When I was an exchange student in high school, my host brother’s mind exploded as soon as he turned 16. He used to barge right into my room and start punching. Once he hit me with a chair, but even worse were the interludes between assaults when I didn’t know what was going to happen next. It’s why I can identify with Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? So in honor of The Odd Couple (now playing at MCT), here’s a short selection of movies offering different perspectives on the gentle art of living together.
Together (2000; dir. Lukas Moodysson)
Ménage à vingt-trois, Swedish style. Lukas Moodysson’s wonderful sophomore feature (following the equally delightful Show Me Love) takes place in a Stockholm commune in 1975, where a bunch of young lefties are trying to live together under the simple rule that there are no rules. Lasse’s shallow girlfriend treats him like a doormat, sleeping with other men (like the grimly serious Marxist housemate who appeases her with sex so she’ll agree to discuss politics with him) when it’s clearly tearing him apart. Meanwhile, Lasse’s un-hip sister has fled an abusive marriage with her two young children in tow; they have nowhere else to go, so the Together house resignedly makes room. Everyone tries to be cool, but no amount of passive-aggressive beatitude can prevent the inevitable blowouts. And, naturally, no one ever does the dishes.
Crime 101 (1999; dir. Robert Sarkies)
Not a case of oddly paired roommates so much as of oddly linked current and former occupants: a group of New Zealand students squatting in a decrepit old house and the surly thug whose basement marijuana plantation they’ve liquidated and sold at about a fifth of its fair market value while he was away. The thug, as you might imagine, is ticked even before the students tie him up and start torturing him.
The original title of this black crime comedy is Scarfies—New Zealand slang for university students. Isn’t that great? Sadly, the movie isn’t—great, that is; Crime 101 goes from fairly good to downright awful in the space of a few extremely unpleasant scenes. On the other hand, the soundtrack is a fine cross-section of the Flying Nun label, and jangly rockers The Clean appear as themselves, playing “Tally Ho” at a house party, no less!
Shallow Grave (1994; dir. Danny Boyle)
Big breakthrough Trainspotting was only two years in the future when Danny Boyle directed this low-budget (he had to auction off props just to finish shooting) effort about three obnoxious Scottish flatmates looking for a fourth. They settle on the guy willing to pay up front; he turns up dead by misadventure shortly thereafter but leaves behind a suitcase stuffed with money. Now, what do you suppose the dilemma is?
Shallow Grave is an entertaining movie in spite of its self-conscious cleverness (Boyle seems to think that, in his hands, every predictable twist in the story is some great revelation), and despite the fact that there isn’t one likeable character in the movie besides maybe the police inspector. But it’s got heaps of suspense and great one-liners: “But Juliet, you’re a doctor. You kill people every day.”
Single White Female (1992; dir. Barbet Schroeder)
It’s weird how movies from the early ’90s are now starting to look as obviously—and often embarrassingly—dated as movies from 1982 looked in 1992. Nobody in Single White Female has caller ID (let alone cell phones, even those bulky early models that made actors look as though they were answering platform shoes), and the Internet was still enough of a novelty to require some exposition. Yet it seems like only yesterday. Sigh.
One thing that hasn’t changed since 1982 is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s eagerness to disrobe for the camera. She’s naked practically all the time in Single White Female, playing a clingy roommate who starts absorbing the identity of Bridget Fonda’s charismatic fashion software designer. Single White Female is off-brand Hitchcock, with lots of high-tension snooping scenes and good performances from both leads. Plus that cheeseball Steven Weber from the TV show “Wings.” I hope he and that cheeseball John Corbett from “Northern Exposure” never appear in the same movie—I’d stab myself in the brain with a stiletto heel.
True Romance (1993; dir. Tony Scott)
What’s not to like about Brad Pitt as a stoner named Floyd who offers hired killers hits from a bong made out of a honey bear? Michael Rapaport plays Pitt’s long-suffering roommate Dick Ritchie, a struggling actor whose big break is a guest shot on “T.J. Hooker.”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962; dir. Robert Aldrich)
This ultra-creepy, beautifully shot picture earned Oscar nominations for Ernest Haller’s superb black-and-white cinematography, Victor Buono’s performance as a dissolute Hollywood hanger-on and, of course, for Bette Davis as the former child star who terrorizes her shut-in paraplegic sister, played by Joan Crawford. The scenes where Davis imitates Crawford’s voice over the telephone, Terminator-style, are bone-chilling. If you’ve never seen this movie, you need to.
Elling (2001; dir, Petter Naess)
In his voiceover, Elling admits right away that he’s a mamma’s boy—a sheltered, sensitive would-be poet who has lived with his mother his whole life. When she dies, the nervous 40-year-old Norwegian is forcibly removed from her apartment and made to live in a state institution, where his roommate is an enormous bear of a man with a Dutch-boy haircut and a fixation on women and food. Upon their release, the state lodges Elling and Kjell Bjarne together in a nice apartment and assigns a social worker to look after them. They’re both afraid of answering the phone.
It’s a lot funnier than it sounds. Charming, too: Before they become friends, the peevish Elling toys with Kjell Bjarne by making up elaborate stories about his sexual past. When Kjell Bjarne finds out they’re just lies, he doesn’t care as long as Elling keeps telling them. Now that’s what friendship’s all about.