Monday, July 27, 2009

Annoying Tales of Freelance Writing, Part I

Aside from reading books and watching movies, sometimes our intrepid blogsmith moves away from his comfort zone and attempts to drum up work as a freelance writer. The following is the first in a series of posts detailing the perils of this job.

Earlier this week, a big thing happened. I got my second essay published, this time in Gelf Magazine. I'm very proud of the essay, "Browsing for Godot," which features interviews with Susan Orlean, David Sedaris, and Chuck Klosterman.

Seriously, I'm just relieved this thing ran somewhere. I would have been happy if it was in the circular for FoodTown. I began writing this essay in Fall 2007 for Publishers Weekly, which published my first essay earlier that year. Initially, the editor was very psyched about it, so I started making phone calls, wrote a draft, and sent it off.

Then I wrote another draft, and another. PW eventually said no thanks--the essay wasn't concrete enough. So, I worked on it some more--trimming the fat, reworking points, contacting more sources (namely Sedaris), and consulting friends. I passed it back to PW.

Again, no taker.

Then, after an encouraging word from a few friends, I began shipping it around. Salon politely said no thanks. Slate never got back to me. The New York Times Book Review passed, as did The Chicago Tribune. The Philadelphia Inquirer ignored me like I was a $15.00 screening of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. My editor at The Star-Ledger said there was no room for essays.

At this point, I was determined to get this essay published somewhere, so I turned to Gelf, a great Web magazine that covers the overlooked. (They're also one of the few places that does fantastic interviews with sports writers.) The editor there, David Goldenberg, loved it, but wanted some additions and revisions: cue more phone calls, more red pen wizardry, more starts and stalls.

Then another editor joined in, Adam Rosen (an ever-patient gentlman), who had more suggestions, which led to more revisions and tinkering. So, after all was said and done, the essay you now see went through two years, at least a dozen revisions, and at least that many query letters.

So, what did I learn?

Nothing is ever given to you as a freelance writer. I really wish they would teach this in journalism classes. If you're a freelancer, you better be prepared to scrape and bellow and pound the pavement. Sometimes you get lucky, but more times than not you better be prepared to hear the word "no" more often than "yes." (NOTE: Oddly enough, days after this piece ran, I got two freelancing jobs with suprising ease.)
Still, the satisfaction of hearing 'yes," and then seeing the final product is pretty bloody fantastic. It's an awesome feeling.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Morgan Freeman Sings "One Week"

The title says it all. I found this on YouTube, and I have to say, I was impressed. Hope you are, too.
UPDATE: I know that it's not Morgan Freeman. He's too dignified to something like this.

Yes, We Take Requests

Running a blog is like running a business, and the readers are customers. They must be kept happy, so when requests are made, I listen. And since the person making this request is my girlfriend's brother, I pretty much have no choice.

Please allow me to digress while I turn my attention to a subject outside of the movies: live music and the art of conversation.

Last weekend, the girlfriend and I made the latest in a long line of summer social obligations. The party was an outdoor affair complete with food, sunshine, and live music. I had a very nice time, except for a small wrinkle.
As the band tore through "Feel Like Making Love" and "Sweet Home Alabama," the girlfriend introduced me to a series of people. Needless to say, because the band was loud, I couldn't hear a single word that was said. My means of communication were reduced to smiling and nodding. It was either that or start screaming like I was giving a traffic report from the News 6 chopper.

Conclusion: There's a very good chance everyone I met at said party thinks a lovely, intelligent woman is dating a bearded simpleton.

This got me thinking. Why do people think bars are such great places to meet people, when communication is severely blocked by crowd noise or live/recorded music? Single folks are always talking about how they're tired of the bar scene. I think maybe it's because they've finally realized effective communication is impossible, save for pick-up lines and drink requests. Why do you think the peacock effect works so well at bars? How many times did the guys from The Pick-Up Artist make the rounds at a book club or a housewarming party? With talking severely limited, physical appearance takes the cake.

