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Movie Review: Boyz N The Hood (1991)

The power and pull of the thug, hip-hop life in South Central Los Angeles is depicted with intimacy and sobriety in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, writer and director John Singleton’s autobiographical movie, which I saw at a 25th anniversary screening in Hollywood at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 (read about the festival here and my report on the creator’s interview after the review).

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With a father named Furious Styles (Laurence, billed as Larry, Fishburne) and divorced mother Reva (Angela Bassett, Malcolm X) who thinks fatherhood is more important at a critical stage for her growing son, Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II as a child; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a teen) faces the ultimate endurance test: to learn, grow and survive in LA’s hip-hop underbelly. Celebrating if not entirely glorifying rap, thug or hip hop culture, Singleton frames his coming of age plot with these two strong, distinctive parents in his movie debut.

The device works well in setting the context for Tre’s character development, which lies at the center of this culturally influential film. By depicting two types of parents on two different tracks in the world, yet with this child in common, the conflict over what choices Tre will make during the course of his childhood comes into sharper focus. As Tre’s life in the ghetto—which, with incessant helicopters over small houses on small lots with green lawns, looks and sounds like any other part of suburban Los Angeles—gets exciting, dangerous and complicated, Tre’s father’s and mother’s examples and lessons go against the culture.

One of the most effective aspects of Boyz N the Hood is its ability to depict Tre’s growth with multiple, simultaneous outcomes; his affiliation with thugs (i.e., actor Ice Cube’s gangster Doughboy), jocks (i.e., Morris Chestnut’s footballer Ricky) and a Catholic girl (Nia Long), thanks to Gooding’s strong performance, generates tension and suspense. The audience sits with this chronic uncertainty, which is what growing up in South Central feels like for Tre. The thrill of hip hop with its booming music and cars, the promise of earned opportunities through good choices, hard work and rational self-interest, the burgeoning, mixed and contradictory acceptance of black urban subculture in Southern California—all figure into the potent climax.

Eviscerating stereotypes with a leading male character who expresses his fear, pain, anger, sensuality and, more than anything else, confusion, Singleton recreates a pivotal passage of thug life with realism and elements of romanticism. Tre cries, runs, yells, swaggers, shuttles and moves like no other black man in previous movies. Boyz N the Hood is too naturalistic and therefore agnostic about the tragedies, near-triumphs and hollowed out cases of despair to make a lasting and thematic impact. The score is too much.

But its convergence and contrast of the pop-pop-pop of hip hop—everywhere around the world today 25 years after it was released with insidious street codes sup, waddup and aiight feeding off its death premise and spreading the worship—with Furious Styles’ guidance through fatherhood, urging his son to look a man in the eye and think before you speak, make Boyz N the Hood a singularly downbeat drama which puts modern American culture into wider context.


Writer and director Singleton appeared in a Chinese Theater at Hollywood & Highland for TCM Classic Film Festival 2016‘s 25th anniversary screening of Boyz N the Hood. He was interviewed by movie historian Donald Bogle, whom Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chiraq) once described as the “most noted Black-cinema historian.” Bogle, author of Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Brown Sugar: Over A Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, also was one of TCM’s commentators for its seven-part documentary series on the history of Hollywood, 2010’s Moguls and Movie Stars. He has curated retrospectives on Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge and he teaches at both the University of Pennsylvania and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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Donald Bogle interviews John Singleton about Boyz N the Hood in Hollywood. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran

Bogle’s interview with John Singleton about Boyz N the Hood was a festival highlight. The Oscar-winning director and writer discussed his approach, his education and his goal to make “the best hip hop movie ever” which he arguably did, though he’s also made Poetic Justice (1993) and Hustle and Flow (2005). Recalling how he took the bus from South Central Los Angeles as a child to Hollywood and Highland to see “blaxploitation” pictures with black stars such as Pam Grier, Singleton described himself as an especially intelligent and intense youth. He said he’d watch movies without the sound on to study technique and explained that, during his education at University of Southern California (USC), he watched and studied contemporary and classic films such as The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). That informs the realism of his Boyz N the Hood.

But, with Bogle, whom the filmmaker clearly respects, Singleton went into detail. He talked about using a shot inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his deep concern about what he describes as black on black crime and an astute observation that most Hollywood movies depict black parents as older than they, in his experience, are, and thus deciding to cast the younger Fishburne-Bassett team as Tre’s parents, a decision that adds to the film’s credibility and potency. John Singleton also admitted to being scared on his first day of shooting, introspecting and providing himself with positive self-talk, such as looking out at the fog coming off the Pacific Ocean into Inglewood during production, which permitted the then-23-year-old to recreate in his mind the childhood upon which his movie is based, telling himself: “You can do this.” Singleton’s can-do individualism is evident 25 years later in Boyz N the Hood.

