Is R the new PG-13?
Watching Wedding Crashers, the new Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson buddy comedy - which is, actually, a meaty R - it's nice to imagine so. Some films are meant for mature, adult audiences, and too often these days, those very movies are softened to land a PG-13 and cast a wider demographic (and parentless) net.
But this is a shock: People actually say four-letter words in Wedding Crashers. Alcohol is consumed and tobacco is used.
White is worn before Memorial Day.
Dirty jokes are staged (at least two-thirds of them pretty sweet), and - I blush at the thought - Christopher Walken is cast as an intimidating creep and allowed to dance.
The nerve of some directors.
Mostly, though, it's kind of a shock to see naked people in a modern comedy, especially gratuitously, gloriously, Full Monty-ly naked people - simply being naked for the sole reason that, yes, sometimes characters happen to take off their clothes, and, yes, sometimes 143 laborers, caterers, production assistants, and a camera crew just happen to be there to record the event.
Wedding Crashers begins with a sequence where Wilson and Vaughn hit wedding after wedding, pick up bridesmaid after bridesmaid, and get lucky. The scene moves fast and cuts between them on various reception dance floors shimmying to "Shout" (a nod to the film's Animal House aspirations) and then falling back on hotel beds with each of their countless conquests, who are now topless. In 1983 it would have been met with yawns. Now it's like a mission statement and an act of civil disobedience.
Recently I watched Stripes (1981) again, also rated R, and was struck by how nonchalantly Bill Murray's girlfriend walked topless into an early scene. Somehow it didn't feel gratuitous or sexist when I was 13. But without completely understanding why, it did seem, even then, kind of exploitative and very sleazy.
Wedding Crashers, as raunchy as it aspires to be, takes a similar apologetic stance on nudity and debauchery: It heartily approves of it, but feels kind of bad about it in the morning. Where Murray and Co. never pretended the women in their films were of any consequence, these guys are wise enough to give the female leads (quite funny themselves) more than half-hearted cameos.
On the other hand, that's also part of a gradual domestication that ruins the picture and kills the buzz. After all, you don't go to a bachelor party to meet your future spouse and discover something meaningful in yourself. But until it reaches this point - midway through, ceasing to be a raunch fest and transforming into standard issue romantic comedy - it wears its R proudly, starting with its simple premise:
Throw Wilson and Vaughn together. Thirtysomethings, they came of age in that Bill Murray-Harold Ramis era; and like Murray and Ramis, their movies are tailored to their strengths, written from their personalities up. Vaughn plays motormouth Jeremy, and Wilson is John, the laid-back heartthrob.
Separately in films, they're scene stealers. Together, their combination of swagger (Vaughn) and calculated self-deprecation (Wilson) proves lethal. Normally the set-up in a quickie comedy like this is boilerplate, an excuse to get two actors in the same room, but here it's clever: They play divorce lawyers who have learned, if nothing else, commitment is for suckers, love is a sham, and marriage is a perversion of freedom.
So their scam is deliciously scummy: They crash weddings, scanning the papers for promising sounding ceremonies where the good-looking couple probably begets good-looking guests and the family sounds rich enough to spring for an open bar. But free cheese and booze is the appetizer. They're there for the single women - in particular, swooning, inebriated bridesmaids thinking about romance.
Their scam works because of a simple truism: If you look as if you belong, generally no one will question it. And basically, that's the premise of the film, as streamlined a set-up as the Marx Brothers would have allowed.
Or rather, it should be. Director David Dobkin establishes their scam and then struggles to top it, so he doesn't bother: John falls in love with the daughter of the secretary of the Treasury (a luminous Rachel McAdams of Mean Girls), and Jeremy is stuck with her clingy sister (Isla Fisher, even better). They learn the necessity of finding love and getting a life.
But movie stars allowed to be true dirt bags for once is refreshing - hooray! Wilson shamelessly dances with little girls for attention, Vaughn with the old ladies. They remind me of those bottom-dwelling fish who develop dangling, phosphorous lures and bait their prey with the promise of a treat, only to reveal themselves as predators.
One problem: They're so convincingly charming, so sweetly roguish, we have a hard time accepting their sincerity. We have a harder time believing Wilson couldn't lure McAdams away from her long-time jerk boyfriend. We like the easygoing McAdams so much, we have an even harder time believing she would shack up with a jerk in the first place.
If there's anything new to all this, it's a nugget of an idea brought up and dropped: These guys are getting old. Their whole buddy comedy collective, unofficially the Frat Pack - consisting of Vaughn, Wilson, brother Luke, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Jack Black - are enormously popular and influential and increasingly in love with the sound of their own laughs.
Particularly Vaughn and Wilson, who came to prominence in mid '90s Sundance hits: Vaughn in Swingers, Wilson in Bottle Rocket. But some actors are allowed to play themselves into the ground, and there's no harm in that at first, because there is always a peak, when neither audience nor filmmaker seem to care. These guys have reached it with Wedding Crashers, but it's downhill from there.