The Awful Truth

Culture Warrior

Tomorrow, the Sacha Baron Cohen-starring, Larry Charles-directed The Dictator opens. Unlike the previous two docu-prank collaborations between Charles and Cohen, the humor of the fully staged Dictator doesn’t so much rely on the reactions of ‘real people’ to an idiosyncratic foreigner as it uses its fish-out-of-water arc to chronicle the pseudo-enlightened changes that its eponymous character experiences (this is all based on the film’s advertising – I have yet to see it). With its riches-to-rags narrative, The Dictator seems to be the newest iteration of a long tradition in Hollywood comedy: the story of the redeemable asshole. It’s rather appropriate that the teaser trailer for Anchorman 2 will be premiering in front of The Dictator.  Will Ferrell has made the redeemable asshole into something of an art form in his collaborations with Adam McKay. Ferrell’s often narcissistic, privileged, ignorant, and empathy-challenged creations should, by any measure of any other genre (audiences are far less tolerant of asshole protags in, say, dramedys) be reviled by audiences. But we ultimately find something redeemable, even lovable, in Ferrell’s jerks, even if this surface-level redemption overshadows the fact that they never quite achieve the level of self-awareness that would actually redeem one from assholedom. These are characters we would likely avoid in nearly any real-life circumstance, but yet we go see movies about them learning life lessons which add up to little more than common knowledge for the rest of us. The redeemable asshole is often a white male who is conniving, manipulative, entitled, […]

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Criterion Files

Classic Hollywood romantic comedies provide an interesting moment in film history where genre formation and genre subversion developed as one in the same. The premises of these films are essentially contradictory. They reveal the institution of marriage to be just that, an institution constantly reinforced by culture but one that has only ascribed rather than inherent value. They play with and thus reveal the false ideals associated with the notion of perfect couplehood that in theory should propel two people toward marriage by portraying the constant dis-union and inevitable union of their characters as one predicated on deceit and double-crossings. All this occurs to ultimately marry the couple which as an act alone functions as narrative closure in of itself without ascribing exactly what that closure means to its characters, an overlooking of contradictions that supposes the institution itself wipes away all previous tensions. Marriage here is not a means to an end, but an end – and “The End,” as the union is always accompanied by such a title card.

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Criterion Files

On March 10, 1938, Leo McCarey accepted his Academy Award for Best Directing and kindly thanked his audience before stating that they gave him an award for “the wrong picture.” McCarey had won for The Awful Truth (1937), the brilliant Cary Grant/Irene Dunne screwball romantic comedy. McCarey was a talented comedy director and no doubt deserved the award (and it’s hard to imagine anybody today winning an Oscar for directing a comedy), but he was equally deserving of the award for directing a more personal and less conventional film that very same year, Make Way For Tomorrow. A film beloved by cinephiles and filmmakers as a sincerely moving emotional experience (Orson Wells reportedly said that Make Way For Tomorrow would make a stone cry), it still remains one of few Hollywood films that concerns itself seriously with the lives of senior citizens. But it also represents the incredible range of an underrated filmmaker, which can be seen most evidently by the fact that he directed a great romantic comedy and a great adult drama in the very same year.

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The romantic comedy is, in many ways, as “pure” as genre as there ever was one, as it requires the strict adherence to owning up on an audience’s specific set of expectations – you know going in that the two central characters are going to end up together, the slight variation (and appeal) of the genre takes place in the journey to that anticipated point.

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