Shrek, which is partly derived from William Steig’s illustrated children’s book about a gruff, kindhearted ogre, continues a welcome trend in animation: The script, instead of being what we tolerate in order to savor the visuals, is a delight all by itself. This trend is particularly rampant in the field of computer animation, notably the Toy Story movies and, to a lesser extent, Antz, as well as live-action movies, such as the Babe films, which include computer-animated techniques. There’s a marvelous slapstick irreverence to the script for Shrek, written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S. H. Schulman, which adults, perhaps more so than the children they accompany, will appreciate. Just about all the famous fairy tales are sent up, as well as everything from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to The Dating Game. We’re watching a celebration of the nutty new ways in which our pop memories can be recycled and made sport of.
The animation, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, is often on the same wriggly, giggly level as the script, although the more “human” characters, such as Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaad, are less interesting than the animals and creatures – a common pitfall in animated films of all types. Among the celebrity voices, best are Mike Myers’s Scots-accented Shrek and Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, who is so funny and so gloriously an emanation of the actor that, afterward, you might make the mistake of thinking Murphy was actually in the movie, braying at full comic throttle.
For all those people who have been licking their chops waiting for a documentary about how cocky dot-commers got their comeuppance, the wait is over. Startup.com, which traces the rise and fall of the Internet company govWorks.com, plays out like a post-yuppie Greek tragedy (or is that Geek tragedy?). Designed to facilitate dealings between Internet users and local government, the company was formed in May 1999 by two twentyish high-school friends, Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, and at one time had a valuation of more than $50 million, with more than 200 employees. About a year later, the enterprise, amid much bad blood between its founders, collapsed in the wake of the stock-market crash that transformed a goodly number of IPOs into DOAs.
Directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus, who shot more than 400 hours of footage, began filming this story at a time when the dot-commers were still riding high; from the standpoint of dramatic interest, it was their great good fortune that things turned out the way they did. (A movie about a company that was all motivational speeches and megamillions would have been torture to sit through.) Because we in the audience know what lies ahead, there’s an element of sadism involved in the watching of this film; it’s like seeing one of those wildlife documentaries that starts out all pastoral and educational and ends up with tooth and claw. We wait for the rending of the flesh.
Prominently showcased is the slow, inevitable rift between Herman and Tuzman. Startup.com isn’t so much about the ins and outs of the Internet-company gold rush as it is a portrait of what that fever did to a few of its prospectors: It’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the dot-com generation. This approach makes the movie more accessible to general audiences, but at the expense of the more galvanizing experience it might have been. I often wished in looking at this documentary that Fred Wiseman or Barbara Kopple could have stepped in and layed out for us, comprehensively and mercilessly, in the way a novelist or an anthropologist might, just what goes on in these companies. There’s something a bit condescending about how the movie devolves into a falling-out-between-friends scenario, as if the only way our attention could be held by this subculture were if it was presented to us sentimentally. GovWorks.com turns out to be the movie’s McGuffin.
The busted-friendship angle is especially spurious since both of the guys seem to be taking turns playing to the camera, well aware of the drama they are enacting. They treat the movie as an extension of their corporate enterprise. Tuzman was Noujaim’s (platonic) roommate at the time the film was made, which may have been good for “access” but was bad for objectivity. As objectionable as Tuzman’s behavior is, he’s never shown without his nimbus. After he undergoes a particularly bad patch, the filmmakers show him praying to himself, and we’re supposed to gasp at this dynamo’s vulnerability; but clearly Tuzman allowed himself to be filmed. Who is to say his prayers weren’t a way to improve his audience scorecard? Maybe he just didn’t want to get voted off the island.
Tuzman, who seems genetically programmed to spout corporate-ese, is never so alive as when he’s high-fiving, or deep-sixing, his co-workers. Herman, by comparison, is less driven and self-dramatizing. Unlike Tuzman, who runs through several complaining girlfriends in the course of the movie and says he doesn’t ever want kids, Herman is a family man who rules out working weekends. But his kinder, gentler persona could be, in the way he presents himself to us, just another species of special pleading. There are a few too many shots of Herman being adoring with his little daughter. When we hear his mom counsel that one must “put people before things,” we’re meant to think, Yes, Tom is fated to be foiled by his good values. But the ethical clash between Herman and Tuzman could not have been as dynamic as the movie makes it out to be. After Startup.com was shot, the two guys went into business together again – running an online service to help distressed dot-coms.
In brief: Richard Widmark, who could transform a giggle into a thing of bloodcurdling beauty, gets a long-overdue sixteen-film retrospective running May 18 through May 31 at the Walter Reade Theater. I especially recommend Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, on the opening-night bill. Widmark, these days a Connecticut squire, is scheduled to appear at the 8:30 show.
Animated feature based on William Steig’s book.
Documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus.