Monday, September 08, 2008

I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!

I watched the first three episodes of the new season of "Chuck" over the weekend, and they lived up to everything Josh Schwartz promised in our interview. Very funny, much better integration of Chuck's real life and spy life, better action beats, etc.

I'll offer no spoilers, but I'll say that I really dug the second episode, "Chuck vs. the Seduction." As Schwartz said, it's their homage to "My Favorite Year," which is one of my favorite movies. And whether you're a "Chuck" fan, a comedy fan, a fan of great acting or simply a movie fan, I advise you to get yourself to your nearest DVD purveyor (brick-and-mortar or virtual) to get a copy of that film. After the jump, I'll go into a little more detail about why...

"My Favorite Year" was one of several fictionalized versions of the legendary writers' room on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," this one inspired by the experiences of Mel Brooks. (See also Carl Reiner's "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor.") The favorite year in question is 1954. Mark-Linn Baker (whose work here inspired me to watch "Perfect Strangers" far longer than was necessary) plays Brooks stand-in Benjy Stone, the junior writer on a hit TV sketch comedy series hosted by beefy Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna, hilariously uncouth without ever being vulgar). The special celebrity guest this week is Alan Swann, a legendary swashbuckling movie star, now a bankrupt alcoholic, who's a mix of Errol Flynn and Peter O'Toole -- and is conveniently played by O'Toole himself.

Without O'Toole, "My Favorite Year" would still be a very funny movie about the golden age of live TV comedy. Bologna is, like I said, priceless as King Kaiser, who has a generous streak tempered by the weird gifts he chooses to give. ("Tires are nice. Get him some tires. Whitewalls.") Linn-Baker has great interplay with Bill Macy (this guy, not this guy) as the show's pessimistic head writer, as well as a marvelous dinner-and-a-movie date scene with the WASP-y object of his affection. And the set piece at the apartment of Benjy's mother (Lanie Kazan), filled with a variety of Jewish caricatures that are both over-the-top and right on the mark, still makes me laugh after the 100th time I've seen it.

But with O'Toole, "My Favorite Year" becomes something special. It's still funny as hell -- no actor may have ever played drunk as hilariously as O'Toole does here, and he could have given Lucille Ball lessons in slapstick -- but it's also this wonderful meditation on the nature of heroism, real and imagined, and the magic of the movies. Again, I don't want to spoil anything -- though if you haven't seen it yet, I'd be careful about reading the comments, as anyone who has can feel free to talk about the film -- but there's a scene towards the end where Benjy demands that Swann try to live up to all those heroes he played on screen, and it's a perfect encapsulation of why entertainment matters.

Hell of a movie. Up there with "Midnight Run" among my all-time favorites for pure entertainment value every single time I watch it. And it was cool to see "Chuck" pay a little tribute to it. But we can talk more about that when the episode airs in about a month.

19 comments:

Gangsta D said...

"and he's got the jitterzzzzzz."

Every time I say "jitters" I have to put that extra tag on the end.

This was the first time I 'd ever seen Peter O'Toole, and I've been in the bag for him ever since. The shots at the end, where he's soaking in the applause from the audience, are too briliant for me to do justice.

Anonymous said...

Alan, you are absolutely right. It's a brilliant comedy, and Peter O'Toole shines. Loved Rookie Carroca too!

David J. Loehr said...

I've loved "My Favorite Year" from day one. I was lucky enough to see it when it came out, because my mother knew I'd enjoy it. (I think I was eleven at the time. I'd already seen "Ten from Your Show of Shows," so I had the basics down.)

I was already looking forward to the return of "Chuck," but now...?

And a quick theatre tangent. Are you familiar with the musical version of the movie? It's got music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty--they did "Once on This Island" and "Ragtime" together, and she did many of the "Schoolhouse Rock" songs, too. (Which is why I feel bad saying that this one didn't do much for me either as a play or a musical.) On the other hand, Andrea Martin was in the original Broadway production and not surprisingly stole the show.

Jeff Martin said...

That's wild...I was just in the musical version of MFY this summer...what an incredible story, and you're right, Alan: O'Toole is incredible in the film.

Rick said...

I have yet to see it, but I will. If anyone else is looking for it, I just saw that it is available to watch online through Netflix.

If that helps.

barefootjim said...

