Sell Out!

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/19/10 00:03:22

"Buy what it's selling."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: With a name like "Sell Out!", you can probably guess what sort of satire Yeo Joon Han is going for in his movie, and a lot of it is absolutely going for easy targets. What makes it work - to the point of frequent laughing out loud - is how thorough he is and how on-target he stays.

Rafflesia Pong (Jerrica Lai) is the host of an interview show on Malaysia's Fony TV 11, "For Art's Sake", where she interviews various contemporary artists. It's often a trainwreck, and on the verge of cancellation, until a poet with cancer - her ex-boyfriend - expires on camera. That gets her a new show about interviewing ordinary people on their deathbeds, and fuels her rivalry with reality-show hostess Hannah Edwards Leong (Hannah Lo). The Fony execs have another troublesome employee to deal with, too - Eric Tan (Peter Davis) has invented a revolutionary cooking machine, which throws them for a loop. Creativity, after all, is highly discouraged and it doesn't even have a mechanism to cause it to fail when the warranty ends. Clearly, Eric needs to have the part that dreams about making the world better exorcised.

For the most part, Han isn't using anything close to a light touch; a lot of the jokes in this movie are ones that an editor at Mad Magazine might send back to the writer, saying that they were a little obvious. But, as always, it's less the joke itself than the way that it's told that's important, and the filmmakers attack their targets with rapid-fire precision. There's rarely more than thirty seconds between funny beats it the movie, and Han nimbly jumps back and forth between the absurd but all too real and the just plain strange, with fantastic bits and musical numbers (including one meant to be performed by the audience) living comfortably alongside complaints about familiar frustrations.

The other thing that makes Sell Out! funny as well as somewhat unusual is that Han does not feel any particular need to compromise things so that the audience likes his characters. This is especially true with Rafflesia - her first scene has her deliciously skewering a pretentious independent filmmaker (played, I believe, by Han himself), and we initially sort of enjoy her for that and for giving as good as she gets when Hannah starts to get catty with her. But eventually it becomes clear that she's as much bitch as sane person responding in kind to the insanity around her, and Han is not going to ease up on that so that rooting for her is easy: There's far too much comedy to mine from her bad attitude.

Even though Rafflesia spends some time as an instigator, Jerrica Lai spends a good chunk of the film as reacting to insanity, and she pulls the combination off with aplomb. Peter Davis is a more conventional straight man, and it's a job that suits him well; his smart-but-naive persona even translates well to the musical numbers, where his perhaps not being as good a singer as Lai seems somewhat in-character. Of course, neither one of them would be nearly as good without Kee Thuan Chye and Lim Teik Leong as characters credited as "Smoking CEO" and "Forgetful CEO", who are just outrageously mercenary and stupid. They work as a team to drive the other characters nuts, and I don't think that they ever fail to sell a joke.

It's also worth noting that while Sell Out! is at times fairly Malaysia-specific, I suspect it was also made with an eye toward international markets: While subtitled throughout, the film is predominately in English (or "Manglish", as the case may be), with a number of jokes coming out of how well various characters speak the language. The majority of the cultural jokes likely play anywhere, certainly you don't have to be Malaysian to enjoy a gag about pompous artists or machines that die just after the warranty ends.

That sort of broad comedy works everywhere, and Han does occasionally come up with a bit that's maybe too clever for his own good - even the generally raucous Fantasia audience seemed unsure about going along with the karaoke gag, and the movie's last scene asks a bit more of its audience than some of what preceded it. But when push comes to shove, I have a hard time remembering another recent movie as single-mindedly focused on feeding the audience gags that makes so many of them work.

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