Sometimes, the easy target isn't so basic after all. Audiences assume that certain subject areas lend themselves to levity, and for the most part, they're right. They don't call it toilet or bathroom humor for nothing – the jokes as plain as the john itself. The educational system also seems ripe for ridicule, if only because we all carry with us the scars of second grade (the HELL grade), or getting rebuffed by the boy/girl of our dreams in front of our friends. Many of the classic comedians agree that comedy comes from pain, and there is no greater homage to harm than the scatological (just think about it for a moment) or the scholastic.
But when comedy concepts revolve around Shakespeare or its practical polar opposite – porn - the laughs are not so loud. It could be the result of how serious said aficionados take their Bard/balling. It could also be something inherent in the material. Many people proclaim hardcore and/or Hamlet to be unrealistic and over the top to begin with. No matter what you mix in – sci-fi, fantasy, thrills, spills, chills or arcane foreign accents – it's hard to make the humor materialize.
Peter Shushtari should know this all too well. He tried to make a clever cavalcade of chuckles with his mostly mockumentary motion picture Shakespeare...In and Out. And while he succeeds at making a movie that's entertaining and enjoyable, there aren't a lot of bawdy guffaws to be found. Instead, this polite porn parody is more goofy than gonzo, and definitely light on the rhyming couplet copulation. But this first time filmmaker still manages to avoid the possible pitfalls of the genre he's employing to deliver a delightful, if sober and slight, slice of send-up cinema.
Rich Longfellow always wanted to be an actor. Ever since he was a kid, his dream was to perform Shakespeare – Hamlet to be exact. Quite by accident, Rich was chosen by filmmaker Harold Asailian Sr. to star in a documentary he was making about how childhood defines an individual's future career goals. Sadly, Mr. Asailian Sr. died before the film could be completed. Twenty years later, Harold Asailian Jr. is determined to see his late father's vision fulfilled. He tracks down Rich to complete the movie, and learns that he is indeed an actor working in Hollywood.
He's not quite doing the Bard, however. He IS doing the babes, as an up and coming porn star. Rich sees working in the skin trade as perfect training, and hopes to parlay this time in the proximity of poon to jumpstart his legitimate thespian profession. And when Rich's best friend from his youth, Duane, arrives from back home to become a director, ambition flares and tension develops. Both boys want to achieve, but each sees the other as a sudden impediment to success. How Rich resolves his issues, and gives iambic pentameter another chance, is the basis for the faux fact film entitled Shakespeare...In and Out.
Sometimes, you just want to kick Spinal Tap in the ass. While The Blair Witch Project deserves it much more, it's that original and anarchic bit of rock and roll ad lib wit that has inspired a myriad of wannabe mockumentaries. It seems like anytime a so-called maker of motion pictures gets a hair up his or her hinder about visualizing their own inner ideas, they stop on over to the faux-fact film factory and lay down their own version of that classic heavy metal lampoon.
Makes no difference if the story is scripted, or made up as the camera rolls along. The narrative could be amount music, or some other foul facet of the entertainment industry. The target can be focused or flounder like a dying carp. As long as certain elements of authenticity are employed – the off-the-cuff talking head Q&A, the inappropriate reveal during a particularly uncomfortable moment, the caught-as-it-happens hi-jinx – twisting the truth into some kind of spoof appears to be the starting gate for most eager and untried auteurs. It's so popular that it wouldn't be surprising to learn of a college course in creating your very own counterfeit cinematic scam.
And let's face it – most of the time, these horrible, half-baked excuses for film suck the sugar warts off of a homeless person. They wallow in self-indulgence, defy internal and external logic, and end up showcasing how shallow and stupid the initial idea was in the first place. So when something comes along that actually kinda works, when a moviemaker can tame the beast of bogusness and essentially get you thinking that what you're seeing is real, they deserve some manner of monument – or at the very least, a moment in the DVD review sun. Making a tolerable mockumentary is akin to conquering one of the lesser terminal illnesses, or making Paris Hilton hygienically acceptable. Crafting a successful one should get you a seat in Olympus, in the section over by the demigods.
