My Year Of Flops Case File #62 Sour Grapes
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I must admit that I was a little worried that I'd catch flak for giving mad props to a film as divisive and widely reviled as Freddy Got Fingered. So I was relieved to discover that every single commenter agreed with my assessment of it. Given this unprecedented outpouring of support, I don't think a massive Freddy re-release is out of the question.
It also didn't escape my attention that my Freddy post was the most commented-upon post in the history of My Year Of Flops by a huge margin. I suspect that if I were to insert a casual reference to church-going in my Freddy entry, it would generate so many heated comments that the Internet would collapse upon itself and explode. In a shameless attempt to re-ignite that kind of fevered online debate, I'm going to follow it with a contrarian take on Bio-Dome entitled "Pauly Shore: Situationist Trickster-God".
I can just imagine various online Freddy-haters reading that last sentence and cracking indignantly, "Aha! That last attempt at so-called "humor" in your sad little column was nothing more than an implicit acknowledgment that your faux-defense of said atrocity, which I have not seen and therefore know definitively was a folly wholly without merit, was in fact nothing more than a cynical stab at being provocative and oh-so-edgy. Check and mate. Now please resign your position in shame. Some form of honor-based suicide would also be an acceptable option."
Incidentally, if you write critical things about me in the comments, I will read them internally in the voice of the Comic Book Guy or Vincent Gallo. But if you write nice things, they'll be filtered through the dulcet tones of Barry White or Campbell Scott.
But seriously folks, (I'm now going to use "But seriously folks" as my default segue), today I'm going to be writing about 1998's Sour Grapes, Larry David's ill-fated, barely released feature-length directorial debut.
I remember experiencing something close to burning, fiery hatred for Sour Grapes the first time I saw it, but memory has a way of flattening and blurring experiences and reactions, of stripping away subtlety and nuance. All I really remembered about Sour Grapes is that it seemed mean-spirited and unfunny and that Steven Weber and Craig Bierko had an annoying smug-and-smugger routine going as bickering cousins who begin the film self-absorbed jerks and grow more detestable with each successive scene. I remembered it as being similar enough to Seinfeld to suffer by comparison, but not similar enough to be funny.
I didn't remember much else, not even that the double-jointed Bierko spends part of the film performing oral sex on himself, a character quirk that no doubt helped with more highbrow critics, or that he toils as a shoe designer. After Elizabethtown and this, filmmakers might want to think twice about making lead characters shoe designers. I know it seems quirky and different, but it has a spectacularly bad commercial track record and apparently angries up God's blood.
Sour Grapes's clattering Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot begins with a trip to Atlantic City, where stubborn doctor Steven Weber gives ornery cousin Craig Bierko two quarters that hit the jackpot at a slot machine. Weber is adamant that since the $400,000-plus bounty was won with his quarters, he's entitled to half the money. Bierko is equally adamant that Weber deserves nothing more than three percent. Bitterness and greed proceed to ruin both men.
Sour Grapes begins with a premise grounded in reality, then adds one farcial, far-fetched complication after another. In a fit of resentment, Weber, in a clear violation of the Hippocratic oath, falsely informs Bierko that he has mere months to live and should get his affairs in order before heading to the big casino in the sky. In just the first of a series of wildly plausible plot twists, this prompts Bierko to have homeless Orlando Jones frighten his overbearing mother into having a heart attack on the grounds that she'd never be able to make it in the world after his death.
Then things get a little bit silly. A distracted Weber accidentally screws up an operation that turns Matthew Perry-like sitcom star Matt Keeslar into a castrato who squawks like Mickey Mouse after a helium binge. Keeslar comes bucking for revenge and mugs his way through a vicious Friends parody that leaves little doubt what David thought of a show sometimes derided as a Seinfeld knock-off, just as a pre-deified Seinfeld was once considered little more than a half-baked riff on It's Garry Shandling's Show. All the while, Jones' mischief-prone vagrant wreaks havoc with Bierko's increasingly dire existence. Bierko's blessing quickly turns into a curse and Grapes builds into a curdled black-comic fable about the folly of greed.
From their titles to the central role a wacky homeless person plays in each film, Sour Grapes recalls Envy, which David executive-produced, in uncanny ways. It's almost as if David told Envy director Barry Levinson, "Hey, remember that weird little black comedy I made that no one saw? Why don't we remake it with bigger stars and a much bigger budget? Everyone's sure to make a fortune that way!".
Sour Grapes takes the manic farce plotting and darkness of Seinfeld ten times further. After initial resistance, I came to enjoy the almost mathematical precision of its plotting, the way every scene builds on what came before and sets up what's to come. I also enjoyed the unmistakably Davidian rhythms of its intermittently snappy and clever dialogue, the low-level hum of minor aggravations, annoyances, and barely perceptible slights just waiting to be blown up into simmering conflicts and black-comic disasters. Without ever being particularly funny, Sour Grapes epitomizes David's wonderfully acerbic worldview, a nasal whine of annoyance inflated into a howl of despair.
David has a peerless ear for the horrible things people think but censor themselves from saying out loud (unless they're in a Larry David production, however, where the Golden Rule has been amended to "If you can't say something nice, by all means go ahead and say it anyway, preferably with an agitated, confrontational edge in your voice"), as when elderly funeral-goers pan the eulogy at Bierko's mom's funeral. Who hasn't found themselves guiltily critiquing a particularly fuzzy "one-speech-fits-all" eulogy? Like much of Grapes, the bit is clever, quietly observational, and perceptive yet falls far short of the belly laughs Seinfeld conjured up constantly. And without the big laughs common to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the gloomy, autumnal colors of David's emotional palette–which run the gamut from sour and grey to belligerent and enraged–can be a little oppressive.
Last night I had the profound honor of catching a night screening of Balls Of Fury and while I don't want to be too hard on such a silly little trifle, it symbolizes much of what's wrong with contemporary studio comedies, primarily a half-assed reliance on pop culture references and random silliness in lieu of a strong authorial voice and coherent satirical point of view.
So it's refreshing to see something like Sour Grapes that, despite its myriad faults, has authorial voice up the wazoo. David's smudgy little fingerprints are all over each scene and every barbed, cranky one-liner. David is an evil little man and I love him for that even if Sour Grapes fundamentally doesn't work on a number of levels.
I found much to like about Sour Grapes even as I found the whole strangely unsatisfying. So is it a Secret Success or a Failure? I suppose it's a little bit of both. If you enjoy the way David tugs relentlessly at the social fabric tying us all together in a big ball of suffering humanity until the whole damned mess threatens to unravel, then it's a Secret Success. But if you're looking for a comedy that's, you know, funny and shit, then it's a failure. So I've decided to give it my newest and most half-assed grade to date: Secret Failuress. Aw, yeah. I like the sound of that.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Failuress