Ricky Gervais’ Derek: An Atheist’s Enthusiasm For Life

Derek is an original series written, directed, and starring Ricky Gervais and is now available on Netflix for streaming. I can’t enthusiastically recommend this show because it’s too far off the normal spectrum to be relatable or easy to explain but it deserves consideration because of how incredibly bold it is from a creative standpoint. Gervais believes in a kind of hybridized vision of comedy and tragedy that is in a lot of ways unbearable to watch when he’s invested in the subject matter. This is a good thing, it’s brave and experimental. Maybe groundbreaking. But not always successful which is its own way important because he is constantly exploring and trying to find the ways where something awful can find a way to be funny. This is something like shotgun comedy where he goes into a situation, clearly unsure if it’s going to work at all but usually finding enough relatable moments to dig the humor out of a wildly uncomfortable scenario. In the original version of The Office the tone is drastically different from its American counterpart. Characters are much more depressing and unlikable. Dawn’s fiancé is loathsome and borderline emotionally abusive. David Brent is nigh unredeemable in his self involvement and delusion. The sun doesn’t come very often in Slough. In fact, the final payoff to the will they/won’t they romance doesn’t even happen in the course of the actual series, the Brits have an unhealthy obsession with Christmas specials. Extras was too much fun to be dark at all, so I count that as one part his genius and one part willingness for A-List celebrites to lampoon themselves in hilarious ways. Which brings us to Derek.

Set in a retirement home, Gervais portrays a volunteer caregiver who may or may not have developmental disabilities. This apparently caused a healthy amount of controversy upon release, with some critics taking umbrage at the idea of an actor portraying a mentally challenged person in a show with comedic overtones. Where I understand this sensitivity, it’s important to make distinctions with the material at hand. I’d argue that it’s more offensive to take issue with the fact that a main character can be mentally handicapped. Why can’t he be? Or not be, it’s never really explored and his coworkers are fiercely loyal to him because, as the show capably and overtly declares, what does it matter? It doesn’t change who the character is. Yes, he is being portrayed by an actor and if he were the constant comic foil to the rest of the cast, I’d be right alongside the offended, and although there are a few laughs made at Derek’s expense none of them really have anything to do with his intelligence. Rather, the reason he is funny is because he is this goddamn sweet human being. He is distressingly considerate and fascinated by the little things about life and the people in it, almost to a fault. And when he loses one of his ward he takes it hard. Every time. And he keeps on loving in spite of the eventualities of this job he volunteers to do. Something the rest of us are far removed from.

This is a subject that Gervais clearly takes very seriously. Although the realities of senility are played for a laugh here and there, it’s done so gently, with the knowing sort of nod that seems to say, yes, you’re going to chuckle at this because, honestly, what else can you do? This is that fascinating little sweet spot, that bittersweet moment of introspection that Gervais strives for, that feeling of insecurity in the things we’ve colored black or white, funny or violating. Laugh now and cry later. Or get both out of the way at the same time, because in the end all that matters is what you take from the moment. In the end it’s all the same.

I am an avid fan of Ricky Gervais but I will be the first to admit his reach exceeded his grasp here, he needed a Stephen Merchant or someone like him to audit the emotions he’s playing for. A touch of subtlety would have turned this good show into a great piece of art, the kind of thing that you want to look away from but you can’t because it changes your world view and makes you think about things you don’t want to think about. Where are you going to be when you’re old? Who is going to be there to take care of you, if anyone? What would it be like to have strangers at your side when you leave. What will you say.

I think that one of the things that makes Gervais such a fascinating creative talent is the fact that he was not a professional comic when he found success. When he was picked up by the BBC it was his obtuse, obnoxious depiction of David Brent in a comedy short produced by friends that catapulted him to stardom. His vocabulary is purely informed by his experience as an average adult middle aged nobody. I feel like this has fostered an insecurity in his standup comedy that has inspired him to execute a purely personal project, a labor of love. He’s doing something that he’s never done before, he’s acting. By and large, his body of work consists of Ricky Gervais being one variation of Ricky Gervais or another, he’s been essentially reading lines as the persona that we have come to be familiar with but in Derek he is occupying a role, to varying degrees of success. As per usual, he is playing to the camera or his supporting cast but here he is outside his comfort zone and calling on some very serious subjects to say….what? I’m not sure.

Such is an atheist. However, Gervais is the finest example of the ilk. If there is a running theme through his work it’s that his characters have an enthusiastic personality for life that is alien and bizarre to the people around him. David Brent and Derek Noakes believe that this is The Show, this is it, and instead of resigning to the drudgery and futility of day to day life in the hope that there is something better on the other side they appreciate the time we have for what it is and can be. I am respectful of either side of the coin, the spiritual and the fatalist, but to me, well. You have to play all four quarters, you play them hard. If there is a reward at the end or not, the world is either a better place because you were here or a worse one, the choice is pretty simple. In Derek, Ricky Gervais is saying that you don’t need intelligence, good looks, or fortune to improve your environment. All you need is the heart, good will, and the hands that the Flying Spaghetti Monster may or may not have given you to change a pretty scary and lonely place into a home.

   

The World’s End: With Friends Like These

If there is a theme running through The Cornetto Trilogy, composed of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, besides ice cream, it’s the fear of conformity, of losing identity to the masses, to the illusion of an idyllic life, to the trappings of consumerism and old age. Writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright seem paralyzed with fright at these concepts when they should be anything but in light of their successful career in film and fidelity to their unique brand of comedy. But the message is there and addressed at the end of each story that finds their main characters embracing their own ideas of happiness and fulfillment while accepting the end of the world as they once knew it. This is always a satisfying combination of accepting maturity while still allowing the inner child to keep partying, keep playing video games or playing super cop, or roaming the world in search of the next big adventure, however much that world may have changed when we weren’t looking.

The World’s End is pretty straightforward as a comedy. If you enjoyed the previous films you will enjoy this one, Wright and Pegg have absolutely no problem recycling what works in their stories. If a man trying to gallantly jump over a fence and failing was funny the first and second time, it’s still funny the third. This kind of self awareness is a joy, at this point it’s like hearing an old friend tell stories; you know when the punchline is coming, you have a good idea where the story is going, and you like them so much you feel at home with the familiar. And as slapdash and absurd as these films are at points these two storytellers always take the time to inject a healthy amount of heart, a good swath of melodrama in these surreal situations. Shaun had to come to terms with his father issues and his juvenile friendship with Ed, Sergeant Angel had to learn how to have a normal relationship without obsessing over his work, and Gary King, well, his journey stopped in one specific point in his youth. His inability to move on from that time in everyone’s adolescence when what was once an infinite amount of potential turns into a finite amount of options has left him an emotionally crippled adult. He’s a man-child desperately clinging to that time before responsibility and adulthood forced him to start paying his own way.

The World’s End is not short on symbolism and foreshadowing, half of the fun is decoding the language and Easter Eggs that describe the story as it is happening. This is what makes these films such a good time, it’s not just a bunch of guys who clearly love each other, love what they do and are having a great time doing it. They have a respect for their audience to dig a little deeper; to find a laugh in the broad physical comedy and in the subtle details that make for great rewatching.

Sometimes it’s hard to write about something I really like because I’m too quick to praise what I’ve seen, too tempted to fawn over the good things and it’s too easy to project what I love about film in an attempt to inspire rather than inform. Sometimes I try too hard to impress some kind of greater meaning in a film that might not necessarily ask for it. That’s my fault. But it’s just not sexy to say, ‘Hey, it’s a funny, entertaining, heartfelt flick that is worth your time and money. The end’.

Ironically I can’t figure out how to end a review of The World’s End except to go pseudo-intellectual on you. The word ‘apocalypse’ was thrown around a lot last year regarding asteroids and the Mayan calendar and so forth. The meaning of the concept is scary and overwhelming and may have something to do with our own fascination with mortality. But the actual translation has more to do with change, the ‘disclosure of knowledge’ according to Wikipedia; a revelation. While ‘Growing Up’, with all the loss and mistakes and failure that come with the process, a lot of moments feel like the end of the world when they are really the beginning of something else, a discovery of a new perspective. Sometimes this new perspective sucks horribly and its extremely difficult to let go of what seemed like a more ideal place and time. And in that end all there is left is to hold on against the zombies and fanatics and alien robots that are beating down the door, to hold out alongside the good friends and loved ones we have with us, to pour a beer and wait for dawn.

On the other hand, if you can find a cricket bat, maybe a pool cue, who wouldn’t want to fight their way out? Just because it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun.

