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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Pimp My Fucked-Up Screenplay: Stuart Gordon's David Mamet's Edmond

Before I go on to Mamet, I must recount an important interlude during our dinner at South Water Kitchen, namely The Clown Porn conversation.

I couldn't tell you why clown porn came up, but to those who must know, I say: Have you met us? Why wouldn't clown porn come up? Now, in general, I'm the clown-phobe in our household; thus, I was surprised when M was as incredibly wigged out as he was by the very prospect. Much became clear when he explained that it's all about the greasepaint:

M: It'd be all slimy and sticky. And the idea of TWO bodies covered in it . . . euuugghh! I mean, if they're genetic clowns like Krusty and that's just how they ARE, then that's fine.

So, to summarize, M likes his beer cold, his TV loud, and his clowns genetic.

But onward to Edmond. So M has had his 50 minutes on the couch, now it's time for me and Mamet. Why, exactly, do I have such a strong aversion to Mamet? For starters, when I was In college, I saw what I have gradually come to realize was a really terrible production of Oleanna on a dorm trip. I spent the entire night wanting a cattle prod so that I could force the characters to finish a sentence that consisted, at least in part, of something they actually wanted to say. So the medium pissed me off, and then my boyfriend at the time decided to take an obtusely literal approach to the message, which also pissed me off. So my first date with David did not go well.

I know that he's also a prolific screen and television writer, but in looking at his IMDB listing, I've seen very little of his stuff---The Untouchables, which sucked (yes, I know how much you love the stuck Irish pig line and how great the scene with the baby carriage is and I say to you: IT SUCKED), and Hannibal, which---well what's worse than sucking?

So the aversion formed on stage was not alleviated in the theater, and even William H. Macy wasn't going to throw me into that Briar Patch last night. But then M started going through the cast list: Sure, you have your Denise Richards and your Ling Bai, but you've also got your Joe Mantegna and your George Wendt. But in truth, it was Dule Hill who sealed the deal. I love me some Dule Hill.

On the way downtown, I was girding my aural loins for Mametian dialogue, and it occurred to me that Mamet, given the nature of his writing, probably suffers unduly from bad direction and actors who just don't "get it." (The two analogous situations that spring to mind were the occasional casting misfires in Sorkin stuff [Sports Night and West Wing] and in Twin Peaks.) This led to an extremely stupid and long-delayed epiphany about the production of Oleanna---the actors were not good and probably the direction wasn't either. In short, I really needed to see Mamet done right before letting the hate flow through me. Thus, by show time, I was well into my "liking to like things" mindframe.

When we arrived at the Siskel Center, there were a fair number of people hanging out in the lobby, but it wasn't packed by any means. Unfortunately, the more interesting Navigation/Negotiation exhibit (disability-themed art) had been replaced by large blow-ups of digital photographs that looked like they'd been taken through night vision goggles. Fortunately, the bathroom afforded something more interesting, if initially surprising.

As I made my way into the stall, I suddenly registered a fair amount of profanity coming over the speakers. But, you know, it's the film center of the Art Institute. As M pointed out, it could've been some kind of installation. Still, I'm not used to having the F-bomb piped in via the PA system. At least not without an accompanying protest. And then it gradually dawned on me that one of the two main voices was, in fact, William H. Macy, and I started to wonder if maybe the pancetta in my hash really had been crack. I was really on the slow train to realization last night, because at first I thought that they must be playing press interviews that Macy had given for Edmond.

But as some of the content of the conversation penetrated, I realized that they were talking about a production of Oleanna in Los Angeles. I feel confident that the rest of you have realized that I was actually listening to the Q&A after the first showing of the film. I still truly do not understand why you would pipe that into the bathrooms but not into the lobby.

In any case, as it happened, we had William H. Macy and Lionel Mark Smith to introduce the film. (And, of course, it was Lionel Mark Smith who was the controversial casting move in the story I linked to above there.) They spoke quite briefly about the near-impossibility of getting the film made, despite the names that had been attached to it from very early on. Every group the producers approached was over the moon about the possibility of making a movie starring Macy---until they saw the script, at which point they entered the witness protection program and were never heard from again. They also emphasized the strong Chicago connections in this and all Mamet's films, and then they urged us to "try to enjoy [our]selves" and slipped away under cover of darkness.

