Friday, February 11, 2011

The all-too-brief feature directing career of Daisy von Scherler Mayer

Hollywood is a pretty tough place to work, if you can direct two really great comedies out of four movies, and you still have to spend the rest of your career settling for TV work.

Such is the case with Daisy von Scherler Mayer, a director who caught my attention as much for her lengthy name (second in length only to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck?) as for the fact that she's the pride and joy of Wesleyan University, where a close friend attended college.

I've had the pleasure of revisiting Mayer's two really great comedies -- Party Girl (1995) and The Guru (2003) -- in the past year, The Guru as recently as Monday night. I'm glad to say they both hold up. Her other two movies -- Woo and Madeline, both released in 1998 -- are not so great. But nobody's perfect.

Still, you'd think her two successes would have earned her a fifth theatrical feature, especially since her best film, The Guru, was her most recent one. Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of movies, "best" is a decidedly subjective term. I love The Guru, but I'm the only source I really have for that love. I mean, I've showed it/recommended it to other people, and they've confirmed that it's good, but I've never spoken to anyone who has independently offered up their affection for The Guru. I'm still waiting for someone to mention The Guru to me, rather than the reverse. And even though I gave it a glowing review on my website, predating that review was the 2 1/2 star rating the staffers gave it, based on a general critical consensus. Despite my review, that rating still stands.

So since 2003 Mayer has been directing TV episodes -- just a handful here and there, shows such as Emily's Reasons Why Not, The Loop and Aliens in America. Remember those? I thought not. (Actually, Aliens in America was good -- I can't speak to the quality of the others.) Okay, so she's also directed Mad Men and Chuck -- maybe she's fine with this being the new focus of her career. But as a guy who prizes the value of the feature film over the value of the TV episode any day of the week, I tend to doubt it.

At this point I should probably tell you a little bit about why I think Party Girl and The Guru are so great.

Remember when Parker Posey was not yet "Parker Posey"? In other words, was not yet essentially a caricature of herself (even though she still manages to be plenty lovable on occasion)? Party Girl provides a wonderful example of that. In this light indie comedy that also features fellow up-and-comers Liev Schrieber and (to a lesser extent) Guillermo Diaz, Posey plays Mary, the party girl of the title, who doesn't realize that she yearns to do more than attend parties in Manhattan lofts and shop at thrift stores. Under the influence of her aunt Judy, a librarian -- who, I've just learned, is the director's mother, actress Sasha von Scherler (R.I.P.) -- Mary decides to pursue library sciences, while also courting the salesman at the falafel stand where she orders her baba ganoush. There ain't a lot more than that in terms of plot -- but it's what Mayer does with these characters (especially Posey, but several darling secondary characters as well) that makes this such a joyous little slice of deliciousness. It's one of the standouts of the indie comedy movement that emerged in the mid-1990s, which also featured some prominent directors who are still going strong -- Nicole Holofcener with Walking and Talking and Noah Baumbach with Kicking and Screaming, just to name the first two that come to mind. (Quite possibly, because their titles are very similar). For the record, Party Girl falls in between those two, with Baumbach's movie coming out on top.

Then there's The Guru, which is probably Mayer's "biggest" movie in terms of its cast. Although the lead, Jimi Mistry, is essentially unknown (and what a shame it is that he can't get more work, because he's charming as hell), he's flanked by two pretty big names: Marisa Tomei and Heather Graham. (Not to mention a hilarious cast of side characters, including Michael McKean, Dash Mihok, Bobby Cannavale and Christine Baranski.) The film is about an Indian dance instructor (Mistry) who comes to New York to pursue the American dream of becoming a famous actor -- spurred on by a childhood love of American movies, which was awakened the moment he snuck out of the Bollywood movie his parents were watching and into the screening of Grease in the neighboring theater. While living with three other Indian nationals who have more "typical" immigrant jobs -- cab driver, waiter in an Indian restaurant -- the naive Ramu applies for a part in a movie, not realizing it's a porn shoot. On the shoot he meets Sharonna (Graham), who is trying to fool her firefighter fiance (Mihok) that she's actually an innocent school teacher -- though she's only doing porn to help them afford their dream home in nearby Throg's Neck. Meanwhile, Ramu also gets accidentally hired to serve as a guru at a party of Manhattan socialites (Tomei and her family), which accidentally becomes a full career as a sex guru. He needs Sharonna's wisdom on the art of sexual gratification to peddle his new trade.

Whether the previous synopsis sounds kind of off-the-wall or counterintutively delightful, you'll just have to trust me it's the latter. The movie has several dance numbers that infuse the spirit of Bollywood with the spirit of Hollywood, and they are absolutely wonderful. The whole movie is light and sweet. Crucially, the movie loves its three crazy dreamers -- the dance instructor with Hollywood hopes, the porn star who wants to live out her suburban fantasy, and the loopy socialite seeking her purpose in Eastern religion. A mean-spirited satire would have made a laughingstock of them all, but this gentle satire loves them, and the love is contagious. The movie has some really funny moments, as well as some touching ones -- and the dance numbers, oh, the dance numbers! See it.

