Wednesday 21 September 2011

Words fail me, as does Willie Nelson

It's rare that my spirit has been so utterly crushed by a film. Not that I hoped for much from a picture whose main draw appeared to be Jessica Simpson in skimpy shorts, but I did not expect this abysmal attempt at action comedy. The possiblity that The Dukes of Hazzard is a bold avant-garde work that deconstructs its genre in wildly innovative ways is explored by the great Tim Brayton. To his mastery, all I can add is deep sadness as I stare into my glass.

I suppose this thing has a plot, so let's open her up: the Duke cousins, Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville), run moonshine for their uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson) until their family farm is seized by corrupt county commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds), who is planning to strip-mine Hazzard County for coal with the help of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey). Now the Duke boys must stop Hogg's wicked plans, while also winning the county rally with their car, a 1969 Dodge Charger nicknamed the General Lee.

Or, you know, something, because the plot is a mind-boggling mess. It's full of oddly superfluous characters like the race car driver Billy Prickett (James Roday), whom Boss Hogg has persuaded to join and win the race, or Annette (Jacqui Maxwell), the college roommate of Luke's old flame Katie (Nikki Griffin), who is used for one Australian joke and then tags along for the rest of the film without doing anything else. Perhaps these characters were in the 1979-85 television series, which I have not seen, and shoehorned in for that reason. Or screenwriter John O'Brien is simply not very good at his job - the more likely explanation, since his only other scripts are Cradle 2 the Grave (2003) and Starsky & Hutch (2004), and nothing at all after The Dukes of Hazzard.

Another oddity in the screenplay is the Duke Boys' cousin, Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson). She only shares one scene with the two leads, and that indirectly, which leaves open the fascinating possibility that she does not exist, but is merely a projection of the fevered adolescent imagination of the fictional Hazzard County's menfolk, who seek to blame a sultry temptress for their repeated failure to stop morons like Bo and Luke Duke. (For this is a plot that 'would be resolved in five minutes if everyone in the story were not an idiot'.) To explain all this, I'd venture that a woeful original screenplay was chopped to pieces by concerned producers and reassembled into a ghastly, misshapen imitation of life.

That necromancy is the job of actors, and here we have a parade of great and not-so-great actors turning in awful work. I shan't mention the highest-billed stars, save to say Jessica Simpson is a worse actress that I should have considered possible. It's in the supporting roles that the tragedy lies. For here we have M.C. Gainey, a great actor who's recently been nothing short of fantastic on my new favourite show, Justified; and, on a somewhat lesser scale, Nikki Griffin*, who is much worse than she was during her enjoyable run as Jess the Coke Whore on The O.C. Perhaps I should not be angry with Burt Reynolds considering this has been his career since before I was born. But you see, this is not the first film set in the Appalachian backwoods of Georgia Reynolds as acted in. There's the little matter of Deliverance (1972), the finest of the countryside-revenge films, whose memory Reynolds has retroactively sullied. (Incidentally, both films share a fixation on bows and arrows. Coincidence? Hopefully, yes.)

But they pale before Willie Nelson, country singer extraordinaire and good old rebel against the Nashville establishment. I'm listening to Red Headed Stranger (1975) as I write, and weeping honest manly tears. This is, perhaps, to uphold the film's country cred: the television series was narrated by no lesser man than Waylon Jennings, on whose grave Nelson has now spat. Or perhaps not: maybe this is business as usual. Nelson himself certainly did not seem embarrassed about his part in perpetrating The Dukes of Hazzard since, unlike even its normally shameless leads, he consented to appear in the direct-to-DVD sequel.

Well, so it's not good: but does it deliver the goods? There is a lot of deeply unfunny comedy, although a couple of jokes could have worked in other hands than those of director Jay Chandrasekhar. It's largely hicksploitation and terrible sex jokes, although humour dealing in bodily functions is, much to my surprise, mercifully absent. So, no on the humour front. There's a significant amount of titillation, a good part of it on the part of Jessica Simpson in her character's eponymous Daisy Dukes; and although Simpson is certainly ridiculously attractive, the lingering shots act as a turn-off to the audience, who feel disgusted with themselves.** (See also: Bay, Michael.)

Finally, there's the action, viz. the numerous car chases. Make no mistake: the General Lee is a snazzy ride, for all that's worth from someone who failed his driving test twice and then gave up. But Chandrasekhar, largely a director of comedies, is clearly inexperienced at directing car scenes. He invariably uses far too many close-ups and rather too few wide angles, which makes it quite impossible to keep track of what's going on; crane shots would also have helped. And because everything else is so bad, the lack of realism irks me in a way it never does in better works. For example, a scene in which the General Lee drags a safe at high speed ought to have resulted in the messy death of Luke Duke, but is instead played as causing fear and mild discomfort; likewise, the many car jump scenes should lead to less exhilarating slow motion, and more broken axles and smashed skulls.

The series must be much better than this, since it ran for seven seasons. Or so I hope, if the eighties were indeed a more innocent time than an age in which the Transformers franchise rakes in billions. Them Duke boys, I like to think, lived in a colourful, creative universe that their lesser descendants just cannot hope to emulate. But I'm so back to watching Justified.

*I typed 'Nick Griffin', then realised my mistake. Perhaps I should have my head examined.
**This is an hypothetical member of the audience, and in no way me.

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