Monday, November 17, 2014

The Come-Back (2005 and 2014)

Lisa Kudrow has the improbable physiognomy of a Pontormo Madonna:  her neck is immensely elongated and her head is capped with a lustrous crown of brilliantly red hair.  She looks curiously boneless and immaterial, as if she had just stepped forth from a Mannerist painting.  Kudrow's pale skin and stretched-out figure make her seem vulnerable -- it's as if a strong breeze might blow her away and she exploits this aspect of her persona for maximum poignancy in the HBO series The Come-Back.  Kudrow plays a middle-aged actress well-known for appearing in 97 episodes of a popular eighties sit-com; Tv-industry professionals cite this show as if it were Holy Scripture, although one character blithely observes that he has seen episodes on archive at the Museum of Broadcasting, a commentary as to the leading lady's status as an artifact in a culture that regards events occurring only a couple of years ago as ancient history. The Come-Back is not just a narrative periodically deflected into its own exegesis; it's not just a story with some meta-fictional aspects.  Rather, the entire story is meta-fictional -- there is no palpable ground to the program's Talmudic commentaries upon commentaries, a Gnostic structure of imitations of imitations of imitations.  Kudrow's narcissistic, but desperately needy, heroine is hired to play a minor role in a raunchy network sit-com, something like Two-and-a-half Men, featuring a two gorgeous young girls and two half-naked hunks.  The middle-aged actress mistakenly perceives that she is the center of attention in this TV show, shot before a studio audience.  This misapprehension results in a series of humiliations that are painful to watch, but emotionally compelling.  Simultaneous to her work on the TV series, the actress has agreed to participate in a reality TV series, something like The Osbornes' or any number of similar shows featuring half-witted celebrities desperate to keep their faces before an audience, even an audience of morons invited to pity and laugh at them.  So The Come-Back's premise is that a film-crew shooting a reality TV show documents the daily activities of the middle-aged actress as she shuttles between her home and the studio and business-related luncheons and parties.  The reality show documentary crew shoot the cast and crew of the sit-com in which the actress plays the role of  Aunt Sassy, a pathetic older woman who wants to participate in the sexually charged activities of the two much younger couples renting a condominium from her.  Kudrow's character -- she's named Valerie -- keeps trying to take-over the sit-com just as Aunt Sassy tries to inject herself into the debauchery enjoyed by her young tenants.  One of the writers on the sit-com, a kid named Pauly G., despises Valerie and works to debase her by writing degrading lines for the actress.  Valerie protests, but she's a trouper, a professional, and The Come-Back grants her, at least, a measure of skill and acumen in the performance of her duties on the set -- she doesn't flub her lines and gamely appears wearing hideous running suits with her hair curled into a grotesque mop of curls and gives it her best.  I have been describing the premise of the 2005 series, an HBO show that you can see on-demand, and that yielded 13 highly regarded half-hour episodes.  (Although the show was a critical success, it wasn't popular and was canceled.)  The 2014 version of the program is, in anything, even more complex in its layers of meta-fiction.  In the new Come-Back, Kudrow plays the same character, now nine-years after her 2005 debacle in the sit-com and with the reality TV show.  The program begins with the news that Valerie's nemesis, Pauly. G. is writing a new sit-com for HBO, apparently, something more or less identical to the program that we are watching.  Rumor has it that the new HBO show will feature a cruelly caricatured, and thinly disguised, version of Valerie.  Valerie calls her lawyers and asks them to quash the show.  As it happens, she has just begun filming yet another reality show and a film-crew of eager, but inept, students is documenting her life, intruding into just about every aspect of her existence.  Valerie goes to HBO to confront the producers of the show imminently scheduled for production and discovers that her agent failed to tell her that she was considered for the part and, indeed, invited to audition for the role of playing herself.  Pauly G. and his cohorts give Valerie a spectacularly degrading monologue to read and she  does so well as a desperate middle-aged actress playing a desperate middle-aged actress that she is awarded the part.  Her ire subsides with the pleasing notion of playing herself on the HBO series and, indeed, the network even offers to pick up the reality show.  So Valerie embarks on the task of reconstituting the crew that made her 2005 reality show.  Viewed in tandem, the two versions of The Come-Back offers something of the frisson of Richard Linklater's recent Boyhood -- the characters have aged in real-time and the world has developed around them; there is a sense of the collision of personal and public history.  The little girl who upstaged Valerie on the 2005 sit-com is now a world-famous movie star, far too busy to make time for her old mentor.  Pauly G. has completed rehab twice for his heroin addiction and seems to have matured.  Kudrow is older and even more desperate for attention; her husband has lost most of his hair and is palpably embittered.  The tattooed girl who directed Valerie's 2005 reality show has come-out as a lesbian and has an Oscar for a short documentary on lesbian victims of Treblinka -- since she can't get money for her latest project, about Thailand "boat-women", she keeps the statuette as a door-stop in her kitchen.  Kudrow is in every shot of both shows and the program, a massive exercise in Schadenfreude, is wholly dependent upon her performance.  As far as I can ascertain, Kudrow is virtually flawless in the part.  She is a monster of self-absorption and, like an oriental potentate, travels with a slavishly loyal eunuch, her hairstylist Mickey.  Blithely unaware of her foolish pretensions, she plays the part of the Grand Lady, unaware that she is the object of derision by those around her.  Yet, her panic at growing older and her fear of being ignored is so startlingly and vividly presented that you can't look away from her performance.  In one sequence, she faces the camera pretending to be indifferent to the fact that the younger actress -- she calls her "Baby Girl" -- on the 2005 sit-com has stood her up.  But she keeps biting her lip and blinking back tears and it's obvious that she is deeply wounded.  In another remarkable sequence, someone suggests that Valerie use a hair-care product for her red mane that she has never seen before -- it's part of a sponsorship deal.  Valerie's sheer terror with respect to this product, her fear that it will damage her hair so that she will not be seen to best effect, is vividly portrayed -- in fact, Valerie looks more realistically frightened by the bottle of shampoo than an actress in a slasher film confronting a madman with an axe.  I've seen seven episodes -- two of the 2014 show that is now ongoing, and five of the 2005 Come-Back.  The programs are all interesting and beautifully acted although I wonder how many humiliations the scriptwriter can devise for the hapless Valerie.  People get a shabby pleasure from seeing a beautiful and accomplished woman humiliated and there's something sadistic about the whole enterprise.  (I have always objected to televised beauty pageants because it seemed that the main objective of those shows was to make beautiful women look foolish and turn 49 out of fifty of them into "losers" -- there is, of course, only one Miss America.  The program is clearly derivative of other similar shows:  it's ultimate ancestory is the The Gary Shandling Show, about a TV talk show host, and Kudrow's character has some of the characteristics of Larry David who plays himself on Curb your Enthusiasm; the program is also similar to Ricky Gervais' Extras -- there is a nasty tag-line associated with Aunt Sassy ("I don't need to see that!") similar to Gervais' bête noir --"Are you havin' a laff?" And the show's much-vaunted poignancy is a bit specious -- in a world filled with so much genuine misery, why should we care that an unimaginably wealthy woman, who is also a great beauty, suffers from a series of petty embarrassments and disappointments?  In the most recent episode, Kudrow's character has a ticket to the Golden Globes.  She gets an expensive gown and attends with her entourage.  But the ticket is only to a viewing suite -- in other words, she has to watch the show from a hotel room near the auditorium in a room cluttered with Russian prostitutes and industry has-beens.  This is presented as very sad.  But, of course, dear Reader, you and I will never get a ticket to see the Golden Globe awards from any vantage at all except our living rooms. 

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