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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mad Money

Have you ever wondered why we, a supposedly “Judeo-Christian” nation, one built on certain values of honesty, integrity, and doing unto others, yada, yada, have made our favorite form of entertainment crime stories, and, among those, one of the most delicious sub-genres, are tales of ordinary people like you and me ~ well you, anyway ~ who get away with pulling a fast one. Oh, this (usually) doesn’t extend to murder (unless it is offing someone totally heinous like a child molester or a persistent telemarketer), but robbing the government or a gi-normous corporation, a dishonest politician (well, now I’m being redundant), a druglord, or someone who just doesn’t damn well deserve to be rich (Trump! Rosie! I’m talking to both of you) practically brings an audience to its feet.

The “stick-it-to-‘em factor” can’t be downplayed, and it’s been a winning formula from the days of Robin Hood to Oceans 13, from Heist to The Thomas Crown Affair, from Fun With Dick and Jane and now to
Mad Money. Who doesn’t want to screw over the rich guys and get to turn into one of them along the way? It just requires >squinting< a little at those morals you were brought up with and then plying the guilt with a balm of consumerism. Trust me, Darlings. It works for me. Sure, you’ll be just like the bad guys are that you are going to knock-off to get to the dough, but the end credits always roll before that evolution happens, so the audience doesn’t have to dirty itself with those pesky after-thoughts… sometimes called conscience. That’s my favorite part of the movies, the ‘what-they-got-away-with’ moment at the end. Someone can lop the head off the serial killer in a slasher flick and be home for dinner without more than a shared cup of Joe and a donut with the local sheriff (assuming he’s still alive at this point). If not, the hero simply goes on holiday with the babe of his choice (or whoever’s left) and doesn’t even bother to call the authorities. Apparently, we are to assume he’ll leave them a hastily scribbled note at the scene of the bloodbath that will put everything in order. Yeah, that usually works in real life too. James Bond movies are great for these. So are the Die Hard films. Sometimes you don’t even have to wait until the end for one of these “But, wait a minute…” moments. In last year’s Superman Returns, for instance, the Man of Steel saves a crashing airliner by bringing it to light in the middle of a major league ballpark, in the middle of a game. The tens of thousands of fans in the stands cheer wildly at the oh-so-cool stunt, and who wouldn’t? How often do you get to see a man in blue tights and a red cape holding a jumbo jet by the tip of its nose and then set it gently to earth in front of you? The thing is, then Superman waves at the crowd (all captured on the Jumbotron, naturally) and he flies away with a smile. End of scene. Er, um, hello? Who the hell is going to move that damned Airbus out of the ballpark without demolishing the entire place? And what about the 50,000 fans on hand for the game? Do they get refunds for today’s game since it’s obviously not going to finish? Okay, so this may not be a crime (or is it, Kal-El? Or is it?), but you see my point about the “after the scene is over” realities?

The latest “get rich through crime” movie Hollywood has unveiled on us has used its casting as its best drawing card. Pairing stalwart comedienne Diane Keaton (Because I Said So) with singer/actress Queen Latifah (Hairspray) is an unlikely enough choice, but to have these two seasoned (and by “seasoned” I actually mean “experienced” and not “old” even though they are older by comparison to their co-star) performers matched with the relatively new and lightweight
(and by “lightweight” I mean “talent lite” as opposed to “skinny” even though she is that too) Katie Holmes (Batman Begins) creates an odd trio to be sure. Holmes, of course, is best known as the incubator for L. Ron Hubbard’s last science project from beyond the grave, which resulted in the first successfully functioning Scientology android, model Suri Cruise 3000. That alone is enough to make her famous. Taking Nicole Kidman’s sloppy seconds to the altar seems to be her other major accomplishment, and these two achievements should have been enough, one would hope, to keep her away from the silver screen for years to come, but, apparently, we were not to be so lucky.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions, m-kay, but casting director Junie Lowry-Johnson (Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector) must have had the juice turned up a little too high on her e-meter in order to get her to agree to hire Katie, but in actuality the high school acting level she manages here works to her advantage as she plays a brain cell deficient, cart pushing nobody who works at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. Now before you jump and say, “Hey, she can’t be too stupid to work there…” Trust me, Katie’s character, Jackie Truman, does not have to count or do anything profound. She pushes carts of money back and forth to the shredding room all day while she chews gum and listens to her iPod. There is no rocket science involved. Hell, there’s no GED-level math for that matter. It’s just as well. The most she has to do is unlock a couple of doors and bug out her eyes now and again.

