Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shane Black | Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

by Douglas Messerli
Shane Black (screenplay and direction) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang / 2005
Roger Ebert’s on-line review of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang describes the film genre as “Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Thriller,” which perhaps says it all about this frothy confection whipped up in a blender in order to be consumed by absolutely anyone and everyone. Ebert goes on to somewhat begrudgingly complain: “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang contains a lot of comedy and invention, but doesn’t much benefit from its clever style. The characters and plot are so promising that maybe Black should have backed off and the told the story deadpan, instead of mugging so shamelessly for laughs. It could still be a comedy, but it would always be digging its elbow into ribs. I kept wanting to add my own subtitles: ‘I get it! I get!’” And, in large part, I find myself agreeing with him.

      Yet, from its credits on, this film is so stylishly directed, wittily conceived, and well-acted—particularly by the petty, East Coast thief, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the seasoned gay detective, Gay Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer playing “Gay Paris,” get it?)—that it almost seems mean-spirited to throw a dose of cynicism into this brew, particularly since Black himself has laced his creation with a camp cynicism just so that nothing, not even the character’s youthful history played out in a Norman Rockwell-like Indiana, tastes too sweet. All right, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and is so convoluted that even an attentive reader like me, armed with a Wikipedia cheat sheet, can still not make it out. But then a film that it models itself on Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake—which Time Out Film Guide describes as a “loopy” piece—predictably, perhaps, argues that the film might intentionally make much sense. I’ve seen The Big Sleep dozens of times, but still don’t completely understand its “story.” And just like that brilliant film noir what matters here is the chemistry between its characters and their clever dialogue.

           It’s almost as if writer and director Black were betting with that devil, Pauline Kael, that he could make a movie based on the action formula that might still be highly entertaining. Even if in his attempt to do so he goes, at times, far over the top, even over the edge, I think, ultimately, he succeeds.

      It’s also, purportedly, the first time a major film action character was gay. Kilmer is not great actor, despite his own estimation of himself, but in his puffy good looks he is near perfect as the hard-core, experienced gumshoe, Perry, enlisted to give newcomer, would-be actor Harry a taste of the underworld life. “Rule number 1….This business. Real life, boring.” If nothing else, Perry knows who and what he is.

      Harry, on the other hand, who, after attempting to rob a toy store has stumbled into an audition, convincingly acting out what has just happened in “real” life (the auditioners are convinced his is a brilliant method actor), is a naïve as they come. At his first Hollywood party he attempts to protect a sleeping woman, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), challenging the would-be “intruder” to a fight, only to be severely beaten. Throughout the film, he is beaten again several times, even by women, is shot, loses a finger, and is tortured with electricity in his crotch. Convinced he is in love with Harmony—who, it turns out, in this coincidence-packed movie, is his high school sweetheart (albeit the only male in his class with whom she did not have sex)—yet even as an adult who momentarily shares her bed, he does not “score,” although, what Harmony says of another girl might equally apply to herself, “She’s been fucked more times than she’s had a hot meal.”

      Despite his seemingly heterosexual proclivities, Harry gets nowhere with the women (is even voted out of a bar by the women within), he keeps coming back and back to Gay Perry, despite Perry’s dismissal of him. And the only real kiss he gets—in this “kiss kiss” tale—is when Perry, in order to evade the police, embraces him for a long mouth to mouth munch. After he crawls into Harmony’s bed, the scene ends with him arguing with her concerning her admission that she had slept with his best high school friend—the only male, other than himself, that he thought she had not had sex!

      If Harmony and her dead sister, Jenna, along with the body of Veronica Dexter, keep showing up in his life, it is because they are needy or dead, not in love with Harry. As he himself hints, the women with whom he communes are either perverted or deceased: “I mean, it’s literally like someone took America by the East Coast and ‘shook’ it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.” Certainly, his relationships with women are not ever harmonious.

     In the end, it is only Perry who is truly honest with him, explaining not only the ways the world but revealing the painful truth that Harry has been lured to Hollywood as a ploy to get another actor. And it is Perry who perhaps perceives how things stand:
                                   Perry: Merry Christmas, sorry I fucked you over.
                                   Harry: No problem. Don’t quit your gay job.
And later:
                                    Harry: Hey, hey, hey! It’s Christmas, where’s my present,
                                    Perry: Your fucking present is you’re not in jail, fag-hag.


      Harry’s telling of the story, as the voice-over narrator of the piece, begins badly as he forgets to tell important elements of the tale, including the somewhat meaningless intrusion of an actor dressed as a robot entering Harmony’s apartment. So, it immediately becomes clear, the story we witness may not be the whole story. Certainly by film’s end, when Perry survives his apparent murder (an event which Black mocks by having all the previously killed actors of the piece, including President Lincoln, enter Harry’s hospital room, only to be hurried off by the nurse), we recognize that his notion of Harmony being “the one who got away” is a kind of hallucination, particularly when we discern that Jenna is not Harmony’s sister, but her daughter through incest—which brings us closer to Chinatown, perhaps, than Woman in the Lake or The Big Sleep.

      It should come as no surprise, accordingly, that Harry admits, at film’s closing, that he now works for Perry, with Perry, to close down the film, putting his hand over Harry’s mouth as if to shut down any possible new confessions. Perry, always the realist, even apologizes “to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said fuck so much.” But then that is truly what this film is all about, and it is nearly impossible to imagine Harry going on without his rhyming-named friend. Harmony has finally been achieved.*

Los Angeles, July 9, 2013               

*I might also mention that this film fits perfectly into the genre I have described as “Los Angeles” films, movies that take place in the city, to which outsiders are attracted, feeling themselves, a first, as outsiders before they come to recognize that, as outsiders, they completely belong.

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