"This is for ladies only!"

"So is this, ma'am, but every now and then I have to run a little water through it."

I loved Peter O'Toole so much in this (and previously, The Stunt Man) that I even watched Creator.

It's one of those movies that never gets old.

christine@loud3r.com said...

Oh, I haven't thought about MFY in ages, and it's in my top ten, too. Just youtubed the final scenes and am already getting varklempt.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Are you familiar with the musical version of the movie?

I saw the original production of it (at Lincoln Center, I think). My parents were fans of the movie too and knew how much I loved it, so we went. Don't remember much about it, save that Andrea Martin, as you say, stole the show out from under Tim Curry, that Ethan Phillips (whom I then knew as the guy from Benson, and not Neelix) played the writer who never spoke, and that I didn't like the way they rewrote the ending. I suppose they had to do it the way they did it because of the constraints of live theater, but it didn't work nearly as well.

I think, anyway.

gina said...

Alan, I don't watch 'Chuck' but I LOVE MFY.

It's been too long since I've seen it. Off to my Netflix queue I go...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan, I don't watch 'Chuck' but I LOVE MFY.

Then you might get a kick out of the "Chuck" episode, Gina. It's no "My Favorite Year" -- in large part because John Larroquette, while wonderful, isn't in O'Toole's league (who is, really?) -- but there are enough references to the film, both implied and overt, that you might enjoy it.

Plus, "Chuck" in general is a lot of fun.

dez said...

I loved Peter O'Toole so much in this (and previously, The Stunt Man) that I even watched Creator.


Heh, I did the same thing (and sought out "The Ruling Class"). "My Favorite Year" is one of my favorite movies ever.

Mo Ryan said...

I must see MFY again. Haven't seen it in ages.

Just wanted to say, I also really, really enjoyed the first Chuck eps of the season.

David J. Loehr said...

I didn't like the way they rewrote the ending. I suppose they had to do it the way they did it because of the constraints of live theater, but it didn't work nearly as well.

I agree. With all the movie-to-stage shows these days, it's rare when the stage version equals or surpasses the original script, like (in my opinion) The Producers. (Although the less said about the movie version of the musical, the better.)

MFY the musical was a show where the cast was better than the show, which was a shame. A lot of good people involved in that, but it just didn't come together somehow. (I was still in NJ at the time, so I got to see that, too.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

With all the movie-to-stage shows these days, it's rare when the stage version equals or surpasses the original script, like (in my opinion) The Producers.

Although the stage version of Producers has a huge flaw that's sort of unavoidable: it leaves out the horrified reactions of the "Springtime for Hitler" audience. Even though we've been told how offensive this is, when you're actually watching it, the production number is done with such exuberance that the joke doesn't come across nearly as well.

OnlyMe said...

It's available on netflix instant - so I saw it last night.

Good film. Thanks for the recommendation.

David J. Loehr said...

Although the stage version of Producers has a huge flaw that's sort of unavoidable...

Very true. That's the only thing that's bothered me all these years. It's done so well, it transcends the spoof, and we can see why it's a hit.

Matt said...

The other big problem the musical of The Producers faces is that it shoots its wad too early. You can't top "Springtime For Hitler" as a production number, but the show goes on for a good while longer.

(Also, the movie of the musical is remarkable in that with the exception of Uma Thurman, it's almost perfectly cast, yet manages to be a botch, because Stroman can't direct for film to save her life and they don't adapt at all. The best joke in "Betrayed" ("Intermission!") is lost, as are most of the meta-theatrical asides.

The Icepick said...

Thanks for the reminder of this great flick, Alan. I must have seen this and your other favorite movie -- Midnight Run -- about a hundred times on cable when I was in high school (I think I watched too much TV when I was in high school). Both of these movies always seemed to be in heavy rotation on HBO in the mid- to late-80s.

Tracey said...

I can't bring myself to watch Chuck because I liked Jake 2.0 too much to sully its memory. But I love My Favorite Year. Definitely worth the rental. And while you're at it, make a double feature with Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which is not quite as good or as funny as MFY, but gives the broader scope of the real life behind the Sid Caesar show, the show that is parodied in MFY, Laughter, and the Dick Van Dyke show. Mark Linn-Baker, who played Benjy Stone in MFY, also appeared in Laughter.