Control Nathan Rabin: The M Word

Sadly, the movie does not live up to the understated elegance of its poster

Sadly, the movie does not live up to the understated elegance of its poster

Well, folks, Corey Feldman month is nearly over. This is the seventh and final article I will be writing about Feldman for the project, eight if you include a round-up compiling my Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning journalism on the tragicomedy team of Feldman & Haim, AKA Haim & Feldman. 

The month has proven to be bigger, more ambitious and more emotionally and creatively satisfying than I had anticipated. The point was not to snark on Feldman’s well-known eccentricities (like he’s a Vegan, what the fuck is up with that? It’s like, “Hello, weirdo much?”) but rather to explore the complexities, richness and cultural significance of a man often written off as a walking punchline but who I have found to be a fascinating and surprisingly deep subject of study. 

And like Feldman himself in concert on Sunday, I want to do more than just churn out a bunch of themed articles. I want to take y’all on a journey that begin with a perversely exhaustive exploration of some of Feldman’s many nadirs from the 1990s, with terrible, juvenile sex comedies like Busted and National Lampoon’s Last Resort, as well as the dire but less sex-crazed Dream A Little Dream 2 (they made a second Dream A Little Dream movie? Why yes! Do life’s wonders ever cease?) and Rock ’n’ Roll High School Forever. 

We began by looking at the juvenilia of Feldman the lost boy, the kid, blundering his way through some hard times and some rough movies. We’re following it up by exploring Feldman the man, the contemporary artist, the author, the activist, the entertainer, the live musician. And while the first four projects I covered here were not overwhelmingly flattering, I’ve come to develop a real respect and affection for Feldman as a performer and a person. 

Feldman and his Angels’ live Vegas review gave me so much pleasure that I didn’t particularly care whether it was guilty, ironic or otherwise, and his book is a vivid page-turner that more than holds up the second time around. That brings us to the fifth and final Feldman film of the month, 2015’s The M Word. 

Patrons had a choice between the 1992 sex comedy Round Trip to Heaven and the more recent obscurity, a collaboration between Feldman and writer, director and actor Henry Jaglom, who has managed to become a veteran, a staple of American independent film, an auteur and a minor legend without getting good. 

Jaglom is a true auteur. His films are utterly distinctive. Unfortunately, one of the things that distinguishes them, hell, the main thing that distinguishes them, is that they’re half-assed and not very good. The M Word is no exception. In fact, it’s just as bad and as cheap as many of Feldman’s earlier films but in a substantially different, more arthouse kind of way. 

The sets, for example, are so cheap, plain and grubby that they might as well have shot the film on leftover sets from National Lampoon’s Last Resort or Busted without anyone have cleaned up or painted in the intervening decades. The movie takes place in a Los Angeles local television station but the production values are sub-local access. 

Though The M Word ostensibly takes place today it feels like it belongs in the 1980s, and not just because Corey Feldman has a sizable role in in. It’s the kind of movie where an entire station seems to share a single computer, which belongs to the IT guy, who has taped images of people like Stephen Colbert to decorate his drab work station and to convey, in spite of what our eyes clearly see and our minds comprehend, that this is an actual television station, and not a couple of sad rooms the production was able to borrow from a disreputable telemarketing company. 

For the first half of the movie, the filmmakers don’t seem to know that social media exists, and maybe would play a role in the day to day functioning of a television station but then it does acknowledge social media in such a clumsy, ham-fisted way (It’s a movie with rallying cries to get on your “Twitter account” which is a little like telling people to log onto to share relevant info) that I experienced intense nostalgia for the half of the movie that takes place in a time-warp where nothing has changed in local decades for decades and decades, and the mere presence of a cell phone looks bizarrely anachronistic, since it clashes so violently with the Reagan-era vibe of the rest of the film. 

Like many of Jaglom’s recent films, The M Word is a vehicle for Jaglom’s muse and frequent collaborator Tanna Frederick, who also happens to be his wife. Frederick has an utterly unique, distinctive screen presence, because actors and actresses of her talent level generally never make it past failed community theater auditions. 

I do not want to be cruel but it’s hard to watch Frederick onscreen and not gawk with morbid fascination at how terrible she is at her job. She’s unlikable, she’s unappealing, she possesses a weird, negative anti-charisma, yet The M Word angrily insists that she is a delightful and irresistible sprite. In a particularly subtle bit of dialogue, someone gushes of her almost hypnotically unpleasant, off-putting character, “Everybody wants to confide in her! She’s a combination Ellen and Oprah.”

The M Word gives its leading lady what I like to call the Lisa’s Red Dress treatment. It’s named, as you might imagine, after The Room’s notorious need to continually insist, in scene after scene, that its femme fatale looks great in a red dress, possibly out of a concern that, without this gentle nudging, audiences might look at Lisa in her red dress and decide, independently, “You know what? Lisa doesn’t look that great in a red dress! It’s actually kind of egregiously unflattering, actually!” 

I don’t want to harp on people’s appearance, so I will just say that true beauty comes from inside and also that everyone is beautiful in their own way. But The M Word needs us to believe that she is irresistible, so in case you’re on the fence as to whether or not you find her attractive, the film’s male lead, Michael Imperioli, tells her that she’s extremely attractive and if you’re wondering whether she’s talented and funny or a bizarrely, even perversely unlikeable actress inexplicably catapulted to lead roles due to her director’s misplaced faith in her, there’s a montage of business man Imperioli watching Frederick’s character perform characters on the kind of bizarre, surreal, brazenly inappropriate kiddie show the likes of which hasn’t existed for decades, if it ever did at all, but that fills Imperioli with joy and laughter. How could any man possibly resist Frederick playing a kiddie-show lobster who talks and acts a little like a racist, outdated caricature of a black man? 

