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What’s up with the movie business? For the Christmas season, it unreeled long, grim R-rated movies about prison, poverty, and plague. Now, with families dispersed and workloads resumed, out comes a pair of concise, carefree comedies that would have made ideal holiday fare. Hello?
Snow Day, produced by Nickelodeon Movies, the theatrical division of the cable network, is a lively, multilayered family movie, an Altmanesque ensemble piece with training wheels. Director Chris Koch and screenwriters Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi—all Nickelodeon veterans making their feature debuts—confine their story to a single inclement day in the lives of a Syracuse family.
TV weatherman Tom Brandston (Chevy Chase) has slipped in the ratings far behind his unctuous, dumbbell rival, Chad Symmonz (John Schneider), and is being strong-armed by his boss (Pam Grier) into taking part in humiliating gimmicks (e.g., wearing a grass skirt on unseasonably warm days) to recapture viewers. His workaholic wife, Laura (Jean Smart—a dead ringer for Stockard Channing), is so preoccupied with capturing the soft drink market in Southeast Asia that she’s begun ignoring her children.
Hal (Mark Webber), the oldest child, has fallen for raven-haired high school goddess Claire Bonner (Emmanuelle Chriqui) to the dismay of her vengeful jock ex-boyfriend, Chuck Wheeler (David Paetkau), and against the advice of his confidante and secret admirer, Lane Leonard (Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek’s daughter). Ten-year-old Natalie (Zena Grey) harbors superhero fantasies and plots to defeat her creepy nemesis, Snowplowman (Chris Elliott), the enemy of snow days. Randy (Connor Matheus), a fractious tyke, requires but rarely receives vigilant monitoring.
Snow Day’s surreal opening image of a house crushed by a giant snowball encapsulates the film’s theme: the liberating anarchy unleashed by a blizzard. Just as the World War II blitz freed children from English social and class constraints in John Boorman’s delightful 1987 film Hope and Glory, Koch’s snowstorm shuts down schools and offices and temporarily inverts the balance of power between authority figures (the school principal, Snowplowman) and kids.
It should come as no surprise that all of the Brandstons emerge from their snow day wiser and happier than they began it. McRobb and Viscardi’s stratiform screenplay neatly counterpoises the sweet and the subversive. Without breaching sacrosanct family values, they manage to include enough rowdy action (snowmobile chases and snowball fights) to keep kids interested, as well as some mild scatology (fart, pee, and fat-boy butt-crack gags) to keep them amused. Adult viewers will respond to a few nuggets of Information Age anxiety, such as the ratings race at Tom’s station and Laura’s doomed attempts to communicate with her office from home via cell phone and computer cam. There’s even a Citizen Kane crystal snowball homage for cinephiles.
Koch smoothly juggles a half-dozen plot lines and more characters than I have space to mention. (Iggy Pop has a weird, ironic cameo as an Al Martino-worshipping skating rink proprietor.) Apart from his overuse of high-angle crane shots, nothing about Koch’s confidently executed film suggests that it’s a debut feature. True, some of the snowscapes in this production, shot in Canada, are real, and others are distractingly fake, but even the most godlike of filmmakers can’t control the weather.
I don’t want to make outrageous claims for this lighthearted comedy. But I submit that it’s a fresher, more enjoyable film than The Talented Mr. Ripley, American Beauty, and most of the other movies that are being touted for the next best-picture Oscar.
The mockumentary (This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman), one of the few new screen genres to emerge in the past several decades, affords some irresistible advantages for directors. In addition to allowing them to burlesque the conventions of documentaries, which are the training ground for many young filmmakers, the conceit of faking cinema verite short-circuits criticism of technical and budgetary shortcomings. If the cinematographer loses focus or jiggles the camera or underexposes footage, these flaws actually reinforce the illusion that we are witnessing a real event.
Kevin Allen’s The Big Tease purports to be fictional BBC documentarian Chris Langham’s unstaged reportage of Scotsman Crawford Mackenzie’s quest to win the coveted Platinum Scissors Award, the top prize of the World Freestyle Hairdressing Championship held in Los Angeles. In a change of pace from his usual assignments, which include making movies about poverty in Third World countries, Langham opens with Crawford (Craig Ferguson, who also co-scripted the movie with Sacha Gervasi) departing his native Glasgow, cheered on by family, clients, friends, and his scruffy lover, Gareth. In one of several background interviews, Crawford’s mom praises her son’s precociousness: When he was a little boy, she recalls, she bought him a chess set and within a day he had dressed all of the chess pieces in costumes based on the “Bali Ha’i” number from South Pacific.
Crawford arrives in L.A. and checks into a luxurious hotel suite only to discover that he’s laboring under a terrible misapprehension: The overly optimistic Scotsman has misread the World International Hairdressing Federation’s letter, which neither names him as a competition finalist nor offers to pay for his travel and lodgings. To his disappointment, he has merely been invited to observe the event from an audience seat. Although unceremoniously tossed out of his posh accommodations, Crawford refuses to accept defeat. He relocates to a Sunset Strip fleabag and storms WIHF headquarters. After being stonewalled by Monique (Mary McCormack), the glamorous but snooty contest official, and Stig (David Rasche), a villainous Beverly Hills hairdresser whose help he tries to enlist, Crawford hatches a plan to contact Sean Connery, who, he naively believes, will pull some strings for his hapless countryman.
Crawford’s savior comes in the person of Candy (Frances Fisher), Connery’s tough, neurotic publicist, who initially rebuffs him. Pressed into emergency service, the hairdresser gives Candy a makeover, which sweetens her disposition. She uses her considerable clout to force Monique to bend the contest rules and accept Crawford as a finalist. Unfortunately, he loses, and, at the fadeout, throws himself off the Santa Monica Pier.
(Author’s note: One sentence in the preceding paragraph contains misinformation.)
Stylistically, The Big Tease is sloppy, even by mockumentary standards, and, without explanation, it abandons the pretense of being a film-within-a-film during the climactic competition. But the performers are endearing, especially Ferguson, a regular on Drew Carey’s sitcom, and Fisher, who reveals an unexpected flair for comedy. Unlike Shear Madness, which has inhabited the Kennedy Center nearly as long as Strom Thurmond has been in Congress, the movie is refreshingly unsniggery about gay hairdressers. Crawford’s generous heart and indomitable spirit define the character far more than his sexual orientation does.
Although frivolous and inconsequential, The Big Tease is short, sweet, and unflaggingly upbeat. Its satire of upscale Angeleno narcissism is too familiar and too tame to make much of an impact, but its amused depiction of the pretensions and vanities endemic to the hairdressing trade is delightful. In Glasgow, Crawford displays his professional awards on a wall that he refers to as his “galeria de trophia.” Bounced from his fancy L.A. hotel, he philosophically muses: “Too much opulence is bad for my instrument.” Anyone who has trouble keeping a straight face when confronted with the absurd grandiosity of hair salons—even the cut-rate mall franchises—is bound to get a few chuckles out of this ramshackle comedy that Warner Bros. accurately describes as “Rocky in curlers.” CP