Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bang Your Head

San Diego's Comic-Con International is naturally a big deal for fans of comic books. Heck, the whole thing began because comic fans wanted to get together and meet big names in the industry. That's what fandom is, and few conventions have expanded as much as Comic-Con since it's inception in 1970. For years, new television shows have also had an impact, as many potential fans learn of shows like Heroes and The Walking Dead first through the previews and panels at Comic-Con. It was only natural progression for the film industry to get in on the act, and many major releases over the years have appeared there. At 2010's Comic-Con ALONE, there were announcements for forthcoming films Captain America, Green Lantern and 2012's The Avengers, and preview trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Tron: Legacy and Machete, among others. One that might have flown under a few radars (but not under mine) was the recently-released Hesher, produced by Natalie Portman and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though it's heavy-metal influence wouldn't seem to fit with the comic book crowd (and to be fair, it really didn't), the transformation of Gordon-Levitt into a chain-smoking, crude malcontent seemed too off the wall to discredit, and the strength of the scene previewed for attendees was surprisingly good thanks to his stellar acting. A year later, Hesher finally made its way into theaters. Though it came out nearly two weeks ago, I had pushed it down my list of must-sees, behind more popular fare Bridesmaids, Priest and Everything Must Go. With very few visitors to see this film however, I knew I had to make room for it in my schedule before it was booted from theaters, and so I caught a recent showing (with a larger than expected audience; no theater will ever be as empty as my showing of The Warrior's Way) with no expectations other than a great performance from the leading man. I just didn't know if that would be enough.

Seriously, that's the kid from 3'rd Rock from the Sun. Fear him.
After his mother dies in a car accident, T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) is deeply depressed and plain sick of the world. He and his father Paul (RainnWilson) now live with Paul's mother Madeline (Piper Laurie) and go to grief counseling, but don't seem to be making any progress. T.J. develops a crush on a supermarket checkout clerk named Nicole (Portman) after she rescues him from a bully, but isn't sure how to approach her. That changes when T.J. meets Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), a homeless, troubled and mean-spirited youth who ends up living in the family's garage, with T.J. and his father so depressed they are unwilling to remove him. Hesher soon becomes an integral part of their lives, helping (in his own way) with their various issues and putting them down the road to recovery.

Hesher manages to keep his shirt on a total of about ten minutes
This film basically lives and breathes on the basis of Gordon-Levitt's performance. Having made a name for himself playing non-violent, almost nerdy characters, his performance here is nothing short of miraculous, only cementing his incredible talents as an actor. Hesher is rude, crude and foul-mouthed, and everything that he says is comical carnage, laying out an entire theater with laughter. Even in the film's later stages, when the script forces him to be more sensitive and honest, he's still a comic hoot, and I never expected to laugh so much during this film. Gordon-Levitt simply becomes so entrenched in the character that he completely melts into the role. Hesher is the number one reason to see this film, bar none. Since the story is told from T.J.'s perspective, Brochu needed to be a solid talent to handle the film's narrative, and he vaults this low bar easily enough. Having to play against Hesher's mouth, T.J. is a much more silent character, having to express much of his dialogue through unspoken emotions. Though there are a few obvious crocodile tears involved, he manages that part of the job okay. It's the few chances he gets to speak where Brochu really shines through, especially in arguments with Gordon-Levitt or Wilson. Wilson at first doesn't do a lot as Paul, T.J.'s father, but sit around on the couch and look depressed; he does such a good job doing it that you really connect when he starts to snap out of it in the film's later acts. Wilson is like many actors who are best suited to these types of secondary roles, and a strong post-Office career seems secure in that vein. Portman plays the only "normal" character in the film, her role a good bounce-off for T.J.'s silent depression and Hesher's insanity. Sadly, that's all the purpose Nicole has, as she doesn't have much to do with the film's long-term implications. Finally, Piper Laurie is second only to Hesher in laughs department as T.J.'s senile grandmother who adapts best to Hesher's appearance in her home. Some of the best scenes feature both Hesher and Madeline, especially at the family dinners.

Yes, Natalie Portman is in YET another 2011 film... not that I'm complaining
The script is hilarious, but it does run into some problems. Written by director Spencer Susser, the film spends far too much time not doing anything while reveling in its silliness. The film's first half almost seems to be a Hesher tutorial to get you acclimated with the few details you NEED to know while supplying laughs to the audience in abundance. The second half ramps up the purpose, but also ramps up the cheese and melodramatics to a point that is almost painful to take in. Everybody reconciles with everybody else and Hesher unsurprisingly is the reason for all of that, but I would have liked a less traditional storytelling formula used for such unique characters. Also, Hesher's character often goes bat-shit crazy, almost scaring of the fans that he'd cultivated to that point. Thankfully the humor never lets up; the dialogue and Hesher's ability to appear seemingly from thin air drive the film to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

This is pretty much the mentality we should all have
I really didn't know what to expect from Hesher, which is why I put it off seeing it for so long. I'm glad I did finally see it, however, as the insane humor, great characters and good if not great story were more than I could have ever imagined from a novice director and a metal soundtrack that might not be my preferred musical genre. Hesher comes in at #9 for 2011; it's not P.C., its not polite and your parents might look at you funny for liking it, but it's still a lot of fun if you just sit back and allow the talents present to take you to places you didn't think you'd ever appreciate.

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