The Prism: ‘Adrift,’ ‘Action Point’

Welcome to our new weekly review column, The Prism.

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Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome to The Prism.

We’re all just out here trying to survive, right?

The cinema has long been a place of disaster-ridden escapism, with some macabre film executive long ago deciding that it would be fun to watch people survive in fictional (or “based on a true story”) scenarios on the big screen, so that the audience can munch on popcorn while an island-bound Tom Hanks laments at the loss of his volleyball companion Wilson, or poor park guests try not to become the early bird special for 65 million years plus crowd. Your big queen-size bed waiting for you at the end of the show makes it easier to stomach.

No masked slasher or ne’er-de-well gunslinger has amassed a higher body count than Mother Nature, and in Adrift, she comes to kill a sullen romance on the high seas.

Building a good romance is a bit like tossing dough to make a pizza crust. You’ve got to pound and roll the dough around to firm it up, but the deftest of touches completes the process in the air. You’ve got to do the leg work to cast the likeable leads, make sure the script doesn’t sick the starstruck lovers in dialogue that would come out better in chunks (yes, those chunks) and ensure that whatever journey the romantics go on doesn’t hold back the genuine lovey-dovey-ness of all of it.

Misery loves company, so it’s no wonder so many romances are predicated on an afternoon gone wrong. Adrift sends Shailene Woodley, who plays a carefree globetrotter with no set destination, with Sam Claffin, a carefree globetrotter with no set destination and a beard, into a tropical depression. The two meet on land in Tahiti, and drift into each other’s arms, their shared love of all things nautical and free-spiritedness the, ahem, anchor to their swoon. It sounds corny, but it’s a real story, and Woodley and Claffin have a comfortable chemistry with each other. It’s not exactly Bogart and Bergman, but you believe that these two make sense for each other. It makes sense that Miles Teller, Woodley’s real-life on-screen Bergman, was once cast in this role.

Baltasar Kormákur, whose ignored 2015 against-the-elements drama Everest will have you reeling the next time your morning hike hits a hill, has found a nice little niche in telling big stories that nest their humanity in little moments, and while Adrift is far from his best movie, it’s the best example of his patience. He’s not going to barrow you with waves and desperation every second – he wants you to care about the couple headed into the maelstrom, and care, you do. Everyone involved buys into the story, even if the story itself begins harder and harder to buy into once the switch gets flipped.

Well, there’s a bugaboo of a plot twist that nearly drowns the entire affair, though it’s not one the film exactly could’ve avoided. Y’know, real story and all. Once the ship goes sideways, and Woodley and Claffin are in survival mode, the film takes on an added layer of worry and weariness, and survival comes full circle. Here, the two lovebirds learn what it means to really love another person, for better or for worse. Both actors deepen the once-relaxed romance in the moments of turmoil, cementing in why they’re made for each other – the two haggle over whether Woodley can break her vow of killing and eating meat when fish becomes necessary for their diet at sea, they share awkward peanut butter salvation when a rogue jar washes into sight on the dingy, they sing together, they share fears of surviving their ordeal, Woodley tend to Claffin’s beat-up leg like it were her own. It’s what love is supposed to be; not just what they typically show you in those dime back disaster romances.

But, the waves continue to bellow against what works so well, because, once again, this is a real-life story, and this is a film where the creative minds involved decided to mix around scenes of the surviving at sea with scenes building up the aquatic ardor, and how they got to the aquatic accident. It’d be a simple fix to just put the film in chronological order, but it’s a dead weight as it’s composed. Again, *this is a real-life story,* and the film’s late twist bellies up like a catfish in a vat of chemical waste. But, that’s really how it went, so you’re appreciative and thankful that’s how the boat actually goes into dock. The real-life trauma endured isn’t ever lost on you, but one retroactively wonders if this would’ve have been better staying on the shelves at your local Books-a-Million from a story-sense. But, then you’d lose what’s in between. Certainly a quagmire for the Queequeg.

Adrift somehow survives the late reveal, and the awkward structure, to remain an alluring meditation on the kind of love that carries water. You might not make it all the way to shore, but you don’t regret setting sail with this kind of silent wisdom, and these lovely leads.

