Monday, December 5, 2016

A Nasty surprise

Warning: I'm going to spoil the hell out of Sebastian Silva's Nasty Baby

There was a poster for Nasty Baby I could have chosen that features just the three leads on it, looking jovial. 

But the one with the tongue sticking out is far, far more appropriate for the post I'm about to write.

I had wanted to direct my wife toward a 2016 release for Saturday night's viewing, because it's "that time of the year." However, the fact that it's "that time of the year" has recently taken on its annual status as a joke about my obsessive-compulsive year-end tendencies, which my wife only partly thinks are funny. Part of her thinks she loses me to the movies around this time of the year, my mind assuming only a single track toward the goal of seeing everything I "need" to see. (Just wait until I'm in the U.S. and want to get to the theater anywhere from three to a half-dozen times.)

So I showed how reasonable I can be by allowing her to choose the movie, irrespective of release year. I mean, I still had veto power, as the other person always does, but I agreed to open myself up to the great unwashed masses of all the movies available on our three streaming services. Twenty sixteen would need to wait for another night.

Kristen Wiig is enough of a common favorite that I imagine we are going to eventually see all of her movies, and at this point, there are only a scarce few we haven't seen. In fact, there are few enough that I can list them: Despicable Me 2, Masterminds, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (one of my great regrets that I clearly should have gotten to before now) and a couple back from her early days on SNL, like Unaccompanied Minors and Meet Bill. 

So Nasty Baby was easy enough for me to agree to. And it was easy enough for me to watch after a slow start in which I complained, after less than five minutes, that it was oddly hard to pay attention to. The movie is nothing if not low key as it charts the very mumblecore concerns of a gay New York couple (played by the director and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) as they try to get Wiig's character pregnant, planning to share custody of the child. Since Silva's character is firing blanks, it falls to Adebimpe's to do the deed, though he is reluctant for reasons the film tries to explore.

I slowly got up to speed with the movie, an effort that is not usually required for me with mumblecore because that's a form I naturally enjoy. But I got there eventually with this one, and can say I was pretty much enjoying it when BAM! They kill someone.


That's what we said too.

I mean, it wasn't like it wasn't foreshadowed. The gay couple, particularly Silva's Freddy, has several run-ins with a crazy neighbor (The Wire's Reg E. Cathey) who insists on using his leafblower at 7 a.m. and harassing Wiig's Polly in a way that's going beyond the level of "harmless," as another gay neighbor (Mark Margolis) initially interprets it to be. The movie wouldn't keep including these interactions with the neighbor if it weren't going to go somewhere with that subplot.

But killing him? I don't think so.

The last 15 minutes of the movie, then, are about covering up the fact that Freddy initially knocked over this man (known as The Bishop), causing him to develop a head wound, before stabbing him in the neck as a defensive measure when The Bishop attacks him in his house. Freddy was being a good samaritan by bringing him upstairs, you see.

When it's clear the man is probably going to die, Freddy and his husband (Mo by name) smother him with a bag, ending his struggle.

They then carry him down to the car, drive him out to the country and bury him, while three other characters who get ensnared in the situation clean up after them.


Oh but you haven't heard the weirdest part yet. The weirdest part is that after the movie ends on a fittingly somber note, the credits begin with an up-tempo song and the strangest sight of the whole movie: the three main characters having the time of their life at a roller disco.


Speechless was what we were too. Not only did the movie do this incredibly awkward tonal shift to something it had never been about, thus entirely short-circuiting all the narrative drive of the pregnancy plot, but then it does another tonal shift that seems to say: "And then they forgot about it and moved on with their lives." That's assuming this joyous roller disco credits sequence is meant to occur after these other events, chronologically, but even if it isn't, the effect is the same for the viewer so the difference is meaningless. 

Yeah, this movie feels like Sebastian Silva sticking his tongue out at us indeed.

I get that this guy is not just a total idiot. He did this intentionally. He had a reason for screeching on the brakes once, then doing it a second time. The reason was that he wanted to provoke something in us. The reason was that he wanted us to question our genre assumptions and explode our expectations of where this movie would go.

Well, mission accomplished, Sebastian. Bravo.

The reason I don't give him any credit for such narrative anarchy is that it's cheap. Any person can make a movie that starts one way and then ends completely differently. It does not require a particular talent. It only requires a mischievous disregard for conventional viewer satisfaction, which he judged that a certain percentage of us would appreciate -- enough of a percentage for it to be worth doing. And I suppose he calculated correctly, as the film holds a frankly baffling 64 on Metacritic.

Look, sometimes this works. I can think of examples. I won't name them here. But just know, I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of it.

But this execution ... it's just head-scratching. When you are heading a film in an interesting direction -- how will a gay couple impregnate a woman when one of them can't and the other doesn't want to -- it's downright obnoxious to just stop that dead in its tracks, especially with something as anathema to the type of movie you're making as a murder. It's a complete middle finger at the notion that some of his viewers would have wanted to know how the compelling issues he was exploring would play themselves out.

And let's also talk about this murder -- it's of an older black character who is crazy. He's initially described to us as "harmless crazy," but he does indeed grab Wiig from behind at one point, making him actually dangerous. Is that what the movie really wants us to take away from it, that you should be afraid of crazy old black men on the street? I suppose it thought it had its political correctness perfectly in order by Freddy being a Latino and Mo being black and them both being gay, but something about the way that character is treated is just not right.

So at the end -- before the tasteless roller disco -- you are left trying to grapple with what this movie wants you to take away from it. It's singularly unsatisfying when a narrative thrust does not lead to logical conclusions about what you've spent the previous hour-plus watching. Yeah, that's like life -- three characters trying to make a baby together sometimes unwittingly kill a person, I'm sure. It's happened at least once, somewhere.

But there are plenty of other random sequences of incompatible events that have happened in the world, that do happen every day, and we don't see movies about those. We don't see movies about them because there is nothing useful we can glean from them. They are just shit that happened.

Nasty Baby is similar -- it happened, and it sure is shit. 

1 comment:

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