Pain & Gain: The Words I Never Thought I’d Write

Moments before starting the film Pain & Gain I remarked out loud that there is a small but enthusiastic community of critics and film aficionados that  have reviewed Michael Bay’s films and consider him to be an under appreciated genius for his technical skills as a filmmaker. I won’t deny his talent as an action oriented auteur with a penchant for music video style energy and a fetishistic obsession with explosions, guns, and morbidly perfect human specimens. He’s the offspring of an anthropomorphic copy of Maxim magazine that bred with a living issue of Guns & Ammo that has been possessed by the insane demonized soul of Orson Welles who, for some reason, has a near constant erection. Michael Bay’s body of work is the embodiment of a fevered masturbatory fantasy envisioned by a pubescent teenage boy in the throes of an orgasm surrounded by pinup centerfolds in a dingy, shadowed basement, Ratt blasting out of second hand boom box that sits underneath a well worn VHS copy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High freeze framed on the scene of Phoebe Cates removing her bikini top. He’s a guilty pleasure, a firebug, an insipid preening alpha male peddling Mountain Dew, Cadillac, Ford Chevy, Coke, Pepsi, whoever cuts a check. Michael Bay thinks that black people only communicate by yelling at each other, that anything gay or unmasculine is hilarious, and that the only desirable women in the world model for Victoria’s Secret and are frequently covered in a thin sheen of odorless sweat. Calling him jingoistic is akin to calling Leonard Da Vinci a hobbyist. Although The Rock holds a special place in my heart, it’s safe to say that I am not a fan.

Criticizing the man, as I’ve pointed out, is distressingly easy. There is really no sport to it, he seems like the kind of person you could make fun of to his face and he would either not understand at all or be unable to hear over the sound of the money he has made jangling around in the enormous Scrooge McDuck style bank vault he no doubt has constructed on some remote desert island populated by nubile coked out Hungarian porn actresses engaged in a never-ending orgy on the hoods and rooftops of Lamborghini, Bugatti, Ferrari that are stacked on top of each other like pancakes, all the while Bay laughs maniacally while observing the action on a football field sized Lazy Susan that he has constructed in order to constantly rotate 360 degrees around whatever is happening at all times. I digress.

Criticizing the man is easy but complimenting him is more so, his movies make a lot of money and they can be a lot of fun if you turn your brain off and just let go of sanity for a couple hours. I don’t hate the man, he has filled a niche market that appeals to a large audience that constantly complains about his work but inevitably trucks out to the theaters to see it anyway and that I appreciate: the absolute willingness to keep doing what you love no matter how much people criticize or lambast you for it. I’m now remembering Pearl Harbor and I take it back, I do hate the man, I really do. And not because it is a terrible, long, poorly acted, badly written, nonsensical attempt to rip off the Titanic formula of historic tragedy plus love story equals mass appeal, but because the attack on Pearl Harbor was a pretty significant point in American History. It was kind of a big deal and his treatment of it was a pretty clear money grab, a manufactured piece of treacle with no real respect for the survivors or the victims. As something of a history buff with a fascination with World War II, this was a sobering moment for the American people in an uncertain time and that was one thing that Bay did not seem to be while making that movie: sober.

Which brings me to Pain & Gain and the words I never thought I would say about a Michael Bay film: the man is a genius. I’m not going to argue that it is perfect, or brilliant, or an indication that he has finally matured as a filmmaker. It’s not revolutionary, he recycles all the classic Bay camera work. It is, however, chauvinistic, superficial, visually noisy, mildly homophobic, and more than a little vain but it’s absolutely supposed to be. Because here is what the man did in selecting this film to direct: he took all the things that people criticize about his filmmaking and turn them into qualities because this film is a comedy and it’s hilarious. Take Mark Wahlberg and his manic energy from The Other Guys and combine it with the vainglorious self obsession in the latter half of Boogie Nights. Throw in The Rock, who is a fully capable comedic actor in his own right, and subtract the things that make Bay’s work so overwrought and ridiculous, (i.e. twenty minute car chases, massive inconsequential explosions, endless interminable gun fights). Add these things to a Based on a True Story plot that (the following statement is going to get me struck by lightning thrown by the God of film critics) is more than a little reminiscent of the Coen brothers. Bear with me: a couple of guys decide to commit a crime. Because these guys are complete idiots, the plan starts to go wrong. Things get more complex, things go more wrong, before they know it everything is spiraling out of control and a story that was pretty surreal to begin with becomes otherworldly where Bay takes a moment to (hilariously) remind the audience that it’s still a true story.

I really don’t know why there was so much critical backlash against this film, I found it incredibly entertaining, funny, and as ludicrous as I expected. What harm it has done to other writer’s psyches I will never know. It’s Marky Mark, The Rock, and the director of Armageddon. What did you think was going to happen? Obviously, my expectations were pretty low to begin with and if some critics wanted to commit ritualized seppuku after seeing it that’s too bad. I had a great time.