(Part 38 of an ongoing series)
We’re not your classic heroes… we’re the other guys.
The Shoveller (William H. Macy), Mystery Men
Having spent the past year revisiting the movies of 1999, my heavily-biased belief that 1999 was cinema’s most exciting year to date has only grown stronger. Alas, not all the movies I’ve watched for this series possessed enough Sick Desperation in Their Laughs to crack my Top 40. But some of those also-rans still deserve a quick mention, honorable or otherwise:
But I’m A Cheerleader (directed by Jamie Babbit)
The main goal of But I’m A Cheerleader is to ridicule those “ex-gay” ministries that foolishly try to turn gay people straight. The film also has a pretty sweet love story between Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high school cheerleader coming to terms with her sexuality, and Graham (Clea Duvall), an out-and-proud rebel. These parts of the movie are awesome, and totally 1999. Problem is, this movie should cut like a chainsaw, and instead it merely bops like a wiffle-bat. It kept making me fantasize about how much harder this premise would’ve hit had it been handled by John Waters. But perhaps even more troubling is its depiction of gay men. While lesbians Megan and Graham feel like living, breathing people, pretty much all the guys in this movie are reduced to prancing, cock-hungry sissies. It’s cool to play with stereotypes, yet when it comes to gay men, But I’m A Cheerleader seems to content to simply reinforce certain stereotypes– which essentially cancels out most of its mind-opening, tolerance-preaching intentions.
Sleepy Hollow (directed by Tim Burton)
Sleepy Hollow is frequently creepy, occasionally funny, and always gorgeous as heavenly hell. It may also contain the precise turning point in Tim Burton’s career, the point where he went from gothy maverick to tired hack. Sleepy Hollow starts promisingly yet ends in somewhat uninspired fashion– much like a career that began with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, but since Sleepy Hollow, has offered forgettable remakes like Planet Of The Apes, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows…
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (directed by Jay Roach)
1999 also saw a turning point in Mike Myers’ career. In his earlier, funnier movies (Wayne’s World, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery), he definitely utilized catchphrases, call-backs, and gag-milking even more than the average SNL player. Yet there was usually a great humility in his humor. Then the first Austin Powers became a sleeper hit that demanded a sequel, and suddenly it seemed as if Myers’ humility vanished, replaced with a conviction that audiences really wanted to see every single silly idea that popped into his head. No doubt The Spy Who Shagged Me has some hefty belly-laughs. But it also has an unhealthy number of sequences that go on so long they’d make Seth MacFarlane check his watch, and they foreshadow the caravan of lackluster vehicles Myers would unleash in the ’00s (Goldmember, The Cat In The Hat, The Love Guru).
Catherine Zeta-Jones dips beneath the lasers in Entrapment
I haven’t seen Entrapment since 1999, and all I remember about it is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ butt. Adam from Workaholics knows what I’m talkin about; dude wrote a song about it:
American Pie (directed by Paul & Chris Weitz)
American Pie gave us so much: John Cho popularizing the word ‘MILF,’ Jason Biggs boning an apple pie, Shannon Elizabeth going topless, Alyson Hannigan getting freaky. But I’m not sure American Pie gave us enough of that Sick Desperation in Our Laughter. Maybe it would have if it had raised the raunchy-comedy bar set one year earlier by There’s Something About Mary. Only American Pie didn’t exactly raise that bar, it just kind of limboed underneath the bar and nudged it with its boner.
Tumbleweeds (directed by Gavin O’Connor)
It’s a moving story of the relationship between a flighty, freewheeling, single mother (Janet McTeer) and her coming-of-age daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), it’s just not very 1999. Though there are flashes of Sick Desperation in McTeer’s outstanding performance.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (directed by George Lucas)
Without a doubt the most disappointing movie I’ll ever see three times in a theater. I kept going back, assuming my initial disappointment stemmed from setting my fanboy standards impossibly high, and that eventually I’d grow to love Episode I as much I loved Episodes IV, V, & VI. Alas, just like everyone else not named George Lucas, I have only grown to dislike this movie more over the years– except for the pod race and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber battle, which still kick ass.
Mystery Men (directed by Kinka Usher)
It seems so 1999 in theory: a subversive superhero riff starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, and Tom Waits, to name a few. Unfortunately, the script could’ve used a punch-up or two; the jokes’ hit-to-miss ratio is far lower than this premise and cast deserved. Macy’s line at the end of this scene was one of the few that made me laugh out loud:
Go (directed by Doug Liman)
“OK, I know ripping off Pulp Fiction got old like two years ago, but what if we did, like, a Pulp Fiction thing but with, like, ecstasy, and Vegas, and Amway?”
“YES! But we also need a scene in a diner where a drug dealer has one of those Tarantino monologues about that comic strip Family Circus, ’cause I was in a diner this morning and I’d just done a couple bumps and I was reading the paper and I saw Family Circus and I thought to myself, ‘Why hasn’t Tarantino written a monologue about Family Circus yet?”
And the nominees for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 are…
Leaving the theater after seeing Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, I was convinced it would get like 12 Oscar nominations. Not because I thought it was that great a movie, but because this star-studded, lefty-friendly, semi-musical, Depression-era historical drama seemed like it was shovel-feeding the Academy exactly the kind of stuff they love to heap awards upon. I was way off on that prediction, but the rest of the 1999 Oscar-darlings weren’t that hard to foresee– like Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules, a weighty-but-not-too-dark period drama with a lefty-friendly capital-M Message about the necessity of abortion. And while I’ve got mad respect for Michael Mann’s The Insider, I have to admit that this ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama with a lefty-friendly David-vs.-Corporate-Goliath agenda was fishing hardcore for Oscar gold.
I wouldn’t say I have mad respect for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty; it’s more like reserved respect. Its Oscar-hunger is shameless (especially in Annette Bening’s performance), and it leans awfully hard on its lefty-friendly suburban ennui. Still, it’s funnier and sweeter and more haunting than most of its detractors give it credit for. There are at least 25 movies from 1999 that I would’ve voted for “Best Picture” above American Beauty, but its victory doesn’t offend me nearly as much as, say, Crash‘s victory did.
Yet the award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 has to go to Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. It was as if Darabont was so sore about The Shawshank Redemption losing to Forrest Gump five years earlier that he tried to make the most snub-proof Oscar-bait he could imagine. So he did another prison drama based on a Stephen King story, only this time it would star Oscar-magnet TOM FREAKING HANKS. And it would be anti-racism AND anti-death penalty. And there’d be magic, but with religious overtones, yet not so Jesusy as to alienate non-Christians. And finally, it would be three EPIC hours long. Of course, all this calculation came to naught, and The Green Mile couldn’t generate enough buzz to outfox American Beauty. But for what it’s worth, Mr. Darabont, your film is the winner of The Sick Desperation In Your Laugh Award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 in a goddamn landslide.