was before. Angrily, the farmer returned to the Rabbi who simply smiled and said now go throw everyone and everything out. Send your neighbors back to their own homes, kick your brother out, and put the animals back in the barn.

After sweeping up behind all of their departed guests the farmer and his wife discovered, much to their astonishment, how much bigger their house was, and how much more food they had.

At the height of the Rabbi's lesson for the farmer, while the house was full of neighbors and relatives and animals, Kirby, the visiting father of the groom, in the movie The Week Of, would have noticed little difference between staying at the farmer's house or staying at the home of Kenny, the father of the bride.

SPOILERS

In the premise of The Week Of, Kenny, played by Adam Sandler, is a working stiff who makes a very modest living bringing dilapidated hotels up to passing health inspector levels. Despite his limited resources, he is determined to pay for his oldest daughter's wedding without the proffered help of the much wealthier Kirby, played by Chris Rock.

Unable to provide adequate housing for the multitude of guests and finding the hotel completely unsuitable despite his best efforts, many of the relatives on both sides end up staying at his modest-sized home. Amongst the participants are Seymour (Jim Barone – a real double amputee) his uncle, Noah his emotionally fragile cousin fresh out of rehab, Charles (Steve Buscemi) his raunchy cousin, loud obnoxious elderly deaf ladies and the monster sized German Shepherd owned by one of his visiting kin.

I normally do not watch this kind of movie and likely would have turned it off had I not been planning to review it. So watching to the end, imagine my shock to discover a tiny gem buried in the bottom of this pond full of less than subtle sex jokes and caricatures.

In classic Adam Sandler comic style, there's something to offend everyone. Sandler and Robert Smigel, the screenwriters, make fun of Jewish culture, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, and the elderly. It's hard to tell which is more cringey, the often crude and tasteless jokes or the fact that Chris Rock plays a straight man and is old enough to be someone who has a groom-aged son. But somehow, The Week Of still manages to make all these characters approachable, even likeable, giving each moments that makes them relatable and human. Part of it, I think, is that even though the situations make fun of these vulnerable and sometimes inherently ridiculous people, Adam Sandler's Kenny treats them all with genuine affection and respect.

At different points in the movie, Kenny, literally, carries his legless Uncle Seymour around. Kenny never acts as though it is a burden. And this becomes an interesting analogy for the entire movie. Despite Kenny’s lack of financial resources, despite his pride, and despite his occasionally bad judgment, everyone looks to Kenny whenever there is a problem. He is the one with the heart to usually do what he genuinely believes is the right thing for his family, has the cleverness to get it accomplished, and the determination to see it through to the end no matter how ridiculous some of the plans are. It eventually becomes obvious that it is not just Seymour he cheerfully carries on his willing back.

In a side note, despite the fact the story pivots around an interracial marriage, absolutely NO references are made to this, cliche or otherwise, and refreshingly, race is the ONLY thing about which Sandler does not shark up a cheap laugh. The race of the two families ends up merely being a convenience for the audience to help keep track of which of the dozens of characters are likely to be from which side of which family – like wearing different jerseys at a sports event or using shirts versus skins at a pickup game of basketball.

Chris Rock's character, Kirby, is an extremely successful cardiac surgeon who lives out of very swanky hotels with a succession of mistresses. Kenny on the other hand has three kids who he adores and dotes on, but for whom he can provide "only" a middle-class lifestyle. Kirby's life is reflected in the swanky hotels he stays in, his clean, quiet, organized, unencumbered, glass and steel life without distractions. Kirby's life, on the other hand, is cluttered, messy, noisy, and full of humanity, conversation, hugs, arguments, interactions and affection.

Kenny is always there, always in the mix, always doing his best and keeping a calm, optimistic perspective on even the wildest moments. So – despite all of the epic fails in Kenny's attempts to provide for his daughter's wedding, despite: the leaky ballroom, the poor choice of a magician to entertain the guests, using his 11 year old nephew as a wedding reception DJ, feeling shown up by the sumptuous wedding rehearsal dinner provided by Kirby, the crude bachelor party at a stripper trampoline exhibit, the death of one of the guests and a fire – it is Kirby who ultimately feels both overwhelmed and outclassed by the modestly resourced Kenny.