I think that we were among the very few people who realized that this was the last we would see of them. The Siskel Center's website is a design atrocity and there is little consistency of information across different sections of it. But so far as we know, there were no Macy riots afterward.

It's unfortunate that all the would-be studios and investors have vanished, because it would be interesting to know what, exactly, they feared about the script. From a purely practical standpoint, the fact that this doesn't fit easily into any particular genre was likely one element. It's not horror, despite Stuart Gordon being at the helm. It's not thriller, per se, although it's intensely psychological (duh: Mamet!). It's not a comedy, black, Black, or otherwise, although it is incredibly funny in places (much funnier, to my mind, than the audience felt it to be, but I'm used to being the only one laughing in the whole damned theater). It's not even really a drama, given the tight focus on the absurdity of the main character. Nobody likes a genre defier, David. Given the audience's reaction to the film, though, I have to assume that the sycophants and power people were not giant fans of the content, either. I'll get to that in a bit.

So, a plot summary may be in order (Spoilers from here on out): Edmond Burke (heh) is a nobody and Everyman at the same time. As he leaves work one day, he suddenly cannot take one more moment of being completely disregarded by the world at large. On a quasimystical whim, he stops at number 115 on a a nameless street and has a fairly dire Tarot reading done. The worst Fortune Teller in the world looks more and more aghast as she turns the cards and finally tells him "You are in the wrong place."

He takes this as a sign to leave his wife who no longer interests him "spiritually or sexually." She demands to know when he reached this realization, and he has no satisfactory answer. From home, he heads to a bar where Joe Mantegna tells him that the "niggers" have it made because they are racially constructed to enjoy themselves and to eschew responsibility and self reflection. The white race, in contrast, is trapped in its own navel by virtue of its innate and inevitable tendency to intellectualize. He also advises Edmond that he needs to get laid, a point with which Edmond voices his hearty agreement.

The man hands over a card for a strip club, which Emond sees in a flash as one of the tarot cards. This sets him along his predestined and doomed quest for pussy. In a strip club, in a peep show, in a "gentlemen's club," and ultimately in a dark seedy alley, he proves himself incapable of paying for sex as he insists on haggling and raging against the middle men (and women) who are alienating the sex workers from the fruits of their labor. His defense of the sexual proletariat is rendered somewhat suspect, given that he seems genuinely short on cash. He is positively plucky in his persistent conviction that he can beat the game, whether the game is prostitution, pawning, or three-card monte, despite the fact that his night could appear in the dictionary next to the word "entropy."

He gets mugged and is then scorned by Jeffrey Combs (fabulous as the snarky desk clerk at a nasty flophouse). He gets taken when he pawns his wedding ring, and very nearly gets mugged again by a pimp. Foolish, foolish Edmond thinks that his night is improving when he turns the tables on the pimp and beats him senseless amid a stream of racial epithets, some completely foul, some actively silly. This demonstration of manliness leads him to a more standard club than he had been frequenting earlier, and he informs Julia Stiles that he is going home with her.

He does. She "let[s him] fuck [her]," and they're bonding over their hateful, narcissistic catharsises (catharses?) when things, once again, go all pear shaped. Stiles's character is an actress disguised, as so many are, as a waitress. When Edmond learns that she has never performed in a play (only scenes and workshops) and never been paid for her work, he urges her to free herself by saying aloud "I am a waitress." She refuses and he grows increasingly agitated. Belatedly, she is unnerved by the fact that he's been walking around with his "survival knife" the whole time. Edmond's rage builds until he snaps and slashes at her over and over, killing her in an extremely protracted Mametian scene with some of the most fearsomely good foley work ever.

From there, he seeks connection yet again, first on the subway with a light-skinned, older black woman who is wearing a hat he perceives as similar to one his mother had. When she can't even be bothered to rebuff his comments, he loses it anew, unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse and physical aggression on her as other riders either cower in impotent fear or ignore the goings-on entirely. From the subway, he is drawn to a rousing Baptist service. He is about to answer the preacher's call to testify when the woman from the subway arrives with a cop (who happens to be as black as night). He slips into upper-class white male mode and for a vertiginous moment, it looks as though the copy might buy it. But he lies about why he is walletless and about his name.

