Monday, October 21, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

Even John Wayne Bobbitt Got His Dick Back

directed by Sam Mendes
starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper,
Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari

Barely a decade after American Beauty swept the 1999 Oscars, screenwriter Alan Ball's bathetic this-is-your-life homilies had been skewered by Todd Solondz in Storytelling to many a chuckle, and Beauty had earned itself a rep as the unworthiest Best Picture champ since Dances with Wolves trounced GoodFellas. Unlike its awakening-of-the-emasculated-self brethren Fight Club and The Matrix, Beauty's never inspired the kind of cult that injects a film's dialogue into daily conversation and turns the film into a Rosetta Stone for parsing the mysteries of modern life. To further the dick-measuring against Beauty's contemporaries: P.T. Anderson's overripe Magnolia wrung truer emotion from its overly diagrammed threads connecting a cast of miserable suburbanites. Stanley Kubrick made the unrealized carnal longings of Eyes Wide Shut far steamier than Beauty's ridiculously PG-rated sexual fantasies. David O. Russell and Spike Jonze packed a more robust sense of this-is-our-contradictory-American-life absurdity into Three Kings and Being John Malkovich, respectively. And forget Beauty director Sam Mendes — it's Alexander Payne's name, via Election, that's tattooed on the midlife crisis of every hapless nobody who's found his balls again thanks to a throbbing prick over some piece of jailbait. I enjoyed American Beauty during its theatrical run but, with the distance of time and repeated viewings, the film came to look as fresh in my eyes as its fellow 1999-marks-a-new-wave-in-cinema! superhypes The Blair Witch Project or Doug Liman's Go. (Quick, when was the last time you watched either of those?)

Of course, Mr. Solondz and I were correct — up to a point. Alan Ball's screenplay takes its sledgehammer proclamations about the who-am-I? anomie of the middle-class everyman and fashions them into a series of would-be one-liners, giving us cringeworthy moments like his hero Lester Burnham staring down the yuppie boss he's just threatened to blackmail and declaring, "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothin' to lose." (I can just see Ball scooting back from his laptop and pausing to let a chill down his spine after he wrote that one.) Lester's a cubicle-bound zombie hump who takes one look at daughter Jane's new friend Angela and finds himself dusting off his old barbells and Free 8-tracks, and tugging at the threads that hold together his safe two car-garage life. He's alive for the first time in years, and his demented (if understandable) quest for sweet underage pootie could have signaled real inspiration — Kubrick's Lolita updated for teen Daddy's-darlings who proudly slurp baby batter on homemade YouPorn videos; a satirist's knowing laughter at the lengths an encumbered man will go to for a hint of what smells like rebellion.

Instead, Ball flashes his pedigree as a TV writer by keeping things distinctly sitcommy. For the first half-hour, it's like we're watching the pilot for some new dysfunctional-family dramedy on ABC — each character's existential crisis is served up to us in cutely voice-over'd, before-the-commercial-break-sized vignettes. Ball has Lester doing a John Ritter spit-take at the news of Angela sleeping over, or scurrying off from a bout of eavesdropping like the dipshit dad on one of those fat-oaf-with-impossibly-hot-wife shows, and all that's missing is the laugh track and the wacky Benny Hill music. Certainly, Ball must have been combing through rejected Archie Bunker monologues to come up with the moldy "this country is going straight to hell!" boilerplate he sticks in the mouth of Chris Cooper's bigoted Marine dad. (Hollywood shorthand, of course, for all those God-furrin', flag-salutin' folk they picture chuckling at old Ronald Reagan movies next to wives shell-shocked by domesticity, out there in Fly-Over Country.) By the time the film's climax hinges upon a sight gag of innocuous behavior mistaken for gay cocksucking, Ball's pretense to sophistication has fallen flatter than a white mom's ass, and you're wondering just what the hell made Steven Spielberg (whose DreamWorks released the film) not only read the script twice in a row, but demand that not a single word of it be changed.

