It was only a matter of time before the economic downturn — among the more fangless euphemisms for calamitous events, on par with civil unrest — moved out of the subtextual periphery into its rightful place front and center, driving the plot of a big, high-profile star vehicle. There have been some very good documentaries, like last year’s Oscar-wining “Inside Job,” which exposed the architects of the the current economic disaster zone (in which even the brightest financial minds can’t seem to plot a path to stability). There has been a noticeable absence of feature films addressing the current sorry state of financial affairs as it impacts each and every one of us, every day of our lives.
Hollywood appears to be inching out of its state of denial (or, more likely, reluctance to remind moviegoers of the ugly truths awaiting them outside the movie theater) with the news that Sony has signed on to finance writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jess Walter’s National Book Award-nominated novel, The Financial Lives of Poets. The bittersweet drama will star Jack Black as an unemployed journalist under siege as his house nears foreclosure and his wife’s e-mail flirtation intensifies. In a Hail Mary attempt to turn things around, he fires up a recession-proof (but not necessarily legal) business with a pair of lowlifes.
Bluntly put: This is the role we’ve been dreaming of for Jack Black ever since he showed glimmers of an untapped emotional range in “School of Rock,” “King Kong,” and the otherwise cringe-inducing “The Holiday.” Of all today’s great comic headliners (Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Steve Carel, Will Ferrell), Black is the only one who hasn’t cashed in some of his box office clout on a film he hopes will establish his “serious actor” chops. Instead, Black has played to his base bringing his unique brand of good-natured angst to broad comedies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Tropic Thunder.” But after last year’s disastrous “Gulliver’s Travels” and the disappointing “The Big Year,” this might be the perfect time for Black to recalibrate with a low-budget, auteur-driven film that attempts to mine the funny out of a bleak situation. That and he gets to play a pot dealer. What’s not to like?
The doubters among us will raise concerns that people go to the movies to escape their worries, not to watch them writ large and gussied up with all the requisite funny-sad poignant beats the three-act structure requires. But we place our implicit trust in Winterbottom’s social conscience and parched comic sensibility. If anyone can pull off an act of cinematic catharsis, it’s Winterbottom, who may be the most unpredictable and polymathic filmmaker working today. But we’ll be there just to see the alchemy he creates with Black playing the free-falling family man dope dealer of our dreams.
What about you, WordAndFilmers: Are you ready to see Black expose his serious side? Is it too soon for Hollywood to fire up the gallows humor as we bottom out economically? Or is this just the antidote we need in these toxic times?