In one example, representatives of both families meet at the emergency room as a result (trying not to spoil TOO much) of one of the "high jinx". Tyler (Roland Burch, III), the groom, feels responsible and Kenny explains to him how the outcome would have been worse had the group not done what they did, then embraces him comfortingly. Kirby can be seen in the background watching this exchange, and in a lovely but easily missed moment, Kirby realizes he is the outsider – that his son sought advice naturally and first, not from him, but from his future father-in-law, who seems to understand how everyone ticks.

In a funny repeat motiff, whenever Kenny and his wife Sarah (Allison Strong, who played a very strange secretary in another and similarly themed Sandler movie, Click) disagree, both put on a happy face, retreat to their bedroom and audibly yell at each other, believing no one can hear them. One of the cousins asks one of Kenny’s younger children if they are getting a divorce. With the exhausted confidence that every child should have in their parents' marriage, he says, "They NEVER do."

The wealthy Kirby ends up: sleeping on the floor, suffering the indignities of living with about 50 strangers at Kenny's house, being made fun of during a Parcheesi game in Kenny's asbestos infected basement, and is conscripted to help catch bats in one of Kenny's crazy plans to save face. Kirby as a result, comes to understand that the sum of all this lunacy is a close-knit family that will suffer through and with each other because of a love based on a lifetime of intimacy. Kirby threw money at every problem his family encountered. Kenny throws himself into the line of fire whenever someone in his family needed him.

Kirby comes to realize that Kenny is indeed the much richer man. Realizing what a bad father and poor husband he has been Kirby apologizes to his ex-wife, begins to make amends with his children for his neglect, and looks forward to spending real time with his grandchildren. It’s a little like Mary Poppins for the Zohan crowd.

And meanwhile all this is set against some appropriately chosen Billy Joel songs. The ending genuinely had me choked up, and not just because I was sick to death of all the bad jokes. I can forgive a lot in a movie if it makes a good end. And I have to say that in spite of the raunchy humor, the borderline offensive caricatures, and the repetitive visual jokes – for the sake of the movie’s final couple of scenes ….. all is forgiven.

 

 

 

CLEO – WHERE REEL LIFE AND REAL LIFE EXPLOSIVELY COLLIDE ON THE ALLEY THEATER STAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Cleo is a brilliant stage dramedy, playing through April 29, 2018 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas – written by Lawrence Wright and directed by Bob Balaban, about the filming of the movie Cleopatra as seen from the perspective of the explosive affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who play the cinematic lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults. Burton, Taylor and their relationship became the short hand definition of a passionate, torrid love affair. In addition, the movie they were filming, Cleopatra, pushed the MPAA ratings of that time to the edge of the envelope. So to show less than Mr. Balaban does would be like trying to demonstrate an atomic bomb with a birthday candle. But this means it is not appropriate for youths.

LONG TAKE:

I have rarely seen life so poetically and entertainingly imitate art and that art so analogously reflected back than in the play Cleo currently running at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. And I have NEVER seen such a story more skillfully manifested. Masterfully written by Lawrence Wright and brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Bob Balaban, Cleo is about the romance that volcanically erupted between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the shooting of the movie Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, for anyone under 40 and not an old movie aficionado, is a classic, epic, bombastic, spectacular that was filmed in 1963 with three of the heaviest hitting stars in Hollywood at the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, and populated with some of the most solid and talented supporting actors of their era including   Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Roddy MacDowell and Hume Cronyn.