Then again, maybe I would have made a more memorable impression at this high school graduation party, if I had spiked my hair, popped my collar, and sported a carrot-orange tan. Now, that would certainly get me noticed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Parties and Movies and Peapods

One of the biggest, unsaid things about couplehood is that your social life doubles. With a person now a fixutre in your life, you find yourself going to additional weddings, Xmas parties, and family visits.

Oddly enough, you'd think that with all this exposure to banquet halls and backyard barbecues, that I'd be some great raconteur. Oh God, that's not even remotely the case. I went to a friend's 30th birthday party the other day, and I was reminded of how I haven't socially progressed beyond the seventh grade.


--While introducing my girlfriend to a person I've known for years, I completely blanked on this person's name. There's a photo of me holding this person in my arms, yet I couldn't friggin' remember her name. Ugh. (Sorry, Brooke.)

--At the restaurant, I accidentally ate the discarded pea pods, instead of the fresh ones. This may have happened once or for a period of minutes. Either way, I'm doomed to be like Patrick Dempsey in Outbreak.

--I was reminded of just how awkward it is to enter a party. I wish I were some big, brassy type like Mae West or Rosalind Russell, who could just enter a room and bellow, "HEY EVERYBODY! THE PARTY HAS STARTED!" As a straight man, I legally can't do that, so I just shuffle in.

Self-mockery aside, I had a very nice time with some very friendly people. And I was reminded of something else--the bonding power of movies.

When one of the dinner guests mentioned where I was writing reviews, that got the table started. People wanted to know what I had seen, and were more than happy to chime in with their opinions. The conversation got animated very quickly.

And that reminded me of something: Everyone has a favorite movie, one that defines their life in unseen ways. Everyone's usually loves talking about it because it's simultaneously profound and meaningless. Talk about religion or politics or sports, and the passion becomes volatile.

When you talk about movies, the passion is 100% benign and 100% spirited. Everyone can be an expert. That's why I love 'em so much.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Me, "Up," and Max Von Sydow

As I've mentioned before, the reviews I write for ICON range from one to five stars. In the year or so that the rating system began, I haven't given out five stars once. For me, five stars signifies something almost life-changing, like the times I saw Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. Watching those movies, they almost felt like living, breathing creatures.

That brings us to Up, which finally landed the coveted five stars. (I'm sure the guys at Pixar are doing their happy dance.) Why? I can't remember being so moved by a movie. For some people, crying at the movies is as normal a reaction as laughing or gasping. Not so for me. I remained dry-eyed at Benjamin Button, Terms of Endearment, and even Field of Dreams--one of five movies deemed acceptable for guys to shed a tear.

In fact, I'm usually as jaded as this guy.

But with Up, I cried twice. And not just a sniffle, but full-fledged crying jags so severe that it frightened me. I cried like a soap opera actress, a five-year-old with a skinned knee. It was as if I was malfunctioning. The "something's in my eye" excuse couldn't be used. It was worse than George Costanza crying during Home Alone.

So, that's a big reason for the rating, and why it's the best movie I've seen this year. I do think I Love You, Beth Cooper could pose a threat.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

July's Book of the Month

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they keep libraries in business. Am I the only one who thinks libraries are the best? At mine, the DVD collection is absolutely first-rate and I can get pretty much any book I want, all for minimal cost.

Still don't think libraries are cool. Well, you know who thinks they are? The Fonz! Zac Efron has nothing on Henry Winkler! Whose jacket is in The Smithsonian?

You may find it egregious that I'm only now providing dap for William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I just got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. What a phenomenal read--funny, smart, and brutally honest.

Goldman, in case you forgot, is one of the most acclaimed screenwriters in history, the brains behind All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Misery, and The Princess Bride. He's also a novelist--please, please read The Princess Bride if you get a chance--and co-wrote one of the best sports books ever, Wait Till Next Year.

To me, Adventures is as essential as the yellow pages. Screenwriters will learn how to write from a master. Critics will gain a fresh perspective of how to watch a movie. Everyone else will get stories and anecdotes from a Hollywood veteran who's not only a great storyteller, but who doesn't have an ounce of pretension.

Really, I can't tell you how much I loved this book. Get it immediately from your library. Be sure to say hi to the Fonz while you're there.

We Get Letters...

