Technology writer Steven Johnson recently published a book titled Everything Bad is Good for You that is rightfully stirring up a lot of debate, mostly among pop-culture critics who see the book’s thesis as some sort of misguided intellectual excuse to justify their otherwise lazy-man’s occupation (I make no such excuses: I am not only proudly lazy; I’m decidedly anti-intellectual — a byproduct, perhaps, of not being smart enough to make substantive justifications for my sloth while simultaneously wiping the pizza cheese from my goddamn chin). Johnson’s polemic posits that the products of today’s pop culture actually make you smarter, an argument that relies heavily on his own observations. For instance, he compares the elaborate multilevel plotlines of current hit shows like “24” and “The Sopranos,” and the fact-filled dramas like “West Wing,” and “E.R.” to the pivotal shows of the 1970s, like “Starsky and Hutch,” which was more about huge whiteboy afros and fast cars than rapid-fire dialogue and multifaceted narratives. Johnson reckons that the complexities behind today’s video games (which often have instruction manuals that are longer than a number of Dickens’ novels) and television shows actually tone and strengthen one’s mental mechanisms, providing one with the relevant intellectual skills to deal with the complexities of modern life.
Johnson’s thesis makes a lot of sense, especially when one considers the amount of information a teenager has to digest these days to get through a 16-hour video game or even absorb the number of pop culture allusions that “The Simpsons” throws at them in one 22-minute episode. It’s not surprising then that the television, publishing, and video game industries would try to serve that need by creating products that satisfy a teenager’s intellectual hunger. What I don’t understand, however, is why Hollywood hasn’t caught up to this trend; why is it that filmmakers still insist on dumbing-down their products, taking often interesting premises and working them down to their lowest common denominator, all the while refusing to stray from tired, mindless Hollywood formulas. Is it too much to believe that a 14-year-old kid ― hopped up on 700 pages of Harry Potter ― could possibly understand the intricacies and motivations behind an Adam Sandler character without having them spelled out in skull-splitting, mundane detail?
The 2005 version of the 1974 prison comedy, The Longest Yard, perfectly illustrates the backwards intellectual momentum that Hollywood seems to foster. The original Burt Reynolds film was dark and slow-paced, punctuated by frequent periods of dead air, allowing the audience to discern the motivations behind the characters without making them explicit. Both films follow the same storyline, but 2005’s version fills that dead air with lame jokes, generally premised upon those very racial stereotypes the original version was so careful to discourage. The original version was about racial pride and oppressed prisoners regaining their dignity by rising up against their tormenters, while the updated version seems to exploit cultural bravado, emasculating it with ridiculous stereotypes and sodomy jokes. I’m not saying the 1974 film was a great, intellectual masterpiece; it was, after all, a movie about a football game starring Burt fucking Reynolds. I’m just saying that the periods of silence in the original film says a lot more about the characters and their inner thoughts than does another goddamn joke about how black people don’t like to play hockey, and I don’t think it’s a too much to ask for the intellectually capable younger generation to make that distinction.
The Longest Yard follows Paul Crewe, a has-been quarterback banned from the NFL for a point-shaving scheme six years prior. After a drunken meltdown with his large-chested girlfriend (Courtney Cox, still showing the mammarian effects of pregnancy) that leads to a televised high-speed chase, Crewe is sent to the hoosegow for three years, where he is recruited by the warden (James Cromwell, playing it remarkably straight-faced) to put together a prison football team to face off against the semi-pro team of guards. Charged with the task, Crewe assembles a rag-tag outfit of former NFL players (Michael Irvin, Bill Romanowski), a WWE wrestler (Steve Nash), and a rapper (Nelly), a barefoot running back with the speed “of a runaway slave.”
Burt Reynolds — who played the original Paul Crewe — shows up here as the team’s coach, Nate Scarborough, injecting a much-needed irascibility and offering the film its only acting ability. Chris Rock plays the team’s wise-cracking manager, Caretaker, which, unfortunately, is not the role that Rock has for so long deserved. As in all of his films, Rock is once again saddled with delivering racially-charged jokes pulled out of a bad stand-up routine, which more often than not just sound awkwardly appended into a scene to get Rock some time in the movie’s trailer. (I do give props to the director Peter Segal, however, who doesn’t cop out on the original film’s “Caretaker Incident,” even though he unwisely tries to extract some levity out of it.)
And then there is Adam Sandler. Despite his former role as a safety (The Waterboy), Sandler’s physique makes him wholly unconvincing as a superstar football player; mostly, he just looks kind of embarrassed to be seen playing Crewe in front of the icon who originated the role. Worse still, he seems to have lost his sole talent for playing himself, never once giving us a trademark Sandler outburst, preferring instead to poorly imitate Reynolds version of Crewe, a mistake for an actor who lacks the charm, swagger, and braggadocio of Burt.
Ironically, in this post-Abu Ghraib world it is the convicted murderers, rapists, and nihilists who are celebrated here, while their abusive, redneck guards are ridiculed, all building up to the final football game, an exercise in hip-hop fueled violence, product placement, and split-screen action scenes. Still, it is on the field where 2005’s The Longest Yard actually manages to better the original. As an anti-intellectual, pigskin-lovin’ American with a penchant for bone-crunching football, AC/DC anthems, and trick plays, The Longest Yard didn’t disappoint me, dragging out everything short of the old hook ‘n’ ladder, with a final deception worthy of even Peyton Manning’s occasional football tomfoolery (fans of the Colts QB may recognize the final play). It doesn’t come anywhere near Oliver Stone’s depiction of violence in Any Given Sunday or even Peter Berg’s stylistic turn in Friday Night Lights, but there is enough in The Longest Yard so that — even if it doesn’t exercise your brain cells — it at least raises one’s testosterone level a notch above what one could achieve watching an episode of “Starsky and Hutch.”
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
The Longest Yard / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()