 

Movie Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Though I’ve seen Stanley Kramer’s 1967 motion picture Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner several times, last week was the first time I saw it in a movie theater. Seeing this historic movie with an audience in Hollywood, courtesy of TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 (read my postscript on the introduction after this review and more about the festival here), with contextualization by a leading cast member and a film scholar, gives me deeper appreciation for this bright, intelligent and colorful movie. Its us against the world/to hell with what others think idealism is embedded, radical and wholly embraced by the audience nearly 50 years after its debut.

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Despite its detractors, and there are many, especially on the left, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains extremely powerful, if sometimes static. Spencer Tracy—who died days after the picture’s final production—and Katharine Hepburn co-starred for the ninth and last time opposite Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton as the interracial couple. The Tracy-Hepburn pairing persists as the credited cause for the picture’s impact yet I found that this adds, but does not fully power, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

As a Bay Area couple whose professed liberal values are tested when their daughter (Hepburn’s niece Katharine Houghton) announces her engagement to a black doctor (Poitier), Tracy and Hepburn are indelibly cast and give emotional authenticity to the film particularly its famous final scene. The screenplay, too, by William Rose, who won an Academy Award for his work, is excellent, which unfortunately if not surprisingly is often ignored when the movie’s discussed.

Of course, producer and director Kramer, whose adaptations of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach and the Scopes monkey trial play Inherit the Wind, as well as Ship of Fools, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Judgment at Nuremberg, and lesser known movies such as Oklahoma Crude with Faye Dunaway and The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anthony Quinn, make compelling cinema of serious and challenging themes, deserves top credit.

But one line, expertly delivered by the great Sidney Poitier—“I fell in love with your daughter”—who mastered the year in movies with outstanding performances in In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love, fundamentally makes the movie credible. Poitier’s line is neither delivered in defiance nor in apology; it is a clarification brimming with joy and spoken in solidarity with a father as his equal. At every point in this groundbreaking film, from his flirting with a black woman to his response to servant Tillie (Isabell Sanford), who judges him solely by his race, Poitier’s John Prentice acts on his own judgment for his own benefit; he is the title’s who that drives the plot’s progression.

With non-verbal cues, such as picking through a sandwich as if looking for signs of sabotage after Tillie serves refreshments on the terrace, Poitier’s Dr. Prentice personifies the rational man. When Dr. Prentice speaks, he maintains his virtues, whether setting his terms with his fiancee’s parents, responding with tact during cocktails with her friends or erupting with fury at his father (Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) when he decides to declare his break with tradition. Most of this happens at the San Francisco home of his fiancee’s parents, newspaper publisher Matt (Tracy) and small business owner Christina (Hepburn) Drayton.

Their daughter’s proposition is for her parents to bless this interracial union before the couple leaves to get married, which is to happen imminently, so there isn’t time to deliberate about a marriage which, in 1967, was illegal in almost half the country. Besides Sanford’s outspoken Tillie, with whom the audience identifies up to a point for her work ethic, protectiveness and suspicion of the black separatist movement, several other characters participate in the pre-dinner affair, including a Catholic priest (Cecil Kellaway) who is friends with Mr. and Mrs. Drayton and Hilary (Virginia Christine), a parasite who works for Mrs. Drayton.

Yet Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner begins at the airport, where Rose and Kramer cue the simple love theme, set the movie’s steady pace and establish that the world changes and one must stay on the move.

The black and white couple descend an escalator with a gathering of happy children, representing youth and the future, and take a taxi—where they exchange an interracial kiss, to the astonishment of the blue-eyed cab driver—to Mrs. Drayton’s downtown art gallery, where they encounter leech-like Hilary and her modernist contraption. Along the way, Dr. Prentice learns that Mrs. Drayton is an entrepreneur and that her daughter is proud of it. Then, they arrive to meet the parents. A foghorn sounds in San Francisco Bay, signalling trouble ahead.

The agitator is Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton in her flawless movie debut), an idealistic white woman who meets the handsome black doctor on a trip to Hawaii and instantly falls in love.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner seasons the conflict, with an occasionally artificial air and its own archaic notions, such as Dr. Prentice’s line about a marriage being for the purpose of procreation. From Hepburn’s equalizing command more than question—”Can’t we all sit down?”—to the establishing shot of Matt Drayton’s study with its books and photograph of Franklin Roosevelt, every turn is seeded, earned and dramatized. Whatever makes it seem dated, such as the interracial dance scene between “knockout” Dorothy and the go-go delivery boy, Monsignor Ryan quoting the Beatles or Matt Drayton’s disastrous attempt to prove himself to be a thoroughly modern man eating boysenberry ice cream, which permits the movie to simultaneously acknowledge the “angry black man” and the “angry white man”, adds up to the climactic final speech and dinnertime.

This includes the appearance of Dr. Prentice’s parents, a decent couple from Los Angeles visiting snooty San Francisco (where their would-be daughter-in-law looks down upon a girl from Pomona). Bringing the earlier taxi scene full circle, his mother (Oscar-nominated Beah Richards) and father silently ride in the backseat as Joanna Drayton drives, with Mr. Prentice looking angrily at the white woman and with Mrs. Prentice looking admiringly at her son, the widower who lost a child, is ready to love again and marry on his own terms as his own man. It’s a powerful contrast which precedes Poitier’s later emotional outburst to his character’s father that he thinks of himself as a man, not as a “colored” man.

That the meaning of this line has been flipped and reversed today—with the father’s notion that one’s identity is based upon race sadly closer to predominant ideals about race among today’s black intellectuals, who proclaim themselves “persons of color”—and Poitier’s Dr. Prentice would likely be branded an unenlightened “Uncle Tom” (which is what Poitier was branded by a black newspaper columnist after his banner year) only serves the movie’s theme that love is colorblind, which, in reality, is true. So, too, is the picture’s optimistic forecast about an American Negro becoming president of the United States of America.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is no less probing and powerful, if neatly arranged and produced, a picture show now as it was then. Almost every scene stands out as important. It is sharp, biting and proud—and, ominously, still radical in its comic and dramatic case against collectivism.


Movie historian Donald Bogle brought out co-star and stage actress Katharine Houghton at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016‘s screening of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at the Chinese Theater 6 in Hollywood and the two exchanged a brief question and answer about the historic film. Houghton said that she was constantly on hold because the Columbia Pictures production was on, then off, then on again, and she explained that Columbia did not want to make the movie, which the studio apparently did not know was about interracial love during development, for fear of the audience’s negative response. Though Bogle and Houghton had the effect of apologizing for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by indicating that it was made for white audiences, her enthusiasm for the film’s theme that love is universal remains in her interview and performance.

Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

This week, Hollywood returns to its idealistic, enterprising and glamorous origins, welcoming those who really power the motion picture industry with TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival. I attended for the first time last year and wrote about it here.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbFor four days, the best movies (and, admittedly, others, too) take over Hollywood’s most legendary and best movie theaters to be seen, discovered and enjoyed uncut and commercial-free, to borrow the phrase made famous by Ted Turner’s namesake Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Films from the silent era with Buster Keaton to the Golden Age with Doris Day, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper and through the modern era with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett will be studied, examined and discussed by fans, filmmakers and movie stars.

This year’s event passes are sold out, though individual tickets are available as the festival encourages passholders to choose from among several competing movies.

For instance, on the festival’s first night, one can see 1964’s movie about interracial marriage One Potato, Two Potato with leading actress Barbara Barrie discussing it with a film historian afterwards or watch a 40th anniversary screening of All the President’s Men (1976) and hear thoughts on journalism from both the men who made Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner about journalism, Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, and the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, portrayed in the movie by Dustin Hoffman.

But one could also choose from among three other movies in the same time frame: Harold Lloyd’s 1925 classic The FreshmanDark Victory (1939) starring Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, and Elia Kazan’s 1945 adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Here, the best is showcased in abundance.

Billy Dee Williams is scheduled to talk about Brian’s Song (1971). The boy who gave voice to Walt Disney’s Bambi (1947), Donnie Dunagan, recalls making the animated classic. Faye Dunaway appears at an anniversary screening of Paddy Chayefsky’s biting and brilliant 1976 satire, Network.

Guests include archivists, scholars, authors and other artists and intellectuals. See the actor who played the boy in 1989’s Cinema Paradiso. See 1989’s Field of Dreams. Indulge in discussion of dogs in films, an examination of the movie score, a conversation with Elliott Gould about acting, thoughts on playing opposite Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from co-star Katharine Houghton or an appearance by Angela Lansbury at a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Get to know Truth‘s Mary Mapes and James Vanderbilt, The King and I‘s Rita Moreno, Leonard MaltinChildren of a Lesser God‘s Marlee Matlin, Carl Reiner, the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, Trapeze‘s Gina Lollobrigida, Rocky‘s Talia Shire, or On the Waterfront‘s Eva Marie Saint remembering 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

The theme for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival is Moving Pictures, meaning there’s an emphasis on movies that move the audience to think, to feel, to act.

