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“I have a little cold,” Jon Lovitz says softly, as he shakes my hand, softly.
Uh-oh. Any school nurse will tell you that the best way to spread germs is via the human hand. But I had been the first to extend my arm in greeting and it would be rude to retract it. The former Saturday Night Live star may be feeling under the weatherand today’s weather is teemingly foulbut the sight of his hangdog face brightens my afternoon. So it’s a hearty handshake, damn the consequences.
Lovitz is risking everyone’s health to promote his new movie, High School High, an “urban street comedy” from one of the writer/producer/
directors of Airplane and two writer/producers of Airplane-style movies. High School High is reminiscent of Airplane. What makes the risks worthwhile is that the film may fairly be described as a Jon Lovitz vehicle. He has worked his way up the credit ladder to name-above-the-title status, his face commanding the majority of the poster.
“This is what I’ve wanted. And when I got the role, I really felt prepared,” says Lovitz, noting his billing climb. “However [High School High] does, I feel like, hey, goal achieved.”
While an urban street comedy starring the very unstreet Mr. Lovitz may sound curious, local filmgoers will be interested to learn that Lovitz plays a teacher at the disastrously out-of-control Marion Barry High. There is even a startlingly lifelike statue of Hizzoner beaming down at rampaging students in front of the crumbling building.
Will Lovitz be meeting with the mayor on this trip? “Not that I know of,” he says, a bit bewildered by the notion. He adds, “I hope that he has a sense of humor. But if he gets mad at me, I’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t write it!’ Back right out of that one.”
(In fact, Hizzoner
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does not have a sense of humor about the film. Shortly after this interview, the Post quoted Barry spokeswoman Raymone Bain on the mayor’s displeasure with his “role.” The film was condemned for being offensive to the recovery movement and “a slap to people working very hard to make Washington a better place to live.” Which is not even remotely what the film is about.)
As over-the-top as the school is portrayed in the film, it may strike D.C. residents as mere déjà vu. This news makes Lovitz sad.
“You’d think that the president and everybody would say, ‘How are we going to tell the rest of the country how to fix everything when our own city is in such a mess?’ You’d think they’d go all out,” frets Lovitz.
“Why not make Washington, D.C., the model city?” he continues, fidgeting into a fervor. “It would make sense to me. I would think it would be so embarrassingto methat your own city where you live is in such a mess. I don’t get it. You’d think they’d be shamed into doing it.”
Yes, you would think that. But if wise men like Bill Clinton and Marion Barry haven’t been able to solve D.C.’s problems, the crisis will likely go unsolved by the people in this hotel room, much as we’d care to pitch in. So, the talk returns to movies.
In his leading role, Lovitz is able to present a broader showcase of his talents. “I had a drunk scene, a fight scene, a love scene,” he says proudly. “I was the guy motivating the action. As opposed to being the best friend, saying, ‘What, are you crazy!? What are you doing? What, are you nuts?’ It’s always, if you’re the brother or the best friend: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Because the lead’s the guy who’s going through the changes. And you’re the guy who’s just reacting: ‘What happened to you?’”
Lovitz recalls being cast yet again as a best friend and joking, “Where’s the line, ‘What are you, crazy?’ And I’m reading the script and there it was: ‘What are you, crazy?’”
Until now, Lovitz’s film career has consisted mostly of playing brother to Dan Aykroyd, Billy Crystal, and Nicolas Cage, his screen time occupied uttering such inanities. Of course, he gets hired because he can make such inanities seem, well, inane, yes, but in that special Lovitz fashion: cheerfully befuddled, herky-jerky, optimistically wrong, and, what, is that guy nuts?
Lovitz is one of those actors who can be depended on to turn in a goodor at least consistentperformance in less-than-stellar films. He calls his many characters “likable jerks,” and while his jerkiness is not much on display today, it is his likableness, his palpable need to be liked, that redeems films like Mom and Dad Save the World and now High School High. The “urban street comedy” is, after all, a rich, white Hollywood view of inner-city culture that might be considered, at best, racially insensitive were it not for Lovitz’s constant goofy, grinning presence. His character’s sincere exclamation that “I know the straight-up booty” can only be laughed at.
While there is yet to be a Jon Lovitz Action Figure tie-in, the actor has achieved parity with superstars Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner in the exposed-derrière department.
“That was a mold of my butt,” Lovitz clarifies. “That was me, but it was a mold. I said, ‘Why do we have to do a mold?’ They go, ‘Because we can’t really smoke your own butt.’ ‘Oh yeah, it’ll be on fire. Yeah, you’re right.’ I show my butt, and I have sex with a cat. What won’t I do?”
Obviously, there’s little that he won’t do to amuse. Despite the head cold, Lovitz’s mood is fairly chummy and laughy. Which means I must confront Mr. Comedy with a quote from acid-penned pop-culture critic Joe Queenan. The opinionated Mr. Q had this to say on a recent slate.com roundtable discussion about why modern films stink:
“For the past two decades, American entertainment has been dominated by alumni of Saturday Night Live. This cultural hydra has produced hundreds and hundreds of atrocious motion pictures, replacing the Age of Hepburn, Grant, and Tracy with the Age of Belushi, Aykroyd, and Another Guy Named Belushi.”
As I read, Lovitz’s face begins collapsing into a frown; his body begins slumping deeper into his chair. Queenan continues at length, equating the advent of the multiplex with the rise of “television-sized personalities and television-sized talent” to fill the smaller screens. American cinema, he proclaimed, “will not return to its former greatness until Saturday Night Live is firmly repudiated as a cultural incubator.”
But I spare Lovitz the rest. After all, here is a man who has dedicated himself to the single task of making America laugh, who has undergone painful butt-mold sessions for your entertainment. Would you do the same? And now he is in obvious pain. I stop reading, feeling frankly ashamed.
“Well, who’s he?” snaps Lovitz. “He obviously doesn’t understand how pop culture works. It’s all up to the audience. You just put it out there. If they don’t like it, they won’t go. If they go, then that means they like it, and there’s more of that made.” The color is returning to his jovially jowly cheeks. “If he should be mad at anybody, he should be mad at the audience. Popular, populace, that’s what it means.”
Outside it is pouring, the city is falling apart, but inside the Master Thespian is concerned with keeping the populace happy. I leave confident that the millennium will be filled with Jon Lovitz vehicles.
Two days later, I come down with a cold.Dave Nuttycombe