The sound of no hands clapping

By Alan Jacobson

Two of 2003’s most sophisticated and entertaining mainstream films were sadly among the year’s most ignored and underpromoted. Rookie Peyton Reed’s Down with Love and seasoned low-budget auteur Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action offer more frothy referentialism and engaging cleverness per frame than all of the year’s top ten grossers combined.

Both are genre work, meaning a frame, construction, or in the case of Back in Action — an entire universe, already exists. Like in folk tales (or Hollywood’s golden age of musicals), time need not be wasted on constructing plots, characters, situations, and truisms as old as time. All energy in genre films can be devoted to adding something new and inspired to what is already there. And Back in Action rolls in with a hell of a lot of baggage.

Back, but Just for a Single Weekend

From Aristotle on down through Tarkovsky, art has been described as a yearning for the ideal. In Joe Dante’s ideal world, his old boss, Roger Corman, would direct the next Batman film with soundtrack fashioned by the Denmark weirdo conflagration of hip hop, rock, house, and electronic music that is self-proclaimed “rhythm bandits,” Junior/Senior.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action, borrowing a trick or two from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, reclaims the embarrassingly failing, creatively bankrupt, Warner Bros. cartoon franchise with a wonderful sense of humor and cocksure aplomb.

As is the case with most genre work, the plot is paper-thin. But in the hands of Dante, the paper is filled with constantly surprising and superiorly clever twists and strokes. In a deft use of parallelism, another trope of genre, DJ (perfectly-used non-actor Brendan Fraser) and Daffy Duck both lose their jobs at the outset.

An aspiring and accident-prone ex-stuntman fired by special request of sunglasses-and-schmaltz star “real life” Brendan Fraser, DJ is now a lowly security guard under the employ of a senior guard played by none other than Roger Corman’s longtime onscreen alter ego, Dick Miller. After crashing the Batmobile through the famous WB water tower’s support beam, DJ is fired by the same heartless corporate ax man (Jenna Elfman) who had just dismissed Daffy Duck.

In further parallelism, each has to contend with his own set of: demons, obvious product placement, and the colliding real and fake universes of Paris, Las Vegas, the WB back lot (think Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), and all of the excellent Looney Tunes characters I can remember, both major and minor. And don’t be scared off, nothing from the remarkably uninspired Animaiacs and Tiny Toon Adventures pops up anywhere.

Further using all that is good and Looney Tunes, and as a cute political statement amid contemporary repositioning, the ACME Corporation is now an evil Empire. These villains and producers of shoddy devices must be stopped before they transform the good people of the world into monkeys.

Sounds implausible? Alongside his single-handed redemption of Looney Tunes, Dante deftly pulls off a slew of similarly amazing tricks. Steve Martin is yanked out of irrelevancy as the evil ACME CEO, while Joan Cusack works similar charms as the Q figure to Fraser’s aspiring Bond. Oh, and DJ’s dad? None other than failed 007 Timothy Dalton himself.

True to Back in Action’s inspiration, the absurdly rich wellspring of this animated universe, these characters are used to their strengths and thrown into an endless series of clever situations. The chase between Elmer Fudd, Bugs, and Daffy throughout the Louvre and the paintings themselves are complexity, cleverness, and beauty well worth the price of admission alone.

The filmic sophistication never falters. As in the original cartoons, Dante flecks the diegesis with such a wild variety of slapstick, sight gags, reflexion, and loving homage creating such richness that this film will continue to be great fun to mine years and years from now. Alongside the Looney in-jokes, Dante’s beloved Corman universe gets the occasional nod (an ACME crony is played by Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Principal Mary Waronov). But this is a winking eye that looks down on none.

Crowd report: at this second-run theatre, fantastic. Kids harmonized their wonderment and cheering applause with their parents’ appreciative chuckles. Some little ones were actually shouting out visual cues that I, so engrossed in this utterly pleasurable film, had completely missed.

Down with the Doubters

People are so irreparably, irretrievably cynical. If I weren’t a reactionary myself, I also probably wouldn’t have bothered with rookie director Peyton Reed’s thoroughly ignored masterpiece, Down with Love. But am I ever glad I did.

Flashback to yet another second-run theater. Sadly, this time, my friend and I were alone in the audience. Why was this pair of films so underpromoted? I remember virtually tripping over advertisements on the way into Roger Rabbit, ‘lo not that many years ago. And that was a strange and brave film, no doubt.

Flashback once again, onscreen now, to 1962, or so. This is the alleged realm of Down with Love, though the films of Rock Hudson and Doris Day from before and after are obvious points of reference. Again, good genre work just uses the foundation as a springboard. Why bother reinventing the euphemisms and Brooks Brothers suits, after all? Much better to play with these tools, to fashion something new over a perfectly good structure.

This is what may have been turn-off number one for a lot of the intelligentsia, ironically enough the ideal audience for this film: two attractive and talented stars swooning amongst painstakingly beautiful art direction and sharp-as-tacks visuals that recall none other than the filmmaker those tepid Day/Hudson films ripped off, Douglas Sirk. It must be remembered that Sirk, while appropriately revered now as a pioneer of a melodramatic cinema language, was virtually ignored as an artist by all but a few of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.

Again, the plot is cheekily fragile. Barbara Novak (the constantly puckered Renee Zellwegger) writes a book empowering her sisters to eschew love and try and please themselves. To anyone even mildly conversant with the history of the period, the book immediately brings to mind The Feminine Mystique and its ilk. This hypermodern woman targets the ubermale of the period, macho publisher Catcher Block, played with Sean Connery smoothness by Ewan McGregor.

Everything layered atop is gravy ... or, rather … frosting. This sophistication spills over to the filmmaking itself. For, after all, a well-written film with uninspired visuals isn’t exactly worth seeing. The widescreen is used to full advantage, filled with ’60s James Bond gadgetry, winking, schmoozing, airborne camera work, and actors who dance their every step. In this hyperexpressive universe, supporters Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce are made to be just as magnetic and fun to watch as the mates fate created in the principals.

The split screen is used quite well too. In perhaps what this film has become a footnote for, some of the cleverest and most suggestive split screen practically shouts in visually symbolic language — cinema as the enthusiasts envisioned it. Sandwiched by such feats of parallelistic sophistication as a boy vs. girl grooming sequence set alternately to Astrud Gilberto and Frank Sinatra’s wildly differing takes on the swing-a-ding classic “Fly Me to the Moon” is a wryly suggestive use of the split involving push-ups.

The sophistication that is Down with Love even spills over into Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake’s bitchily clever screenplay. Quips are bandied about as often as martinis are spilled in Block’s space-age woman trap. Too bad no one can bear witness to any of this in a film that deserved to be much more successful than it was.

A Second Life?

One of the many wonderful things about video is that, perhaps because it is now cheaper to market them, films that weren’t given a fair shake in the theaters often take off and finally get the exposure they deserve. Looney Tunes: Back in Action is certain to move plenty of copies to families interested in nostalgia, togetherness, etc — like the families I sat with at this second-run theater.

This film has no chance... unless ...

OK. See this film. Love it. Then begin a grassroots campaign to get everyone you know who loves the fantastic in the mundane, the swing in the step, the homage utterly over the snooty kitsch, to see this film. From frame one on through to the magnificent musical end piece, it is an utter and endless delight ... much like its ignored and maligned twin cousin in hyper-genre exercise Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

February 2004  |  Issue 43
Copyright © 2004 by Alan Jacobson

Alan Jacobson is a magna cum laude film school graduate who continues to hunt for the genius in the discarded and writes and teaches at the Facets Film School in Chicago, Illinois.

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