Since my epic interview with her last year for ICON, Jancee Dunn and I have become friendly. My dream is to form my own version of The Algonquin Roundtable, so it's nice to know that the Dorothy Parker role may be filled. I'm still looking for a Harpo and a Benchley, so if you know anyone...

Anyway, my girlfriend loved Jancee's debut novel, Don't You Forget About Me, and expressed an interest in reading more. Being the big so-and-so I am, I asked Jancee if she wouldn't mind autographing a copy of But Enough About Me (a former book of the month) for the girlfriend's birthday. She enthusiastically agreed, and I mailed the book.

With the book, I sent a letter telling a little bit about my girlfriend and a check. Jancee refused money for mailing, so in the letter I wrote that she should use the check to buy her new daughter, Sylvie (who's adorable), something nice. I have no idea what Brooklyn-based parents buy their kids, and I wasn't about to guess.

True to her word, Jancee wrote a loving inscription to the girlfriend. But she returned my check, which included this note:

Pete! Keep the stinkin' check--seriously! Thanks for getting the book!

With that in mind, Jancee has a new collection of essays, Why is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? available now. Visit for more info.

I'm guessing it's OK to pay for those, but you should probably check with her.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The David Grann Interview

My interview with David Grann, New Yorker writer and author of The Lost City of Z. Enjoy, and please buy his book. It's great, and he put up with my bumbling interview technique.

This interview--surprise!--previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission.

David Grann's obsession with renegade British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett and his 1925 quest to find the ancient Amazonian civilization of Z became so great that the New Yorker staff writer actually wound up in Brazil retracing Fawcett's fatal last mission. He survived, though his laptop computer didn't.
Thankfully, Grann was able to keep good enough notes (his tip: jot them during breaks in the trekking) to come up with a terrific debut book about his and Fawcett's search, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 352 pages, $27.50), which has deservedly earned rave reviews and been optioned by Paramount. Entertaining and informative, it's a perfect beach read.
Over the course of two phone conversations in October and February, Grann graciously talked about the lure of Fawcett's lost mission, his mindset as a journalist, and who would play him in the movie.

Pete Croatto: What was the reaction of your wife--who appears throughout the book--to your growing obsession with Fawcett and the quest to find Z?
David Grann: She has a good sense of humor, which is always helpful, and she's gotten a little bit used to me where I get on stories and I tend to get a little bit obsessive, although I think in this case I went far beyond the bounds of when I've worked on other stories. I think on some level she understands me and kind of understands where it comes from and shares in my curious interests and understands them. I also don't think either of us fully contemplates exactly where I may be going or what I may be doing… She's a journalist too, so I think she understands where it comes from. In many ways, she's the sensible one, though, and she also keeps me a little bit grounded because I don't always think things through.

PC: It's good to have someone like that in your corner.
DG: Yes, it's very good [laughs].

PC: How did you, an admitted non-adventurer, survive the Amazon? (In the book, Grann admits that he tends to "forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn" and that he prefers the comforts of home to the outdoors.)
DG: One, I had a great guide, and I couldn't have done it without a great guide. The honest answer is that I don't often fully think about what I'm doing, I think about much more what I'm trying to get and what I want to know. And it's a powerful motivation, and in many ways that's what I'm thinking about, and it's kind of what propels me. I would never, ever in my life say, "Oh, I just want to go trekking through the Amazon." It wouldn't even occur to me. I would never say to my wife, "Oh, let's go for a vacation camping in the jungle," or "Let's go hunting." But this story in particular is so interesting and the mystery to me so compelling that my desire to try to solve it, understand it, understand what motivated other people, and what motivated Fawcett, is what kind of propels me and kind of gets me going. Perhaps had I done these things in another life, I might have thought twice about them, but there's almost a blissful ignorance.

PC: It's almost like you're in this journalist mode or whole other identity that gets you so wrapped up in finding a story that you don't even notice the inherent danger.
DG: I think that's exactly right. One of the things that compelled me was to understand what drove other people, and what motivates people to do things to risk their lives. In this case, you had a man take his son into the jungle with him when the chances of them surviving were extremely small…In many ways, the book tries to explore this idea of obsession, whatever it may be and whatever form it may take and how it drives people and consumes people. In the case of Fawcett and the many people who followed him, it almost drove them to the point of madness.

