Thursday, January 13, 2011

Film Review: HIGHBALL (1997, Noah Baumbach)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 74 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Chris Reed (RUDY, MR. JEALOUSY), Lauren Katz (RUDY, MR. JEALOUSY), Noah Baumbach, John Lehr (MR. JEALOUSY, host of I'M A CELEBRITY, GET ME OUT OF HERE), Chris Eigeman (KICKING AND SCREAMING, METROPOLITAN), Peter Bogdanovich (director of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT'S UP DOC?), Eric Stoltz (MASK, THE FLY II), Ally Sheedy (THE BREAKFAST CLUB, SHORT CIRCUIT), Rae Dawn Chong (COMMANDO, CHAINDANCE), Annabella Sciorra (MR. JEALOUSY, THE FUNERAL), Carlos Jacott (KICKING AND SCREAMING, BIG LOVE), Justine Bateman (FAMILY TIES, SATISFACTION), Dean Cameron (MEN AT WORK, ROCKULA). Written by Baumbach, Jacott, and Chris Reed. Produced by Joel Castleberg (KICKING AND SCREAMING, SLEEP WITH ME, MR. JEALOUSY).
Tag-line: "One year. Three parties. Twelve fools."
Best one-liner: "Di-annne! This kid vomited! And he reeks of liquor!"

Written and directed beneath the disguise of pseudonyms ("Ernie Fusco" and "Jesse Carter") and shot across six days on leftover money and film stock from MR. JEALOUSY, Noah Baumbach's HIGHBALL is, I dare say, a low-budge comic masterpiece which was marketed as a straight-to-video SWINGERS clone. You can hardly blame them, though- it's not like the 'overeducated, disaffected, metropolitan youth' subgenre had been packing 'em in since the heyday of late 70's Woody Allen. And while many have drawn parallels between these films and Allen's, I almost see 90's Noah Baumbach (KICKING AND SCREAMING, MR. JEALOUSY, HIGHBALL) and Whit Stillman (METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, LAST DAYS OF DISCO) as a mini-genre unto themselves, especially separate from what came after: say, the stylistically bold, storybook forays of Wes Anderson; the meaner, more acerbic, post-2004 Baumbach; and the either too-hollow or too-mawkish latter-day fumblings of the so-called Mumblecore.

Shot inside someone's apartment with cheap, stark lighting and tinny sound, many will be put off by the low production value, but you A/V snobs will be ignoring one of the wittiest and best-acted comedy films in the last twenty years. I've watched HIGHBALL probably a dozen times (or more), and I'm left giddy with each viewing, always discovering a new background gag or some genius bit of throwaway dialogue. It's a cult film, and although the cult may be practically microscopic, my household is frequently home to "Everrrybody's Felix's birth-day," "Say hello to the other loooooosers," "I hope you like your beer tastin' good," "Little King Joachim," and other such obscure references that would surely baffle the non-HIGHBALL-initiated.

Though the cover art would have you believe that this film is about a Vegas lounge owned by the laid-back Eric Stoltz and run by his flashy cocktail waitress Annabella Sciorra, no element of the DVD cover has anything whatsoever to do with the film, not even Stoltz's and Sciorra's costumes or hairdos. (They do appear in the film, but as supporting characters.) Instead, we have Travis (Chris Reed) and Diane (Lauren Katz), a married Brooklyn couple whose (respective) desires to find an audience for closet-brewed beer and to recreate the French salons of the 18th Century provide the impetus for the film's triptych of parties: Birthday, Halloween, and New Year's.

Because attempting to describe the film's best gags and one-liners would merely be an exercise in watering them down, I'll instead give a rundown of the cast, many of whom will be easily recognizable to fans of semi-sophisticated 90's independent cinema.

Carlos Jacott, also a co-writer, nearly steals the movie as Felix, a character described as a man without a personality, and "if he did have one, deep down, it'd probably be some kind of an asshole." He expresses near-constant disdain, feeds six-year-olds booze, and presides over a host of spectacularly uncomfortable moments.

Jacott (left) exchanges words with Noah Baumbach.

Then we got Chris Eigeman, who's a personal hero of mine.

Sure, he usually just plays 'himself,' but when your self is as effortlessly deadpan and likably droll as Eigeman, you should be allowed to do whatever the hell you want.

There's John Lehr as the obnoxious, long-haired record store employee, er, I mean, record company employee.

