Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hamilton Biography is on Sale

My Lloyd Hamilton biography is now available for purchase on the McFarland website. It will soon become available through Amazon and other booksellers.

I have been in New York for the last two weeks researching a new book on silent film comedy. I want to thank Steve Massa, Susan Selig, David Massa, Ben Model, Robert Arkus, Bruce Lawton and Charles Silver for the hospitality they showed to me and my son Griffin during our visit. I also thank Eddie, the projectionist who ran films for us at the Museum of Modern Art.

The trip to New York gave me an opportunity to visit with my family. I was especially interested in seeing my 79-year-old mother, who complained to me recently about health problems. My mother will never tell you if she is feeling sick, which made me realize that this might be serious. Hours before I arrived in New York, my mother was hospitalized after blacking out, falling into a bureau, and breaking her nose and orbital bone. Throughout my visit, my mother kept telling me that the doctors did not know what was wrong with her and she had to wait for them to get the tests results. I could sense that she wasn't telling me the truth and that only made me more worried. When I returned home yesterday, I found a large box outside of my front door. The box contained copies of my Hamilton book fresh off the presses. I got inside my home, turned on my computer, and found an email from my sister asking me to call her right away. I called my sister and learned that my mother has Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was a strange feeling to be sitting next to a box filled with copies of my new book while hearing that my mother has cancer. I need a few days for this to sink in. In the meantime, I have lots of notes and recordings to transcribe.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Voyages with the Comedy Time Lord

I am the Ghost of Comedy Future. Come aboard my ship and I will transport you across the years. We will float on the winds of time to discover the state of comedy in the coming years. 2010. 2011. 2012. Hold on, I don't want to lose you.

Wait, this cramped little ship ain't working for me. We need a more modern and imaginative time machine, something cool and comfortable like the modified DeLorean in Back to the Future. How about a hot tub time machine? Well, actually, the first stop in our journey just happens to be the upcoming comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. Hot Tub Time Machine, starring John Cusack and Rob Corddry, is about a group of vacationing buddies who get drunk sitting around in a hot tub and end up having the hot tub take them back in time to 1987. It's The Hangover meets Back to the Future.

Another film that centers around a group of middle-aged male friends is Grown Ups, which involves five friends who get together at a 30-year high school reunion. The friends are played by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade.

Do we see any important new trends in comedy? The action-comedy buddy cop movie is looking to make a comeback. Kevin Smith is directing Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as cop buddies in A Couple of Dicks. Frankly, this project fails to excite me. We have been up to our eyeballs in these movies since the 1980s - 48 Hours, Running Scared, Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, Red Heat, Tango & Cash and Bad Boys, among many, many others. The movie that started it all, as far as I'm concerned, is the unjustly forgotten Freebie and the Bean (1974). Some elements of these films go back even further. The idea of zany cops getting into wild car chases can easily be traced back to the Keystone Cops. So, what's new about A Couple of Dicks? In a recent interview, Smith emphasized, above all else, that the film will be R-rated and include lots of "salty language." Wow, that Smith is a groundbreaker! Smith had a problem with the salty title as he filmed on location in Brooklyn and had to post production signs with the title changed to "A Couple of Cops." Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg have teamed up for another cop buddy movie called The B Team. The premise of the film is that two desk cops abruptly get thrust into a high-action crime investigation. Wahlberg is gung-ho about the gunplay and car chases while Ferrell could not be more terrified.

Post-apocalyptic comedies, basically The Road with laughs, are also on the schedule. Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel are set to combat zombies, radiation and wild animals in Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse. Ben Stiller is in development with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which finds our good country in a ravaged state. Stiller's character, struggling to get by in this toxic wasteland, manages to hold down a job at a Civil War theme park. He soon finds himself having to protect guests from a roving band of marauders. I imagine the marauders are like the bad guys in Road Warrior. Except in Road Warrior the marauders wanted to rob gasoline from a refinery. I'm not sure what these marauders want from a Civil War theme park. Do they want to plunder the plush Stonewall Jackson dolls? Do they want unrestricted access to the "It's a Small Wound After All" ride? Stiller must love tourists to do all these tourist-themed comedies set in museums and theme parks.

