The Happy Poet


The Happy Poet

Paul Gordon ponders the difficulty in attracting a crowd to a quality product.

(2010) Comedy (Self-Released) Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Richard Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino, Anita Kunik, Paul Famighetti, Jordan Strassner, Matt Joyner, James Jensen. Directed by Paul Gordon

Dreams come in all sizes, big and small. Some people dream of changing the world, others are happy at merely changing their own lives. Some want to do great things – some just great things for the world.

Bill (Gordon) doesn’t have a grand agenda. He just wants to serve good, healthy food from a food cart in his hometown of Austin, Texas. However, he is drowning in debt, mostly due to student loans accrued as a creative writing major at the University of Texas. When he goes to a bank to see about getting a loan to start up his business, he is met with a nearly laughable offer of $750.

He accepts it and sets out to buy provisions and find himself a cart, which he does – an aging hot dog cart from a suspicious guy who has a thing about hot dogs. While Bill isn’t particularly against hot dogs per se, they are not exactly in his immediate business model.

He finds himself a spot in an Austin park and promptly has a truly awful day. Most of the business he gets is from people looking for hot dogs and who aren’t particularly interested in something healthy and organic. He can’t even give the stuff away – he gives one person an eggless egg salad sandwich as a free sample and the guy takes one bite and throws it away. Eventually he meets Curtis (Doubek), a guy who hangs out in the park most of the day who genuinely likes his food. That gives Bill the incentive to come back the next day.

He meets Donnie (Mars), a cheerful self-promoting dope dealer who thinks that Bill’s idea is a good one. He sets up a delivery service and hands out flyers. Curtis even comes up with a name for Bill’s cart – the Happy Poet. Business begins to pick up.

Bill becomes infatuated with Agnes (Fisher), a pretty cubicle drone who finds his lunch cart and she begins to come by regularly. With Bill a bit too clueless to ask her out (despite Donnie’s threats to ask her out himself if Bill doesn’t), Agnes finally asks him if he wants to go bowling with her. The night eventually ends up at Bill’s place where he reads her some of his poetry – an excruciatingly bad vaguely sexual monstrosity called “Chasm.”

However things begin to go south. Despite the good business Bill is getting, he is giving away far too much product to people like Curtis and even to Agnes. He also has payments due on the cart and he is pricing his food too low for him to make sufficient profit. He soon runs out of money and is forced to sell hot dogs, much to the chagrin of his customers.

He also discovers that much of the success of his delivery is due to Donnie’s sideline of delivering pot with the food. The betrayal sends him into a downward spiral of self-doubt and depression. Donnie feels bad about it and when it is discovered that Curtis has a little secret he’s been keeping from his friends, change is in the wind.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It is low-key and quiet, getting under your skin rather than in your face. Director/writer/actor/editor/sandwich maker/truck unloader/generally in charge of a lot of things guy Gordon delivers his lines in a flat Midwestern monotone, a cross between Steven Wright and Bob Newhart. This really helps with the development of the character as a bit of a doormat. In fact, the title is very ironic since Bill is neither happy nor much of a poet (which he, in a moment of self-awareness, confesses to Curtis).

Donnie is very much the anti-Bill in the movie; loud where Bill is quiet, aggressive where Bill is passive and self-aggrandizing where Bill is self-effacing. In that sense, Mars and Gordon make a really good team, near-opposites that help create quite a unit. Doubek also does some pretty good work as the enigmatic Curtis.

Fisher does a great job as Agnes. She’s like so many young women out there; decent, giving but having to navigate a relationship that is a bit weird. There is a sweetness to the relationship between Agnes and Bill that flavors the whole movie with a subtle but intoxicating spice.

Austin is a good location for the movie. It’s an arts-favorable city with a hip, sophisticated young citizenry (many involved with the university or state government) and a thriving music scene. It’s a great place to live and the movie showcases that aspect of it.

I’m not really big on vegan and vegetarian food but I found myself kinda hungry for it afterwards; I’m not sure whether that’s attributable to Gordon’s skills as a filmmaker or a chef (I’m more inclined towards the former though). I also really appreciated the movie’s charm, slow pace and understated humor. The Happy Poet is not necessarily for those who limit their comedies to things like The Hangover or Judd Apatow’s movies (and their many clones) but for those who appreciate a quiet, reflective chuckle it is quite ideal. Do I get the free veggie chips with that?

REASONS TO GO: Gordon’s deadpan delivery contrasts nicely with Mars’ frenetic one. Charming story and a cast whose performances are as organic as the food.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too low-key for some who like their humor broad and raunchy.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of drug humor and some drug use, mild sexuality and a little bit of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eggless egg salad is an actual sandwich filling used at the filmmaker’s favorite organic food market sandwich counter in Austin.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeking out on DVD.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in India

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The Social Network


The Social Network

Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, the new Odd Couple.

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Joe Mazzello, Patrick Mapel, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Armie Hammer, Rashida Jones, David Selby, Brenda Song, Malese Jow, Dakota Johnson, Wallace Langham, Caitlin Gerard. Directed by David Fincher

With Facebook having just reached 500 Million subscribers, that adds up to almost one in every fourteen people on the planet that have a Facebook account. It has become the pre-eminent social network, replacing MySpace and America Online before it, and in a sense, replacing real life in exchange for a digital replica. It’s insanely addictive and has it’s uses, but it has the insidious side to it, eating our time and energy.

