Sunday, November 17, 2013


Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes comic strip came along at just the right time. Doonesbury was beginning to feel like a relic from the 1970s, while bizarre '80s strips like The Far Side were already wearing thin. What the country needed was a new version of Peanuts, and Watterson's lovable little strip, which debuted in 1985, fit the bill perfectly. Joel Allen Schroeder's Dear Mr Watterson  makes it clear that the strip was not only timely, but has transcended its era.

For a decade this deceptively simple saga of a rambunctious boy and his loyal tiger friend won a worldwide audience and enough awards to make the strip feel like a rarity: it was both critically acclaimed and commercially viable. It was funny, smart, beautifully drawn, and occasionally, when Watterson clued you in that Hobbes was really just a stuffed toy, poignant. (I remember feeling quite down the first time I read a strip where Hobbes' true state was revealed, and then sort of giddy every time thereafter, as if I was the only one in on the secret.)  Watterson closed shop unexpectedly in 1995, putting an end to the strip and going into a JD Salinger type of seclusion. The "funnies" have never been the same.
Schroeder's film is a labor of love that had to be made eventually, and after seeing it I can only wonder why it took so long for someone to try it. Schroeder, a lifelong fan of the strip, approaches this documentary as only a beginner with a ton of enthusiasm would: he gets as many people as possible to praise the great strip, visits Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to point out that the scenery resembles some of what we saw in Watterson's drawings, and even visits a cartoon museum where Watterson's original artwork is stored.  Schroeder fawns over certain old panels as if he's cherishing the Holy Grail.

He rounds up several other cartoon artists, such as Berk Breathed of Bloom County fame, to pay their own tributes to Watterson. Schroeder isn't a historian, but he's smart enough to link Calvin and Hobbes to earlier strips, such as Pogo and Little Nemo,  and it's to his credit that he gives the older strips plenty of coverage. It's also kind of bittersweet to realize how much the comic strip genre has changed, and how Calvin and Hobbes may well be remembered as the last of the great ones, the final link in a chain going back a century to Krazy Kat
Still, there is bit too much glowing in these tributes. Schroeder had the chutzpah to make the film, but lacks the journalistic nature to make it a good one. After 10 or 12 minutes, a monotony sets in. Rather than having different people explain different aspects of Watterson's art, Schroeder just films one person after another saying basically the same thing; that Watterson was awesome, that he was beloved, and that he raised the bar for other comic strip artists. There's also the tired old argument about whether comic strips should be considered "art" or not.  Instead of wasting time with that banal old saw, he should have found something else to focus on. For instance, very little attention, if any, is paid to Watterson as a person. What made him tick? Wasn't there a single old friend or teacher around who could have shed some light on the subject? All we learn is that Watterson was a great talent who stuck to his principals. We knew that going in.
Although Watterson refuses to give autographs or be photographed, and wasn't likely to take part in this documentary, he's not quite the Howard Hughes character Schroeder would lead you to believe. Watterson occasionally grants an interview,  and as recently as this month he spoke with Mental Floss magazine, saying the strip "created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process."
He didn't license his work for commercial endeavours, which is why you've never seen a Calvin and Hobbes lunchbox or plush toy. As Schroeder's film suggests, this avoidance of commercialism could very well be why the strip maintains such a powerful grip among its followers. Watterson instinctively knew that an influx of toys and games would water down his product. His message may be, Pay attention to the comic strip, because all you need to know is in the panels, not in a toy.

Dear Mr Watterson may not be the ultimate word on a  late 20th century phenom, but it does have a quiet charm, and Schroeder's reverence for the subject is admirable. As the movie rolled on, it became apparent that nearly every comic strip artist working today owes a little something to Watterson. They know it, too, and don't hide it. Look at any comics page, if you can find one. You'll see an explosion of Watterson wannabes. The impression I get is that they're all sort of hoping Watterson comes out of seclusion someday, just to acknowledge them, as if he's an absentee father who has sired dozens of ink stained imitators.
If you wondered what Jason Sudeikis would do once he left Saturday Night Live, the answer can be found in We're The Millers. He's taking the roles that once would've been Dane Cook's.

Sudeikis plays David Clark, an underachieving pot dealer who gets involved in smuggling "a smidge" of marijuana over the Mexican border. To avoid suspicion, he creates a makeshift family out of the aging stripper next door (Jennifer Aniston), a nerdy kid (Kenny Rossmore) and a mouthy runaway (Emma Roberts).  The bad news first: it took four writers to put this one together, and it shows in the meandering script. What starts out as an amusing situation comedy involving this oddball family arrangement turns into a generic modern "action- comedy" involving drug dealers. In the old days, it would've been the mafia, you see, but that's given way to a new stereotype: Mexican drug lords.

Still, the unwieldy story provides some genuine laughs. Sudeikis and Aniston can't help but be funny and likable, and they have some surprisingly strong chemistry onscreen, while Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are excellent as a couple of would-be swingers the "family" meets on the road. The real scene stealer, though, is Kenny Rossmore as Sudeikis' oblivious "son."  Not only does he overcome a grotesque spider bite, he enjoys a scene with his fake mom and fake sister that would have pleased Sigmund Freud.

Although We're The Millers is a pleasant enough way to kill an evening, here's hoping Sudeikis doesn't get too comfortable in these formula comedies. He's already been in a few, including Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, and The Campaign. I think he's better than these movies. He exudes an intelligence that needs to be tapped into by directors and screenwriters. There are probably a dozen more screenplays drifting around Hollywood that have been turned down by the likes of Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, and Owen Wilson. Sudeikis doesn't need their sloppy rejects. Give them to Ashton Kutcher. On the other hand, it's probably good that I'm not Sudeikis' agent. Horrible Bosses II is already in production, and We're The Millers was an even bigger box office hit than that one. We'll probably get a repeat of the Miller "clan" before we see Sudeikis in a film worthy of his talents. In the meantime, I'll be patient, because I like the guy.



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