Not Cool (2014)/ Hollidaysburg (2014)
Last year, Starz aired a reality TV series called The Chair. Produced by actor Zachary Quinto and Project Greenlight breakout Chris Moore, the aim was to give two different directors the same script, the same budget, the same shooting city, and the same access to resources to see what kind of movies they would create. The public would vote on a winner and the winning filmmaker would earn a $250,000 prize. Film is a director’s medium, and both of the chosen participants, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, were allowed to rewrite the script, likely to the dismay of screenwriter Dan Schoffer. Dawson has built a following of millions making comedy shorts on his YouTube channel. Martemucci has written one other film and has professional ties to Quinto. Over the course of one winter in Pittsburgh, both Dawson and Martmeucci shot their films under the extra scrutiny of the reality show cameras. Whatever their TV portraits may have been, the work stands on its own. Dawson made the sex comedy Not Cool and Martemucci made the coming-of-age drama, Hollidaysburg. They are two quite different films, but are they any good and should The Chair be considered a success?
Scott (Dawson) is home for Thanksgiving break from his first year at college. In high school he was prom king and a big deal. Life since hasn’t been that easy. His girlfriend, Heather (Jorie Kosel), dumps him after a spontaneous hookup in a public bathroom. His father is closing the family’s record store. His sister, Janie (Michelle Veintimilla), might not graduate on time from high school. And then Tori (Cherami Leigh) accidentally hits him with her car. The two have history: Scott was responsible for Tori’s cruel nickname, “Tori the Whore-y.” Not having any of it, she lays in to him and unleashes years of anger, and then the two of them have sex. They try and pass it off as a one-time deal but they both can’t stop thinking of the other person. Tori’s pal Joel (Drew Monson) is determined to have sex with his high school crush, Janie. He agrees to help her with her schoolwork for a prime opportunity to make her fall in love with him. As Joel and Scott chase after their resistant love interests, they have to decide how far to go.
I was completely unfamiliar with Dawson and his YouTube fame before seeing his film, and after watching Not Cool I wish I had remained in blissful ignorance. To call Not Cool unfunny is too kind. It is aggressively unfunny, going above and beyond to shock and appall. By no means am I a prude when it comes to crass comedy, but you have to put effort into it just like any other style of telling and developing jokes. You don’t just blurt out something vulgar repeatedly and confuse that for comedy construction. I knew I was in trouble when the movie resorted to projectile vomit within two minutes. Dawson’s direction consists of telling his actors to go as broad as possible; they feel like over-the-top cartoons engaging in shouting matches. A Thanksgiving dinner with Scott’s family feels like an insane asylum was evacuated. It’s fine that Not Cool doesn’t approach a relatable reality, but it needs to have some internal grounding that makes sense. It also needs to be funny. Much, much funnier. After ten minutes I had to stop the movie and gather pen and paper to start noting the unfunny and off-putting misogynist jokes on display. Let me make this clear: characters can be unlikeable and have non-P.C. POVs, but when the film itself seems to be adopting a tone and perspective that allies with ignorance and intolerance, that’s when a movie can become increasingly uncomfortable. Dawson’s interpretation of the script is rife with jokes that are homophobic, xenophobic, slut shaming and in general anti-women, and, I repeat, they just aren’t funny:
In response to dad’s new girlfriend (who is never mentioned again) being named Anastasia: “With that name she’s either a Disney princess or a stripper.” Fresh.
Janie relates how her sexist teacher is flunking her, which Joel responds with, “I’m surprised he didn’t give you an ‘A’ for those tit-ays.” Ugh. Just ugh.
“Tori the Whore-y? You look kinda good now. You know that nick-name might not be ironic anymore.” Because Scott is the arbitrator of what is acceptable attraction, therefore Tori should now have a sense of self-worth because he has deigned to find her of interest. This is later reiterated when Scott tells her, “You’re beautiful. You always were.” Thanks, now that you said it Scott it must actually be true.
Joel: “The only thing hotter than Leonardo DiCaprio is a retarded Leonardo DiCaprio in a sexy diaper.” What? I don’t think he ever wore a diaper in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. And Janie’s response is equally baffling: “That shit makes me so wet.” Huh? Watching an actor play a mentally handicapped child makes you sexually aroused?