Actually, none of our would-be thieves is involved in the white-collar end of banking. Latifah’s Nina Brewster is the only one who actually handles the cash at all. She spends her days standing at a shredder, feeding worn-out bills pulled from circulation into the machine and making sure that the cash becomes olive-colored confetti. As for Diane Keaton, her Bridgett Cardigan is the Federal Reserve’s cleaning woman. Yes, that’s right, the cleaning woman. Actually Bridget is a not a cleaning woman by choice. After all, she’s played by Diane Keaton, and Keaton hasn’t played less than lower upper class since the ‘70s. She sleeps in pearls, for heaven’s sake, and her hair has $250 highlights if they cost a dollar. Unfortunately, Bridget’s husband, Don (Ted Danson; tv’s “Damages”), a financial analyst, has been laid off for more than a year, and it seems to come as a total surprise to both of the Cardigans to find themselves suddenly penniless. No wonder he was laid off. What a lousy financial analyst he must have been, as evidenced as it never occurs to him to sell off his shiny new Jaguar or unload some of the art and jewelry they own to pay off their $280,000 debt. Instead, when their cleaning lady’s check bounces for the third time, she refers Bridget to a job at the Federal Reserve, and Bridget herself becomes a cleaning woman (in pearls, of course) and Don continues to lie around on the couch bemoaning their tragic circumstances. I don't suppose he could try serving up fries while his wife was scrubbing out toilets now could he?

It’s not long before Bridget’s polishing and mopping gives her time to get the lay of the land and an idea of how to loot the coffers of the bank. All she needs is to recruit Nina and Jackie, which takes about as much effort as opening a soda can. The fun is then watching the plan succeed, then get snagged up by a too diligent and love-struck guard named Barry (Roger R. Cross; tv’s “24”), and then get back on track, before derailing again, and finally reaching a (potentially) surprise ending. If mugging for the camera was a crime, these three gals would all be doing life sentences, though Holmes might get off on a plea of insanity using her marriage as evidence.

Directed by Thelma & Louise’s Callie Khouri and written by Fracture’s Glenn Gers,
Mad Money has the female bonding and shared life of crime as found in Thelma & Louise as well as the froth of Khouri’s other hit, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It also weaves the intricacy of Fracture’s complex plotting but it does suffer from a seeming “sitcom” feel about it at times, especially when Danson is on screen, hamming it up hopelessly in his “tv mode.” Too bad, because Danson has performed well earlier in his career before television corrupted him and he forgot how to act for the big screen. Unfortunately, here, it only illustrates the silliness of the whole premise all the more, which might have otherwise been given an easier slide, especially considering Holmes’ goofiness as the air-headed Jackie.

Don’t get me wrong.
Mad Money is funny. I laughed throughout, and I’d even watch it again one of these days. I thought the premise was cute, albeit it not particularly original and the women were fine in their roles. I just wish there had been something new or different about these three. Does Diane Keaton always have to play the disaffected upper-crust wife, divorcée, mother, or widow who must suddenly come to grips with the reality of life outside of her ivory tower as she faces her mid-60s? Does Queen Latifah have to always be one step from the ghetto as she tries to make a better life for herself and her fatherless children? And why is she always a mother in her movies? Does she just radiate ‘motherhood’ in casting directors’ eyes? She radiates ‘Lesbian’ in mine, I’m just sayin’. As for Katie, well, in her case, acting is a bit of a stretch in whatever project she finds herself in, so it is best to simply ask “How much did Tom Cruise have to pay to get her into this one?” and leave it at that. Next time around, I want to see Latifah play the suddenly broke rich woman, Holmes play the ghetto mom and Keaton can play the dimbulb who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. Let’s see some real acting, Ladies. I wanna see the sweat.

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