For those who don't yet know, The Aristocrats is a literal one-joke movie. In Paul Provenza's documentary, nearly a hundred comedians re-tell an old vaudeville gag about a group of performers whose act consists of them performing the filthiest, most repellant stage atrocities imaginable - some immoral, most illegal, all unimaginable (or so it would seem). The performers' stage moniker? The Aristocrats.
A terrible joke, as the film's comedians gladly concede, but one with the capacity to be shaped in an infinite variety of ways; as Michael McKean says in the film, it's a joke that "kind of makes its own gravy." The comics aim to surprise and often do, not so much by out-raunching one another - you can only hear the same dirty words so many times before they lose their shock appeal - but by going off on exquisitely imaginative comic tangents, many of which have literally nothing to do with the gag itself. The movie's anticipation lies in not knowing what to anticipate. (Bob Saget tells perhaps the filthiest version of the joke ... what kind of world is this?) The Aristocrats is a fascinating account of the inner workings of a comic sensibility; when you're not laughing out loud, you're still admiring the chutzpah, and incredible talent, of the film's participants.
Interestingly, the comedians whose takes on the joke are the most raw generally come off the weakest. Saget and Gilbert Gottfried, seen in his legendary turn at the New York Friar's Club roast shortly after 9/11, shove the filth down our throats and make us laugh through a torrent of obscentity, but for some whose work hasn't been fresh for years - Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, Paul Reiser - the gag becomes nothing but an exercise in depravity. The comedians seem thrilled to be unbound by convention, but their interpretations don't linger in the memory; the joke, in essence, becomes a variation on "Did you hear what that sweet Paul Reiser just said?"
The truly, madly inspired comedians in The Aristocrats pay respect to the joke through their telling of it; they want to come up with the best possible version of the worst gag ever recounted. Martin Mull, in a sweetly apologetic fashion, tells the most traditional version heard in the film - beautifully establishing the gag's setup, follow-through, and punchline - and perhaps the funniest, although he has strong competition from Sarah Silverman, whose naturalistic, almost nostalgic delivery is sublimely deadpan. Several performers' gifts for mimicry serve them gloriously well; Kevin Pollak's Christopher Walken number is fantastic, and when Mario Cantone began channeling Liza Minnelli for his version ... seriously, just then I had to stop typing because I'm laughing merely thinking about it.
In The Aristocrats, the range and vagaries of the comics' routines continually knock you out. Comedians you haven't even thought about for years - Rita Rudner and Howie Mandel and Emo Phillips! - appear newly inspired, bending and twisting the gag to fit their very specific comic stylings; The Smothers Brothers do a riff on the joke that's so subtly, cleverly woven into their familiar, familial patter that they could probably perform the routine on The Tonight Show and it would take the censors a week to catch on. Carrie Fisher provides a biting retelling that makes you yearn for her movie comeback. (She's our new Thelma Ritter ... why aren't casting directors aware of this?) Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly crack themselves, and us, up at the joke's countless possibilities. And comic actor Taylor Negron makes you suck in your breath by setting his version during "the tragic events of ... January third ... ."
The moment might have been even more outrageous if, as usual, Trey Parker and Matt Stone - whose contribution arrives about two-thirds of the way through the movie - hadn't gotten there first. As someone who's predisposed to giggle at the South Park characters anyway, I found Parker and Stone's South Park take phenomenally funny. But when Cartman adds something to the routine that comes dangerously close to Crossing the Line - while laughing, the friend I saw the film with kept repeating, "I am not laughing at this, I am not laughing at this" like a mantra - the whole audience experienced something akin to comic shock.
And I mean "whole audience" literally - when I caught the film during an afternoon screening at Showcase 53 last week, my friend and I were the only ones in the audience. The movie is now playing at the Brew & View Rocket in the District. See it, and bring as many friends as you can find. In addition to being a pretty damned fascinating achievement, The Aristocrats deserves a huge crowd to share it with - it's f---ing hilarious.
Jim Jarmusch's latest, Broken Flowers, is a charming, entertaining comedy that fools you into thinking it's deep. The film sees Bill Murray's Don Johnstron as a one-time lothario who has sunk into a mid-life depression, and who receives an anonymous letter informing him of a child he fathered some 20 years earlier. We follow him on his quest to discover which of four former lovers might be the letter's author, and even though you might not believe a thing that happens in Broken Flowers, the ride itself is certainly enjoyable. A quartet of terrific actresses - Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton - attack their roles with relish; Lange is particularly fine, giving her eccentric "animal communicator" beatific grace and mesmerizing eccentricity. Jarmusch's tone of possibility and regret is beautifully sustained throughout, and he gives you plenty of time to soak in the odd loveliness of the work - his shots seem to be held for about four beats longer than you expect, allowing you to luxuriate in its ravishingly tacky details.
For what it is, Broken Flowers is just about perfect. There's just not much to it. With Bill Murray's inscrutable deadpan giving nothing away - has any other comic actor ever played it this close to the vest? - there's no way to believe Johnston as a man who'd cause much fuss for one woman, let alone four, 20 years after the fact; nothing about Murray's Johnston elicits an emotion stronger than ennui. He keeps meeting these sad, fascinating, emotionally hungry women, and Murray greets them all with the same look of faux detachment that has worked to his advantage brilliantly in Lost in Translation and the Wes Anderson movies. Here, though, you don't know what Don Johnston is thinking of these road-trip rendezvous, and it doesn't appear that Jarmusch is all that interested in finding out. Johnston's encounters with the faces from his past don't carry any weight for us because they don't seem to faze him; they wind up as entertaining acting exercises, and not much else. I enjoyed nearly every minute of Broken Flowers, but Murray's straight face matches Jarmusch's so well that the movie is almost too laid-back for its own good; you might not realize how much you miss Hollywood sentimentality until it's gone from a movie entirely.