The Queen of Versailles


The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel, power couple.

(2012) Documentary (Magnolia) Jackie Siegel, David Siegel, Virginia Nebab, Lauren Greenfield, Richard Siegel, Oscar Goodman, Tina Martinez. Directed by Lauren Greenfield

 

The American Dream; we all have it to at least one extent or another. We want to be free of the cares of the world;  we want to have the freedom to do what we want when we want. That’s the freedom that money and wealth provide. Not all of us want to live extravagantly but most of us would like to at least live comfortably.

At first glance, the Siegels seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream. David is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-owned timeshare company in the world. He is a billionaire many times over. He lives here in Orlando in the exclusive Isleworth community, where such celebrities as Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal live.

He is married to Jackie, a beauty queen, former model and incongruously a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. She’s beautiful, gracious and vivacious and 30 years younger than he. She’s also quite fertile – she and David have seven children together and are raising an eighth, the teenage daughter of Jackie’s sister.

The 26,000 square foot home – what Jackie terms a “starter mansion” – isn’t large enough for the Siegels however, so they set out to build a new one on the shores of a lake with a nightly view of the fireworks over in Disney. It just started out being a larger home but as the Siegels began adding in all the amenities they wanted – from a bowling alley to a functional baseball diamond which would double as a parking lot for their event parties – it soon became larger than life. When completed, it would be the largest private home under a single roof in America. The Siegels, who were inspired by the architecture of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas as well as the summer palace of the French royalty in France named it after the latter, Versailles, without a hint of irony.

They are riding at the top and throw lavish parties for the Miss America pageant, a program close to both of their hearts – Jackie as a former beauty pageant winner and David…well, as a man who likes beautiful women. Then comes 2008 and the economic meltdown. David’s business depends heavily on loans from banks and when they’re no longer lending, his business suffers. Suddenly, the Siegels are forced to cut back. Their staff goes from more than twenty down to four.

It turns out to be something of a trauma. David is forced to lay off workers, clearly an act that bothers him very much. When Jackie goes back to her hometown of Binghamton, New York she doesn’t fly on the private jet – she has to go on a commercial airliner which is startling to her children who wonder why so many people are waiting in line at the airport. Shopping trips are to Wal*Mart instead of to the high end retailers of Gucci and Tiffany. Construction on Versailles is halted and Westgate’s new centerpiece property, the Planet Hollywood Towers becomes the object of desire for banks who almost want David to go into foreclosure while he stubbornly tries to hold on to everything.

David boasts early on that he was responsible for George W. Bush getting elected, although he declines to give specifics, only giving us a bit of a twinkling eye and a wink about quasi-legalities. The irony there is that Dubya would preside over the meltdown that would caused him so much heartache.

Looking at all the above, it might be easy to think of the Siegels as arrogant one percenters who got what they deserved but I didn’t wind up seeing them that way. Jackie has a heart as big as they come, and she’s completely disingenuous. Sure, she is ditzy in places but we all have brain farts from time to time but she’s genuine. She’s a lot smarter than she sometimes lets on – between the cleavage and the Botox you probably get the opinion that she’s all sizzle and no steak – but I get the feeling that she uses her looks as a defense. People probably have underestimated Jackie her entire life. Brains can be a curse for a beautiful woman, if you subscribe to the ignorance is bliss theory.

David shows signs of stress near the end of the movie which is understandable, although in interviews he says that it was due to the presence of the filmmakers, whom he has since leveled a lawsuit at for misrepresenting the financial state of his company, which he claims is far more solvent than what the filmmakers let on. To be fair, Greenfield made it seem like Westgate was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy at times which, considering that David is still despite everything that has occurred, a wealthy man, seems unlikely.

The story of David and Jackie is our story, believe it or not. They may not necessarily be able to relate to the problems of the middle class well but by the same token we don’t really relate to theirs. The prospect of losing things you dreamed of and worked for is just as painful for a billionaire as it is for you and me. David and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of our politics, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a decent man. Jackie and I don’t have the same ideas when it comes to shopping but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good woman.

