April 21, 2011

BOOKS: My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin (2010)

At The Onion's A.V. Club, Rabin has specialized in reviews of the misunderstood, the disappointing, and the disastrous. "My Year of Flops" began as a twice-weekly, year-long project to explore the most reviled commercial disasters cinema has to offer. (The series has continued past that first year, though it appears less frequently.)

Here, fifty of those explorations -- fifteen of them appearing here for the first time -- are gathered for cheerfully snarky re-evaluation, and each is given a final label of either Failure, Fiasco, and Secret Success. The difference between a mere Failure and a Fiasco is summed up in a quote from the first film in this book, Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown:

A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fee-ass-coe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn't. Happen. To. Them.
Obviously, there's going to be a certain amount of gleeful nastiness and cheap shots here, but Rabin goes into his reappraisals with a genuinely open mind; he wants to find something good in these movies, and often does. Among his "Secret Success" finds -- movies that are better than their reputation would suggest, or that at least offer some good reason to sit through them -- we find Robert Altman's O.C. and Stiggs, the Steve Martin-Bernadette Peters version of Pennies from Heaven (I was a little surprised to find that one in the book at all, actually; I thought it had a solid critiical reputation), The Rocketeer, and Joe Versus the Volcano.

But even the Failures and Fiascos are described in such affectionate terms that I find myself wanting to see them (or see them again, in some cases). Who could resist Paint Your Wagon, "a three-hour-long movie where Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sang and danced and were married to the same woman yet seemed kind of into each other," or Scenes from a Mall, which features one of Woody Allen's few appearances in a movie directed by someone else, and Bette Midler as his wife? And I really should finally get around to seeing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or to a second viewing of the spectacularly weird The Apple.

Rabin has a knack for summing up a movie's problems in concise fashion. He describes Rent, for instance as "a musical about Gen Xers, the most cynical and sarcastic generation known to man, that's wholly devoid of cynicism and sarcasm." Of the ghastly miscasting of Lucille Ball in Mame, he helpfully observes that "it's never an encouraging sign when a choreographer's main concern is his leading lady throwing out a hip."

His style is light and droll, and he knows enough about movies and how they work (or don't) that you never feel as if he's being mean just for the sake of being mean. There's serious critical analysis going on behind all the jokes.

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