Talking Movies

October 11, 2013

Neutral Hero

The New York City Players present Richard Maxwell’s lauded meditation on the mundane as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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That sentence is perfectly neutral. I’ve given you the facts and nothing more. Why? Did you want more? A joke, some sort of a pithy judgement? Neutral Hero is not the kind of play that lends itself to reviewing in that style. So here are some more facts. Twelve empty chairs line the back of the stage, and are gradually occupied by the actors, who emerge first singly, then in pairs, then severally. The first five actors to appear each deliver a monologue. They describe in fastidious detail a small Mid-Western town. But don’t think because of that you can expect Our Town for the 2010s to begin with the first scene. The first scene isn’t a scene in any naturalistic sense, and the actors don’t play it with any emotion in their delivery, or their expressions. Just strictly neutral.

There are twelve actors. These are their names. Janet Coleman, Keith Connolly, Alex Delinois, Bob Feldman, Jean Ann Garish, Rosie Goldensohn, Paige Martin, James Moore, Philip Moore, Andie Springer, Andres Weisell. Listing them alphabetically avoids creating artificial ranks of distinction within the troupe. They perform the piece. Oddly I found myself thinking only of Bret Easton Ellis’ affectless prose with endless sentences describing in detail physical objects and leaving emotions beyond its ken. Is this Brechtian? Yes, but what’s the point? This is a play with much music. The effect of the vocal interpretation of neutrality is to replicate Nico’s stilted singing with the Velvet Underground, but with more Americana instrumentation; being banjos and mandolin beside piano and drums. If Bret Easton Ellis and Arcade Fire collaborated would they produce Neutral Hero? No. Because they’d do something; shocking or anthemic.

It’s interesting to see what experimental theatre groups are doing in New York City. But neutrality onstage can only go so far, at some point it runs into the audience, who have react to it. Otherwise it’s not theatre. And I was bemused. The New York Times said that Maxwell “makes the soaringly heroic feel like the natural and inevitable subtext of the numbingly quotidian”. Now if the New York Times told me to go jump off a cliff I wouldn’t do it, not least because I’d probably fall asleep while Thomas Friedman got sidetracked with an anecdote about a man called Hector, who lives in Winesburg, Ohio, who he once told to jump off a cliff. Actors walking from one side of the stage to the other, and then back, isn’t really choreography. And this isn’t really “a story of epic ordinariness concerning a young man searching for his father in the wide open landscape of the American Midwest”. Telling, isn’t it, that a story was promised in publicity?

Neutral Hero sticks to its principled guns, even to the point of refusing to take a bow at the show’s end, but this theatrical Van Burenism ultimately becomes self-defeating.

2/5

Neutral Hero continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 12th.

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July 2, 2013

The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are forty-something salesmen made redundant by new technology who join what they can’t beat by becoming unlikely interns at Google.BRAY_20120725_2448.CR2

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) as their attempt to sell high-end watches to an old client is scuppered by their boss (cameoing John Goodman) unexpectedly closing their firm because manufacturers now regard salesmen as obsolete middlemen. Redundant Billy is immediately dumped by his girlfriend and soon after convinces Nick to join him in blagging their way into an internship. Arriving at Google Nick is instantly besotted with executive Dana (Rose Byrne), but she’s as unimpressed romantically with him as her boss, Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), is professionally by these two interlopers. Facing cutthroat competition led by the obnoxious cockney Graham (Max Minghella), can Billy and Nick whip their hapless mentor Lyle (Josh Brener), sullen hipster Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), self-loathing genius Tobit (Yo-Yo Santos) and flirty geek Neha (Tiya Sircar) into a team capable of winning the ‘mental Hunger Games’?

What do you think?… Co-writer Vaughn doesn’t spare the clichés, but he does run up hard against the strictures of the PG-13 rating. One of Wilson’s first lines ‘What the shit is this?’ signposts a problem which becomes ridiculous during a lengthy strip-club sequence. Would an R rating improve that sequence though? Probably not, as, regrettably following 21 and Over’s lead, this is another film that ridicules the Confucian privileging of education, instead venerating drunken debauchery, the avoidance of hard work at all costs, and endless unconvincing bluffing to compensate for such avoidance. The Internship is uncomfortably unfunny because so many scenes feature actors desperately mugging to try and wring even a single laugh from set-ups; like Lyle’s hip-hop stylings and the signature ‘on the line/online’ routine; that are just excruciatingly misguided – they’re not funny in conception or in execution.

It’s nice to see Rose Byrne using her own Australian accent for once, and there is an amusing scene where Nick tries to provide Dana with a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences by being comically rude, but The Internship has so few effective gags that the mind wanders. Doesn’t Google HQ resemble something out of Logan’s Run? How weird is it that a movie about forty-something guys made obsolete by twenty-something innovators should get its ass kicked commercially by Seth Rogen’s rival comedy This is The End? Indeed Vaughn’s co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy both worked on developing The Internship and The Watch, so this is like a fascinating controlled experiment: The Watch was being produced by Shawn Levy in this vein of comediocrity before Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg took that project and made it funny.

And then there’s the corporate angle… Doesn’t the plight of Billy and Nick tie in to Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book The World is Flat? Google is obsequiously portrayed as Friedman at his most enthusiastic would champion it – as a progressive flattening force that allows workers in India to compete against workers in Indiana by giving them the digital tools to do so. For Friedman such horizontal competition between new rivals is an opportunity for developed countries to move up the value chain by their smarts, but he never grapples with the truth that many Pittsburgh steelworkers cannot become coders in Silicon Valley: Nick masters writing HTML, but Billy cannot upskill. Ultimately Vaughn’s upbeat comedic finale is ironically only enabling an attitude Friedman criticises – that ‘imagination’ and ‘optimism’ will compensate for not learning the basics; because they weren’t a fun experience.

The Internship is a comedy badly lacking jokes, which will likely be remembered solely for its set-up’s slight mirroring of its own box-office defeat to This is The End.

1/5

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