Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The obligatory post-Louie Pootie watch

If you're like me, you saw Pootie Tang within a year or two of its 2001 release, and didn't really know what to make of it. You knew there were some good parts, but overall you thought it was definitely a misfire.

If you're like me, you then went on to fall in love with Louie C.K., who happens to be the writer-director of the aforementioned Pootie Tang. In fact, when you first saw Louie C.K. perform, you remembered him as the guy who your friend at MTV Films once described to you as this promising young comedian who had written and directed this new movie called Pootie Tang.

If you're like me, not only do you love Louie, C.K.'s half-hour comedy-drama program ("sitcom" does not seem like the right word) currently airing on FX (though not again until 2014, unfortunately), but you even loved Lucky Louie, C.K.'s underappreciated first effort to break into half-hour programming on HBO. Okay, "loved" may be a strong word -- that show was rough around the edges, even more than it intended to be -- but "liked very much" would be fair.

If you're like me, you thought it was now worth going back to watch Pootie Tang again, to see if you could see in that movie the origins of the successful star C.K. has become.

So if you're like me, you watched Pootie Tang on Saturday night with your wife, who was seeing it for the first time.

If you're not like me, you've never heard of either Pootie Tang or Louie C.K. and have probably stopped reading by now. But if you haven't stopped reading, it's probably time for me to tell you a little bit about Pootie Tang, though the above poster certainly gives me a tremendous assist in that effort.

The title character (Lance Crouther) is a specimen of pure cool shaped into human form. He's loved by everybody despite selling out to nobody (or maybe because of that). He dresses in what one would consider to be a pimp's attire, but one of Pootie's many attributes is his respect for the women who adore him (which doesn't keep him from sleeping with them, but only when a mutual respect has been established). He's defined by being above the fray. He even speaks his own language that's a hybrid of English and made-up words ("Wa da tay!"). Lastly, he has the ability to dodge bullets (smacking them away with his braids) as well as to kick anyone's ass with the help of a pseudo-magical belt he can remove from his waist as quickly as any old West gunslinger draws his pistol. Despite his incomparable fighting skills, Pootie exists to bring peace and love into the world -- as long as these things are also groovy.

The movie Pootie Tang is essentially the story of this character as he is put through trials and manipulated by a nefarious corporate entity into endorsing a lot of very un-Pootie things. And it's actually considerably more straightforward, plot-wise, than I'd remembered. I had this memory that one of the reasons the movie didn't work was that it had a bunch of unrelated scenes strung together in an order that was neither chronological nor logical. That's not the case. To call the movie a conventional narrative would not be accurate either, as it does contain a number of asides, and the character's unique rhythms will never be effectively translated to everyone. But it's not avant garde and inaccessible like I'd remembered.

Outside of the general narrative spine that keeps the plot moving forward, the movie can best be described as a series of scenes that feature what would seem to be tall tales about this larger-than-life figure. All the scenes where he comically whips a variety of adversaries with his belt fall into this category, as they are intentionally cartoonish but also shot in an exciting fashion that gives them pretty good action movie credibility. That Crouther is so good wielding the belt has a lot to do with why these scenes are so crackling. Then there are also some great apocryphal moments from Pootie's childhood. Legend goes that he was always a heartbreaker, and that when he was a child, women three times his age could not resist him. One funny scene involves a distraught lover throwing Pootie's belongings out of her apartment as he stoically looks on from the street below. Since he's only 8-10 years old, one of the items she tosses out the window is his Big Wheel tricycle.

And I have to admit I dug it a lot more this time around. Not only did these scenes flow better on a second viewing, but as I said before, they made more sense as part of a cohesive whole than they did originally. Some movies are just like that, and it does not surprise me in the least that Pootie Tang is one of them.

The supporting performers played a big role in why I enjoyed this movie better the second time. Not only were there the reliable contributions of Chris Rock in several different roles, but Wanda Sykes is great as Biggie Shorty, a streetwise woman who is almost always seen dancing emphatically to unheard music playing through her headphones. (She's mistaken for a prostitute because she dresses in short skirts and does this dancing immediately adjacent to a group of actual prostitutes). When I saw the movie the first time I was unfamiliar with J.B. Smoove, who has one of the largest roles, and it was great to see him now that I know and love him. There are also some great cameos, most notably from David Cross as a fake Pootie Tang sent out to be a corporate shill at the openings of Pootie's Bad Burgers fast food restaurants.

The question that interested me the most about Pootie Tang, however, was whether I would be able to see C.K.'s brand of humor present in this film. Strangely, the answer there is "Not really." Whereas C.K.'s TV show is perhaps one of the most brutally realistic shows on television in terms of how the things that happen to him rarely have good explanations and rarely end happily for him, Pootie Tang is pure satire, rarely tethered to reality in any significant way.

There are, however, a couple of things I can point to as revealing these two C.K.s to be the same man. For one, both Louie and Pootie find space for absurdism. Even as realistic as I have said Louie is, it does have the occasional dream sequence or other flight of fantasy that's totally out there. The show wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if it didn't have those sequences. Another thing I see in common is C.K.'s abhorrence of typical narrative structure. His TV show is structured in a way you simply don't see anywhere else on television, with most shows divided into one short story and one longer story, but only on days that C.K. is feeling conventional enough to adhere to even his own loose guidelines. Pootie Tang may be deceptively conventional in its structure (or more conventional than I thought it was), but the pacing and the placing of scenes are almost as idiosyncratic as we see on the show.

But on a deeper level that may speak to both of the things I've just identified, what I see in both C.K.s is a certain rebelliousness, a certain WTF attitude, a certain "take it or leave it" approach to comedy. Clearly, C.K. couldn't have made it to where he is by playing it safe. Pootie Tang was an early attempt to throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what stuck. His ensuing television shows were a much more successful attempt to do the same -- to strike out on his own, as a unique personality, and see if the public wanted more. Eventually, they did. A lot more.

You could say that Pootie Tang was the best flop ever to happen to Louie C.K. If Pootie Tang had been a hit, who knows what direction that might have taken C.K.'s career. At that age maybe more than now, he probably would have been tempted by the trappings of fame, and maybe he would have spent the next five years making increasingly less successful variations on Pootie Tang, as long he was being paid handsomely to do so. He may never have gotten to the profound insights we see weekly on Louie, because many of those were honed by years of struggling rather than years of succeeding.

If C.K. had never made Pootie Tang, though, I think the world would be a lesser place. There's something deliciously odd but also sweet about it, and my second viewing has confirmed: I'm glad it's something that exists in the world.

Now, get here fast, 2014, so we can see more of Louie C.K. as we have come to know him.

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