Beauty purports to sketch a turning point in the life of its heterosexual everyman, but the problem is that it's scripted by a gay writer with — bad news — a look-how-hollow-the-American-family-really-is agenda and — worse — no idea of how to bring the come-spurting fuck-lust and orifice-centered fixations of straight male fantasies to life. Men who fuck women don't imagine said women with their best bits covered up in a bathtub full of rose petals — and we certainly don't imagine them spouting "dirty talk" that reads like a gay eunuch's idea of stilted porn dialogue he read someone else's description of. Ricky waxing rhapsodic about dead homeless women and flying plastic bags is no one that any real female would find herself stripping in a window for — least of all, a high school girl desperate for in-crowd approval — but rather, he's the emotionally bruised, glowingly benevolent soul that represents Ball's ideal slab of dreamy-eyed boy-meat. Likewise, Kevin Spacey as Lester isn't as jarring, perhaps, as the actor trying to sell us his ladies' man Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential — but he is jarring. When Spacey gives his unctuous reading of a line like, "For you, Brad, I've got five," or he sends Lester floating through one of his wife's work functions on a cloud of amused disdain, he might as well be Charles Nelson Reilly cracking innuendos on an old Match Game rerun. It's no mirror held up to Married Joe Six-Pack, but the bitchy wit of a gay man who lives for repartee and two-olive martinis. Spacey holds us at arm's length with his oddly hipster-ish inflections in the beginning — that smug, I'm-in-on-the-joke-and-you're-not vibe that lays bare his distance from the material and imbues Lester with a self-satisfied sarcasm reflex. It's good for a wry quip here and again but, taken in toto, the Oscar-Wilde-in-suburbia act starts to work against the character — it's unbecoming of a lost soul who we're meant to believe has taken more from life than his sore ass can handle.

Chastened perhaps by the Spielberg influence, director Sam Mendes handles the material with gloves on; his framing suggests lacquered objets d'art rather than human beings — wax figurines in an exhibit entitled The American Family Gone Awry. It's all too immaculate, too production-designed, too storyboarded — from overhead shots that reinforce the perception that we're peering down into some sort of peformance-art dollhouse to the way that the text on a computer screen casts "prison bars" over Lester's reflection in one scene. You can feel Mendes behind the camera, straining for first-time director impact, thinking his symbols out, sculpting the mise-en-scène for maximum Norman-Rockwell-goes-to-the-dogs significance. Did it occur to Mendes that a film supposedly about liberation is puritanical and repressed at its core, climaxing with two aborted realizations of the long-suppressed sexual desires that we're meant to equate with the characters' spirits taking flight? Did it occur to Mendes that anyone who's ever watched a movie before will see the character developments coming long before Ball's script thinks they will? Hey, what do you know, the film pants at us, vain model-wannabe Angela is really a supremely insecure little girl seeking validation! Hey, the film nudges us, Ricky the psycho-eyed loner next door, who insists on stalking Jane through his ever-present video camera, is actually a poetic soul who sees all the beauty in the world! And Ricky's emotionally constipated, fag-hating military dad — get this — he's actually a self-loathing homo just dying to be released from the straitjacket of hetero family-man normalcy!

I've come back around on it, though. American Beauty is quite the strange beast — a film that isn't saying half of what it thinks it's saying while being unaware of what it actually is saying. What Ball and Mendes intended was an examination of how the unrealized self (via repressed sexuality) can lead to a stultifying existence at best, and homicide at worst, so why don't we all just break out of the socially-approved cocoons that we've built around ourselves and take flight like the wonderful little butterflies we really are? I see Beauty as the cautionary, all-too-modern tale of a henpecked, thoroughly unappreciated worker bee sleepwalking his way through life when he starts to cast off the yoke of bullshit that Doing All The Things You're Supposed To Do has thrown around his neck. He stops denying the male impulses that life as a sexless married schlump with his dick in a mason jar has taught him to repress. He reacts to being the breadwinner for a couple of sullen, ungrateful twats by diving headfirst into sweet, utter selfishness. He rejects all the crap he's spent the previous twenty-odd years buying into — most especially, marriage to a joyless, cheating, prune-faced scold as the apex of his existence. And, Hollywood pseudo-profundity aside, it's no accident that he dies with such a contented look on his face: he's seen through the glass wall of his jerry-built middle-class identity to find the cosmic joke waiting for him on the other side.

