"If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady."
The Godess: Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World
I’ve got to stop judging books by their covers – or more precisely, DVDs and videos by their cases. I usually decide if I want to rent a movie within three seconds of looking at the box, and that’s without even reading the description on the back. If a film looks too “deep” or it’s a boxing movie or it stars Kevin Spacey, I won’t bother with it.
There’s another class of films I often pass over – ones I want to see, but it never seems to be the right moment for. I mean, I can’t say I’ve ever bounded gaily into the video store eager to rent In the Bedroom or Maria Full of Grace. I keep waiting to be in the right mood, which apparently I’m never in.
The last category of films I don’t end up renting are movies that I need to watch with someone else – maybe someone in particular, maybe a group of people. (I still haven’t seen 24 Hour Party People or the Mayles Brothers’ cult documentary Grey Gardens for this reason.) Since most people prefer going out to watching movies at my place (the fools), the list of good cinema I haven’t seen grows longer and longer.
One picture that eluded me for several months matched all three criteria. The Saddest Music in the World is a black comedy from avant-garde Canadian director Guy Maddin, who makes David Lynch look like John Hughes. Positive reviews and my love of leading lady Isabella Rossellini landed the film on my “must-see” list, but I thought it would be some sort of inscrutable existential comedy like I [Heart] Huckabees and therefore always managed to defer actually sitting through it.
Last week, however, it came off the “New Rental” shelf at TLA Video (the best video store in town), which meant it would only cost $3.50 and I’d have it for five days (Enough time for someone – anyone — to come over and watch it with me). I was hard up to find anything better, so I rented it – and it turned out to be the funniest movie I’ve seen in a year. And not funny in an “Oh, how droll” kind of way; I mean “laugh out loud and spill your Greyhound” funny.
Set in Winnipeg, Canada during the Great Depression, the film stars Ms. Rossellini (sigh) as an eccentric beer baroness who holds a contest to determine which country has the saddest music on Earth. Representatives from Timbuktu to Siam ("homeland of dignity, cats and twins") descend on the icy village and match off in Fight Club-style face-offs. Mark McKinney (“Kids in the Hall”) costars as the American contender (despite being Canadian) and Maria de Medeiros(Bruce Willis’ bobble-headed girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) plays his nymphomaniac playmate Narcissa. Did I mention Narcissa has the attention span of a goldfish and the Baroness sports artificial glass legs filled with the very lager she made her millions from?
Filmed in gauzy, blue tones that evoke a half-remembered dream, Music creates its own universe, where people punctuate their dialogue with lethal zingers and Gershwin tunes fill the arctic air. Maddin is known for being somewhat -- ok, very -- off-the-wall, but he wisely reins it in here and lets his international cast take center stage. The result is a super-stylized film that's both intimate and universal; realistic and fantastical; romantic and sardonic. Whether you love art films or prefer to watch popcorn flicks like Legally Blonde 5: Back to the Bleach, make it your business to see this one.
P.S.: I have to say I couldn’t have picked a better person to see the film with than my friend Bill Roundy, an aficionado of all things fine and good and the possessor of a particularly wicked cackle. We yelped at all the same moments and both insisted on rewinding to catch missed bits of comedy gold. I highly recommend watching this film with someone who shares your sense of humor -- especially if it’s of the dry, barbed variety.