Sometimes I wonder wherae Paul Rudd came from. I mean, who knew back when he was mugging for Alicia Silverstone and dealing with the romantic advances of a pre-makeover Brittany Murphy in Clueless that he’d go on to be one of the most consistently funny actors in Hollywood? Everybody was nuts for Silverstone back in the day, but we all picked the wrong horse on that one. A decade later, she’s done some awful movies and toplined a few failed TV series, while Rudd has turned in reliably hilarious performances in Wet Hot American Summer, Anchorman, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He even made “Friends” good again. He’s handsome but always downplays his looks, instead focusing on physical humor, razor-sharp line readings, and near-perfect deadpans. In first-time writer-director Billy Kent’s The Oh in Ohio, Rudd gives another strong comedic turn, this time tempered with a kind of sad, earnest humanity reminiscent of Matthew Broderick in Election. It might not be Rudd’s funniest role, but it’s certainly his most realistic to date.
Rudd plays Jack, high-school biology teacher and husband of Priscilla (Parker Posey). Jack is growing increasingly tired of his wife’s sexual frustration, namely her inability to climax. Priscilla works for the city of Cleveland in a vaguely defined PR role that requires her to help bring outside business to Ohio. She’s apparently a workaholic, though Kent never really shows it. In fact, Kent never really shows a lot of things: among others, Priscilla’s relationship with her assistant, Sherri (Miranda Bailey) is so thinly sketched as to be utterly useless. It’s as if Kent and co-writer Sarah Bird, another first-timer, felt they owed it to some kind of cinematic convention to include the ditzy secretary, the overbearing boss, and even the big presentation to foreign clients. This is a shame, because by the movie’s final half-hour, when it begins to explore more resonant themes of sex and relationships, Kent has exhausted the viewer’s good faith with an endless series of mildly cute but ultimately childish set pieces.
Posey is charming as ever but, for the first two acts, she and Rudd are in different films: While Jack moves into the garage and begins to prowl around in pursuit of sexual freedom, Priscilla embarks on her own quest of physical self-discovery. She visits an adult-toy shop to buy a vibrator and is actually propositioned by the clerk (Heather Graham), a plot twist that could only happen in sex comedies or straight-up porn. Before long, Priscilla is addicted to the device, and the rejection sends Jack out on his own for good. He gets an apartment in town and takes up an offer he received from one of his students, Kristen (Mischa Barton), and begins having an affair with her. It all feels just a little too absurd for the satire to click: Priscilla’s off having a mechanically induced party, while Jack sleeps with the nubile 18-year-old.
It gets better, or worse, depending on your tolerance for watered-down sexual humor: Later on, Priscilla stuffs her pager down her pants to see if it will function as an adequate substitute for the vibrator, only to be driven into a frenzy when it repeatedly goes off while she’s telling some random group of Dutch investors about the economic benefits of Cleveland. Believe it or not, it’s no funnier to see the scene than it is to type it out: Most of Kent’s jokes are a little too forced, and the best ones come when Rudd and Posey are allowed to be themselves and let the humor arise from their characters and not from gags that feel like rejects from an unmade Jenny McCarthy script. I don’t even want to talk about the just plain unfunny scene in which Priscilla attends a seminar run by Liza Minelli (sadly, a long way from Lucille 2 territory), who encourages Priscilla to take a look downstairs with the use of a handheld mirror.
The film only runs 90 minutes, and Kent kills most of the first hour by meandering through the loose plots, cutting between Priscilla’s goofy liberation tale and Jack’s more nuanced and much funnier story of a man who’s finally living life on his own terms. By the final third, though, Priscilla’s story has become more grounded and Jack’s has taken on a poignant edge: Priscilla strikes up and odd friendship with local businessman Wayne the Pool Guy (Danny DeVito), and Jack begins to realize that his relationship with Kristen is bound to come to a quick and unpleasant end. It’s in this final act that Kent manages to unify the stories he’s been telling all along and create something bigger, deeper, more complex, and much more emotionally significant. With Sherri as her wingman, Priscilla hits the town and sleeps with a small army of willing men, and even hooks up at one point with Graham’s character — an odd sidestep into collegiate experimentation that Kent can’t quite pull off — but she doesn’t experience pleasure from the act of sex until hooking up with Wayne one night in his pool (seriously, the screenplay sometimes feels like just a bunch of the expository scenes pulled from pornos). On the other hand, despite Kristen’s shouts of acclamation for Jack’s physical endowments and lovemaking abilities, she proves to be as flighty as he feared.
There are two moments in the film where Rudd lowers his mask of bravado just enough to lend some devastating humanity to Jack: The first is when he encounters Kristen with her father at a video store and finds out she’s going to Harvard. There’s a brief look in his eyes when he realizes that not only has she not told him about her acceptance but that her omission has some genuine ramifications for their future; it’s when he starts to grow up. The second is when he and Priscilla go out to dinner and he mentions the possibility of rekindling their relationship, to which she slowly shakes her head in the negative. He gets that growing-up look again, then raises his glass and says, “Well, here’s to you then.” All the while, Priscilla’s looking out the window at Wayne, who’s making her laugh like a kid. If only Kent had figured out earlier on how to mix pathos with humor and likability , perhaps The Oh in Ohio would have packed a little more punch. As it is, it feels like the batteries are dead.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.'Cause All I Ask For Is Instant Pleasure
Film | July 1, 2006 | Comments ()