Anthropologist rescues Hollywood!

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Envy is a recent film by Barry Levinson. It cost $40 million to make and it grossed $12 million in its opening American release. This is not what they call a blockbuster in Hollywood.

All the elements were promising. Larry David was a producer and Barry Levinson the director. Levinson is my idea of man of greatness, serving Baltimore as Dickens did London. His Homicide: Life in the street is a work of genius, raising the bar for popular culture. The stars of Envy are gifted and well known: Ben Stiller and Jack Black. The story is extravagantly goofy: best friends fall out after one of them strikes it rich with a new invention: Vapoorizer. Christopher Walken turns in another fine performance, throwing his cadenCES around in that mesmerizing way of his.

So what went wrong? My theory is that Levinson lost out to the anthropologists. All the creatives in the film biz engage in the close observation of everyday life. Comedians especially. And the opening 20 minutes of Envy are ethnographically delicious. Stiller and Black take turns serving up the stock facial expressions and turns of phrase of the white collar worker and suburban life. And it’s really funny if watching the stylistics of speech and conduct is what you do for a living. But if you’re not an anthropologist or a comedian, well, it’s just “nothing,” a mysteriously unexceptional recitation of the unmistakably unexceptional.

Larry David’s Seinfeld and Curb your enthusiasm are both very good at excavating the obvious. David has a genius for showing how the things that shouldn’t matter prove often to be the very fissure out of which order escapes like air from a balloon. (In David’s world, there is always room for differences of opinion about the “shared” rules of everyday life. It’s funny when they are negotiable, and funnier when they’re not. Indeed, if we said to David, no more episodes about the Goffmanian rules of everyday life, his career would end. Lear/Shakespeare was wrong to say “nothing comes of nothing.” David made it pay.)

The mystery thickens. David excavates “nothing” to very good effect. Envy doesn’t. Envy makes us scratch our heads and ask, “so why am I watching this again?” David produced and help write Envy, so what happened?

We can only speculate, but when you think about Levinson’s treatment of popular culture, it is very much more indicative than David’s. In the diner scenes in Diner, for instance, Levinson demonstrates a gift for making nothing speak. All the details of guys eating together, arguing, interacting, competing…all of these nothings are made to tell the story, to recover a time (1950s/1960s) and a place (Baltimore), to signal who they are and where they, variously, live. This is nothing made voluble.

Teamed with David and the comedians (Stiller will dial it down as far as you let him), Levinson was now participating in another tradition.

It turns out that when dealing with nothing you have to choose: explode it (in the Davidian tradition), or project onto it (in the Diner tradition).

But you can’t just let it lie there. That’s a nothing from which nothing truly comes.