Dare Daniel Classic

CLASSIC DARE DANIEL – “Krippendorf’s Tribe”

index*Rewritten from a Dare Daniel review originally published on The Barnesyard blog on November 14, 2005.

Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998; Dir.: Todd Holland)

GRADE: F

By Daniel Barnes

Tim Conway’s legendary Dorf character was a bumbling Germanic dwarf who waddled his way through a series of faux-instructional videos in the 1980’s (Dorf On Golf, Dorf On Fishing, Dorf on the Industrial Military Complex, and so on). The entire bit hinged on the universal truth that there is nothing funnier than a guy who puts shoes on his knees and pretends to be a dwarf when he really isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-legendary character of Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss, not quite a midget, but at least a foot shorter than his co-star Jenna Elfman) is a bumbling American anthropology professor who starred in only one film, a movie which counter-argued that there nothing is funnier than locking a menstruating 12 year-old in a cage and anointing her with pig urine (more on that later in this review, and to therapists for the rest of my life).

To be fair, Krippendorf’s Tribe isn’t quite on the same laugh riot level as Dorf, but the film is no less varied in its instructional wisdom. For example, we get…

images2KRIPPENDORF ON…CHILDREARING

As the film opens, Krippendorf’s family is still reeling from the death of his wife. The household is a disaster, his daughter treats him with icy disdain, the older son is acting out in disturbing ways, and the youngest son refuses to speak to him. Hilarious so far, but it gets even better. When Krippendorf learns that the university he works for is ready to pull his grant money, he delivers an impromptu lecture in which he claims to have discovered a long-lost New Guinean tribe. Despite the fact that his children are present at the lecture, Krippendorf forgoes the minor matter of shame, and passes off his child’s mangled plastic toy as a primitive dildo. Naturally, the faculty is delighted with his findings (Who wouldn’t be? Primitive dildos!), and presses him for more information on the nonexistent tribe and its culture. His back up against the wall, Krippendorf does the only thing a single father can in that situation – he dresses himself and his children in blackface, films their racist interpretations of tribal rituals, splices the footage in with previously shot film of actual natives, and disguises it as real-life anthropological research.

KRIPPENDORF ON…CIRCUMCISION

Krippendorf’s first order of business involves faking a circumcision ritual by using his 4 year-old son as bait, pretending to remove the foreskin with a stone machete. This “comedic” sequence is extremely prolonged, atonal and disturbing, to the point that I lamented my lack of a time machine, or any other technology that would have allowed me to travel back and assassinate D.W. Griffith for allowing this madness to happen. When Krippendorf shows his grisly circumcision footage to the public, it causes a huge sensation that has television network execs clamoring at his door for more . It makes sense, because we all know how popular genital mutilation is with the general public these days.

KRIPPENDORF ON…MENSTRUATION

As the deception deepens in scope and widens in notoriety, Krippendorf’s children begin to reflect his corruption — in the film’s least family-friendly sequence, Krippendorf’s middle son gives a sociopathic show-and-tell presentation to his entire school. The delightful cherub claims (out of thin air, mind you) that his father’s lost tribe performs a ritual in which they take a newly menstruating girl, lock her in a thatched hut, and anoint her with pig urine.  For good measure, he presents to the school a cage filled with one of their pre-teen classmates (she is unmistakably played by a young Mila Kunis), a girl who has apparently agreed to participate in this depravity. The capper to the scene: a close-up shot of the pig’s nether-regions, followed by a quick cut to a close-up of Kunis opening her mouth wide. You’d think that trapping a child in a cage and spraying her face with pig urine would cause more than a minor fuss, but Krippendorf simply assures the principal that it won’t happen again and that’s all there is to that.

KRIPPENDORF ON…SELLING YOUR SEX TAPE

But that’s not all there is to that. Krippendorf is squeezed further by the imminent foreclosure of his house, so he agrees to sell sex footage of his phony tribe to the Discovery Channel (or whichever science and nature network aired hardcore pornography in 1998). He doesn’t have any sex footage, of course, so he liquors up Jenna Elfman (playing a hero-worshipping professor who unwittingly promotes the phony tribe), dresses her in native garb, films them having sex without her knowledge, and airs the video on national television. Once again, Elfman is only mildly perturbed at Krippendorf’s adorable antics, and later helps him further the deception when he impersonates a tribal chief at a gala dinner. At this point, the film began to take on the quicksand tone of a waking nightmare, culminating in a scene where Krippendorf, in full tribal regalia, humps Tom Poston’s leg.

indexKRIPPENDORF ON…HAPPY ENDINGS

Krippendorf is clearly one of the most hateful characters in modern film, a sick monster that makes Hannibal Lecter look like George Bailey, but ultimately he is let off the hook.   His heretofore silent youngest son finally speaks up, and implores his father to continue the deception in one of those the-lie-makes-us-feel-better-about-the-truth speeches that have been so popular ever since Life is Beautiful ruined everything. Through a series of stomach-twisting contrivances, the university faculty decides to embrace Krippendorf, and agrees to write off his faked footage as a practical joke.  Blackface, circumcision, child endangerment, kidnapping, and date rape…you know, that old bit!  This film is a hateful, disgusting, and amoral travesty, to be sure, but at least give it credit for being the rare mainstream family comedy to openly despise people of all races, creeds, and genders. The only thing that could have made the film’s slapstick misanthropy any “funnier” would have been if Krippendorf were to stick moccasins on his knees, crawl around, and pass himself off as a long-lost dwarf tribal elder. I guess they were saving that one for the sequel.

