Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Zack and Miri and Rose and Charlie: Near-Fatal Attraction

The meet-cute is a Hollywood staple: it is, of course, the contrivance that brings together two highly ill-assorted people (let’s say a man and a woman) who bicker and spar, but then—by the last reel—discover they’ve fallen in love. This trope is the mainstay of too many romantic comedies to count, everything from 1938’s Bringing Up Baby to You’ve Got Mail sixty years later. I’m thinking about two movies that don’t actually start with a first meeting. The couples in question have known each other long before the action begins. But they’re far from an obvious pairing . . . until lightning strikes.

 And yet, vive la différence! There’s a whole new world between the coupling of Rosie and Charlie in The African Queen (1951) and the two Millennials at the center of the 2008 romp, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are roommates, trying to make ends meet in a grotty apartment while working bottom-of-the-barrel jobs at a local strip mall. They’ve had their share of intimate encounters (as when accidentally barging in on one another in the bathroom). And neither is short on sexual experience Still, these two losers who’ve been buddies since grammar school never stop to consider each other as potential romantic conquests.

 Life changes dramatically when a viral selfie (long story!) inspires them to try for the big bucks by casting themselves in a porn flick. This being a Kevin Smith movie, the language throughout is raunchy in the extreme, and some of the film’s situations skirt – or elude altogether -- the boundaries of good taste. Hilariously, of course. But at base what we have is a love story, between two nice young people who will, we’re quite sure, live happily ever after. With, as we learn at the fadeout, a surefire new business plan to keep two bodies and two souls together.

 The African Queen is set not in a Pittsburgh suburb but in darkest Africa, circa 1914, where the genteel Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) serve the local populace as Methodist missionaries. This is German colonial territory: the outbreak of World War I brings a German attack that destroys their modest village and ultimately kills Samuel. Rose’s only way out is aboard a rickety little steam launch captained by the rough-and-ready Canadian mechanic Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart, in his only Oscar-winning role).

 As the prim-and-proper Miss Sayer and the gin-swilling Mr. Allnut travel downstream in close quarters, they seem far from a perfect match. But once she’s discovered the charms of bathing in the river in her scanties, Rose reveals a whole different side to her personality: one that’s courageous and ripe for adventure. Soon the unlikely duo is braving white-water rapids, en route to the lake where they’ll make a quixotic stand against a German military vessel. It’s life or death, but Rose is blooming. And Charlie fully appreciates her grit.

 This film was shot largely on location by the always-colorful John Huston. The African experience was so grueling, including serious bouts of illness for cast and crew, that Hepburn later published a lively account. And young Peter Viertel, who co-scripted the screen adaptation, penned a scathing portrait of Huston and his  maniacal insistence on shooting an elephant before filmmaking could commence. Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart itself later became a mediocre 1990 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood in the Huston role. 

 As for Charlie and Rose, here’s how the original novel ends: "Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided." 




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