At least half of the Ball/Mendes theory is correct: Lester Burnham is living a lie. The life he's shoehorned himself into is a life that no longer works for men in a compromised modern era of feminist-orchestrated gender politics and marriage as a one-sided contract which the male had better uphold down to the fine print, but which his wife can feel free to break and abuse in accordance with whichever self-justifying whim is guiding her in a given week. And, of course, she needn't worry because even her most self-serving, family-jeopardizing actions are guaranteed the benediction of our current culture's Holiest Father: the echo chamber of you-go-girl reassurance that exists to divest females of their vestigial attachment to outmoded hogwash like personal accountability, and to fatten the coffers of the men selling mass-produced, government-approved Independence™ at 40% off. Lester's wife Carolyn wakes up to find him whacking off — i.e. still able to find some pleasure in his life that doesn't revolve around her — and she launches into a self-righteous banshee impersonation about her own misery, about how "this is not a marriage." Naturally, the fault for that rests solely on her husband's shoulders. Naturally, the only solution to life with a monster who's never abused her or fooled around on her, who dutifully trudges off to work each day, and who supported her through real estate school, is to instigate an affair with her colleague and all but rub it in Lester's face while launching into schoolmarmish conniptions over his tiniest indulgence. Naturally, she's justified in projectile-vomiting scorn and derision all over Lester every time her mouth opens, in according him as little respect in front of their daughter Jane as possible.

That's right, little Timmy: study hard and get a good job. Maybe one day, you too can have what Lester Burnham has: a shrill, ice-veined automaton of a wife who chants plastic mantras of determinism (because you've made her a "victim") and who clutches a handgun in preparation for the confrontation she plans to have with you. As brought to life by a purse-lipped Annette Bening, Carolyn Burnham is the American Career Woman in all her post-feminist glory: a woman who's so obsessed with the image of success — despite her inability to excel in real estate without spreading her legs — that she's shut herself off from human emotion, from her role as a mother, from her own husband. Predictably, dweeby male critics rushed to condemn this characterization as one-note and misogynistic. And sure, Carolyn's straight out of a cartoon when acting as if she'd never heard of masturbation, or when kicking things up another notch on the hysteria meter over Lester's pot-smoking and refusal to give a shit. But that cartoonishness is true to the core of a woman's nature: they secretly envy a man's power and individuality. They rightly recognize that power as the inverse of their own perpetual dependence upon the largesse of the Great Sugar Daddy — be he a father or husband, a boss with quotas to fill, or the gleaming white knight of Big Government, who shoves their every demand to the forefront of the Western political narrative (more abortions! rape culture! the wage gap! more child support!), who makes sure those mean boys talk nice at work and makes damn sure that they lob softer pitches so the girls can have their home runs, too.

Women stare agog at men's accomplishments and recognize — deep under the prideful surface — their own general lack of the will to innovate. They view the inherent singularity of men from under slitted eyelids as they contemplate their own lack of the fearlessness it takes to break from old, accepted modes and conquer new vistas in technology, in business, in the arts — these qualities being indispensable to the growth and competitive flourishing of any civilized society. Male autonomy, by the very fact of its being, taunts women, mocks them in their genetic relegation to the sidelines of the human revolution, and it's male autonomy — even as women find themselves unshakably drawn to it — that drives them to the frothing, child-denied-a-toy fury of a woman like Carolyn. Women can't help but flutter around a man's power like moths, to want to bask in its glow, to wish to claim some of that power — that ability to experience true happiness — for themselves. But they can't, and they know it. Which is why they seek to clamp down on any expression of it — which is why Carolyn squirts her ceaseless nagging and hyper-sensitivity all over Lester's breezy regression to the joys of adolescence.

Of course, we know that girls mimic the model of womanhood put forth by their mothers. Any wonder, then, that daughter Jane's mutated into a hostile goth-lite scag, so blind to the bounty of her many blessings that she can face a mirror with her big, lopsided C-cups spilling past the edges of her reflection, and pout that she needs a tit job? Any surprise that she's grown up so full of designer alienation and a first-worlder's sense of entitlement that she opens the film declaring that Lester is "too embarrassing to live" and needs to be put down like some rabid Saint Bernard? Granted, Lester's been slavering over her friend like a zit-faced Skinemax junkie given a night's access to Laura Gemser. But Jane's no defender of the virtue of high-school cheerleaders — what irks her is that Daddy's deigned to give some other bitch the attention that, by rights, ought to go to her. If it's true that all little girls subconsciously seek to fuck their daddies — and it is — then Jane lashes out at Lester with all the decorum of a spurned mistress, fuming at him that he hasn't spoken to her in months, and banging Ricky because Ricky validates her with voyeuristic longing that allows her to feel something of the worship that Angela must feel under Lester's wank-fueled ogling. Poor Janey — she's just come face to face with the sobering truth that her father is a man with a life beyond the title of "Daddy," beyond her; a man whose personal universe is big enough to accommodate someone other than the brat that spurted from his loins back when he still thought sacrificing his happiness might lead to some greater fulfillment. It's a tale as old as Moses: kid, the world don't revolve around you — and it's the before-and-after line in every female's life that separates that smiling little angel holding a lit sparkler for Daddy from the blistering ball of resentments she inevitably turns into.

It's highly absurd, though, that would-be Carolyns have come to view Lester as some "child molester" for pursuing a fully developed, sexually mature young woman with the rack of a twenty-one year-old Mena Suvari. Labeling as "pedophilia" a man's biologically-hardwired predilection toward fertile young female flesh — the better to carry his seed to fruition without the likelihood of birth defects or a miscarriage — is part and parcel of the shaming of men's natural desires that's been gaining traction for quite some time now. "Cradle-robber!" carp the harpies of the Shame America Squad, Misandry Division. "You mean, you actually prefer to fuck hot young women with taut, firm bodies as opposed to overweight hags? You mean, you chase after girls who are blissfully untainted by the soul-shattering bitterness of women who waste their peak years of attractiveness and reproductive capability bouncing from cock to cock in the name of 'liberation' and 'well, men do it too!'? You mean, you dare to deny the allure of a woman in her mid-thirties and beyond who's shocked to discover that no top-tier man wants to devote his best years to some used-up, roast beef-curtained, possibly abortion-or-STD-sterilized former party girl who's well into the middle stages of her Roman decline?!" And men, picking up the social cues, join right in and happily smother their own instincts while denouncing those of other men, just like they've been programmed to do by the wholly catered-to, endlessly aggrieved daughters of what now passes for feminism — the very women who have been trying for decades to shame human nature into a program of self-denial so as to lessen the repercussions for their increasingly selfish choices.

As always, Hollywood is nothing if not a cocktease who likes to flirt with bold ideas without actually having to bed down with them. American Beauty might have made for a slyly transgressive classic, had Lester gone through with deflowering Angela — the logical follow-through, after all, from all that casting-off-the-boundaries-of-normal-society stuff. Certainly, Lester dealing with the fallout from a perfectly understandable lapse in judgment would have made the film truer to real life, where people seldom suffer from those last-second changes of heart so common to the movies, and where perky cheerleader tits have a way of nullifying even the hardiest of moral objections.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fingers (1978)

Delayed Infant Death Syndrome

written and directed by James Toback
starring Harvey Keitel,
Tisa Farrow, Jim Brown, Michael V. Gazzo

Is Jimmy Angelelli the gangster that his washed-up loanshark father needs him to be? Perhaps. Jimmy's got a real flair for pistol-whipping deadbeat pizzeria owners and revenge-fucking the trophy sluts of rising Mafiosi over the debts they've refused to settle. And since Angelelli père is a tacky-as-plaid, yellow-suited old egg-dome who commands no respect on the street, Jimmy's flair is the only thing keeping his meager operation afloat. But we're introduced to Jimmy at his piano, grimacing in ecstasy over the soaring precision of his Bach runs — the fragile elegance of a perfect instant that could slip off its tightrope with a single wrong note and bring nothing less than Jimmy's potential as a human being crashing back to the gutter. Enforcer for a mobbed-up bookie by day, classical piano prodigy by night: Jimmy's like the soul of a Glenn Gould trapped inside Harvey Keitel's Charlie from Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. He's the sensitive Jewish artist (courtesy of his pianist mother) drawn to the life-affirming creative process but doomed by goombah heritage to a life that's predicated on destruction — both that of others and, eventually, his own. Jittery, compulsive mannerisms dominate whenever Jimmy's not playing: fiddling with his hair like a nervous girl on prom night, fidgeting childishly as his fingers dance their habitual dance over imaginary piano keys. He's stuck between identities in a stalled elevator of an existence that's as tortuous as his inflamed prostate — too reluctant a killer to make it in his father's world, too obsessive a pussyhound to commit to music and succeed in his mother's.

Clearly, director James Toback's got something he wants to say about the dualistic nature of men, of himself as an artist. He ties it all up in male rites of passage — bravado, dick envy, chasing skirt, straining under the weight of the father — and he filters it through the jukebox-scored Catholic anguish of Mean Streets, through the down-and-dirty pulp sensibility of the streets-of-New-York crime film. Toback's his own artist, though; a shameless exhibitionist in the best sense. He can't help but strip naked and parade his sexual obsessions in front of you, can't help but scrape his psyche and smear the fascination with other men's virility and the grandiose self-mythologizing bits all over the screen; his muse demands it. Fingers reads as if he'd scribbled some outré fetish or embarrassing personal anecdote on each page of Harvey Keitel's script. The actor dives hard into each fit of yearning, each clammy revelation of Jimmy's (a.k.a. Toback's) insecurities and quenchless libido, and he comes up with globs of guts clenched in each fist. It's a mesmerizing performance. The further Keitel digs into himself/his director/his character, the faster Toback's stripped-down dick-punch of a narrative races toward the brick wall of the inevitable: total annihilation, a blood-spattered snapshot of Jimmy's regression to the helplessness of infancy.

It's pussy, rather than Bach, that serves as Jimmy's muse — a fickle, ultimately self-serving muse that, by her very nature, diverts men from the path to self-realization and strands them in an energy-depleting bog of manufactured conflicts and capitulation to puerile shit-tests and mind games. Mere seconds after Jimmy's come down from his pianistic reverie in that first scene, he catches sight of the woman who's been listening to him from down on the street — the preternaturally aloof, ready-to-make blonde tease Carol (Tisa Farrow). Give Jimmy his due: he's got the surface moxie of a true-blue alpha male down cold. He struts boldly up to this inscrutable young thing with her fashionable high-heeled boots, her freckled Midwestern deadpan and her porn-starlet monotone. He stares her down, all rehearsed guinea charm that's pumped so full of timorous smart-boy deliberation that it's ready to burst. "You like all kinds of music," he says. "So do I."

But Toback handicaps Jimmy with a curious tic: wherever Jimmy goes, he feels compelled to take along his portable radio. (A tic that Spike Lee updated for the era of the ghetto-blaster and grafted onto Do the Right Thing's Radio Raheem.) Jimmy clings to his radio like a security blanket, blaring the doo-wop tunes of his (probably) romanticized youth to mask the queasy silences that result whenever he manages to gain a woman's attention and his patter runs dry. Jimmy offers up just a flicker of doubt: he stops in his tracks as Carol turns to meet his solicitous gaze and, from that point, no matter what he says, the jig is up, the writing's on the wall, his ego's fate is sealed. She assents to a ride in his convertible to see what this would-be cocksmith with the constant soundtrack is all about, but he only confirms his relinquishment of the upper hand. "You're shaking," Carol coolly informs him after he's sweated so much energy trying to read her mind and impress her with his knowledge of Bach and The Drifters that he ends up rear-ending someone. God bless him: he actually hits her with "what are you thinking?" and it's enough to make any man in the audience want to dive under a table. (It's the same petitioning for validation masked as sincere pensée that I'd lay on girls in the winter of my misguided, mom-encouraged belief that girls gave a shit about sensitivity or my obsessive familiarity with '80s post-punk — or whatever else I thought would set my swinging dick apart from the rest.)

"Mockingbird" appropriately spits forth from Jimmy's radio as he barges into Carol's trendy little white-bricked artist's loft after she's exited his ride without so much as telling him her name. So far, so good — he's reading her signals and rising to her juvenile challenge in ballsy emulation of that ladies'-man image he's been shooting for his whole life. It's the fantasy he's always had of his gangster father with the revolving door of balloon-tittied goomars; it's what he's picked up from eagle-eyeing the apparent confidence of other men — and it's right in line with the precepts of what we now call "game": fake it 'til you make it, mimic all the female-approved behavioral signposts of macho-man self-assurance until they seep into your pores and you've become what you're impersonating.

Our Jimmy can't keep it up, though. He takes her at face value when she pretends to resist his physical escalation and, within moments, he's holding her wrists as if wedding vows were tickling his tongue. "All you have to do is believe in me," he begs. The deflating of her sexual interest punctuates his crucial misstep like a wet fart during a church recital and she shuts down on him, leaving him to the knife in his pride while she retreats with her hairbrush and her coy-minx narcissism. In Peter Biskind's '70s tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Bogdanovich discussed his affair with a Lolita-like Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show. He recalled her casually tearing the petals off a flower like some destructive, doe-eyed Venus who hardly noticed all the stricken mortals and crushed egos in her wake. Carol is the evil twin of that flip innocence: a ball-buster of the utmost calculation who knows full well the torture she's putting Jimmy through, who relishes the hints of instability that he gives off as her denial of release keeps him wobbling on the precipice of some pell-mell lashing-out.

Jimmy needs what a man of certainty would simply want. He needs the conquest of Carol in order to call himself a man, in order to flesh out his half-baked sense of self — the self that neither his criminal father nor his withdrawn, piano-virtuoso-turned-nutcase of a mother were able to nourish. "I fuckin' need you to want me," he whines to Carol before glomming onto her breast like she's the last mother figure on earth. (And, of course, for Toback's purposes — diagramming the nosedive of his protagonist — she is.)

Toback leaves Jimmy's actual mother sketched in pencil, a flashback to a bad dream you'd have already shaken but for the unspeakable tragedy forecast in her mute shriek of a glare. Madness may as well have settled onto her from the mucky air of concert halls; Toback never tells us what it is that's pushed her to catatonia in a mental health facility. (Indeed, we can't imagine what brought her and Jimmy's father together in the first place.) Jimmy confides in her that he's bombed his audition with the same kingmaker who'd launched her on the classical circuit years before — surely, he's come home for a little of Mom's cooking and some words of reassurance; commiseration between tortured souls. He's his father's son now, though; her greatest mistake made flesh. She pushes him away, echoing the impulse she must have had all those years ago in the delivery room. She shrinks from the sight of him as if he'd peeled back his face to reveal the lizard-eyed progeny of her fateful dance with the devil, and the psychic tear in the narrative is too great to be repaired; the filicidal die is cast. Again, Jimmy needs something from a woman — the original woman — and again, he's brutally rejected. He'll disappoint Carol the surrogate mother, as well — by humping her to a premature climax, then throwing a tantrum as she drifts out the door unsatisfied. Naturally, he orders her to rip out her diaphragm: the guy wants nothing more than to crawl back into the womb and he'll brook no obstruction.

He hadn't counted on Dreems, though — the strapping black oak tree played by real-life Toback pal and football hall-of-famer Jim Brown. Jimmy follows Carol into Dreems' club like a strip of toilet paper that's stuck to her shoe, and the moment Dreems strolls into frame, Carol floats toward her Mandingo master like a glaze-eyed Bride of Dracula — Jimmy ceases to exist. Toback's pyretic Jewish-boy sexual masochism leaves no stone unturned in its salivating at the feet of the ebony stud. Not only does pussy collect under Dreems' storm cloud of pimp magnetism like barnacles on the hull of some unmoorable, indifferent ship, but Dreems hits every note in the symphony of expected black male existence — hustler, athlete, ladies' man, gangster, wildlife exhibit, sexual bogeyman to thrill-seeking whites — and he conflates them all into a single deafening clang that loops itself inside Jimmy's head.