I wound up wishing the Siegels well, which was something I didn’t expect. It’s very easy to paint all the top one percent with the same brush and declare them evil because they’ve had amazing success. I have no doubt David Siegel earned his success many times over – even in his 70s he is a driven, hard worker. I can’t begrudge anyone success – after all, it’s what I aspire to myself . I just begrudge those who have it working to prevent others from achieving it. Those that buy politicians and get them to enact laws designed to keep the super wealthy rich and the rest of us in our place as they see it, well, those are the actions I can’t stand. Those who simply want to live their lives in the lap of the luxury that they can afford, while I can’t help but envy them I can’t bring myself to hate them. After all, to a starving family in East Africa I probably appear to be rich as Croesus. I could probably be doing more to help them than I do. However, I would never support laws that would remove programs that they need to survive so that I could keep every penny of my wealth. I would hope more of the one percent would feel that way. I certainly hope David and Jackie Siegel do.

REASONS TO GO: A cautionary tale. You wind up liking the Siegels even if you come in wanting to despise them.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much dog poop. Hard to feel sympathy for the Siegels.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film crew had extraordinary access to the Siegels, staying in their home several days every month for nearly three years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”

CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION LOVERS: Throughout the film, we see the Siegels attitude of more is better; they aren’t shy about enjoying their wealth (not that any of us would be either if we had that kind of money); shopping trips – even to Wal*Mart – are epic excursions. They have a private jet, a fleet of limos and enormous closets full of clothes although David probably doesn’t – he seems a little bit more down to earth when it comes to his cash.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Advertisement

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt practice their Blues Brothers routine.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Geer, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh, Katheryn Winnick, Kate Jennings Grant, Kimberly Scott, Nikki Deloach, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold. Directed by Edward Zwick

We’re obsessed by love and its close physical cousin, sex. We write songs about it, make movies about it, write reams of poems and self-help books about it, and pray for it in our most fervent nights of loneliness. We’ve even tried to make drugs that will improve it, but in the end the human heart cannot be saved by any pills or salve.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy that can sell anything. He is suave, sure of himself, charming and handsome. He can sell stereo equipment – or himself as a bed partner, and does both with equal success. Well, one more than the other to be sure.

After being fired from his latest job for sleeping with the manager’s girlfriend (in the storage room in the back to make things worse), he has to face his parents (Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh). His dad is a successful doctor in Chicago as is his sister (Gold). His brother Josh (Gad) is a software geek whose IPO has made him wealthy and whose trophy wife has made him crazy. Jamie, a chronic underachiever who dropped out of med school, is a disappointment.

Josh gets him an interview at Pfizer and Jamie does well enough to get a job in the heartland (I hear Ohio although the movie is filmed mostly in Pittsburgh and environs) pimping Zoloft for Bruce Winston (Platt), who dreams of a promotion to Chicago where he may spend more time with his family. He recognizes that Jamie might just be the guy to get him there.

The tough nut to crack here is Dr. Stan Knight (Azaria), a dedicated Prozac guy who is tight with Trey (Macht), the matinee idol ex-Marine rep who sells it. After being rebuffed time and time again about placing free samples in the doctor’s pharmacy, he at last wins Dr. Knight with a thousand dollar check that allows Jamie to “shadow” Dr. Knight for a day. It is then that he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), a 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient who needs her meds replaced. She also has a blotch on her breast, which she shows to the good doctor – and Jamie, who is introduced to her as an intern. When she later finds out he is a pharmaceutical rep, she hits the roof. However, the charming Jamie is taken by her and manages to sooth her enough to get an invite for coffee. This leads to frenzied sex on her living room floor.

Thus begins a strange courtship that both agree will be strictly physical. Jamie is perfectly all right with that – Maggie is a tiger in the bedroom (or any other place the urge to fornicate takes them) and a no strings attached situation is perfect for him. Maggie has her own reasons – she doesn’t want to get close to someone only to have them leave once they figure out how exactly what being in love with a Parkinson’s patient entails. It’s happened to her before, after all.

Jamie is struggling as a rep until Pfizer comes out with a new wonder drug – a little blue pill called Viagra. Once that comes out, Jamie’s career is blazing. He is writing more prescriptions than the company can keep up with, which is just fine with them. He is certainly on the fast track for Chicago, and he has an in with Dr. Knight who is a wannabe ladies man which Jamie can certainly relate to – and assist with.