Survival can go past what we typically expect – how about surviving an afternoon New Jersey’s most dangerous amusement park?

In Action Point, the latest Jackass mini-reunion, the crotch-shots just don’t land as hard as they used to.

Make no mistake, it still hurts like a hill of beans to get pegged square in the family jewels and is still as funny as all get out when you’re not the bullseye. But, even ball jokes have an event horizon.

In the film, Johnny Knoxville, the merry king of Jackass’ crash dummy court, brings his old pal Chris “Party Boy” Pontius along for his latest shenanigans, all at once a piece of fan mail and a eulogy for a by-gone era where theme parks like Action Point could exist.

At Action Point, the only rule is to have fun. That sounds fine in theory, but when kids are falling through the slides and cutting their legs open, and are smoking at the ticket booth, and are flailing about like they’re at The Three Stooges’ version of Disney World, it’s fair to feel like a few rules would do this venture some good. It’s the Most Unsafe Place on Earth, just the way Knoxville and company like it.

The park’s story is told through Knoxville in aging makeup as the grandpop version of his main character D.C., because no actor loves to get decked out in elderly disguise and make a fuss like he does (not even Eddie Murphy). This character is the kind of old fogey who bemoans the era of the helicopter parent, and would love to take a flamethrower to anything “politically correct.” Early in the film, he spouts out a racially-crude epitaph, only to begrudgingly correct himself. At least he’s trying?

D.C.’s daughter comes into town for the summer, but so do the winds of change. A local business schmooze (Dan Bakkedall) named Knoblach (a name perfect for R-rated alterations) wants to tear Action Point down and use it for development land, and as the rickety park struggles to make end’s meat, D.C. and his band of “Shitbirds” (a little family of flunky, frolic-loving park employees) devise a plan to save their stomping grounds. If this sounds like a spec script that dropped into the back of some studio exec’s filing cabinet in 1983, you’d be right. The thing is a formulaic as doing the Macarena in neon pants.

Knoxville and company want to not only homage the raunchy 80s fight-the-man comedy, but, indeed, the times themselves, when you rubbed dirt on knee scrapes, didn’t mind your mouth and didn’t worry about having anything but a good time. Times change, and we get older. Hypersensitivity can be a blessing and a curse, and while it’s been refreshing and needed to adjust the way we view things like concussions, racial awareness and, particularly for this slice of film, the way we treat and view women, one does kind of get where Action Point is coming from – maybe we do need to loosen the stick in our butts just a hair, just enough to sit a bit more comfortably than normal. Trumpism pulled the stick right out and smacked progress in the face with it, so there are extremes to avoid, of course.

But, the film needed more duct tape to hold its shaky ends together. It’s a vapid affair, one that’s spliced together with Jackass-approved stunts (that was the key to the marketing campaign), a father-and-daughter routine performed as frequently as “Free Bird” is at country cookouts, pathetic attempts to meet the “R” threshold and enough rally the troops brouhaha to paint that Bill Murray recruiting poster from Stripes. It’s a pale comparison to what’s come before, and, let’s be real honest here for a second, what came before really wasn’t all that great in the first place.

Though, Action Point puts forth an anarchistic streak that feels good to shake around in, because, yeah, the man does suck, and screw that guy. And, it feels like an act of catharsis for Knoxville and Pontius, who have seen Father Time and Vine make their Jackass stunts impossible and irrelevant for modern audiences. Who wants to pay to watch a jackass when your next-door neighbor just uploaded his latest screw up to YouTube for free? These guys are getting older, and the evening sun is setting low. A few more days, and they must go.

Knoxville is the fixed point here, and it’s fascinating to watch him maneuver in the film. He takes his stunts in stride, but they feel lonelier than usual. Most of his big gags are surrounded by random young actors we don’t know, and while they, and we, laugh at the shenanigans, you miss the comradery of the Jackass days, where even the most painful of nipple pinches or trips on the ice were met with instant pats on the back or bear hugs. Those guys loved to get hurt, but they also loved each other. Knoxville looks a bit weary, a little tired, not quite as spry, but still somewhat game. A blooper in the closing credits shows one of the less-dangerous stunts taking a toll on Knoxville’s body. The crew applauds when he gets up, instead of running over to slap his butt and send him off for another go.

