Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

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Polite Company at the MuCCC

It's been a while since I went out to see improvisational comedy. I feel like I kind of burn out on it — after all, it can only be as good as the audience, the performers, and the circumstances. In addition, I tend to hang out with some pretty funny people so it's not uncommon for some extremely hilarious things to come out of it (for instance, I have brought up several times the idea of a Faustian superpower wish that goes awry when the power is revealed to be pooping delicious chocolate — and the comedy of failing to convince anyone that it is indeed true).

Anyway, I headed over to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) to see the public debut of Polite Company Improv Sketch and Comedy. They were indeed funny both in their improv and in their sketches. I really appreciated that they catered to me being in their audience rather than targeting evangelical Puritans and forbidding swearing of any kind. (Seriously: the show doesn't need to stop if someone says "fuck" once.) Of note was their final sketch which was shockingly offensive, but ultimately quite funny.

Afterward I walked over to The Bamba Bistro (282 Alexander St.) for the after-party and got a chance to chat with the crew. (By the way, Bamba Bistro is a pretty upscale-looking place that draws people who like to be seen in upscale-looking places and, on this night, rowdy improvisers and their friends and fans. I'll add that friends raved about an astonishing meal here years ago and I assume that would continue to be true.) The two women running the troupe are engaging and focused — hopefully we'll see Polite Company shows for years to come.

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Village Idiots Present improvisational comedy

Ali and I had a nice dinner at California Rollin' at Village Gate Square (274 N. Goodman St.) then headed to [location redacted] to see Village Idiots Present (VIP)'s improvisational comedy. It turned out to be their first show so it was a little rough around the edges, but overall it was very funny. The players in the troupe have very varied styles, strengths, and weaknesses and I'm sure this will set them up to have a strong showing in Rochester.

The only thing I didn't really like was that the support staff tended to act too formal — it was like going to Geva except that the structure wasn't backed up with any foundation. For instance, we were instructed to sit toward the front when it really didn't matter as there weren't really any stragglers. And as for the improv, there were a couple times when some ego-based and fear-based "no's" tripped up the performers' stride.

But if you're going to take risks, you're going to sometimes fall big and other times win big.  In this case, it's worth it.

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Nipplepalooza III at California Brew Haus

I headed to The California Brew Haus (402 West Ridge Rd.) for Nipplepalooza III. I got there just when the show started although I guess I missed Rob Balder. I did get to see him emcee the show, though and he was good in that context at least. When I arrived, Ookla The MokMySpace link had just taken to the stage. I think they're pretty funny but they have this groove-rock, full-fledged song mentality that really doesn't sit well with a one-joke song. Next was Worm QuartetMySpace link who follow the traditional form of novelty songs: only go as long as is necessary. And fast. And sometimes absurdly short — but always really quite funny. Next was Carla UlbrichMySpace link, a funny, witty acoustic soloist … chatty and friendly too. Closing the night was Sudden DeathMySpace link who did novelty hip-hop of a caliber similar to Worm QuartetMySpace link but with videos to go along with it.

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Joshua Grosvent at Boulder Coffee

I headed to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) a bit after the show started. I got there just at the tail end of the opening comic and I didn't get to hear his set. Shawn Murphy was next. He was pretty funny — he did "thoughtful" comedy which was kind of the theme for the night. Kate AndersonMySpace link was the same way although so dry that I she was only "pretty funny". Closing out was Joshua GrosventMySpace link whom I've seen before — at Milestones when it was Milestones. He didn't attempt any songs this time but had an enjoyable and funny set … even if it got uncomfortably personal at times. Well, "uncomfortably personal" throughout.  But funny.

Matt RohrMySpace link did a fine job opening and emceeing. He had set up the show as a benefit for The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) and (checking his blog later) collected several hundred dollars at the show.

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