Gooden Worsted hosts The Battle of the Nebbishes
What to do while watching: Root for your favorite nebbish. Go, Nebbish, Go!
What to eat while watching: Chilled Monkey Brains. Just kidding. Just some nuts would be good.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. This is the tale of two toadies, one that is ascending and one that is descending.
Let me begin with Woody Allen, arguably the greatest American filmmaker of all time. I'm sick of him. Don't get me wrong: Curse of the Jade Scorpion is funny writing. It has an Allen-esque element of fantasy, like the far superior films Zelig and Purple Rose of Cairo, and zingy dialogue like the far superior films Manhattan and Annie Hall. A mild mystery plot and a mild romantic line round out the film, and, in general, Jade Scorpion makes for relaxing, untaxing entertainment.
Allen's nebbish, C.W. Briggs, is an insurance investigator in romanticized New York, 1940. Briggs is the best in the biz, but Helen Hunt has come on the scene to reorganize the office, even if it means ousting Briggs and his old-fashioned way of getting the job done. Their sexual politics develop, as you'd expect, into sexual tension. The mystery, meanwhile, is that someone is robbing all of Briggs' clients of their invaluable jewelry collections. Could the mysterious nightclub hypnotist have anything to do with it? Yes.
The story doesn't really unfold as a mystery, but as an anecdote. You know "whodunit" as soon as "it" gets "dun." What engages you (if anything) is finding out how the knotty situation will resolve.
Allen, like many people, takes comfort in the familiar. That's why his films are always set in New York City and the credits are always set in that same typeface. Woody is comfy going back to the 40's, as he has done in the superior Radio Days and Purple Rose. Though he has pushed into deeper thematic territories in the superior Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, he is just as comfortable with purely comic tales, such as the superior Sleeper and Bullets over Broadway. Though he has done more tender biographical pieces, like the superior Sweet and Lowdown and Stardust Memories, he can fall back to simple extended jokes with ease, and that's what Curse is all about.
Allen is also very comfortable with whining. My word, he is good at it! In a documentary about Allen's Dixieland band (Wild Man Blues) we see the director/musician on the road with Soon-Yi Previn. It's a look into his life out of character. I was amazed to see him whining even more in his private life than he does as any of the nebbishes he plays in his films. I don't know how Soon-Yi puts up with it, frankly. And in Curse, it gets tiring yet again. I wondered how the film would be if a--how shall I put this?--fresher actor played the lead.
Maybe Josh Kornbluth could have played it. Kornbluth came to fame as a solo performer, a monologist in the tradition of the brilliant Spalding Gray. With Haiku Tunnel, Josh, with his brother Jason, put the vision of his monologues into film format. The translation gives a unique feel to the film: it is imprinted with a local, personal, un-Hollywood air, which I, personally, appreciate quite a bit.
Not everyone can get into a film that doesn't star a recognized face. Also, the pacing of Haiku Tunnel is slow: The Kornbluths don't go for visual pow-Pow-POW! Furthermore, Kornbluth's puffy face is decidedly homely, a fact that distances him from Hollywood more than any other. And his subject is the life of an office temp.
This all makes for a story that's rather mundane. Crises are decidedly low-stakes in the grand scheme of things. But the film engages by being so personal; and seeing a fresh nebbish, for me, added to the fascination. Whether Kornbluth's next film will be as engrossing remains to be seen, but Haiku Tunnel certainly engaged me.
It's the story of a guy named "Josh Kornbluth" who works as an office temp. The tale is narrated by the actor, Josh Kornbluth, who has a few talking-head scenes that preserve the monologue style of his performance. Kornbluth the Temp gets the opportunity to "go perm," which sets his world reeling. Something about the pressure of commitment doesn't sit well with him, a flake at heart, and he fails to send some "very important letters." This triggers an all-night set of misadventures that I found amazingly riveting in spite of its small scale. I also like that it's set so obviously in San Francisco. My bias is clear: I myself temped in some of the very buildings that Josh walks past on his walking commute.
But bias aside, there are some very funny scenes in this film (like Kornbluth's confessions to the office answering machine) and some incredibly accurate characterizations. Anyone who has ever worked as a temp or in a law office will recognize many people in this movie. Having done both myself, it was the perfect thing for me to see. I've been there, grappling with the dictation machine, stealing moments (and office supplies) for my own writing, impersonating someone who knew or cared what was going on. I've known the lawyer, "Bob," with his pep-talk hand-gestures. I've met that I. S. Technician with the long hair and stoner's drawl.
Though Haiku Tunnel is not pretty, it's much more genuine than Jade Scorpion. I feel myself already defending this praise against viewers who won't appreciate the anti-blockbuster style of this movie's style. All I can say to these folks is: Broaden your horizons, or don't. There are 50 copies of Bruce Willis' latest on the video shelves to every one copy of Haiku Tunnel.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.