REVIEW: “LOOK ALIVE OUT THERE” BY SLOANE CROSLEY

In her 2008 debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley established herself as a humorous essayist to be reckoned with, inviting comparisons to masters of the form like David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, and Sarah Vowell, and landing its author on the New York Times bestseller list. In the fifteen essays that comprise that collection, Crosley held forth on every-day subjects such as the irritating circus of Manhattan real estate, dating in one’s twenties, losing one’s wallet, and being single at weddings—all in a sharp, sardonic voice that managed to be laugh-out-loud funny and, at times, profoundly moving. Her second collection, How Did You Get This Number, was in many ways the same book as the one that preceded it—no less satisfying, just more well-traveled (indeed, with essays detailing trips to Alaska, Lisbon, and Paris, among other locales, it’s almost a travel book). In 2015, Crosley published her first novel, The Clasp, a Mary McCarthy-esque riff on the Guy de Mapassant short story The Necklace that was exceedingly well-written but perhaps too hilariously funny (funnier, even, than some of her essays) to be taken seriously, despite its moments of deep sincerity and pathos. Fans of Crosley will be happy to hear that her latest, Look Out Alive Out There, is for the author a sure-footed and gratifying return to the essay form.

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In the decade since Crosley first arrived on the literary scene she has honed her talents considerably. She’s always been a preternaturally gifted writer, one capable of infusing her perfectly constructed, staggeringly graceful sentences with the crackle of her wry observations and savvy insights. In Look Alive Out There, she is in full command of her talents, as mordant and caustically self-deprecating as ever. She’s older now, and it shows, mostly in her subject matter. Where her earlier collections largely chronicled her social and romantic foibles as a twenty-something urbanite, these new essays find her grappling with the onslaught of her thirties and impending middle-age. “Outside Voices,” one of the longer essays in the book, chronicle’s Crosley’s years-long battle with a noisy, much younger neighbor. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” she details the invasive and expensive process of having her eggs frozen—a series of procedures she endures at the casual suggestion of her doctor, for no apparent reason other than why not. Such predicaments are not the purview of a slightly neurotic twenty-something who keeps a secret drawer full of toy ponies in her kitchen or travels impulsively to Lisbon to get drunk with a troupe of aspiring clowns. These are the predicaments of a grown-ass woman in possession of a health insurance package that affords her the privilege of being, as she puts it, “pro-active about [her] health,” however unnecessarily (her aforementioned “harvest” yielded more than 60 eggs, which I guess is a lot), who just wants to get to bed at a decent fucking hour.

This maturity is not unwelcome, or at all ineffective: “Outside Voices,” after all, is one of the best essays in the book. Its paragraphs are packed with enough laughs to serve as a comedienne’s standup set—laughs that are honestly won (elsewhere, Crosley is not above resorting to the cheap gag) and which never come at the expense of more astute revelations. Indeed, this essay, which opens the collection after the brief preamble of “Wheels Up,” (more on that later), is very much about the passage of time, of getting older. For years while living in Manhattan’s tony West Village neighborhood, Crosley was plagued by the constant noise of a family who lived in a neighboring brownstone. Most of that noise was caused by Jared, the teenage son, who, when not “watching viral videos on his phone at full volume” or playing music loudly from the backyard, was busy hosting his coterie of friends for rowdy, beer-fueled revelries that lasted late into the night. When calls and visits to her local police precinct resulted in nothing and her kindly requests for her neighbors to keep it down proved similarly futile, Crosley found herself becoming “a curmudgeon before my time,” and resorted to extreme measures to silence her neighbors. She wrote a letter, then watched as Jared and his mother laughed about it in their kitchen. Inspired by an art installation exhibit, she bought a set of 600-watt halogen spotlights and aimed them at the neighboring backyard.