Toback shoots a prelude to a Dreems orgy that fascinates as a shrink's-couch airing of the ultimate Jewish-male racial/sexual fixation: black dick as a battering ram against "repressive" Christian mores — the same fixation that flows through everything from porn's prototyping of blacks-on-blondes to the promotion of hip-hop as the preeminent cultural expression of our post-rock (a.k.a. post-white) modern era. It's not the two button-nosed shiksas trembling on the brink of a reverse-Oreo threesome that's got Toback playing pocket pool behind the camera — it's his buddy Jim Brown directing the girls to tongue his nipples then smacking their heads together in a burst of pique when they fail to get it on with each other. "Don't you ever cross me," Dreems warns in a moment that spikes Toback's fiction with reminders of Brown's real-life history of domestic violence accusations. Sure, Dreems knows a cuckold when he sees one, but Jim Brown knows what bitches like Carol do to men.

Dreems isn't threatened in the least by Jimmy's presence — he's amused by the chump flowers his chichi bottom bitch tears the petals from in his absence; he's amused by simps who sniff hungrily at other men's throwaways and march determinedly toward their own belittlement. Jimmy keeps showing the hand he first tipped the minute he came through the door — he sizes up Dreems, sizes up the way Carol watches Dreems, and he elicits nothing more than a smirk from the former boxer with his half-assed one-two combination and his scrappy kid's pretense to the cocksureness of grown men. Dreems toys with Jimmy, cat-like — first patronizing him, then seducing him, really, with the assurance of his attractiveness, of his worth as a man, that Carol's been withholding. It's a classic subtle dominance move: first establishing himself as the alpha male in the room, then nullifying his competitor's threat by undermining his expectations of direct confrontation and instead playing to his weaknesses. Dreems invites Jimmy to his orgy, and it's to help the dude get his thing together as much as it is to feed his own exhibitionism. Jimmy's on a rescue mission, though — to understand why his surrogate mom can't wean herself from brute masculinity, to try to pull her from the burning wreck of her self-destructive, sanity-threatening desires before she, too, goes up in flames. It's as if, by deepening the humiliation of watching Carol embrace his worst nightmare, Jimmy can somehow crack the code of his past and reclaim womankind for needy beta males everywhere.

"You don't even understand her ass," Dreems tells Jimmy while masking the hint of sympathy in his frustrated tone. Jimmy's busy hoisting street pussy onto pedestals when street pussy like Carol prefers to be taken by the hair and dragged naked through the filthiest sewers a man can conjure up. Dreems and Carol understand the contract that human biology has drawn up for them: to be dominated is the key component of a woman's psychology; to dominate, the key component of a man's. Fail to understand this — as Jimmy does by placing the Ming vase of his self-worth in Carol's reckless hands — and you fail to understand the driving principle behind male-female relations, which is to say, the propagation of life itself. Attempt to defy it and, like Jimmy, you spit in the very face of nature. The gods then must smite you, must levy a fine for your hubristic transgressions by leaving you stewing in the swamp of your own frustration and sexlessness — a warning to others who might likewise harbor delusions of imperviousness to the universal order.

Charge Angelelli, Sr. with dereliction of his fatherly duty. "They're all hoo-ers," he insists to Jimmy before stumbling over himself to introduce the nude centerfold-posing trollop he's decided to marry. She waits about four seconds after he leaves to hit on Jimmy, and it casts all the old man's tough talk and nuggets of guido wisdom into bold relief. Just look at his mess of a son: clearly, Dad never imparted the value of the alpha-male imperative to Jimmy. Clearly, he never taught Jimmy to invest in his own betterment above all else; to temper his expectations of the opposite sex by accepting women's chromosomal commitment to solipsism, illogic and vindictiveness. He never told Jimmy that, when wielded responsibly, a man's unabashed embrace of masculinity can right the tilted ship of male-female congress and bring one as close as possible to a life devoid of groveling, devoid of ritual self-abasement at the society-made altar of the almighty vertical smile.

"I shoulda strangled you in your crib," Jimmy's dad seethes in the face of Jimmy's inability to walk the walk that he never mastered. Instead, Daddy Loanshark saddled his kid with allegiance to a false idol and set him adrift on the merciless waters of feminine prerogative without so much as a compass. Mission accomplished, all the same.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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