Young Americans, a 1980s retro comedy, spotlights Topher Grace as an aimless college grad who gets involved in various misadventures at a wild Labor Day party. Roscoe Arbuckle's misadventure at a wild Labor Day party has become known as "the day the laughter stopped." This vehicle for Grace may have stopped the laughter at Imagine Entertainment, who have held off the film's release. The film, completed in early 2008, is not scheduled to reach theaters until 2010.

Anna Faris, who has a supporting role in Young Americans as Grace's sister, has established herself as a box office draw with last year's The House Bunny. Recent promotion for Young Americans has in fact emphasized Faris' role at the expense of Grace. Faris, herself, has been working on What’s Your Number? based on the Karyn Bosnak novel "Twenty Times a Lady." Faris' character holds to the strict belief that a woman should not have more than 20 lovers in her lifetime. When she reaches her quota, she realizes that she won't be able to marry and have children unless she makes a commitment to one of her twenty sex partners. Her quest to track down past lovers sounds similar to the premise of the failed television series The Ex List. To be honest, this whole quota deal sounds like the kind of chick logic that completely loses me. I am definitely not in the target audience for this film.

The schedule includes a number of comedies for women. This trend needs a name as catchy as rom-com or chick flick. Hmm. . . let me think. Wom-com. Dame-camp. She-hee-hee. Molly-jolly. I have a long list of these, but they are either too stupid or too offensive for me to mention them all. Look, Roger Ebert became a famous film critic for coining the phrase "idiot plot." I am desperate for a little celebrity myself. Anyway, the audience for these films are presumably women interested in falling in love, getting married, having children, and being successful in a career. Getting drunk in a hot tub or shooting at bad guys is nowhere on this list. Sandra Bullock falls in love in All About Steve. Bullock's character becomes so obsessed with Steve, a news cameraman, that she pursues him across the country as his news team covers breaking stories. Uma Thurman plays a mother of two having a chaotic day in Motherhood. The Back-up Plan features Jennifer Lopez as a single woman desperate to have a child. Lopez becomes pregnant through artificial insemination just as the man of her dreams enters her life. Morning Glory presents Rachel McAdams as a news producer who tries to save a failing morning show by getting control of feuding anchors Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. Valentine's Day sounds like Crash reformatted into a romantic comedy. The film, directed by Garry Marshall, is about 10 people in Los Angeles who find their lives intersecting in diverse ways on Valentine's Day. The all-star cast includes Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Bradley Cooper, Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace.

Ashton Kutcher has a new romance comedy but it's hard to imagine it will appeal to either women or men. The comedy, with the crude title Spread, presents Ashton Kutcher as a gigolo who falls in love with a golddigger. L'Chaim.

What do the heavyhitter male comedy stars have coming our way?

Sober Buddies, in development at Universal, has Jim Carrey attached to play a court-appointed sober buddy. Carrey's character is determined to keep a hard-partying software exec under control during a critical business trip to Las Vegas but, despite his good intentions, he manages to fall off the wagon himself. Carrey has been cast opposite Jake Gyllenhaal to play the Devil in a remake of Damn Yankees. Carrey signed to star in Pierre Pierre, which is about man who goes through personal changes while transporting a stolen Mona Lisa from Paris to London. In March, 2007, Carrey picked up a spec script for Me Time, which involves another personal conversion. Carrey's character is working on a book about the frontier life of his great-great-grandmother. The woman's diary becomes an inspiration for him when his pregnant wife falls ill and he has to take on additional responsibilities to care for his family. It has been rumored that Carrey will star in The Beaver, the story of a man who walks around talking to a beaver puppet on his hand. Carrey definitely should mix it up like that - do one film about a sick pregnant wife and another one about a beaver puppet. That way, all his fans are happy.

Kevin James, fresh from the success of Paul Blart, plays another lonely misfit looking for love in The Zookeeper. James trades a mall for a zoo, which isn't much of a stretch considering the people I've seen at the mall. James gets along so well with the animals that the animals reveal to him that they are able to talk. Soon, the animals are helping James with his love life by instructing him on their mating rituals. Didn't Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle movies exhaust this old Mr. Ed premise? Before you tell me that the Dolittle books came before Mr. Ed, I want to point out that the Dr. Dolittle movies owe a great deal more to Mr. Ed than the Dolittle books. As originally conceived, Dolittle was a naturalist who treked off into the jungle by himself to learn to speak to animals in their own language. Murphy's Dolittle, a subdued family man who lives far away from the jungle, is shocked to suddenly find animals talking him. This is straight out of the Wilbur Post playbook.

