Quills (2000) – Philip Kaufman (Dir.), Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Joaquin Phoenix
Mystery Men (1999) – Kinka Usher (Dir.), Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard
Welcome back, y’all! Some of you might remember, but most of you won’t…in fact I’ll be amazed if you do, but my girlfriend and I began a new film watching club back in the day. The concept was that she would show me a movie I’d never seen and I’d show her something new in return. A “I’ll show you Geoffrey Rush’s peen, if you show me more G-Rush dick” situation, if you will. Due to our inescapable penchant for PTOFing like champions during even the most exciting of films, we named this little group the Narcoleptic Society of Film Watchers…or NSFW for short. Our first outing was a leap into Some Like it Hot and Die Hard. This time, however, the lady Vanderbilt took the reigns and got me to sit down and watch Quills with three words with such gravitas that they have their own solar system: Geoffrey Rush’s Penis. Well, what do more do you need? If one could only review movies based on the presence of aged thespian peen, I would. That’s the only reason I went to see McKellan’s Lear (fun fact: that man is PACKING. They had to give a disclaimer to the audience “First three rows will get wet”. No joke). Well, there was some mention of Kate Winslet’s boobs, but, I mean, when has Kate Winslet not shown her boobs? A movie with Ms. Winslet but without nip as like a one-handed clap, or a tree falling in an empty forest, or McKellan’s 16-foot trouser snake without a salivating audience.
Before we get into the article proper, yes, this article’s title is massively misleading. Much like Quills. Ever since I was a wee theatre major (yes, that’s ‘re’ not ‘er’ because I need to hold onto my dissolving dream of theatrical pretension with the last ounces of rigor mortis left in that corpse of a career-future), I had heard tell of the infamous Quills. It is, of course, the tale of the Marquis De Sade, France’s dirtiest, most outspoken bastard until Nicolas Sarkozy took office. The Marquis, after hopping from prison to prison, was famous for his sexual deviancy and obsession with scatological pursuits. Eventually, he was committed to the Charenton mental asylum…which is odd to me because, in France, I assumed obscene sexual deviancy was synonymous with ‘breakfast’. But I suppose he violated one sensibility too many. Quills is the utterly fictionalized and not-nearly-as-dirty-as-it-thinks-it-is film charting the last days of the loony libertine portrayed by an unbelievably extraordinary G-Rush. After the Marquis manages to sneak out a particularly grotesque tale of female pleasure, innocuously entitled Justine, France’s most eponymously complex monarch, Napoleon, sends Austin Power’s father (Michael “My name is Michael Caine” Caine) to sort the man out. Armed with torture devices and a rather posh top-hat, Caine takes over the asylum currently run by softy mc-loves-a-lot Joaquin “I Used to Be a Decent Actor” Phoenix. De Sade apparently is allergic to not being published (I know his pain) and goes to every length to set his sullied thoughts on the page…or on his bed sheets, or clothing, or walls… Eventually, you guessed it, he bites it. Literally. But you have to see the movie to know why that’s funny.
Now, My thespian cohorts in college told me myths about this movie, larger-than-life fables charting the horrifyingly subversive insanity of this iconic shit-shoveler. This included, but was not limited to: anal sex, flopping dongs, boobies everywhere, Michael Caine, feces…and, well, lots and lots of feces. Thusly, when I sat down with my girlfriend to drink in these horrifying extremities, I was sorely disappointed. I mean, readying for this review, I charted my mental thesaurus for as many fecal references as I could muster…and trust me, I came up with some good ones…only to have my dreams dashed by cinematic prudishness. Poop? You say your movie has poop? IT’S IN ONE SCENE. THAT’S IT! AND IT’S ONLY ON THE WALLS! Guys, I’ve hung out with two-year-olds. Poop-covered walls is bush league. When I see a grown many urinate into his own mouth, I might wince…might. You say this man is sexually deviant? The most grotesque act in this film is watching a 17 year old bride wipe her mouth after performing an off-screen blow job. Where are the threesomes? The S&M? The awkward, wig-based cosplay (which, back then, was known as ‘sex’)?
This dashing of expectation was only the beginning. Mr. Philip Kaufman, the film’s director, worked from a script by Doug Wright, a writer who is a subtle as he is a fucking mongoose. In fact, he is more of a mongoose than subtle because mongoose (mongeese? Mongooses?) are shockingly apt at dredging up crap. It is a testament to Mr. Rush’s impressively seasoned chops (category: metaphors that work for actors and sides of pork) that he can carry off a role of such rikonkulous flamboyance with even a modicum of believability. I think at one point he screeches ‘MY CONSTANT ERECTION!’ Oh yes? If it’s so fucking ‘constant’ why didn’t we see some erect Rush peen instead of a sad and cold flaccid thespenis? Unfortunately, none of this movie is actually as good as it thinks it is. Kaufman channels every director he can get his hands on to emulate any chance of bringing home a golden statuette. We have impressionistic matte sunsets falsely framing the few panoramas we’re offered, ala Polanski circa 1975. We have the natural lighting of Milos Forman’s excessively superior Amadeus attempting to give the world an ’19th Century feel’. We even have Kate Winslet’s boobs (ala Cameron, Eyre, Field, Lee, well, let’s be honest, everyone). However, this is a tale you have seen perhaps more often than a pair of Winslet nips (okay, I’ll stop, I promise). We have the inmate fighting against the system and the system fighting back. In the end he wins but dies, driving his captors to madness or self-reflection. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s basically One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but with more hairpieces and mentions of labia.