Crosley’s best essays are always a little bit nostalgic, and “Outside Voices” is no exception. Crosley is initially hesitant to make too big a deal out of Jared’s noisiness, confessing that she is “mostly concerned with something mortifying: Jared’s impression of me.” “Jared was cool,” Crosley writes. “He just was. What’s worse, he plugged into some residual teenage part of me that wanted to be cool, too.” Her irritation with Jared flares alongside her obsession with him and his friends. She’s repelled by his discourteous nature but drawn in by his cool-kid appeal, Shazaam-ing Jared’s musical choices “even as I wanted to destroy him.” In the end, however, her rue overwhelms their allure. The spotlights are successful, and Crosley, officially Over It, yawns at their resultant objections and insults. The essay’s central-if-subtle anxiety—that specific brand that accompanies the late-twenty-something as they bear witness to the emerging adulthood of the generation on their heels, when one first starts to truly feel their age, specifically its accumulation—is ultimately taken in stride by Crosley, who both acknowledges and accepts the distance between herself and the young rabble-rousers next door: “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”

Not all of the pieces collected here are successful. This is especially true of the shorter pieces, such as “Wheels Up,” which totals not quite three pages and is only truly funny in the final paragraphs and feels otherwise unnecessary. “Brace Yourself,” about the same length, is marginally better but likewise fails to convincingly merit its own inclusion, at least after one reading.

One aspect of Look Alive Out There that struck me is the absence of virtually any engagement with current events. I’m not sure whether I mean this as a criticism or not. On the one hand I feel obligated to confess that there was something wholly enjoyable about spending time in Crosley’s practically apolitical world (to be fair, there are passing references to feminism and a few supporting sentiments—details that suggest liberal leanings sprinkled throughout like Easter eggs), which is apparently devoid of the frustrations and angst that have been harrying much of the country and dominating most realms of entertainment. Slipping into the book was somewhat like slipping through a portal or a time-warp and being transported to a world not villainized by totalitarian-leaning oligarchs and Russian e-espionage, where black men are routinely executed in the streets and children are gunned down in schools. On the other hand, however, it did occur to me that this might be what people mean when they refer to “liberal coastal elites” (that Crosley is a New Yorker is a large part of her writerly persona, and the idiosyncrasies of living there influence much of her writing) who are out of touch with those of us in so-called “real America.” Here is a woman—occupation: “full-time writer”—whose biggest problems are the cyber-bully who unethically obtains her domain name (after SHE let it expire, mind you) (though she annoyingly refuses to accept responsibility for this) and a sudden onset of chronic vertigo. I’m not a fan of the sort of oppression Olympics that sometimes infiltrate otherwise well-intentioned investigations of privilege and power structures, but it’s difficult to muster whatever sympathy Crosley might hope to extract from her readers here, especially when the vertigo eventually goes away basically on its own and she barely balks at the nearly 5,000 dollars she has to fork over to re-purchase her domain name. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” the essay in which she has her eggs harvested, one shudders when Crosley blithely confesses to ruining fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of fertility hormones in the freezer (it is replaced by her pharmacist, at no charge) when there are people, surely, in her same city who are forced to choose between paying their rent or paying for their chemotherapy treatments or their blood pressure medications. Certainly, these disparities are not Crosley’s fault; however, her unabashed detailing of her own excesses—there’s an entire essay about her guest role as herself on the TV series Gossip Girl—whatever their true intentions, register as somewhat oblivious and tone-deaf.

Nevertheless, Look Alive Out There is as charming and delightful a book as one is likely to come across, at turns beguiling and shrewd, flippant and discerning, funny and revealing. One of Crosley’s greatest strengths is her flair for self-creation. That self is spared the fate of caricature because it is so deliberately and meticulously constructed, and so inimitably precocious. It’s hard not to imagine that the Sloane Crosley one encounters on the page is not without her fabrications; however, one is so taken by her zany, incessantly amusing worldview, one hardly cares.