PC: Was it always your plan to include yourself in the narrative?
DG: I don't ordinarily put myself in stories that much, and I tend to be more of a cipher who's simply a dispassionate observer in my stories. So for me to put myself in the book was a bit of a leap for me, an uncomfortable leap. But I decided to do it for various reasons. I thought it was a way to bring the reader along and show them the way these things may look to an average person. I thought it was also a way to show how the world changed. One of the interesting things about Fawcett's story is you can really trace this great age of Victorian exploration and these blank spots on the map. And the way people in that era looked at the world and the blank spots of the world and looked at Indians and Native Americans and the perceptions of them and their attitudes toward them. By putting me in the story, the contemporary element, without ever even saying so, you could illuminate how much the world has changed. You can visit the same spots literally by piecing together Fawcett's trail and show what happened to these tribes that he visited. It was a way to complete the circle a century later.

Probably the most important reason, is that in many ways, unintentionally, I became much more part of the story in a way I never expected, which is that as I did more research, and became more and more curious, I found myself in many ways being consumed by the story, the way hundreds and hundreds of people had over the years. And that surprised me, and I thought it's almost the more honest way to tell the story--to try to explore that obsession a little bit and show it, because at that point I wasn't really a dispassionate observer. To just kind of remain on the sidelines, that would not have been telling the story as it was happening.

PC: Is the age of the dashing, intrepid explorer, like Fawcett, dead?
DG: I think the things and the forces that in part propelled Fawcett will still exist, but I do believe he represented the end of an age. He represented the end of an age in part because the physical world was changing so much. He [Fawcett] really was the last of the great explorers of unknown territory and blank spots on the map. He would march into areas of the world where a white person had not been or a foreigner had not been, and literally be making contact with new civilizations and tribes. That exists less and less. Some of the things about the curiosity and the need to take risks and the need to discover, I think, will still exist in people and will manifest itself, but I don't think it will ever manifest itself in the way it did with Fawcett.

PC: The world is only so big.
DG: Exactly…There are a lot of [scientific] discoveries to be made in the Amazon, but the idea of discovering huge swaths of territory and going into them for the first time as an outsider, those days are over.

PC: Every place seems to be affected by modern conveniences of some kind. But it seems to me that the Amazon and the Arctic are the two places where there's not a Starbucks on every corner.
DG: What was so amazing during my trip was to visit places where Fawcett had visited, and clearly it had changed in dramatic ways, but there was a cultural preservation and a continuity with the past that was amazing and remarkable. I encountered various tribes [and] what was so amazing is one, they still had these wonderful oral histories erected, these beautiful epic poems. One of the tribes had one about Fawcett and his son and companion coming in on the final expedition when they disappeared. And they still had that story and could tell it to me. That was kind of amazing. The other thing that was amazing, is that you can still go to parts of the Amazon where you can see tribes and settlements of others cultures that have preserved their cultures and ways of life against enormous odds, facing disease, loggers. Remarkably, they've been able to preserve these incredibly rich and beautiful cultures.

One of the reasons many of these cultures have preserved and settlements have preserved is that the jungle has acted as a barrier to outsiders over the years. And these Native Americans or Amazonian tribes have used the jungle, they've adapted to the jungle, they're able to, in many cases, flourish in the jungle, and they're able to use it as their best defense...[Despite deforestation and other obstacles] some tribes at least were able to retreat deeper into the jungle, and use the jungle as a barrier and to help preserve their way of life…We look at the jungle one way, and they look at the jungle often another way. For us, we just see ominous danger--we can't survive, we see diseases. The tribes that have inhabited this area for so long are able to adapt and use many of the very things that are most threatening to us to actually help enhance and preserve their way of life.

PC: I saw that the book had been optioned.
DG: It was optioned by Brad Pitt's Plan B productions at Paramount. And they've assigned James Grey, who's a great director, and he just did Two Lovers. It's still in its early development stages. If all goes well, Brad Pitt is slated to play Fawcett, which would be terrific.

