Girl Trouble: How The Night Of Repeatedly Let Its Female Characters Down

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Photo of Amara Karan as Chandra Kapoor, courtesy of HBO

SPOILER ALERT: ONLY READ THIS IF YOU HAVE SEEN ALL 8 EPISODES OF THE NIGHT OF.

Just for a second, let’s put aside The Night Of’s dead girl. Much has already been written about the wild, self-destructive dead girl (Sofia Black D’Elia), who lures our young hero Naz (Riz Ahmed) into her den of iniquity and exists on the show only so she can die. And just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a dead girl being a show’s launching point, but between True Detective, The Killing, The Top of the Lake, Pretty Little Liars, et al, many of us have dead girl fatigue. (Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Naz is innocent, although the guy who just had sex with the dead girl usually is the one who made her dead, so it could be argued that shows like this send the wrong message. But I digress…)

Anyway, Andrea—the dead girl has a name, it’s Andrea—is just the first female character that The Night Of betrays. Allow me to count them down.

Chandra Kapoor

Let’s start with the character that the show betrays the most, and the impetus for this essay—Chandra Kapoor, played by Amara Karan. As an actress, Karan just has it—on top of being quite pretty, she projects intelligence, relatability, and warmth (TV decision-making-types—get on it!). Chandra is an assistant to celebrity lawyer Alison Crowe (more on her in a bit), who has glommed onto Naz’s sensational case to raise her own profile. Crowe plucks Chandra from her stable of young lawyers for the most cynical of reasons—to ease the concerns of Naz’s parents by presenting them with someone who looks more like they do (Naz is Pakistani; Chandra is Indian). But Chandra ends up becoming the lead lawyer on the case due to some spectacularly bad advice she gives Naz—the first of many such blunders.

Crowe has arranged for a plea bargain that would have Naz confessing to manslaughter and receiving 15 years in prison. Regardless of the trial’s ultimate outcome, that is actually a great deal for Naz, whose semen and blood was on Andrea and who was found with the murder weapon in his pocket. But Chandra, you see, believes in the system, and, what’s more, she believes in Naz, so she tells him that, if he didn’t do it, he should plead not guilty. I guess Chandra is meant to contrast all the jaded cops, civil servants, and lawyers who populate the series, but this is extremely shitty advice. Naz, however, listens to Chandra—because what innocent man doesn’t crave someone who believes him?—and pleads not guilty. As a result, Crowe withdraws her offer to defend Naz pro bono and the case falls into Chandra’s lap.

Then Chandra, being a girl—with all its attendant squooshy, girly, uncontrollable emotions, I suppose—can’t resist her handsome, doe-eyed client. She is so overcome with longing for him, or a need to soothe his restless soul (you pick it), she kisses him in a holding cell, despite the fact that a cop is a few feet away and she knows (or should know) there are surveillance cameras. Later, Naz, who has become addicted to crack cocaine, asks her to acquire drugs for him—and she does. So now she’s gone from being a shitty, irresponsible lawyer, to actually breaking the law for him.

Oh, and why was she getting crack for Naz? Because, among other reasons, he needs the drugs to function at a peak level when he testifies. Yes, Chandra wants Naz to testify at his trial, despite the fact that John Stone (John Turturro), Naz’s much more experienced co-lawyer (and the show’s other outsider hero), has explained how reckless and dangerous that is. Look, I get that Chandra is both an idealist (the truth shall set Naz free!) and headstrong (no man is going to tell me how to handle my client!), but anyone with a working television set knows that a murder suspect testifying on his own behalf is always a last resort. What’s more, you would think that once Naz told her he needed crack to testify she might have reconsidered. (Also, there’s the pesky fact that Naz isn’t 100-percent sure he didn’t do it. Details, details…) So yes. Naz testifies and things are actually going pretty great until, as Stone anticipated, the cross examination starts, at which point he breaks down and tearfully admits he’s not sure whether he did it or not. I’m no legal expert, but that seems bad.

