Saturday, March 17, 2018

Brave New Jersey (The Shot Clock, BondIt, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film on the program, Brave New Jersey, was a real charmer! It was based on the October 30, 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which Welles produced as part of his Mercury Theatre on the Air series of radio dramas and which famously fooled people into thinking that the invasion was really happening because Welles and his co-writer, Howard Koch (who’s listed in the credits of this film as the sole writer of the broadcast — Welles was as upset by that as he was by the claim made by Pauline Kael and others that Herman Mankiewicz was the sole writer of Citizen Kane; he said that Koch had helped with the second part of the script but his contributions to the first part needed extensive revision) framed the events of Wells’ novel as if they were happening in real time and moved the setting from England to the U.S. — specifically the town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey (cited in an in-joke in the final credits to Timothy Hines’ The War of the Worlds: The True Story, which say that shortly after the events of the film, Bertie Wells and his wife emigrated to the U.S. and settled in,  you guessed it, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey). Directed by Jody Lambert (whom I’ll call “they” because no online source I’ve seen specifies whether they’re a man or a woman) from a script they co-wrote with Michael Dowling, Brave New Jersey is set in the decidedly fictional town of Lullaby, New Jersey, just two miles from Grover’s Mill. The name “Lullaby” is a masterstroke on the part of Lambert and Dowling because it lets us know right away that this is a “sleepy” small town where nothing exciting ever happens. The biggest news in Lullaby in years is that a local farmer has just invented a contraption called a “Rotolactor,” an automatic milking machine that supposedly can milk 15 cows at once. (There’s a nice scene in which a man is shown drinking milk, realizing it’s sour and spitting it out again — and we’re obviously meant to assume that this milk was produced with the Rotolactor.) 

On the night of October 30, 1938 the town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Tony Hale), is scheduled to host a ceremony that will feature the unveiling and first exhibition of the Rotolactor — which looks like a giant merry-go-round for cows — in action, only the first time they turn on the Rotolactor in rehearsal the control board shorts out and they have to pour water on the machine to get it to stop. Clark Hill also has an unrequited crush on local housewife Lorraine Davison (Heather Burns), who on his recommendation is reading the novel Gone with the Wind (an obvious in-joke since the film of Gone with the Wind starred Clark Gable!), while unbeknownst to Lorraine, her husband Paul (Sam Jaeger) is receiving love notes from an out-of-town woman named Margaret. The Davisons have a daughter, Ann (Grace Kaufman), who’s shown wearing a fancy gown obviously too big for her — it’s her Hallowe’en costume, and mom says, “You look just like Bette Davis.” “I’m supposed to be Garbo!” she retorts. The Davisons have also taken in a distant relative from Poland, a kid named Ziggy (Harp Sandman), whose family sent him to the U.S. to keep him away from the Nazis — they wouldn’t invade Poland until 1939 but I guess we’re supposed to think his parents realized the danger they were facing and sent him to their American relatives a year early — and who speaks absolutely no English. He and Amy get caught outside — he’s been dressed as Abraham Lincoln for Hallowe’en despite, of course, having no knowledge who that was — and get caught up in a prank by the neighbor kids to throw water balloons filled with piss at the town’s reclusive old man, Ambrose P. Collins (Raymond J. Barry), who it turns out commanded a unit in a crucial battle in World War I, received a medal from President Wilson personally, and ever since then has been locked in his house with his memories looking for a chance to get into action again. (The whole plot line with him being targeted by the prankster kids seemed straight out of the “Mr. Brauckoff” Hallowe’en scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.) There’s also a nice young woman, Helen Holbook (Erika Alexander) with an overbearing fiancé, Chardy Edwards (Matt Olberg), and Sparky (Evan Jonigkeit), the town “bad boy” he catches her necking with after she’s turned down Chardy’s the-world-is-about-to-end-anyway-so-let’s-fuck-now-while-we-still-have-the-chance pass. 

In the end, the pranksters turn the switch to the Rotolactor, which not only sets it on fire but triggers the fireworks that were supposed to commemorate it, which Captain Collins and his motley crew — including the predictably hapless town sheriff (Mel Rodriguez) — “read” as the Martian attack and charge, while the local minister, Reverend Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl), sailed his collection plate through his church like a Frisbie and interpreted that as a sign that the Martians were coming not to conquer the world, but to mediate man’s conflicts and bring us peace. Lambert and Dowling threw a few modern expressions into their dialogue, including “time frame” and “inappropriate” as a response from a woman receiving an unwanted pass from a man (in 1938 a woman turning down a crude advance would likely have chewed out the guy by saying, “You’re a masher!,” a bit of 1930’s slang incomprehensible to most modern audiences), but for the most part Brave New Jersey is a richly allusive (I especially liked the town meeting in the church that seemed cribbed from the one in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), entertaining movie. About the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the use of a modern-day folk-rock musical score — built around a song the hapless Clark Hill writes as a love ballad for Lorraine Davison, which is heard in his own inept rendition during the movie (with Tony Hale forgetting that he had to move his hand down the fretboard of his guitar to look like he was really playing it) and in a fully professional version (but with Tony Hale this time turning in a decent vocal performance) over the closing credits. I think the film would have been more effective with a 1930’s-style musical score than a modern one, but otherwise Brave New Jersey is a one-joke movie but one which doesn’t overstay its welcome and depicts the War of the Worlds broadcast panic — which has been the subject of fictional made-for-TV movies as well as documentaries — in a light-hearted screwball-comedy manner.