The stories surrounding this legendary moving disaster area are legion. However, Messieurs Wright & Balaban tackle the central fuse that wove its way through the making of the movie – the romance that began between the couple who for the next two decades would be known in one breath, almost as one word – Liz and Dick. Married and divorced twice to each other and many times to others they became inseparable. Toxic to each other but unable to stay away from each other, they remained close for the rest of their lives, whether married to each other or not. Cleo tells the story of the beginning of this incendiary relationship.

Cleo is funny, bittersweet, bawdy, fascinating, historically interesting, and somehow also whimsically endearing. Lisa Birnbaum, as Elizabeth Taylor, radiates all of the subtleties of Taylor's voice and body mannerisms without creating the caricature that could have so easily emerged. The same for Richard Short as Richard Burton. I loved the accents Short was able to swing into and out of – Burton's normal Welsh versus the high British posh that we are so used to hearing him speak. 

All the subtlety but unmistakable familiarity of these personalities reincarnated on stage for us is a massive credit to both the skillful writing of Mr. Wright whose dialogue lends itself to revelations and foretelling, and to the insightful direction by Mr Balaban. In other hands this could have ended up as a farce. But the affection and respect Wright and Balaban have for these subjects shines through. Mr. Balaban's understanding and perceptive observation of these creatures of Hollywood who are also deeply human beings is personified in the choices which he has made with these actors in particular and the production in general.

Mark Capri portrays Rex Harrison and is given a bit broader license to portray the man who was both Dr. Dolittle and Henry Higgins. Capri's larger than life performance offers a counterpoint and some comic relief to the intense proceedings sparking around him. Brian Dykstra as Joe Mankiewicz occupies a Machiavellian type father position, who both struggles to keep peace amongst his cast but also tends to stir the pot just enough to elicit the dialogue and performance of which he knows these intensely talented movie stars are capable. Adam Gibbs as the cuckolded clueless Eddie Fisher, the man who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, provides just the right combination of posturing famous singer and schlemiel who is the last one on the train to recognize that he has lost his wife. Gibbs' Fisher reminds me of the sad clown husband character from Chicago who devotedly would have kept his straying wife but is ultimately abandoned. But unlike the husband in Chicago we know Fisher's hands are not at all clean and that there is a certain poetic justice to the affair lighting up between his erring wife and the Welsh actor.

Bob Balaban, the director, is one of those faces you recognize but don't always remember his name. He has been in a wide range of movies, as a wide range of characters – from the oddly named but sweetly thoughtful Dr. Chandra in 2010, to the corrupt federal investigator in Absence of Malice, to the charmingly out of his depth cartographer in Close Encounters, to the ill-fated film critic in Lady in the Water and the art connoisseur in The Monuments Men. Mr Balaban has had a long career in Hollywood as a gifted actor, director, writer and producer. He even has a singing credit in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But this directorial outing of Cleo will stand out as one of his best works.

There is no whitewashing or lionizing of Taylor and Burton's scandalous behavior, the drunkenness, or the betrayal of their spouses. There is a scene in the stage play Lion in Winter in which Queen Eleanor reminisces to her son Richard about the first meeting between herself and his father, Henry II. Eleanor had been married, at the time, to King Louis of France. However, Eleanor recounts of Henry: "He came down from the North to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot." This line echoed in my head as I watched Cleo. The violent passion between Taylor and Burton washes over the audience, exposing both their strengths as well as their all too human weaknesses. We see behind the Wizard's curtain and much like the fascination one might have for a slow motion train wreck, it is not always pleasant to see but it is absolutely captivating and mesmerizing to watch.

The movie, Cleopatra, destroyed the careers and health of two directors, wrecked at least two marriages and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Cleopatra was drastically behind schedule and grostesquely over-budget when Joseph Mankiewicz took over the director's chair from Rouben Mamoulian. Without a viable shooting script to this disaster on wheels, rewrites were occasionally not completed until the night before, organization was poor and money was thrown willy-nilly at problems that should never have arisen. The entire cast and crew, trying to recreate the hot dry Egyptian climate in chilly damp London was moved to Rome. One scene was to be shot on the beach at Anzio. Rights were obtained, permissions were granted, and construction workers were killed from the detonation of a live mine left over from World War II. Shooting was once again delayed as a minesweeper had to be hired to prevent another tragedy. Elizabeth Taylor almost died from double pneumonia during the shoot. Established famous character actors had to be hired and paid for, in some cases months beyond the time for which they were originally contracted, as delays mounted one upon another.

