The first, or maybe second, third or even fourth Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of every month Nathan Rabin writes about three DVD premieres for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory.
My Sassy Girl: Nobody is more surprised than myself that the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept has taken off the way it has, inspiring an NPR story, a Wikipedia entry, and all manner of chatter on the Internet. I suppose the reason it has captured the imagination of a tiny subsection of the blogosphere is because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl represents a fantasy at once seductive and deeply annoying.
In its purest form, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl can be downright insufferable. Landmark Manic Pixie Dream Girl joints like Garden State and Elizabethtown are fundamentally bittersweet comedy-dramas about a brooding young man's spiritual journey in which a MPDG plays a crucial yet supporting role. By "bittersweet comedy-dramas about a brooding young man's spiritual journey" I of course mean "self-indulgent wankfests".
Yet in today's entries in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl edition of Direct-To-DVD Purgatory, My Sassy Girl and Watching The Detectives, the MPDG isn't just the icing on the cake; they're the whole damn cake. This helps explain why both films skipped the multiplexes en route to your local Blockbuster. The MPDG invariably walks a fine line between daffily irresistible and psychotic. Accordingly, the loopy life-lovers/lesson-teachers in My Sassy Girl and Watching The Detectives are more likely to inspire restraining orders than love letters.
My Sassy Girl boasts an unusual pedigree. It began life as a series of real-life love letters posted on the Internet that were then turned into a novel by Kim Ho-sik. This novel later became a blockbuster 2001 South Korean romantic comedy, which later morphed into an American movie, a Japanese drama and a Bollywood romp.
My Sassy Girl and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype it embodies in an unusually pure form had officially gone international yet Americans remained immune to its charm, despite the central presence of Elisha Cuthbert in a blonde pixie haircut that makes her look like Kirsten Dunst's non-union Mexican equivalent. In My Sassy Girl Cuthbert plays an ostensibly lovable sadist who passes out drunk in a subway station and is rescued by perpetually suffering straight man Jesse Bradford, who is thrown into campus jail for his troubles.
Cuthbert then subjects Bradford to an endless series of bizarre mind games. She crashes Bradford's big job interview with the tractor company of his dreams and costs him the square-ass job he had worked towards his entire life. She later invites Bradford to meet a guy she's out on a date for reasons that remain cryptic until a late-film monologue in which Cuthbert explicates the sorta-method behind her madness. Cuthbert then breaks up with Bradford after telling him to meet her under a tree in Central Park exactly one year later to see if the fates want them to be together.
Bradford inexplicably finds Cuthbert's antics delightful instead of grounds for being committed to Bellevue. So he is understandably distraught when Cuthbert doesn't show up for their big reunion. Ever the maddening free spirit, Cuthbert shows up a day late and explains to a twinkly old man in the park that if destiny wanted her to be with Bradford it would have led her to meet up with him a day earlier.
Instead of brusquely informing Cuthbert, "Look Missy, you're a sweet piece of ass but you really need to get over yourself and can it with the airy-fairy drama queen bullshit. No woman is worth that kind of aggravation." he delivers an incredibly maudlin speech about how "Destiny is the bridge you build to the one you love." I would like to report what happened next but I missed it on account of I was suddenly gripped with an irresistible urge to race to the bathroom and projectile vomit. The only way My Sassy Girl could have extricated itself from the bottomless pit of leaden whimsy and florid romanticism it sinks into would have been if Bradford had wreaked righteous vengeance on Cuthbert's cruel games by luring her into a bear trap, then pitting her against a hungry mountain lion. That would have learned her but good.
Just How Bad Is it? Bad? It filled my soul with joy and cured me of my soul-sickness and alerted me to the wonder and magic of existence. No, wait, actually it just kind of sucked. Watching The Detectives: In Watching The Detectives, the directorial debut of Broken Lizard's Paul Soter, Lucy Liu plays an archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's quirky to the point of mental illness. She has no inner life and very little backstory. Instead of being tied down to a job and a home like everyone else, she flits from place to place, spreading joy and adventure like a hummingbird of undiluted quirk.