Peter Shushtari shouldn't be making his Greek glorification reservations quite yet. As a comedy, Shakespeare...In and Out is on the decidedly mild side. This is not rib tickling stuff. It's more along the lines of that kind of cleverness that deserves a knowing nod, or hilarity that causes you to laugh – on the inside. Since he's dealing in Tap territory to begin with, the odds were always against him. But since he chose to tell a story about characters, and not unconventional comic circumstances, he manages to achieve something fresh and fun. While there is probably a lot of levity to be had at the porn world's expense, Shushtari is not really interested in XXX chortles. Instead, he wants to paint the picture of a lost and lonely dreamer who simply wishes to fulfill his Shakespearean ambitions. That he's doing it via diddling seems to be a perfectly acceptable part of his overall career arc.
It's ideas like this that threaten to make Shakespeare...In and Out appear formulaic and clichéd. And for the first few minutes, we fear Shushtari is going to stick with the simplistic and archetypal. We meet the grown up Rich Longfellow (the rather silly set-up for the movie itself – one filmmaker's desire to complete his father's previous work – really is nothing more than an excuse to see some standard adult/kid sight gags) with his wide-eyed naiveté and endless optimism, and sense we've been there-done that. Suddenly, the storyline for Shakespeare...In and Out starts falling into mental place: rube discovers that the good life comes with a price; he rejects the trappings of this tawdry Tinsel Town for a pure, decent life. But, shockingly, Shushtari more or less avoids this roadway. Instead he lets Rich become seduced by the skin trade, eventually snubbing his friends and family for the sensation of porn fame.
Most of the onset movie material is very clever, looking frightfully similar to some of the Behind the Scenes featurettes that adult companies place on their DVDs – or so this critic has been told. And when we aren't dealing with crackpot cults or disgruntled girlfriends, there is a nice, laconic feeling to the character interaction. Shushtari gets very professional performances out of his actors. Never once do we feel that the actors are merely friends filling in where actual performers should be. Especially good are Roger Shank as Rich, Lawrence Trilling as the irritatingly ingratiating filmmaker Harold Asailian Jr., and J. D. Smith as the lunatic smut peddler Lee Fernandez. Slightly more mannered, and therefore less successful, are William Neenan as primadonna director Carmichael Astune, and Teresa McKillop as the demanding shrew Beverly.
But the real star here is Shushtari. He shows a flare for comedy and a real tendency toward timing with many of his jokes. Certainly the vast majority of his gags under perform, and we are often left scratching our head at satirical subjects as obscure as the references he's using to make his quips. But from the moment he sets his scenarios in motion, this director understands his story and never lets the narrative slip. As a result, Shakespeare...In and Out builds up a friendly level of emotional attachment that actually has us rooting for the hero to finally play that dopey Dane. And when the retirement center crowd responds with rapt attention at Rich's hammy Ham, we even experience a slight sensation of sympathy for the character's success. Though it is strictly a bargain basement affair (we grow tired of seeing the same old sets over and over again) and not without its miscues and missteps, this is still a wonderfully warm film that deserves to find a fanbase. It's definitely not as laugh out loud funny as the cinema it's imitating, but it's head and shoulders above some of the other lousy mock docs out there.
Obviously, one of the things Peter Shushtari did NOT spend his money on was top quality cameras and film stock. The 1.33:1 full screen image presented by Troma is terrible, filled with grain, scratches, dirt and other obvious defects. One can't blame the distributor for these foul-ups, however. They are direct from the source material flaws and, oddly enough, make the movie a tad more endearing. We feel like we're watching an actual, homemade documentary, even if the colors are faded, the focus is occasionally askew, and the overall feeling is of a 9th generation VHS dub.
Shushtari also didn't shell out for the technically proficient recording equipment. There are several times in Shakespeare...In and Out where we loose dialogue, miss parts of conversation, and hear ancillary noises (traffic, people, props) drown out the actors. The Dolby Digital Stereo is shallow and very thin, almost supermodel like in its auditory anorexia.