In between Party Girl and The Guru, Mayer made an urban romantic comedy (Woo) and an adaptation of a beloved children's book (Madeline). Both have their positive bits -- Jada Pinkett Smith is pretty delightful as Woo, a little firecracker who was probably modeled on Posey's Mary, and Madeline is harmless if forgettable fun, featuring a very game Frances McDormand, playing a nun. But neither of these films is worth a second look.

I've now seen Party Girl either twice or three times, and The Guru four times. I own the latter and I wouldn't mind owning the former.

And this has made me a big Daisy von Scherler Mayer fan. It's made me root for Daisy von Scherler Mayer, and made me heave a sigh of disappointment to see that she can't get feature directing work anymore.

But who knows what it is. Maybe Mayer found directing films too stressful. Maybe she preferred the short-term commitment of TV. Maybe she's independently wealthy and doesn't need to work, and maybe she just dabbles in TV because it keeps her professionally sharp and feeds her remaining creative impulses.

I should just be glad for what she's given me so far, and not worry about whether she has the long and illustrious career I think she should/could have. You never know with directors. Sometimes they just disappear, and you may never get a satisfactory explanation of what happened. For example, I am still trying to figure out when we're going to get another movie from the great Alexander Payne, whose last film was Sideways, way back in 2004. Oops, scratch that -- I just checked wikipedia, and his film The Descendants is due out this year. But the point is, when I looked about a year ago, there was nothing on the horizon for this indisputably talented and successful filmmaker, who had given us the excellent quartet of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. Neither could I find anything when I googled the words "What happened to Alexander Payne?" I'm just thankful that the existence of another movie finally came along to give me my answer.

As for Mayer, or Scherler Mayer, or von Scherler Mayer, maybe she's got a third great comedy in her, maybe she doesn't. Or maybe she now finds the Madison Avenue board rooms of the 1960s to be her thing.

Either way, I wish her well.


Don Handsome said...

Yessir. I also wish her well.

I wonder if we’re the only two people who feel this way about her - I’ve tried pimping both Party Girl and The Guru to friends and these recommendations have failed on a scale ranging from minor to catastrophic. I don’t really know why, but I’d guess that maybe its because her quirky and slightly fantastical characters don’t ring true to (mostly) everyone. But I think that those characters are truthful.

I differ slightly from you in that Party Girl is actually my favorite von Scherler Mayer film, with the Guru a very close second. But the thing about those two films is that the required character buy-in is not easy with characters as specific as hers. From your descriptions of the two gold-standard von Scherler Mayer films one might think that she paints with a very broad brush, but I don’t think this is the case. Her characters are quite specific and personal. While I find this exhilarating – especially since you haven’t seen these characters anywhere else before - others might think them too eclectic to be believable.

But yeah, she deserves some more attention and I’d like to see a new film by her. Maybe von Scherler Mayer is one of these artists who wants to make extremely personal films, and though she tried to trade some middling pap for opportunities to do it her way, she found that it was just easier to stop worrying and love TV.

Vancetastic said...


That's an excellent point about the character buy-ins. I think the characters in Party Girl are pretty straightforward, only slightly quirky variations on people I think probably existed at the time. The Guru is definitely more fantastical, in the sense that these are all clearly "sensational" character types, types we don't run into every day. Plus there's that whole "breaking into song" thing that tends to challenge realism -- it's not really "breaking into song" here so much as "breaking into dance."

But I also agree with what you say about the emotionally truthful nature of the characters. Just because artifice is being applied to the way a story is told -- yeah yeah, we know characters don't break into choreographed dances in "real life" -- it doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice the essential true nature of the characters being portrayed.

Party Girl may actually be the "better film" -- it has a kind of indie credibility, whereas I think The Guru has some aspects that a casual observer might say look like "Hollywood garbage." However, the people arriving at that assessment haven't seen the film -- they probably look at its apparent "wackiness" and think it's Mike Myers' The Love Guru or something.

Vancetastic said...

Oops, I cut that last comment short -- I was going to say that Party Girl may be the "better film" in some senses, but The Guru hit me just perfectly and I've always had a special place in my heart for it.

Pulvinar said...

I think you're right that von Scherler Mayer has mostly turned her attention to television, but hopefully you noticed that she released another wonderful feature film this year. Some Girl(s) premiered at SXSW and after a theatrical run is now streaming on Vimeo's new on-demand service. It's a beautiful film. More here.

Vancetastic said...

I will definitely seek that out, Pulvinar! It wasn't on my radar, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. And thanks for stopping by!