The acidly funny documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, the directorial debut of the British graffiti artist Banksy (real name unknown), is the happy upshot of an unhappy accident. As he explains on-camera (in silhouette, under a hood, his voice distorted), Banksy decided to “have a go” at more than a thousand hours of video shot by an obsessive Frenchman named Thierry Guetta—unprecedented footage of guerrilla street artists at their clandestine labors, among them Shepard Fairey, Invader, and Banksy himself—after Guetta’s own assemblage turned out like the work of “someone with mental problems … an unimaginable nightmare.” To get the unemployed, sad-sack Guetta out of his hair, Banksy gave him a metaphorical pat on the head and told him to go back home to Los Angeles and try making his own art. This leads to the documentary’s final section, in which Guetta, having adopted the ridiculous nom de plume “Mr. Brainwash,” attempts to conquer L.A. with an immense exhibition. So the film’s original director has become its subject, and its prize subject its director. Narrated by Rhys Ifans with the dryness of a dessicated toad, Exit Through the Gift Shop is both an exhilarating testament to serendipity and an appalling testament to art-world inanity.
Banksy resists making Guetta an altogether loathsome character. The Frenchman’s childhood was shattered by the sudden loss of his mother—which led to his resolve to document everything, which perhaps informed his zest for capturing on video the most impermanent of art forms. He is more a classic fool, somewhere between Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau and Chance the Gardener. Where Warhol gave us a Campbell’s Soup can, “Mr. Brainwash” gives us a Campbell’s Soup spray-can. Elvis Presley holds a Fisher-Price toy gun. The oeuvre is derivative of the derivative.
Having endured the subway eyesores of the early eighties, I hold a relativist view of street art: If it’s good, it justifies the vandalism; if it isn’t, it warrants imprisonment and/or the forfeiture of a hand. But there is no questioning Banksy’s art. As shown in Guetta’s footage, his satirical assaults on politics and culture in settings as various as the alleyways of London, the barrier wall of the West Bank, and a ride at Disneyland are affronts of genius—stinging with a lingering afterburn. As a director, he’s just as explosively succinct. May he vandalize our screens for decades to come.
From the sixties to the eighties, mainstream moviegoers were righteously appalled by grindhouse revenge flicks and their attendant splatter, leaving us young punks to whoop it up at such haute gutbucket fare as Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series (with its samurai hero lopping off limbs while pushing a baby in a cart). Such heady times … Now a generation weaned on Quentin Tarantino has made geyserific gore both hip and common (in both senses). And here comes Kick-Ass, to clean up at your neighborhood multiplex and lower the killing age.
Based on a comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., the movie opens a bit like the 1999 comedy Mystery Men, with its nerdy protagonist (Aaron Johnson) who dreams of becoming a superhero and celebrity. But when the touchingly inept teen in his green-and-yellow wetsuit gets a knife plunged into his gut (in close-up), reality kicks in with a vengeance. Vengeance kicks in with a vengeance. Beyond its high-hemorrhage quotient and recurrent F- and C-words, Kick-Ass brings something more transgressive to the party. The most gleeful (and dexterous) executioner is a pixieish blonde 11-year-old (Chloë Grace Moretz) who calls herself “Hit-Girl.” Her ex-cop dad (Nicolas Cage), once framed by a mobster, has schooled her in the art of lowlife-cleansing. There’s a disconnect when you watch: Should a girl this age—the actress herself, say—be allowed even to see this thing? Is what’s onscreen a form of child abuse? Do we splutter in outrage or relax and dig the Grand Guignol spectacle?
In schizoid fashion, I both spluttered and enjoyed myself. Moretz has aplomb, and when Cage underplays the monomania, he reminds you what a droll comic actor he can be. Director-panderer Matthew Vaughn fetishizes the little girl and her virtuosic scissor-knife work, the hyperbolic weaponry, the can-you-top-this carnage. There’s even a teen-sex angle: Johnson’s nerd superhero pretends to be gay so he can have “nonthreatening” sleepovers with a luscious classmate. Kick-Ass is a compendium of all sleazy things, and it sings like a siren to our inner Tarantinos.
As she proved in her Sarah Palin impersonations, Tina Fey has a gift for charting the continuum between vanity and insanity. On the posters for Date Night, she stands beside Steve Carell in a gauzy blue party dress spattered with mud, her hair splayed out—but with her right hand she’s smoothing the ends in a cool, sexy way. That’s what she does brilliantly: the teensy neurotic (or obsessive-compulsive) gesture that’s totally at odds with what’s happening in the moment.
The movies haven’t done her justice—but then, movies are the lesser medium for Fey and Carell. They’re the stars of two relatively sophisticated, media-savvy network sitcoms, yet their big-screen comedies are retro. The premise of Date Night is more than serviceable: The old North by Northwest mistaken-identity nightmare plunges a New Jersey couple into a netherworld of corrupt cops and gangsters. In three or four scenes, they get a rhythm going, but the editing is smash-and-bash. Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, the Pink Panther remake) is not a director who honors performers’ rhythms.
There are great TV comedians who aim high in movies. Ricky Gervais, who created the Office role that Carell Americanized, made the daringly irreverent The Invention of Lying. Will Ferrell hit dizzying slapstick heights in Step Brothers. I’m not sure Carell and Fey are, as clowns, in their (tip-top) league, but if they keep making tepid throwaways with directors like Levy, how will we—and they—ever know?