“The Woody Allen the world needs is not the man who asks ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but the one who asks ‘If Christ was a carpenter, what does he charge for bookshelves?’”
The above sentence comes from the final essay in If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble by Joe Queenan. It’s an analysis of Woody Allen’s catalog of movies and why people continually say to the director, “We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones.” This is one of the many essays written by Queenan that are collected in this book. The first book of his I read, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, was a very funny, vicious look at Hollywood and the movie business. This is an earlier book, collecting essays from the early 1990s written for Movieline, Rolling Stone, and one article for the Washington Post, and contains many of the same elements. However, while Heckler was chockful of hilarity, insults, wisecracks and the like, this one doesn’t have as many of these. Instead, there are some very fine articles analyzing movies and the careers of certain stars (Jessica Lange, Sean Young, Keanu Reeves, for example). Thus, while I found Heckler much more entertaining than this book, I found this one much more interesting.
That’s not to say there aren’t hilarious articles dealing with the categorization of movies by various odds and ends included in them (such as the opening essay, which deals with older men falling love and having sexual relations with jailbait in the movies). Some of the funniest articles I’ve read from Queenan are in this book, such as his attempt to “be Mickey Rourke for a day.” In this article, he details how he went four days without bathing, dressed up all in black, and determined to travel throughout New York acting like Mickey Rourke, doing and saying things that he has said in his movies or in interviews. This includes trying to find a prostitute who will fondle a blond woman like the prostitute Rourke makes do this to Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks, smoking tons of cigarettes, and repeatedly telling complete strangers that “sometimes, you just gotta roll the potato.” He also swears a lot.
The funniest article in the book has to be his list of twenty-five of the most senseless movies ever made. These are not movies that are just plain stupid, because usually even stupid movies are easy to follow. No, these are movies that make no sense whatsoever. Included in this list is Joe Versus the Volcano, The Night Porter, The Two Jakes, and King David. He goes on to describe just why these movies have made the list. In this essay, he reaches the heights of vicious humor and commentary as he savages these films. Even if you disagree with him (as my wife does on a couple of them), you will still find this article worth reading and laughing at.
Other categorization essays include bad clerics in movies, musicians in movies (and why they usually are terrible), the first installment of “Don’t Try This at Home” (where he tries various things that happen in movies and see if they are even remotely realistic), and a complete castigation of the use of bad accents in movies. These articles vary between wonderful and passable, with most being toward the former. “Don’t Try This at Home” is the only one that is a letdown. Queenan’s at his funniest when he lists movies by category and shows why it is a bad thing that they are in this category.
I was quite surprised, however, to find some truly introspective articles in this book as well. No, Queenan doesn’t let his trademark wit leave him, but these articles are tempered by some true compliments and compassion. These articles were written before most of Hollywood started avoiding him, so there are some articles with actual interviews. Queenan uses these interviews as starting points to analyze the careers of the actor or actress in question, and he does a surprisingly fair job of it. The article on Sean Young is very fair to her, even though it does tend to emphasize the fact that she was taking high school algebra lessons right before the interview. Even so, he sounds quite impressed that she’d be willing to do this. Other interviews with Keanu Reeves and Jessica Lange, while perhaps showing them in not the best light, are extremely complimentary of their work, even in bad films. I found these articles very interesting and I’m glad I read them. They showed me a side of the stars that you normally don’t see (and that is probably why nobody will talk to him anymore).
He is a bit less compassionate when he is analyzing a career without the input of the celebrity in question, such as when he questions Barbra Streisand’s move away from light comedies to the pretentious and disastrous movies she’s made since. He also has a brilliant analysis of Alfred Hitchcock movies (or at least brilliant-sounding, since I have never seen one of his movies) and how they represent some of Hitchcock’s true feelings about things. It’s very insightful and will take the reader past the surface of his films to dig deep into how these movies reflected his own neuroses. I found it fascinating. Even in these articles, though, he finds some good things to say about the subjects, and that’s what made them even more interesting.
The only real misses in this book are the shorter articles. I don’t know if it’s because Queenan needs time to really delve into his subject to make it interesting, or if he just needs time to get himself going, but the shorter articles inevitably fall flat. Thankfully, that shortness makes them easy to digest before moving on to the meatier, far better essays.
I think Queenan has become bitter since the writing of these articles, as can be seen in how biting the humor is in Heckler compared to this one. This book still contains some cutting barbs, but I would almost call this a “purer” Queenan, before he was dragged down by the stars’ reactions to what he has said about them. It’s funny that he introduces the book by saying he sent out a request to seventy-five movie stars asking them for interviews for a book he was doing about the movies. Only two of them even bothered to respond, and that was with a note from their publicist turning him down rather harshly. He’s already reveling in his reputation, but I found some of the essays in this book to be much fairer to them than his reputation would seem to indicate. Perhaps they didn’t like the way his articles portrayed them, but I didn’t really see the problem with them. In fact, I would even recommend the reading of some of these articles to people who don’t like his sarcasm and insulting articles. They are definitely worth the read.
The book is still sprinkled with vulgar language, and some of the articles are on the sharp side, so if you don’t like biting humor and quite a few f-words, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you don’t mind that stuff and you like movies, this book is definitely worth reading. You may not always agree with Joe Queenan, but you will definitely enjoy the ride.