by Rob Gonsalves
In 'Comic Book Villains,' war breaks out between two rival comic-book-store owners over acquisition of a priceless, pristine comics collection. It's an intriguing premise, and I'd say the first half of this is the best Kevin Smith comedy Kevin Smith never made.Writer-director James Dale Robinson, who later wrote the putrescent film adaptation of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, clearly knows both the trivia and the milieu: He's been in those comics shops and heard (or possibly even joined in) the elaborately pointless debates over, say, who was more fuckable -- Golden-Age Black Canary or Valkyrie from Airboy.
"Good idea, but fatal lapses in tone sink it."
CBV has the kind of comedy cast you don't see too often, either. Donal Logue, as the pipe-smoking comics purist Raymond, is cut from the same cloth as Jack Black's vehemently music-snobbish Barry in High Fidelity (Raymond and Barry would either bond immediately or despise each other on sight). DJ Qualls, of Road Trip and The New Guy, is the film's closest thing to a moral compass, a kid who likes comics but (unlike most of the people around him) knows there's more to life than comics. Michael Rapaport and Natasha Lyonne, as a married couple who own the more businesslike comics shop in competition with Raymond's (they sell Magic cards and action figures, a fact hilariously spewed at them by Raymond), are properly Rapaportian and Lyonnesque. Then there's Cary Elwes (whose American accent, as always when he plays Yanks, comes and goes) as a macho jerk -- and, we come to learn, altogether shady character -- complete with a stripper girlfriend (Monet Mazur). All these people hover around a collection of mint-condition comics formerly owned by a recently deceased elder geek, now controlled by his mom (Eileen Brennan -- good to see her again), who refuses to sell them.
The movie has a clearly delineated conflict, and colorful characters acting it out in a milieu we haven't seen much outside of the last few seasons of Buffy (the Nerds of Doom) and the margins of Kevin Smith movies. (Really, I'm surprised not to see Kev's name hooked up to this film in some executive-producer capacity. As it is, three of the actors -- Logue, Qualls, and Elwes -- are credited as co-producers.) Soon, however, it turns into a full-fledged Black Comedy, with arson, knifing, attempted vehicular homicide, and assorted handgun murders. It's as if someone had turned off the laugh faucet: Once the ante is upped to violence, about halfway through, the movie becomes entirely unfunny and tiresome. And it's because most of the characters, while mostly delusional and greedy, are also likable (due to the actors), and we don't want to watch them go down this path -- this isn't like Very Bad Things, where the people are shitbags from fade-in. Also, the mix of violence and comedy is exceedingly hard to pull off unless (A) you're Tarantino or (B) the violence is there from the get-go, as in Grosse Pointe Blank. Robinson doesn't pull it off.
Will comics fans like CBV? I seriously doubt it, despite the surface details and trivia, because the movie is essentially anti-fan (and also anti-opportunist, as personified by the Rapaport and Lyonne characters, who have no great love for comics but run a shop because there's money in it). The more a viewer identifies with the witty but sad, broke, and ultimately pathetic Raymond, the less he or she will love the movie, because it comes down in favor of the DJ Qualls character's take on comics: they're fun to read, sometimes valid as an art form, but a life of nothing but comics (this extends to all other forms of fandom, by the way, be it Star Trek or fantasy fiction) is hollow.After a fashion, the movie does have a sound message -- but to sell it effectively, it needed to be either funnier or more serious.
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originally posted: 12/29/06 14:29:15