All pulp may be proletarian, but surely some pulp is more equal than others. American and Asian pulp, for instance, have always had the racy advantage of neurotic energy, or failing that, disposable cash. The chickenhearted kook on the block, Euro-pulp has long been conflicted between high and low, and the results can be harebrained. The best example of nutlog French escapism since The Fifth Element, Christophe Gans’s Brotherhood of the Wolf has all the brooding, self-imposed faux dignity of a straight-faced costume epic—until a masked horseman pulls a Jet Li on five rowdy peasants on a rainy 18th-century hillside. That virtually every pre-revolutionary character in Gans’s digitized psychotronia—nobleman, plebe, Indian—knows acrobatic jujitsu is a given.
Call it a neo-kung-fu-adventure-conspiracy-fantasy-monster-movie-aristo-farce, just don’t call it late to the box office. One of last year‘s four biggest moneymakers in France (along with Amélie), Gans’s movie begins on a Jaws template: Royal court scientist Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) arrives at rural burg Gévaudan with his mysterious Iroquois sidekick, Mani (preposterously handsome Hawaiian martial arts star Mark Dacascos), to investigate a spate of wolf attacks that have terrorized the area (as the actual Gallic legend goes). Like Richard Dreyfuss, he measures the bite radius on victim remains, declaring it too large for an ordinary wolf. From there, the film exploits the French sense of history as a catacomb of musty horrors and ancient corruption; Fronsac’s quest intersects with combating papal spies, taxidermic weirdness, Monica Bellucci as a brothel witch, Gein-esque fetishism, incestuous nobility, Rosetta‘s Emilie Dequenne as a cherubic countess, and an obligatory—albeit wickedly abstracted—CGI creature.
The odd spectacle of suave leading man Le Bihan becoming a somersaulting, face-painted berserker may account for some of the movie’s allure at home, but Wolf is such a smooth amalgamation of hilariously disparate varieties of ripe cheese that the effect is brutely cheering. (Before this, Gans was a horror-mag editor, a Raimi and Tsui fan, and a Lovecraft adapter.) It’s easily the most disarming and inventive movie made for genre geeks in years; how many of them will suffer the subtitles and art-house pacing is as undetermined as whether Gans’s Beast signifies something larger than itself.
Talk about aiming low. Hardly the idiosyncratic Mickey Finn you’d expect from the men behind 1998’s underrated Zero Effect and 2000’s discomfort-splooge Chuck & Buck, Jake Kasdan and Mike White’s Orange County is verily Farrelly, down to the runaway geriatric wheelchair, nipping dog, spattered urine, hangover puke, and pervasive aura of sweetness. Without the perfectly winceable excesses, the movie—a brief and modest account of college-admissions anxiety—more than resembles a mid-’80s Tom Hanks/John Cusack romp, the kind often directed by Savage Steve Holland. (The ghost impression is fortified by lead man Colin Hanks, who dittos his dad even without the reach-for-the-ceiling curls he wears in flashbacks.) Orange County is a good deal more sophisticated than a Holland movie in its craft, if just as thin in its thrust: Hanks’s reformed surfer dude-dysfunctional family survivor wants to go to Stanford to “be a writer,” doesn’t get in, and allows his dope-zonked bulldozer of a brother (Jack Black) to finesse the dilemma. Lessons are learned amid the scatological yucks, profitless cameos (Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller), and Black’s graceless mugging (surely, here’s the Oliver Hardy for the ’00s). But what’s unforced and charming in Kasdan’s movie boils down to Schuyler Fisk—Sissy Spacek Jr.—as Hanks’s lovely, pure-hearted girlfriend, Ashley, who’s torn between wanting her bud to fulfill his dream and wanting him to stay in Orange. How material is it, objectively speaking, that I find her massive grin and glam-free luster so swoon-worthy? It was easy to hope that the story’s simplistic crisis would play out in Ashley’s favor, just so Fisk might beam, gloriously, once more.