Indie upstarts the Polish brothers wandered off the map with Smell Of Success and Stay Cool
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Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
The Polish brothers (Michael and Mark) would seem a whole lot more impressive in a universe where David Lynch and the Coen brothers did not exist. In this universe, however, the cult filmmakers seem forever doomed to live and work in the shadows of their greatest influences. The identical twins made an indelible mark on independent film with their 1999 debut, Twin Falls Idaho, a moody drama about conjoined twins. But the film got as much attention for its low budget and the nature of its creators’ relationship as it did for the actual content. Not only did the Polish brothers make weird, David Lynch-style movies; they seemed to inhabit a gothic, David Lynch universe as well.
Twin Falls Idaho made an unmistakable impression, but rather than transform that into a great evolutionary leap forward—à la Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction or Wes Anderson with Rushmore or Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights—the Polish brothers’ films ambled sideways in intriguing yet increasingly irrelevant directions. They followed Twin Falls Idaho with the 2001 karaoke character study Jackpot and 2003’s Northfork, a gorgeous and accomplished but remote and fundamentally inert drama about the evacuation of a small town in Montana in the mid-1950s that starred James Woods, Nick Nolte, and Anthony Edwards. The filmmaking duo then made a move toward the mainstream with the wholesome 2006 drama The Astronaut Farmer. Then they fell so far off the map, culturally speaking, that in the summer of 2008, they somehow managed to make two attention-courting comedies back-to-back in a mad flurry of misplaced creativity, and no one seemed to notice.
I like to think I follow film on at least a casual basis, but before Netflix Instant repeatedly brought them to my attention, I had absolutely no idea that in May of 2008, the Polish brothers’ production company, Prohibition Pictures, had produced The Smell Of Success, a half-assed mind-fuck about a 1960s competition between rival manure salesmen. Nor was I aware that they followed it up by shooting Prohibition Pictures’ next film, a return-to-high-school comedy called Stay Cool in July of the same year.
These are not inauspicious films, nor are they lacking in star-power. On the contrary, The Smell Of Success is unbelievably audacious, beginning with a title that sounds an awful lot like the title of one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the greatest dark comedies about the art of selling in a hostile market. (Whether the product on display is a starlet or manure, it’s all about salesmanship.)
Now, The Smell Of Success is a comedy, but its greatest joke is that it exists in the first place, and that the Polish brothers somehow raised millions of dollars in financing and convinced the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Helms, Téa Leoni, and Kyle MacLachlan to set aside time in their busy schedules to star in a movie about misfit poop salesmen in the ’60s heartland who end up going to war with a supernatural, possibly demonic group of manure salesmen led by MacLachlan.
The always-dependable Thornton stars in The Smell Of Success as a hotshot manure salesmen in middle America whose life is turned upside down when the eccentric owner of the company he works for dies unexpectedly, and the boss’ big-city daughter (Leoni) is placed in charge of the company.
Visually, The Smell Of Success’ hauntingly spare Midwestern gothic landscapes are reminiscent of Northfork, but a strangely artificial CGI glaze has been added. The film’s cornfields are too perfect and airless to feel even remotely real. The aesthetic looks a bit like an Andrew Wyeth painting rendered in computerized zeroes and ones, and the first act of The Smell Of Success is devoted largely, if not exclusively, to the comedic potential endemic in the variations on manure-themed wordplay. It’s tempting to write that the aggressively minor Success isn’t about shit, but it really is. The film is obsessed with its scatological repartee, and it never stops giggling quietly to itself about how naughty it’s being.
When Leoni heads out with her new charges to try to learn the family business, The Smell Of Success threatens to turn into a screwball comedy of an earlier vintage: one with Thornton agreeably cast in the gruffly charming Spencer Tracy role, and Leoni—who was once heralded as the Lucille Ball of her generation in the ’90s—pressed into duty as the daffy but classy dame that the rugged hero tames.
Alas, the filmmakers quickly grow bored with that story thread and send Thornton and his fellow shit salesmen competition literally flying in from the sky. A superhuman feces salesman (MacLachlan) who could very well be the devil peddles a magical form of manure that does a whole lot more than grow the biggest carrots anyone has ever seen.
