As one of apparently only three literate Rejects, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest, and the messiest untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:
Crooked Little Vein
by Warren Ellis
“I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.”
A down on his luck private eye is tasked by the US government to find a very special book… the other Constitution written in secret by the nation’s forefathers and bound in space alien skin. The White House had possession of it until Richard Nixon traded it away, and the US has been sliding into a morally bankrupt abyss ever since. The president’s heroin-addicted Chief of Staff is convinced McGill is the only man that can find it and save the United States, but McGill’s convinced of something different. He’s a shit-magnet, and this case is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.
This is a very funny book. It’s also twisted, perverse, disgusting, sweet, and in need of a better ending. But we’ll start at the beginning. Ellis sets the tone almost immediately as his lead character, and our narrator, awakes in his office sweaty, naked, and broke. He bemoans the state of his career and of the city he lives in (NYC), and suddenly finds a visitor at his office door. A traditional detective tale would have his new customer be a dame or a damsel, but Ellis isn’t interested in traditional.
McGill’s reputation as a shit-magnet rears its head almost immediately as the trail for the missing book leads him to a film screening for macroherpetophiles… or “people who want to fuck Godzilla.” This is where he meets Trix, a polyamorous twenty-three year-old writing a thesis on “extremes of self-inflicted human experience.” These are the book’s two main characters and it’s through their eyes that we experience Ellis’ world.
McGill is only peripherally aware of the perversions committed by humanity in the name of sexual experience… he doesn’t even know what bukkake means and that’s common knowledge. (Right? Please say yes.) But Trix is part of that world, and she has more than just a toe dipped into relationships that stretch the boundaries of morality and acceptability. The book they’re searching for can reportedly restore America’s purity, and the two of them have several clashes over whether or not that’s a good thing. Ellis doesn’t necessarily take sides here either, and he lets his characters grow while staying true to their core beliefs.
The investigation leads them across America and into various subcultures that alternately stimulate, frighten, and disturb. We go from the seemingly innocuous world of body-building to the ridiculousness of saline-injection parties. From the cult of Charles Manson to FCC SWAT teams arresting pirate radio operators for “broadcast terrorism.” From class and race warfare to the power of the political machine, the book takes aim at multiple ideas and ideals and always pulls the trigger.
The novel’s only real issue is the ending. It’s too abrupt and simple, and it isn’t very convincing in its bid for closure. McGill and Trix end up exactly where they should be, but the end to the adventure itself is fairly lacking. A film adaptation would hopefully tighten it up a bit into something with more oomph and finality. But even if it didn’t we’d still have a brave and hilarious movie about a side of America that most of us don’t get to see. Or want to see…
At its core Crooked Little Vein is a road trip movie against the backdrop of modern day America’s dark side. It could easily be made for a modest budget which is a good thing as the demographic for a dark, adult comedy filled with foul and disturbing biological imagery probably isn’t that large. Those images and the events around them are easily the biggest hurdle in getting this story to the screen. Saline injections into our hero’s balls so they grow to the size of grapefruit? Our heroine joking about getting the same treatment so her clitoris would look like a golf ball? A roomful of masturbating fetishists watching Godzilla/porn mash-ups? Japanese girls doing nasty things with wet and slippery eels? Normally the film-makers would be able to simply strip the dirtier and edgier bits from their adaptation, but that won’t work here… the sleazy, disturbing, and disgusting parts of the book are actually integral to the story. It’s less the specifics than the idea that society is slipping down the drain of morality, and that perception is the motivation for the narrative and a possible revelation for the lead character.
National Treasure meets Fight Club on less than one-tenth the budget.
The language and scenery in Ellis’ novel has been compared to the work of Chuck Palahniuk and it’s easy to see why. Both authors enjoy writhing with their readers in squalor while wearing a big smile on their face. So when considering who should adapt the book my mind went immediately to the men who brought Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Choke to the screen. Jim Uhls (Fight Club) and Clark Gregg (Choke) both did solid jobs translating their source materials’ atmosphere and humor. And yet… neither of them felt right. And then I thought of Andrew Kevin Walker and his screenplay for Seven. It’s an original work instead of an adaptation and it’s obviously much darker than Crooked Little Vein, but it actually shares a lot in common with the book. Both deal with an underground America slowly making its way into the mainstream and with how different people react to that. McGill’s reaction to many of the deviants and denizens of America’s seedy underbelly mirrors that of Det. Mills (Brad Pitt) as he became exposed to fetishes and desires he never knew existed. John Doe’s disgusted reaction is even harsher and echoes the Chief of Staff’s desire to wipe the slate clean. There’s more dark humor in the novel than Walker displayed in Seven, but his film still found room for some morbid and perverse laughs. Walker also wrote the bleak 8MM which delved even deeper into indecency, but since then he’s gone more mainstream with some relative highs (Sleepy Hollow) and terrible lows (The Wolfman).
