There was a time when teenage boys wore jackets and ties to go to birthday parties. There was a time when what we now call a Happy Meal cost under a dollar. And there was a time when the term “Indie Film” meant something.
Of course, all those things are ancient history by now. You’ll have to either take my word for it, or else watch TVLand for clues of what once was. The co-opting of the new and temporarily revolutionary shouldn’t come as a shock. Frank Capra and Robert Riskin warned of it more than seventy years ago in Meet John Doe (1941). Twenty-five years later, Paddy Chayefsky offered his remarkably prescient take in Network (1976). And twenty years after that, at the close of the millennium, Dan Zukovic attempted to have the final say in The Last Big Thing (1996). Two things make Zukovic’s movie different from the others. First, though politics and commerce came under some attack, it dealt first and foremost with culture. Its very pointed central observation was that Hollywood (our de facto culture) had become entirely self-referential. There were no new ideas, only recycled ones. And they weren’t even recycled from real life, but from Hollywood itself.
The second difference was that The Last Big Thing, unlike Meet John Doe and Network, was truly an indie project. Low budget. No stars (though one of its featured players, Mark Ruffalo, derisively referred to as a “hunk” in Zukovic’s movie, would change one letter and become a Hulk in mainstream Hollywood). Zukovic’s movie runs out of steam before it reaches any real conclusion, but at least it felt authentically subversive for a while. It felt like what we used to call ‘Indie.”
We’ve turned the page on the 20th century and the whole Indie movement now. Sure, there are still good small films being made, but if you ever needed proof of the Indie demise, you need do nothing more than go watch two comedies currently playing in a theatre near you. Both movies drip with modernist self-reference, constantly winking at the audience, calling attention to their stylised conventions. One is playing at your local multiplex. The other, despite some heavy hitting names, is in your art house.
The movies, if you haven’t guessed, are 22 Jump Street and They Came Together. And the reason that together they signal the end of the Indie is that 22 Jump Street is the better of the two. By a wide margin. Now, if these were spectacle-based, action-adventure, blow-em-up, slaughter-the-CGI epics, you might expect the bigger budget to win out. But these are comedies which at least strive to be somewhat transgressive by poking fun at the triteness of mainstream Hollywood. They are dependent on wit and ideas. You know, the things that Indies are supposed to have all over their commercial cousins.
22 Jump Street is far from perfect. Like The Last Big Thing, it runs out of steam somewhere in the middle. Its Spring Break third act is not very good. But for a lot of its length, it is funny and inventive, and it recovers from that weak third act with a kick-ass closing credits sequence that shows off all that wit and inventiveness we crave.
They Came Together, on the other hand, is a downright bad movie. In fact, it intends to be a bad movie. It constantly announces its intentions through its two leads, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, who narrate their adventures as if they were pitching a bad romcom. It punctuates its romcom self-loathing attitude with several bursts of very funny material, including one brilliant sequence in which the actors step out of character and watch, Dziga Vertov-style, as Norah Jones records the movie’s romantic theme song. Oh, that the rest were so creative! Unfortunately, most of the rest is a very tired collection of hit-and-miss jokes punctuated occasionally by truly repulsive explosions of poor taste. This is the second straight Indie romcom (Obvious Child being the other) in which one of the supporting characters warmly refers to taking a “stinky shit.” And that is not as off-putting as what happens at a costume party in the middle. And both of those together don’t approach the mind-numbing crudeness of a scene between Paul Rudd’s character and his Bubby toward the end. Ultimately, it doesn’t even surpass the modest mainstream movie it seems to take aim at, You’ve Got Mail (1998), itself a rather pale remake of the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner (which was an adaptation of a stage play, but how far back do you really want to go?).
OK, I’ll admit that linking the Indie banner to a movie like They Came Together is a little shaky. Its producer, Lionsgate, may not be as big as Columbia and MGM (co-producers of 22 Jump Street) but if I had enough followers, they would have plenty of cash on hand to get me to shut up about how bad their movie is. Rudd and Poehler aren’t exactly nobodies. And the supporting cast is full of recognisable comedians from TV and film (again, 22 Jump Street kicks its butt in the category of best use of a raunchy-quirky actor from cable TV: Workaholics’ Jillian Bell is hilarious in Jump Street while The League’s Jason Mantzoukis is just kind of along for the ride in Together). But its producers come from the ranks of Indie Television like Reno 911 and Louie, shows where no teenage boys are wearing jackets to birthday parties. Perhaps there still is Indie Television.
But I’m afraid that Indie Film will have to remain a sweet memory for those who can go back, almost twenty years now, to a time when terms like Dogme and Sundance promised a bold new vision, and you could watch several movies in a row without a single reference to a stinky … well, you can probably guess where I’m headed with that. Right down the drain with the Indies.