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by Chris Catania

18 Dec 2008

When I first read about Live Music Blog writer/photographer Andrew McMahon’s attempt to see 20 concerts in 20 days back in mid-September, I saw his audacious attempt as a heroically intriguing two-week experiment done in the name of live music fans who love and live for live music.

Unfortunately, when covering live music, I don’t get to sit down and talk with other fans or music writers very often because I’m usually writing about what’s going on onstage and not in the minds and hearts of the fans, so I also saw his adventure as a chance to explore and discuss the universal emotions felt by live music fans. As I vicariously watched and read through his blog post during his trip, I was both curious and excited to see how the trip would turn out. Would he end up loving live music more or return wishing he never attempted such a feat?

As we talked at coffeehouse on Chicago’s Northside a few weeks after his trip, Andrew’s adventure turned out to be an excellent platform to discuss why, as fans and critics, we spend so much time, money and energy, thinking, photographing and writing about live music.

From his pre-trip emotions to his first concert experience ever at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in 1992, he explained what led him to attempt his 20days/20bands goal, which ended up falling short when Mother Nature tossed a welcomed wrench into his plans. Our chat also encouraged me to think more about what it means to walk the line between fan and critic when writing about live concert experiences.

When did you first think about trying to accomplish the 20 bands in 20 days trip? Had you been thinking about this for a long time?
Not really, it was something that just happened to be on my calendar and I was looking at my schedule to the next few months and realized that I was going to be seeing a lot of concert in the next few months. Live Music Blog is always trying to find interesting things to give our readers. Of course, with a blog like ours your want to be posting everyday and you want to provide the type of news that music addicts crave and the reason we’re writing is because we’re music addicts, too. We also want to be doing something unique every once in a while. My adventure just sort of blossomed out of my Google calendar because I was also planning a trip with some long-time friends from home. We were going to camp in the southwest and it just so happened that we were going to see a lot of shows, too. One-third of the shows were here in Chicago and two-thirds we’re in the southwest.

What were some of your emotions, thoughts and expectations before the trip?
Before something as crazy as this, you always think it’s going to be easy. I was also wondering whether or not, I had the energy to tackle this and stay awake to 2 a.m. for five nights. The first three days of shows in Chicago was the easy part. As you know, going to the shows isn’t always the hard part, the hard part is afterwards, and finding time to sit down and write about the shows, going through the photos, editing them and getting everything up on the site.

When did the hard part of the trip set in?
It didn’t start to get hard until I got to the Monolith festival. Festivals are physically exhausting to cover and Monolith might the one of the most exhausting to cover along with Lollapalooza because they’re so big. I haven’t had the luxury of covering a camping festival like Bonnaroo or Rothbury. I’ve been to Bonnoroo but I can’t imagine covering it because it’s so huge. Going to a festival like Lollapalooza, just as fan and tying to see the bands you want to see is tiring. And I’m not like professional photographers who carry around 30lbs of camera equipment for 12 hours. At Monolith you have to go about a mile up going from the parking lot to the venue. After a few beers, and the up and down on the stairs, your hamstrings really started to feel it.

What was your overall plan?
Our itinerary was to see three bands in Chicago, go to Monolith in Colorado, go camping in the southwest and then head to California for My Morning Jacket in LA and Street Scene in San Diego. So the camping aspect of our trip really allowed us to rest which was nice.

You mentioned in your last post about your trip that Mother Nature kept you from accomplishing your goal.
The reason that we came up short was that we were supposed to go to San Diego but we decided to stay at Lake Powell for an extra day. Once we got there we realized that missing a few concerts to enjoy the beauty of nature was well worth it. I also ran into a problem when we got into the dessert and I couldn’t post without internet service. I’ll have to factor that in next time.

In your second post during your trip, as you were heading to Monolith festival, you mentioned your editor Justin Ward’s experience struggling with “live concert burnout.” You were concerned about your adventure becoming a “task” or a” race” and having it negatively affecting your relationship with live music. What type of impact did the trip have on your relationship to live music?