The thing that’s so annoying about all of this—besides, well, all of it—is the fact that Chandra actually seemed like a pretty good lawyer when she wasn’t royally screwing up. Her interrogations of other suspects, including an undertaker and Andrea’s sketchy stepfather, were pretty effective. So why also make her a total moron? Well, here’s a theory: Just as Andrea was sacrificed so Naz could be falsely accused and The Night Of could exist, Chandra was sacrificed so that John Stone could have his moment of redemptive glory. (Chandra has been demoted to second chair after the judge sees the tape of her kissing Naz.) Again, there’s nothing wrong with Stone getting to give closing arguments. From a dramatic standpoint, it works. And Turturro absolutely delivers—it’ll undoubtedly be the scene he submits to Emmy voters (he even had a flare-up of eczema!). But it’s a bit dismaying that Chandra had to be weak-willed, ethically compromised, and legally derelict, so John Stone could shine.

Safar Khan

Now we get to Naz’s mother, Safar Khan, played by Poorna Jagannathan. On its own, the fact that she has doubts about her son, and worries that she perhaps “raised a monster,” isn’t too problematic, but when you put it in the larger context of the show, it seems to be part of a pattern. It’s Naz’s father who never wavers in his support, who always believes in his son, who is the only one waiting for him when he gets out of Rikers, and Naz’s mother who allows herself to imagine the worst. Again, she’s being used as a plot device—if Naz’s own mother doubts him, shouldn’t we as well?—but she’s also an example of a disloyal woman, a mother who betrays her own son.

Alison Crowe

Here’s the funny thing about hotshot lawyer Alison Crowe (Glenn Headley). I think she’s supposed to be the worst, but I didn’t find her that horrible. Clearly she’s agreed to take on Naz’s case to raise her own profile and, as I mentioned, she exploits the fact that her assistant is Indian to get closer to Naz’s family, which is shady as hell. Yeah, she stole the case out from under Stone (who at least appeared to be in over his head) and yeah, she kind of left Naz in the lurch after he turned down the plea, but can you really blame her? It was a great offer. She had done her job. But the show clearly thinks she’s a bad person and, lest there be any doubt, she’s super bitchy to Chandra when she fires her.

Helen Weiss

On the face of it, Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) is just one of The Night Of’s many world-weary, jaded bureacrats. But when you look closer, you see that she’s the worst of the worst. Our lead detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) is actually haunted by the fact that he may’ve locked up the wrong guy, and even continues to doggedly pursue the case after he retires. John Stone may be a hack, but he cares deeply about his clients (and cats). It’s only Helen Weiss who seems willing to do anything to get her man, including coerce a forensics expert to fudge the truth on the witness stand. When she’s confronted with Box’s new suspect—and the preponderance of evidence linking him to the murder—she ignores it because it’ll be easier to convict Naz. Yes, she hesitates during her closing arguments—we see she’s having a crisis of conscience—and ultimately does the right thing when she agrees not to retry Naz, but only after she had already gone through with trying to convict him. Had the jury not been hung, Naz would be rotting away in a jail cell as we speak.

And that’s it. Those are all the major female characters in the show: a wild girl who leads a young man astray, a disloyal mother, a ruthless prosecutor, a headline-grabbing TV lawyer, and a young lawyer who compromises her ethics and professionalism for a crush. Look, The Night Of was gripping, well-executed TV, but turns out its dead girl trope wasn’t a mere fluke. It reflected the series’ willingness to sacrifice female characters for the sake of good drama and to prop up a male hero, over and over again.

 

A Brief Disclaimer To Be Used on All Stories Concerning Hillary Clinton and Her Emails

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I understand that it’s awkward for journalists these days. You want to appear fair and balanced. One candidate is a longtime politician, a former first lady and Secretary of State, who, as a result, has had an uncommon amount of influence and access.  That’s a lot to unpack! The other is a carnival-barking sociopath conman with ties to White Supremacists and Russian oligarchs. But I feel you, news media. It’s important to cover both sides! So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like the following disclaimer to be included on all stories concerning Hillary Clinton, Benghazi, Her Emails, and the Clinton Foundation going forward.

DISCLAIMER:

First, it is always important to note that the reason we are poring over Secretary Clinton’s emails, the ONLY reason the so-called email controversy exists, is because of an explicitly politically-motivated witch hunt. Allow us to explain:

When George W. Bush was president there were at least 13 attacks on embassies and 60 people killed. There were no congressional inquiries into these attacks. (Compare that to Benghazi, where 4 people were killed.)