Many of the 100 featured films do exactly that and, in today’s disturbing times, several stand out as extraordinarily relevant. From questions raised and dramatized about so-called income inequality in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows and blacks’ lives depicted in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood to the penetrating portrait of media complicity in enabling the rise of a charismatic power-luster seeking government influence in Elia Kazan’s prophetic 1957 masterpiece A Face in the Crowd, the best pictures earn renewed respect over time.

Turner Classic Movies, honoring its creator, Ted Turner—a media titan who once bought billboards asking “Who is John Galt?” the philosophical challenge from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged and created TCM because he loves movies, particularly Gone With the Wind (1939)—continues to earn respect, too. With a wine club, movie-themed Disney cruise, forthcoming app with the Criterion Collection for streaming classic movies and original programming and publishing, TCM skillfully brands itself as an expression of passion for movies which exists with outlets in reality, not as some obscurity for dilettantes pondering the avant-garde.

This week’s film festival is the best example, bringing together people who make and watch movies and doing so with a sense of joy, humor and especially with seriousness for thinking about what moves the world—which is exactly what ultimately moves and makes the best movies.

TCM fundamentally thrives as a source for great movies. But it also serves as a reminder and catalyst for today’s Hollywood to consider and honor its exciting and productive past and move the audience, studio and filmmaker alike to project into the future. Its annual presence in Hollywood gathers and converges the industry’s most loyal patrons and producers to worship what’s glamorous, grand and magnificent about movies, ensuring that industrialization carries on.

Remembering Patty Duke

In the beginning of the 1960s, a child actress took the stage, screen and television ratings with remarkable creative and commercial success. Her name was Patty Duke. Sadly, the Academy Award-winning actress, pop singer and TV star of her own show died this week, apparently of sepsis. She was 69.

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Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker/Courtesy of UPI

The life she lived before her unforgettable and groundbreaking performance as Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was one of turbulence, alcoholism, depression, sexual assault and despair, a stream of child abuse which was a secret until the 1980s. The life she lived after her initial popularity and success carried a high price, too.

I think I first saw Patty Duke on a television game show. It was a 1970s CBS afternoon series titled Tattletales, a forerunner to today’s sordid and self-contradictory reality TV genre (in which nothing, in fact, is as it seems) and she would appear with other so-called celebrity couples with her then-husband, actor John Astin (The Addams Family). In retrospect, it was a flawed premise—it was maudlin—which was often uncomfortable and there is a sense in which Patty Duke, who was born as Anna Marie Duke and constantly struggled with her identity and self-esteem, became somewhat of an early reality TV star.

In fact, in a relevant prelude, Patty Duke had already been implicated in a TV scandal. She had admitted that, as a child star, she’d been given the answers in advance on a popular quiz show when quiz shows were the dominant non-fictional television genre. The genre never recovered from the scandal. But the quiz show scandal became a lesson in America’s cultural history from which Americans, many of whom currently keep up with TV sluts, nudes and bachelors and raise and pound fists at rallies for a TV fascist presidential candidate, have not learned.

Damage became part of Patty Duke’s brand as an actress and celebrity. From portraying Helen Keller in 1962 to playing a part based on Judy Garland in the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls (as doomed stage and movie star Neely O’Hara), with hit songs and her own hit sitcom—she was the youngest person to get her own show—in between, Patty Duke’s talent and success aligned with the turbulent times. What happened before and between playing larger than life opposites Keller and O’Hara was happening in the culture, too; from her portrayal of an American heroine in what Ayn Rand called her favorite epistemological play to starring as a hedonistic star, Patty Duke’s career matched America’s descent into the gutter. Her personal life was marred by semi-public instances of an extramarital affair, unwed pregnancy, addiction and suicide.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

That Patty Duke endured is an integral part of her heroism. The daughter of a manic depressive mother and an alcoholic father who was taken in by a couple who managed and, by her account, robbed and abused her triumphed over the era’s terrible secrets to continue to work and shine in an exceptional life. Patty Duke went on to write her memoirs (Call Me Anna), play the first woman president (Hail to the Chief), portray Martha Washington, and, memorably and powerfully, as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in an excellent TV version of The Miracle Worker with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. She had three sons and eventually fell in love with Michael Pearce, a sergeant she met while playing a woman in the military, marrying him and moving to an Idaho ranch.

