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A bubbly German comedy? As soon as you’ve stopped sniggering, I’ll continue…
Writer-director Sonke Wortmann’s Maybe…Maybe Not, reportedly the all-time highest-grossing German movie, is a featherweight sex farce. The great Teutonic filmmakers—Lang, Murnau, Pabst, Riefenstahl, and, more recently, Herzog and Fassbinder—have never been noted for frothiness, and even Lubitsch, that country’s peerless comic director, specialized in historical dramas in his homeland and only lightened up after emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-’20s. So Wortmann’s farce deserves plaudits merely for defying national cinematic tradition.
The film opens with its sole stylistic flourish. Wortmann’s hyperactive camera careens over and around an upscale, neo-Weimar supper club where womanizing Axel (Til Schweiger) works as a waiter. He catches the eye of a randy patron and is soon strenuously socking it to her in a toilet stall when he’s caught in mid-thrust by waitress Doro (Katja Riemann), his live-in girlfriend of three years. On the spot, she gives him his walking papers, leaving him homeless. Axel’s previous paramours refuse to offer him shelter, forcing him to accept the hospitality of Norbert (Joachim Krol), a middle-aged gay man. Shortly thereafter, Doro finds herself pregnant and decides to take Axel back, only to discover that her lover has apparently turned gay.
Consider the humorous possibilities of this situation. During the course of reading the previous paragraph, you’ve probably imagined them as well as Wortmann has. With its paper-thin characters and contrived confusions, Maybe…Maybe Not lurches along from one predictable sequence to the next—the uncomfortable hetero stud at the drag masquerade, the gay benefactor teaching his butch buddy how to get in touch with his sensitive, nurturing self by cooking and watching Visconti’s Death in Venice, even the venerable naked-man-hiding-in-the-closet gag. As genial and insubstantial as a television sitcom episode, Wortmann’s farce leaves you speculating about the quality of the other German movies it nosed out at the box office.
Maybe…Maybe Not’s primary attraction is Schweiger, currently Germany’s most popular film star. Wortmann lights and exhibits him throughout as temptingly as the filet mignon at Sutton Place Gourmet’s meat counter. With his striking, chiseled features—combining the best bits of Paul Newman and Brad Pitt—and enviably taut physique, Schweiger is a screen natural. Within a year, no doubt, following a crash course in English and bulking up at Gold’s Gym, he’ll be the imported narcissistic centerpiece of yet another mindless, explosive Hollywood action picture. A shame, really, because Schweiger’s performance as Axel is modest and unaffected; he gives the appealing impression of being surprised and delighted that he has been so favored by nature. The rest of the cast doesn’t offer him much support. Riemann fails to add dimension to her abrasive, underwritten character, and Krol, a wizened Paul Simon (if that hasn’t become oxymoronic), is predictably dishraggy as the lovelorn Norbert, whose attraction to Axel is doomed to remain unrequited. Beaky Rufus Beck has a few mildly risible moments as Norbert’s flamboyant pal.
Wortmann’s sexual politics are even timider than those expressed in The Birdcage, To Wong Foo, and other recent Hollywood homosexual-themed comedies. Gay men, he suggests, are 1.) pathetically lonely, 2.) cloyingly sweet-natured, 3.) physically unappealing, and 4.) itching to slip into drag at the drop of a false eyelash. The possibility that intelligent, attractive men might be erotically drawn to each other, let alone forge lasting, loving alliances, never creases his brow. In the film’s only minimally developed gay relationship, Norbert, a cultured vegetarian, has a hopeless affair with an obese, coarse, sausage-loving butcher. No threat to the status quo there. Wortmann’s satirical targets are as stale as his erotic insights. His sendup of men’s consciousness-raising groups would have seemed moth-eaten in a ’70s comedy.
If you’re looking for a brainless time-killer, you could do far worse than Maybe…Maybe Not. There’s the occasional bright bit of dialogue—one character’s fond reminiscence of “the Rolling Stone concert where we scored the pig tranquilizers” is worthy of AbFab—and Schweiger is consistently pleasing to watch. But Wortmann deludes himself into thinking that his screenplay, based on an ’80s German underground comic strip, arrives with a Universal Statement in its teeth. “I was struck by how, no matter what different people are looking for in love, we all have the same difficulties,” he observes in the film’s press material. “We all fall in love with the wrong people, we all worry about being faithful and staying happy, we all make the same mistakes.” But the truth about love—which I hardly need to point out here—is that every relationship is as singular as a fingerprint, and exploring those distinctions is what genuine artists do, in comedy as well as drama. Bland, superficial, and surprisingly passé, Maybe…Maybe Not is unlikely to be as warmly or profitably
welcomed here as it has been
I wrote at length about the late Nigel Finch’s Stonewall earlier this year when it was screened at Filmfest DC. This week, the British-American co-production, a fictionalization of Martin Duberman’s insightful, detailed book about that 1969 turning point in the ongoing struggle for gay rights, begins its theatrical run.
Like movies about Pearl Harbor and the Titanic, Stonewall is essentially an extended prologue to the titular event. Rikki Beadle Blair’s screenplay presents a gallery of clichéd characters fabricated to serve as mouthpieces for various approaches to gay issues: the young man from the hinterlands who becomes radicalized after experiencing persecution by sadistic Manhattan cops, the cynical but soft-hearted drag hooker who is politicized after her lover is beaten, the complacent schoolteacher too closeted to embrace the notion of gay pride, the Judy Garland–worshiping drag queen hopelessly in love with a macho Italian unable to come to grips with his sexuality, the conservative members of a straight-acting gay rights group struggling to gain social justice by ineffective, noncombative means.
Less a period piece than an instant antique, Stonewall is an earnest, gay Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nearly every character and incident is cartoonishly designed to make an obvious didactic point, from the demonic cops-from-hell who bust the eponymous gay bar in search of illicit payoffs, to the gauzily idyllic young-outcasts-in-love montage, to a ponderous sequence in which a protest song prods the consciences of a busload of excessively staid activists. Finch links his episodic narrative with a glitzy Greek chorus of drag queens lip-syncing to vintage girl-group recordings, a neo-Brechtian device intended to impose structure upon the movie’s fragments. When, in the final reel, the long-awaited showdown between gays and cops finally transpires, the sequence is maladroitly staged and abruptly terminated before reaching its climax.
Duberman’s book could have provided the basis for an edifying docudrama about the genesis of the Stonewall incident. (Finch’s opening-reel introduction of testimonies by real-life participants in the riot, similar to the “witnesses” in Reds, nods in that direction, but the gesture is quickly abandoned.) By substituting banal soap operatics for historical accuracy, Stonewall, despite its honorable intentions and some remarkable performances, does a disservice to those courageous individuals who, a quarter-century ago, took enormous risks to combat social injustice.CP