Two separate GOP congressmen admitted that the Benghazi committee was motivated by politics, specifically as part of an ongoing campaign to bring Hillary Clinton down.

And yet, despite their best efforts, the highly partisan committee found that Hillary Clinton and the State Department had done nothing wrong.

Through this Benghazi committee, it was discovered that Secretary Clinton used a private email server, that was possibly more secure than the one at the state department.

The FBI launched their own investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server and, despite the fact that the FBI director James Comey is a Republican, they too found that Clinton had not violated the law.

Now, desperate to keep the story in the news as their embarrassment of a candidate continues to unravel, the GOP-congress is undertaking the unprecedented action of pursuing a perjury charge against Secretary Clinton. John Dean, the former White House counsel for Richard Nixon (also a Republican!),  calls the charges “outrageously false,” an “abuse of power,” and a tactic that could “undermine our democracy.” That seems bad.

But wait…it’s really, really important for us to explain how unprecedented and outrageously unfair this kind of scrutiny is:
When George W. Bush waged a bogus war against Iraq that killed nearly 5,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the company that benefited the most from this was Halliburton, which made an estimated $39.5 billion. The former CEO of Halliburton was Vice President Dick Cheney. There was no congressional investigation into Cheney’s ties to Halliburton.

Meanwhile, when a 2007 investigation was launched over the Bush White House’s partisan firing of 8 U.S. attorneys, it was discovered that 5 million White House emails had been secretly deleted. There was no congressional investigation into these deleted emails. (Compare that to the 30,000 emails Secretary Clinton is accused of deleting, which she maintains were all personal.)

Also, before we discuss the Clinton Foundation, we should probably mention that it has received an A rating from the nonpartisan Charity Watch and that neither Hillary nor Bill Clinton draw a salary from the foundation. The big scandal is that companies and people who donated millions of dollars to fight AIDS, poverty, and civil rights violations around the globe were possibly granted access to the Secretary of State. Thus far, there is no indication that any policy was influenced by these donors. “We haven’t seen any clear evidence of pay to play,” said the AP report.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump refuses to release his taxes; owes $650 million to the Bank of China and Goldman Sachs; once had a campaign manager with ties to Russian oligarchs; has paid off Attorney Generals to avoid lawsuits against Trump University; has been involved in an outrageous 3,500 lawsuits, both as plaintiff and defendant; and is funneling money out of his own campaign to pay his children and his own companies.

Now please read or watch this story about Hillary Clinton’s emails and her A-rated international foundation that helped millions of people all over the world!

Enjoy!

 

Does Trump Have a Master Plan? (Spoiler Alert: No)

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As always, the opinions in this blog are mine alone and do not reflect those of my employers.

Some paranoid theories/conspiracy theories are true, of course. But most are just an attempt to ascribe order to a chaotic and upsetting world.

There are two theories floating around right now about Donald Trump that I’d like to attempt to debunk.

The first is that Trump is intentionally trying to throw presidential the race. I get this one: Trump is behaving in so many self-sabotaging ways— ignoring his advisors, lashing out at his critics, doubling down on all of his most unsavory behavior—it’s easy to draw this conclusion. He sure isn’t acting like a man who wants to win.

The other, and this was one was first floated by the normally redoubtable Peter Daou, is that Trump never wanted to be president, but, in fact, wants to start his own white nationalist party. (A subtheory to that one is that Trump never wanted to be president but actually wants to start his own television network, a station for those who think Fox News isn’t quite right wing enough.)

But to understand how those theories go wrong, you have to understand that virtually all of Trump’s behavior can be traced back to an ego that is as fragile as it is enormous.

Thanks to that fragile ego, he’s as thin-skinned as they come. He must respond to all criticism, whether it means standing on a debate stage and bragging about the size of his penis, taking on a Gold Star family, lashing out at the media, or echoing Paul Ryan’s own words (“I’m just not quite there yet”) in his original non-endorsement of the Speaker.

