Down And Out In Arizona
I should have done a movie double of this film with ‘Company Men’, or perhaps even ‘Changing Lanes’. You can link this film to the former with the subtext of corporate America while you could link it to the latter through a discussion of alcoholism and alcoholics anonymous. It’s getting to the point where losing a job and the destructive consequence that has on a life is becoming a sub-genre of American movies all on its own, and there’s also a trend of films about support groups that is emerging and could be bundled together.
In any case, I missed my boat. I’ll have to talk about this film on its own merits now.
What’s Good About It
Will Ferrell with restraint. It’s a sight to behold. Also, it is based on a Raymond Carver short story, so there’s something poignant waiting to happen at every moment. It does happen more often than not. Also the 1978 Yankees get a mention. That’s always good in my books.
What’s Bad About it
I’m not sure that it makes any sense at a basic level of people’s modus operandi. Usually when the wife kicks out your stuff and changes the locks, it means she goes into siege to keep the house. Not go away and stay with somebody else. I don’t think husbands send their pregnant wives across the nation on their own to set up house by themselves. I don’t believe people form strong relationships at the drop of the hat. These things in the setup strain credulity.
In some ways it is like ‘Greenberg’ starring Ben Stiller. the film is an unrelenting study of a certain kind of mid-life misery and loss of self-esteem. I don’t know if these things make for ‘good’ films, but they do make for interesting viewing, mostly in the details and marginalia.
What’s Interesting About It
The 1978 Yankees is an oblique reference to the year the story was written by Raymond Carver – I think, but can’t be sure – and forms one spiritual corner of the film. Baseball is meant to bring together the characters of Nick and Kenny. Kenny, is what high school kids refer to as “Unco”. Kenny can’t catch a ball to save his life. It is clear he has no future in baseball, just by the way he throws.
As baseball-bonding moments in movies go, it is short and lame but has ironic humour. There are worse baseball moments in cinema; this isn’t one of the best, but it’s far from the worst. Still, it points to a problem in the tone of the film.
The film’s mode of humour is quite blurred. You can’t figure out if it’s a slapstick comedy or a character piece. The only thing that really holds it together is the fact that we assume we know Will Ferrell’s character from all the crazy antics he’s done in other films. The most notable comparison would be the character Frank the Tank in ‘Old School’. In that sense, the casting of Ferrell was a superb choice that glosses over a lot of ills with the script.
Attachment As The Root Of Suffering
One of the implicit assumptions of the film is that attachment to objects makes you suffer. it’s a fine Buddhist idea, but it hardly seems appropriate in this film. The main problem is that Ferrell’s character Nick is a drunk, and not that he is trapped by his possessions. In fact there’s a case to be made that he needs his possession to remind him of his identity. In the brief side plot where he looks up an old school mate, he is told of something he did as a high school kid but he cannot remember. If he is drowning his sorrow and pain in alcohol, then it’s working,
If indeed the film’s argument is that possessions do make us suffer with the weight on our consciousness, then it seems rather odd that nobody else is afflicted the way Nick is by his possessions cast out on the front lawn. You get the feeling the film makers didn’t really work through the rational polemic of their script. But then you suspect that if they did, they wouldn’t have made this film, they would have made something about the Occupy Wall Street movement or something like it.
Hating On Corporate America
If there’s one thing all these films agree on, from this film through ‘Changing Lanes’ and ‘Company Men’ and ‘Old School’ (and by association ‘Fight Club’) and ‘Greenberg’ is that they all hate corporate America. Not that it doesn’t deserve the loathing, but you have to wonder about how corporate a film studio is to finance a film like this one. It’s not that the hate isn’t justified, it’s just that it seems rather ironic coming from corporate entertainment that they work up so much loathing for corporate life.
Mind you, I’d be the first to do the same so I’m not above it. I’m just saying it is rather interesting that this hatred is widespread in cinema. Then again maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. There’s not much to love there unless we’re talking Apple and Steve Jobs.
Sales As A Skill, Sales As A Talent
One of the shibboleths in the world that gets a bit of observation is sales and salesmanship. We are led to believe by the characters in this film that salesmanship is a skill that can be taught and applied to the sale of anything. At the same time we’re also meant to believe it is the big talent of our main character Nick; that sales is what makes him exceptional in the world. selling is a funny thing because you essentially have to court a buyer and provide them with the information that might make them want to buy while depriving them of negative information that might make them not buy.
My father was a trader so I grew up hearing all sorts of things about sales but it came down to the fact that there was no special skill that could make you sell something to somebody who didn’t want it, and there was no point in making a one-off sale like that. In his experience, the backbone of capitalism and the market was trust and trust enough that you would have repeat sales. This trust in turn fed into the flow of goods in a economy.
Judging by that yardstick, a guy selling stuff on his lawn is the least likely to need or want repeat sales so trust is going to be low to begin with. Yet because he’s the main character of the film we’re supposed to feel like he’s made great sales selling his stuff at a discount, just to get rid of them. It’s a weird slope of one-man’s-garbage-is-another-man’s-treasure. I guess it could be seen as a negative critique of consumerism, but in the end he hands over his treasures to his friends for gratis. The collection of collector’s edition ‘Playboy’ mags go to his erotomaniac neighbour, and the signed 1978 Yankees baseball goes to Kenny. The film’s relation to worth is actually quite complicated as a result of its own choices.