He finds himself in an interrogation room with a white detective. Edmond's frustration at the detective's refusal to enact the Old White Boy dialogue with him is palpable and his efforts to make his race, gender, and class work for him are increasingly laughable. And suddenly, it is clear that the interrogation is not at all about the woman on the subway, but about the girl he killed.

The rest of the movie takes place in prison where Edmond is reduced to namelessness and invisibility. He is literally stripped and marched past the cellblock. His new (very large, very black) cellmate listens to his pseudointellectual ramblings amiably enough before instructing Edmond to suck his dick. Edmond is all high drama when he reveals to the chaplain that he has been sodomized, and the chaplain offers a wan apology that Edmond had this happen to him. The already incomprehensible timeline takes a leap forward at this point and we suddenly see an introspective Edmond who has adapted rather well to prison life.

There's an extremely intriguing scene with the "new Edmond" in which he is in the prison library, writing a letter to the mother of his high school prom date. In it, he reflects on the fact that he always believed that the beautiful young woman had been somehow coerced into being his date and that, quite possibly, he believed this because the idea had strong appeal for him. While he is writing, a guard arrives to tell him that he has a visitor. He ignores the interruption at first, then tells the guard to inform the person that he is ill. The very last scene features a "domestic" conversation in Edmond's cell. He and the unnamed cellmate ponder issues of respect, power, and identity that are not dissimilar to those discussed in their first conversation. The last shot is of Edmond kissing his lover and the two snuggling together in their lower bunk.

Obviously, a feel-good tale about the triumph of the human spirit.

Nearly every piece on Edmond (both play and film) mentions how "disturbing" it is. In fact, I can see the Daily Show montage of talking heads calling it "disturbing" right now. And don't get me wrong---it's disturbing. The day that William H. Macy postcoitally strolling around a seedy New York studio apartment with a "survival knife" isn't disturbing is the day I check myself into Arkham. But I have to say---and I'm being completely serious here---that I found My Super Ex-Girlfriend more genuinely disturbing than Edmond.

In the most literal sense Edmond normalizes the misogyny, racism, classism, and all their nasty little friends by laying them bare in every character (and, by extension, every person). But it reveals them in a brutal, balls out, naked way---their ubiquity and inevitability make them terrifying and disturbing. These qualities are embedded in every interaction and every line of dialogue, and they are never accompanied by a wink and a nod that suggest we all know that this is how it REALLY is and it's a good thing, even if we have to play the political correctness game. In fact, the characters experience a frenzied sort of triumph as they "say it like it is," and it's all the more nauseating because there is nowhere for the viewer to go, visually or conceptually---there is no flinching or inching away. (As an aside, my brother-in-law mentioned when we were visiting in May how struck he was by the way the debate over illegal immigration suddenly made it ok to overtly express one's racism. That really struck a chord while watching exactly that phenomenon in this movie, particularly considering that the play was written in 1982.) So, yeah, it's kind of disturbing that this stuff is glossed as "disturbing."

It's just as hard to assign a recommendation to this film as it is to define its genre. It's not meant to be enjoyed, and it certainly is not enjoyable---it's ugly and uncomfortable and angering and depressing. From a Mamet-appreciation standpoint, it may be the ideal film. My heart sank a bit in the second scene when Edmond leaves his wife. It's a long, excessively Mamet-y scene filled with his special blend of stilted, bizarro dialogue. (Even still, this scene is like the most palatable parts of Oleanna---at least the production I saw.)

If I were to point out an actor who, in my opinion, didn't get it, it would be Rebecca Pidgeon as "the wife." Curiously enough, Smith and Macy had pointed out that the actress who played the wife in the Goodman's 1982 production was in the audience. Wish I could have gotten her take on the performance. But with that exception, the rest of the performances were outstanding, and I'm including both Denise Richards and Ling Bai in that assessment. I'll admit that the power of Dule Hill's performance was, for me, contingent in part on thinking of him so entirely as "Charlie." Charlie's not a thuggish card sharp! Charlie would not knee William H. Macy in the nuts!