It’s tough for me to see really understand what burnout means from Justin’s perspective because I don’t have the burden of running the site like he has, with getting tons of emails, figuring out the direction of the blog, editing our posts. And he doing all that while trying to maintain his relationship, trying to keep it untouched and growing. But I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have that cathartic moment like he did and start to feel like it’s turned into a job. I know that nobody who loves live music ever wants to feel like that.

For me the stress in my life comes from trying to balance covering live music with being a Graduate student at University of Chicago. It’s nice to be able to go to a concert from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. after getting crushed by hours of reading. Being in school allows me to have that type of schedule; but I never get into the mood where I feel the work or the music writing part of going to concerts is overwhelming. The ‘20 bands adventure’ was a little experiment to see if being 25 was actually catching up to me or not. I’ve heard from older friends that you start to feel it more around my age. [chuckles] And I found out that it was truer than I originally realized or wanted to admit before the trip.

What made you want to start writing about your concert experiences on Live Music Blog?
For me writing about my concert experiences is my way of getting experience in music writing and media and have a creative outlet in something I really like to do. Because when you get older you can’t just get drunk, have fun and go see a band; you have start asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’  ‘why am I spending a thousand dollars a month and not get anything out of it.’ So you incorporate something like writing for a website and taking photos which gives it more consistency and meaning. I’ve only been doing this for a year.

Have you had moments yet where it felt like a job?
Not yet. I think that might happen if I did do this full-time but right now I get to choose what shows I go too which keeps it fun. I haven’t felt too overwhelmed yet, but I was tired after the ‘20bands’ trip.

How long have you been going to concerts as a fan before you started writing and photographing your experiences?
I got caught in the tail end of the Phish phenomenon, which appears to be coming around again. I went to undergrad in Boston and went to a lot of shows there. But I’ve never gone to as many shows as I do now. Chicago is awesome because you have so many venues and styles of music within a close radius. I can just hop on my bike and go to a show.

You wrote about your experience at Red Rocks during Monolith with a lot of wonder and excitement focusing on how the surroundings had an impact on the music. How much of an impact did the atmosphere play in making it a memorable live show for you?

I always think it’s cool to experience music in new venues. I had never been to Red Rocks or the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Those two places are really mystical when you grow up listening to music, especially if you’re trading tapes like I was, and you see the name of the venue written on the tape you wonder what that place is like . You get to go there and check it off your list is one of the best parts of going on trips like I did. Seeing the sun go down at Red Rocks and you can see Denver starting to light up while Holy Fuck and White Denim played was a beautiful experience. The White Denim show was my favorite show of the year. I hadn’t seen them before. That’s what I love about live music: it has a progressively moving forward aspect, where you discover new bands when you least expect and that new band becomes one that you look forward to absorbing and seeing live again. The White Denim show was definitely one of those moments.

Were the friends you traveled with big live music fans like you are?
Not really. They’re music fans but not at the level that I am, necessarily. I pushed my buddies to accomplish the goal because it’s hard to push non-music fans to see that many shows at once. I was surprised at how much fun they really had because my buddies are not as big as music fan as I am. It worked out better than it could have because festivals can be fun to go to even if you’re not a huge music fan because there’s a lot to enjoy beyond just the music.

In your final post you wrote that “…with every great plan, there are changes, compromises and unexpectedness…” How did you feel when you realized you weren’t going to accomplish your goal, coming up five bands short?
We went to LA and camped for an extra day and after that stop my friends were reluctant to drive back to San Diego for the Street Scene Festival because we had already driven 2,000 miles at that point. We had a mini-argument when we had to discuss what we were going to do. It was really hard for me to concede because of the commitment I made to the Live Music Blog readers; but we had traveled as a team. My other friends had hit the wall with the concert going and that made me the odd man out so I had to go with the majority vote and skip the San Diego portion of the trip. After awhile I felt pretty good about staying in LA to enjoy the rest.

In a pre-trip post, you joked about “…warming up my rock and roll legs here in Chicago where I have a “solid fan base…”  Did the trip allow you to experience any similarities to what a band might experience during a tour?

I realized how expensive it is to travel across the United States. When you’re growing up you always think how sweet it would be to travel like a band does. But a lot bands would probably tell you that mid-tour it’s not all that great; you’re dirty and tired of sleeping in a van. Sure you’re doing what you love and you wouldn’t sign up for it if you didn’t but it gets really hard after awhile. I would image that what makes a band soldier on while traveling are the moments when they play for a great crowd and have that electric connection.

But after a while our trip started to make me think of how hard a band works to deal with traveling and touring constantly. I also thought about my days in Washington D.C. when I would help my friends breakdown their gear after a show. To do that and then get in the car immediately drive to the next show must be a real grind. This trip made me have a real respect for the van warriors who live hand-to-mouth.

What was your first live music experience?
Red hot chili Pepers Blood Sugar Sex Magic tour in 1992. My dad took me to it. He thought the song “Suck My Kiss” was called “Suck My Dick” It was pretty funny finding that out.

He wasn’t too familiar with their music, was he?
[chuckles] No he had no clue. He was the old dude sitting in the stand the whole time. But after the show he said “Hey, it was pretty good show except for that “Suck my Dick” song.”  I thought that was pretty funny and I told him the right song title. My first show by myself was Widespread Panic and then I also went to the first Lollapalooza tours in 1997. I’ll always remember those as some of my favorite shows even though I can’t believe I actually saw The Offspring.

Why is live music so important to you? What do you love about it the most? 
The best part about for me, and just music in general (and this is true of a lot of mediums of art) Your either getting the studio production part of it or the performance production. For example, ballet, musicals and stage theatre, you never get to see how it would be if they could do takes and perfect it. And with sculpting you see the final piece but don’t see them in action. But with music not only do you get to experience the studio version, you also get to see the fallible side of the artist. And that to me is what makes live music so special. A band can get up there and play like shit live or be geniuses at improvisation. There are several bands that can make a great album but just can’t pull of what they do in the studio live in concert. There are bands like Phish or the Grateful Dead who never really made a great album that was better than their live show.

Live music also offers the great opportunity for the transfer of emotion between a band and an audience, and that is probably the best and most unique part about it. It’s what keeps fans coming back because you can truly feel connected to what the artist is doing on stage.

Did you have any of those moments during your trip?
No, not really. Aside from the White Denim show I really took the whole trip in stride. I think when you’re younger you’re on a quest to find that perfect improvisation that you can’t find in the studio so you find it elsewhere. And when you get older you’ve seen so much music that you get a little more pragmatic about it. You know a good show when you see it and you lock on a song or two and you’re not drinking a beer or doing some other thinks that would keep you from seeing those moments, or the flipside which is drinking heavily during a show, doing that can make you think a terrible show was the best show ever. But when you’re covering shows as writer or photographer, drinking or doing drugs makes it really hard to do your job. And the truth is that after awhile doing a lot of drinking or drugs starts to detract from the show experience and getting the most out of music as an art form.

It is hard for you to separate being a fan and enjoying the show versus going as a reviewer of art?
Sometimes it is. But I’ve really enjoyed it writing about concerts and a lot of time I merge the two because there is a fine line between a live concert being just a social event and a performance of art.

What do you think is the most important of the Five Senses when it comes to enjoying live music? If you have to give up one sense what would it be?
That’s an interesting question. Of course one of the benefits of live music is seeing the music performed but anyone who really enjoys live music is there to hear it, so I’d say hearing is the most important. I wouldn’t think taste would be important unless of course you’re doing one of the things we were just talking about. I’d take an obstructed view of Phish’s Hampton show in a heartbeat just to be there and hear it live. I think about the people who went to see Radiohead at Lollapalooza, minus the TV screens, they were like ants on the stage but the fans still piled in to Grant Park to hear them.

Since you came up five bands short would you ever try doing this again?
I wouldn’t necessarily plan it again. But if the opportunity was there again, I would give it another shot. [chuckles] I’m always up for a good challenge.

What would be your live music dream assignment?
I would like to do is a photo essay of a band from the beginning of the night to the end. I’m thinking of the Brazilian band, CSS, who’s lead singer LoveFoxx wears unbelievably colorful and outrageous costumes. I’d love to follow the band during one of their shows to capture them getting ready before a show.

Note: My conversation with Andrew took place in November, a few weeks before Editor Justin Ward decided to put Live Music Blog on hiatus. A special thanks to Andrew, Justin and Live Music Blog for making this conversation possible.

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

As the end of the year approaches, there is a flood of new films entering your local Bijou. Sure, some have been out for a while, but only in limited release. As awards consideration becomes key, the studios are finally letting the mainstream see many of their very best. For the week before Christmas, 19 December, here’s the films in focus:

Gomorrah [rating: 8]

Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.

It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking. read full review…

Synecdoche, New York [rating: 7]

Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion…and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse.

Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?read full review…

Slumdog Millionaire [rating: 10]

(T)his is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.read full review…

Yes Man [rating: 6]

With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore **** up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only.

It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb. read full review…

Seven Pounds [rating: 6]

Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film.

If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…read full review…

The Wrestler [rating: 9]

Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general.

Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.read full review…

by Arun Subramanian

18 Dec 2008

The current craze of plastic peripheral-based rhythm games clearly started with Guitar Hero, but realistically, Guitar Hero wasn’t the first of its kind.  Konami has been producing music video games for years, through their Bemani division.  Though there were clear arcade roots, many successful ports were made, scaling down full featured, custom arcade setups for home translations of titles. However, very few were ever released in the United States.

It may be that Konami didn’t choose to pursue these properties in the United States because of a perceived lack of interest.  Alternatively, they may have thought the pervasive J-Pop soundtracks integral to the experience, and not transferable to American musical tastes.  In any case, Guitar Hero was not only able to adopt the Bemani formula, but also, by focusing on the American affinity for rock music in particular, was able to successfully make the title interesting to American gamers.  This was particularly notable given its relatively high price point.

Now that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have achieved full-on icon status (with an incredible 8 titles between them in the 3 years since the first Guitar Hero was released), Konami has chosen to try its hand at the same market with Rock Revolution.  Clearly Konami has the pedigree to create enjoyable music games, and Guitar Hero and Rock Band have essentially created a successful template for them.  Yet Rock Revolution is largely a disappointing effort, mainly because it doesn’t follow this template very well, and the specific ways in which the game departs from it serve to be fairly frustrating.

Rock Revolution has a fairly meager song list, and as yet, the available downloadable content does not contain anything on the level offered by Rock Band.  While a drum, bass, and guitar are supported, there is no support for voice, arguably one of the most enjoyable aspects of these games in a party setting.  The now ubiquitous presentation of notes arriving from the horizon has been eschewed in favor of a classic Bemani look, where the notes fall vertically from the top of the screen.  This approach allows for far fewer notes to be on screen at the same time, making difficult sections even more challenging.  One of the things Rock Revolution does right, however, is that it accepts various third party peripherals, making it unnecessary to purchase expensive instruments just for it.  In fact, the only branded Rock Revolution peripheral is a drum set, but critical response to this kit has been overwhelmingly negative.

As of this writing, Rock Revolution is available from a variety of retailers for $19.99, a full $30 off its original MSRP.  Already a budget title to begin with, perhaps this better positions Rock Revolution to essentially function as a song pack for people with existing Guitar Hero or Rock Band peripherals.  In fact, its open acceptance of various peripherals potentially positions it to be just that.  Still, whether players will be willing to sacrifice the overall polish and experience they’ve become accustomed to from the competition for Rock Revolution simply for a few extra cover songs remains to be seen.

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.

While appearing on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jamal is arrested by the police and charged with cheating. He is only one inquiry away from the jackpot. After a severe and rather brutal interrogation, the cops discover some interesting facts about the boy. Born in the slums of Mumbai, he recalls his life as an urchin while proving that he knows the answer to every question asked. We learn of his mother’s death at the hands of anti-Muslim protestors. We see his tenure as a part of an orphanage as organized crime begging scheme. We meet his hotheaded trickster brother Salim, and the girl he has loved ever since he first laid eyes on her, Lakita. After a stint as a faux tour guide at the Taj Mahal, and his current trade as a coffee boy in a cellphone call center, he appears streetwise, if not particularly educated. Still, Jamal does indeed know the answers. They’re just so happen to be the landmarks in his otherwise unexceptional life. 

There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

But Slumdog Millionaire is different. It uses a clever plot contrivance (each answer on the game show inspires another flashback to a point in Jamal’s life) and within said individuals stories, Boyle gets to experiment with tone, approach, and creative syntax. The early scenes are the funniest, as they featuring incredibly endearing child actors illustrating the spunk and determination that drives many a dead-end Indian kid. While some of the humor can be scatological (little Jamal literally crawls through shit to see his favorite Bollywood hero), Boyle never flinches. This is especially true of the pivotal moment when our hero loses his mother. Shot and edited in a highly stylized, kinetic manner, we get caught up in the riots, and are resolved to the devastation that results.

Boyle then switches gears, giving us life from a little one’s perspective. The trip to the orphanage has a real Oliver Twist tone, especially when your substitute Fagan shows his incredibly cruel disposition. Later, after rescuing Latika from a brothel, the brothers hole up in an abandoned hotel, the implied luxury countermanding their previous dirt poor survival. At this moment, Slumdog Millionaire transforms from a travelogue (complete with compelling moments at the world famous Taj) into a personal story about dignity and self-reliance. Within the framework of a craven, criminal underworld, the boys are made to chose. Jamal becomes an office flunky. His brother, like so many before, lets the allure of easy money and quick trigger violence overwhelm him.

By breaking up the story into these two halves, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who loosely adapted the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup) gives us the whole post-colonial Indian experience in a nutshell. On the one end is the seething tide of humanity, an overpopulated mass unable to do much except exist and expire. Then there are the wealthy, the new millennial millionaires and business impresarios who literally rape their homeland, utilizing interchangeable slave-like labor to make their money. Within this set-up Jamal sees a way out. All he has to do is appear on the country’s favorite game show, rack up the cash, and he’ll have everything - including Latika.

The romance between the two destined lovers can be seen as Slumdog‘s sole weak link, an unexplained obsession that’s too old school Hollywood to be anything other than fantasy. But because Boyle gets such compelling work out of his mostly newcomer cast (including remarkable turns by leads Dev Patel and Freida Pinto) we forgive the narrative contrivances and simply believe. In fact, a lot of Slumdog Millionaire reminds us of why we love movies in the first place. It whisks us away to locations exotic and new. It introduces us to people and life experiences far beyond our own daily sphere of influence, and delivers both in a way that excites our senses, stirs our imagination, and satisfies our basic entertainment needs - and then some.

In a world which is rampantly turning multicultural, the innate pleasures of Slumdog Millionaire reflect this growing global concept of acceptance. It’s miles away from other movies set in India, it’s belief in all facets of the society - good, bad, rich, poor, corrupt, innocent, camp, cruel - helping to turn the mysterious modern country into a combination of Oz and some interplanetary rest stop. You have truly never seen backdrops like those featured in this miraculous film. And through them all, a young man runs - to catch up to his destiny, to find grace within his lowlife circumstances, to snag the elusive girl he always loved. Jamal may not become a millionaire, but in the process of leaving his past behind, he will become his own man. Thanks to Danny Boyle’s undeniable genius, it’s a trip well worth taking. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb.

Carl Allen is a painfully unhappy man. Miserable ever since his divorce and lost in a dead end job, his friends feel he’s headed toward an interpersonal crash. One day, he runs into an old buddy who appears exceedingly vibrant and alive. He’s just come back from a seminar run by self-help guru Terrence Bundley, and the advice he’s been given is simple - just say “Yes” to everything. No negatives. Just positives. Reluctantly embracing the philosophy at first, Carl soon learns that constantly agreeing has its drawbacks. It also has its benefits, as he starts seeing a free spirited rock chick poet named Allison. Soon, life is wonderful for the former loser. He gets promoted, he reconnects with his pals, and his relationship with Allison is going gangbusters. But you can only agree with everything for so long before it comes back to bite you, and Carl soon discover the pitfalls - mostly personal - of being so agreeable.

With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore shit up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only. Jokes are made, funny things are said, and yet director Peyton Reed (slumming once again since making the oddly enjoyable retro gem Down with Love) can’t get things to gel. Carrey isn’t really to blame. After all, he’s working with a script that gesticulates wildly from clever RomCom meet cutes to old ladies giving blow jobs. This is humor as hodgepodge, everything but the crapped in kitchen sink tossed together in hopes that something satiric, or silly, or slapstick will occur. For every quasi-inventive moment (the ultra naïve New Zealand co-worker Norman is a nice touch) and rock solid emotional sentiment (Zooey Deschanel’s quirk girl damsel in distress is wonderfully winning), we are treated to pages ripped off and out of our lead’s book of formerly guaranteed laugh getters.

Yet now, they don’t work. Carrey was once the king of embarrassing behavior, unafraid to push the limits of likeability and realism to make his character’s click. Look back at his work in such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Cable Guy, Me, Myself, and Irene, or Dumb and Dumber and you’ll see someone going ape to try to make a maniac mountain out of a minor motivational molehill. Even when he’s taken it down several notches and gone serious (The Truman Show, The Majestic), he’s rooted his performances in a stylized reality. Not anymore. Carrey wants to be an average schmoe, albeit one who can still riff on Red Bull and go a drunken one-on-one with a pumped up bar patron. But in the interim between project delays and flops, comedy has passed Carrey by. What worked a few years ago seems as passé as the late Chris Farley’s fat guy goofballing.

That’s not to say that Yes Man completely fails, but there is a much better film to be found inside all the mugging and high concept contrivances. The notion of one man finding himself with the power of positive thinking and the newfound hope in the acceptance of life could be played for both humor and the handkerchiefs. Give us a strong enough protagonist, a philosophy that doesn’t feel ripped off from a dozen EST offshoots, and a relationship we can root for, and something like this would work and work well. But Reed can only manage one out of three, and even though it’s supposedly based on a book by Scot Danny Wallace, everything here feels false. Even when we buy into the budding kinship between Carrey and Deschanel, it’s because of the natural ease between the actors, not anything offered within the narrative.

Indeed, Yes Man takes a fast track into tedium the minute a spontaneous trip to Lincoln, Nebraska becomes a skewered spoof of the War on Terror. Allison misunderstands Carl’s motives, the Feds fall into familiar patterns of arrest first and ignore the answers to their questions later, and everything hinges on a hospital stay, a borrowed street bike, and that most hamfisted of ‘80s third act answers - the chase. That’s right, when all else fails, but your star in a butt-revealing hospital gown, get him on a physics defying vehicle of some sort, and watch as the editing and shot selection try to make things exciting and nail-biting. While we want to see a resolution to the last remaining plot threads, tying things up with some stuntwork seems unimaginative at best.

Perhaps Carrey is a concept whose time has truly past. Maybe he needs to go back to making family fare and the occasional oddball curveball choice (any calls from Tarantino you haven’t taken, Mr. Jim?). If films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Role Models have proved anything, it’s that a successful comedy in 2008 has to rely on more than just pratfalls and forced outrageousness to win over audiences. For someone who has traded almost exclusively in the world of brazen cinematic clowning, Jim Carrey can no longer hang. Had Yes Man embraced this and gone for something sensible, we might have a clever and inventive effort. As it stands, we are treated to the same old material filtered through a wit worn out since before George W. Bush took power.  That’s a little too long to be adrift inside the laughfest landscape.

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