Troma does a very odd thing here. Instead of creating a Shakespearean themed double feature, they stick the incredibly bizarre film Romeo: Love Master of the Wild Women's Dorm as part of the DVD's bonuses. In some ways, the decision makes sense. Romeo can't hold a "Hark" to Shakespeare's sunny silliness. Instead we get one of the most misguided ego ventures one man has ever attempted. Describing this movie as a vanity project underestimates the definition of both of those terms.
Still, hats off to Denis Adam Zervos. Indeed, it takes Hades own huevos to direct a film when one is obviously unskilled at lens craft. It takes equally electric nuts to write a script when English is apparently your second language (right behind Brooklyn-ese). The balls of brass required to write all the pop songs for your film's soundtrack are only matched by the ballistic bullions it takes to SING each and every one - especially when you have a voice that would make atonal toad croaking sound like Pavarotti. Add in emotionless acting, unbelievably bad jokes and the most annoying sidekick in history, and you've got a slopfest that even Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe would have a hard time hogging credit for.
Romeo tells a really routine story. Our hero is a himbo, scoring with all the chicks on campus instead of going to class. He keeps three specific babes on the line so he can crib from their notes. One day, while sharing his spunk with the trio of tarts, he runs into Juliet (no kidding) and falls head over hump. He decides to drop the drips and hook up with the smart skirt. They fall in love. They break up over something stupid. Romeo sings a SIX MINUTE power ballad to win his woman back. It works.
This is one of those bad movies that makes it's way into the lexicon of classic crap cinema, a movie so mesmerizingly awful that it has to be seen – nay SAVORED – in order to be properly appreciated. Zervos sings – horribly off key and with all the emotion of a poisoned pomegranate. He dances – with all the grace of a white guy with a wedgie and an impacted colon. Try as he might, he just can't make physical comedy work for him. He's not the Buster Keaton of low budget buffoonery – he's more like the Buster and Billie of physical shtick.
Still, just like with Shakespeare...In and Out, something about the way Zervos reuses shots, sticks with one comic setpiece long after the bit has worn out whatever wit it originally contained and exemplifies his mopey mook persona, gets us to actually care. By the end, we want he and Juliet to get back together - though it may have less to do with emotion and more to do with getting him to STOP SINGING THAT AWFUL SONG!!! Uproariously amateurish, unrequitedly retarded and just a tad tasteless (the women are all defined by their slutty sexual proclivities) Romeo: Love Master of the Wild Women's Dorm is still definitely worth a look. Anyone who thought Arch Hall Jr. cornered the market on magnificently mangled melodramatic musicals need look no further than his rightful Mediterranean heir - Denis Adam Zervos.
Troma also tosses in a strange pair of scenes from Roan releases featuring Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi. The rest is just routine Lloyd lunacy (including another dose of the Kaufman/Rochon fill-in-the-blank intro - yawn).
In reality, Shakespeare...In and Out and Romeo: Love Master of the Wild Women's Dorm make a fine, incredibly daffy, double feature. Everything that director Shushtari gets right can be matched up against the muddle that Zervos zeroes in on, and the two balance each out to become a kind of Mutt and Jeff of merriment. One movie will make you laugh (if only just a little) while the other will have you weeping and reaching for the remote – OFTEN! You can see both directors learning their craft as their storylines play out, each one trading on tried and true cinematic elements to extend their flimsy films' running time. In the end, the only reason Shushtari wins out is because he had the sense to stick with the skin flick industry. There is a lot more humor to be found in flesh than in Zervos' non-stop sex machine. Some dork scoring non-stop with nondescript babes at an unnamed college is just not gut bucket material. Maybe if the loser's name was Bueller, or Morgan Stewart (or Parker Lewis, for that matter) we'd find more than just the mistakes to laugh at. But Zervos simply proves that, when it comes to certain subjects, humor can be hard to find. Shakespeare, sex and secondary education would all seem to go together. But this twisted Troma treat illustrates that some targets just can't take the teasing
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here