Also, as a result of his need for constant ego gratification, he’ll always opt for the quick fix of an approving crowd, even if it has longterm negative consequences. Cracks about second amendment people “taking care” of Hillary’s judges or his insistence that Obama “Founded ISIS” are egged on by audience cheers. He has no discipline. He adores being adored.

When you see him in that light, he’s not that much of a mystery. Literally all the crazy things he’s done can be attributed to his run amok ego.

But let’s back up for a sec. Why did Trump run for president in the first place? I believe, quite simply, it’s because he thought he’d be great at it. No, not in any thoughtful way or a way that shows an understanding—or even interest—in public policy, but because of his enduring sense, often despite empirical evidence, that he, Donald J. Trump, is great at everything. I’ve always likened Trump to that blowhard fan in the stands who thinks he knows better than the coach: “If they’d just pass the ball 100 times in the game it would be a guaranteed win and awesome!” Of course, this kind of fan has never seen a playbook in his life, doesn’t understand the nuances of the sport or the opposing team’s defensive strategy, has no interest in defense himself (because that’s the boring stuff), and is only applying the most rudimentary of logic to what he sees. As the old coaches’ adage goes, “If I listened to the fans in the stands, I’d soon be one of them.”

Okay, so you’ve got The Donald, thinking he’d be great, the best president ever, just by applying his crude, uninformed logic to the world: build a wall, ban Muslims, bomb the shit out of ISIS, etc.

And people thought he would fail.

This is the most important thing to understand when you’re assessing Trump’s behavior right now: In the primaries, he was doubted and discounted by pundits, columnists, and other political observers countless times, but he won anyway. Sure, he won a plurality, not a majority, but he became the Republican candidate. He proved his doubters wrong, a veritable aphrodisiac for someone like Trump. Doing things his own way is keenly important to Trump, as it validates his God complex: “I alone can fix this country.”

But the general election is a different story. The stakes are higher, the scrutiny is greater, and you need more than a devoted following of mostly low-income white men to win. Understanding this, Trump’s advisors and endorsers have been begging him to be more presidential, to make that fabled “pivot”—stick to the TelePrompter, don’t ad lib, don’t Tweet from the john, stay on message. Trump has tried to do that a few times, but he’s seemed bored and listless, “low energy” to use his own parlance. And he’s still losing. By a lot.

Sure, inexplicably, he got a small bump from that dystopian Republican convention (I half expected to hear the strains of Beethoven’s 9th and see A Clockwork Orange’s Alex in the audience, his eyes glued open, during Trump’s final speech), but since then it’s been all downhill. The most recent General Election polls have Clinton up by six points, but more than that, she’s beating him or gaining on him in all the crucial battleground states. He has no path to victory.

Now, shrewd political observers might say it’s because Trump insulted a Gold Star family, evoked the specter of assassinating his opponent, suggested Obama was the founder of ISIS, invited Russian to hack Clinton’s emails, tweeted an anti-Semitic meme, etc., etc., etc. But in Trump’s mind, he’s losing because he made the mistake of listening to his advisors. Not all the time—he simply doesn’t have the discipline to stay on message longer than 24 hours—but enough times that he can blame them for his dreadful poll numbers.

In other words, as far as Trump’s concerned, he’s not losing because of all his gaffes and blunders, he’s losing because he occasionally allowed himself to listen to somebody other than himself. It’s because he gave a canned speech and toned down his aggressive rhetoric at his rallies.

Trump misses the enthusiasm and fun of the primaries, where his crowds were rowdy and excitable, he was insulting all comers, the press was amused and compliant, and he was winning.

It’s true that he seems to have gotten worse lately. Losing doesn’t compute in his mind. He’s used to being propped up by sycophants and yes-men. His ego can’t handle the reality of how badly he’s doing and all of the unflattering press he’s receiving so he seems to have reverted to the worst version of himself. (He truly is like Captain Queeg and his strawberries in The Caine Mutiny). He wants to go back to the way things were at the beginning of his campaign, when it was validating and fun.

So today, when I heard the news that he had hired the odious Steve Bannon, CEO of Breitbart, to be his new campaign director, it fit perfectly with the Donald Trump I know. Bannon has been a cheerleader and unabashed fan of Trump’s from the start. He has no experience running a campaign. He’s going to let Trump be Trump. As a result, Trump will lose, horribly. But it won’t be because he doesn’t want to win. It’s because he’s fundamentally incapable of admitting that he’s a failure.