Crooked Little Vein is a road-head-trip comedy with the sex gag dial turned all the way to eleven… so you want a director who’s comfortable and good with extremely dirty comedy. But it also has some serious and intense scenes with real danger and rage… so you want a director who can help his or her actors channel their more serious side. But it also has an oddly sweet and highly unconventional love story… so you want a director who understands emotion and will allow time for the quiet moments. Mix all of that together along with a pinch of political conspiracy and a dollop of private eye conventions and what name do you think of for director? No goddamn clue. Every director I think of who can handle the more traditional aspects of the movie sees my confidence in them shrink when it comes to the extreme aspects of the story. And while the Farrelly Brothers would be fine with an engorged, prosthetic nutsack hanging from our hero’s pants zipper, I wouldn’t trust them with anything else here. So mix it all together, then throw it all away… and give a thought to Todd Phillips. Yes, him. Ellis’ book is dark to be sure, but it’s still a comedic journey from beginning to end. The above dilemma shows that the director needs to have a strong grasp on funny dialogue, reactions, and gags, and Phillips has proven himself capable in all three areas at least three times now (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover). He’s also shown a willingness to make his actors suffer either by removing floor padding during a scene where Heather Graham falls back in a chair or making Ken Jeong wear a ridiculously large merkin. It’s the book’s brief forays into true depravity and reactionary rage that will challenge Phillips, but I think it’s a challenge he can meet.
It’s really easy to pick a handful of people who could play each role, but narrowing that list down to one actor per character is like pulling teeth out of my ass.
David Duchovny as Michael McGill: Depending on your exposure to Duchovny this may seem like either a ridiculously obvious choice or an insanely brilliant one. McGill is sarcastic, dour, out of shape, cursed with shitty luck, and just plain ornery. He’s also incredibly funny in his reactions to the people and events around him especially when they’re involving odd sexual proclivities and fetishes. You only have to see a few episodes of Duchovny’s fantastic Showtime series Californication to appreciate how perfect he would be for the role. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t played a down-trodden PI before, but McGill’s adventure forces him to wade hip-deep into the perverse and sticky underworld so it seems almost tailor-made for Duchovny doesn’t it?
Alison Brie as Trix: This was the toughest choice to make of the three roles. Trix is a young woman with the twin ideals that all straight men look for in a partner. No, not boobs… I’m referring to her sharp comedic wit and her freshly squozen sexuality. She has some very funny lines and she’s quick with retorts and insults, so the actress needs to have solid comedic skills and timing. But she’s also a tattoo-sleeved sexpot who’s outgoing, happy, and open to just about anything. Brie has shown in just one season of NBC’s Community that she’s funny as hell, convincingly optimistic and enthusiastic, and more than capable of forcing a blood-rush to my nether-region. Trix has a couple scenes that require a brief detour into intensely dramatic rage, but I think Brie can handle it. (For the record though, I’m in Camp Britta aka Gillian Jacobs when it comes to Community.)
Jeremy Irons as the Chief of Staff: You just can’t go wrong with Jeremy Irons. The unnamed Chief of Staff doesn’t have a big role in the book, but his appearances are memorable for his acidic and direct dialogue. He’s a thin, older guy with a penchant for dissing the lower class and shooting heroin between his toes… tell me you can’t see Irons in this role.
Who Owns It
Damned if I know. I searched this here interweb for several minutes and came up empty. If you know any different please share in the comments section below.
Crooked Little Vein is a fast and fun read, and a film version could be an equally enjoyable dip into the blackly comic cesspools of humanity. It wouldn’t require a big budget as there are no grand set pieces or action scenes. Instead, the characters, dialogue, and narrative momentum should be enough to draw in an audience and entertain the hell out them for ninety minutes. If done right the audience will be in for the filthiest adventure they’ve had in years… and if that’s not reason enough to do something then I don’t know what is.