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I loved Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” just like everyone else

One of the books I’m toting around right now is the recently published collected short stories of Susan Sontag, Debriefing. In the collection’s first story, “Pilgrimage,” the 14-year-old narrator (also Susan Sontag) has this to say about reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

“For a month the book was where I lived. I read it through almost at a run, my excitement winning out over my wish to go slowly and savor…After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud…”<

Sontag’s recollections of reading Mann are the near-perfect summation of my experience with The Idiot. I did not tear through Elif Batuman’s spectacular novel so much as I devoured it. And like Sontag, as I neared the end, I felt a low pang of sadness at the pages diminishing quickly beneath my fingers. I wasn’t ready to abandon Selin, the book’s 19 year old narrator, nor the sprawling, perfectly imagined cast of characters that populate the year of her life she recounts for us. I was entirely consumed by this book, completely beguiled by the unique pitch of Selin’s narrative voice, and by the exasperating clarity of Batuman’s authorial vision.

A blurb on the book’s back cover describes The Idiot as “mundane,” and I truly cannot think of a more accurate statement. To say that nothing much “happens” in the book would be true but misleading. It’s more like what does happen is so heartbreakingly normal, so small, that it barely registers as a happening. Selin, a Harvard freshman, in 1995, of Turkish-American descent, dispatches the tale of her first year in college in a voice so droll and un-impassioned it’s positively flat. An aspiring writer, Selin is observational nearly at the expense of interiority, a pair of eyes and poised pen recording her experiences with an almost journalistic adherence to objectivity. Yet nothing is sacrificed to the stark, spare, even flat quality of the prose: the characters (and there are many, encountered by Selin in Boston, in New York, in Paris, in Turkey and Eastern Europe) are all drawn with precision; the every detail zings. Freighted conversations amount to nothing, such as when Selin discovers she and her doomed love interest, Ivan (who is basically a composite of every withholding, manipulative jerk any of us has ever dated), has booked the same trans-Atlantic flight as she:

I stood beside Ivan. “Hi,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“I didn’t recognize you because of your haircut,” I said.
His gloom seemed to intensify. “That why I got the haircut.”
I thought that was funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know you were going to Paris,” I said.
“I didn’t know YOU were going to Paris,” he said.
Then we stood there not saying anything.
“Well, see you later,” I said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asked Svetlana afterward…

The book is replete with these sort of exchanges, anti-climactic to the point of banality, and they thrilled me.

Yet the book’s simplicity is a front: this is not some frothy tale of collegiate love gone wrong; rather, this is a rigorously intellectual, deeply theoretical book about the possibilities and limits of language. Again and again Selin, whose major is linguistics, brushes against those possibilities and limitations, discovering in most instances the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of true understanding. The many languages that flit through the book–English, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, to name a few–some of which Selin is conversant in, others in which she is not, are the stage upon which the author’s theories are presented. The big takeaway seems to be that misunderstanding is so easy–even likely–whether or not two people speak the same language, for language is basically a trick: words taken on their own mean nothing–or, more precisely, they have multiple meanings, and in this way the meanings can be impossible to decipher. This at least seems to be Selin’s lesson, as the novel’s BEAUTIFUL and PERFECT final passage makes clear:

“When I got back to school that fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in philosophy or the psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

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This is my favorite song right now:

 

JANAE: Why’s it called Drew Barrymore?

ME: Beats me, except she makes a cameo near the end of the video.

Listen, you know I love me a messy girl with big hair and and even bigger voice. If this were 2002 and I saw SZA’s debut album (there’s also an EP from last year) amongst the new releases at the FYE that used to be at the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Indiana, I’d have bought just simply for the cover art. I’m totally here for streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music (I subscribe to both, because I like to throw my money way) because it’s super fucking convenient to just have the complete discography of Mariah Carey always at my immediate disposal, and really, the $23 or whatever it is those two subscriptions cost me per month is pocket change compared to the hundreds of dollars I used to spend on compact discs each month. Still, some of my favorite albums of all time are ones I discovered by accident, purchased on a whim because I happened to see the CD on a rack at some record store and responded in some way to the cover. But I haven’t bought a CD in a years.