It should go wtihout saying that William H. Macy is just marvelous. If William H. Macy had never been born, Mamet would have had to construct him in the lab. There's a moment when Edmond is having what one assumes is the umpteenth conversation with the prison chaplain. It begins with Edmond as he has been throughout most of the film---irate that his white male privilege has been revoked, incensed that he should be transformed into an invisible victim, and filled with an endless supply of self-righteousness and self-justification.

But then, the chaplain asks the question the ritual three times: "Are you sorry you killed that girl? Are you sorry you killed her? Are you sorry?" I'm sure what follows is, at minimum, 2 pages of dialogue for Edmond consisting entirely of "I . . . ," "I don't . . .," "I . . ." And Gordon never gives into the temptation to let the actor or the audience off the hook. In that long, long moment, as Edmond realizes that he IS sorry and he doesn't know why he did it, Macy made me see what Mamet is all about. He snuffles through the mind's underbrush; he roots out the excruciating moment; and he pokes at it and stretches it and turns it inside out. I'm not saying that I don't still question what the fuck Mamet hears when other people are talking, but I think I get him now, at least a little.

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Smoooke on South Water

It's 3 AM and I couldn't possibly write about Mamet right now (but I will . . . oh I will). I am, however, totally up for talking about food.

So we decided to go gently into that Mamet night. Literally---the 8:00 showing of Edmond was sold out, presumably on account of the WIlliam H. Macyness of it all. But with difficulty and for the low low price of someone else's first born, I was able to get ticketmaster to give me tickets for the 10:30 showing. This left us with time to contemplate dinner out in the loop.

As is my wont, I told Open Table that I was a doofus who wanted a table for 2 no later than 8:15 (it was then about 6:40) in the Loop, and it spit out my options. Much more efficient than trying to use The Reader's restaurant guide, which requires some serious crack to navigate. Open Table very kindly reminded me of the proximity of South Water Kitchen to the Siskel Film Center, and I soon had a reservation.

It's on North Wabash (near South Water Street), cheek by jowl with the hotel Monaco and within easy rock-hurling distance of the 17th Church of Christ, Scientist. From street level you walk into the bar (ouch!), which is a nice wood affair with fancy brass tap handles, and so on. There are a few tables up there, and I believe their "tavern menu" is available all day. You actually step down bit into the main dining room, which is quite lovely (the photo doesn't do it justice). We were seated at one of the banquets for two along the far wall in that photo, and if you continued past the brick pillar, you'd see the open kitchen.

We were greeted and seated by the Jimmy Olsen of hosts. That is not a complain. Like the rest of the staff, he was pleasant and professional. He just happened to be 12 years old and going through an awkward phase. It was also clear that he was the B-team host, because he was dressed in the all black of the servers, and there was a much more casually polished gentleman who seemed to be running hither and yon betwen the host station and one of the booths in the dining room. As it happened, he was facilitating the removal of a patron by paramedics. While that might sound dire in a restaurant setting, it was handled so smoothly and calmly, it would have felt rude to get het up about it as an on-looker. Also, M was reasonably certain that it was a young, obviously pregnant woman being removed, and I hear that most people tend to be happy when it gets to the going to the hospital part of the proceedings.

Anyway, that's not about me, my mussels, or my cracklicious entree, and in the words of Joss Whedon, I'm bored already. I didn't have a chance to explore the bottle wine list thoroughly, but the by-the-glass selections were a touch limited (and heavy on the cabernets---yeah, comfort food, I know, but some of us take great comfort in seafood and would like a red you can't skate on). I started with a nice pinot noir by buena vista, and I'd have liked something Shiraz- or Syrah-ish with my entree, but the only option was a Ravenswood, which I just didn't feel like. Woe is me, I had to suffer through a glass of a Seghesio Zinfandel. M had a Woodford Reserve Manhattan and then an Elliot Ness Amber Ale from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, an offbeat draught choice, and a nice one.

The menu is not overly large, but it's well chosen for the most part. M was probably a bit more out of luck in the appetizer arena than I was, having to choose between mussels and crispy crabcakes. He bit the bullet and got, and this is true, the best cheese garlic bread I've ever had. The secret---get this---is in the bread. I don't know if they make it on site, but their baguette had a nice crust that was neither too firm nor too prone to disintegration. Add this a liberal amount of garlic and some very fresh mozzarella and yum. My mussels with the spicy tomato broth and, again, lots of garlic, were incredibly fresh and very good (not quite as good as those at Tizi Melloul, but good). Also? The appetizers are not sized for a single human. The fact that we both finished ours is neither here nor there. Hire a friend, people.

