Forever Losing Case File #189: Good Advice
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Geeks of the world, I have good news. We won the culture war! I didn’t realize that until last Friday, when I saw a film that would have blown geeks’ minds had it been released in 1986. Back then, every element of the film would have marked it as a pop-culture event to be breathlessly anticipated.
Imagine a genre picture. It’s a vampire movie with a twist: It takes place largely in what appears to be an Old West town. That’s pretty novel, huh? But that Old West torn is actually located in a post-apocalyptic future where sexy killer priests hunt vampires. Oh and the film is based on a Korean graphic novel, and it’s being shown in 3-D.
Every element of Priest’s plot is specifically designed to flood the geek brain with bliss. Yet pop culture has become such a 3-D hybridization machine that elements that would have felt novel a decade earlier now feel commonplace and overexposed, individually and in combination. In 1987, fusing Western and vampire imagery in Near Dark was revolutionary; in 2011, the mash-up feels as ancient as one of Dracula’s brides, and as generic as a Friday The 13th sequel. The geeks have taken over, but Priest suggests it may be a hollow victory.
Twenty-five years ago, Priest would have been a bizarre aberration, while the 2001 Charlie Sheen vehicle Good Advice—a gimmicky romantic comedy about a handsome womanizer who learns what he doesn’t know about women (just about everything!) after taking over an ex-girlfriend’s advice column—would have been slick mainstream schlock. In 2011, however, Priest feels soul-crushingly generic, while Good Advice feels bizarre and borderline surreal. If this were high school in the ’80s, Good Advice would have been the cool jock and Priest would have been the weird kid who wore all black and was into comic books and horror movies. Today, we’re all apparently the weird kid who wears all black and is into comic books and horror movies. That’s certainly how Hollywood treats us. Weird is the new normal; normal is the new weird.
Film is at heart an extravagant lie. We know that Tom Cruise is a Hollywood movie star, but for the sake of our enjoyment, we pretend he’s a fighter pilot or a disabled anti-war activist for 90 minutes so we can lose ourselves in spectacle. When we go to the movies, we pretend that the actors we’ve seen looking unwashed and disreputable on TMZ are the fabulous, fascinating people they’re pretending to be. But sometimes a film is so nakedly contemptuous of its audience and verisimilitude that it makes pretending impossible. We want to live in the film’s fictional world and accept the events onscreen, but our minds are so continuously insulted that they rebel against film as a medium. They cause us to lose faith in storytelling itself, to question some of the most basic assumptions about human nature.
Good Advice is a film like that, for reasons that go beyond Sheen playing the Charlie Sheen role with a Charlie Sheen-like sense of complete detachment. If Sheen were any less emotionally invested in his performance, half his dialogue would be, “Line, please!” Judging by the screenplay, screenwriters Daniel Margosis and Robert Horn have never encountered a human being, only observed their behavior via a series of ’80s workplace comedies (mostly The Secret Of My Success) and determined that these “humans” are a loathsome, pitiful lot.
Good Advice has the ultimate example of what Roger Ebert calls “the idiot plot,” defined in one of his reviews as “A story for a film, book or play that depends for its continuity on the stupidity of everyone in the story.” Sheen plays a freewheeling cad who loses his fortune after an insider-trading deal gone awry. When his girlfriend (Denise Richards) leaves for Brazil, Sheen has a flash of inspiration and furtively takes over her advice column to make a little extra cash. The column, which was previously inexplicably devoted to cruelly mocking its readers’ problems, takes off thanks to Sheen’s rough but functional grasp of common sense. Soon, the world is angrily demanding to know more about this previously unknown advice columnist for an obscure New York paper.
Good Advice is a redemption tale, and its parallels to Sheen’s current unpleasantness are impossible to ignore. It’s the story of an arrogant, glib cad who learns humility following personal and professional humiliation, a half-assed Jerry Maguire with a Wall Street twist. It’s as if Good Advice were written for Sheen during the Wall Street era, sat on a shelf for years until he desperately needed money, then was rushed into production before anyone could update it.
Good Advice inhabits an anachronistic sphere where men drink scotch, play golf, and check out broads, and women are just pining for their MRS degrees and the perfect little black dress. It’s a world where newspapers still thrive, no one uses a cell phone, and the effective poaching of a popular columnist is enough to send the stock price of a massive newspaper conglomerate rocketing skyward. There’s something appealingly retro about the film’s corny, old-school sensibility—or there would be, if the film weren’t populated entirely by loathsome creatures.
Richards’ character is seemingly incapable of reading an advice column, let alone writing one. Like the screenwriters, she’s seen some of these “people” who write in to her column, and she doesn’t care for them. In an attempt to get editor/publisher/owner/joyless scold Angie Harmon to understand the impossible demands of her job, Richards reads what she perceives to be a particularly impossible case. The letter reads, “Dear Cindy, I want to go back to school, but my husband is against it.”
