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DVD review

The Jimmy Show
Directed by Frank Whaley
Dan Schnieder

In order to be a good critic one has to rise above one's personal biases. Period. If one cannot get past hating love stories or action films, then one should not practice the craft, because there are good films that are mere love stories or action films. It is the excellence of the film, and how it achieves its excellence, that is more important than what sort of a film it is. This basic lack of understanding how to separate one's likes from the objective ability of art to effectively communicate, is why most critics fail in their task.

On a related plane is the inability of many critics to distinguish between when a film is something, and when it is merely about something. A good example of this is the 2001 independent film by actor/director Frank Whaley, called The Jimmy Show (nothing at all like the Jim Carrey vehicle, The Truman Show); his second directorial effort after 1999's lauded Sundance Festival film Joe The King. It is a very good, albeit not great, film about the depressing life of a working class loser. Yet, the film itself is never depressing, despite its being damned to obscurity by critics for that very fact. Again, the point is that film critics claimed something about the film that is about what the film portrays, not how it portrays it.

The film was written by Whaley, as well, and adapted from a stage play by Jonathan Marc Sherman, called Veins And Thumbtacks. The film is about the right length to not turn one off - 93 minutes, and follows almost a decade in the life of a wannabe New Jersey standup comedian named Jimmy O'Brien (Whaley). The film starts off joltingly, in cinema verité fashion- much like a John Cassavetes film, with O'Brien driving an old beater to a standup club, The Laughing Stock, to sign up for its Tuesday open mike night, not realizing that he does not have to drop off a tape of his material to perform. The car is not his, but belongs to his invalid grandmother, Ruth (Lynn Cohen), who must wear diapers, and whose house he also lives in, and whom he takes care of, by carrying her to and from the car and into bed every night.

Eventually we find out that his parents were killed in a car crash when he was young, and he is slavishly devoted to Granny. When he arrives back from the club, after getting medication for the old woman, his girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Annie is waiting to tell him that she's pregnant. They get married the day their daughter is born and name her Wendy (Jillian Stacom). They all end up living in Granny's house. Theirs is a tense existence, filled with sniping and unspoken resentments. Jimmy clearly takes his life for granted. Neither of them have great jobs- although Annie is taking college classes to better herself, and Jimmy regularly steals beer- Pabst Blue Ribbon, from his supermarket job, where his best friend Ray (Ethan Hawke) also works. Not only that, but Jimmy's constantly late to work, is a slacker, a sciolist who knows not nearly as much as he thinks he does, and is a generally insecure and unlikable little man.

 We find out, as the story progresses in little moments and subtle touches, that Jimmy has basically created his own purgatory, for he has little talent- his standup act is little more than disjunct confessions of his miserable existence, and that the one time he caught a break- when he got a track scholarship to college, he blew it.

In many ways, this film has much in common with Martin Scorsese's 1982 masterpiece The King Of Comedy, save that- unlike that film's lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), Jimmy O'Brien is not a psychotic. He's not even a neurotic, simply a deluded schlemiel, although one suspects that he really does have a clue as to his life's miserable state. Eventually, Jimmy is fired from the grocery store for stealing, and works a series of shitty sales jobs, for a few years, before ending up working at a parking garage. In the meantime, he continually ignores his wife and daughter- not even staying for her birthday party, and after seven years of marriage Annie finally leaves him. She says she is dying, and one can believe it. Jimmy puts up little resistance, and bemoans this fact on stage, in increasingly dull monologues that often engender hecklers. It was one of his 'acts', with Annie watching him divulge personal tidbits of their personal and sex lives, which may have been the final straw for her.

When Granny finally dies, some time later, it's done in a nice, understated way, with Jimmy simply discovering her body, dead for hours, likely. There are no histrionics, simply Jimmy looking over at her in her chair, and taking a few minutes to realize that she is dead, and not in one of her stupors. She may have lived had Jimmy put her in a nursing home, when her Medicaid ran out- as a Medicaid worker recommended, but he refused, calling it 'no burden' to help her. It's a small point which humanizes an unlikable character, but which also shows his inability to make grownup decisions that are in the best interest of not only all, but especially another person. This is precisely why his marriage failed. It's also no wonder that he's infatuated with J.M. Barrie's story of Peter Pan, and names his daughter after its lead female protagonist, for he himself has never grown up.
His fondest memory of his Granny is the bedtime story she read him as a child. He recalls it because it was predictable, and never changed, and she read it to him night after night. Unwittingly, Jimmy has crafted a life that is doomed to keep on repeating his failures, although this is not a comfort. Or, perhaps it is, for Jimmy could well be a masochist who thrives on his own misery.

Eventually, near the film's end, there are some touching scenes of Jimmy with Wendy on a beach. At the end of the film, when Annie decided to move to Delaware, having found a new man, and takes Wendy with her, Jimmy rushes off to the train station - after his car dies, running like he did in high school, in what seems like a trite Hollywood ending that has been used in countless films from The Graduate on, but, when he sees Annie, he cannot approach her, says nothing, and they simply wave to each other, as she smiles at him, partly out of what was, but mostly because she's leaving his dead end life behind her. Jimmy is a loser - but not a born loser, for he has been the architect of his demise. But he has learnt enough in his miserable life to likely know that Annie is indeed better off without him in her life. It may not be a Hollywood ending, but it is a very realistic ending, and one that has alot of emotive power. Real life has no deus ex machinas, nor sappy endings, nor predictable plot twists, in it. One can pretty much predict what will happen to Jimmy O'Brien, because we all know people like him. He will grow lonelier and more bitter over time. He will be one of those people muttering under his breath of what could have been. The film wisely ends before we see this dour realism play out, and at the train station.

