An Appreciation of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

He stands, with perfect posture, brandishing a 2×4, a scimitar, a rail gun — searching for an endpoint to a tale test-screened and ghost-written until it’s been sapped of any life and coherence. And yet there he is, a presence curiously untainted by all the Hollywood accoutrements. His physical solidity is continually undermined by a penchant for self-parody — this whole hero bit is absurd, ain’t it (as he snaps a goon’s arm in two). So he flashes his shark’s grin, grits those incisors, and does what he can. And what he does is carry a film — not into greatness, but at least to hearty pulp, the kind that leaves a bewildered smile on the face of audience members, because the effort and love were there if the material was not. This isn’t the age of the action hero — times are too depressing, too conspiratorial — but The Rock soldiers on, his solid sobriquet reflecting his endurance of the industry that lacks an Aldrich or Fuller to expand upon his voluminous gifts.

Today he’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, character turned man, as the grip of huckster/genius Vince McMahon loosens and more sober screenplay choices open up. Next is the male weepie “Gridiron Gang”, a bit of football uplift that leaves enough sharp edges to make the plot-mush go down smoother. The Rock inhabits the role of the coach convincingly, the troubled kids turning to organized sport mirrors his own youthful misadventures, and his craft betters with each turn of the spool. He cries with grit and yells with tenderness. Legitimacy might not improve his films — but he’s courting it whole-heartedly. He wants to be liked — that’s what made him a star in the WWE/F. His showmanship was unparalleled, each rote punch and kick caricatured into a shimmering shimmy of exaggerated power. Every motion underlined, but not put in quotes — because this fight, while choreographed, was serious for the fans and therefore serious to him — no one worked harder in the ring, took as many bumps. The Rock is a stickler for realism, at least when it comes to blows — listen to him boast on “The Scorpion King” or “Walking Tall” commentary track on the commitment to those sequences — the consultations with Army Special Forces types and doing his own stunts. His background forbids anything else.

This sticks out — the fact he has a background. Today stars want to be stars as kids — all actors know is acting. The Rock is an exception — he made his living playing football in the Canadian Football League until a bum shoulder forced retirement. Then he played cities all over the world as “The Rock” in the ring, honing performance, timing, expression. Every move he makes speaks to this experience, adds weight to when he puts the pads on in “Gridiron Gang” to challenge a kid to knock him down (and even this dramatic moment is undercut by the sight of his frame bursting out of the high-schoolers jersey).

The films got better — “The Rundown” (2003) was graced by Christopher Walken’s cracked monologues, while The Rock further honed his self-deprecating muscle-man persona, aided by the jibes of Sean William Scott. Another wrinkle — he refuses to use guns (until the corpse piling climax), a principled stand also taken up in “Walking Tall” (2004), his most emblematic work. It contains quick and dirty fight scenes, campy humor, and a rigid belief in the value of hard work — a bizarre combination embodied in the smirking, chiseled visage of the man himself. Johnny Knoxville takes over the Scott role in cutting him down to size.

He internalized the sarcastic conscience of Scott/Knoxville in the “Get Shorty” sequel “Be Cool” (2005), explicitly parodying the self-image that he had already so thoroughly deconstructed in straighter films. But his performance is brilliant — as gay bodyguard Elliot Wilhelm, he outs his love of performance, no longer masked under blood and guts. No, here he just emotes — spectacularly so in his one-man rendition of a scene from “Bring It On,” playing both sides of a cheerleader bitch session. It dwarfs the rest of the film by its utter fearlessness — what comparable box-office draw would have the confidence to pull off such a feminizing stunt? It’s remarkable, and his version of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” might even top it.

“Doom” (2005) was cheap red meat for his core audience, bland, workmanlike, and thoroughly forgettable (despite the fact his hero turns psychopathic villain) — but then he went and starred in Richard Kelley’s infamous “Southland Tales” (2006), an apocalyptic satire so derided by critics at Cannes it may never see the light of day. He plays an action star stricken with amnesia — a further elaboration of Elliot Wilhelm, the chiseled body stricken by an identity crisis. Let’s hope Sony doesn’t mutilate it too badly.

The Rock is the ideal post-modern action star — a self-referential comedian who breaks down his image at every turn yet manages to satisfy our (my) primitive urges for beat downs with earnest conviction and immense physical prowess. He’s utterly fascinating and completely ignored, but hopefully “Gridiron Gang” will turn the expected buck and some middlebrow maestro (Ridley Scott? Paul Haggis?) will cast him in some piece of revolting Oscar bait. With a modicum of control over his projects afterward, the matinee adventure film, driven by character and wit, would ease back into theaters, and our afternoons would be richer for years to come.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.