Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hazzard-ous Thinking

“How’d you like to spend the night in the Morgue?” – One of them Duke boys to the other.

Yes, The Rued Morgue has hit an all-time low by pontificating on not only The Dukes of Hazzard, but also a straight-to-DVD Hazzard movie. It’s not too late to back out if you choose.

Like many a dude my age, I spent a lot of time watching the Duke boys thwart Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Now don’t get me wrong – I didn’t enjoy those countless misspent hours, but the show was sandwiched between The Incredible Hulk and Dallas. What was I to do? Friday night TV was all about that CBS block of programming and I was just goin’ with the flow. (Check out this programming grid from 1980 to see the even lamer alternatives. Bear in mind – I was 9.)

And so two years ago prevailing nostalgia mixed with a smattering of grim fascination led me to the movie theatre with buddy Bart (who’s my age and went through the same routines back in the day) and then 12-year old son Jake (for whom I’d screened a few of the TV installments so he’d have an idea of what not to expect). What might Jessica Simpson bring to the legacy of Dukedom? Needless to say, both Bart and I were totally annoyed by the entire affair. What was mildly surprising is that even Jake, based on what little he’d seen of the original, thought the retread was weak.

The real problem with that film is a matter of simple character dynamics. It ignored the basic formula that worked for years: Bo, Luke and Daisy Duke (John Schneider, Tom Wopat and Catherine Bach), despite being good ol’ country bumpkins, were actually pretty sharp individuals. Their smarts and skills came in handy when foiling the typically ridiculous plans of Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) and Sheriff Coltrane (James Best) – both of whom were comical numbnuts[1].

The movie reversed this entirely by making the Dukes a couple of idiotic buffoons – presumably to play up on the comedic “talents” of stars Seann William Scott & Johnny Knoxville. By contrast, Burt Reynolds’ Hogg and M.C. Gainey’s Coltrane were ruthless villains who weren’t even remotely amusing or fun to watch. The third of the film’s offenses was the recreation of Daisy into a vapid bimbo who had only one thing to rely on—wait a minute…make that two things. If you were ever any kind of Hazzard devotee, chances are you hated this film, too. But I don’t think the movie was made for people like me. Indeed the casting suggests otherwise and the film’s box office take (over $80 mill!) and popularity proved that you can’t keep a good Duke down, no matter how shitty the material.

Which leads me to the straight-to-DVD prequel, unoriginally titled The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning. Hopefully you are wondering: Did he actually rent this shitty movie and if so, why? Yes I did and because two words hit like lightning bolts to the head upon seeing the DVD cover: Blog Entry.

But it turns out that The Beginning is not really a shitty movie -- or least not nearly as shitty as its predecessor, a fact that quite frankly floored me. Its overall tone has far more in common with the original series and it’s actually got the vague semblance of something that looks like a script, which is about the most that can be asked given the material that inspired it.

It mind-bogglingly gets some things very correct. One of them is the casting of Harland Williams as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane. If you know Harland Williams, you know that there’s no way in Hazzard Hell his Coltrane is anything like M. C. Gainey’s -- an actor, by the way, whom I generally (General Lee?) like. But I like Harland for very different reasons and he was an inspired choice, although he’s admittedly something of an acquired taste. He’s a weird comic actor whose shtick is pretty much unlike anyone else’s (one of his great performances was the whacked-out hitchhiker Ben Stiller picked up in There’s Something About Mary and before that there was Half Baked…). If you like Williams, you will like his Coltrane, regardless of whatever else you may think of the movie. It may even be worth the price of admission alone to watch him attempt all manner of weirdness whilst perpetually holding onto a basset hound puppy (the young Flash), and a DVD bonus feature centered around Williams may be more entertaining than the movie itself.

