Flickchart Road Trip: Florida
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
There was a little game on the radio show Loveline called “Germany or Florida?”, in which host Adam Carrolla would have callers guess whether some bizarre human interest story, usually involving gruesome or idiotic behavior, had taken place in Germany or Florida. That should give you some indication how this state is viewed by non-Floridians.
Having been to the Miami-Pompano Beach area on business three times in the last six years, as well as to a wedding in Orlando followed by a trip to Key West the year before that, I’ve come face to face with the weird conglomeration of demographics that comprises the state of Florida, and how it contributes to the state’s personality on the whole. Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the time or the space to delve into how the mixture of rednecks, elderly Northeasterners, Cubans, South Beach homosexuals and just plain regular folks makes Florida what it is. That’s of course an over-simplification, but then again, when is profiling the socioeconomic composition of a state and extrapolating from that not an over-simplification?
Instead, I’ll tell you that this is my favorite time of the year to be in Florida, and I’ll tell you why: spring training! I’m a huge baseball fan, and in fact, one of my two previous drives across country was devoted to visiting 14 major league baseball parks in three weeks. For baseball fans, spring is the time of year you believe anything is possible for your team, and Florida, spring training home of about half the professional teams, is where many such fans trek to participate in that happy delusion for a few weeks. Since I was in the neighborhood, I left I-10 and caught I-75 down to Fort Myers, spring training home of my beloved Boston Red Sox. I squeezed in an exhibition game against the Puerto Rican national team (preparing for the World Baseball Classic, which started a few days later) and a regular game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Soaking in some nice Florida rays in the stands, I saw a win on Tuesday and a loss on Wednesday before continuing on my way.
Florida is also the home of Flickchart and its co-founders: Nathan Chase and Jeremy Thompson (so, I’d better watch what I write here). I used the opportunity to finally meet them in person, and Nathan was generous enough to let me crash on his couch. The guy’s got a nice family.
In fact, the family in my Florida movie would be very jealous of the Chase clan. I watched Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz‘ 2009 tale of a dysfunctional extended family, which is a sequel to Happiness, his 1998 tale of a dysfunctional extended family. (Wartime is globally ranked #20427.) The original was set in New Jersey, but Florida plays host to the second. Since Happiness is my favorite film of 1998, I’m surprised it took me more than three years to watch the follow-up.
What it’s about
Life During Wartime is a sequel to Happiness set about ten years later, but it features different actors in all the key roles. Joy (then Jane Adams, now Shirley Henderson) has married her sister’s former neighbor Allen (then Philip Seymour Hoffman, now Michael K. Williams), but their marriage is on the rocks because he can’t give up his habit of making obscene phone calls. Joy is tormented by the ghost of Andy (then Jon Lovitz, now Paul Reubens), who killed himself shortly after she broke up with him. She visits her sister Trish (then Cynthia Stevenson, now Allison Janney) in Florida, where Trish is still not fully recovered from her ex-husband Bill (then Dylan Baker, now Ciaran Hinds) raping two young boys back in New Jersey. Trish’s oldest son Billy (then Rufus Read, now Chris Marquette), who was around 11 at the time and understood what his father had done, is off at college, but his younger brother Timmy (Dylan Riley Snider) is just beginning to learn that the story that his father had died may not be true. Triggering this realization is the fact that Bill has just finished serving his prison sentence, and wants to figure out some way to apologize to his family for his sordid crimes. Off in Los Angeles, Joy’s and Trish’s sister Helen (then Lara Flynn Boyle, now Ally Sheedy) has become a successful screenwriter.
How it uses the state
For the first half of the movie, the only way you can glean the setting is through some pretty deliberate external shots of sunshine and palm trees. About halfway through Trish finally mentions the state, in the context of it being an escape from New Jersey: “We’re living in Florida now,” she says, meaning to draw a contrast. There are a couple little jabs at Florida, also, which you might not even notice if you weren’t looking for them. For one, Joy, who has previously worked with convicts, mentions that “there are a lot of prisons down here.” Later, another character remarks “This part of Florida is a goldmine for terrorists.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Florida movies I’ve already seen, shall we? There are so many movies I’ve seen in this state that I’d love to do ten, but rules are rules. As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Life During Wartime will battle:
1) Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze). My Flickchart: #45/3473. Global: #638. When I have so many Florida-centric candidates for favorite Florida movie (Scarface, Cool Hand Luke), why would I choose one that spends only a third of its time in Florida? It’s because the second collaboration between Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman contains a character who serves as an ideal metaphor for the mixed bag personality of this state: Chris Cooper‘s John Laroche, a shaggy hick missing his front teeth, who possesses a cunning understanding of nature and a true sense of wisdom and grace beneath his rough edges. (The performance won Cooper an Oscar.) Besides, as you can tell from the ranking, Adaptation is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I grasp any chance to bring it further recognition. The film’s Florida scenes do give you a real sense of the swamp-and-gator aspects of the state, which distinguish it topographically as much as any of its other traits.
2) Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh). My Flickchart: #759/3473. Global: #3349. Steven Soderbergh’s most purely entertaining movie in years was a rare breed: a film that seemed to have almost equal appeal for one gender as the other. Even though it became a popular semi-ironic outing for groups of women to descend upon theaters to marvel at these beefcakes, most heterosexual guys also seemed to like it, and you can count me as one of them. The movie probably most responsible for confirming Channing Tatum‘s stardom is also a funny commentary on Florida’s internal measures of success: The guys are thriving in Tampa, but what they really seek is the bright lights of Miami. I had to include Magic Mike if only because I couldn’t tell you how much I enjoyed that other Florida stripper movie, the Demi Moore bomb Striptease, and still hope you’d respect me in the morning.
