Of all the Saturday Night Live alumni to hit movie pay dirt, Will Ferrell is the only one who never acts as if he’s bigger than his material. In one sense, that’s fitting. His body is only moderately expressive (he uses his flab to droll effect), and his face is mild to the point of blobbiness. Yet I’d rather see a new Ferrell movie than one by any of his fellow SNL graduates. He has a sweet spirit missing from other contemporary screen clowns; he finds the poetry in fatuousness. In Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and the new Blades of Glory, Ferrell lovingly ravages the American male psyche. It might be argued that the targets of these movies—TV blowhards and celebrity athletes—are easy pickings, and that the films are simply full-length parodies of junk genres. But those parodies are an artful mix of tight craftsmanship and gags that spin out like adolescent free associations. Machismo goes hand in dainty hand with homosexual panic, while real men are those who overcome their fear of looking like sissies.
In Blades of Glory, Ferrell plays figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels, a sex-obsessed galoot who fondles his female fans and ends his twirls by clutching his crotch and trash-talking his opponents. This is in stark contrast to his rival, Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder), the girlish blond orphan who closes his balletic routines by gently releasing a white dove. After the pair breaks into fisticuffs (the child-fans weep, a teddy-bear mascot goes up in flames), an all-star skating tribunal bans the brute and the femme from competition. But a loophole emerges: They may compete in pairs skating!
Blades of Glory is far more conventional than its predecessors, which were directed and co-written by Ferrell’s steady collaborator, Adam McKay. The odd-couple buddy premise is flabby, and the film has no spasms of genius to equal the stylings of Sacha Baron Cohen as a prim gay French existentialist car-racer in Talladega Nights or the news team’s impromptu a cappella “Afternoon Delight” in Anchorman. But the laughs glide in, one after another. The directors, Will Speck and Josh Gordon, nail the subtext and straight-faced deportment of Ferrell’s best movies. Although I’m not sure Heder’s dorky mouth-breather shtick—the joke is he’s both spacey and prickly—has much stretch, his slumpy affect and stringy frame match up wondrously with Ferrell’s beefiness. There’s a hetero romance between emotionally abused ingénues: Jimmy and a radiantly pretty Jenna Fischer as the sister of a conniving brother-sister skating team. But that’s window dressing. What powers the movie are the gross-out gags—approach the revelation of the ultimate skating move, the Iron Lotus, with caution!—and the scenes in which each man learns to overcome his revulsion to touching/being touched by another dude.
I’m looking forward to buying Blades of Glory on DVD so I can get my head around the phenomenal skating routines. Obviously, there were wires and lifts and computer-generated effects, but for my money it looked like the lumbering Ferrell and nerdy Heder were Olympic-worthy stylists. The triple lutzes make the heart leap. The climactic ice dance—to Queen’s immortal theme from Flash Gordon (“Flash! Ah-ahhhh! Savior of the universe!”)—might be the apotheosis of man-boy love. Platonic, of course, as befits the idealized medium of ice-skating.
Bringing off a con-man saga involves quite a bit of con artistry. There is the matter of sweetening the protagonist, who is ripping off innocent people and/or taking credit for other people’s achievements. There is the inevitability of the comeuppance. In the sixties and early seventies, con artists were counterculture heroes sticking it to the Man, but nowadays we’re all Enron victims and James Frey haters. So it’s bracing to see a grand con-man comedy like The Hoax, in which our moral universe is affirmed, and yet the fabled trickster Clifford Irving—who wrote a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes—is so darn likable.
It helps that Irving is played by Richard Gere, a much-underrated actor who learned, as the villain of Internal Affairs, to harness his Methody contortions and underplay slyly. Now he gives out emotion in tiny beams; he’s a glimmer man. In Lasse Hallström’s film (the screenplay by William Wheeler is based on Irving’s account), Irving has a notion that’s nine parts insane to one part inspired: that Hughes is too much of a recluse to contest a fake autobiography. He thinks up the scam after a novel he’s on the verge of selling to Houghton Mifflin is cruelly rejected, leaving him with a new Mercedes convertible and spiraling debts. So he persuades his buddy, Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), to help him research—and, in effect, speak for—the world’s most storied and elusive weirdo.
