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Groovers and Mobsters Present: The Dark Comedy

Horace Walpole had an enduring observation about the world, calling it “a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Who says it can’t be both at once? Certainly not the writers, directors, producers and stars of films that fall into the grimace-with-laughter dark comedy genre. From the emotionally violent to the downright macabre, dark comedies buff a funny and acidic sheen on the devastating realities of everyday life. Read on to discover how “Heathers” accomplishes this, and visit the Movie Mobsters site for a complete list of must-see dark comedies.

“Heathers” (1988)

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.” ~~J.D.

Back in the 1980s, there was a clown car-esque release of movies about teens — their dweeby friends, their terminally unhip parents, their Saturday detentions, their proms and (most important) their neverending quest for carnal treasure. Then came Michael Lehmann’s vicious “Heathers” in 1988, which hammered a croquet mallet on the clichés and the squishy afterschool love-ins that came before. The film leveled an unblinking eye at the quick-n-dirty politics of high school as well as the obliviousness of the adults in charge and, in the process, became the standard not just for dark comedies but for all future teen comedies, too.

The teens in “Heathers” have adapted to the unspoken Darwinian laws of high school. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) rules her clique of yes women – fearful Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), bubbleheaded Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Veronica (Winona Ryder), a precocious student of human nature – with such ferocity that the likes of Pol Pot would bow before her. No one dares to question her authority until shake-up-the-establishment loner J.D. (Christian Slater) pops onto the radar. Not one to become any dictator’s collateral damage, he draws Veronica in his plot to murder Westerburg High’s aristocracy and make their deaths look like scandalous suicides. Soon Veronica’s “teen-angst bullshit” begins to amass a formidable body count.

Commonly labeled as a “teen movie” (and it is a stellar one), “Heathers” is, above all else, a spot-on dark comedy that spins stereotypes into macabre yet revealing jokes. Dark comedies, be they sneaky and subtle or bloody, are meant to shine unwelcome light on the twisted inner workings of human nature and society. They are meant to be fearless. In “Heathers,” scriptwriter Daniel Waters mercilessly skewers the fluffy clichés to get at the mean, cold truths about high school. Societal satires don’t come gutsier or smarter than this. Waters presents all the usual suspects – the fat girl, the lone wolf, the jock – in their natural habitat with a kind of ruthlessness not seen before in movies about teen-agers. Every offhand observation, particularly Veronica’s “She’s my best friend. God, I hate her,” is blisteringly and hilariously accurate. But these aren’t the belly laughs dumb comedy serves up; no, these laughs lump in your throat because it’s all truth and no artificial sweetener. That’s the kind of truth you need a Slushie to wash down.

 

Review: “Broken Arrow” (1996)

“I said goddamn what a rush!”
~~Vic “Deak” Deakins

See that quote up there? That’s a taste of what you’re getting in “Broken Arrow,” an absurd and absurdly fun blow-’em-up that owes much to John Travolta’s gleeful turn as a villain. He’s deliciously devious as a villain, probably because his villains bear no resemblance to real bad guys: they are in possession of every card; dead calm under pressure; quick with glib remarks. Travolta’s Maj. Vic Deakins is that criminal who, in the midst of a shootout, takes the time to ask, clenched teeth barely containing the sarcasm, if his henchmen kindly would mind not shooting at the nukes. Can you resist a villain like this? I can’t.

It’s likely anyone watching “Broken Arrow” can’t either, since Travolta is the big draw of John Woo’s absurdly farfetched but absurdly fun blow-’em-up about two military men (Travolta, Christian Slater) locked in a metaphorical peeing contest. Travolta sinks his teeth into some juicy lines and has such a ball doing it that his enjoyment is infectious. The men in question are Deakins, who tries to convince his comrade, Capt. Riley Hale (Slater), that his guts have propelled him higher up the Air Force success ladder than Hale. Despite his relative inexperience, Hale knows B.S. when he hears it: “You love having the power of God at your fingertips. You get off on it.” Bingo. Hale has Deakins pegged as a power junkie with a messiah complex, alright, but he underestimates just how far an addict will go for afix.

As it happens, Deakins is willing to go very, very far, far enough to commandeer a plane carrying two live nuclear warheads and use them to ransom the government for a cool $250 million. If the government’s feeling stingy, Deakins and his pals, including Emmitt (Howie Long, also a hoot), vow to detonate the weapons over Salt Lake City. The demands set into action the loud, blazing game of cat and mouse that is “Broken Arrow,” with Hale and Terry (Samantha Mathis, the plucky sole source of estrogen in all this dudeness), a park ranger caught up in the chase, on Deakins’ trail and determined to disarm the weapons. Action — in the form of numerous explosions, lots and lots of running (sometimes running and shooting happen simultaneously), a gun fight in a mine shaft, helicopter crashes and a train showdown that’s buckets of fun to watch — ensues.