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As it happens, I first heard SZA on Rihanna’s Consideration, the opener of her 2016 album Anti. The song, co-written by and featuring SZA, has all the spunk, sass, and cunning lyricism she pushes to even more gratifying extremes on CTRL. Most easily classified within that burgeoning sub-genre of music known as “alt-R&B” (which I think means R&B that ostensibly “hip” white kids have decided is cool, re: Frank Ocean, The Weeknd), CTRL in fact resists labels and categorizations without quite eschewing them completely. There are, certainly, heavy elements of R&B throughout; inspirations from hip-hop are also prevalent, and there are strong whiffs of soul jazz, indie rock, and mass-appeal, radio-friendly contemporary pop. (A girl I know who has absolutely zero taste in anything, hearing Love Galore for the first time, pronounced it, “A really good song.” She’s not wrong — it’s a slick, sexy jam that contains some of the album’s baddest and most innovative lyrics, but it’s minimalist production is firmly rooted in the now.) It’s this perfect (if unruly) combination of influences that make CTRL such a pleasure. It’s specific and unique, happy to suggest all sorts of identification yet refusing to pick just one.

On the album’s inaugural track, Supermodel, SZA sings over a grungy electric guitar about, according to the Genius-powered “Behind The Lyrics” function on Spotify, “an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong.” Her vocal delivery here (and elsewhere on the album) evokes songstresses like Amy Winehouse or Macy Gray with hints of Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj. “I could be your supermodel if you believe,” SZA sings on the hook, “If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me.” Its poignant, somber sentiment is juxtaposed against the graphic aggression of the verse, in which she declares, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” and taunts her estranged lover with, “How am I so easy to forget like that/It can be that easy for you to get like that.” Here and elsewhere on CTRL, SZA reveals herself straddling the delicate balance between the fast-talking, smart-mouthed bad chick who’s down for revenge sex and sharing dudes on “The Weekend,” and the one whose loneliness might push to put up with the bullshit. The way SZA fuses these apparent contradictions, with such grace, cohesion, whimsy, and cool, reveals a creative mind as messy, distracted, interested, and exciting as the album itself, and I’m here for it.

 

The Black, Queer Poetics of “Make My Bussy Jump!”

It opens, this slim volume of poetry, in my opinion one of the most important American collections so far this century, with a poem called Nudity: 

“He saw my scars and/kissed them until/I saw them/anew/Fingerprinting all over me.”

At first, one balks at the familiarity, at the cliché, even, of the metaphor evoked by the poem’s central image: those lover-kissed scars made “anew.” Yet when one considers the historical relevance of scars to the black, queer, American body, with which these poems are unfailingly, and self-purportedly, concerned (the book is subtitled “Black Gay Erotic Poetry” and is formally dedicated to “Black men who enjoy sex with Black men”), the metaphor opens up. One thinks of actual scars. One thinks of Anthony Gooden, Jr., and Marquez Tolbert, two gay black lovers who, in Georgia, in March of this year, had boiling water poured on them while they slept side by side. One thinks of Jimmy Garza and Ramiro Serrata, who lured a gay black man to their home and then beat him nearly to death with all manner of household implements — frying pans and broomsticks, a coffee mug and a sock filled with batteries — before sodomizing him with a mop handle. One thinks, too, of course, of metaphorical scars, those left on the gay psyche by a culture that consistently denigrates and punishes and misrepresents, inscribing upon it a diminished self-vision. At the poem’s turn—”He…kissed them until/I saw them/anew”—this vision is altered, revitalized. That a kiss, at least commonly an expression of love, facilitates this revitalization clarifies the poem’s larger conceit: physical intimacy between gay men, the very act of gay sex/love, has reparative potential. Further: If this new vision is a response to the lover’s gaze, isn’t it true to say that it is the nudity, the simple act of disrobing suggested by the title, which makes the lover’s gaze possible in the first place? Before they can be kissed the scars must be revealed. It’s but a small leap, then, to conclude that the body itself — in this case, explicitly the black, queer body — is progenitor of all these things.   When that body is routinely the target of violent, bias-motivated crime—when the act of gay love is so punishable—the poem teems with vitality. That is the power and the wonder of this and all of these poems.

