Monday, April 03, 2006

The "Man" she's not, but we love Amanda Bynes anyway


directed by Andy Fickman
starring Amanda Bynes, a bunch of other Gen Y actors, and David Cross

It takes a certain amount of ingenuity to translate Shakespearean comedy into a modern teen movie, and the silly but enjoyable "She's the Man" shows just enough to get by. That the comedy in question is Twelfth Night both helps and hurts. As I was recently discussing with a friend, Twelfth Night is a sheer delight, but at bottom it’s a goofy play with a frankly unbelievable (and biologically inaccurate) premise: It assumes a twin sister and brother can look so alike that all it takes for the sister to be mistaken for the brother is to dress like him. (Actually, that’s not completely impossible: I know someone whose sister looks more like him than his own identical twin does.) Complications ensue when the twin sister, Viola, falls in love with a Duke who thinks she’s a boy, while the woman he’s in love with (or thinks he’s in love with) falls for the hapless Viola.

Translated into contemporary terms, and I quote directly from the movie’s poster, “Duke wants Olivia who likes Sebastian who is really Viola whose brother is dating Monique so she hates Olivia who's with Duke to make Sebastian jealous who is really Viola who's crushing on Duke who thinks she's a guy...”

Close enough, except who’s Monique? Who cares? In this version, Viola (Amanda Bynes) is a gifted soccer player who resorts to desperate measures when her high school cuts the girls’ soccer team out of its budget. Shortly after getting the bad news, she discovers that her twin brother Sebastian (James Kirk) is secretly shipping off to England to play a gig with his band, even though he’s supposed to start prep school in a few days. Since it so happens that this Illyria Prep (get it?) is the arch-soccer rival of Viola’s own Cornwall High, Viola decides to try to pass herself off as Sebastian while he’s playing hooky, make the Illyria guys' soccer team, help defeat Cornwall, and thereby show that girls can play soccer as well as boys. All of that happens in due course, though not without the requisite series of comic and romantic entanglements along the way. Viola/Sebastian’s roommate at Illyria, Duke (Channing Tatum), turns out to be that eternal female fantasy, the sensitive hot guy, while Viola herself, despite acting like a complete goober as a boy, attracts the interest of Olivia, the object of Duke’s affections. The improbability of this setup reaches a fever pitch of absurdity when the real Sebastian returns and no one seems to notice the difference between him and Viola. Still, by then you’ve either suspended your disbelief or you haven’t, and the payoff is a perfectly madcap “big game” that will have you in stitches either way.

In any case, realism is hardly a priority in the weirdly timeless world of Illyria and Cornwall, where debutante balls and kissing booths are apparently quite normal, and where everyone has cell phones but no one seems to use the Internet. “She’s the Man” got a rewrite from Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, the screenwriters behind “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” and bears their imprint in every line and beat of the movie. Subtle it’s not—in fact the comedy is so broad it may make you wince, especially the scenes involving Viola’s lunatic, decorum-obsessed mother—but it has a bright, bubble-gum, you-go-girl spirit and tongue-in-cheek perkiness that keep things rolling merrily along. It’s not quite enough, however, to overcome the disturbing sense that this is yet another synthetic teen product with interchangeable parts for actors: Tatum looks like Josh Hartnett; the guy playing Justin, Viola’s caddish ex, looks like a blond Chris Klein; the girl playing Monique, the nightmare girlfriend, looks like a bitchier Winona Ryder; the guy playing Paul, Viola’s best gay pal, looks like Jude Law; and the girl playing Olivia looks like every third blonde in Hollywood.

Everyone, in short, looks vaguely like someone else—everyone, that is, except for Amanda Bynes, bless her chipmunk cheeks and enormous sea-green eyes. (Oh, and comedian David Cross, who randomly turns up here as the eccentric, slightly creepy principal of Illyria.) “She’s the Man” was made specifically for Bynes (trust me, I know), so it should hardly come as a surprise that the movie rises and falls by her performance. There’s no question Bynes makes a very unconvincing and strange-looking boy, and her attempts at guyspeak are ludicrous. Yet there’s something so endearing and winsome about her, even at her hammiest moments, that it’s easy to understand why a studio would bank a project of such uncertain marketability on her appeal. In one particularly cute scene, Viola/Sebastian is pretending to bench-press but is really watching Duke. She tries to do it inconspicuously at first, then abandons pretense and just ogles him with adorable googly eyes. That moment pretty much sums up the movie: ostensibly, it’s about Amanda Bynes going stealth as a guy, but in the end, it’s really just about Amanda Bynes, in all her irrepressible, irresistible girlishness. If you can accept that, you’ll have a good time with “She’s the Man”; if you can’t, you’re better off avoiding it.


Also saw:


directed by Michel Gondry
written by and starring Dave Chappelle (duh)
featuring Kanye West, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Fugees (reunited!), others I probably shouldn't be omitting

One day in 2004, before his abrupt retreat from the public eye, Dave Chappelle came up with the great idea of sponsoring a free concert, featuring his favorite hip-hop artists, in the heart of Brooklyn, NY. He then came up with the even better idea of inviting people from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to attend at his expense, and filming the whole saga. The result is "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," a warm, easygoing, surprisingly low-key tribute to music as the universal unifier. Not that Chappelle, being Chappelle, doesn't throw in some acidically funny observations on race, ethnicity and urban culture. But ultimately he's a uniter, not a divider, and lets the musicians speak (and sing, and rap) for themselves. It's a dream of a lineup, though some of the performances are oddly edited - why, for instance, tantalize us with the prospect of a reunited Fugees and then cut off their set midway through their signature song? Still, we're compensated by some lovely offstage bits that involve Chappelle jamming with the musicians and doing comic riffs in between, and an Ohio university marching band that he invites to participate in the concert. The mere sight of the students' faces, bright with excitement at the prospect of the party of their lives, is enough to make you believe that sometimes, with the right music and the right mood, we all really can just get along.



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