Certainly this sounds a lot like the plot of, well, Generic Nuclear Weapon Action Movie, but what makes “Broken Arrow” a little different (and enjoyably so) is the mix of nonstop action with Graham Yost’s jaunty, sometimes even clever script. Some of the special effects aren’t particularly stunning, some stunts not even remotely believable, but “Broken Arrow” seems to have a sense of humor about that, and the actors even appear to be in on the joke. Nobody, not Hale and Terry, the self-styled “heroes,” takes anything too seriously; certainly, you won’t find any fake-noble claims of “we must save humanity from nuclear destruction” here. What you get instead is Hale killing a bad guy by shooting from between Terry’s legs and commenting, “That was a first for me, too.” Or how’s about a side order of Deakins politely asking “Mr. Pritchett, would you mind stepping outside?” before shoving his corpse out the door of a moving Humvee? These scenes have a kind of self-effacing humor that so many testosterone-soaked action flicks do not.

Travolta can’t help but play along with the whimsy of Yost’s writing, turning Deak into a swell criminal who keeps us guessing as to what he’ll say next since he does, Hale argues, have “a head full of bad wiring.” Hooray for that — the bad guys who act like they have a few marbles rolling around are such wet blankets. Although Slater’s the straight man to Travolta’s loose cannon, he’s not boring; if anything, Slater has a nice slyness and legitimate comic timing and generates a nice amount of sexual tension with Mathis that never spills over into an obligatory sex scene. But Slater, really, plays second fiddle to Travolta, who all but takes a piece out of us.

Grade: B

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

No. 19: “Heathers” (1989)

“It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer.” ~~Veronica Sawyer

“Hell is a teenage girl.” It’s inconceivable that Diablo Cody, when she penned that line for “Jennifer’s Body,” didn’t have visions of Daniel Waters’ caustic high school satire “Heathers” dancing in her head. With “Heathers,” Waters did nothing if not create teen black comedies as we know them, spawning scads of wannabes and copycats. None have reached such dizzying and brutally comic heights. Pause and ponder, though — is that such a shock? With its inventive one-liners, shrewd observations of high school and its million pecking orders and outstanding characters, “Heathers” didn’t set the standard; it became the standard.

Exactly how “Heathers” did that lies in smart, calculated execution of a very familiar and universal setting: high school. Ohio’s Westerburg High School is a medieval torture chamber for students not popular enough to register on Heather Chandler’s (a snarling-good Kim Walker) radar. And considering that the ubercool Chandler is essentially Idi Amin in off-white tights, that’s everyone except timid Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), ditzy Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and brainy Veronica (Winona Ryder), the mute devotees who populate her social circle. Though all live in fear of Heather’s wrath (“I’m worshiped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior,” she observes astutely), only Veronica musters the courage to rebel — indirectly by dating precocious loner J.D. (Christian Slater) and more openly by challenging Heather at a college party (the iconic “lick it up” clip). Fed up with Heather’s reign, Veronica goes along with J.D.’s “fake” plan to murder her best friend/worst enemy (“same difference,” she notes) using a cup of liquid drainer. But something goes wrong, and Heather’s off to the afterlife, presumably to take over, leaving Veronica in need of a cover story. J.D. obliges so quickly and readily we wonder how long he’s been plotting this, then dreams up more deadly schemes. Waters pulls no punches with J.D., who comes off not as a harmless misfit but as a perceptive, smooth-talking sociopath with murder on the brain. He can coerce Veronica to do his bidding because he’s that cunning.

That take-no-prisoners attitude extends to every aspect of “Heathers,” really. Whether he’s an ex-nerd with a vendetta or simply an imaginative writer with a flair for satire, Waters is vicious in his treatment of Westerburg’s elite, particularly Heather Chandler, and Heather Duke (Doherty’s enthusiasm is perversely infectious), who treats her leader’s death as a stepping stone to her own coronation. Waters writes both Heathers as ruthless bitches, but with hints of depth. There’s a throwaway scene early on where Chandler stares down her reflection in the mirror; somehow, she looks worn down by the duties attached to her position. When she dies, Duke steps in without pause. Can we blame her? She’s running on years of insults and sublimated rage. Her ascension is a reminder that the tease of power turns the meekest of souls bad — an ’80s retool of, like, that whole “absolute power” warning.

Waters tosses some hate grenades, too, at Westerburg’s administrators, all as clueless as the ruling Heathers are evil. The principal (John Ingle) couldn’t care less about the students’ grief; his only concern is figuring out appropriate grief timetables. The P.C. guidance counselor (Pauline Fleming) goes the opposite route: She stages pointless, hand-holding love-ins in the cafeteria while never once offering real solace. Everyone’s so self-absorbed that no one notices how phony the suicides are, or pays attention to the students in real pain, like overweight loner Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn). Only Veronica, played with quippy horror by Ryder, and J.D. (this was back when Christian Slater really wanted to be James Dean), see through the B.S. Waters skewers the administrators to show the truth: They’re not in charge, and they’re too dumb to notice.

Though he’s since fallen from grace (the hideous “Sex and Death 101”), “Heathers” proved that for one moment, Waters understood the nature of high school better than anyone. J.D. calls Westerburg “a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.” That’s wicked-deep. Anybody feel like a Slushie?