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Ringmaster

Review by Gregory Avery
       
Posted 11 December 1998

  Directed by Neil Abramson.

Starring Jerry Springer.

Written by Jon Bernstein

Stoked on anti-virus medication, I stood outside the entrance to the local megaplex, with its towering black, white, and red marquee looming, like some crazy Bauhaus creation, over the puny box office windows below, listing the many and sundry offerings for the avid moviegoer to peruse. I'd been meaning to see Meet Joe Black; it would be nice to find out if Brad Pitt has decided to start acting, again. It was also directed by the same guy who did the remake of Scent of a Woman. That movie also had concerns over length, which as it turned out were, somewhat, allayed. But, geez, the thing is three hours long! Anthony Hopkins couldn't carry the whole thing, alone....

"For what show, please?" asked the box office attendant.

My knees buckled. My gaze swept once more across the millions and billions of titles posted, and the even more multitudinous show times for each. Things ecame vertiginous, like the whirling accompaniment to Luna's recording of Serge Gainsbourg's song "Bonnie and Clyde". I felt suspended momentarily in space, not entirely in control of my senses....

"I want... I want... I WANT TO SEE THE JERRY SPRINGER MOVIE!" I blurted out. Pathetically, like a junkie pleading for his fix, all desperate and needy at the same time.

"Thought you were going t'go see 'Star Trek'!" the attendant said cheerfully

"No, not this time." (Another one I should catch up with. I missed First Contact. Unthinkable. What kind of a cinťaste am I? On the other hand, I somehow missed One True Thing, this fall, with Magic Meryl, whom I have been totally and devotedly in-love with ever since seeing that luminous face of hers in the opening shot of Kramer vs. Kramer. "Meryl! I have sinned!")

The box office disgorged my ticket and change. The ticket-taker did not smirk, although I think the people behind me in-line did. I didn't stop to look. Slinking past the concessions stand, I slipped into the auditorium before anyone could spot me, and found my seat before the lights went down, and I waited for the magic of the movies to begin. I look at my watch once, twice. Just when are they going to turn-over the projector? It's a five-mile walk back to the lobby.

The show starts. After about 72 preview trailers, one of those awful "Coca-Cola Stand-Up Minutes" things (this is how revolutions get incited among oppressed peoples), and the inevitable visit by Front Row Joe ("Hey! Let's party! Let's rock!/We've got tickets to (insert name of theater chain here)...!"), the opening credits began.

The story opens, in the low lands outside Tampa, Florida, at the trailer park residence of Connie (Molly Hagen), Angel (Jaime Pressly), and Angel's stepfather, Rusty (an unrecognizable Michael Dudikoff). The women, here, all wear scanty tops and short shorts, and the men wear shirts with no sleeves on them. Connie toils during the day running a lunch wagon. April works as a maid at the local seedy motel, where one lodger surprises her and says he was directed to stay at this particular establishment because he would receive a "good morning blow-job". Whereupon April goes into a sulk, closes the door to the room, and drops to her knees to service him. The guy doesn't even leave her a tip.

Rusty sits around on the couch all day watching TV It always seems to be tuned to a talk show hosted by Jerry, played by Jerry Springer. We see one of the programs: twin brothers, both of whom look like Bob Sagat, and how the girlfriend of one is cheating on him with the other. When Jerry brings the girlfriend out on-stage, she flashes the audience, then removes her scanty top altogether and sits on the lap of the brother with whom she's cheating. "He even lets me have a girlfriend," she gushes to everyone. Enter Girlfriend # 2, who's already baring her breasts before she's even out on the stage. She jumps up and down, joins her girlfriend on the twin brother's lap, and, as the camera closes in, the two women engage in a long, lingering, and, um, involved kiss. The audience in the film goes wild. This is already making Showgirls look tame, by comparison.

Rusty and Angel spend a lot of time on the couch together, watching this stuff. It should come as no surprise that they are also fooling-around together. And why not? Since Connie hasn't already applied her foot to Rusty's backside and introduced him to the pavement outside the front door, what else are he and Angel going to do? Play Scrabble? Connie becomes inflamed with the wraith of a mother towards an ungrateful child ("I bought you Kotex!"). She writes down the 1-800 number where people can call to be on Jerry's show, and tells April, "I'm gonna teach you a lesson!" She then stalks out the door and across the drive to where young Willie (Ashley Holbrook) is lifting weights. Connie walks up to him and says, "I'm going to teach you a lesson," whereby she drops to her knees and services him. (With sound effects!) Only then does the film bother to tell us, as if it had slipped somebody's mind, that Willie is Angel's fiance. Daughter is having sex with stepfather, while mother has sex with daughter's fiance! What a conundrum!

We see Jerry coping with survival in the wilderness of fame. Poor Jerry! He can't even take a friend out to lunch without constantly being approached by people who want to be on his show (one guy asks if he's going to do one on "guys who marry their farm animals", and produces wallet snapshots of his beloved), or people who want his autograph -- on paper, on their clothing, on their anatomy. When people begin smashing furniture on his show and start tearing each other's hair out, Jerry stands back, in the audience (where it's safe), and looks -- CONCERNED. Oh, the humanity! What's he going to do about these poor people?