Well, with such a disappointment under our belts, we followed up with a movie synonymous with “career-crushing flops”. With the help of Netflix’s insufferably upbeat and loquacious Siri rip-off, ‘Max’, we were offered Ben Stiller’s pre-Zoolander, post-There’s Something About Mary parody of superhero flicks, Mystery Men. What we discovered was one of the most nonsensical, bizarre, flamboyant, eerily prescient and absurdly esoteric movies I’ve ever fucking seen. I mean, what the hell? I sat on the couch, agog, witnessing this glorious mess of a shit storm. Mystery Men tells the story of three completely incompetent ‘superheroes’, Stiller’s ‘Mr. Furious’ with the power to get really mad; Macy’s ‘The Shoveler’, a man with exceptional abilities in the realm of moving dirt from place to place; and Hank Azaria’s bemusing ‘Blue Raja’, a pseudo-Indian, British-accented man who flings silverware. These three attempt to foil crimes in the shadow of Greg Kinnear’s unstoppable Captain Amazing, a Superman send-up decked out with endorsements and, like a groom’s penis on wedding night, the crushing need to perform. Bored with the paucity of adversarial quality, Amazing frees Geoffrey Rush from an asylum…and his name? CASANOVA FRANKENSTEIN. I shit you not. That is his actual name. Rush struts onto screen, decked in the finest disco-era nonsense, a sharpened pinky knife, and an accent that would make Bram Stoker’s Dracula blush. Within minutes of release, he goes about blowing up buildings and capturing Captain Amazing. It is up to the Mystery Men to save the man and the city. Along the way, they pick up Janeane Garofalo as a hipster girl equipped with a haunted bowling ball; a native American man called the Sphinx who only speaks in mantras; Pee Wee Herman as The Spleen, a man capable to knocking out even the most constitutional of stomachs with a carefully fired fart; and the Invisible Boy (Kel from Keenan et al) who has the ability to turn invisible only if nobody is looking at him.
What seemed like it was going to be a nonsense romp through a slew of outdated references, proved to be something far more incredible. It seems as though Mystery Men was released a decade too soon. With the prevalence of superhero movies saturating the market, now would be the perfect time to lampoon the il-logic of these mega-blockbusters. Right now, all we get to rely on are the misfortunate slew of Kick-Ass movies. Usher’s film attacks specifically Schumacher’s Batman movies, mimicking camera moves, shots, lighting and going so far as to even film on some of Batman Forever’s sets. The satire is so perfectly crafted that it would be easy to mistake it for incompetence. And don’t get me wrong, this movie is largely incompetent. Usher seems to have stumbled onto genius by accident. I mean, what intellectual merit can a movie aspire to with a scene where a skunk humps the leg of a man who’s magical power is flatulence? Based on a Dark Horse comic, there is a good chance that the truly subversive aspects of the script are due to the source material. Firstly, H. Macy’s family is black. When was the last time you saw a biracial family in a movie? Think about it! On top of that, the entire inciting incident comes about due to pressure to provide companies with advertising opportunities. How can you not see the link between this movie and the questionable morals of the news media conglomerates, idiots subsisting on the constant flow of international tragedy for ratings? Without even trying, this movie has made the same thematic point as The Dark Knight without even trying…heroes create their own villains.
Ultimately, after Tom Waits shows up with an arsenal of non-lethal weaponry, Greg Kinnear turns into a human representation of an Munch painting, and Eddie Izzard attacks Garofalo with self-igniting hair spray, we are left with a tale of outsiders and underdogs fighting the status quo and succeeding despite themselves. There are references upon references upon references, some obvious (Captain Amazing’s alter ego hides behind glasses a la Superman) to the utterly bemusing (Garofalo makes fun of how William Shatner once argued with a director about the way he says ‘sabotage’…WTF?) Granted, this thing is horribly made. If I had a seizure for every time there was a close up with a fish-eye lens…oh wait, I did. Now I’m dead. Seriously, though. As Mel Brooks once said, “comedy is tragedy in a long shot”. There is precisely ONE long shot in the entire film. Guess what? It’s the best joke in the movie. The rest of it is an exercise in nausea and chromatic dissidence. And not in a fun way. It’s like a one-eye trip through a Rob Zombie fun-house. But with more neon.
So, where are the connections between these two bizarre little ditties of cinema? Well, Geoffrey Rush and his member aside, it’s really about the expectation of subversion. Quills set out to be an Oscar movie. It has every ingredient: a tour de force performance by an old white man, Kate Winslet, Kate Winslet’s boobs (okay, okay, one more), fighting the system, accents, wigs, shocking material handled ‘tastefully’, biography etcetera ad infinitum. Unfortunately, the parts surpass the quality of the whole; what could have been a truly eye-opening examination of deviant sexuality and its relationship to literature turns into a dandy of a smut-fest with extremely problematic examples of mental health issues. On the other hand, Mystery Men is the strangest cobbling together of disparate elements that somehow coalesce into a mild stroke of brilliance. Rush’s ridiculous Casanova Frankenstein is perhaps the most hilarious of all his characters and a damn-side more devious than De Sade. What’s more terrifying? A French author with slightly distressed views on ink quality, or an insane madman with a sharpened pinky knife and an obsession with disco. I think we can all agree that The Beegees trump all things in the ‘horror’ department.
I will leave off with a final thought: originally I was going to link Quills to Children of Men, a movie known for its graphic violence and bleak views of humanity. In the UK, Children of Men is the equivalent of an ‘R’ rating, soaked in blood and swearing. On the other hand, Quills, with its tepid showings of actor schlong, is rated ‘X’. What is so horrifying about penises that even the presence of a flaccid dong is considered an unviewable travesty? I think this video says it all.