' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Lake Placid

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Some Drivel On...Lake Placid

I have seen several people suggest that the just released and merrily titled middling thriller “Cocaine Bear” is best enjoyed not by yourself over streaming but in a movie theater with an audience in order to share the laughter as a church congregation might share the peace. This flashed me back to one summer afternoon in 1999 when a few of my friends and I went to see Steve Miner’s monster movie about a 30-foot alligator terrorizing a small Maine town, “Lake Placid.” I’d say maybe ten, fifteen minutes in we all started looking at each other, incredulous, subliminally asking “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” And maybe ten, fifteen minutes after that we started looking around at the other six or seven or eight audience members, all of whom were starting to look around at each other and at us too, subliminally giving ourselves the green light to turn this into a real-life “Mystery Science Theater 3000” situation and comment on what we were seeing aloud. In a way, it was spiritually right, given that “Lake Placid” was written by David E. Kelley, creator of such snappy television shows as “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal,” meeting the movie on its own wisecracking level.

In writing about “Lake Placid,” film critic Tim Brayton derided it as an “irony bomb,” equating it with the late 90s and the cultural nadir of irony, marked the year before when John Waters’s “Pecker” literally toasted to the irony’s end. Indeed, “Lake Placid” was not set in Lake Placid, New York, as it turned out, site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, eschewing a monster movie about a 30-foot alligator lumbering up a bobsled chute or devouring ski gondolas. No, when Sheriff Keough (Brendan Gleeson) is asked the lake’s name, he notes they wanted to call it Lake Placid, “but someone said that name was taken,” exemplifying the ironic tone, just as the opening pretty sardonically hearkens back to “Jaws.” But I confess, I was charmed by Kelley’s attempts to meld a sort of sarcastic screwball comedy with a monster movie, like if Doris Day and Rock Hudson had starred in “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” or something. 

Though in referring to Gleeson and Bill Pullman as a fish and game officer and Bridget Fonda as a paleontologist and Oliver Platt as a crocodile hunting mythology professor, Anthony Lane lamented that the “actors seem to be having slightly too good a time,” though Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir essentially saw the same thing and read it as a plus. “As its story becomes increasingly outrageous,” O’Hehir wrote, “the film never takes itself too seriously or tries to teach any ponderous lessons. When Kelley's fast-paced comic zingers finally build to critical mass, the ensemble cast starts to enjoy itself and the mismatched ingredients blend into a blissfully, stupidly surreal summer cocktail.” That cocktail is embodied in the scene Platt’s bon vivant cuts a rug with the female deputy sheriff in the tent he has, as I recollect, set up somewhere near this lake where a person-eating gator is lurking? The stakes couldn’t be higher, you might say ironically, but then, this, to my mind, is precisely what the highest stakes call for. If the world is about to end, you want to have a dance party, just as you would if a 30-foot alligator were stalking your shores. 

I considered rewatching “Lake Placid” here and now in 2023 not just to commemorate the opening of “Cocaine Bear” but to see if it held up. Then I realized that some things in this life are exempt from needing to hold up, like Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which was on the radio endlessly that summer, a song that, like “Lake Placid”, never really had any reason to be beyond the moment in which it existed.

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