 

 

In Defense of Hiddleswift

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No one knows what to make of the nascent romance between American pop star Taylor Swift and British thespi-hunk Tom Hiddleston. Some people think it’s a fauxmance, a big old-fashioned Hollywood publicity stunt. Others think that all the carefully art directed love scenes—Hiddleswift sitting on some random rocks; Hiddleswift strolling hand-in-hand in Italy; Hiddleswift ignoring each other as they gaze lovingly at their phones over a meal; Hiddleswift frolicking in bathing suits (his, an I ❤ TS tank top!) with famous friends—are actually being filmed for a music video. (If so, news flash: Jessica Lowndes and Jon Lovitz did it first.) And some people, mostly under the age of 25, actually believe that their love is reeeeeeal.

But one thing virtually everyone agrees on: Tom Hiddleston is embarrassing himself. To which I ask, why?

Taylor Swift may play a lightweight on her Instagram page, but she is anything but. She is a talented young woman who has expertly crafted her public image over the course of her career. We never hear of some Svengali-like figure pulling her strings behind the scenes, so often true of young pop stars. By all accounts, she has leaned in, taken charge of her own career, her own music, her own public persona. The whole girl squad, “I’m the fun side of female empowerment!” bit is hers, plus the careful transition from country darling to pop star, plus the strategic videos of her giving back to her fans and to charities. Along with her catchy songs, on-brand videos, and her royal position front-and-center at seemingly every music award show, she is a star that understands how to use the Internet, viral culture, and social media to her advantage. I even marvel over her song, “Welcome to New York”. A song like that guarantees that she’ll be getting “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”-type royalties for as long as she lives. The girl is dumb like a fox.

And yet, somehow baked into the disdain for Hiddleswift is this idea that Tom has lost his dignity by being with Taylor, that he’s demeaned himself.

Why? I mean, yeah, there’s an age gap there (he’s 35; she’s 26), but we’ve seen a lot worse (Calvin Harris, her last boyfriend, was 32 and nobody batted an eyelash). They’re both blond, high-cheekboned, and classically beautiful (in a way that makes this Jewish girl feel ever-so-slightly uncomfortable). Isn’t it possible that they might actually…like each other? Be hot for each other?

Here’s a theory: The thing about this romance that upsets people most is that Tom seems to have entered her world, he’s playing by her rules. She’s not suddenly drinking high tea and reading Shakespearean sonnets (which is our imagination of what Hiddles does in his spare time). He’s frolicking with her squad, posing for Polaroids, and playfully taunting rubberneckers by wearing that I ❤ TS tee. (Or maybe he just really likes T.S. Eliot). She seems to have the power in the relationship. And this is what makes people uncomfortable.

Let’s face it, it doesn’t fit the narrative of what we’ve come to expect of young ingenues. What I called “the Henry Higgins” effect in my review of Me Before You:

As was also the case in 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight, our heroine here is a bit naïve, wide-eyed, and endearingly awkward (I have no idea why clumsiness has become the new standard trait for romantic heroines, but so it is) and our male lead is sophisticated, worldly, and eager to teach her new things. In 50 Shades, Twilight, and now here, the heroine’s tendency to knock stuff over, blurt out the wrong thing, be woefully unexposed to arts and culture and the way of the world is considered part of her charm…. It all just feels so terribly condescending.

In this case, the script is flipped, in unexpected ways. And people are freaking out a little.

Look, maybe your biggest problem with Hiddleswift is simply that it all seems so fake. That’s fine. But let’s face it, Taylor Swift has choreographed every aspect of her public persona up until now, so why stop when it comes to this romance? Maybe she’s having sex with Tom Hiddleston and teaching him her social media ways. If so, he’s one lucky bastard.

 

 

Review: Weiner

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The inevitable question that arises when one watches Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s tragicomic documentary Weiner is: Why would Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, subject themselves to this? In the first 30 minutes or so, you get a clue. There, you see glimmers of the film it could’ve been, the film perhaps Anthony and Huma thought they were agreeing to: a story of personal redemption and political triumph, a comeback film.