There are only about eight entrees total, but again there's good representation: two fish dishes (salmon and trout) and the scallops; a ribeye; pork loin of some kind; spaghetti carbonara; a vegetable gratin; a chicken breast; and chicken and dumplings (I'm sure I've skipped maybe another pasta dish in there). M could not pass up chicken and dumplings with a gun to his head, so he was set. I had initially been drawn scallop-ward, but I was temporarily seduced by the jalapeno hush puppies that came with the trout. Alert spouse M pointed out that the hush puppies were one of the shareable sides offered, and there was no way he was not getting some hot hush puppy action, so scallops it was.

I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to accept the scallops at the South Water Kitchen as your Lord and Savior. No, seriously dude. They're served with a beautiful tomato, corn, potatoe, and pancetta hash in the center with dabs of pesto around the edge of the plate. The scallops were done perfectly and there was clearly crack in the hash (wow that's---not redundant, I guess---it's pharmaceutical dirty pool). I don't know about you all, but when I think of pancetta, I think of the wafer thin slices that will not peel away from the fucking wax paper and no they don't care if you have a Master's degree. Heather Terhune would never insult her patrons by offering them this pale imitation of pancetta. Her pancetta comes in big, fat, crispy, delicious chunks. That pancetta and those scallops may be the greatest romance of our time. I only tasted a bit of M's dumplings (ahem), but they seemed quite delicious.

On the issue of sides, the onion rings were great and came with a really interesting wasabi-honey mustard dipping sauce. The jalapeno hush puppies were quite flavorful, but very, very dense. Given that we'd eaten appetizer portions meant for, easily, 19 or 20 people, we cried uncle on the sides and had them box those along with half of my entree (man, I may need a pancetta fix).

The dessert menu doesn't do so well as the appetizers and entrees in covering the bases. There was a pineapple upside down cake, a butterscotch blondie sundae abomination of some kind, a chocolate creme pie, a devil's food cake (with mint chocolate chip ice cream, which I'm seeing more and more. Yeuch.), a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, and something else I'm forgetting. Both of us went way off script with M getting the horrible blondie thing (which he seemed to like, despite being surprised that---well---it had a blondie at its base), and I getting the crisp. I did not, of course, sully my mouth with butterscotch or the bastard child of the brownie, but my crisp was nicely tart, the oatmeal crisp topping was simple and not gluey with sugar and abominable cinnamon. It was adequate, but not the strongest part of the meal.

All the same, the place gets a pretty hearty recommendation from moi.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Culturally Boding

So I'm browsing the Reader to see what's up this weekend, even though we already have two movies queued. This weekend appears to be an iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove scenario. Thank you, sir, may I have another?

  1. The imaginary Merle Haggard/Marty Stuart concert in Joliet has finally disappeared from the "Early Warnings" section. This event appears only to have existed in the fevered brains of the Reader's employees. Which fucking blows, because once you've alerted me to that fact that Merle Haggard is still alive, I demand a live version of Okie from Muskogee, bitch.
  2. William H. Macy at the Siskel Film Center tonight! Huzzah! Oh, except for the part where UGH it's fucking Mamet. Because . . .
    . . . yes?
    Now do you see?
    . . . I . . . no . . . it's getting . . .
    I hate Mamet. Why do you think that is?
  3. But hurray! The Pitchfork Music Festival looks awesome. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists! WOoo! Except it's supposed to be 96 fucking degrees all weekend. Sorry, Ted, unless you can write me an Rx for a personal cooling bubble that is also +10 against drunks with heat exhaustion, I don't think I'll be doing much of anything outside this weekend.
  4. There's a late-night superhero-y production called Rogue 8 that sounds like a hoot and is getting good reviews, but it's way up on Clark. If the Neofuturiarum is anything to go by, this may also be disqualified on the grounds that it's way too fucking hot to be cramming into an upper-floor space with a hundred other people, protected from the elements by wheezing window units.
  5. There are about 27 concerts at Old Town that I really REALLY want to see (Red Stick Ramblers, Smog, Cowboy Junkies, Wailin' Jennys, Joan FREAKING Baez, and, of course, the voice that's always driving by: Mr. Jimmie "Doppler" Dale Gilmore). Old Town concerts are ridiculously inexpensive, especially for members, and yet I can't help calculating what percentage of my income even a few of those represents. Of course, I've just recalled that I really need to quit my bitching on this score, because I can get off my ass and volunteer to defray costs.