PC: That's amazing. You have to be excited about that, no?
DG: I'm delighted. It's a pretty cinematic story, so I was really happy that they see possibilities.

PC: Who would you like to see play you onscreen?
DG: It'd probably be a younger version of Woody Allen, unfortunately.

Film Round-Up for July/Something for the Ladies!

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: One of the worst movies of the year; one of the best movies of the year (if not the decade); one of the most overrated movies of the year; and a documentary.

I already talked about The Hangover extensively--thanks to all who commented and read it. Usually, I'd post a picture of Heather Graham, but you know what? Let's give the ladies some love. Here's a photo of Bradley Cooper. What a handsome fella!

The one thing I liked about Graham is that she's not a stick-figure, one of, like, five actresses who's not afraid to have boobs. By the way, the full-figured club lost another member--Kat Dennings. I saw her in The Answer Man yesterday (review next month) and she looked positively gaunt. I felt like mailing her a Wendy's double cheeseburger and protein shake mix.

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with the loving permission of Trina Robba. Enjoy.

R.I.P. Karl Malden--Loved you in Streetcar, where you played the ultimate mama's boy.

Deadgirl (Dirs: Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel). Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, Noah Segan, Michael Bowen, Candice Accola. High school losers Rickey (Fernandez) and JT (Segan) decide to skip class and raise a little hell at the abandoned asylum, where they discover a beautiful woman (Jenny Spain), naked and apparently indestructible. JT decides to make her into his personal sex slave, beginning a gruesome chain of events. That's bound to happen when you make the undead your paramour. Deadgirl badly wants to be in the league of Carrie, Scream, and Brick--high school movies with a smart, substantive hook. And it misses by a country mile. Characters' motives are unclear or never explained. Said characters are either boring or uninspiring, especially Fernandez's limp, wimpy portrayal of the hero. The plot, including the ending, is often incomprehensible. The movie coasts on its sickening premise, hoping that will catch your attention, but by neglecting the simplest rules of good moviemaking, Deadgirl comes across as sad and exploitive instead of offering a twisted, genre-straddling look at youth run wild. It's best left unwatched, especially if you're a member of Spain's immediate family. * NR

Afghan Star (Dir: Havana Marking). Though Afghan Star is like any of the countless call-in television talent shows (e.g. Dancing with the Stars, American Idol) dominating American television, it's the first taste of democracy for many of the show's viewers in Afghanistan. First-rate documentary examines the singing competition's influence as well as how four finalists' lives are affected. Though occasionally heavy-handed, Marking demonstrates the show's colossal importance. Some Afghans campaign for their favorite singers with the fervor of Obama volunteers; the country's residents may be separated by ethnic differences yet they can get behind an amateur singer. A show that many Americans would view as a waste of time or a pop culture frivolity is a slim slice of salvation for a damaged nation living under the threat of the Taliban and a strict moral code. Enlightening and educational, the movie offers a jarring reminder of how we should appreciate our basic freedoms, and how badly others crave them. *** NR

Up (Dirs: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson). Voices: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger. Here's another reason why Pixar has become synonymous with untouchable quality. The studio's latest triumph follows widower Carl Fredricksen (Asner), who on the verge of losing his beloved house, attaches it with balloons and heads to South America, his late wife's dream destination. Just one problem: Overzealous neighborhood kid and "Wilderness Explorer" Russell (Nagai) has hopped aboard, possibly derailing Carl's last chance at happiness. The animation, of course, is first-rate and so is the voice work (Asner is impeccably cast), but what makes Up so moving is the powerful subtlety of its storytelling. The early sequence summarizing Carl and his wife's life together is as touching as anything committed to celluloid, as is the dawning realization that behind Russell's quest for merit badges is an ignored soul. Up is the rare "event" movie that doesn't discount its characters and story, but embraces them. The filmmakers' commitment to that belief, coupled with the movie's superlative imagination, makes Up a staggering achievement. Words can't describe how much I loved it. ***** PG