The book, completely astonishing, is Make My Bussy Jump! by Edwin Brown III, who writes and performs under the moniker edwinsblackmagic. Magic, indeed: these poems, frank and confessional, at turns romantic and crude, are remarkable both for the winky formality of their structure and their searing, unique point of view. These poems tear at the scrim that obscures the queer black body from the status quo, offering a literature of queer desire that’s candid, unapologetically raw, and unwaveringly committed to carving out a poetics for—as much as a poetics of—black (male) queer sexuality.

Appropriate to their politicized subject matter, these often gritty poems are unsparingly graphic in their portrayal of the body—though never exactly gratuitous. Take, for instance, the poem Gush, which discusses the sonic experience of anal sex: “But fr/It’s the sound it make/That I love the most/That boy fart and squirt/And moan and shake.” Uninterested in tidying up for guests, these poems continually bare themselves for the reader, exposing some of the finer aspects of gay sex, no matter how potentially alienating. “I stick him again,” the poem continues, “and again that butt quake/He just so gushy.” These images are presented with such apparent sincerity its hard to imagine the author possessing anything as pedestrian as the will to shock. Indeed: shock seems terribly beyond the point. Rather, intimacy and familiarization seem to be the goal. Gushy achieves that intimacy through its conversant quality of address, like a story between friends.

This technique is employed to similar effect elsewhere in book, such as in the poem When You Got The Juice, which opens with this query: “Am I the only bitch/that like to look at her hole/after the nigga handled it?” Although there’s a sense in which the question feels rhetorical, familiarity is nevertheless suggested by the narrator’s identification as “bitch” and “her,” a common colloquial tactic among some groups of otherwise cis gendered gay men. When deployed in real life, this apparent misdistribution of pronouns, far from denigrating, actually suggests familiarity, even affection, as it does in this poem—a familiarity likewise indicated, for instance, by the use of “handled” as a euphemism for sex. The abundance of vernacular and other non-institutionally sanctioned language both squares the poetic aim proposed in the book’s dedication and, combined with its blatancy, furthers the book’s frank, not quite anthropological tone. In an era obsessed with full-disclosure, the many divulgences of Make My Bussy Jump!, which may veer quickly into T.M.I. territory for some readers, are both timely and original.

It is not, however, only their rampant revelations that make these poems remarkable. Its evocations of queer black sexuality and discussions of the queer black body reveal the book’s concurrent obsession with queer black identity, marginally represented in literature but here educed again and again. According to Make My Bussy Jump!, a defining feature of this identity is its almost elastic fluidity, its resistance toward categorization, evidenced by its habit of wavering, undecidedly, between supposed binaries such as top and bottom, active and passive—even male and female, as we see in When You Got The Juice. In the title, “bussy,” a portmanteau of “pussy” (as slang for vagina) and “butt” (or “boi,” depending on your source), has an assumptive relationship to “bottoming,” or taking the passive role in homosexual penetrative sex. The word crops up a number of times in the book, in poems like Size-Queen and Good Bussy, and other poems, like “Where You Want Me To Cum?” and Sucking Dick & Eating Cheetos, make explicit the delectation the narrator finds in assuming that position. Finally, in Pornstar Status, the narrator somewhat edaciously claims the sexual inclination as part of his own identity, proclaiming himself “a real bottom/ten times over.” And yet, the poems aren’t always extolling the pleasures of bottoming. Gush, for instance, revels in taking the active role, and in Jamaican Alter-Ego the narrator promises, “Inna yuh belly mi gwan.” Versatility—an ambulation between these distinctions (often taken as markers of identity amongst gay men) rather than a strict and unfaltering inclination either way—seems to be the order of the house.

Importantly, this ambulation is never strictly sexual. Gender performance as well becomes a site of dual identification: Some poems suggest an identification with images of black female empowerment embodied on television by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the series Scandal, and in real life by Beyoncé; conversely, in the series of Catcalling poems that come late in the collection, a performance of black queerness becomes practically indistinguishable from typical notions of a certain brand of straight masculinity identified by the title. This ambulation between the masculine and the feminine proves itself a destabilizing force in Catcalling 2, in which the male body (implicitly the straight male body), under a queer male gaze, and contrary to the typical literary arrangement, becomes itself an object of scrutiny and sexualization. The poem’s concluding assurance, “Thug life over here too my nigga/shiiiit,” distances the relevance of sexuality from expected gender performance—or even extracts it all together. One can be both queer and a thug, according to the poem. That the narrator delivers this line while showily grabbing his crotch—a gesture of assertive masculinity made iconic in the 1990s, when hip hop moved to the foreground of popular music—only furthers the message here.

