' ' Cinema Romantico: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I had originally watched Shane Black's return to screenwriting and/or directing several years ago when I was severely under the weather. I remember the film feeling leaving me feeling torn, as if the film's illusion wanted to but never did manage to change into something real. Then again, the fact that I was using Natalie Imbruglia lyrics to summarize "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" might have suggested that I was even more under the weather than I realized. This past New Year's my friend Brad suggested to give it a re-watch and so I did.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" suggests what might happen if Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker ever decided to go Charlie Kaufman. I mean, the film is meta, layers wrapped up in layers, but it's intent on letting you know that it knows what its doing. The narrator openly references "Lord of the Rings" and its multiple endings and, earlier, upon forgetting a few facts, harshly advices the audience, "I don't see another god-damn narrator, so pipe down."

That narrator is also our main character, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a thief from New York who by a classic case of cinematic happenstance blunders into a movie audition and is so convincing the studio flies him out to L.A. where he finds himself at one of those hip hoppin' parties at a house in the Hollywood Hills with a pool where women ask "What do you do?" as a means to determine if you're sleep-with-himable. (Downey Jr.'s reply to one of these women when she asks, gets the answer and then walks away - "That's it?" - is just brilliant.) Harry, set to play the part of a private detective, is introduced to Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), a real life private detective, who will school him in the ways of the trade. Ah, but this is not the only person Harry meets. He also, in a classic case of cinematic happenstance, finds himself with his high school crush, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), who has come to La La Land in much the same manner as "Bowfinger's" Daisy ("Is this where I go to be an actress?"), to see through her starstruck dreams.

Complications arise. Harry goes on the job with Perry and they find themselves ensnared in some sort of multifarious scheme involving murder and kidnapping and ransom and cars driven into lakes and so forth. Meanwhile, Harmony Faith Lane's sister has gone missing and since Harry introduced himself as a private detective she pleads with him to investigate and so he does even though he doesn't really know what he's doing.

That sincere deadpan Downey Jr. has been perfecting over the years is just perfect for this part and Kilmer re-proves he's sort of a cinematic Carmelo Anthony in that when he's interested (like here) he's pretty damn good and when he's uninterested (which is often) then look away and Monaghan, an actress who I've felt has always been of the she's-just-sorta-there variety, apparently has a giggle so infectious that casting directors and directors need to be making note of it. "Monaghan. Giggle. Use ASAP." The humor of the film is rapid fire with tongue stapled gun to cheek. Consider this exchange.

Perry: "Look up idiot in the dictionary. You know what you'll find?"
Harry: "A picture of me?"
Perry: "No! The definition of the word idiot which is what you are!" 

That, I venture, is Black taking one of those hideously overused phrases and turning it on its head. That's funny. There are more lines like it. Okay, so then what of all the gay jokes? There are so many gay jokes. Like Kilmer's Perry referring to himself and being referred to as "Gay" Perry. (Say it out loud.) Humorous. But then there are just more and more gay jokes and so you wonder if maybe the plethora of gay jokes is a commentary on the plethora of gay jokes in movies except then there are still so many more gay jokes after you have that thought you wonder if, no, maybe Shane Black just really likes gay jokes. This is the the guy that wrote "The Last Boy Scout." Except then you wonder if maybe he's taking the gay jokes over the top as a commentary on movies taking gay jokes over the top. Except then your head starts to hurt.

By far the film's strangest moment is when Harry finds himself in the wrong house and hides under someone's bed and is forced to use a gun. Suddenly the movie wants to be taken seriously. Wait, what? You've told somewhere in excess of 250 gay jokes and now there are actual ramifications? You hear often of Scenes That Took Me Out Of The Movie. This scene took me out of the movie. Be certain, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" isn't merely nudge nudge wink wink cinema, it is shove shove I'M WINKING AT YOU cinema. Which is fine. But then don't ask me to care. But maybe Black didn't want us to care. Maybe the point of this sequence was to show how Hollywood movies so often give us no reason to care and then out of the clear blue sky ask to care. And maybe Downey Jr. is just too good of an actor and played the scene too real which is why it came off strange. But maybe Black knew he'd play it that way and......

Ah hell, I don't know. My conversation has run dry. That's what's going on. Nothing's fine. I'm torn.


Castor said...

It's funny but like you, I was left slightly unsatisfied that it wasn't "more". RDJ is perfect for the role and who knew Val Kilmer could be that funny. Heck, even poor Michelle Monaghan gives the most memorable performance of her career. It does have hilarious moments but I thought it was too much on an intermittent basis.

Wretched Genius said...

Castor, need I remind you that Kilmer's career started with Real Genius and Top Secret? Kilmer was always this funny, Hollywood just forgot.

I love, love, LOVE this movie, but I do agree that the gay jokes start to come off as weirdly homophobic after a while.

I have the opposite reaction to the scene where he hides under the bed. Rather than taking me out of the scene, it served as a Moment Of Focus, where we get a quick reminder that there are very real, very harsh consequences if the main characters make the wrong move. And the seriousness doesn't linger for more than a minute, as that scene ends with a dog disposing of a potential fingerprint in a way that is both unexpected yet exactly what a dog really would do.

And now, Random Movie Quote time:

"Doesn't that suck? I just hit you for no reason."

"It's like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on."

"Talking monkey, yeah. Came here from the future, ugly sucker, only says 'ficus'."

"Why in pluperfect hell would you pee on a corpse?"

Not really funny on its own, but Kilmer's delivery of the line "Yes, I think you're stupid." is frickin' hilarious.

Nick Prigge said...

I just felt the movie hadn't earned that moment of focus. It was so self aware up to that point that I just couldn't go for it. Either way, it was very, very, very funny.

And while his performance in "Tombstone" wasn't conventional funny, Kilmer as Doc Holliday was pretty damn uproarious.

Tom Clift said...

I really love this film; it's got a million quotable lines, great performances, and I plain dig meta humour (the Charlie Kaufman comparison is an excellent one).

I can see the argument that the excess of gay jokes could be homophobic, but the movie does also present one of the most normal/heroic gay characters in Hollywood cinema...probably ever.

As for the scene that took you out of the movie, I think it's probably one of the better scenes that I can think of of that nature (showing someone’s reaction to committing an act of violence, which is so often brushed off in movies). But you're right that it did feel a bit out of place in this particular film.

Nick Prigge said...

You're right, as a standalone scene it's really pretty good. And Downey Jr. plays it beautifully. It's just what makes this movie so vexing.