In the meantime, his relationship with Maggie has taken a strange turn – he’s fallen in love with her. It’s never happened to him before, a man who has committed to nothing or nobody before in his life. Now that he has, he doesn’t know what to do. For Maggie’s part, every instinct in her is screaming to get out of this relationship but against her better judgment she is falling for him too. She has to wonder what is going to get in between them first – her illness or Jamie’s career.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, things go great until either a misunderstanding, a pre-arranged event or a lie get in between them, boy wins back girl in the final reel. However, this isn’t a romantic comedy per se. What it really is about dealing with obstacles.

Director Zwick has some pretty big canvas films on his resume (Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) all of which are among my favorite films of the past two decades. He is also one of the creators of the TV series “Thirtysomething” which I think is closer in tone to this movie which is kind of odd because I really didn’t like “Thirtysomething” – I found it whiny. So why did I like this movie?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost are the performances of the leads. Gyllenhaal has made a number of really good movies (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, October Sky) but really hasn’t gotten a multi-layered role that he can truly sink his teeth into until now and he does very well with it. Jamie is basically a good guy wrapped up in layers of self-loathing and oversexed frat boy marked by an ambition to prove his father wrong and a willingness to go through people instead of around them to get what he wants.

As marvelous as Gyllenhaal is, he takes a backseat to Hathaway here. This is her coming out party as a serious actress after years of Disney Channel-esque roles. The potential she hints at in Rachel Getting Married is realized here. She is a scared and lonely woman who desperately wants to reach out and be held but realizes that nobody will want the baggage that comes with her. The pain is palpable and so is the compassion, and at every turn you are simply taken by her. It’s easy to see why Jamie falls in love with her; half the men in the audience would be too.

There is a good deal of sexuality in this movie; in that sense it is honest and true to its own convictions. While the kind of nudity and sex that is shown in this movie was common in the 70s, it is relatively unusual in 21st century Hollywood. Of particular note is that the sex and nudity are germane to the story and the characters, not merely inserted for titillation purposes (forgive the pun). I admire Zwick for having the courage to stick to his guns for the movie; it couldn’t have been easy to convince the studio to allow it and it certainly must have been difficult to get it past the MPAA who are notoriously rough on sex scenes as opposed to violence lately.

Ambition and tenderness can be opposing forces, but one can be a great motivator for the other as well. This is a movie about a real relationship, one that doesn’t go smoothly but could be the salvation of both parties involved. Yes, there is a bit of Hollywood in the mix – too good to be true syndrome – but nonetheless the relationship at the heart of the movie rings true. That’s more than I can say for the great majority of movie romances today, so when you find a good one, you mark it as precious. This isn’t mindless entertainment by any means – a wrenching scene when Jamie meets the husband (Friedman) of a Parkinson’s patient in the advanced stages will cure you of that notion. He details to Jamie what he can expect and tells him in no uncertain terms that his advice to him is to get out of the relationship while he still can. It’s the best scene in the film that doesn’t involve Hathaway.  This is a very good movie that is a little bit flawed to be great but nonetheless it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Hathaway that is worth seeing on its own. You might miss this one among the more hyped films like Burlesque and Little Fockers but this one might be the one you should see.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, as well as fine supporting performances by Platt, Gad and Azaria. Takes a good hard look at the cost of loving someone with a degenerative illness.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really the hard-hitting look at the pharmaceutical industry that the book is. Swings wildly between the romantic elements, the drama and the comedy and never really takes a stab at any of them.

FAMILY VALUES: You will see a lot of female breasts and most of them are Anne Hathaway’s. There is also Jake Gyllenhaal’s tush for those keeping track of celebrity flesh. There are also a whole lot of bad words as well as plenty of sexual innuendo not to mention actual sex. In short, probably okay for raging teen hormones but not for those who might not understand the ramifications of sex quite yet.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy. His book is a non-fiction account of his time as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer. After the book came out, Reidy – who was then working as a salesman for a different pharmaceutical firm – was fired from his job.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of intimate movie that might make for a peculiar date night, but it also could be enjoyed just as easily at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Role Models


Role Models

Ken Jeong points out that it's good to be the king; Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Paul Rudd are chagrinned to find it's not good to be serfs.

