At the Drive-In

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09/03/2008 10:52 AM |

In which Jesse Hassenger sits in his car and watches an Incongruous Double Feature© of end-of-summer detritus. (Nothing says “America” like watching forgettable movies in your car.) Then a portly patrolman tapped on his window with a Maglite and told him to keep his hands to himself.

I went upstate to my hometown over Labor Day weekend, and one of the best things about going to the movies upstate, at least around where I grew up, is the availability of drive-ins. This almost makes up for the fact that about eighty percent of the area’s movie theaters are in malls.

Drive-ins still have an aura of abandonment around them, thanks to the mass closings of the eighties and nineties, but if this data is to be believed, the shuttering has at least leveled off, with only a handful of closings each year. At this rate, they’ll take another hundred years or so to die out, and we’ll all be traveling by robo-falcon by then anyway. Anecdotally, I can report that there were a whole lot of cars at the Malta Drive-In on Saturday night, at least over on Screen One, which was playing a triple feature of Wall-E, Indiana Jones, and Iron Man. We weren’t parked at Screen One, though; we were over in the Fox dustbin that made up Screen Two, with Babylon A.D., The Rocker, and the X-Files sequel (we only stayed for two movies; the triple feature is a Labor Day weekend anomaly at the Malta).

Since I started going to these things regularly during high school, I’ve been curious about how they’re programmed. Sometimes the double or triple bills seem to be based on proven or presumed popularity, or even compatibility. This weekend’s Screen One, for example, looked like sort of a Summer’s Greatest Hits, and hardly incongruous at all (it’s all the stuff we were super-psyched for back in May). But other times, the lineup looks more studio-sanctioned, with a new release from a particular company propping up some other titles on their way out. How else to explain the booking of The Rocker over five or six other higher-grossing comedies, or — more egregiously — showing The X-Files: I Want to Believe a full month after it crashed and burned at a theater near you? But as far as incongruous drive-in doubles go, Babylon/Rocker sits squarely in the middle: not as logical as the Air Force One/Men in Black/Spawn permutations I saw so many times back in ’97, but not as hilariously ill-matched as the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas/Horse Whisperer combo in ’98 (sometimes, early in the season, there isn’t enough regular popcorn to go around).

Babylon A.D. is a Vin Diesel sci-fi movie that was filmed a while ago and has since been semi-famously disowned by its director, Mathieu Kassovitz. At one point, rumor had it that Fox insisted on cutting out seventy minutes, but the international version runs just ten minutes longer. I’m not sure of the differences, but we get a movie about a mercenary (Diesel) hired to transport a woman from a monastery in Asia to New York City for shadowy reasons. Naturally, a variety of people want to stop him.

The word “incomprehensible” is, I feel, tossed around too frequently, used to describe movies that are merely convoluted, illogical, or silly. That said, my comprehension of Babylon A.D. was downright remedial, and if I failed to pass a test based on its plot, I would definitely blame the school system. Specifically, Professor Diesel is not the best instructor instructor of a murky, truncated plot; he keeps his voice to a low mumble. The other actors seem to follow his lead, or maybe they hope that if they keep their voices down, no one will notice that they’re in Babylon A.D. Either way my moviegoing party spent literally the entire movie trying to figure out his character’s name (Turok? Tulip? Toedrop?) (IMDB says it was Toorop).

The near-future setting has some neat details, with implantable passports and black-market submarine transportation and the like; I assume this is the province of Babylon Babies, the supposedly more respectable sci-fi novel on which this movie is based. If that’s the case, I can understand the seeds of Kassovitz’s frustration, though what we see is not so polished that ten or fifteen more minutes could clean it all up. This won’t be the subject of debate and cult curiosity, like the movie version of Dune; it’s more like The Invasion, the body-snatchers thriller from last August, down to the tacked-on car chase and abrupt, anticlimactic (and in this case, again, nigh-incomprehensible) ending. It still may not be the director’s fault; in fact, if the studio did ruin Babylon A.D., they left scars far before it got to the editing room.

The Rocker has no visible scars; it’s clean, professional-looking, and utterly benign. These aren’t necessarily bad qualities in a piece of entertainment, but The Rocker looks enough like the new wave of well-crafted Apatow-era smart-silly comedies (the supporting roster, including Emma Stone, Jason Sudeikis, Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, Jane Lynch, and Christina Applegate, has collectively logged time in eight or nine such movies) that its studio machinations feel all the more worn.

Rainn Wilson gets his shot as a leading man, playing Fish, a drummer ejected from an eighties rock band (in the movie’s first and funniest sequence) shortly before they hit the big time. Twenty years later, his nephew asks him to drum with his high-school garage band, ADD, and Fish starts tasting the success (and, sigh, sense of family) he was missing all those years. The movie maintains a cheerful ignorance of any kind of musical authenticity or individuality; you wonder if ADD keeps a focus group tucked away in their garage. Hollywood seems fairly fascinated by the music business, but equally disinterested in what might be funny or interesting about it. Jason Sudeikis comes close; he’s hilarious as a major-label sleazeball, but his character could be selling anything from menswear to helicopter rentals to Babylon A.D.

As for a connection between the two movies, I’m at a loss, except that they’re both good ideas done in by a slavish devotion to the low art of knocking off: Babylon A.D. has deep shades of Children of Men and The Fifth Element, among about a dozen others, and The Rocker stirs School of Rock, Superbad, and any number of Will Ferrell characters into a colorless mush. Despite their incompatibility, they work well at the drive-in — not in a chocolate-and-pretzels kind of way, but in the way that you’re extremely grateful to have seen them for eight dollars while eating french fries and asking your friends questions about what the hell just happened.

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