Few of us know that much about how Facebook came to be. Many of its users don’t even know the name Mark Zuckerberg unless they trouble themselves to read the masthead. This new movie, which is often referred to as “The Facebook Movie,” isn’t about giving a fact-based account of the founding of Facebook, but then again, generally those types of accounts make for poor movies.

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), a sophomore at Harvard in 2003, is having a beer with Erica Albright (Mara), his erstwhile girlfriend, and engaging in some conversation and by conversation I mean he is engaging in a kind of strategic battle of words with her, filled with condescending remarks and sometimes biting thinly-veiled insults. She has grown weary of the battle and breaks up with him.

Angry and humiliated, Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and as 21st century kids tend to do, starts blogging. Caught up in the raw emotion of the moment, he does a pretty thorough character assassination of her, even going so far as to insinuate that her breasts are “barely there.” A more experienced man might have told him never to insult a woman’s breasts.

Half-drunk and fueled by his own rage, he decides to humiliate every woman at Harvard and creates over the course of the night a webpage that allows women to be rated like so much meat. He calls it Facemash and it becomes so popular it crashes the servers at Harvard. This gets Mark hauled before the board of administration for some disciplinary action.

It also gets him noticed. Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Hammer) and their programming friend Divya Narendra (Minghella) want to create a kind of Harvard-exclusive site that allows people with Harvard e-mail addresses to link up online and enlists Zuckerberg to do it. He agrees, but early on determines that their idea is more compelling than their vision and determines to create his own site which he calls The Facebook. His roommates Dustin Moskowitz (Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Mapel) are enlisted to do the programming and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Garfield) fronts them the seed money.

Of course, when his new creation goes online on February 4, 2004, the twins are furious, thinking they’ve been ripped off. Tyler and Narendra are all gung-ho to sue Zuckerberg but Cameron, wishing to maintain the decorum of a Harvard gentleman, wants to find some other way of redress. It is only when they discover that the once Harvard-exclusive site has gone global that Cameron changes his mind and calls out the family lawyer.

As the site begins to grow by leaps and bounds, Zuckerberg decides to summer in Palo Alto, hoping to get some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs interested in his start-up. Eduardo stays behind in New York, trying to sell advertising for the new website which makes Zuckerberg a bit uncomfortable. He begins to fall under the sway of Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake) who at least has the vision to see Facebook as a world-changing application, and determines to capitalize on it, interesting venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel (Langham) to invest big bucks in Facebook. Soon Zuckerberg finds himself as one of the youngest billionaires in the world, but the cost is his friendship with Saverin, as at the urging of Parker he devalues Saverin’s shares from nearly 30% to less than 1%. Saverin, incensed, decides to sue. The simultaneous lawsuits act as a framing device for the film.

The buzz for this movie has been plenty high and after its debut at the New York film Festival last month, grew to a dull roar. It’s being touted as the year’s first serious Oscar contender and it seems likely that some nominations are going to be coming its way, quite likely for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and maybe even to Eisenberg for Best Actor.

The real Zuckerberg is reportedly none too pleased with his portrayal here, and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin’s screenplay certainly isn’t very complimentary. It gives us a Zuckerberg who is arrogant, ruthless, cruel and socially awkward; he doesn’t seem to have a problem gutting his friends and certainly believes himself to be the smartest guy in any room. Is that the real Mark Zuckerberg? Chances are that elements of the character are accurate but I sincerely doubt that this is meant to be an exact capture of the essence of the Facebook founder. Rather, it’s meant more to be symbolic of digital hubris in an age of online egos gone out of control. Eisenberg becomes something of a cipher, his face often going blank when he is trying to hide what he’s feeling. He usually plays likable nerds but there’s not much likable about this guy and yet still we are drawn to him; as one of his lawyer’s (Jones) tells him near the end of the film, he’s not an asshole but he’s trying really hard to look like one.

Garfield, who was recently cast to be the next Spider-Man, does a great job as well, making the likable but ultimately out of his depth Saverin the emotional anchor for the story. Audiences will naturally root for him, and when he is eventually betrayed will feel his pain. Garfield hadn’t to this point caught my eye with any of his performances, but he certainly shows the ability to carry a franchise film like Spider-Man on his own.

Timberlake, whose acting career has blown hot and cold, delivers the best performance of his career to date as the unctuous Parker. Looking visually not unlike Quentin Tarantino, he is slick and snake-like, mesmerizing his victims with his charm and promises, then striking with lethal speed, delivering his venom in a swift, fatal blow.

Much of the movie is about courtrooms, programmers and start-up Silicon Valley businesses, as well as the rarefied air at Harvard, but despite some of the dry subjects manages to hold our interest throughout, and that’s mainly due to the interactions between the characters and Fincher’s deft hand at directing. The movie is both emotional and antiseptic, sometimes showing us heart and then slamming that door shut abruptly. It serves as a cautionary tale, not just for would-be billionaires but also to all of us. We reap what we sow and if we choose our own egos over actual human interaction, we too could wind up endlessly refreshing a computer screen, waiting for a friend request acceptance that never comes.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story and some intense performances. Eisenberg is particularly marvelous in a role that is quite frankly unlikable.

REASONS TO STAY: The portrayal of Harvard students is so self-aggrandizing at times it makes you wonder if our species has any future.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of drug usage, quite a bit of sexuality and no shortage of foul language. Older teens should be able to handle this, but more impressionable teens should be steered clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finch was unable to find suitable twin actors to portray the Winklevoss twins, so he cast Hammer and Josh Pence who have similar body types, then digitally inserted video of Hammer reading the lines over Pence’s face to create the illusion of identical twins.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen, so you can be forgiven if you wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)