It seems clear that this entry should be retitled: Cultural Whining and Evidence of Lack of Committment to the Chicago Renaissance, but I'm too disaffected to be arsed.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bait Shark: My Super Ex-Girlfriend

So today we saw My Super Ex-Girlfriend. It's for game balance. Really. I can't have all y'all thinking that I spent my entire weekend taking in Icelandic film adaptations of olde English literature. I'm not a TOTAL nerd, you know, just 99.44%. Nerds that float, ya us.

If you, like me, were seduced by the shark scene in the trailer, I'm sad to say that you, too, have been seduced and abandoned. The movie isn't bad on the "Sweet Jeebus, make it end!" kind of level, but it deserves that damnation with faint praise. The script is disjointed in an odd way.

If Nacho Libre is a series of awkwardly connected SNL Babies sketches . . . well, I'm still not sure what My Super Ex-Girlfriend is. At a number of points, both M and I thought that the plot might be following a promising thread, and at almost every turn it didn't. Even the one liners aren't particularly funny, and the cast seems to know it (there are some painfully flat moments in terms of delivery). Hell, even the SHARK isn't actually funny, as the gag goes on far too long and includes an unfunny "OMGWTF it's going for Luke Wilson's penis!" schtick.

The characters are so one note that it almost seems deliberate---as if the writer were going appealing to the allegorical elements of superhero legends. But that's more likely to be my brain kicking into overnerd as it works its way up from Beowulf to Bunyan than it is to be any deliberate plan on Don Payne's (the screenwriter) part. And all of the characters, even the ones I presume I was supposed to like, are at least low-level assholes. Consequently, I didn't end up caring much about the troubles they endured, particularly the ones they brought on themselves by dickishness and/or obliviousness. So much about the story seemed cynical, and it left me feeling the same.

As one might expect with the cast this movie rated, even the lackluster writing couldn't wring out all the moments that work. Rainn and Luke Wilson have some amusing "guys are pigs" moments together, even if many of them are embedded within wierd padding scenes that consist exclusively of Rainn Wilson being creepy and getting shot down by women. Uma Thurman has some endearing moments despite the fact that Payne seems to want us to think that she has no nonphysical attributes that could attract anyone and that Luke Wilson simply wants to do and dump her.

But even though the cast manages to salvage something from the script, it's the cast that also makes me a lot less inclined to cut the movie slack than I might otherwise have been. Owen may be the more charismatic and talented Wilson brother, but Luke has had his stellar moments: The X-Files vampire episode, his stint on That '70s Show, etc. Having him put on a little weight and play up his slightly funny teeth really shouldn't be able to strip him entirely of his charm and humor. Uma Thurman has taken her wrong turns in films, but not since The Avengers has she had so little to work with (ok, let's not say things we can't take back---this wasn't as bad as The Avengers).

I don't watch The Office, but I understand that Rainn Wilson doesn't have any problem bringing the funny. And one has to work really hard to turn Wanda Sykes into a completely unfunny, humorless sexual harassment Narc. As for Anna Farris, the only thing I've seen her in before this was Brokeback Mountain, and I formed no opinion of her. In this, I found her grating in the extreme, although I admit that might have been the result of being written as a completely nothing character.

But the worst---THE WORST---is casting Eddie Fucking Izzard as a goddamned supervillain and then whizzing the opportunity completely down your leg. He's given virtually nothing to do, made out to be a creepy stalker, and then winds up being the superhero's little woman. (Ok, there is a mildly funny gag at the end in which both he and Luke Wilson are left holding the purses and street clothes of their superpowered babes, but that's genuinely IT.) It's criminal, I tell you.

I'm not saying this is one to be avoided at all costs, but it's not even really worth a rental. If it came on television, you might watch it during commercial breaks for something out of the Reitman stable from the time when he had quirky and funny down pat.

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