A graduate of Howard University, edwinsblackmagic is not ignorant of his poetic ancestors. Though he makes something new, he is nevertheless working within a poetic tradition, and consciously so: Many of these poems share the cadence and music of the work of celebrated black American poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, especially when they are more concerned with affirming blackness, such as the poem # notes, with its refrain of “Black man you are beautiful/Hey/Black man you are beautiful.” Additionally, in much the same way that Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance poets were influenced by jazz, Make My Bussy Jump! is influenced by hip hop: The meter and rhyme scheme of some of these poems, the bombast and braggadocio of others, simply beg to be rapped. Like Nicki Minaj with her vivid pro-sex rhymes and Beyoncé with her swag-portending hot sauce always on deck, edwinsblackmagic poeticizes freshly about gay sex while smoking weed and munching on Flaming Hot Cheetos.

The influence of the Black Arts Movement and poets like Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni ripple in the collection’s use of slang and vernacular and its concern with social issues facing all black lives. Queer, perhaps, but black and male nevertheless, and as such, imprisonment is a very real threat in some of these poems, such as Good Bussy, in which the poet jokingly imagines himself on Death Row, “framed/for homicide,” contemplating his last meal.

Not all of these poems come off. The series of numbered “conversations” are too sentimental and too many, and a few poems seem to retread ground the book has already covered. Nevertheless, the book never falters in its exactness of its vision. Its messages never lose their immediacy. Make My Bussy Jump! proves itself a living, vital document, gloriously ostentatious, taking for granted that the world is large enough to receive its black, flaming contribution to literature. One only hopes the world is ready.

 

 

 

suicide squad is awful as you’ve heard it is

suicide squad is as awful as you’ve heard it is.

the plot is sloppy and haphazard, clunking along pointlessly as moments of insufferably corny dialogue are plunked between sequences of lack-luster action. the art direction is not so bad–the joker’s (jared leto) green slick-back was really giving me ideas for fall, but harley quinn’s (margot robbie) daisy dukes and skin-tight tee, “daddy’s lil’ monster” scrawled across the breast, seemed like a cheap excuse to sex up a woman who is probably sexy in sweatpants. (the actress herself, in conversation with the new york times, expresses some ambivalence about the hot pants, but concedes that they are part of the character’s “iconography.”) of course, i’d have put her in the red and black jester’s costume she wore in the animated series, and which the movie tease us with early on–but that’s just me.

suicide squad introduces us to its titular anti-heroes by on-screen text that gives their names, neé and aka, and what they can do. as high-ranking government official amanda waller (played well but without investment by her majesty viola davis) walks national security advisors through a binder containing information on the top-secret task force she’s assembled, comprised of the worst criminals in the world, we meet our primary players. there’s deadshot, played by will smith, a sniper assassin who has never missed a shot. there’s diablo, a former cholo gangster who can spew fire from his hands, and captain boomerang, who throws boomerangs and hits on widows, and killer croc, a man who looks like a crocodile. (there are probably more characters but i’ve forgotten about them because, like the film itself, they’re forgettable.)