To quickly wrap up this detour, let me highlight the most egregious stab at humor in the entire movie. During the film’s climax, his horny ex-girlfriend sexually assaults Scott. Tori sees this and, oh no, miscommunication. Scott explains he was raped and it was not consensual. The party’s host quietly walks over to a dry erase marker board that says, “Rapes at this Party.” He erases the zero and writes a “one” on the board, then goes back to partying. Let that sink in. The board was prepared for some sense of inevitable rape, and yet once it happens, the host carries on. That’s offensive on a number of issues.
These scenes and lines are merely par for the course in what is ultimately a coarse and misguided comedy that is stocked with vile characters. Scott is served up as a figure that needs to get past his hubris, but the movie treats him more of a hero who the other characters just can’t help but love. It’s hard not to feel like the film is made to flatter Dawson as an actor. Within minutes of meeting Scott again, Tori says, “Would I have sex with you? Probably.” No one can resist his appeal, certainly not Tori’s family. Tori’s mother is practically begging to jump on top of him. When the character’s defining moment of humility and growth is cutting his Justin Beiber-like hair, it’s a failure. Tori is written in such an inconsistent fashion. She’s supposed to be all about negativity and hates everything in the world, but then she transforms into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Scott’s cutesy scavenger hunt. Leigh does a credible job with the character but she’s a half-formed assortment of quirks and messages meant to push Scott along. Dawson errs considerably by casting himself as the romantic lead. It further exacerbates Scott’s flattering portrayal, but really Dawson is just not a good enough actor to carry a film. But a lead role wasn’t enough, and Dawson appears as several female supporting characters in drag. The appearances stop the movie dead in its tracks. The characters are also just lame mouthpieces to blurt lazy inappropriate comments, especially a popular girl who just keeps calling people names at the top of her lungs. It is deeply unpleasant.
The worst character in the entire film is Joel. This guy is obsessed with having sex with his high school crush, who is still in high school while he’s in college, by the way. She has clearly and consistently stated that she does not have feelings for him, but what’s a woman stating her decisions going to matter to this guy? Joel’s pursuit of Janie is just insanely creepy. He mimes preforming cunnilingus on her. He stalks her online profiles to mine useful personal information. He enlargers and decreases a picture of her face on his phone and narrates the experience like she is giving him oral sex. At every point he treats her as a sex object. Even after a night out, where she wears a dress he picked out for her after trying it on himself and fondling himself in expectation (!), she tells him she doesn’t feel the same way, and he still forces the situation. It’s gross and at no point is Joel and his behavior held up to criticism. He’s rewarded for his “virtue” by having Janie pimp out all her promiscuous friends onto him. What makes the character even more repulsive is just how annoying Monson’s performance comes across; he’s going for faux bluster but it’s more like misplaced entitlement. If this storyline had ended with Joel murdering her while weeping and slow dancing with her corpse, you wouldn’t be that surprised.
As the previous two paragraphs should indicate, there is certainly a point of view that emerges from the movie, one that trumps the heterosexual white male at the top and looks with derision on anybody that falls outside that definition. It feels like every joke is at someone’s expense. In the opening minute, an overweight woman tweets a picture of herself as a skinny model. I suppose it’s funny because she’s misrepresenting herself but it feels like the joke amounts to, “Ha, she’s ugly and fat.” But those who are conventionally attractive still don’t get off easy. Tori is slut shamed as a whore in high school, lead by Scott, and this is merely excused as the behavior of a loveable scamp. Janie’s friends are treated like idiotic sluts. Tori’s gay friend is defined by his flamboyance and obsession with sex. Disabled people are apparently hilarious just because they’re disabled and different. Tori’s older sister is blind and it’s funny because she accomplishes things… but she’s blind. I suppose the joke is that she shouldn’t have a successful life. There’s a woman at a party in a wheelchair (confession: I know this actress) and the joke is she’s doing normal activity. There’s one black character in the movie that is a homeless man who devours his own feces. At one point, his genitals are also used as a laugh. There’s also the characters’ flagrant and casual use of the word “retarded” to describe anything repulsive. The hoary stereotypes and unfunny portraits blend together, creating a mosaic of intolerance masked as comedy. Dawson’s sense of comedy is fairly puerile but it’s also offputtingly mean-spirited and denigrating.
