Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bubba Ho-tep

As we all know, there's a dearth of originality in the entertainment industry. For every Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men on television, there are a dozen cop shows, eight of which belong to either the Law & Order or CSI franchises. If a movie turns even a modest profit, someone will try to make a sequel. In the age of reality TV and CGI, laziness has lowered the bar so considerably that a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can make nearly 3/4 of $1 billion worldwide and the new Harry Potter is met with effusive praise simply for being noticeably less mediocre than the majority of the series.

Well, novelist Joe Lansdale and director Don Coscarelli threw down the gauntlet with this one. Bubba Ho-tep starts with that familiar what-if? scenario where in Elvis Presley didn't die. Then it takes a sharp left about 10 seconds in and never lets up. As it happens, the real Elvis is dying in a nursing home with a cancerous sore on his flaccid penis. Back in the '70s, he grew tired of the fame and the manipulation at the hands of his so-called friends and his manager, the notorious Colonel Parker, and switched places with the best Elvis impersonator around, Sebastian Haff. Haff is the one who died on the toilet, while a trailer explosion eradicated the documents proving Elvis' real identity.

Sounds crazy, huh? It only gets better. Also a resident of the nursing home is a man claiming to be John F. Kennedy. The only hitch: he's played by Ossie Davis, and ergo black. When Elvis respectfully points this out, "Jack" replies, "They dyed me this color, all over!" after the assassination attempt at Dealey Plaza. Davis gives his finest performance since the "Mayor" in Do the Right Thing; his sense of comic timing is impeccable, and he never lapses into mugging as he treats this role as seriously as any other.

The movie would have been completely bizarre if it had just stuck with these two interacting, and maybe it should have, but yet another twist is just on the horizon. For you see, a mummy is preying on the slow-moving, forgotten elders in this home, and it's up to Elvis and John F. Kennedy to stop it. If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'. In all honesty, this storyline somewhat takes away from the hilarity of just watching Elvis and Kennedy interact, but Coscarelli films the sequences with such an over-the-top glee that they're just as rewarding in their own way.

As great as Davis is, and as insane as the mummy makes the proceedings, if you need one reason to see the film, it's this: Bruce Campbell. No one has ever looked so much like Elvis, and his drawling swagger makes for the most convincing King since Andy Kaufman. The film hinges on his voiceover narration, which Campbell delivers with a matter-of-fact resignation that is achingly hysterical, yet also hints at an undercurrent of sadness, as Elvis reflects on the nature of dying and society's disregard for the old. Campbell has long been undervalued as the supposed "King of B-movies," but he brings genuine pathos to the role, even if that pathos is in itself funny.

Bubba Ho-tep is bursting at the seams with ideas. Those ideas may be universally absurd, but that's what makes this such a fun ride. You can tell how deeply the makers cared for and loved the project in the DVD commentaries, one of which is uproariously delivered by Campbell in character and another in which Campbel and Coscarelli take just enough time out of laughing at the silliness of the film to offer genuine gratitude and admiration for those involved. A film like this does not ask to be taken seriously, but I see more creativity and joy of the craft than I do in the overwhelming majority of pictures that nab Best Picture nominations every year.

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