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*Originally published on the Movie City USA blog on June 5, 2008.

STEPMOM (1998; Dir.: Chris Columbus)

GRADE: D-

By Daniel Barnes

At the end of Chris Columbus’ mummified would-be tearjerker Stepmom, there is a credit that reads, “In Loving Memory of Irene Columbus”.  It’s a reference to the director’s mother, who had died only one year earlier. This lets the viewer know that the phony, maudlin tripe they just rolled their eyes through has an emotional connection to the filmmaker, that Stepmom is the sort of deeply personal tripe that can only told by five credited writers and eleven producers. Exploiting your own mother’s death to just wring one last tear out of the Christmas 1998 moviegoing audience might seem like an all-time low, even for the man who could go on to direct Bicentennial Man, but that’s what you get from a feel-good cynic like Columbus.

Stepmom did alright at the box office, pulling in about $90 million, but the story is so enervated it barely qualifies as a film; it feels more like a package deal put together by a talent agency. Julia Roberts is a “hip” photographer who has recently moved in with corporate lawyer Ed Harris. He has two kids from his previous marriage to Susan Sarandon’s imperious upstate Earth mother, a bratty teenage girl (Jena Malone) and a mop-topped little boy obsessed with magic. The relationships are all pretty firmly established even before the film starts, so there’s nothing to do but to listen to Roberts’ and Sarandon’s voices out-quaver each other (Stepmom features some of the most laughable fake crying in film history) and wait for Sarandon to get cancer. Sarandon is diagnosed with cancer less than halfway through Stepmom, which leaves the viewer in the morally awkward position of rooting for a mother of two to croak, if only because it would end the movie.

Taking their cue from Sarandon’s vindictive character, both of the kids despise Roberts and her relationship with Harris, and the semi-literate script forces them to recite some truly vile dialogue. Trust me when I say that the dialogue in Stepmom goes far beyond the boundaries of mere incompetence and offensiveness into some genuinely ugly territory. I could post a litany of jaw-droppers straight from the script, but instead I’ll just refer you to the Stepmom “Memorable Quotes” page on IMDB. Two of my personal favorites: when the precocious little boy tells Sarandon, “Mommy, if you want me to hate her…I will”, and when the teenage girl screams, “Mommy’s dead! Isabel’s your mommy know!” at her little brother when Sarandon reveals she has cancer. It’s really disturbing to hear such young children speak such vile, unctuous words; I would rather my child star in a Hostel film than force them to recite this swill. If you’re going to make children say such terrible things, you should at least back it up with a movie about divorce and death that is serious, sincere, and penetrating; in other words, the type of movie Chris Columbus wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Instead, Sarandon just contracts one of those glamorous movie cancers, the kind where you become more incandescent and wise as you slowly slip into a symptom-less offscreen death (the movie ends not with Sarandon’s death, but with Roberts and Sarandon posing for a Christmas card together – suddenly, the freeze-frame ending of Thelma & Louise seems daring). Roberts and Sarandon snipe at and undermine each other for the first two-thirds of Stepmom, then spend the final third misting up (the glycerine budget alone must have been staggering) and whispering Oprah-lite affirmations. We’re supposed to find their feistiness charming, but mostly the two actresses just aggressively spew spunk at each other. The viewer of Stepmom is similarly left feeling as though they were covered in spunk as well, humiliated and degraded by the lifeless performances (Ed Harris is mostly MIA, and his reliability can’t even save the show; he holds the glassy stare and frozen grin of a hostage), the aforementioned napkin sketch of a script, John Williams’ goopy score, and Columbus’ pathetic inability to either shape a scene or inject any of his own personality into the film.

Someday, I would like to do a complete analysis of the role of karaoke in the contemporary women’s picture. Has there been a single rom-com in the last decade in which karaoke was not the catalyst for emotional breakthroughs and bonds?  Can you think of any movie featuring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner, or Brittany Murphy that didn’t involve some pointless caterwauling over pop songs? I should point out that I am not talking about actual musicals per se (e.g., Hairspray, Chicago, etc.), but rather romantic comedies and other female-skewing genres that appropriate karaoke out of context in order to stimulate the 1980’s nostalgia receptors in the brain, as well as stand in for any emotional bonds and breakthroughs that would have to be earned by competent acting, writing, and directing. It would seem that My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which karaoke was the proving ground for Cameron Diaz’s would-be bride, launched the movement. However, Stepmom was also at the vanguard, proving that no family tragedy, personal bias, or cancerous growth is so terrible that it can’t be instantaneously wiped away by lipsynching “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a comb.

Allowing the karaoke virus to spread throughout rom-coms is no great loss to me – the genre has been dead to me for decades – but I hate to see it infect even a claws-out weeper like this one. It makes me think that if they remade Mildred Pierce, instead of being torn apart by their love for the same man, Joan Crawford and Teresa Wright would just hash out their differences over a hair-flipping, pajama-clad rendition of The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”. I don’t have anything else to say about Stepmom, but I would like to add that Sarandon and her young son “go on dates” in their dreams, and plan on hooking up again after her death. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the artistic motivations of the filmmakers for that one.
Before I close up this review, I can’t resist posting one last example of the truly vile dialogue/borderline child abuse that permeates Stepmom. This exchange is between Ed Harris and his young son.

Ben Harrison (Harris): Can you fall out of love with your kids?
Luke: No. That is impossible!
Ben Harrison: Like Mission: Impossible!