Sunday, June 05, 2011
Movies: I'll give you my Axe Body Spray(TM) when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!
The obvious reference point for Jake West's 2009 lad-inflected zomcom actioner Doghouse is Edgar Wright's 2004 Shaun of the Dead. The loglines are similar enough: Underachieving male lead with relationship problems sorts his life out during a zombie outbreak. The chief distinction between the flicks lies in just what you mean when you declare your life sorted.
The titular hero of Wright's work has a familiar character arc: for all the yucks and guts, Shaun's recognizable from a million dramas and comedies as "the man who needs to grow up." He's got to make peace with a father figure while simultaneously making a definitive break from influence of his parents. He's got to assume the mantle of responsibility and he's got to secure his relationship with the woman in his life. For all Wright's visual and verbal inventiveness, Shaun's journey to adulthood is pretty standard stuff. That only sounds like criticism until you've seen Doghouse.
If you throw a frisbee so that the disk is released with an upward tilt, the frisbee will gain altitude as it flies. At some point, it'll stall out in its ascent and begin a steep drop. Eventually, whatever combo of drag and lift, wind and spin is working on it will give it enough power to right itself and fly back toward the original point of take off. Sooner or later, the disk runs out of power, but if you've tossed it right, you'll be able to catch it without moving. I'm not sure what you'd call the figure traced by the flight of the frisbee. It isn't an arc, because of the looping return. A loop would suggest a more rounded figure. For purposes of the post, we're going to call this shape - an oddly curvy triangle that looks like a child's rendering of a wind-filled sail - the Frisbee Aerial Return Triangle, or FART.
The male characters in Doghouse don't follow arcs so much as they FART their way through the flick. They start out as a set of variably boisterous losers all on the lam from a collection of stereotype women (I think it is fair to say that even the gay member of our stag party has a partner who is, gender aside, essentially a needy, nagging shrew). Their metaphoric/social conflict becomes a violent, deadly one when the boys find themselves stranded in a town where all the ladies have been transformed into zombie-like homicidal monsters - while, luckily, retaining their stereotypical identities: the hair-dresser, the witch, the barmaid, the fat cow wife, etc. The boys reach the peak of their development when they decide to embrace their arrested development and start fighting back against the legion of female archetypes arrayed against them. We learn the valuable lesson that the point of men is that we're irresponsible, not terribly bright, emotionally limited creatures - and we should be proud of it. Finally, we basically end up with everybody back where they started, except for the few lads who were killed along the way.
The "war of the sexes" is a theme that's rarely employed with any sincerity. More often than not, the "war" is an ambush and a slaughter. Few people have picked up pen, paint, or camera intending to document the tensions between men and women with anything like objectivity or impartiality. It is the theme of choice for those with an axe to grind. So it is here. As far as we can tell, the gents that populate this flick are kind of douchebags. With the exception of the sad sack leader of the pack, they are stalled out examples of modern man-boys. It's far too easy to imagine that, yeah, were I a chick, I'd have had it with this JLA of modern male lameness too. West, however, plays the film out like this band of bros is a ragtag Dirty Dozen on a mad near-suicide mission in the battle for gender freedom.
I should point out too, this isn't me stretching for some political subtext here. West made the liberation of Maxim readers everywhere his central motif. When a character tells his fellow bros to grab golf clubs and bash everything "in a dress," its clear that subtext is the whole text here.
Not that I'm personally upset by the absurdly whatever-the-male-equivalent-of-hysterical-is representation of women. It's unclear to me how offensive the movie would be to a female viewer. On one hand, it is clearly giant middle-finger to anything that doesn't have a penis dangling between its legs. On the other hand, I could easily imagine a woman assuming this was some oddly rigorous exercise in satire by an artist so committed to his joke that he never revealed the slightest crack in his character. The latter position, though, she would most take only because the idea that the director was serious would be too pathetic to believe.
If Doghouse were extremely funny, scary, or exciting, then perhaps it could be forgiven for the dumbness of its central conceit. If there's anything the history of genre entertainments teaches us, it's that audiences will forgive a work almost anything provided it keeps manically mashing our pleasure buttons with both fists. Any time you see somebody stop to think critically, you know something's broken down. But Doghouse never achieves that escape velocity. Enamored with its own minimalist take on gender politics, it yammers when it should run, complains when it should scream, and rants when it should joke.
Take away lesson: Be offensive if you like; but for God's sake, don't be tedious.