Sunday, September 22, 2019


This weekend saw two small-screen short-form programs make the leap to feature length. The more improbable is Between Two Ferns: The Movie. It has its modest viral-video sketch-show origins in Zach Galifianakis’ funny, awkward, faux-amateur interview online shorts. He plays a fumbling marble-mouthed ignorant weirdo who alternately incisively insults and dopily repels his celebrity guests as they sit in a poorly-lit studio decorated only with two ferns. Their interactions — loosely scripted by Galifianakis and co-writer/director Scott Aukerman — are just funny enough to last the length of a usual online clip, perfect to be passed around on social media. So the prospect of making it a movie — even a a slim 80-minute one — is unlikely to work well. Somehow it does. This isn’t because it’s well-plotted. No, the thing’s a shambles, with an endless setup of mockumentary shenanigans and exposition like it’s emerging from a mid-aughts time-capsule launching into the barest bones road trip drudgery you’ve ever seen. Will Ferrell (playing a coked-up, cowboy-hat wearing, media-mogul version of himself) sends Galifianakis on a quest to make 10 new episodes of Between Two Ferns in only two weeks. Succeed and he’ll get a his own lifetime late-night talk show. “I’m a white man and I’m straight,” he deadpans. “I deserve this.” That’s pretty funny. So off they go, our lead dope and his three-person production crew — they’re equally dim-witted, with one saying, in response to a waiter asking if she’s ever seen a chicken strip, “I’ve never even seen a chicken wear clothes” — with the flimsiest excuse to string together a bunch of cameos for interviews that you could’ve seen one at a time over the course of weeks on FunnyOrDie. Somehow, though, each successive desperate, squirmy interview session compounds the amusing interest from the last. It’s an uneven delivery system, but it contains Galifianakis’ concept at or near the top of its game for the most part. Throughout it’s often laugh-out-loud surprising as he’s asking questions that toe the line between jokey insults and actual sharp commentary, sometimes riffing on unfair media reputations (simply repeats dated digs without much spin), other times cutting close to the bone (asking, say, a Marvel Superhero Actor what it feels like to sell out, or a British thespian if his accent hides his lack of talent.) Other times he spins off into fumbling malapropisms or loopy tangents. It’s all amusing enough. There’s a nothing plot line strung up between the pieces, yet, since the thing has been confined to a straight-to-streaming release, there’s no good reason not to skip ahead to the good parts once you tire of the rote story elements. I’m sure Netflix won’t mind.

Gentler and more coherent is Downton Abbey, a big-screen continuation of the handsome British soap that ran for six seasons on PBS here in the states. It concerns the lives and loves, the scheming and dreaming, of an upstairs/downstairs situation on a Yorkshire estate. The Crawleys lives upstairs in their palatial rooms as they deal with upper-crust society problems, while their devoted servants deal with grubbier working-class problems and feel great loyalty to their employers. I’ve never seen an episode of the series, but the movie is sure cozy, welcoming in a host of little dramas with characters who hit the ground running. It mercifully wastes no time with a roll call and just gets on with it, assuming its audience either remembers them all fondly or can get up to speed fast enough. (It does, though, sweep lovingly in slow establishing shots of the big house. Downton Abbey is to this movie what the Starship Enterprise is to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) It’s 1927 and the King and Queen send word they’ll spend the night at Downton during a tour of the region. This sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy, prompting little bits of business and drama for pretty much the entire cast of the series. There are romances and jealousies, negotiations and preparations. It’s stately and fussy, and warmly cliched. I have the feeling screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who wrote all the seasons of the show and also did this sort of big house tizzy in Altman's far superior Gosford Park, is much like Mark Twain’s description of James Fenimore Cooper. He has a small bag of narrative tricks and loves to methodically take out each one every time, "never so happy as when...working these innocent things and seeing them go." At least it’s high-gloss pseudo-sophisticated.

Series’ veteran director Michael Engler makes it look like high-gloss television with blandly digital flatness in a scope frame. The cast is marvelous to a person, and the sets are clearly well-loved. The whole thing clips along like a leisurely Very Special three-parter. With so many characters to juggle and conflicts to serve, there’s never too much time to mind the simple framing or dawdling low-stakes plot mechanics. It’s so charming and light — the audience warmly chuckling with recognition or sending waves of affection in the direction of their favorite performers. The clear standout is Maggie Smith, a delight as the wickedly clever Countess who rules over the proceedings, snipping and sniping from the sidelines and stealing every scene. Even this Downton novice entered aware of her beloved status in the role. My, how that’s deserved. It’s all a pleasant mood. Still, there’s a general irritation I felt at the film’s politics, which are so cozily depicted a byproduct of the conceit’s warm bath of nostalgia over a rigid class system. It’s a movie about servants who just want the honor of helping the rich folk, and the progressives among both classes reluctantly admitting that, gee, the aristocracy sure is genteel and well-meaning and, gosh darn it, might as well go on forever. By the end, I almost found myself wishing the same for Downton. I’m sure fans will be delighted.

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