The M Word adorably sets out to say something about a world and a pop-culture media landscape it does not seem to understand at all. It’s one of those kitchen-sink comedy-dramas that tries to be about everything, but just ends up being an overstuffed muddle. The M Word casts Frederick as Moxie Landon, an actress, spitfire and all-around character who is, despite what you might fiercely believe, extremely talented and attractive and like Oprah and Ellen combined with a screwball indie version of Meg Ryan. 

Everybody loves her at the L.A local station where she lights up everyone’s existence like a goddamn lightning bug of quirky delight, and when a big money business guy from New York played by Michael Imperioli comes in to do businessy things with the ratings and the money and the shares and the shows, he cannot of course resist either Moxie’s incredible beauty or her incredible talent, or the incredible magnetism that makes her, in Jaglom’s mind and the minds of all the film’s characters, a combination of Carol Lombard, Gena Rowlands, Norma Rae and Gilda Radner, only better. 

Frederick plays Moxie. Imperioli is Charlie Moon. Even the names are phony and trying way too hard. Moon instantly falls for Moxie so she has no problem kicking current boyfriend Benny Baker (Corey Feldman) to the curb. That instantly turned me against her but the movie delusionally imagines that she is so inherently lovable, and Imperioli is so charismatic, and their chemistry is so strong that we’ll root for them no matter what. None of that is true. 

Imperioli is a distinguished actor with decades of fine work to his resume in stuff like The Sopranos or Summer of Sam (which he cowrote) but you could be forgiven for assuming that he was an unattractive, untalented amateur Jaglom forced to be in the movie against his will. 

Watching veteran actors like Imperioli fumble amateurishly with their dialogue in scenes that invariably rang false made it seem like Jaglom didn't have a script at all, and told all of his actors to articulate, as clumsily as possible, exactly where their characters are in the course of the film and what their immediate desires are, but to do so using language, cadences, body language and facial expressions that make it impossible for audiences to either believe what you’re saying or care about you in any sense. 

The action kicks off when Charlie Moon shows up in LA to make some changes and ends up firing many of the station’s employees, who are disproportionately represented by menopausal and post-menopausal women. In a related development, Moxie here channels Jaglom’s admirable, bravely non-commercial obsession with the emotional lives and complexities of older women, particularly actresses by making a reality show called The M Word that features women in her social circle, primarily a mother played by Frances Fisher, yelling loudly about menopause. 

This is supposed to be important, ground-breaking stuff but it feels more than a little like Reality Bites, where what a program that appears to be compiled of essentially home-movie footage of friends and family is depicted as a potential creative and commercial juggernaut rather than, you know, fucking home movies of associates. 

Moxie didn’t get her nickname by not having a lot of moxie and sassafras. No, she got it specifically because she has been so absurdly gifted in the moxie and sassafras department.. So she gets the ladies of a certain age who have been fired by her new boyfriend to handcuff themselves to their desks, something that very realistically instantly becomes national news. 

Watching and hating and never believing The M Word made me feel sexist. I think it’s great that someone is so interested in the lives of older women, which is endlessly fertile subject matter and the woman onscreen discussing menopause all seem overjoyed to have a place and an audience to discuss something important to them. It’s great that Jaglom loves women and that he loves actors and that he loves his characters, even when they’re thinly conceived and badly acted but actors and women both deserve so much better than The M Word. 

The movie is so slapdash and sloppy at nearly two hours that I felt like I was watching a rough cut that needed to cut a half hour and Jaglom just decided, “You know what? People don’t expect much of my movies. Leave it as it is.” Movies like The M Word exists to service and empower actresses and actors to do personal, creative work that matters to them, which makes it painfully ironic that The M Word features some of the worst acting I’ve seen since, well, National Lampoon’s Last Resort. 

Like Tyler Perry, Jaglom loves and prizes older actresses enough to provide a public forum for them to do some of their worst and most overwrought work. 

Like the most overreaching, misguided and disappointing films of Spike Lee, The M Word wants to ask provocative, important questions. Why don’t we value the lives and life experiences of older women? Why don’t we talk openly and candidly about issues of vital importance to them, like the complicated changes brought about by the onset of menopause? Why do we value money over integrity and social responsibility? Where does a commitment to making money end and a commitment to helping society begin?

Feldman dressed like a normie

Feldman dressed like a normie

The existence of The M Word invites less flattering questions along the lines of “How can Jaglom keep making movies?” How do these things get financed? Who watches these things? And how can Frederick keep getting huge roles she’s astonishingly wrong for?” 

Feldman is the easily the best thing about The M Word. He gives his character a nasally, New York, nebbishy quality and while Feldman’s character isn’t exactly convincing (no one in The M Word) he’s the least egregiously unconvincing actor in the cast. We’re supposed be instantly charmed by Moxie but when Feldman climactically snaps and accuses her and her lover of embezzling money from the station (did I mention there’s a fucking embezzling subplot in this piece of shit for no goddamn reason whatsoever?) I finally had a character I could relate to emotionally. He alone seems to see through Moxie, which automatically won my sympathy.. 

Though broad comedy and an overwhelming stench of cheap incompetence link The M Word to Feldman’s earlier sex comedies, this features considerably fewer bikini babes popping out of their tiny bathing suits and oceans more documentary, or documentary-style footage of women of a certain age talking frankly and colorfully about their relationship with their menstrual cycles and the changes in life they signal. 

Like every other movie I’ve written about for Corey Feldman month, The M Word is terrible. But Feldman is not terrible in it. He’s pretty good, actually, so while the material may still be dire, he at least deserves credit for branching out and evolving as an artist by appearing in movies that are reassuringly terrible, but in intriguing, offbeat new ways. 

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