Stiller was talking for a long time about teaming up with Tom Cruise for a Hardy Boys update, The Hardy Men. Script problems eventually sidelined the project. Another Stiller project that has apparently stalled out is In Deep, which was to feature Stiller as a man who starts out fighting a parking ticket but soon finds the situation escalating out of control and ends up being charged with serious criminal offenses. This sounds like the situation that Stiller had in Meet the Parents where his character is simply trying to fit a bag into an overhead compartment and he ends up arguing with a flight attendant and being arrested by airport security. In 2006, Carrey and Stiller contracted to play obsolete pleasure clones in Fox's futuristic comedy Used Guys. Fox pulled the plug when the budget escalated past $110 million. But Stiller, who must really like the Used Guys script, revived the project last May. Will Ferrell may have run the sports comedy into the ground - Semi-Pro was a big nail in the coffin. Yet, at least one sports comedy is on the schedule for Stiller. Stiller is producing and may star in Big Wave, which is about a retired surfer who returns to the waves in order to save a convalescent home for old surfers. Stiller is considering starring in The Return of King Doug, a comedy fantasy based on an Oni Press graphic novel. The story revolves around dark forces taking over the magical wonderland of Valdonia. An 8-year-old boy, Doug, escapes to the relative safety of our contemporary world. Doug learns twenty-five years later that he must return to Valdonia because he is the kingdom's only hope to defeat the dark forces. Stiller is involved in a top-secret Cameron Crowe project tentatively titled Volcano Romance. Crowe will only say that the film will be a romantic comedy pairing Stiller with Reese "The Chin" Witherspoon. At this time, Stiller's most high-profile project is Little Fockers, a second sequel to Meet the Parents.

Possible projects upcoming for Will Ferrell include Neighborhood Watch, which would have Ferrell battling aliens that have invaded his quiet suburb, and Two Face, which is about a man with a split-personality disorder swinging back and forth between Blue State/Red State political extremes. Ferrell was recently signed by Columbia Pictures to play Dr. Watson to Sacha Baron Cohen's Sherlock Holmes in an untitled feature. Finally, Ferrell has an Anchorman sequel on the boards for 2012.

In 2007, bestselling author Mitch Albom got Adam Sandler interested in a script about a professional baseball player. The script was described in a press release as a "comedy with emotional elements." This was no surprise considering the content of Albom's books. Albom's best known book "Tuesdays With Morrie" recounted the final days of a sociology professor dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. The author's other books have focused on death, loneliness, unrealized dreams, divorce, alcoholism and estrangement. In reporting on this collaboration between Sandler and Albom, the website appropriately reported, "Yukmeister Adam Sandler and schmaltzmeister Mitch Albom will join forces." In recent years, Sandler has played characters facing death in Click and Funny People. Cleary, he shares a fascination with Albom when it comes to death themes. A few months ago, Albom sold another script to director Kevin Smith. This script, titled "Hit Somebody," is based on a Warren Zevon song about a hockey player who gets coldcocked by a hockey stick and falls dead on the ice. The lyrics end as follows:

The big man crumbled but he felt all right
'Cause the last thing he saw
was the flashing red light
He saw that heavenly light

Gee, this Albom guy is a laugh riot. Look, I am going to do the world a favor. I am going to post a picture of Albom. If you are a producer looking for a comedy script and this morbid little guy shows up to pitch a script, you need to grab him by the seat of his pants, haul him to the nearest door, and throw him out on his ear.

In the meantime, Sandler has moved on to another baseball script. This year, the actor bought a factually based script from Jason Keller and Steven Christopher Young about Eddie Klep, the first white man to play baseball in the Negro Leagues.