3) The Birdcage (1996, Mike Nichols). My Flickchart: #1139/3473. Global: #1865. Director Mike Nichols’ and screenwriter Elaine May’s remake of La Cage aux Folles did great things for both of its leads: It introduced many of us to the dynamo known as Nathan Lane, while allowing Robin Williams to recognize he didn’t always have to be the dynamo. Both give among their most baggage-free performances in this zany farce, whose zany elements come compliments of Lane and Hank Azaria, while Williams plays the straight man — although only in a manner of speaking. The film establishes a real sense of place within the South Beach drag queen cabaret scene, but is notable for making its characters more than the sum of their fabulous mannerisms. Gene Hackman and Christine Baranski, as a conservative senator and his wife, contribute to the fun.
4) Wild Things (1998, John McNaughton). My Flickchart: #2519/3473. Global: #3549. It’s tawdry, it’s ludicrous, it’s a total hoot — and Wild Things grabbed such a place in the zeitgeist that it spawned two straight-to-video sequels/naked attempts to capitalize on the brand. I hope it’s not denigrating Florida when I say this, but something about the sleaze on display here made it one of the first movies I thought of when I was brainstorming Florida movies. With its double crosses, its triple crosses, its iconic pool sex scene, its iconic threesome, its characters who aren’t really dead, and even its unexpected glimpse of Kevin Bacon‘s junk, Wild Things became one of the most notoriously popular erotic thrillers ever, giving Denise Richards‘ career in particular a decisive nudge forward. The presence of Bill Murray is the cherry on top. None of this, I should say, actually makes it a good movie.
5) Miami Vice (2006, Michael Mann). My Flickchart: #3037/3473. Global: #6854. If you want numerous fetishistic shots of cigarette boats cutting through the water at sunset, you’ve come to the right place. However, if you want an adaptation of a popular TV show that captures its tone while acknowledging the ironic lens through which we now view it, look elsewhere. This overly serious movie from overly serious director Michael Mann is clumsy in a lot of ways, but I can’t help fixating on the moment when Jamie Foxx begins reacting to a massive explosion behind him a split second before the explosion actually happens. It’s shades of that boy covering his ears too early in North by Northwest. If only this movie shared anything else in common with Hitchcock‘s classic.
First duel: Life During Wartime vs. The Birdcage. The joie de vivre of The Birdcage is much more enjoyable than, uh, the hatred de vivre of Wartime. The Birdcage wins.
Second duel: Life During Wartime vs. Wild Things. Wild Things may be a better time, but it’s probably not a better movie. Life During Wartime wins.
Life During Wartime finishes fourth out of the six movies.
With Happiness and Life During Wartime, Solondz is trying to pull off an extreme rarity — so rare, in fact, that the only other example that jumps to mind is Alien and Aliens. Namely, he’s switching genres from the first movie in a “series” to the second. Happiness may be the blackest of black comedies, but it’s clearly a comedy. Life During Wartime makes some timid stabs at black comedy, but there’s no mistaking this film as a drama — a sometimes soapy drama, at that. The tonal shift may be subtle, but it’s obvious enough that Wartime feels like a different kind of movie than its predecessor. It feels like Solondz’ apology for making a comedy about pedophilia and other perversions, and his vow to show the deeply painful consequences of events that received a lighter treatment the first time around.
At first, I was taken aback by this approach. I decided it was a grave misstep, and I start seeing the film’s inferior ingredients everywhere. Solondz’ direction of talented actors (such as Janney and Henderson) leaves much to be desired, leading to some very clunky moments — the moments where he’s obviously trying to duplicate the shock value of his first film. (Trish gives her 12-year-old son a TMI physical description of what happened to her when her date touched her arm, for example.) However, the moments where he commits to the tone of this particular project can be startlingly effective, and by the mid-point, I decided to meet Wartime on its own terms. The movie finds Solondz really struggling with topics that seem to have shaken his world view, most overtly, the September 11th attacks. Much is made here of the Judaism of Trish and her family, and there are several references to the threat of terrorism. More generally, the writer-director clearly doesn’t want to make the pain these characters feel an object of irony or mockery. There’s emotional blood all over this movie, and unlike the first, there’s nothing flip about these characters that tells us they deserve it.
As ineffective as the direction is in certain scenes, Solondz can also be credited with coaxing terrific performances from unlikely sources. Paul Reubens, the erstwhile Pee-Wee Herman, burrows inside his sorrow in a way few could see coming — and though he doesn’t play the pedophile, one wonders if Reubens is drawing from his own history of very public sexual misdeeds in producing this performance. Michael K. Williams — Omar on The Wire — also digs deep for some top-shelf angst. Ally Sheedy, who looks perhaps the most similar to the actress she replaced, brings to twitchy life the scene that comes closest to having the same comic tone as Happiness, giving a spot-on impersonation of the essence of Lara Flynn Boyle.
Now that I’ve traveled as far south and east as I can travel, it’s time to go … up! That means Georgia. Ever since visiting and being enchanted by Savannah on a 2010 business trip, I’ve wanted to revisit the city on film in Clint Eastwood‘s 1997 film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Hitting Georgia seems like the perfect opportunity to do that.