Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Smell of Success: Grade C


The Smell of Success (2009)

Billy Bob Thornton, Tea Leone, Ed Helms, Kyle McLachlan; Co-writer and director: Michael Polish.

This is a silly trifle of a movie, but I wanted to review it because it has been so thoroughly ignored, despite having some hidden virtues. It is about a group of salesmen in Kansas, led by Thornton, who work for Rose’s Manure, and sell the stuff to farmers. Old Man Rose dies and his daughter (Leone) from New York City, takes over the company, with the aim of pumping up sales then selling it.

The film is an example of screwball comedy, a genre characterized by witty repartee, usually a romantic relationship, a satirical emphasis on social class distinctions, with farce and slapstick. It was a style of movie popular in the 1930’s during the Depression, so ordinary people could watch the upper crust get their comeuppance and have a laugh at their expense. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it was time to revive the genre during the current Great Recession.

That intuition might have been right, but they made two critical mistakes. One is that the manure theme is pitched too low to be socially or politically satirical, or even, really, very funny. Most of the gag lines are pretty obvious: “Rose’s Manure: We’re number one in number two!” And worse, much worse. I admit, some of the joke lines made me laugh anyway. When the beautiful and sophisticated Tea Leone, in frustration, calls one of her salesmen “Shit-For-Brains,” I laughed, not because it is an original epithet, but because of the way she said it. But the relentless poop jokes wear you down, and even if they do make you chuckle, you realize there isn’t going to be any artistic point to the humor.

Secondly, the relationship between Thornton and Leone just isn’t. They are the romantic leads, and they even go to bed together (just wrestling, no sex). But there is no suggestion of a romance. Why not? Even if the movie was aimed at children 5 to 8, (and I don’t think it was), that should not rule out a romance. Maybe the omission was a far-too-subtle reference to the censorship codes of the 1930’s that forbade portrayal of any kind of sex. If that was the intent, it failed.

The film does have strong redeeming virtues. The cinematography is excellent, as are costumes (the period seems to be early 1960’s). The bluesy music is attractive. The artistic direction is distinctive, with a kind of sepia palette, reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou, that is perfect for the surrealistic scenes. And those are fantastic. The competitors, a chemical fertilizer company, parachutes crates of their product, and themselves, into cornfields and the imagery there is stunningly surreal. A kind of World War II theme emerges, and although it is not developed, it is a very creative twist. Acting: MacLachlan and his team, dressed like Men In Black, do a fair parody of evildoers, though not arch enough. Ed Helms is an inherently funny guy. Leone, I’ll watch in any movie. Same for BBT. So this movie has plenty of virtues and deserves to be seen, by adults, even though, as an overall artistic effort, it falls short.

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