Her son, Sean Astin, a fine actor himself, wrote this week that “Anna ‘Patty Duke’ Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 a.m…She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed.”

For being an individual of ability and mastering her own damaged life—for choosing to take personal responsibility instead of hiding in fear, shame and repression—I know that I will miss Patty Duke, whom I had hoped to interview. Describing the petite actress as “fragile, tender and pained” when she auditioned for the role of Helen Keller, Arthur Penn, who directed Patty Duke both on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker, added that what distinguished Patty Duke was her “spark of liveliness.” What distinguishes her now, besides her talent, is that she chose to reignite it, protect it and never let it go out. May Anna rest in peace.

Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! purports to depict Texas college life in 1980 and comes up with a high-brow version of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). In fact, if you love Animal House, you’re likely to love this, too. But writer and director Richard Linklater’s college raunchfest is merely in the same genre as that college raunchfest and the films that followed (i.e., Porky’s). A gauzy climax, if it is one, and postscript are afterthoughts in a college fraternity fantasy.

Everybody-Wants-Some-POSTEREverything is tediously contrived in Everybody Wants Some!! which depicts a college baseball team just before the semester starts. Jamming punk, disco, rock and country pop into one movie about 1980, Linklater (Boyhood) cleverly and not so cleverly implants audio and visual signposts here and there, leading the batch of hooligans into a disco, country and western bar and punk club. It’s a meandering, aimless slice of life, with the boys playing with titties and relentlessly hazing one another and doing so with the jaded dialogue of a post-9/11 snarky late night host. None of this looks, sounds or feels realistic, despite the tube socks and other period touches (and the scene in the poster never happens, either). People didn’t say “Sup, dude” and “I get it! I get it!” and constantly snap lines at one another like the cast of Modern Family in 1980. The whole film feels like a laugh-tracked sitcom.

None of this would matter if the movie were about something other than a few days in the purposeless lives of wasted college students. That they are baseball players is incidental, really, because these hedonistic students could have been part of any fraternity of conformists who binge drink, smoke pot and engage in mindless sex. Theirs became the way of life of many if not most college students—this could be 1990, 2000, 2020—and, if future archaeologists dig up the rubble of where we’re heading and wonder how Americans ever fell under the spell of a nationalist like Trump or socialists like Clinton or Sanders, this movie will help them understand that, after the late 1960s and widespread acceptance of mindlessness ala Animal House, the most educated citizens mentally checked out, went blank and worshipped nothing—anything—whatever’s on TV or going on—mistaking that for Nirvana.

The best scenes involve baseball. The team finally shows up for a practice at mid-point in the picture. You almost get excited that something interesting will happen on screen besides the boredom of watching everybody get stoned, laid or hazed. But even this part—unless you think that pointing out that men are competitive is profound—gets down to crude vulgarity and ends in another asinine hazing action. The women are like blowup dolls, all long-haired, pouty and sex-starved airheads whether in a punk, country or disco joint. The music is ripped off the charts and none of it’s organically integrated, including and especially a scene in which the jocks all rap together in a car, which feels as era-authentic as jocks breaking into a show tune. Seriously, I kept thinking that the truest insight in this movie is that 1980 ushered in an era in which people stopped bothering to think and just wanted to feel—no wonder Americans are dumbed down to the point of accepting Trump—and go blank. This movie deals almost exclusively in this type of roaming, vacant emotionalism.

The worst part is that it pretends not to. It plays this game of pretend to make a point that college is not about college and it’s OK to party ’til you puke because you end up magically becoming human. In two droning hours, it celebrates just going along with the herd, trivializes free choice and mainstreams mindlessness.

Everybody Wants Some!! and, I suspect, Linklater, desperately wants the audience to think it’s sending up raunchy college days, because it’s wrapped up by a happy ending. Here, too, I foresee a boring marriage that ends up with a pair of stoned conformists, bearing children who mindlessly attend college, mindlessly tune out and seek to get stoned, laid or hazed, wafting into national socialism, feeling the Bern or some other mindless bandwagon. Like their parents. Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to stoke nostalgia. But it might have been called Nobody Wants Anything!! No single character demonstrates want of any value.

Through the final scenes, this picture, like Knocked Up and The Hangover, amounts to a generic plea for collectivism, whether through leftism or conservatism: join the party, get high and magically conform. Or: get stoned, blank out and fit in. If blankness or sameness could be a movie—dramatizing pre-mob mentality with pretentiousness; the antithesis of 1980’s Breaking Away—this is it.