'3, 2, 1 … Frankie Go Boom': Sweet Raunch
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Though deliciously rude and crude, "3, 2, 1 ... Frankie Go Boom" possesses a surprisingly sweet heart. The failures and foibles of one Frankie Bartlett, screwed-up man-child, are lovingly embraced fun-house mirrors of Everyman's (and woman's) existential condition. Rollicking its transgressive way toward defining grown-up masculinity, Jordan Roberts' screwball romp never stoops to the misogyny and other infantilisms rampant in so many Peter Pan comedies. Like "Some Like It Hot" (one of Roberts' favorite movies), "Boom" celebrates the ways in which nobody's perfect.
At first, "3, 2, 1 ... Frankie Go Boom" reads like the worst title ever. But its baby-talk syntax and climactic collapse eloquently signpost all the pratfalls, sexual and otherwise, that have bedeviled and humiliated Frankie (Charlie Hunnam) since boyhood -- courtesy of his compulsive-prankster brother Bruce ("Bridesmaids"'s Chris O'Dowd). The title also evokes that breathless momentum of let's-pretend child's play that characterizes Roberts' only apparently episodic, all-over-the-map narrative style.
The film begins life as a pastel home movie in which gleeful Bruce tricks his sibling into "going boom" into a backyard "grave." Twenty-five years after that first downfall, Frankie has holed up in a womb-like trailer in Death Valley. Writing books he never finishes, he's hiding from the millions who enjoyed the Internet video of his disastrous wedding: Compulsive filmmaker Bruce thoughtfully recorded the moment when Frankie discovered his bride had cheated on him with his best man. Somehow their mom (Nora Dunn) convinces Frankie to come home to celebrate Bruce's graduation from drug rehab. And thus begins Frankie's descent into a fresh hell of beleaguered manhood.
"Boom"'s script is rife with wit and raunch, and the clearly all-in cast deftly pitch one gagline after another, creating over-the-top characters who nonetheless project genuine, if grotesque, humanity. Dunn is fabulous as a crazy-making monster-mother, responsible for pumping up one son's creative and emotional megalomania while constantly deflating his sibling. As a charming sociopath, O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") is a veritable whirling dervish of amoral energy and enthusiasm, perfect foil to Hunnam's sweet stillness as gobsmacked witness and victim.
Frankie's quest for his lost -- or stolen -- manhood begins when an inebriated nutcase, Lassie (endearingly funny Lizzy Caplan), crashes her bike into him and falls at his very feet. The lady's just discovered her fiancé playing "super-competitive naked tag" with a pool boy, so she's all over shy Frankie in the brothers' childhood clubhouse. Unfortunately, our hero isn't up to the task until Lassie starts trash-talking his cheating bride; then these two survivors of sexual betrayal strike genuine sparks.
Naturally, constant "film"-maker Bruce has recorded Frankie's initial impotence and means to double-down on his brother's Internet humiliation. But turns out Lassie's the daughter of a washed-up actor and presumptive star of Bruce's hoped-for opus (Chris Noth -- Mr. Big in sleazy excelsis). Since Dad is known to be prone to vengeful gunplay, both bros must track down the elusive sex(less) video before it goes viral.
Remember "Bringing Up Baby," that nonpareil screwball comedy in which unsexed Cary Grant quested for his precious "bone" (a dinosaur's intercostal clavicle) through a series of fall-down funny adventures that tested his manhood -- even his gender -- to the max? Nowhere near that Shakespearean masterpiece's league, "Boom" does share its emotional/narrative mission: to bring up, in every sense, a man-child.
During the boys' madcap search for the video, Frankie encounters authentic as well as bizarro brands of machismo. Your mind will never erase the image of Noth's past-his-prime stud pounding away on a treadmill, clad only in a jock-strap. But it's transgendered Auntie Phyllis (Ron Perlman!), still in mourning for her "lost phallus," who most tests our tolerance for radical sexual identity. (Watching Hunnam and Perlman, ultra-macho stars of "Sons of Anarchy," dreamily slow dance will surely send the show's fans into convulsions of laughter -- or dismay.) Nailing the film's "nobody's perfect" ethos, it's Phyllis' improbable amalgam of gross male physicality, seductive femininity and wise mothering that turns out to be something like the Holy Grail for our emasculated Galahad -- the baby who grows up to be Lassie's knight in shining armor, or as she calls him, "a strong kind man dipped in metal."
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.