Dawson makes too many fatal mistakes as a director for Not Cool to survive. Casting himself in the lead was a mistake. Appearing as female supporting characters was also a mistake. Excusing the bad behavior of his male characters, and rewarding them, was a mistake. Catering the humor to make fun of anyone that doesn’t classify as a heterosexual white male was a mistake. Relying solely on gross-out gags without better comic development was a mistake. Trying to earn a heart late into the film was also a mistake. After watching jerks behave like creeps with their inflated sense of entitlement, I don’t care if they maybe have feelings. Directing his actors to be heightened caricatures was a mistake. In short, Not Cool is a comedy graveyard of mistakes and bad decisions. I’m sure there will be people that find something to enjoy here, who laugh at the easy juvenile humor. I even laughed a couple times. There was a visual gag with a smuggled watermelon that was simply inspired. I think Dawson didn’t want to stray too far from his YouTube persona and the tone of his videos, lest he upset his fan base of millions, but what works as a three-minute YouTube short doesn’t translate to a feature film. Not Cool is proof enough that an overabundance of energy and cheap vulgarity does not compensate for a deficit in storytelling and execution. Not Cool is just not good.
Going far in the other direction is Hollidaysburg, a modest coming-of-age drama that patterns itself after the mumblecore movement of indie cinema. Director Anna Martemucci definitely takes a more restrained approach to her interpretation of Dan Schoffer’s screenplay. She has some problems of her own but on a whole Hollidaysburg is the more promising and well-executed movie. It’s more sophisticated, better articulated, heartfelt, and comes far closer to achieving something worthwhile.
Right away you can tell a difference. We begin once more with Scott (Tobin Mitnick) and his girlfriend, Heather (Claire Chapelli), breaking up in the middle of sex, but they keep at it. It’s not exaggerated for extra laughs; the situation itself naturally draws them. The character isn’t made the butt of the joke either. It’s a much more encouraging opening than projectile vomit. Scott is also dumbstruck when he discovers his family home is days away from being emptied and sold. He reconnects with high school acquaintance Tori (Rachel Keller) and the two sleep together impulsively. As they’re trying to make sense of possible feelings, Heather is seeking out some company, anybody, and settles on her pot dealer, Petroff (Tristan Erwin), who happens to be buds with Scott. He’s wary of stepping over some kind of friend code, but in his efforts to get Heather out of her funk, Petroff starts to form a romantic interest he can’t help.
The focus is on our foursome of young, curious, and emotionally free-falling characters stumbling for some sense of personal identity. The theme of the film is about stasis versus change. Heather reasons that their long-distance relationship is not meant to be, and that it’s better to check out early. She’s also disillusioned by college, an experience that she had hoped would be remarkable at pointing her life in the right direction. Scott is quite literally saying goodbye to his childhood and his prior sense of who he was. His task for the holiday weekend is to pack the last of his childhood things in his old room so they can be sent to Florida. He won’t be returning to Pennsylvania likely, which is what Tori is also wrestling with. How far does she let herself get attached to something that could never happen? The two of them dance around their attraction and unconventional courtship. There’s real uncertainty about their possibility as a couple that’s palpable. Then there’s Heather’s sense of ennui that might just be a symptom of depression. She feels like she’s in a fog and that college is not the gateway others perceive it to be. Petroff is trying to juggle his role as friend and potential more-than-friend, and even though he has no real obligation to Scott on this one, he is trying to be deferential and sensitive. Before the breakup, he didn’t even consider Heather a friend. Now they’re getting to know one another on a much more personal level. The foursome is likeable, complicated, flawed, and pleasant to be around, enough to excuse some of the movie’s genial pacing.
There are assorting supporting characters, notably siblings to Scott and Tori, but they are complimentary and better inform the story. Scott’s older brother spends the entire film trying to recreate his father’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s just the sort of concept that is slight enough to be fun but also lead into a dramatic character payoff. The dialogue feels attuned to the natural speech rhythms of human beings while still being entertaining. Scott and Tori’s initial reunion revolves around her keeping watch to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion after she hit him with her car. It’s a cute scenario that’s played with the right flirty tone that nicely sells the emergence of their romance. The humor isn’t as loud and underlined as Not Cool, and that’s to its benefit.