Yet it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn Liu into a crazy stalker along the lines of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Ah, but Detectives is a comedy. So Liu's petty crimes, non-stop lies and flair for manipulation are supposed to register as fun instead of creepy. Liu here plays a sexy woman-child who meets cute with video store proprietor Cillian Murphy in circumstances far too stupid and convoluted to go into.
Madcap tomfoolery ensues. The wacky duo sneak into a competing video store and, once the store has closed, put DVDs into the wrong boxes in the most boring act of professional sabotage in cinematic history. Later, Liu goes to a picnic with Murphy and two of his boring, non-insane friends and brings along food she pilfered from a nearby picanic basket, proving conclusively that she is smarter than the average Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Isn't that right, Boo Boo?
In the film's most telling scene, Murphy proposes a quiet night in watching basketball (cause that's what guys do when they're not chugging beer or talking bout broads!) and Liu counters by suggesting that they break into a high school gym and play basketball themselves. Why watch, when you can do? That's Liu's philosophy in a nutshell. Yet Liu's idea of life-affirming awesomeness just seems like a big fucking hassle. Liu's concept of love and courtship seems inspired largely, if not exclusively, by Punk'd. Why go on humdrum dates and communicate honestly and openly with your boyfriend when you can sadistically manipulate him with elaborate pranks, fake-outs and lies?
It doesn't help that Liu is pushing forty. Manic Pixie Dream Girls tend to be twenty-year olds with perky tits for a reason. If a fetching nineteen-year-old says, "Let's play hooky, dress up like pirates and fly kites!" it'd probably come off as charming. But if a divorced, forty-three year-old mother of two proposed the same thing it'd come off as regressive and unhinged. To its credit, Detectives conveys at times how dating a Manic Pixie Dream Girl can be a wearying, exhausting experience, a Bataan death march of whimsy, to borrow the subtitle of my Elizabethtown My Year of Flops entry. But Detectives remains too tethered to romantic-comedy conventions to concede that Manic Pixie Dream Girls can be real fucking nightmares.
Just How Bad Is It? Surprisingly bearable, but eminently skippable all the same
Perdita Durango: The demented 1997 black comedy Perdita Durango was fucked by timing. It had the misfortune to get lumped into the tidal wave of bloody, glibly ironic pop-culture-damaged smartass romps that followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction. It boasted a huge star in Rosie Perez, a woman who achieved great success as a choreographer and actor despite looking, acting and sounding disconcertingly like Rosie Perez as well as two actors relatively unknown to American audiences at the time: Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini.
Perez plays the title role of a cold-blooded witch audiences might remember from Wild At Heart, where the character was played by Isabella Rossellini . Perez is a malevolent primal force who meets her match in a Santeria shaman, bank-robber, murderer and all-around badass played by Bardem in a live-wire performance that suggests the ghost of Raul Julia after a month long Crystal Meth binge. We're talking about a guy who could go toe to toe with Bardem's sociopathic killer from No Country For Old Men in an epic evil-off. They even share a weakness for perversely unflattering Prince Valiant haircuts, though Durango takes it one step further by giving Bardem a daring do that's half Prince Valiant, half mullet.
While basking in sun-baked evil one day, Perez and Bardem decide that it might be fun to kidnap, rape, slaughter, sacrifice, then eat some white people as a way of killing time before a big drug deal. The irascible twosome's well thought out plan begins to backfire, however, when Perez takes pity on their hapless prey. Meanwhile, Gandolfini's cartoonishly hapless lawman follows in not-so-hot pursuit. In Wild At Heart, the Perdita Durango character is more or less evil incarnate but Bardem is such a world-class monster that Perez emerges as a hero pretty much by default.
Today, Durango feels less like a Tarantino knockoff than a movie that takes the hot-house, oversexed Tex-Mex surrealism of Wild At Heart to delirious new levels. Durango succeeds through giddy excess, by creating and sustaining a mood of peyote-soaked surrealism and utter moral depravity. Whether conducting a crazed Santeria ritual as if possessed simultaneously by the spirits of Satan and Elvis or rocking out to Herb Alpert while toying with his whitebread prey, Bardem delivers an outsized performance of astonishing intensity and charisma. He's a goddamned motherfucking star and Durango richly merits a cult.
Just How Bad Is It? It's a little bit awful and a whole lot awesome