Cross a transgressive fairy tale with subversive black comedy
Published: April 13, 2011
With Kick Ass' unsuccessful attempt to simultaneously deconstruct and pay homage to the superhero flick, it makes twisted sense that someone would try to push the genre into Taxi Driver territory. Too bad Jamie Gunn doesn't have the postmodern chops to pull it off.
Frank D'Arbo (The Office's Rainn Wilson) is a schlubby short-order cook who loses his grip on reality when Sarah, his ex-junkie wife (Liv Tyler), relapses into the lap of her sleazy drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Unable to accept the injustice, Frank fails miserably attempting to retrieve Sarah. Inspired by a cheesy Christian superhero show and convinced God has given him a sign, Frank becomes a masked crime fighter to win back his wife. Parading in a homemade costume as the Crimson Bolt, Frank cracks evildoers over the head with a pipe wrench, shouting, "Shut up, crime!" Unfortunately, his sociopathic sense of justice isn't reserved for purse snatchers and drug dealers — movie theater line-jumpers also get his wrench.
Eventually Frank teams up with Libby (Ellen Page), a demented comic store clerk, who brings crazy-eyed maliciousness to her costumed sidekick Boltie. Together they hone their vigilante skills and plot to rescue Sarah.
Stranded somewhere between transgressive fairy tale and subversive black comedy, Super wants to eat its cake and have it too. The violence is ugly and brutal at times, and Gunn simultaneously condemns and revels in his bloody mayhem. He sprinkles in weirdly intense moments so you think the film has a point, only to be convinced that it doesn't when broad spoofy scenes from Christian TV's Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) pop up. It's a half-sketched approach to a genre begging for some gusty deconstruction.
Ultimately, the problem isn't Gunn's concept, it's that he isn't a strong enough filmmaker to pull off his premise. Super imagines itself as some kind of gritty confrontation of its subject matter, refusing to adhere to any particular mood or style. But Gunn is just posturing. His script is predictable and unfocused, his pacing is lethargic, and his direction could charitably be called functional.
There are some good moments — when Frank is touched by the "hand" of God and an overheated sex scene with Page — but Gunn can't decide whether he's being ironic, satirical or sincere.
And neither can his cast. Wilson plays Frank poker-faced straight, and it doesn't work. He's neither sympathetic nor unhinged enough to sell the character. Bacon is appropriately rat-faced sleazy as Frank's nemesis but is never given a moment of thematic or dramatic clarity. And Liv Tyler, the unlikeliest cast member, seems confused as to how she ended up in the flick. It's hard to decide whether her on-screen stupor is based on her druggy character or confusion over her agent's casting suggestions.
Only Page shines with her whacked-out, go-for-broke performance. Gleefully and sadistically deranged, she digs into the sexualized nature of violence and female empowerment in a way Gunn only hints at. Blurring the line between sociopath and hero, she laughs and screams profanities while brutalizing her foes. More disturbingly, Page erotically poses and touches herself when costumed as the mini-skirted Boltie. It's as if she's discovering her body for the first time.
All this would be forgivable if Gunn had truly delivered a coherent social and genre critique. Instead, he cops out. Frank, for all his misplaced vigilante passion, is ultimately depicted as a sympathetic sad-sack who finds ironic peace in the end.
Opens Friday, April 15, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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