Your enjoyment of Hollidaysburg (named after a city in Pennsylvania) will depend mightily on your personal tolerance for the observational, delicate human comedies of the mumblecore genre. Sometimes derided as affluent navel-gazing, the often-DIY subgenre can have its own hardscrabble charm and touch upon relatable themes and conflicts that transcend their often self-indulgent characters. There’s also a stronger sense of realism in how fleshed out these worlds feel, and so I have enjoyed mumblecore primarily because of the combination of well-developed characters, emotional truths, and sincerity. I acknowledge a movie about a bunch of teenagers sitting around, mingling, smoking pot, and making life decisions is a harder sell than, say, sex comedy shenanigans. The difference is that you feel the care put in by Martemucci. She cares about these people and makes you start to care as well, or at least be interested. But if you’re not on the same wavelengths, one person’s observational is another person’s doddering.
While technically better on just about every level, Hollidaysburg has its own issues. The character arcs for Scott and Tori are rather nebulous. I’ll credit Dawson with this, in Not Cool the characters’ arcs were front and center and there was a progression. With Hollidaysburg, Scott is vaguely defined by his past but he doesn’t go into many details, failing to indicate how he’s undergoing some sort of high school hangover as he adjusts to a bigger pond. He’s uncomfortable with the discovery of how close Heather and Petroff have gotten, but this character turn doesn’t get developed enough to matter, instead coming across as a somewhat manufactured conflict break. Likewise Tori is looking to redefine herself in college but finding it harder than she anticipated. By the end of the film, her closing voice over quotes John Updike about being reborn every day, and how reassuring she finds this reflection. You could make the argument that through her romantic tryst with Scott, she’s better accepted the notion that she will define herself as she pleases, but I don’t even know if that approaches the conclusion. The two characters with the more clearly defined arcs are Heather and Petroff, and they’re on a relatively straightforward path where their biggest obstacle is hiding their emerging feelings from their mutual friend who would be hurt.
I don’t necessarily know if I’d call The Chair a success. The fascinating premise has given birth to very different movies, but in the end one of them is an aggressively unfunny comedy and the other is an acceptable coming-of-age mumblecore entry. It’s hard to call either a rousing success. Not Cool is an abysmal comedy that is overly reliant on witless shock humor to substitute for storytelling basics. Dawson makes a slew of bad decisions, mostly playing to ego or his built-in audience, but I’ll say at least he goes for it. Martemucci certainly comes across as the more promising filmmaker; her film is better on a technical level and her handling of actors is far defter. At the same time, her aim is lower with her goals and her character arcs less defined. I suppose you could argue the hazy arcs tap into the characters trying to better find themselves but I won’t. Hollidaysburg is clearly the better film but Dawson’s legions of fans came to his service, and in the fall of 2014, Dawson was declared the victor by a majority of public voting. I purposely wanted to watch the finished movies before delving into the TV show so my feelings toward the filmmakers would not influence my reviews. Usually Project Greenlight was at its best when things were falling apart for its fledgling filmmakers, and I imagine the same level of entertainment will be had with The Chair. My foreknowledge will create a delicious dose of dramatic irony, as I know what all these efforts will lead toward. In my head I’ll likely be thinking, “Not worth it.”
I’ll add to this double-review after watching the series for any additional thoughts on Dawson and Martemucci as filmmakers and human beings.
Update: After having watched all ten episodes of The Chair, I can say neither director comes off terribly well. Martemucci is indecisive, poor with time management, and loses the big picture, but she’s far more open to collaboration and criticism. Dawson knows what he wants, is decisive, but is also quite thin-skinned and defensive and hard-headed to criticism. He seems incapable of thinking outside the bubble of his fanbase. He also has a far higher opinion of many elements of his film that I found awful, but that isn’t surprising. What’s surprising to me is that established producers could read Dawson’s script and watch the final movie and say, “Yeah, this is good.” Not everyone did though, as I discovered Quinto and another producer were so appalled by Not Cool that they elected to take their names off of it. they did not want to be associated with that material, which Dawson has trouble seeing as more ugly than standard “raunchy teen sex comedy” stuff (it is uglier, Shane). The funniest part for me was a tattoo parlor owner who discovers Dawson’s YouTube resume after she agreed to let him film in her parlor. She doesn’t want her shop’s name visible and associated with what she feels is racist, sexist unfunny jokes. She even chastises Chris Moore about it. It’s like this one tattoo shop owner spoke as the prophet of me and all other home viewers and those who endured the awfulness of Not Cool. Congratulations for telling it like it is, Pittsburgh small business owner.
Not Cool: D