Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Shades of Caruso Free Pass: David E. Kelley

It's sad to admit that within our culture there are far more perpetrators of crime against quality than there are reliable purveyors of art (and by art I mean high art or pop art or trash art or any kind of brilliance that can be considered art no matter whether it satisfies high, middle or low brow tastes). For every Lost there is a CSI: Miami, Chuck, and Torchwood. For every There Will Be Blood there is a Good Luck Chuck, The Hottie and the Nottie, and I Know Who Killed Me. For every David Foster Wallace there is a James Patterson, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy. (Confession: I've read a lot of his books and will probably read more, because I'm a sucker for that kind of thing, but I would never defend his writing, which is appalling.)

However, some creators whose work I am often indifferent to sometimes accidentally make something I love, and any conversation I then have about their work is often derailed as I start to defend them on just one point, ignoring the other stuff almost completely. So, in the interests of streamlining any future discussions about certain artists with one or two interesting or entertaining projects behind them, I'm introducing the Shades of Caruso Free Pass, to be awarded to any entertainer or artist who would otherwise mean nothing to me, but for one shining moment made me think they were the shit despite other crimes they have been responsible for.

David E. Kelley should just be the guy who made The Law a wacky funhouse filled with ethical debates illustrated with James "Vic Reeves lookalike" Spader and William "King of Everything" Shatner in drag, or Calista Flockhart and Lucy Lui singing a lot of karaoke, or other such frivolities. I remember liking The Practice while it was being shown on UK TV (ITV once broadcast it during primetime for five weeks and then took it off, and then BBC1 showed thirteen episodes a few years later before similarly hiding it from view), but even an ostensibly serious show like that had a couple of characters (I'm thinking of those played by Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco) that were sometimes the subject of jokey storylines. Other than that, though, he will probably be most famous for creating Ally McBeal.

I despised that show, as evidenced by the fact that I searched for the most absurd, photoshopped cast montage to garnish this post, and would consign it to the depths of the Marianas Trench alongside Northern Exposure and Scrubs (though I'd save the first couple of seasons as Canyon is a fan), all for the crime of being self-consciously wacky and incessantly winking at the camera at how clever and post-modern it all is. I'm a fan of the pomo, but lazy third-wall breaking tripe like this gives it a bad name. Plus, it helped kick-start the Bridget Jones klutzy-working-woman-who-needs-a-man trend that even a clueless dope of a man like me thinks is an abomination. And it's not just me.
Sckanaday asks: What is the big threat Ally McBeal poses to old school feminists? I'm amazed at the backlash against a young, well-educated woman with choices who opts to live by her own agenda, not someone else's! Isn't that part of what feminism has stood for?

Ginia Bellafante: I think feminism worked long and hard to erase stereotypes of women as neurotic incompetents unconcerned with matters of public life. Ally McBeal, in my humble opinion, is helping undue [sic] that work.

Phyllis Chesler: I agree with her. And I would say that if Monica Lewinsky goes to law school and continues to behave in the same fashion, she will turn into Ally McBeal -- obsessed with men and sex and love and short skirts, and not with children being beaten to death in their own homes and not with women losing child support. These are not Ally McBeal's fantasy concerns.

Actually, my main criticism of it is that it was horribly unfunny, but I'm willing to quote some hardcore feminists discussing its embarrassing portrayal of working women to help my case against the whole horrid enterprise if need be. This is before we get into the shady rumours that Kelley encourages female cast members to lose lots of weight, which are probably just rumours, but a quick IMDb search brings up a worrying amount of news relating to eating disorders on set. I have no idea how culpable or not Kelley is, so I don't feel comfortable passing judgement on him (it's not like his shows are the only ones with emaciated performers in them), but it looks bad. So, when even employing the incomparable Robert Downey Jr. doesn't make me want to see his TV shows, why give the guy a free pass?

Because Lake Placid is superb. It was on Sky Movies recently and I happily rewatched it for the billionth time, and it was while watching it that I realised it made me forget all of the negativity his work usually awakens in me. If all you know about it is that it's a Jaws rip-off with a crocodile in it, you don't know the half of it.

For a start it's a very funny and genial comedy that just happens to have a big deadly animal in it, though many thought it was an unscary horror film with too many jokes, which meant some critics were unbelievably harsh about it. Once you see it as a comedy, it works much better. Director Steve Miner totally understands how best to film Kelley's smart-ass script, making the sporadic suspense scenes work well and getting the sarcastic tone right, editing and filming the comedy scenes for maximum effect. He also does a good job of making Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda work well together; their pissy chemistry carries a lot of the movie. If only Joss Whedon's early screenplays had been filmed by someone so in tune with the tone of his work, the world would be a different place right now (one where Whedon gets to make whatever he wants with enormous budgets, which is a better world than this one, oh yes).

The rest of the heavy lifting is done by Oliver Platt and Brendan Gleeson, who spend the whole (very short) film bickering. They do the job well mostly because they're hugely endearing and talented actors, with special praise to be heaped on Gleeson like an extra helping of mashed love potatoes. He'd get into any list of my all-time favourite performers just for his role in John Boorman's underrated classic The General (also recently shown on Sky Movies), and he's similarly great here, verbally sparring with Platt over pretty much everything (though they kind of love each other by the end). It's as if Kelley's favourite parts of Jaws were Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw arguing and he decided to make a whole film like it. I could happily watch a 10 season series documenting them living together, Odd Couple style.

As great as they are, they'd be nothing without Kelley's wonderful dialogue to work with. On his shows this kind of glibness riles me something fierce, but in Lake Placid it works perfectly, either because Miner is better at translating his work to the screen or because the presence of a giant murderous crocodile adds a frisson to the proceedings that undercuts the relentless sass. Even if there is a mysterious extra element that makes this work better than his other stuff, I really do love Kelley's script anyway. He has fun with the genre, gets in quick, sets everything up elegantly, delivers a ton of laughs (plus Betty White saying cocksucker a lot), and gets out with a superhappy ending in about 80 minutes. And if that hasn't sold you on it, check this scene out.

Giant crocodile versus deadly kodiac bear plus punching! If you still don't want to see it, we are obviously diametrically opposed, whatever that means. So, Mr. Kelley, enjoy your free pass. Go crazy making wacky legal dramas for the rest of your career. I don't care, because for 80 minutes, you rocked.

1 comment:

sjwoo said...

Ally McBeal might be Kelley's most visible work, but I thought his best was Picket Fences. He pretty much left the show after its 3rd season, but man, that was some excellent TV. If you get a chance to check them out, you might like him even more.