POSTED ON JULY 13, 2011:
Can't Stop Watching
New Conan O'Brien doc is compelling, behind-the-scenes filmmaking
In 2004, five years before the end of his contract, Jay Leno announced his eventual departure from The Tonight Show after seventeen years -- and his intention to pass the torch to long-standing Late Night host and heir-apparent, Conan O'Brien.
But as the appointed hour drew nigh there were signs that Leno wasn't ready to go quietly into the night. NBC (due to top ratings notwithstanding Leno's being an utterly softball and desperately unfunny comedian) wanted, cravenly, to remain in the Jay Leno business. So the plan was augmented. O'Brien would still assume the hosting duties of The Tonight Show while Leno would instead be given a new, prime time show preceding it. By axing more expensive scripted shows from the 10pm slot NBC figured it could save money, keep Leno and placate O'Brien all with one stone.
But we know how that turned out. Leno's ratings were less than stellar and The Tonight Show's viewership took a dive when its regular audience was exposed to actual comedy. The hemming and hawing began. NBC execs proposed an even newer plan to bump The Tonight Show to 12am (which would have rendered it The Next Day Show, but whatever) in order to give Leno a half-hour slot after the local news. Rather than see the long-running and esteemed Tonight Show -- which had been broadcasting in the same slot for 56 years -- moved to accommodate the waffling Leno, O'Brien bowed out a mere seven months after assuming the reins, making him the Tonight Show's shortest lived host since its first, Steve Allen.
As a stipulation of his contract, O'Brien was banned from creating another television show for himself until late 2010. Thus was born "The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour," which spawned the legitimately funny and revealing new documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.
Detailing the behind the scenes of the tour's inception and development, which started out as a two-date affair that quickly ballooned to more than 40 performances across the country (after a single Tweet prompted the two initial shows to sell out in minutes) Conan O'Brien Can't Stop proves to be an apt title. The 48-year-old host is almost as manically "on" behind the scenes as he was when he was miming his marionette hips to the delight of millions.
The show itself, of which the film only reveals snippets and a couple of musical numbers, was more in the vein of a travelling comedy/variety show than a talk format, with O'Brien hosting and performing songs and skits with surprise guest stars, ranging from Jim Carrey to Jack White, Eddie Vedder and (delightfully) Tenacious D.
But the meat of Can't Stop is in what it reveals about O'Brien, pulling back the curtain not just on his feelings about NBC (hint: they're not warm) and the controversy surrounding his departure but also the icon himself.
Equal parts manically "hey, look at me!" ADD man-child, reflective and deeply appreciative of his good fortune while being the egocentric and uncompromising show runner ("I might be a fucking genius, or I might be the biggest dick ever. I don't know."), Can't Stop paints a vérité portrait of a tireless entertainer and the mélange of his personality -- more so than was ever revealed in all the years he spent in America's living rooms.
The result is rich with the complexities of O'Brien's personality, work ethic and interactions with fans and hangers on, which tip between heartfelt gratitude and annoyance -- depending on whether they're ordinary admirers or comedian Margaret Cho. Told in a fly-on-the-wall style, director/cameraman/editor Rodman Flander (Idle Hands) crafts an absorbingly constructed and very well edited film that compels not just by revealing the sides of O'Brien that his viewers rarely get to see but also by putting one in the middle of the creation and staging of his exhausting tour.
Scenes of O'Brien working with his writers, bouncing his stream-of-consciousness comedy nuggets off of them, laying the bricks of the show's construction, are as enlightening of the nuts and bolts of comedy as they are of O'Brien, who sometimes mercilessly chides his collaborators for their lagging motivation or bad ideas, while he clearly considers them family. In fact, the proceeds from the tour went to his staff -- that followed him from New York to L.A. unwitting of Leno's self-serving collapse and NBC's spinelessness, finding themselves unemployed mere months later.
And while the tour fed O'Brien's need as a place-holder for his own return to television, it also fed the families of his loyal employees who he endearingly puts above himself even as he pushes them to rise to his level. That's one of many facets that make Conan O'Brien Can't Stop a fascinating, funny and illuminating window into our collective love of celebrity.
Who hasn't had a boss they hated? Perhaps it was an odious night manager in a shitty restaurant job you had when you were a kid. Maybe it was a cubicle-ensconced, ladder-climbing, two-faced, mirco-managing Bill Lumbergh wannabe possessed of all the personality of a newscaster with erectile dysfunction. No matter your vocation, anyone who has spent time working for someone else at one point had a peerless dick of a boss that made them blithely fantasize about backing their car over them a few dozen times. By the way, this review has totally become a personal anecdote.
But you never followed through on it (unless you worked for the post office) and kept your nose to the grindstone, perhaps casting an eye towards greener job pastures. With Horrible Bosses, a trio of similarly beleaguered friends decides to do something about the objects of their shared disaffection.
Nick (Jason Bateman) is an financial executive who's worked diligently for eight years under a reptilian, cruel, conniving and covetous boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey, of course) while his best friend Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), works as a chemical company accountant for Jack Pillet (Donald Sutherland), its doddering and sweet founder. But Kurt also has to work alongside Jack's coked-out, comb-over cropped, imp of a son, Bobby (a near great Colin Ferrell) who considers the company a personal ATM to fuel his bottomless love of Bolivian blow and hookers.
Meanwhile, Dale (Always Sunny's Charlie Day) works as a dental assistant for a wickedly hot D.D.S., Julia (Jennifer Aniston) who chronically threatens to screw Dale blue despite his engagement and clear fealty to his fiancée, Stacy (Lindsay Sloane).
But when Harken absorbs the marketing VP promotion that he's been cruelly dangling in front of Nick into his own job and Kurt's kindly boss drops dead of a heart attack, leading to the ascension of his despicable son, while Dale learns that he was drugged by Dr. Julia to shoot a series of sexually incriminating blackmail photos that might coerce Dale into her carnal web, they all decide it's time to get some professional killer help. Enter Jamie Foxx's Motherfucker Jones ("Why do they call you Motherfucker?" "My first name's Dean. Try scaring someone with that shit."), an ex-con who might not be as helpful as he at first seems.
On paper, and in its marketing, Horrible Bosses looks great. Jason Bateman is a genuinely funny guy who has a knack for getting involved in genuinely funny projects and an R-rated, black comedy about the malevolent assholes we sometimes work for would already have to try pretty hard to suck. Casting Kevin Spacey as one of them really sells itself.
But for better and worse, Horrible Bosses is funny in a middling way, rarely taking chances, and never flirting with true darkness.
Directed by Seth Gordon (Freakonomics) from a story by Michael Markowitz -- a writer for the humorless Ted Danson series, Becker -- and a script by Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (most recently of the short lived, Facebook status-inspired, sitcom Shit My Dad Says), Horrible Bosses is an example of script that falls short of the talents that bring it to life. Though not so much as to make it time wasted.
It's amusingly amiable and often quite funny (usually benefitting from anything to do with Farrell's Bobby or Bateman's spotless delivery) but considering the cast, that's a bit of a letdown. Horrible Bosses should have killed.
It's the easy comedic chemistry generated by Jasons Bateman and Sudeikis and Charlie Day that elevate the sometimes inconsequential narrative while, by the same token, good characters are wasted; most egregiously Farrell's Bobby Pillet. Farrell is sort of pulling a Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys here and it's kind of great.
Spacey would have been great too, even though the script doesn't give him much of interest to work with (though his reaction to the death of Nick's "gam-gam" is fairly priceless). But he's been here before. Spacey already nailed the ultimate horrible boss in 1994's Swimming with Sharks, a far darker and well-written slice of employment hate.
Aniston plays the sexually irksome Dr. Julia with creepy and suggestive aplomb. I guess she's okay, mainly because that's how she always comes off. Demi Moore, playing an analogous character in 1994's Disclosure, was hamstrung by a self-serious and dumb Michael Crichton story that, by contrast, renders Aniston's character in Horrible Bosses plausible. Charlie Day is annoying, though still worth a few laughs, highlighting the film's sitcom roots, which really show themselves by the end.
Horrible Bosses lacks a truly cutting edge, but it's got enough going for it to make you think it drew blood.
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