December 29, 2003
'Lows' blows

If I could imagine the banter around The New York Times Culture Desk water-cooler, it would probably sound a lot like the little year-end roundup conversations included in this weekend's 'Arts & Leisure' The Highs (and Lows) of 2003 package.

Great, relaxed, off-the-cuff discussion on "The Lows" from Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, and Stephen Holden on the film front. I much prefer this sort of approach to the obligatory year-end wrap-up to the more drawn out, rather blog-ish approach of The Village Voice's Take 5 critics' poll or the ho-hum "best of" list found in nearly every magazine you can imagine. Here, for example, is a glimpse into the private life of a full-time film critic and father from Scott:

[I]t's a terrible thing, I think, to have a film critic for a dad. My son—like some of our readers—didn't trust me when I told him Cat in the Hat was no good. I was with another critic, who tried to explain to his daughter why it was a bad movie. She just burst into tears, as if he'd taken away one of her toys.

I also appreciated the fact that they all respected the Zooey Deschanel restraining order.

As much as I enjoyed "The Lows," I have one complaint: stop the Larry Doyle bashing.

Doyle, a former Simpsons writer and New York Magazine editor (full disclosure: I freelanced for Larry at New York), and now the screenwriter behind Duplex and Looney Tunes: Back in Action comes in for a double ass-whupping from The Times triumvirate.

Here's Holden on Looney Tunes: "...a completely incomprehensible, chaotic mess. It's just allusions to other movies, with no story line, no humor... It made me angry... Because I felt insulted. There are no jokes, no real humor. It mixes human characters with the animated ones and the humans take up much too much of the time. When Bugs Bunny's on, he's always surefire. But he's not on that much." (Scott comes to Tunes' defense, saying, "... I think it's some of Daffy Duck's best work. I just think the idea of Daffy being escorted from the Warner Brothers lot, fired and stripped of his name, which is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers, is a pretty funny joke.")

And here's Scott and Mitchell cutting Duplex down a story:

SCOTT... Another that I seem to have been alone in liking was Duplex, from Danny DeVito.

MITCHELL Yes, you are alone in liking it.

SCOTT It struck me that both of those movies had a little mean streak that may have turned audiences off.

I feel for Larry Doyle, because he was basically doomed with both those projects. As soon as he had the idea to redo the classic Looney Tunes, he was thrust into the AOL/Time Warner marketing juggernaut, practically required to write in product placements, conceive tie-ins, and play nice with competing license holders. For a movie like that, the company doesn't even need the services of a writer, it wants a marketing guru, someone who can come to the table with a fast food tie-in, action figure plan, and internet play, not a boring old screenplay with, like, a plot. (Here's The New York Observer on Tunes' behind the scenes lunacy.)

But if that situation was a pain in the ass, it was probably nothing compared to working on Duplex, trapped as he was between two stars' production companies: Red Hour Films, overseen by Ben Stiller, who considers himself something a comedy auteur, and Flower Films, headed by Drew Barrymore, a one-woman franchise, the only actress/producer under 30 with an international blockbuster on her resume. With two huge stars like that vying for screen time and pushing for their own types of jokes and statements, a writer could be nothing more than a transcriber, taking notes from two 800 lb. gorillas.

How could any of Doyle's joke survive the needs of those two star/producers? Throw in the firing of the film's original director, Greg Mottola and the hiring of Danny DeVito, whose recent directorial record is spotty at best, and the fact that Miramax has never quite figured out how to do a comedy (Battle of Shaker Heights, anyone? Kate & Leopold? Um, 40 Days and 40 Nights? Don't make me go on...), Duplex, again, was doomed from the start.

The screenwriter is always the fall guy when the movie goes wrong. But I'm not worried about Doyle. He's currently producing a series of Looney Tunes shorts with amusing names like Hare and Loathing in Las Vegas and Duck Dodgers in Attack of the Drones. We'll be seeing them sometime next year. And I'm sure he's got some other stuff in the works: I just hope he can wrestle control of the projects and fend off his producers the next time around. Maybe then he'll get some more respect from Mitchell, Holden, and Scott.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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