In their press notes, the filmmakers have the decency to spell out their own liberties with the truth. I begrudge them none except the revelation that Irving in fact had a four-book contract with Houghton Mifflin: There is a difference between a scheme cooked up in repose and one born of farcical desperation. That said, it’s the element of farce that gives The Hoax its often-hilarious drive. As skepticism mounts, Irving must think on his feet, concocting ever more outlandish accounts of furtive meetings with the capricious germaphobic billionaire. Gere plays Irving as a smoothie, a master juggler (he’s also juggling a mistress, played by a mouthwatering Julie Delpy), but he’s saddled with Molina’s Suskind, a mopey exhibitionist who’s so sure of failure that he does what he can—unconsciously—to bring it about. The movie’s neat little fillip is that as Irving dictates the book, he begins to dress and talk like Hughes—to channel Hughes. Maybe that’s why Gere’s performance feels so impish. It’s a Method satire. (It’s also true to Irving’s bogus book—available on his Website—which rings with conviction.)
The movie is too long (nearly two hours), but the acting—Gere, Molina, the peerlessly edgy Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden as Irving’s loopy Swiss-German painter wife—keeps you giggling. And the story has something up its sleeve—a dream finish. It seems that Richard Nixon was driven to near apoplexy by Howard Hughes and whatever Hughes had on him—and it’s possible that the Watergate burglary was an attempt to get hold of the Irving manuscript. I’m not sure I believe it entirely (although I’ve heard it before), but in The Hoax I want to believe it, and that’s what separates a failed con from a triumphant one.
In the acid showbiz comedy The TV Set, the network chief Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) attempts to buck up her new British colleague, Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), when his wife decamps with their son back to England. One thing she has learned, she says, is that “spouses are not necessarily a fixture on the schedule.” Grotesque Hollywood executives are as common in indie movies as they are in Hollywood, but this one has a rare fluency. As played by Weaver with a hard-charging dementia honed in Christopher Durang farces, Lenny is a character of bloodcurdling stature.
The TV Set is yet another filmmaker’s whine of dashed dreams and Faustian bargains and integrity under siege, written and directed by the overprivileged Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence. Except it’s deftly calibrated and acted with relish: Kasdan is really good! He showed a light touch in his 1998 debut, Zero Effect, but has worked almost exclusively in TV since. (Is The TV Set inspired by his experiences on Freaks and Geeks and Grosse Pointe?) In the film, a pudgy, bearded David Duchovny plays a writer who uses his depression over the suicide of a brother to create a TV comedy with some emotional bite, but the project begins to come apart under Hollywood gravitational forces with the casting of a fluff-bunny leading man (Fran Kranz) and doubts about the comic potential of … suicide.
Duchovny uses his patented solipsistic nasality (that’s a compliment) to make the writer both a good guy and a bit of a pain (who would build a network sitcom around a suicide?), and his scenes with his manager (Judy Greer) are perfect studies of Hollywood communication: When he asks her how various network readings/screenings went, she always says, “Great! Really great! They had some questions … ” Greer’s high-strung sexiness has never played so well, and Lindsay Sloane does wonders as a ripely available actress who’s not quite so available out of character. As for Kranz, he’s so convincing as a terrible Method actor that he must be a very, very good one. In the film, Weaver’s Lenny grimaces slightly when she says the TV pilot is “smart”—it’s a pejorative. I say The TV Set is smart, and I’m smiling.
Though same-sex figure-skating pairs aren’t exactly mascots of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the Gay Games have long featured such teams (plus man-and-woman pairings!). But the most recent Gay Games were preceded by a controversy involving two skaters, Alan Lessik and John Manzon-Santos. The men settled a discrimination suit against a California ice rink after claiming that employees there had told them to stop holding hands. The rink’s response? All skating pairs are a safety threat to other skaters. But it later apologized and agreed to host a weekly gay-straight skate night.
Blades of Glory
Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon. Paramount/Dreamworks. PG-13.
Directed by Lasse Hallström. Miramax Films. R.
The TV Set
Directed by Jake Kasdan. ThinkFilm. R.