Lehr, center, introduces his date (Justine Bateman) to his host (Chris Reed).

Playing an over-the-top goofus is a difficult feat to pull off without drawing the audience's ire, but Lehr is more than up to the task. Why he doesn't get more work (when mainstream comedy is teeming with untalented people playing goofuses) is beyond me.

Then we got Rae Dawn Chong and Ally Sheedy as themselves.

"Ally- was it...SHEEDY?"

And they're just famous enough for the gag to work perfectly. I.e., "Are you gonna go out there and tell Ally Sheedy to put out her cigarette?"

There's Peter Bogdanovich, who probably worked for free under the guarantee that he could pack in as many celebrity impersonations as was humanly possible for the duration.

And he does.

Eric Stoltz is the sensitive "star person" who "happens to know a lot of well-known people" delivers an excellent low-key performance in a film full of flashy ones (as he did in KICKING AND SCREAMING),

Baumbach himself plays a nebbish of sorts and reveals an acting talent that certainly deserves more exposure outside the occasional walk-on,

"How could you not know you look like Hitler?"

Dean Cameron shows up in a bit part as a recovering alcoholic magician whose final show does not disappoint,


Noah's real-life dad Jonathan shows up as a creepy old man, Justine Bateman appears as a sad-sack hippie space cadet turned pleather-dress-wearing bon vivant, and Annabella Sciorra pops up as an elitist bitch and sometime wingwoman of Jacott's character. There's Stephen Foster references, dueling lizard costumes, and the choice between home brew and Malibu. There's amusingly unexpected character transformations, misuse of candy corn, and the marvelous collision of goofiness and sophistication. I'll say that this is the ultimate party movie for people who generally dislike 'party movies.' Not bad for six days.

Five stars.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Huh. Never seen this one. I really like early Baumbach and am still on the fence on his more recent films. KICKING & SCREAMING is hilarious with so many quotable lines ("There's food in the beer.") and you're right on the money with the comparisons to Whit Stillman, another filmmaker whose films I adore. Good to see Chris Eigeman in this film. I can't get enough of his work so I will have track this film down.

Sean Gill said...


Stillman and Baumbach are probably my favorite contemporary (last 20 yrs) directors of American indies, but Baumbach's more recent career trajectory has been sort of bizarre. I can't get enough of his first three features, K&S, MR. JEALOUSY, & HIGHBALL, and even have a soft spot for his microbudget 2000 short, CONRAD AND BUTLER TAKE A VACATION, but I find his c. 2005 SQUID AND THE WHALE reinvention kind of odd. For starters, he shed the entire troupe he had built up and used again and again (Eigeman, John Lehr, Carlos Jacott, Annabella Sciorra, Bogdanovich, Eric Stoltz, etc.) and hasn't worked with any of them since. Then, it seems he refashioned himself (or was refashioned by the media) as a kind of first-time director, when he'd been doing features- brilliant features, mind you- for a decade! And while I do find myself still enjoying his films very much, he seems to have lost that great sense of goofy fun which mixed with the drama in his first three films, a sense which I know he hasn't lost entirely because it pops up in his screenplays for Wes Anderson (LIFE AQUATIC, FANTASTIC MR. FOX). And it's not to say that I don't find elements of GREENBERG, MARGOT, & SQUID to be hilarious, it just seems that his reliance on A-listers instead of his 90's company of actors robs the films of some of their charm. I.e., GREENBERG may have been a capital M Masterpiece if it had instead starred Chris Eigeman. Anyway. If you dig early Baumbach and can handle the lack of production value, then I think it's safe to say that you'll dig HIGHBALL.

Unknown said...

Cool. I think I will give this film a go, then. And I am in total agreement with your assessment of Baumbach's later career. I wonder if that was also the influence of Jennifer Jason Leigh? Did she may be open some doors and get some of these A-listers to meet with Baumbach?

Now that they're separated, may be he'll go back to using some of his regulars from back in the day. I miss 'em, too.

Sean Gill said...

While I would hope it's not the JJL factor, I guess you never know about some of these things. I see he's writing the script for a new BRETT RATNER movie starring Ben Stiller, so I must admit a little confusion about his continuing career path. I hope he's not estranged from his old crew, though- it seemed like they really had a blast cranking out those three (and a half if we count CONRAD & BUTLER) films.

Anonymous said...

Great movie but missed what sent Felix to the hospital?? Tell me please..