Second on the roster of semi-rightness is April Scott’s Daisy Duke. Unlike what was written for Simpson she actually has (gasp!) a character with which to work. As this is an origin story of sorts, Daisy’s supposed to be virginal and chaste in the first half -- which is portrayed in the typically banal Hollywood fashion of dressing her in loose-fitting clothing, pony-tailed hair and nerdy eyeglasses, all of which completely fail to disguise the hottie-in-waiting beneath. When she finally dons her tight-fittin’ jeanshorts, the results owe far more to Catherine Bach than the ex-Mrs. Lachey. Make no mistake – Scott’s in no danger of having to carve out time to polish an Oscar in the foreseeable future, but then again Bach was hardly Meryl Streep. Daisy is as Daisy does and at least this Daisy’s got long brown locks to match her long tanned legs. Those hoping to get a glimpse of Scott in the buff will have to look elsewhere.

Joel Moore’s Cooter bears no resemblance to Ben Jones’ character from the series, and yet I couldn’t help but dig on what this guy was doing. He’s projects a genuine sort of "redneck eccentricity" and delivers dialogue that would’ve fallen flat coming out of a lesser actor’s mouth. You might remember Moore as the main character’s best bud Bardo in Art School Confidential. I’ve not seen much of this guy’s other work, but I predict he’s headed for much bigger places within the next couple years.

So where does the film go wrong? The movie smacks of two film worlds colliding: Hazzard county circa 1981 were it invaded by a sorority party from your average modern teen sex comedy. I viewed the unrated version, which features a fair amount of exposed tit and ass, none of which advance the “plot”. Normally I’d say the more the merrier, but in this case it smacks of gratuitousness. I’d hazard a guess that the R-rated version is actually a better Dukes movie if you’re looking for fare that might take you back in time rather than keeping you in the here and now. But if you're just looking for rampant, exposed sweater meat, you should probably check out the unrated cut.

In between what the movie gets right and wrong is everything else. Relative unknowns Jonathan Bennett and Randy Wayne play Bo and Luke respectively (and a quick glance at their IMDB profiles oddly reveals their hair colors were reversed for the movie). They’re both just sorta there, and do what they’re called upon to do, which is be Duke boys. It’s too easy to romanticize what Schneider and Wopat did back in the day, and such idealization only comes from years of amassed screentime. These new guys get all of 90 minutes to make an impression -- at their best they help erase the stink of the Bo and Luke from the theatrical outing.

Christopher McDonald, forever cast as the smarmy asshole, plays a decent Hogg. His portrayal exists in a sort of neverwhere between Reynolds and Booke: sometimes he’s ruthless and smart and other times he’s a total boob. He’s at least been given a bit of tubby padding to accentuate his Hoggness, however I remain stymied by the continued failure to just cast a fat guy in the role. Surely this is a no-brainer, right? Perhaps the biggest surprise was the presence of little Miss Audrey Horne herself, Sherilyn Fenn, as Hogg’s oversexed MILF of a wife Lulu who subs for Stifler's Mom. I’d be tempted to apply “What a desperate actor will do for money” to Fenn, if not for the fact Willie Nelson wins that award. Uncle Jesse is the lone link to the '05 movie -- proof that anyone can get Willie for their movie if the price is right.

Above all else, due credit’s got to be given to screenwriter Shane Morris, whose IMDB resume reveals the film as his only credit. The guy is either a fan or did a fair amount of homework and for the most part gets the series’ mythology (so to speak) right. In fact, one of the script’s twists involves the reveal of the concealed lineage of a particular character – but viewers who know their Duke trivia will see it coming. (It cannot be stressed enough exactly how low my expectations were going into this thing.) He also peppers the script with one down home colloquialism after another – some work, some don’t, but he probably did his best given what he had to work with. I’d imagine most of the titty action was even shoehorned into the script over the course of various meetings with producers and the like, as it tends to lack the focus of the rest of the movie.

[1] An inane, useless, “allow me to split the world into two categories” theory: There are two types of people who watched The Dukes of Hazzard – the type who tuned in for Bo, Luke and Daisy and the type who tuned in for the amazing comic double-act of Hogg and Rosco; I was always in the second category. It’s possible there’s a third category who tuned in for the plots, but I’d like to believe natural selection has taken care of them and they no longer exist.

And now, for those of you who've stuck with me through this ordeal, here's a completely gratuituous shot of April Scott sans her Daisy Dukes:

(I hunted for sexy pics of Harland Williams for the ladies, but alas they were nowhere to be found.)