Friday, July 22, 2011

Sour Grapes (1997)

7.22.11.Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes (1997)
Dir. Larry David

1.5 out of 5

Sour Grapes is the best argument we have against a potential “Seinfeld” movie. Piling failures on top of ironies works well in the sitcom format, where even the happiest of families and the best of friends are caught in a terrifying time loop where the house is decorated exactly as it was the day they moved in and hairstyles can change only once every calendar year. It’s an existential hell – they just don’t know it. In this environment, the petty vengeance exacted for minor transgressions can easily feel like an epic struggle against a morally bankrupt society. We know that though we may squash today’s annoyance there are three more ready to take its place tomorrow. Keep this up for 22 minutes and it’s incisive, even therapeutic. But harping on it for longer than that? It’s just depressing.

So who could have thought that a joyless 90-minute screed magnifying the worst aspects of human nature would end up nearly unwatchable? To call the characters shrewish is an insult to all species of rodent; to call the plot “funny” is like dressing up an S&M club with a few rubber chickens and re-naming it the Laff Stop. The laughs indeed cease quickly in this tale of two cousins (Steven Weber; Craig Bierko) feuding over Bierko’s big slot machine payday that Weber – having spotted Bierko his last two quarters – thinks he deserves a part of. A nasty game of one-upmanship ensues, ensnaring their loved ones and complete strangers alike. But unlike the balletic frustration of “Seinfeld,” Sour Grapes is just plain irritating.

To be fair, there are moments of sublime hate-mongering that manage not to fall flat. Larry David’s disregard for social niceties is illustrated in entertaining fashion, notably when Bierko forces Weber’s girlfriend to toss her apple out the window during their drive to Atlantic City as the smell of fruit “disgusts” him. At times Grapes even vaguely resembles a caustic satire of the hubris and lack of self-awareness among urban professionals. Weber and Bierko don’t care to think about how odious they are, so they project their self-loathing onto every innocent soul in New York. (And because something has to explain a pointless subplot in which Weber, who is established as a neurosurgeon, accidentally removes both of a patient’s testicles. Guess I missed the montage where he becomes a urologist.)

But mostly, Sour Grapes is the old cur David refracting his crotchety worldview through the unseemly prisms of Borscht Belt comedy and prank cancer diagnoses. It’s too goofy to be truly despairing, but too mean-spirited to be a lark. Turns out that misery is funny only when there’s a weekly reset button to press after the final punchline.

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