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March 18, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
A funny thing happened to Dwayne (the wrestler formerly known as The Rock) Johnson on the way to Witch Mountain.
When he stopped by “Saturday Night Live” recently to promote his new movie, “Race to Witch Mountain,” he took turns with Fred Armisen playing Barack Obama. Dwayne’s version was “The Rock Obama” ? get it?
Our new president’s Hawaiian roots weren’t lost on the actors. They paired up in another skit to play grass-skirted, aloha-shirted brothers entertaining in a lounge in a “Hawaiian Hotel.” As Fred forlornly played the ukulele, Dwayne danced a hilarious hula, snapping in and out of a dazzling, almost scary smile.
Unfortunately, to all the lounge’s sunburned honeymooners and yahoos cracking getting lei’d jokes, Dwayne and Fred responded with some bad aloha. Rather than grinning and bearing all those silly questions so familiar to real folks in the visitor industry, their answers weren’t what you usually find in the tourist brochures. Unless the brochures mention meth labs, minimum-wage jobs and “dancing like monkeys” for the tourists.
Johnson, of Samoan and black Canadian ancestry who briefly lived in Hawaii as a youth, made the tourist bashing look especially convincing.
Spearing stereotypes of tourists and locals alike, the SNL bit is, by turns, uproarious and uncomfortable to watch. (You can see for yourself, if you haven’t already, at www://hulu. com/watch/61234/ saturday-night-live-hawaiian-hotel.)
Ouch, I said when I saw it. This must be what it feels like to be Sarah Palin.
By design, satire aims for winces as much as out-and-out laughs. The sharper the edge, the closer to the bone, the better it has done its job.
Comedy can be, after all, a nasty business. Watchdogs of morality who decry sex and violence in entertainment overlook the link between comedy and violence. From the first banana peel, comedy has always been a perfectly acceptable way of injuring people or making them uncomfortable … just as romance is just sex in nice wrapping paper.
According to my unofficial poling, most viewers ? especially those with island connections ? are running about 9 to 1 in thinking SNL’s “Hawaiian Hotel” is a hoot ? and right on the mark.
The 10 percent who aren’t laughing include Hawaii’s lieutenant governor and some top tourism officials. They talk of going too far, crossing the line, whatever. Butchering the cash cow in a tourism economy is not a good idea, they say. Especially now.
Which kind of makes you wonder. After decades at the pinnacle of the satire business, is this the time SNL got it wrong? And what about Frank DeLima then? Or Andy Bumatai? Or Da Braddahs? Or the late Rap Replinger?
Is it time to call in the laugh police to protect our shores? In choosing not to get the joke, critics of the SNL skit are ignoring the key role of humor as glue that helps hold this multiethnic culture together.
Humor doesn't work if something doesn’t click ? if you can’t find something recognizable, if you can’t identify, if there isn’t something universal and true in there somewhere. Laughter is sometimes the last thing holding the tears back.
What’s wrong at the “Hawaiian Hotel” isn’t “Saturday Night Live’s” fault. And it’s not going to go away by putting on another fake smile and doing another silly dance.
Too bad The Rock’s new movie isn’t nearly as interesting. But what do you expect from a tale of a Vegas cab driver trying to keep two space aliens disguised as children (appealing AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) out of harm’s way long enough to retrieve their rocket and save the Earth?
Having left the wrestling persona behind, Johnson’s instinctual flair for comedy under the awesome armor of the physique makes him a natural at this business of being a movie star. But now that he’s a proven quantity, he deserves something more from the folks at Disney than a retread clunker for a vehicle.
Like so many remakes, “Race to Witch Mountain” doesn't make the same kind of sense ? or fantasy ? that the original version did in 1975. It’s unstuck in time; it has no reason for being. As our culture has outgrown its concerns about little green men from out there, we’ve also gotten lax in demanding that movies have a story to tell. Just being a product with recognizable trademarks was enough to make it this week’s box-office winner.
“Race to Witch Mountain” does feature a cameo role for Garry Marshall. A brilliant trailblazer in TV as well as movies who launched the careers of countless really big stars, Garry is also one of the funniest people on the planet.
But not on Witch Mountain.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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