It is at this point that the film starts to get a little weird, when a colleague of Thornton’s (Helms) tastes some of MacLachlan’s miracle manure and begins to grow breasts. Supernatural motherfuckery ensues, as does an epic psychedelic freak-out, and the film shape-shifts yet again, becoming a surrealistic version of Used Cars. The rival groups of suit-wearing shit salesmen resort to total war in their efforts to best the competition.
The Smell Of Success is a goofy lark, a weird cosmic joke that should not exist, yet inexplicably does. It’s the artiest shit-joke comedy ever made, as well as a testament to the Polish brothers’ impressive ability to rope famous people into their weird, half-assed ideas. I’m not sure anyone needs to see The Smell Of Success, but I’m glad it exists as an actual movie for the morbidly curious to seek out and the rest of the world to politely ignore.
Films from the brothers Polish, including The Smell Of Success, have long been defined by an excess of personality, albeit sometimes of the secondhand variety. So the massive shock of Stay Cool is how unrelentingly generic it feels. With this outing, the brothers apparently stopped worshipping at the altars of Coen and Lynch and began emulating the nauseating schmaltz of late-period Rob Reiner by way of John Hughes.
Stay Cool taps into oceans-deep reservoirs of blandness I never imagined the Polishes possessed. Mark Polish, who co-wrote the screenplay, stars as a successful author who returns to his hometown to deliver a high-school commencement speech. While there, he discovers that nothing has really changed over the years: He’s still head-over-heels in love with an unattainable dream girl (Winona Ryder), he’s still in trouble with the folks that run the high school (including the principal, Chevy Chase), and he still finds solace hanging out with the kooks and the outcasts, most notably his sassy gay-hairdresser sidekick Sean Astin. All you really need to know about Astin’s character, or the film as a whole, is that he repeatedly refers to himself as “Girl” or “Big Girl” or “Sassy McSassypants.” (Okay, he doesn’t technically ever refer to himself by that last moniker, but it wouldn’t be out of character.) Meanwhile, Polish must fight off the aggressive sexual advances of a hot high-school student (Hilary Duff) who is incredibly turned on by his sad-sack, “please push me into the locker” aura.
It’s clear that Polish is supposed to be a talented, successful author whose tales of high-school yearning strike a deep chord with his readers. But judging from the passages of his book that are read throughout the film, he is the worst kind of hack, a cornball sentimentalist whose prose would have to improve immeasurably to reach the level of the misty pseudo-profundity during the narration on The Wonder Years.
Who could have possibly imagined that behind the gothic gates and intimidating exterior of Polish Brothers Manor lies a motherfucking Hallmark store? Stay Cool isn’t a surreal, arty deconstruction of hacky high-school romance; it plays all of its coming-of-age clichés straight. It genuinely seems to believe the maudlin horseshit about life lessons and growing up that it’s spouting.
Before Stay Cool, films from Mark and Mike Polish were, at the very least, interesting. But this film fails to live up to the considerable promise of the twins’ early work, or even the weird, but much more interesting film they’d filmed just a few months before. Even more damningly, Stay Cool made a goddamn liar out of MTV.com when the online adjunct to that venerable youth-culture dispensary honored it as one of the “2009 Movies That Will Have You Screaming ‘OMG!’” Other distinguished honorees were Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience.
The fucked-up thing about the perversely unfucked-up Stay Cool is that, in a weird way, the film really does belong on the list, in the sense that it’s white-bread pabulum that has more in common with the kind of tween-friendly fare Duff used to specialize in than the artsy Sundance fodder that was the Polish brothers’ stock in trade. But the film’s inclusion on MTV.com’s prestigious list is inaccurate in the sense that it did not cause me to scream “OMG!” even a single time. In fact, Stay Cool doesn’t contain a single noteworthy element. Coming from men who apparently thought nothing of giving Ed Helms breasts after he devours magical feces, that almost constitutes an achievement.
The Smell Of Success
Just how bad is it? Eh, it’s going for something.
Just how bad is it? It’s less bad than punishingly dull and forgettable.