That’s one of the most basic scenarios an advice columnist could encounter, yet it vexes Richards to such an extent that she ultimately yells in frustration, “This woman is such a mess!” The husband, the school: Who can process such a complicated, convoluted situation?
Why would a woman who’s incapable of comprehending the most basic human concepts and is contemptuous of all humanity become an advice columnist? Why would a quality newspaper (we know Harmon runs a quality newspaper, because she tells Richards, “I run a quality newspaper”) hire as its advice columnist an apparently semi-literate bubblehead who’s clearly biding her time until her sugar daddy comes around? Was every other writer in the universe otherwise engaged? Richards is closer to being the worst conceivable advice columnist than the best.
Sheen, meanwhile, sinks into a deep depression after being fired from his stockbroker job on Wall Street. It’s telling that the only time Sheen looks engaged is when Richards asks if they can go out, and he bitterly retorts, “We're living together. We are well past the ‘going out’ stage.” Sheen delivers the line from a place of complete emotional exhaustion that has little to do with a film he clearly holds in contempt. He fills those words with the poisonous sarcasm of a man destroyed, a man who hates himself and hates any woman who would want to be with a man like him. Perhaps Good Advice secretly takes place in an Idiocracy-like alternate universe where the masses are so devoid of hope, intelligence, and simple human decency that the alternately glib and folksy platitudes of a leering overgrown frat boy are embraced as timeless wisdom from a contemporary prophet.
Sheen warms up with subtly profound columns about waxing and sex before tackling the subject that cements his status as a peerless purveyor of profundity. “My son has the AIDS. I never approved of his lifestyle,” reads the letter that changes Sheen’s life and sends the film hurtling even further into kitsch.
In Good Advice, Sheen is embraced as a prophet because he tells people what they already know. He tells the mother of the son with The AIDS that she should love and accept him and let go of her prejudice and fear. He tells a woman in an abusive relationship that she should leave her abusive partner. In Good Advice, that qualifies as radical, profound counsel.
Much of Good Advice is devoted to montage sequences of readers gazing rapturously at Sheen’s column while bathed in a golden light, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups. Sheen’s spiritual and emotional growth is reflected in a scene where an old black couple leaves behind a bag near a park bench, and Sheen, in an act of Christ-like compassion, returns it to them. Seriously. In his pre-redemption days, Sheen would have pissed in the bag while shouting racial epithets at the couple. But he’s a changed man now, because of that letter involving The AIDS.
Good Advice’s plot is predicated upon Harmon being a smart, strong, confident businesswoman who is also idiotic, oblivious, and desperately lonely. She’s shrill in her dealings with Sheen, who repays her shrillness with smarm, but deep down, she just wants to dress up and wear lipstick and go on kissing dates with hot guys like Sheen. You know, like all women secretly do.
So Harmon never finds it particularly suspicious that one of her columnists develops a strikingly different, dramatically more sensitive authorial voice after mysteriously disappearing for weeks. She doesn’t find it particularly strange that the boyfriend of her star columnist is now giving her flowers and hitting on her while ostensibly negotiating a new, more lucrative contract on his suspiciously MIA girlfriend’s behalf. Good Advice has so little respect for humanity and so much contempt for women that even its smart women are idiots.
In an ironic line from the above clip, Harmon indignantly tells Sheen, “I can spot bullshit from a blimp in a fog storm,” even though she’s been up to her neck in bullshit from the first frame without knowing it. Yet because Good Advice is a romantic comedy, we’re asked to pretend that this unpleasant woman and this smirk of a man are good people who deserve love. The film asks us to participate in this socially mandated fiction—but the film’s blissful idiocy makes it impossible.
It’s easy to see how someone who starred in a movie like Good Advice could lose respect for acting as a craft and film as a medium. The Sheen of Good Advice is a lost soul. He’s gaunt and disengaged, glassy-eyed and dour. There’s no joy, laughter, or lightness to his performance. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that this is a comedy dependent on a breezy, facile charm Sheen once possessed, but apparently left in a hotel room alongside a pile of hookers and cocaine sometime in 1989. The film keeps telling us that Sheen is handsome, charming, and successful, especially following his redemption, but all we see is overwhelming, unbearable ugliness.
In the ’80s, Charlie Sheen was everything our society said a man should be: rich, handsome, successful; from a dynamic, successful family; reasonably talented; slick; and a consummate ladies’ man. These days, Sheen is a grotesque caricature of his earlier self. The caddish alpha-male is now a lunatic, and the film follows suit. Good Advice aspires to be as pretty and slick as Charlie Sheen in 1986; instead, it’s accidentally as crazy, off-putting, and weird as Charlie Sheen in 2011, but nowhere near as entertaining.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure