Saturday, April 2, 2011

SUPER: Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page Wage War on Crime!

SUPER Review:

- It's always nice to see a movie with its own, unique point of view - it's own original sensibility. And while the average-schlub-as-superhero storyline has been done a lot recently (most notably in the KICK-ASS comic book and movie), it's never been done quite like it is here in Super. Sick, twisted, and just plain wrong, Super is at times hilarious and at times outright disturbing. This is a movie that lives in the same left-of-center subgenre of black comedy as movies like Observe & Report. Like that movie, Super tells the tale of a man who sees himself as a hero, but increasingly reveals himself to be mentally unbalanced and delusional, if not downright psychotic. Sure, Super is a darkly comic deconstruction of superheroes - the Eastbound & Down version of Watchmen. But it's also a strange, off-kilter exploitation/revenge flick - with the low-budget, anything goes sensibilities of an old-school Troma movie. And Troma, of course, is where Super's director James Gunn got his start. Is Super a great film? At the end of the day, I think the movie is a little too all-over-the-place to get to that most upper tier of awesome. But like I said - when a movie is this unique and this risky, you have to respect it. If nothing else, Super is a movie that a.) deserves your attention, and b.) you won't soon forget.

In SUPER, Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a sad-sack sort of guy who has a lot of Dwight Schrute's moral conviction, but little of his self-assurance. In his opening monologue, Frank details the two greatest moments in his life to date, and this basically tells you what you need to know about him. The first great moment was the day he married his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler). Frank is aware that he's batted way out of his league with Sarah, but what he doesn't quite get is just how fragile their marriage really is. While Frank is hopelessly devoted to his wife, Sarah seems to have married Frank as part of some sort of 12-step recovery program, deeming him to be a decent alternative to the seedy guys she usually goes for. But soon enough - and at the point where the movie kicks off - Sarah has fallen back into drugs and taken up with a shady drug-dealer named Jock (Kevin Bacon). When Jock coerces Sarah to leave Frank and join up with him and his criminal pals, it sends the mild-mannered Frank on a quest of unholy vengeance and righteous fury. And that, that brings us to the second greatest moment of Frank's life prior to this point ... the day that he managed (mostly through blind luck) to help a local cop nab an on-the-run criminal. Frank loved nothing more than seeing justice served, and so it stands to reason that his Randian sense of morality would drive him to far-out extremes once his quest for justice becomes personal. In a strange perversion of Batman's origin, Frank sees a sign that propels him forward on his mission. Because where Bruce Wayne saw a Bat - and was inspired to become a Batman and strike terror into the hearts of the cowardly and superstitious lot of criminals, Frank sees a cheesy late-night superhero serial, about a Jesus-powered costumed crusader called The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). It is here where the extreme, fundamentalist nature of Frank's quest comes into play. Frank doesn't set out to fight crime because of sheer strength of will. No, he truly feels as though it is God's will for him to don a pair of red tights and mask and call himself The Crimson Bolt. And this is where SUPER becomes a deconstruction not just of superheroes, but of all people who do insane things in the name of religion or God's will.

And so, like a geekier and more pathetic (but similarly brutal) version of Rorshach, Frank goes out patrolling so as to dish out his unique brand of vigilante justice (he wields a pipe-wrench and uses the catch-phrase "Shut Up, Crime!"). As he peruses comic books to find more inspiration for how to become a better hero, he befriends a seemingly perky and friendly comic shop clerk named Libby. Played by Ellen Page, it's soon clear that there's a lot more to Libby than originally meets the eye. Like Frank, there seems to be some serious, serious issues below her amiable exterior, and those issues bubble up to the surface once Libby convinces Frank to let her become his "kid sidekick," Bolty. Without spoiling anything, I will just say that Ellen Page deserves huge kudos for transforming Libby from bubbly geek-girl to the psycho-sadist-nympho that Bolty ultimately becomes. Suffice it to say, I will never look at Ms. Page quite the same again. For those who don't think she can play anything except for the sweet, smart, quirky girl ... well, prepare to be shocked.

Ellen Page is awesome in this one, but I also have to give it up to Rainn Wilson for turning in a seriously awesome performance as Frank. His mix of outrageous comedy with a seriously dark core reminded me a lot of Seth Rogen in OBSERVE & REPORT, Patton Oswalt in BIG FAN, and Danny McBride in EASTBOUND & DOWN. It's that same type of performance - comedy and self-delusional insanity and dark, dark, dark tragedy all wrapped into one. Writer/director James Gunn also packs his film with all sorts of recognizable and welcome faces in the supporting cast. Kevin Bacon is a standout as the sleazy drug kingpin Jock. Michael Rooker is badass as always as one of Jock's thugs. Andre Royo from The Wire and Fringe has a nice turn as Frank's friend / coworker. Linda Cardilleni of Freaks & Geeks fame has a fun cameo as a pet-shop owner. And of course, Nathan Fillion is funny and well-cast as Jesus-freak superhero The Holy Avenger. And hey, looking at IMDB, I see that Rob Zombie did the voice of God. Hmm ...

At its best, SUPER has an awesomely subversive sense of humor and an anything-goes, B-movie vibe with some nice social satire and superhero deconstruction thrown in for good measure. Fanboys and fangirls will get an extra kick out of some of the references - overt and implied - in the film. And there is definitely a more introspective look at the whole superhero thing than in, say, Kick-Ass. Whereas that movie was less about satire and more about just packing in as many "kewl" moments and characters as possible, Super definitely has a lot more direct riffs on a lot of the usual comic book conventions and tropes. Whether its the absurdity of kid-sidekicks, the weird sexual dynamics of superhero relationships, or the warped sense of right-and-wrong inherent in the vigilante biz (taken to an extreme here when a guy gets clobbered in the cranium with a wrench for cutting in line at the movies) ... SUPER very cleverly mocks and celebrates all of the weirdness of superhero lore. It also has some interesting commentary on religion and fundamentalism, and the fact that Frank bases his decisions on perceived messages from God adds an extra layer of subtext to the film.

But Super is also a very messy movie, sometimes wildly uneven. The moments of comedic brilliance are intermixed with B-movie ultra-violence and also laugh-free, dramatic scenes. It's hard to know quite what to take away from all this. The violence in the movie is at once glorified and played up for maximum cool-factor, and yet it is also presented as shockingly realistic - the product of a guy who's clearly lost his marbles. Sometimes, Super plays like a warped love story about a guy who's so intent on winning back the girl he loves that he completely misses the fact that she never actually loved him. This would be fine, except sometimes Super plays this part of the movie too straight. When the movie goes for an oddly serious and ernest ending, for example, it just feels jarring and out of place. It's a tricky balance. Some of the movies I mentioned above, like Big Fan and Observe & Report, expertly ride that line between comedy and tragedy and somehow make it all fit together and flow well. Super can feel like a mash-up of about five different movies, with tone swinging wildly from scene to scene. It means the movie is never boring, and it helps give it that certain sort of patchwork, indie charm ... but it also means that it never quite comes together as well as it should.

But SUPER is, regardless, an awesomely good time. It gives you a couple of interesting ideas to chew on, and it features several insane, "holy $#%&!" moments that you'll be talking about for a long time post-viewing. So yeah, go see it, if you're at all a person who loves movies that dare to get crazy, be insane, and try something different. And, oh yeah ... "Shut up, Crime!"

My Grade: B+

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