Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kabluey (Whitewater Films, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film turned out to be something I hadn’t expected — a comedy masterpiece: Kabluey, a 2006 (that’s the copyright date; imdb.com lists it as from 2007, though come to think of it the movie has to be more recent than 2006 because the Iraq War “surge” is a plot element) laff-riot written, directed by and starring Scott Prendergast, who had he been born in 1900 instead of 1970 would probably have had a great career in silent comedy. Here he plays Salman (“as in ‘Rushdie,’” he helpfully explains when another character in the film stumbles over his name), the ne’er-do-well brother of Noah (Phil Thoden), a National Guardsman who was tapped for duty in Iraq and whose tour there has just been extended as part of the “surge.” Noah’s wife Leslie (Lisa Kudrow, top-billed) is about to lose health insurance coverage for herself and, more importantly, her two sons Lincoln (Landon Henninger) and Cameron (Cameron Wofford), unless she goes back to work immediately. Needing someone who can look after the kids while she’s away, she sends for brother-in-law Salman — whom we meet in Nevada, where his car (a used car he picked up for $250 — and you can readily imagine what $250 buys you in a car today!) has just caught fire and stranded him.

He shows up with one carry-on suitcase, explaining that all his other belongings are in storage either in Nevada or Vermont (the locale where the film takes place is unspecified but I think we’re meant to assume it’s Austin, Texas, where it actually was shot), and of course his nephews take an instant dislike to him — “I’m going to kill you,” Cameron mutters to him under his breath; and when Leslie insists that her boys are just wonderful kids an exasperated Salman says, “That’s spin!” But though there are a few good verbal gags in Kabluey, most of its laughs are visual — and Prendergast has somehow managed to recapture the seemingly lost silent-comedy art of building one gag on top of another to ever-increasing levels of hilarity.

Leslie arranges for Salman to take a job at the company she works for, BlueNextion, an Internet start-up that pretty much collapsed in the dot-com bust of 2000 and has a huge building which they’re trying to keep from losing by renting out office space. Salman’s job will be to hand out flyers, printed on crimson paper, advertising the office space for rent in the BlueNextion building. Then he finds out that he will have to do this in a costume representing the BlueNextion logo, which is a little blue man with a big head. The suit is not only excruciatingly uncomfortable and so confining Salman can’t put it on or take it off by himself, the visibility is so limited — just a narrow wire-mesh screen the wearer can see out of — that it seems from Prendergast’s P.O.V. shots that BlueNextion has invented the high-tech burka. What’s more, the arms of the suit don’t come with fingers — not even an opposable thumb — which means that it’s literally impossible for anyone to pass a leaflet to anyone else when they’re wearing it. The topper comes when Salman’s boss drives him out to where he’s supposed to be passing out the leaflets (she’s driving a convertible with the top down, which is mandatory because the huge head of the suit ensures that its wearer could not possibly fit into an enclosed car) — and it’s in the middle of farm country, with virtually no foot traffic whatsoever.

The first person he sees is a woman (Teri Garr) in a car who glares at him because she lost her life savings in BlueNextion stock and seeing a life-size version of the company’s logo on the road just freaks her out. Later Salman encounters a road crew who offer him a beer — and there are some great gag scenes of him attempting to grab and open the beer while he’s locked in the suit, until he realizes that he can open the bottom of its zipper just enough to stick his hand out (where, in the one gag in the film that’s in dubious taste, though as with the fart gags in Blazing Saddles it was so funny I didn’t really mind, it looks like he’s shitting out his own hand) — whereupon he drinks the beer and then realizes that he’s just created another problem for himself: now he has to pee.

Kabluey takes a slightly more serious turn in the second half: a friend of Leslie’s who’s planning an elaborate birthday party for her kid sees him by the roadside and offers $100 for him to entertain in the suit as the party’s clown. While he’s there, he realizes not only that Leslie is having an affair with Brad, the owner of BlueNextion (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but Brad is also sleeping with Kathleen (Conchata Ferrell), a young woman whom he’s met on his daily bus rides to the BlueNextion headquarters and whom he’s overheard gossiping about her lover — indeed, Brad’s amorous antics are so extensive one gets the impression he should have named the company BlueSextion — and he plots revenge. His helpers are two people he met at the local grocery store, “CITY MARKET” (whose sign is in red lit letters, except the red covers have fallen off the beginning “C” and terminal “T” so that if we ever saw it at night — which we don’t — it would read “ITY MARKE”).

One is Betty (Christine Taylor), with whom Salman had one of the most diabolical meet-cutes in recent cinema history: he literally led Lincoln and Cameron there on leashes and tied them up outside the market next to the other customer’s dogs, and she came out with a Polaroid camera (an antediluvian bit of technology in the modern age, but the sight of that black box spitting out photos as fast as Betty can snap the shutter is a good deal funnier than the equivalent gag would have been with a digital camera) but whom it’s suggested he has a bit of mutual romantic (and possibly sexual) interest going with after that. Their co-conspirator is a character identified only as “The Cheese” (Rhoades Rader), who as part of a promotion the store is doing on Tillamook cheese is obliged to dress as a giant quarter-slice of cheese — though at least his costume, unlike Salman’s, has holes for his head, arms and legs, so he can walk, talk and manipulate objects normally.

The three of them charge into the motel room where Brad is about to do it with Kathleen, and as Betty fires away with her Polaroid Brad frantically calls out on his cell phone, “Help! I’m being attacked by a giant cheese!” Earlier there’s also a scene in which Cameron escapes from Salman while naked, and Salman and Lincoln — themselves wearing only bath towels — chase him down the residential streets while a neighbor gives them a knowing stare (this film is chock-full of knowing stares). Kabluey is a marvelously funny film that builds to a surprisingly poignant ending — Noah (ya remember Noah? Leslie’s husband and Lincoln’s and Cameron’s father? Actually, you haven’t been able to forget him in the film because, even though he isn’t there physically, a giant photo of him literally hangs over the action at his and Leslie’s house, and it appears to change expression, though that’s probably a trick of the angles at which Prendergast and cinematographer Michael Lohmann shoot it rather than an actually altered photo in each scene) finally returns home — he just shows up at their door, much to their disappointment because Leslie, Lincoln and Cameron had been counting on being able to meet him at the airport — and Salman takes a bittersweet, Chaplinesque departure, driving out of town in yet another on-its-last-legs used car (an old baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle which he got for $350 — “Runs Great!” says the scrawled writing on the rear window, and remembering what happened with Salman’s last used car we think, “Yeah, right … ”) — alone: we kind of hoped Betty would leave town with him but in a way this is better, truer both to Prendergast’s character and to the spirit of silent comedy to which this film owes so much. (I also found myself wondering if the two kids’ names were meant as an “in” joke — Lincoln after President Lincoln and Cameron after Simon Cameron, with whom Lincoln did the back-room deal that gave him the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination and who was rewarded by being appointed Secretary of War, at which job he was so corrupt that within a year Lincoln had fired him and replaced him with Edwin Stanton.)