I first became cognizant of Ellen DeGeneres’ existence when she popped up in a supporting role on the late, little-lamented early Fox sitcom Open House, a failed show perversely spun off from another failed early Fox effort, Duets. I was riveted by her mild-mannered charm. Her wry understatement literally blew my brain through my skull and into the stratosphere. Who was this pleasant, unassuming young up-and-comer with the crack comic timing and genius for bemused reaction shots?
Some of you whippersnappers might not know this, but before Comedy Central became the dynamo it is today, it was two flailing basic-cable entities known as The Comedy Channel and HA!, which eventually merged to form a comic institution. This was in the prehistoric days of basic cable, and both channels radiated an “Oh shit, how are we going to fill all these hours with no fucking money?” sense of desperation. Their answer was to fill hour upon hour with cheap footage of stand-up comedians performing. Anywhere the Richard Jenis or Kevin Pollaks of the world performed, a Comedy Channel camera was there to preserve it for posterity. I know Jimmy Pardo and Marc Maron through their podcasts now, but I first stumbled upon them while passively consuming whatever crap Comedy Channel or HA! had to dish out.
DeGeneres, unsurprisingly, showed up in a lot of the stand-up clips. Even at the beginning of her career, it was evident she was destined for bigger and better things. Johnny Carson recognized her boundless potential when she became the first woman ever invited to chat with him after a debuting stand-up performance on the show. Bear in mind that Carson famously didn’t care for female comics, and featured them as infrequently as possible. Yet he adroitly compared DeGeneres to Bob Newhart, another master of the sly reaction shot. Like Newhart and Jack Benny, DeGeneres is able to get big laughs without doing anything in particular; she’s a whiz at milking a pause for maximum comic impact. That makes her a perfect straight woman (no pun intended), a mild-mannered soul impishly taking in the insanity of the modern world.
When I was auditioning for Movie Club With John Ridley, a poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review panel show I appeared on for several months, the producers sent me a page full of tips on how to perform for television. The only one I remember is “Subtle doesn’t play on television.” I’d like to blame that line for my unconscionably over-the-top TV appearances, but really, I have only myself to blame. DeGeneres was able to make subtle work on television. It’s a testament to her talent that she was able to attract a lot of attention performing a style of comedy seemingly designed not to call attention to itself: mild observational humor delivered with a light touch.
I liked DeGeneres immediately. She was affable, endearing, mild-mannered, and to use a somewhat antiquated word, nice. She seemed like she’d be a delightful person to have coffee with. Considering her aggressively non-aggressive persona, it’s a little surreal that she would later become a Time cover girl, one of the most controversial celebrities of the past 20 years, and a flashpoint in our nation’s never-ending culture war. Back when she was starting out, it seemed inconceivable that one day she’d be slandered by televangelists and become a gay icon.
Watching DeGeneres on Open House and the Comedy Channel, I never thought about her sexuality. Like Newhart, she struck me as relatively asexual. Still, her tumble out of the closet didn’t exactly come as a shock. I’d like to think the revelation prompted responses that ran the gamut from “Well, duh” to “Eh” to “Who cares?” to “Good for her.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out why she wasn’t constantly photographed on red carpets on the arm of a sea of eligible bachelors. Yet her sexuality has proven an enduring source of fascination to the American public. It’s safe to assume that she’s more famous for being a lesbian than for being a brilliant stand-up comic. Instead of destroying her career, coming out made DeGeneres a superstar and a household name. So it took a staggering level of miscalculation to cast her as a single woman desperate to find a marriageable man in the 1996 flop Case File Mr. Wrong—particularly since, like Newhart and Jerry Seinfeld, DeGeneres doesn’t act so much as play minor variations on herself. She’s less an actor than a reactor.
This raises an issue that has been ricocheting around pop culture since Ramin Setoodeh wrote a Newsweek article arguing that gay actors have difficulty portraying straight characters, and audiences have difficulty accepting them in those roles. Setoodeh caught an awful lot of flack for the article, even though he’s gay himself. He was derided as homophobic, self-loathing, and regressive in his sexual politics, but he asks some interesting questions relevant to Mr. Wrong. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t give a mad-ass fuck about an actor’s sexual orientation. We’d look at Ian McKellen in Lord Of The Rings or Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises—the musical that inspired Setoodeh’s column—and simply see a powerful wizard and an ambitious young man.
But in this ragingly imperfect world, actors bring all manner of baggage to their roles, some good, some bad. So when Tom Cruise plays an eyepatch-sporting one-armed German general with an inexplicable American accent in Valkyrie, it’s understandable if we see him through a couch-jumping, Brooke Shields-shaming, Scientology-informed filter that makes it difficult to view him as anything other than a terribly miscast American actor. On a similar level, DeGeneres’ sexuality is only one of about 10 reasons it’s now impossible to suspend disbelief throughout Mr. Wrong, a film released before her well-publicized coming-out in 1997. Other reasons include the plot, the screenplay, the dialogue, the acting, the flat direction, and just about every other aspect of the film.
