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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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