The Hangover (Dir: Todd Phillips). Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Mike Tyson, Mike Epps, Jeffrey Tambor. A rollicking bachelor party in Las Vegas hits a major snag when three buddies wake up the following morning and can't find the groom (Bartha). Those remaining (Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis) then have to piece together what happened, which involves a surprise wedding, a stolen cop car, and a ton of money. Terrific premise and game performances get you ready to laugh, but Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's script doesn't complete the job. It's heavy on the wacky (Tyson singing Phil Collins, a fey Asian gangster) but painfully short on funny dialogue. Some of the story choices are also puzzling. Why cram in a love interest (Graham) for Helms's character when there's no time to establish a solid rapport? Who thought giving the unfunny Epps more lines than old pro Tambor was a sound idea? The Hangover has already made a lot of money and earned Galifianakis much publicity, but it's no different from any other movie Phillips (Road Trip, Old School) has directed: The parts are way better than the whole. Are audiences really that desperate to laugh? I sure hope not. ** R

Review of Humpday

Bad title, good movie.

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

I'm sure people will go to writer/director Lynn Shelton's Humpday expecting titillation. Or it could be boredom. You see the words "gay porn" in the synopsis, and it looks like more risky business packaged in the aesthetic acceptability of independent, low-budget filmmaking. Nudity and sexual acts, presented under the guise of pushing boundaries, has become such familiar terrain that the independent film world sometimes feels like Las Vegas or spring break. OK, so someone got naked. Who cares?

And that is the master stroke of Shelton's movie, in which two straight college friends (Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard) decide to make a porno together: the sex isn't what hooks you. By dealing with feelings that a mainstream movie would parody or avoid, Humpday is more compelling than the latest art house treasure featuring a talented actor's genitals.

Ben and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are happily married or, at the very least, comfortable. Their bedtime attire is decidedly drab as is their pillow talk--when the movie opens, both laugh in relief when they admit they're too tired for sex. It's not as if the act would have been something out of Cinemax late night; the couple is firmly entrenched in making a baby. Regardless of their happiness, it's clear that complacency is here to stay.

Then Andrew (Leonard) knocks on their door. Ben's crazy college buddy is in the states to fund some vaguely defined art project, and figured Seattle was a good place to start. Anna is obliging and a little surprised, but Ben is thrilled to have him around. The guys start hanging out and it's clear that for Ben, Andrew is more than the return of a long-lost friend. The bearded hepcat signifies the return of fun--hanging out at weird people's houses, staying up late smoking weed--you know, the behavior that tends to stop when you land a mortgage and a steady job. This is not good terrain for Ben to reenter since he's married to a woman who wants to have his child. And that leads to the unfathomable position Ben and Andrew find themselves in, volunteering to have sex with each other for a film competition.

Shelton uses the pending porno to examine the machinations of macho behavior, which at its heart is competition, whether it's an awful basketball game or who will back out of this stupid sexual dare. (The fact that Shelton is female and that this message rings so true is a grand accomplishment.) The great fun of Humpday is that neither guy can back down, and it's funny to watch Duplass and Douglas justify their stupidity (it's artistic, right?), while revealing their reasons for going forward. Ben wants to prove that he's not just some suburban dullard. His life with Anna is great, but it's eating away at the man he was with Andrew. As for Andrew, doing the movie allows him to finally complete something after years of screwing up, but a botched sexual encounter with two ladies shows that Andrew is nowhere near ready for his project with Ben. These two guys are in the stupidest game of chicken, but neither can steer away. Pride is on the line.

But the game is different. The definition of being male has changed for both men, especially since Ben now has Anna to consider, who defines him as much as his suppressed id. Thank goodness that Shelton gives Anna a backbone, and Delmore has a field day, turning a character that could have been a killjoy into someone who surprises you with her depth and keen skepticism. Anna's greatest moment is mounting a late-arriving, hung-over Ben. She's ovulating and angry, so the least he can do is keep quiet.

That scene says it all. Humpday isn't about sex, as much as it is about how it defines us, shapes our views, and makes us act like morons. Shelton's refusal to play dumb or stir controversy in the easy, tired ways (e.g., Zack & Miri Make a Porno) makes her movie all the more daring and entertaining. As a result, something profound happens. [R]