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Shelf Life: “White Men Can’t Jump”

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Looking at even the trailer for Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” it’s hard to believe there was a time when Woody Harrelson was not looked at as primarily a dramatic actor. Certainly, in the last ten or fifteen years he has cultivated an undeniable pedigree as an intense, thoughtful, and entertaining performer to watch. But coming off of TV’s “Cheers” in the late 1980s, Harrelson first ventured into films with a reputation for being a loveable dimwit, or at least an actor who could play one convincingly.

In 1992, when he began to migrate to leading roles in theatrical work, Harrelson made the shrewd decision to star opposite a similarly budding actor, Wesley Snipes, in the film “White Men Can’t Jump.” Its writer-director, Ron Shelton, was an established purveyor of sports-themed stories, particularly ones that danced on an edge between comedy and drama, and the project could theoretically showcase Harrelson’s acting chops without challenging audiences to look at him too much differently than they already knew him from his small-screen work. But was the film successful? And more immediately, does it still work today in all of the ways in which it intended? That’s what this week’s “Shelf Life” set out to determine.


The Facts

Released on March 27, 1992, “White Men Can’t Jump” was a modest but significant success at the box office, earning some $90 million in receipts and firmly establishing Harrelson as a star – on the rise, anyway. The film received only minor nods from critics groups, including a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Rosie Perez as Harrelson’s girlfriend Gloria, and currently maintains a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The success of the film not only led to bigger roles for Harrelson in films like “Indecent Proposal” and “Natural Born Killers,” but an eventual reunion with Snipes in the 1996 film “Money Train,” which was a critical and commercial failure.


What Still Works

The first 45 minutes of “White Men Can’t Jump” aren’t just terrific, they are the main if not only reason that the film ever earned affection from viewers. Harrelson and Snipes’ constant one-upmanship, as much on a personal level as a racial one, creates an invigorating, imminently watchable chemistry that propels the film forward towards deeper waters. Both Harrelson and Snipes do phenomenal work, being both convincing athletes and charismatic con men, and the rapport they create as actors (much less between their characters) forms one of the more remarkable on screen pairs possibly of all time.

Meanwhile, Rosie Perez manages to channel her force-of-nature personality into a character who’s not just palpably intelligent, but complex, interesting and sympathetic. While managing to be phenomenally sexy (some might say despite her Chihuahua ‘Rican accent), she infuses Gloria with believable substance, especially when she has to sort of acknowledge or observe the film’s underlying themes, and yet creates a credibly unpredictable companion for Harrelson’s bullheaded Billy. As she issues perhaps conventionally female-irrational demands of him (“I don’t want you to get me a glass of water, I want you to sympathize with my thirst”), she somehow avoids being a purely cliched, crazy-woman character, and makes us understand why the two of them are together – and why it’s so hard for her to give him up.

In terms of the basketball – both as a driving force and its cinematic depiction – Shelton gives the sport an immediacy and an energy that sustains the audience even after they’ve seen several games between the two protagonists, or between the two protagonists and their various opponents. Shelton makes it look fun, easy and most of all convincing, showing us not only that Harrelson and Snipes are playing ball themselves, but they’re actually good at it.


What Doesn’t Work

Almost everything after the first 45 minutes of the story feels like a slow and steady decline into redundancy and abrasiveness. Where the friction between Billy and Sidney kept the film alive and fresh in the opening scenes, it later feels too relentless and too acrimonious to be enjoyable, especially when, say, Billy continues to shit-talk their opponents before, during and after the big competition that leads into the final act. While that may have been the film’s point – there is a time when these “movie characters” become real people – it undermines our sympathies for both characters, especially Billy, which is later augmented not just by one bad choice, but a series of remarkably awful decisions. I think there’s three separate scenes in which Billy has to tell Gloria that he lost all of their money, or his money, or some nest egg of theirs that both had worked together to build, and at a certain point, the viewer tunes out on the possibility of him being redeemed.

Additionally, though there’s something admirable about Shelton’s determination to give both characters equal weight, or at least their own complete story, that choice does the film’s narrative momentum a great disservice: by the time the two of them reunite to play in the street ball tournament, the film feels like it should be winding down, and wrapping up some of the story strands it introduces. But there’s still Billy’s bad decision, his re-connection with Gloria via her appearance on “Jeopardy” (which inexplicably he never explains was his doing), the showdown with the “legends,” and the coda afterward. One might be able to chalk this up to the need to bring to fruition the film’s title – perhaps a studio exec was like, “why doesn’t this white man get to jump eventually?” – but this story doesn’t demand two hours to be told, and at that length there needs to be more. Especially since Shelton overplays his hand by having Gloria more or less explicitly state the subtext of the film, venture into a semiserious, self-reflective spiral for Billy, and then try to pull back out to re-engage in the more lighthearted tone of the first segment of the film.


The Verdict

“White Men Can’t Jump” was always a film I had problems with upon its original release, but a recent viewing only confirmed the legitimacy of those criticisms: Shelton engages in a sense of poetry with the subtext that its set-up cannot sustain, and when he tries to apply it to the actual story in a more serious way, it feels incongruous with what happens before, and then after when he’s trying to crowd-please with a charming finale. Overall, the film is flawed at best, featuring three great performances and even greater chemistry that is utilized (for a while) to incredible effect, but in a narrative that weighs too much by half and story that’s too long and convoluted to support it.

Leave your own thoughts on “White Men Can’t Jump” in the comments below.

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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