Today’s cinema adventure: Eating Raoul, the dark 1982 low-budget satire which became a surprise hit and helped to start a wave of goofy “camp” comedies that pervaded the rest of the decade. Director/co-writer Paul Bartel, an exploitation cinema veteran, also stars with longtime friend and frequent co-star Mary Woronov as a married pair of sexual squares who lure “swingers” to their Hollywood apartment and kill them with a frying pan in order to finance their dream of opening a restaurant. Macabre as the premise seems- and in spite of a plot which features such elements as rape, serial murder and cannibalism- the film is kept light and fun by a healthy dose of good-natured kitsch and by its ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of the lurid “swinger” culture and its sexually liberated denizens. Bartel and Richard Blackburn’s screenplay is loaded with pseudo-shocking dialogue which exploits the ridiculousness of both prudish repression and extreme sexuality, peppered with great deadpan one-liners, and thematically unified by an exploration of the depravity hiding just under even the most respectable-seeming surfaces. Clever writing aside, the primary factor in the film’s success is the charm of its leading players: Bartel is somehow likeable and endearing despite his pompously indignant and über-nerdy persona; former Warhol “superstar” Woronov is a complex confection, undercutting her character’s uptight austerity with smoldering sensuality and a girlish vulnerability; and the chemistry between these oddball stars is palpable- they are clearly driven by the same skewed vision. Rounding out the main cast is Robert Beltran, equally charming and sympathetic as Raoul, the hot-blooded Latino hoodlum who attempts to blackmail and come between the couple- and whose ultimate fate is foreshadowed by the tongue-in-cheek title of the film. In addition, there are some delightful cameos by comedic masters such as Buck Henry, Ed Begley, Jr., and the incomparable Edie McClurg. The sordid proceedings play out against a now-nostalgic backdrop of seedy Los Angeles locations, accompanied by a quirky and eclectic soundtrack and driven at a brisk pace by Bartel’s quietly masterful direction. Don’t get me wrong here- Eating Raoul is by no means a masterpiece, even in the world of underground cinema- it lacks the anarchic, subversive edginess of a John Waters film, and its “shocks” are pretty tame, even by 1982 standards- but it is nevertheless a delight to watch, perhaps because for all its satirical snarkiness and its unsavory subject matter, there is an unmistakable sweetness at the center of its black little heart.
Today’s cinema adventure: Young Adult, the 2011 feature by writer Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air). Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a hard-drinking thirty-something writer of teen romance novels, who attempts to resolve her fractured emotional life by returning to her small hometown and stealing her former high school sweetheart away from his wife and infant daughter. Ostensibly a dark comedy, this piece is in fact a character study- and a bleak one- which hinges on the performance of Theron as its central character, and she rises brilliantly to the occasion. The actress won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, and she equals that work here with her portrait of another kind of “monster,” an alcoholic whose arrested emotional development has her teetering on the brink of self-destruction, trying to use prom queen tactics in a grown-up world and unconcerned with the havoc she wreaks on the lives of those around her; but, even as Mavis’ downward spiral becomes increasingly embarrassing and her behavior grows more and more hateful, Theron succeeds in capturing the spark of humanity that allows us to see through the affectation and attitude to which she so desperately clings, and makes it possible, if not to sympathize with her, at least to understand her- and, a little unsettlingly, even to relate to her. Providing a counterpoint to Mavis’ delusional shenanigans is Patton Oswalt, as an old schoolmate (disabled by a savage beating which may have been at least partly her fault) whose ability to see through her façade makes him both an antagonist and an unlikely ally; he delivers an unsentimental performance that keeps the character likeable while still underlining the dysfunctions that affect his own broken life. Patrick Wilson, as the object of Mavis’ obsessions, is cast once more as the stolid-but-faded golden boy, a part which he fills to a tee- though it would have been nice to see his character laced with a little more of the darkness he has so brilliantly essayed in similar roles (Angels in America, Little Children, Watchmen). The remainder of the cast is largely relegated to the background, where they serve as foils for the one-woman-show they surround; indeed, one of the film’s most significant characters is the scenery itself, an authentically realized small-town suburbia full of the bland and familiar icons of Middle American life, which provides a constant reminder of the comforting-and-maddening mediocrity from which- or to which- so many of us wish to escape. As for the work of the film’s masterminds, Cody’s screenplay is full of the kind of edgy hipster irony we have come to expect from her, infusing the dialogue with a double-edged wit that makes us cringe even as we chuckle; and Reitman’s direction displays his easy skill with visual storytelling, effortlessly blending revelatory character detail and thematic reinforcement within the straight-and-steady unfolding of the narrative. It should be said, however, that Young Adult, though strong on observation, comes up a bit short when it comes to insight; in the end, despite the exposure of numerous key moments in Mavis’ life, we are really no closer to understanding what makes her tick. Still, perhaps it is wrong to expect easy answers in a story about an alcoholic’s decline; and even though Young Adult lacks the disarming freshness of Juno or the unexpected emotional resonance of Up in the Air, both its creators deserve considerable praise for making a film brave enough to favor realism over sentiment by refusing to redeem or resolve. Though there are plenty of genuine laughs here (albeit somewhat morbid ones), this film is not for the squeamish; the rest of us, however, will be refreshed by the rare honesty behind it- and rewarded by the magnificent performance of its leading player, who continues to prove that, as beautiful as she is, it is her talent that makes her a star.