BUT, as amusing as these scenarios and anecdotes are, most are wisely not addressed in Cleo. They do, howeverprovide a fitting backdrop of catastrophic ambiance to the Ground Zero of this nuclear romance.

During a Q&A before the performance, Mr. Bob Balaban spent an hour giving generously of his time to provide some background about the making of this play, spin stories about his personal life in New York as his family founded a string of movie houses, and field questions from an appreciative audience. He was extremely gracious, patient, open, warm, articulate, and friendly. Sort of like how you might imagine Mr. Rogers were he a theatrical director. He very kindly agreed to allow photos, videos and audios be made of the mini seminar. He also waited for anyone who wished afterwards to have a word and a photo. I was one of those who benefited from his affability, and assuming my technical crew can make the transfer, I will have audio and video excerpts up soon.

For the record, I used to think Elizabeth Taylor was a bubble-headed movie star. And to some extent, yes, she was. She made some very bad choices in her life, she drank, she took drugs, she lived to excess. However there was another part of her which I did not know about until doing research in anticipation of seeing the play and writing this blog. Elizabeth Taylor was a convert to Judaism. She was quite devoted to Israel and her outspokenness actually got her banned from Egypt even for the production of Cleopatra so that scenes were filmed in Rome with her and exterior shots only were filmed in Egypt without her. She spent the latter part of her life, after her film career, in well known philanthropic projects, including AIDS research, children's education, and raising money for Israel. However the most astonishing and courageous thing that I discovered she did was something I had never even heard a whisper about before. 

In 1976 Muslims hijacked an airline carrying 248 passengers. They rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda and threatened all the passengers with murder unless fellow terrorists were released. All of the non-Jewish passengers were released. Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the most famous faces on Earth, offered herself in exchange for the remaining 100 Jewish hostages. The terrorists refused the offer. Not just a PR stunt, the Israli Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz publically thanked her at the Jewish National Fund Gala, presenting her and her then husband Jack Warner with a certificate for a forest which would be planted in her honor, saying: "The Jewish people will always remember." It was an extremely brave thing to do. Had these Muslim terrorists accepted there is no telling what they would have done to her. Instead Israeli Defense Forces successfully released almost all of the hostages safely and took out the terrorists.

While the events in the play Cleo take place over a decade before this real life drama at Entebbe, Cleo's backstage pass look at one of the most infamously known, adulterous affairs in history, reminds us that there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known. Thanks to Mr. Wright and Mr. Balaban, we have an opportunity to warm our hands by a still shot, an intimate and affectionately humorous peek, at the megaton conflagration that was Taylor and Burton

In 90 minutes the craft of this play is such that we, as the audience, come away feeling we have known these people for years, not just because we have read critiques, seen the movies, scanned articles and sadly noted obituaries about them. But we know these people because we have been given a look at them in their smallness, in the sinful activities of which we are all subject in this Fallen World. Great literature makes one feel that one is a better person after having seen it. That can come in two forms. The story can be of either a good example or a horrible warning. I think you can probably guess into which category this amusing, sad, bittersweet and mesmerizing play falls. As the play Cleo demonstrates, in this backstage pass look at one of the most infamously well known adulterous affairs in history, there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known.

I predict Misters Wright and Balaban have a justifiably massive hit on their hands. Cleo will only be playing at the Alley Theater through April 29, 2018 so hurry to see it there. It will, undoubtedly find a national run in the near future as word gets out about this emotionally expressive and delightful play, but why wait??!! Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind experience in Cleo as stars in reel life and real life collide on the Alley Theater stage.