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in any case, waller has some hair-brained scheme to control these criminals by implanting exploding chips into their heart which she can detonate if they step out of line. to lead them she appoints captain rick flagg (an absolutely delicious joel kinnaman). there’s no immediate reason: waller has some speech about how the next world war will be fought by metahumans and the united states might as well be prepared. no sooner, of course, does she assemble this rag-tag group than one of them–an archaeologist possessed by a powerful witch known as the enchantress–escapes her control and begins wreaking havoc on someplace called mid city. send in task force x, who, inexplicably, are sent in to rescue waller and defeat the enchantress. none of it really makes any sense. the enchantress is building a machine to take over the world, but all this machine seems to do is turn ordinary people into shellacked minion soldiers under her control. one wonders why a sorceress so powerful–one who can make people see things that aren’t there, teleport, do basically whatever she wants–would go to all that trouble when she might just as easily cast a spell for world domination.

but no matter. there’s money to be made here, clearly. the show, no matter how tacked together, must go on.

a hungry margot robbie gives it her all but either it’s not enough or there’s not enough to give it to, or both. i was not at all impressed with her partially-realized  conception of harley quinn, but this might not totally be her fault: she certainly hasn’t been given very much to work with.

one feels worse for will smith as deadshot, who is forced to deliver some of the film’s worst dialogue and muster some of the films most artificial emotions. “you don’t kill as many people as i’ve killed and sleep peacefully at night by feeling things like love,” he tells harley quinn, which totally contradicts the idea, otherwise expressed throughout, that his primary motivation is his young daughter. particularly nauseating is a scene in which he attempts to teach her geometry through bullet trajectory–despite his previous efforts to conceal from her the nature of his business endeavors.

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similarily disgraced is jay hernandez as diabolo, a conflicted ex-con whose weepy tale about how he murdered his wife and children is a moment of failed pathos so horribly written one can’t help but squirm. he has vowed never to wreak his pyrogenic havoc again. he relents, of course, for his new “family,” and to save the world, which is another thing that felt like hard bullshit about this movie: how quickly these characters–“textbook sociopaths,” allegedly, as harly quinn observes at one point–are bonded together, ready to give their lives for one another. sure, this sort of unlikely commitment is a tentpole of the sorts of movies in which gangs of misfits band together to do something brave and unexpected, but it was particularly hard to swallow in a movie about people who murder their own offspring, or swim in sewers, or do whatever captain boomerang does.

but of course, none of these characters is clearly drawn or convincingly motivated. one can’t help but wonder if the writer was given a story board and tasked with working backward.

which might go some way to articulating why so many dc fanboys are freaking out about the movie’s poor critical reception: as fans of the comic book, they come to the movie with not only an investment in but also an acquaintance with the mythology that critics who are excoriating the movie lack. i’m one of those critics. they only characters i knew anything about going in were harley quinn, because i worshipped the batman animated series that birthed her in the 1990s, and june moore/the enchantress, because I kept seeing her in the trailers and was like who is that witch because typically i’m down for anything involving witches. lacking an exposure to the source material, i was dependent upon the movie itself for both inspiration and a reason to care. the film delivered neither of these things and, no matter what the fanboys believe–some of whom were scattered, solitary, about the theater at the viewing i attended yesterday–the film needed to.

i’d feel remiss if i didn’t mention jared leto’s turn as the joker, one of the most iconic of all the characters in the dc comicverse. always a standout and a staple, the joker became a template for the deranged psychopath supervillain after heath ledger donned the purple suit in christopher nolan’s masterful the dark knight. that was a stellar performance, and it’s clear how much leto hopes to do something similar here. poor jared leto. there’s something cookie-cutter about his turn. he seems to think craziness is best expressed in animated lip movements and creepy soft caresses and false grandiloquence. to be fair, leto had his work cut out for him, taking on this role post-ledger, and it also works against him that the character is completely unnecessary in this movie. he really serves no purpose other than to provide for harley quinn’s momentary escape–a gesture hard to take as romantic when one recalls that he caused her capture in the first place. then he pops up again, in the film’s final frames, purely, it seems, to tease a sequel.

Suicide-Squad

most of suicide squad is run-of-the-mill scenes of fantasy of violence spliced with incoherent bits of exposition that i guess are supposed to stand in for plot points. there is not a face that appears on screen that does not seem to wonder, at least at one point, what it is doing there, not a performance that doesn’t fall flat, and i really can’t say enough about how corny the dialogue is. i really cannot. at times i felt embarrassed, it was so corny. in a year that has already seen its share of disappointing comic book blockbusters, from batman v. superman to x-men: apocalypse, suicide squad really stands out.