Sandler's Happy Madison company holds the option on the script "Take Me to Your Leader," which concerns a NASA janitor who accidentally takes flight in a futuristic plane and is mistaken for an alien when he lands in a small Iowa town. The script was written in 1997 and has been with Happy Madison since 2003. A storyline has to be pretty dumb if, after six years, it hasn't been grabbed up by Happy Madison's Rob Schneider. Happy Madison, like other production companies, buys a lot of spec scripts that never make it to the screen. Last year, the company bought the script "I Hate You, Dad" about a father who moves in with his son on the eve of his son's wedding. Columbia expressed an interest in the script but no one has moved on the project in the last year. In 2003, Happy Madison bought the movie rights to "Jingle Belle," a comic book that proposes what it would like if Santa Claus had a spoiled, sexy teenage daughter. That project seems to have fallen into development limbo. I wouldn't expect "Take Me to Your Leader" to ever see the light of day. So, be content to sit back and watch your DVD's of Don Knotts' The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and Harland Williams' RocketMan (1997).

Eddie Murphy, unhappy with the performance of Meet Dave (2008) and Imagine That (2009), has indicated that he may retire soon. In the meantime, he is in production on A Thousand Words. According to DreamWorks, this film is about "a glib man who finds out that he has only 1,000 words left to speak before he dies." Murphy is set to star in a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man and a sequel to Beverly Hills Cop. Within the last few months, Brett Ratner has been in talks to team Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock in a heist film. In 2007, following the success of Norbit, it was announced that Murphy would team up with Katt Williams for a comedy western called Marshalls. At the same time, Norbit writers Jay Scherick and David Rom told the Hollywood Reporter that Murphy would play multiple roles in a Fantasy Island remake. I can imagine Murphy as Mr. Roarke. I can imagine Murphy as Tattoo. I can even imagine Murphy wearing a big fat suit to play the island. I hear that he is a very versatile actor. No announcements have followed on Marshalls or Fantasy Island in the last two years.

Who is the next big comedy star? Could it be Jay Baruchel? Baruchel, who got a good amount of screen time as part of the Tropic Thunder ensemble, has the starring role in Johnny Klutz, a slapstick comedy about an accident-prone young man who is unable to feel pain. It sounds like a Larry Semon comedy.

Another potential new star is Broadway sensation Michael Stuhlbarg, who has the lead role in the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man. Stuhlbarg's character, Larry Gopnik, is a physics professor who loses his wife to a pompous colleague. But this is only the start of his problems. To make matters worse, Gopnik is having trouble dealing with an unruly teenage son, learns that his daughter has been stealing money out of his wallet for a nose job, and finds his career in jeopardy when a failing student threatens to file a defamation suit against him. The Coen Brothers' last film, Burn Before Reading, also had a woman trying to steal money for plastic surgery. Why does this idea hold such fascination to the Coen brothers? A Serious Man shares similarities with The World's Greatest Dad, an upcoming comedy starring Robin Williams. Dad, like A Serious Man, has an unhappy educator at the center of the action. Williams' character, high school poetry teacher Lance Clayton, is dejected at his inability to get his novels published. Also, he is dating pretty art teacher Claire but he is frustrated with Claire's lack of commitment to their relationship. All in all, Clayton has his most serious issues with an unruly teenage son. A Serious Man and The World's Greatest Dad are both black comedies, although a plot twist halfway through Dad may make this film the much darker of the two. I have to say that the trailer for Dad is extremely funny. I relate to this bitter, sarcastic character more than I care to admit.

Gilmore Girls regular Matt Czuchry has his first starring role in a movie, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Czuchry plays a young man who regularly gets drunk and acts like a jerk to anyone he meets. The book on which the movie is based has a number of fans, who find this inebriated fool shockingly funny even though he is less than sympathetic. I once had a drunk vomit on me in a movie theater. I failed to see the humor.

The action-comedy The Spy Next Door situates Jackie Chan in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The story begins with Chan's character agreeing to babysit for a neighbor. When the neighbor's children inadvertently download a secret code, Chan finds himself fighting off secret agents. This sounds like the 1987 comedy Adventures in Babysitting, which has Elisabeth Shue contending with a car theft ring after a boy in her care gets his hands on incriminating notes.
Adventures in Babysitting has similarities to another upcoming comedy, Date Night. Date Night, helmed by Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy, stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey as a married couple who go out on a routine date night and become involved with dangerous criminals. Babysitter Shue also expects an uneventful evening, but a series of troubling incidents compound one on top of the other. This succeeds in creating bigger and bigger complications for Shue and her charges. This concept, where a simple situation goes wrong and the frustrations build until the situation mushrooms into a total disaster, goes back to the earliest days of film comedy. Let's consider Laurel & Hardy's Perfect Day (1929). Plans for a Sunday picnic go wrong - a platter of sandwiches is destroyed, the car gets a flat tire, a neighbor gets into a brick-throwing melee with Stan and Ollie, and the car sinks into huge puddle of mud. The "perfect day" ends up a disaster.

