Monday, 24 March 2014

Klymkiw Watches TV (HBO Canada) - JOHN LEGUIZAMO'S GHETTO KLOWN - Review By Greg Klymkiw

John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown (2014) **
Dir. Fisher Stevens, Starring: John Leguizamo

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There's no denying the fact that John Leguizamo is one of the most versatile and accomplished character actors in the movies. For many years, since his humble beginnings in the theatre, he's presented several live autobiographical one-man shows that have generated great reviews and solid box-office on the New York stage and beyond. His most recent work has been shot by Fisher Stevens, the Academy Award winning director of The Cove. He handles the proceedings of capturing last year's live performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in lovely Newark, New Jersey, and does so with stout yeoman work. It's strictly camera jockey shot-calling, though, and certainly doesn't have the cinematic force of Spike Lee's helmsmanship of one-man show Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth.

Alas, it's really the material here that does in John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown. Seeing as Leguizamo wrote the material, the finger of blame points in his direction.

This latest Leguizamo dive into his past life is often very funny, but much of it feels self-indulgent in all the wrong ways and its mere 93 minutes breezes along nicely only during its first half, but by the second half, the piece feels like it's running out of steam and/or spinning its wheels.

What works, of course, is Leguizamo when he's cooking. He begins with his childhood, relating a handful of knee-slappingly hilarious tales of avoiding bullies by using his humour, charming his teachers with his talent and driving his Mom and (especially) Dad, utterly round the bend with his hyper antics. The focus, ultimately, are his early years when he discovered acting, studied with famed coach Lee Strasberg and graduated to the big leagues of Hollywood. The funniest tales are his gigs with Brian DePalma - notably opposite Sean Penn in Casualties of War, the harrowing war drama about the gang rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman at the hands of American soldiers and then, his villainous turn opposite Al Pacino in the Cuban gangster thriller Carlito's Way.

Leguizamo's impersonations of DePalma. Penn and Pacino are right on the money and the most hilarious tale involves his run-ins on the set with Pacino. Given the subject matter of the former DePalma title, Leguizamo holds back wisely and saves his anarchic style for the latter title.

His stories revolving around old pals, early girlfriends and family are often delightful. Though he overdoes a kind of shrill, borderline sexist impersonation of the female characters, his tales of Mom are pretty genuine and loving. It's his impersonations of his father who, by Leguizamo's account was a nasty, abusive sonofabitch, that begin to take on a sour tone and border on creepily uncomfortable. So too are his stories of early relationships with women.

As the movie progresses, Leguizamo and his material both take on a kind of macho bitterness that loses its punch. The show feels often cruel and condescending. Cruel, by the way, is almost always a good thing, but toss in condescension without the right balance and you just sit numbly as the whole Tower of Babel crumbles under the weight of an almost immoral form. Leguizamo's overwrought reminiscences get mean-spirited and worst of all become just plain unfunny. Perhaps there's something missing in the transition from live performance to how it's captured up close by the camera that's at fault here. The jockeying is competent enough, but the mix of mediums doesn't do the material a whole lot of favours. Witnessing Leguizamo's ugly, sneering tone just plain wears you down, though the audience in the theatre is lapping it up. The distance of one's ocular perspective probably accounts for the divide, though I tend to think my own response to a genuinely live version might, due to the material alone, not veer to0 far from that of the film.

What becomes almost intolerable is when he self indulgently focuses upon his bouts of depression - many segments of which have him blaming his Dad. Here he veers from whining, to simpering, to full-on roar-of-a-lion (as rendered in pipsqueak fashion) - back and forth to beat the band. By the time Leguizamo recreates an encounter with his father showing up unexpectedly backstage during a performance wherein he's been especially cruel in depicting Dad, I pretty much felt like throwing in the towel. A portion of this encounter is supposed to be moving, but given how cruel-minded his jabs at Dad have been throughout the proceedings, one actually sides with an alleged abuser over this nasty, self-indulgent knob.

Given that Leguizamo spends good chunks of time relaying his drug use, booze guzzling and exhaustion from the toils of performing live, one keeps wondering if his depression and memories aren't being coloured by substance abuse. This might not be an especially fair response, but it's a whole lot more honest than Leguizamo is being with himself and the audience.

The production is clearly not without merit, but it's also seriously flawed. One wants to commend Leguizamo for exposing his occasional foibles and deep feelings of resentment towards his Dad, but after awhile it dives mercilessly into self indulgence of the most egregious variety.

Soon we begin to see that this talented "Ghetto Klown" had quite a few people encouraging him along his path to success - one which came pretty quickly and relatively painlessly. It doesn't take too long before you're wondering, "Who is this dick-wad and what's he got to complain about?" Leguizamo seldom takes the fall for his failings and is quick to blame others in his life for bad decisions. Even his depression, which is a real medical condition, loses its potential to move us.

Instead, I just wanted to punch the Klown in the face and send his ass back to the Ghetto.

John Leguizamo's Ghetto Clown can be seen on HBO Canada. For dates and times, visit the website HERE.