In the context of the Newsweek piece, Hayes is a victim of his campy persona. Setoodeh can’t suspend disbelief in part because Hayes came out recently, but also because he’s famous for playing the extremely effeminate Jack McFarland on Will & Grace. At least Hayes is an award-winning veteran of the stage and screen. DeGeneres, in sharp contrast, just kind of does DeGeneres. Dorothy Parker famously quipped that Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the Broadway play The Lake ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B. DeGeneres’ range isn’t anywhere near as vast: She runs the gamut from A to A.
Like a distaff Cable Guy, Mr. Wrong offers a darkly comic riff on the slew of paranoid thrillers that sprang up in the wake of Fatal Attraction to alert us to the life-threatening dangers posed by temps, one-night stands, nannies, and various other do-badders, though it’s difficult at times to discern what’s supposed to be creepy and what isn’t.
In the role she was born not to play, DeGeneres stars as a 31-year-old junior spinster who is tremendously successful in her career as a television producer, yet watches with rapt envy as her 25-year-old younger sister gets hitched. At least she’s supposed to look on at the festivities with rapt envy; in actuality, all DeGeneres conveys throughout the film is a look that combines awkwardness, embarrassment, and Eddie Murphy-style disengagement. It’s as if she imagines that if she only looks depressed and ashamed enough, the producers will take pity on her and shut down production and/or replace her. If she’s lucky, she’ll get to keep her reported $2 million salary.
Like far too many romantic comedy protagonists, DeGeneres is a strong, empowered woman whose life nonetheless revolves around finding a future husband to ensnare in her honeypot. The universe itself seems to be taunting her. In this clip, DeGeneres gets peeved when an overacting underling rubs her idyllic love life in her boss’ face.
Yes, it seems like everyone has a fiancé except for DeGeneres’ suspiciously dutiful assistant. In any other romantic comedy, this effete supporting character, with his washboard abs, love of flowers, and unstoppable perkiness, would be the sassy gay sidekick. Here, bizarrely enough, he’s DeGeneres’ love interest, the good, opera-loving man she blithely ignores while foolishly pursuing a dream that turns out to be a nightmare.
Then one day, DeGeneres’ search for the man who will inflame her dormant passions appears to end when she meets mysteriously with a tall, sexy cowboy played with moony intensity by Bill Pullman. Pullman is invariably more compelling playing creeps, villains, and weird character parts (think Malice, Ruthless People, or the Daniel Handler-penned Rick) than heroes. So Mr. Wrong should play to his strengths, but it doesn’t. Instead of registering as hot or moody, his initial flirtation with DeGeneres registers as creepy and sad.
In the grand tradition of undercover kooks, Pullman appears to be too good to be true because he is. Underneath the poetry-spouting, romantic gazes, matinee-idol good looks and mysterious wealth, Pullman is a raging lunatic.
Ah, but he doesn’t reveal the true depths of his craziness until DeGeneres has fallen for him. Pullman and DeGeneres bond during the lazy filmmaker’s invaluable crutch: the falling-in-love montage. But even when she’s supposed to be giving herself over to obsession, DeGeneres seems guarded and defensive. Watching her love scenes with Pullman engenders the same weird, guilty fascination as watching grandparents grill a clearly gay relative on why he or she hasn’t gotten married yet.
Mr. Wrong begins curdled and uncomfortable. In the film’s key line, supporting player Ellen Cleghorne tries to make DeGeneres feel better about some of the losers she’s dated: “All men are horrible in their own way. You just have to accept that.” In Mr. Wrong, that’s apparently true for all people, not just men.
I had hoped that an Ellen DeGeneres vehicle would, at the very least, be nice and pleasant, but Mr. Wrong is weirdly misanthropic. Everyone comes off badly, including DeGeneres. After Pullman reveals himself to be a sociopath and DeGeneres dumps him, he begins stalking her in ways that are supposed to be funny but instead register as faintly tragic and nightmare-inducing, like a scene where he shows up outside her window, dressed as a clown, in a doomed attempt to win her back by recreating one of her few happy childhood memories.
The DVD box for Mr. Wrong memorably refers to Pullman as a “handsome comedy favorite,” but he’s defeated by a screenplay that stumbles forward obliviously, without momentum or purpose. Once DeGeneres is kidnapped and taken on a nightmarish voyage to Mexico, her response to the increasingly zany shenanigans goes from deadpan under-reaction to eye-bugging shamelessness. The difference between DeGeneres here and elsewhere is the difference between Leslie Nielsen in Police Squad and Leslie Nielsen in Dracula: Dead And Loving It.
DeGeneres is rightly revered for her timing and likeability, yet her only starring vehicle is a ferociously unlikeable time-waster with terrible timing. Scenes drag on interminably with little rhyme or reason. When DeGeneres breaks up with Pullman, she tries to let him down easy with the words “Sometimes it’s about chemistry. Sometimes chemistry works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get an explosion, or a really bad smell.”
DeGeneres and Pullman’s chemistry falls distinctly under the “bad smell” category. The same, however, cannot be said of this explosive final scene, where the androgynous female lead and her androgynous love interest experience sexual chemistry that can only be deemed From Justin To Kelly-esque.
Fortunately, DeGeneres rebounded spectacularly from Mr. Wrong’s failure via a daily talk show, a format that let her be herself rather than play a role she was unqualified for in more ways than one.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure