The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, September 6, 2005 - 9A
"Two guys walk into a bar. The third one ducked."
Sioppy style sinks
By Zach Borden
Daily Arts Writer
In a summer where audiences
were charmed by the mating habits
of penguins and
swooned over quad-
riplegic athletes, The
it shouldn't seem Aristocrats
odd that many are At the
excited for a film Michigan
about Vaudevillian Theater
humor. As one of ThinkFilm
the more unique
offerings from Hol-
lywood's recent nonfiction boom,
"The Aristocrats" offers an interest-
ing focus: Dozens of comedians tell
the exact same joke over and over,
each adding their own spin - the
more offensive, the better. But
thanks to its reliance on improvisa-
tion, this joke is no ordinary bit.
Even though the setup is always the
same - a man walks into a talent agent's
office and says, "Do I have an act for you!
My family goes on stage and ..." - as is
the punch line (which is the film's title),
no two versions of the joke are exactly
alike. The body of the joke varies, and
that's why it's worth repeating: A skilled
comedian can improvise the family's
"act" to his heart's content.
While the concept for "The Aris-
tocrats" showed promise, the movie
quickly becomes monotonous. The
problem is that quite often, the content
of each retelling is very similar, as the
"family act" typically involves plenty
of graphic sex, incest and feces.
What's worse, the sloppy edit-
ing style director Paul Provenza
uses hinders the film's potential. He
seems quite content to constantly
cut away when an artist is speak-
ing. Typically, somebody will begin
telling the infamous joke, and then
partway through, another comic
will start in with his or her version.
Many of the performers are able to
finish the joke, but sometimes, you
don't see them again until much later
in the movie. If Provenza had creat-
ed a more coherent, easier-to-follow
structure, the documentary would
have flowed much better.
An additional problem is that
the movie builds with commentary
from one talking head after another,
and although individual moments are
funny, viewers ultimately arrive at an
unfortunate conclusion: "The Aris-
tocrats" never really says anything.
The improvisational nature of the
joke would seem an easily exploit-
able device, as would the joke's his-
torical relevance within comedic lore.
But whenever the film seems as if it's
stumbled onto something meaning-
ful, the movie again cuts away with-
out giving these deeper ideas further
thought. Perhaps more commentary
would have only weighed it down
more, but the product we're presented
with just seems lazy.
That said, "The Aristocrats" is not a
total waste. Some of the featured per-
formances - which can be considered
the comedic equivalent of improvisa-
tional jazz - are very inspired, if not
always hilarious. A mime physically
performs a colorful version in public,
a magician uses cards to emphasize
some of the raunchier moments in his
version and Bill Maher puts a contem-
porary spin on the punch line. Even
Cartman from "South Park" gets in on
the act, arguably providing the mov-
ie's most politically incorrect telling.
Other highlights include a wry testi-
monial from Sarah Silverman; Gilbert
Gottfried giving his "legendary" perfor-
mance of the "Aristocrats" bit at Hugh
Hefner's Friar's Club roast right after the
Sept. 11 attacks; and Bob Saget, seek-
ing to shed his Danny Tanner persona,
is quite eager to sound off an extremely
explicit version of the joke.
To his credit, Provenza tries to offer
a little depth when the film delves into
the more sociological aspects of the
joke. Assorted performers give their
thoughts on this classic - covering its
origins, why the joke has endured for
so long, its overall appeal. However,
many of these detailed insights - like
the assorted variations of the family
act - are too similar, hence boring.
Like a joke you've heard one time
too many, "The Aristocrats" wears out
its welcome quickly. Even at 80 min-
utes, the movie drags. How much one
enjoys seeing renowned comedic per-
formers give it their all will also large-
ly depend on whether he's offended
by what's coming out of their mouths.
Those who can withstand all the talk
of bestiality and bodily fluids will be
entertained; those who can't will walk
out after 15 minutes.
has a week to live or that some
guy on the back patio is going The Constant
chase her up a winding staircase Gardener
and throw her over the edge.
She was killed along with an At Showcase
African doctor in Kenya on the and Quality 16
day before they were to expose Focus Features
a lucrative conspiracy rooted in
the local medical practices. Left behind is her doting
husband, Justin (Ralph Fiennes, "Red Dragon"), who
was unaware of her plan.
So goes the premise of "The Constant Gardener,"
Fernando Meirelles's ("City of God") stunning sec-
ond film, adapted from the John Le Carr6 bestsell-
er. As with most great thrillers, this is a movie all
about context. It works on one level as a fragmented
political potboiler about a man's search for the truth
behind his wife's death, but because it is the second
feature directed by Brazilian virtuoso Meirelles, we
know that there is more than meets the eye.
As the movie unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, we
learn the back story. Justin, a diplomat whose ear-
nest demeanor is the self-professed reason he has not
"risen very high" in his profession, marries Tessa,
a fervent young activist who persuades him to take
her along on his professional visits to Kenya.
Within a year, Justin's wife is dead, but some-
where in between she has stumbled onto a startling
secret involving a pharmaceutical giant and Afri-
can patients. Devastated, Justin becomes obsessed
with the details surrounding her death. His journey,
the film's masterfully restrained second act, is con-
siderable but not sweeping. There are surprises and
unexpected revelations, but they remain grounded
and resist the temptation to bombard us with sensa-
But like "City of God," a sprawling, patient
story of gang warfare in a Brazilian slum, Meire-
lles is less interested in the thriller itself than with
its narrative possibilities. Here he uses the basic
story as the lens through which he views develop-
"Honey, it's okay If you don't want to be constantly gardening."
ing nations in Africa, photographed eagerly and
vividly by C6sar Charlone, and seeks not to indict
Western indifference but perhaps to unmask it.
That the corporate conspiracy is so plausible is key
- where Sydney Pollack's "The Interpreter" and
the forthcoming biopic "Lord of War" use Africa
as a remote narrative backdrop, Meirelles makes it
not only the arena but also the thematic backbone
of his film.
All the while, he never neglects the story's
roots. Observe the climax, in which Meirelles
takes a familiar scene of obligatory but necessary
closure and presents it before the film reveals what
actually happens. It's rare for a filmmaker to have
both an uncompromising vision and a deep respect
for his audience, but that's exactly what Meirelles
achieves. His film is a rarity, too - it reveals its
full scope only after it's over, impressing itself in
our minds, perhaps haunting them forever.
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