But it's not all work and no play. Away from the glare of studio spotlights, he's seen in bed -- with a woman! ("Oh, Jerry! Jerry!") They make scintillating pillow talk. She: "Why can't you be more like Oprah?" He: "You wanna sleep with Oprah?" Jerry is also seen taking advantage of an offer by a friend to sing at a country music nightspot. Jerry dresses in a Stetson and a blue silk fringed shirt, and sings a song -- about his TV show. If this doesn't turn your blood into ice water, nothing will.

In an effort to provide equal opportunity, the filmmakers introduce another group of characters, with domestic problems, who are black. But these people are even less defined as characters than the first bunch. The women (Wendy Raquel Robinson, Tangie Ambrose, and Nicki Micheaux) shriek, squabble, and talk hatefully at each other in an incessant manner; the man (Michael Jai White, who played Mike Tyson in a recent TV movie about the fighter), who is tall and muscular, stands around and reacts. The call comes through, and they're flown, along with the first group of characters, out to Los Angeles to be on Jerry's show. As with the previous bunch, the women wear scanty tops and short shorts, and the man wears shirts with no sleeves on them. They complain that they don't have enough room in their first-class airplane seats.

This may not be the worst movie of the year -- it at least has one moment that made me laugh out loud, intentionally, which is more than I can say about Armageddon -- but it is certainly one of the most monotonous. All the scenes start to look the same, after a while. Some one walks in and makes some petty, mean-minded remark, and the other characters react in kind. It's like watching kids misbehaving in a school lunchroom, except that the characters here are supposed to be full-grown adults. The gabble is almost entirely made up of talk involving sex (many a discouraging word is made about the male anatomy), swearing, and retribution. This may be a satirical commentary by the filmmakers on the kind of people who would watch a show like the one the real-life Jerry Springer hosts, or it may be their idea of what his viewing audience really is like, I couldn't tell for sure. If it's the latter, start worrying.

Rusty makes the trip all the way out to LA and then decides not to stay. Before going, he takes Willie to one side and, sticking out his tongue, indicates what it is that April prefers to have during those most intimate and private moments together. "She likes ice cream cones?" Willie replies.

Since all of the Los Angeles sequences are confined to either the hotel or the studio, it comes as no surprise that the white and black participants, booked into the same lodgings, start doing things that cause them to get on each other's nerves. Now everybody has more people to squabble with! At times, it looks like the "mate-swapping Olympics" sketch on "Monty Python", only without the laughs. At least one of the characters bothers to go out and see the sights, then comes back on-screen to report that the Hollywood sign isn't lighted at night. It's a wonder that it could be seen at all: this movie has got to have the grimiest photography I've ever seen since The Lonely Lady, back in 1983.

Before you can say "I'm going out to get more popcorn", the day of the big show finally arrives, whereupon two strange and unexpected things happen. Once April, Connie, and poor muddle-headed Willie get on-stage, and the shouting, tackling, and other games commence, a well-dressed man in the audience jumps to his feet and proclaims, in great, booming tones, that the people who are appearing as guests on this program are "junk", and that they don't deserve to be on TV. A Christian conservative, caught red-handed and right out in the open! Jerry gets very sanctimonious, even indignant. How dare he, this man, get on his high horse and attack these defenseless people who are guests on Jerry's show, when he has fame and power and money to assuage whatever personal problems come into his life, while they are plagued with the very same problems yet have NOTHING.

The viper is scotched. The audience cheers. Everyone loves Jerry. A victory for the little people!

The second odd occurrence turns out to be the sudden bonding, after close to ninety minutes of exchanging every sort of insult imaginable, between Connie and April. (This occurs in the makeup room of Jerry's studio, where the two women can look into the mirror and see what they truly feel in each other's eyes, among the hair spray and Max Factor bottles.) It should be noted, here, that Molly Hagen, who plays Connie, has a certain definite appeal, as an actress and a screen presence, which makes this scene somewhat more convincing than you would ever imagine it being. Except, now, the film shows that when the two women take a fancy to the same man, they don't get all nasty and shrill with each other, leaving us with the impression that they are on the road to having many a happy menage-a-trois to come.

No such quiescent fate is afforded to the black characters, whom the film abandons to shriek and squabble their way incessantly back into oblivion. So much for equal opportunity.

I was roused from my transfixed state by the start of the end credits roll. I don't know if it was the medication, or the movie, or the Zen-like silence that had descended upon the auditorium (if Bo Derek had appeared on-screen and announced "I'm going to take a bath", you still wouldn't have gotten a stir out of this bunch), but I sat through the whole thing. Whereupon, with this startling realization, I jumped up and fled into the nearest showing of American History X as quickly as possible. And that, as Tennessee Williams put it, "is how fires get started in hotel rooms".


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