Two-Lane Blacktop

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James Franco and Danny McBride in Your Highness movie image

Fill in your own dialogue – it will probably be better than what Your Highness screenwriters came up with.

Watched this week – Two-Lane Blacktop, Lolita, Your Highness, Lost In America

Looking at this list, I see little in common with the movies watched in the last couple of weeks (Feb 13 ’til today, Feb 25), though they’re book-ended by two (completely different) road movies.

In between there’s the original Lolita, which I’ve been wanting to see again since watching two other Kubrick movies a few weeks ago, 2001 and Dr. StrangeloveYour Highness, because we were in the mood for something light and frivolous (though this was featherweight even by those standards); and Victor Victoria because I was curious, and it was on TCM.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, Criterion DVD, library copy) – I have to admit this one had me worried – an existential road movie with not one but two musicians in starring roles? Yet this Monte Hellman-directed cult classic is deserving of its reputation as one of the best if least-known ’70s movies.

The pace is slow but all the better to linger over the shots of cars and the cast. And the action, when it happens, is quirky and novelistic – that is, unpredictably human. For instance, I love the scene when “The Girl” (as she’s known in the credits, played by Laurie Bird), at a truck-stop, ditches her gear-head boyfriends and wordlessly gets on a strange dude’s motorcycle.

According to a featurette included with the Criterion DVD, Hellman hated the original script and hired a novelist, Rudy Wurlitzer – very interesting guy, check out his Wikipedia entry – to do a rewrite. Apparently Hellman was at the Whistler Film Festival a couple of years back; I’m kind of sorry I didn’t make more of the opportunity to hear him speak, or at least to see Two-Lane Blacktop in a theatre with others.

Rudy Wurlitzer's Nog book cover 1969

Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman apparently had read Rudy Wurlitzer’s 1969 novel and hired him to rewrite the original Two-Lane Blacktop screenplay.

Lolita (1962, DVD, library copy) – This movie has a fatal flaw, even more pronounced on this – my second – viewing. And that is Peter Sellers. As he would again two years later for Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick casts the British comic actor (he would go on to star as the inept Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies) in multiple roles.

And Sellers isn’t funny in any of them; in fact he plays a couple of the roles so broadly it’s as though he’s stepped in from other movies. I’m beginning to think maybe I’m just not a fan of Sellers’ brand of humour – I also thought he overdid it in Strangelove – though I grew up watching the Pink Panther movies and recall liking The Party, the 1968 comedy he did with Panther collaborator Blake Edwards (more on whom in a bit). Still, many of the scenes in Lolita are wonderfully played by James Mason and Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters.

James Mason Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters in Lolita (1962).

James Mason Sue Lyon and Shelley Winters in Lolita (1962).

Your Highness – (2011, VOD) How hard is it to make a sword-and-sorcery comedy with Danny McBride? Apparently, it’s not easy. McBride, who can be so funny as Kenny Powers on the HBO series Eastbound and Down, goes for easy laughs as a prince who is also the cowardly, not-so-good-looking brother of James Franco (also a prince – stands to reason). This idea is funny for maybe the first 30 minutes of this two-hour time-waster, then becomes completely stale. After that, the  laughs come few and far between (although admittedly I chuckled every time someone mentioned “the fuckening”) as the movie gets caught up in its own ridiculously convoluted plot.

It’s almost as though the original script was a more-or-less straight-up fantasy and someone had the bright idea of turning into a stoner comedy (oh yeah, did I mention the stoner aspect?). This one definitely could’ve used another pass in the script department. Your Highness co-stars Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman, for no good reason.

Victor Victoria (1982, TCM, PVR recorded) – The premise of this 1982 comedy, written and directed by Blake Edwards, barely has a leg to stand on; in 1934 Paris, a British expat played by Julie Andrews pretends to be a female impersonator. Edwards stretches out this idea for over two hours, but the charm of the cast – including James Garner, Robert Preston and Julie Ann Warren – and the musical numbers, and finally the sheer ridiculousness of the dated plot, won us over. I’m in no hurry to see it again, but Victor Victoria is goodnatured, fun and, in its own way, forward thinking in its attitudes.

Lost in America (1985, DVD library copy) – It’s Albert Brooks‘ movie – he co-wrote, directed and stars in – but Julie Hagerty, as Brooks’ character’s wife, is the heart, and secret weapon of this road movie comedy. The wild look on her face, when David (Brooks) finds her in the early morning at a roulette table, is priceless; you realize at that moment what a gifted comic actress she is, and how subtly she’s played the previous scenes (she was also in Airplane).

Another thing I love about Lost in America – and I’ve seen it many times – is its odd pacing; usually when, in movies, characters make or lose a huge sum, it happens in the beginning or more likely at the end; in Lost in America, it’s right in the middle.

Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks in Lost in America (1985) movie image.

Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks in Lost in America (1985).

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