It doesn’t quite work out that way.

The film follows the 2013 mayoral candidacy of Weiner, the former New York Congressman who had been forced to resign after it emerged that he had been sexting with several young women. He denied the charges at first—they all do—and then was compelled to come clean when photos of his crotch and screen shots were released. On top of his embarrassing behavior, Weiner was saddled with that embarrassingly on-the-nose last name. Needless to say, New York tabloids had a punning field day. (“Weiner’s Rise and Fall,” read one NY Post headline.)

Weiner was lumped in with Eliot Spitzer, another rising star on the left who was forced to resign amid sexual scandal (although Spitzer’s scandal, which involved visiting high-class prostitutes on the state’s dime, was demonstrably worse). And both Huma and Spitzer’s then-wife, Silda, became poster children for put-upon political wives, forced to stand, grim-faced, by their philandering man.

As the film starts, it’s been two years since the scandal. Huma, who was (and is) a close advisor to Hillary Clinton, has stayed with him, although not without the help of a lot of therapy. Their son (Huma was pregnant when the scandal erupted) is a toddler. According to Weiner, it was Huma who encouraged him to run—it’s hard to know why, but one can speculate that it’s perhaps because the politician side of Weiner is undeniably his best side. In Congress, he was a scrappy, fiery champion for the little guy, never afraid to mix it up with more senior congress members or grandstand floridly to make a point.

It’s impossible to describe Anthony Weiner without using words like “feisty” and “scrappy”—because he truly seems to be those words incarnate. His entire political career has seemed a bit like he’s getting revenge on the assholes who picked on him for his last name in junior high school. “I hate bullies,” he says at one point in the film. And you believe him. You believe he’ll fight for those without a voice.

But if Weiner is energized, ready to get back in the political ring, Huma seems more tentative, still a bit shell shocked from the scandal. She’s by his side, even working her connections (which, thanks to her ties to the Clintons, are more formidable than his), but you can tell her heart is not fully in it. The film feels voyeuristic in that sense, encouraging you to gauge Huma’s reaction to every reference to the sexting scandal.

Nonetheless, it all seems to be going well. Weiner has a dedicated young staff, his message is getting out there, and he’s leading in the polls. And then the other shoe drops in the form of newly leaked text messages and (more explicit) photos. It was during this second round of disclosures that we learned the risible name of Weiner’s sexting alter ego: Carlos Danger. Now, Weiner has gone from looking like a remorseful and redeemed guy, to a creepy, lying pervert. Reluctantly, but by her own volition, Huma gets out in front of the cameras again, stands by her man, and says nothing has changed, she still loves him. But Weiner is a dead candidate walking. He just doesn’t quite know it yet. (He would come in last in the race.)

If Huma comes across as a sympathetic, even tragic figure in all of this, our impression of Weiner is less flattering. Without putting too fine a point on it, he seems like a shitty husband, more concerned with advancing his career then being there for his wife. Again and again, we see moments when Huma looks upset and hurt, and we desperately want him to comfort her, hold her, thank her for all she’s done. If such moments occurred, they were off camera. What’s more they seem highly unlikely, since Weiner seems incapable of the kind of sensitivity it takes to be a truly good partner. (He does, however, let her off the hook late in the film, saving her from one unthinkable humiliation—it’s one of his few moments of grace.)

Still, despite his flaws, Weiner proves to be a wonderful documentary subject—compelling, funny, combative. And Steinberg and Kriegman revel in his political moxie, following him as he rides a float at a gay pride parade, beat boxes and hugs fans at a Caribbean festival, and attempts to dodge questions about his personal life over and over again. Better still, his pugilistic nature means he’s constantly getting into shouting matches with reporters and hecklers (his favorite insult is “jackass”); one of the final shots of the film is him, after his concession speech, giving the finger to a bunch of photographers through the window of his limo—fighting until the bitter end. You may never know for sure why Weiner and Huma gave us this all-access pass into this ill-fated campaign. The resulting film is wildly entertaining, but also infuriating and ultimately depressing, filled with a sense of lost promise. One can only imagine how they feel about it.