Two Mikes Don't Make a Wright
directed by Mike Leigh, Michael Moore, and Steven Wright
at the Harvard Film Archive
From New York to smalltown Michigan to the English countryside, the three deadpan artists whose short films are featured in the Harvard Film Archive series Two Mikes Don't Make a Wright seem to be able to laugh at anything. If there is one feature that unites the shorts, it is a strange mixture of comedy and horror that reaches its crescendo in the final film. Two Mikes starts dark, turns black and gets blacker.
The title doesn't lie. Of the three shorts by contemporary filmmakers Steven Wright, Michael Moore, and Mike Leigh, Wright's hilarious and characteristically minimalist masterpiece, "The Appointments of Dennis Jennings," is the most gripping, especially for a viewer unexperienced in Two Mikes's unique brand of comedy. The angst-ridden "Appointments" combines the neurotic charm of a Woody Allen movie with the structured morbidity of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Even for those who have only seen him do stand-up on Letterman, the opening close-up shot of Steven Wright's head is a sight unmistakable.
The film traces the story of Dennis Jennings (Wright), a Manhattan neurotic who, surrounded by people seemingly determined to feed his paranoia, eventually murders his analyst. His girlfriend Emma, played with convincing indifference by Laurie Metcalf, torments Dennis with cheap ties and constant reminders to feed the fish. As Dennis settles into his analyst's office, saying, "I remember when I was in the womb...," Dr. Schooner (Rowan Atkinson) sighs and draws up a shopping list. Wright's classic deadpan performance is set off perfectly by the boredom and snobbery expressed in Atkinson's exagerrated facial expressions and accent. Although well acted and directed, it is the witty and original script, written by Mark Armstrong and Wright himself, that really makes "The Appointments" shine.
But if the world seems indifferent to the problems of the pathetic nut of "The Appointments," the situation in "Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint" is even less promising. In this pseudo-documentary, Michael Moore re-explores his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to see how things have changed since his filming of "Roger and Me," another incisive look at life in a factory town after all the factories have closed. The tirade is against General Motors, unemployment, and as the opening warning indicates, "explicit corporate behavior." Striking a hard blow to the American Dream, Moore sardonically rejoices in the establishment of nine new Taco Bells in Flint, in spite of the increase in layoffs.
Although best seen after "Roger and Me," "Pets or Meat" will not go misunderstood by first-time viewers of Moore's work. The only escape from the dreariness of flint is Frankenmuth. The inhabitants of Flint repeat the word like a mantra. What is Frankenmuth, you may ask? Only the best restaurant around. The one place where cheery waitresses serve up delicious Bavarian chicken and Old World charm. In Flint, life is bad and getting worse, and chicken isn't the only thing you'll see eaten in this film. When the Bunny Lady, the woman who sold rabbits for food in "Roger and Me" and inspired the new film's title, feeds a live rabbit to a snake, the bunny's shrieks are a little harder to swallow.
"Pets or Meat" is a perfect primer for the final short of the series, Mike Leigh's "A Sense of History," where we follow an English patriarch on a walking tour of his estate as he delivers a monologue on its history. Actor Jim Broadbent gives a superb performance as the horrifyingly funny Lord Earl of Leete. Speaking coolly of more than a few unspeakable acts he has committed in order to maintain the integrity of the estate, the Earl declares his father "a nasty booby of a man who I hated ferociously," his mother "stupid," and his brother "decidedly dim." Broadbent's incomparably pompous English accent and straightfaced Monty-Pythonesque expression are perfect. But after the first few unemotional narrations and reenactments of his gruesome crimes, the Earl's understandably predictable stories, coupled with the unexciting cinematography, begin to verge on the tedious. Still, a few choice lines, expertly delivered by Broadbent, make the short sit through this film worthwhile.
By the end of these films, you may not know whether to laugh, cry, or cringe in disgust. You may do all three. If you like your comedy with teeth and your wit wry, Two Mikes is quick, critical and a little cracked.
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