Something’s off.

The familiar pranksters have indeed thinned out, and Knoxville and Pontius are left to corral about in a mediocre studio comedy, and do their best to keep the spirit alive. The former’s swagger is reminiscent of John Wayne in his farewell film, The Shootist. There, a sickly cowboy ventures into town to effectively find his death bed, and is only greeted with friendly familiarity by Jimmy Stewart’s local doctor, who shoots the breeze with Wayne about the wilder days and offers him some medicine to make the dyin’ a little easier for the old pilgrim. Everyone else around either wants to kill him, or ogle at his former glories. He’s still got his shot, but it ain’t gonna last much longer.

Pontius reminds you a bit of Stewart here – he’s the goofy, loveable oaf who just hangs around because he’s supposed to be there, the kind of character who would show up on Jackass and blend in just fine. That architype doesn’t exactly work for most fictional movies (typically, characters need to serve something grander), but for something trying to desperately recapture whatever magic still exists in a nut shot, he’s more than welcome.

Action Point is Knoxville’s The Shootist, or perhaps his Unforgiven. It’s kind of a lukewarm movie, but it’s also got moments of beauty and melancholy for what it means for those involved. One in particular finds D.C. and his kid at a diner, where the latter begins to bring her insecurities about her father to the forefront. How can you take care of me, she asks, when you can’t quite seem to take care of yourself? The rugged days of being a beer-guzzling Peter Pan to a gang of Shitbirds have to come to an end at some point, right?

Knoxville looks her square in the face and shows his hand. It’s you who gives me fear, not the death-defying tricks and lack of a helmet, he quietly shares, the actor’s teary eyes transcending fiction and reality. You wanted to see a real stunt? Well, here it is, the actor’s finest moment, square in the middle of a movie where he also chases after a porcupine and gets pricked in the leg.

Knoxville is 47 now, an actor whose name isn’t actually “Johnny Knoxville.” He was born Philip John Clapp Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnny Knoxville is a stage name, and one wonders if “Johnny Knoxville” the personality is long for his world. He treats Action Point like it’s a precious farewell, and in that moment of staggering vulnerability with his fictional daughter, shows why Knoxville the actor might have a second wind beyond the demands of what being “Johnny Knoxville” has always called for. He needs to play back that scene at the diner and use to leverage some more dramatic roles. He’s clearly got the chops for it, and drama doesn’t require you to take countless hits in Mr. Johnson’s sack of potatoes. He’s free to take a breather; nobody’s going to question the guy’s status as a gifted slapstick comedian anytime soon.

By the end of Action Point, Knoxville’s D.C. gets everything he wants – he sticks it to the jerk business guy, saves the spirit of the park (if not the land itself), and wins back his daughter. Through all the celebrating, though, you can’t help but wonder if this is really it for Knoxville and his jackassery. Just how many times can a guy approaching 50 be slung by a trebuchet into a wooden barn? That final blooper of him slowly recovering from a stunt gone awry is the last thing you see before the final credits roll. That doesn’t feel like an accident.

The Jackass-style of comedy has its place in comedy history, a hallowed one in the medium. But in an age where kids eat Tide pods, and snort condoms up the nose, and Dumbass Davy is trying to be Facebook’s billionth idiot savant in his dive onto the flaming cardboard table, perhaps it’s time professional stunt comedy is retired. It’s never going to go away in terms of media, but maybe that warning before each and every Jackass episode has lost its prohibitive edge. When we’re all jackasses, should anyone really be a Jackass?

If Action Point really is it, and Knoxville about to hang up the tricks for good, consider this as fitting a farewell vehicle as he could’ve asked for. There are scratches and dings all on the sides of the car, the wheels are flat, and the bumper is missing. But, Johnny Knoxville is not John Wayne, nor does doesn’t need a classic to go out on. Just a humdinger of a jalopy that makes loud “pow” sounds out of the tailpipe, is good for a giggle every now and again and has enough room for everybody that wants in.

That still doesn’t work as a great movie, at least in the format Knoxville and company might be physically able to endure nowadays.

There aren’t any more pranks in the valley.

Maybe that’s a good thing, for Knoxville, and for us.

That’s how you survive, and make that survival count.

 

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