Another source of the film's power comes from the ordinary details of life that it picks up on and does not wave in one's face, but simply lets play out and accumulate in power. For instance, in one of Jimmy's routines, we hear him call Ray something of a retard- although Ray's really just an addlebrained pothead, as we see Ray unable to handle a stack of eggs with a hand truck. There are also funny scenes, such as Jimmy at an Indian fast food restaurant, or selling fireplaces, that are funny precisely because they are so realistic in their inanity. There are also wonderful little subliminal touches, such as the unspoken resentment Annie has for Granny, such as her having to keep the drapes closed because daylight hurts Granny's eyes. As a result, when the old lady dies, Annie is not at her funeral - a subtle touch that shows a good filmmaker and screenwriter at work. Another subtlety, that was lost on many critics, is the fact that Jimmy hops around from open mike to open mike, since we hear, later in the film, that the club he's at is not The Laughing Stock. Some critics have claimed that the film rings false because no club owner would let such a bad act as Jimmy O'Brien go on the stage for years. This is no doubt true; the critics just missed that Whaley slips that truth in under their noses. Heaven forfend that a critic might actually have to cogitate and not have a work of art's message manifestly tattooed across it. Another little touch that works well is that, despite Ray's and Jimmy's 'friendship,' they're really not that close, and not really friends at all. Jimmy just uses Ray throughout the whole film, and somewhere, one senses that Ray understands this, as well. For example, Ray doesn't know the date of Jimmy's anniversary with Annie and Jimmy doesn't know Ray's birthday, nor the fact that he broke up with his girlfriend. Again, these are subtly realistic touches that lesser films and filmmakers ignore in a screenplay, but which reveal important things about the characters in very subtle ways.

 The film is also a terrific and realistic portrayal of working class life- and never condescends to it, something that Hollywood tends to denigrate, over and again, with rampant stereotypes of goombahs and uneducated losers- think The King Of Queens. It also gives a far more realistic and deeper portrayal of life in New Jersey than any of the better known films of Kevin Smith, whose characters inhabit similar niches, but often in what is an over the top universe. And while this film and its lead character lack the power of, say Death Of A Salesman and Willy Loman, it's also a far more relatable portrait to the average blue collar worker. Jimmy is not the sort to take the cheap and melodramatic out of suicide. He will slowly fester for decades until he rots away permanently- onstage or not.

The DVD, by First Look Features, is sparse, with only a few trailers. It would have been interesting to hear Whaley's views on the film, especially the screenplay, and the source play from which it was adapted. The acting in the film is first rate. Whaley is perfect as Jimmy. Carla Gugino is terrific as Annie- the sort of girl that every guy wishes to bring home to mother (or Granny)- she's pretty, smart, and decent. Even Ethan Hawke is good as Ray. Lynn Cohen, as Granny, has less to do, but she's fine as the crotchety old lady. Jillian Stacom, as Wendy, is also quite good, for she never devolves into one of those cloying child caricatures that Hollywood films spoonfeed the public. The cinematography, by Michael Mayers, is adequate, but this film is not dependent upon visual razzle-dazzle, but the writing, which is first rate. The music in the film, especially some affecting piano pieces- the piano is the loneliest instrument, after all, by Robert Whaley and Tony Grimaldi, is first rate, yet the film suffers from a lack of greater vision. As well as it depicts the life of Jimmy O'Brien and his cohorts, that's all it does. It is a Woody Allen film without the laughs or depth, a more mundane Ingmar Bergman film without the probing psychology and symbolism, or a John Cassavetes film sans the extended pathos and art. With just a bit more depth in the writing, or a little more visual daring and symbolism, one might take Whaley for an American Bergman. Instead, The Jimmy Show is just a good solid little film, albeit realistic in the extreme.
In many ways, Jimmy O'Brien is like George Bailey, from It's A Wonderful Life, save for two things- the first is that he's a miserable person whose own misery has cost him everything. He has no Mr. Potter as antagonist, and although George Bailey's choices also result in his depression at the end of that film, all of his choices have been selfless, not selfish. Jimmy O'Brien, on the other hand, has been behind all of his failures, because he has tried to please no one but himself. The second is that Jimmy O'Brien is beyond help and hope. Even were a guardian angel, like Bailey's Clarence Oddbody, to intervene, Jimmy would never pay attention long enough to learn. He has no need for others' counsel, and cares not to hear it.  
In this way, The Jimmy Show is the ultimate realist film, for there are far more Jimmy O'Briens in the world than George Baileys. But, it is the life of the fictive Jimmy O'Brien that depresses one, not the film about him, for this little film can make one feel much better about the lives they've lived, not only because how well the portrait of him is crafted, but if only because a viewer is not as badly off as the lead character. How many DVD viewers lead lives that have far too much truck with aspects of the characters from this film? I would say too many- most of whom would not want to admit it, which is the answer as to why this film was so unfairly panned upon its release. Looking into a mirror, when one does not like what one sees, is always a downer, and The Jimmy Show is a filmic mirror for far too large a portion of an American audience for it to have ever had any great financial nor critical success. But, it is the failure to look at what the mirror reflects, rather than what the mirror is, that was the cause for much of the hostility that this good little film engendered. But, with that knowledge in mind, take a second glance into the looking glass of The Jimmy Show, and Jimmy O'Brien's life. It's worth a bit of redemption, if not for him nor you, then for art.

© Dan Schneider Feb 2007
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