(Universal) Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jane Lynch, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Jeong. Directed by David Wain

With the popularity of comedies produced/directed/written/overseen/obliquely referred to by Judd Apatow, it is inevitable that there will be copycat comedies trying to milk the same cow. However, as any good comedy writer will tell you, a good comedy isn’t just stringing a whole bunch of jokes together, unless you’re writing Airplane.

Danny Donahue (Rudd) has been in a foul mood for about eight years now. He is stuck in a dead-end job pimping energy drinks to bored high school kids under the guise of an anti-drug crusade; he has drunk enough of these drinks to make his urine change color permanently. His sales partner Wheeler (Scott) dresses like a Minotaur (the mascot of the drink), talks incessantly in motivational poster sound bites, and has a libido the size of Texas and Alaska, combined.

His temperament hasn’t gone unnoticed by Beth (Banks), his girlfriend who he just proposed to. She can’t imagine staying with a downer like Danny for another minute, much less the rest of her life. She dumps him, which does nothing to soften Danny’s mood.

After wrecking the company vehicle (a kind of monster truck with a bull on it) and getting involved with a fracas with the security officers at the school they’re appearing with, the two are arrested and sentenced to 150 hours of community service at a Big Brother-style charity called Sturdy Wings, run in no-nonsense style by ex-coke whore Gayle Sweeny (Lynch) who makes the average drill sergeant look like Stuart Smalley.

The two are given a couple of difficult cases. Danny gets Augie (Mintz-Plasse), a nerdy sort who plays a LARP-style game called LAIRE (LARP, for those not in the know, stands for Live Action Role Playing and consists of people in medieval garb bashing each other with foam swords, maces, hammers and shields in mock battles, which is a very simplified explanation of the game). I suppose to say he plays the game is a lot like saying an alcoholic has a drink now and then; the game is Augie’s life.

For his part, Wheeler gets Ronnie (Thompson), a foul-mouthed anti-social kid whose single mom isn’t sure how to handle her attitude-drenched son. Still, Wheeler and Ronnie find some common ground in their fascination for the female breast. Yeah, I know – ain’t bonding grand?

As the two men learn something from the two boys, their inherent disposition towards messing up catches up with them and they basically have their two charges taken away from them, which will mean jail time for the both of them unless they can think of a way to get back in the good graces of the boys, their parents and Gayle. Who knows, if they can do all that, maybe Danny can win back Beth while he’s at it.

This is one of those scattershot comedies where the filmmakers basically throw everything they can get their hands on at the walls and hope something sticks. Rudd and Scott actually have a pretty decent comic chemistry together and their characters are nicely fleshed out. Rudd gets a great riff in about the difference between large and venti which serves to piss Beth off but the rest of us (those that don’t live and die by Starbucks) will find it dead on while Scott continues the shtick that worked so well for him in Evolution.

Lynch, who since this was made has migrated over to “Glee” where she’s become one of the hottest comic actresses in the business, shows some of that ability, basically owning the screen whenever she’s on. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her headlining a big screen comedy venture in the very near future. Likewise, Jeong who hadn’t hit cult status with The Hangover when he made this, treads very familiar territory very well in his role here as the King.

In fact, that’s one of the things about the movie that holds it back – it really doesn’t do anything new or push the envelope at all. One of the things that made Apatow comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up so good is that they consistently took the comic genre they were working in and turned them on their heads. Role Models essentially takes basic comedy formula and follows it to the letter. That’s not a bad thing if you do it really well – and by that I mean reeeeeeeeeeeally well – but Role Models merely does it adequately. That’s not enough to put my butt in a bandwagon seat, so all I can really say for it is that while it has heart enough to make it worth seeing, it doesn’t have enough soul to make it a priority.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott and Rudd have good comic chemistry and Jane Lynch is a hoot in just about everything she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty much a standard Hollywood comedy with no real surprises.

FAMILY VALUES: This is crude enough and sexual enough that I’d probably think twice before letting pre-teens see this; it’s more along the lines of mature teens in my opinion.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Paul McCartney” song played over the closing credits is actually McCartney impersonator Joey Curatolo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there are plenty of standard features on the DVD edition (including a blooper reel), the Blu-Ray is packed with interesting features, including a design your own LARP logo feature called “Ye Olde Crest Maker,” some in-character interviews, some Sturdy Wings videos (available through the BD Live feature) and Universal’s always-fun U-Control feature.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: World’s Greatest Dad