We might do better to isolate one segment of Perfect Day. It takes just one small nail in the road to make the duo's best laid plans go awry. The nail punctures the tire, which goes flat. Stan and Ollie have a series of problems changing the tire. Stan has to pull off a seat cushion to get to the jack and he ends up slamming the cushion down on Ollie's fingers. Then, Stan opens a door to step out of the car and he slams the door into Ollie's head. Ollie, at the height of frustration, throws the jack at Stan, but the jack misses Stan and crashes through a neighbor's window. The neighbor grabs hold of the jack, marches over to Stan and Ollie, and throws the jack through their windshield. Stan gets a brick and hurls it at the neighbor's home, breaking another window. The problems continue to escalate for the remainder of the film.

Lloyd Hamilton also constructed comedies in this manner, making sure that the incidents had a logical progression. In fact, Perfect Day shares a number of similarities with the Hamilton comedy One Sunday Morning (1926). This escalation of comic situations has been used by many filmmakers over the years. The escalation was taken to nightmarish proportions in films like The Out of Towners (1970) and After Hours (1985).

Dinner for Schmucks features Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd in a remake of Francis Veber's French comedy Dinner Game (1998). I love Monsieur Veber, but Hollywood has never done the writer justice. Veber's story centers on an "idiots' dinner." This is where prominent businessmen bring a person they deem to be an idiot to a weekly dinner and the one who the group decides has brought the biggest idiot is declared the winner. The latest prize idiot, Francois Pignon, ends up creating a series of problems for his sponsor, a publisher named Pierre Brochant. During the course of the evening, Brochant loses his wife, wrenches his back, and reveals to a tax auditor that he is guilty of tax evasion. Bhob Stewart, AllMovie critic, wrote, "Pierre is trapped in a situation where Francois' stupidity turns his life into a comic hell."

Marc Lawrence, the writer of the Miss Congeniality movies, is currently directing a comedy about marital turmoil called Did You Hear About the Morgans? The Morgans, played by Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, are on the verge of ending their marriage when they witness a murder and are whisked away by means of the Witness Protection Program to a small town in Wyoming. The slower pace of their new town gives the couple a chance to reconnect. I like this premise. I think we should have a Marriage Protection Program where couples are given a chance to get away from stressful situations and renew their relationships. Did You Hear About the Morgans? reminds me of Some Like It Hot. The two lead characters change their identities and go into hiding after witnessing a murder. Their new lives lift them out of their rut and allow them to find true happiness.

Dinner for Schmucks is not the only remake of a foreign comedy on the schedule. Death at a Funeral, a 2007 British comedy about death, blackmail and hallucinogenic drugs, has been adapted for an African American cast, including Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, Loretta Devine, Ron Glass, Danny Glover and Regina Hall.

Five-Year Engagement, which stars Jason Segel, is about a dysfunctional couple. "It's definitely an extension of our desire to explore the depth of human misery," explains director and co-scribe Nick Stoller. "If Sarah Marshall and Jason's character had stayed together, this might be the sequel."

Speaking of sequels, we have already mentioned the Meet the Parents, Anchorman and Beverly Hills Cop sequels. It was recently confirmed that Ghostbusters 3 will start shooting this winter. Kal Penn's status with the Obama administration has come into question since Penn signed to star with John Cho in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have signed on to do a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. The script currently in development has Sparrow and Barbossa taking sail to find the Fountain of Youth.

Two fantasy comedies are on the schedule. Steve Oedekerk, the director of the Ace Ventura movies, is in an early development stage with a Stretch Armstrong action-adventure comedy. Jack Black is currently filming a comedy version of Gulliver's Travels. Black is working under the direction of Rob Letterman, the director of Monsters vs. Aliens.

Okay, all, the hot tub is heading back. 2012. 2011. 2010. 2009. Please keep your hands and feet inside the tub until the ride has come to a complete stop.