Friday, January 24, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Cockroaches!

If we’re going to discuss the modern cinema with any degree of intelligence we need to distinguish between stoner movies and stoned movies.
Stoner movies are movies made by people who aren’t on drugs for people who are. You can trace them from the Salvador Dali sequence in Spellbound through Lost Weekend and The Fly to The Trip to Up In Smoke and (N)Ice Dreams to the various Harold and Kumar flicks to Jack-in-the-Box ads.
Stoned movies are made by people who are on drugs for who the hell knows, because they’re made by people who are on drugs. Flying-day-glo-unicorn drugs.
It’s hard to tell the difference between a stoned movie and a really bad one, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Joe’s Apartment is the No. 1 stoned movie of the ‘90s.
I don’t know what was being ingested by the creative-so-to-speak forces behind Joe’s Apartment, but Jay-Z has to take out a title loan to afford an ounce of it.
Right now I’m sure of two things: you’ve never seen Joe’s Apartment because you’re a person of taste and refinement, and you’re dying to know the plot. I use hand sanitizer every time I call this burrito filled with random events a plot, but here goes: A country boy named Joe moves into a big-city apartment and finds it inhabited with cockroaches.
So far so good. It’s not really a plot, but it’s plot-like. It has some plotness and a little bit of plotitude, and its plotivity displays a tenuous connection to reality.
Let’s not get carried away, though, because shortly after Joe rents the apartment and finds it infested with cockroaches he discovers that A) he hates cockroaches and B) the cockroaches can talk. ( I realize it would make more sense if B) came before A), but not in this movie. Never in this movie.) And not only can they talk, they sing and dance and display the highest level of human intelligence: They do standup comedy. With matches for microphones. Because they can’t do Kafka.
You can pretty much guess where the movie goes from here. Joe starts a comedy club under his sink for other insects and becomes filthy rich, only he can’t spend any of it because insects pay for tickets using small bits of rotted flesh, dandelion pollen, and the carcasses of other insects, even when they use PayPal.
Actually, that would be a better plot than the plot-burrito that is plopped on this movie’s dirty plate. You can figure it out, if you promise to use no imagination whatsoever: Joe meets prospective girlfriend. Prospective girlfriend is grossed out at first but then comes to respect  the talking cockroaches.
(Because the way for people to respect gross, disgusting insects is to give the insects the power of speech. I suppose. It worked for Chris Christie.)
Throw in a couple of bumbling crooks that are conquered by Roach Power and everybody lives happily ever after, including the bugs, because you, like, can’t kill cockroaches.
Like it? If you don’t you need to cozy up to your friendly neighborhood pharmaceutical representative right this minute, because that’s all the ploticity this puppy can deliver.
It also doesn’t star anyone, with a Subway-style capital “ANY.” The lead is Jerry O’Connell, the love interest is Megan Ward, and the crooks are led by Robert Vaughn (long way from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Bobby). This cinematic turd-de-force is on its knees begging for Daniel Stern, George Wendt, Abe Vigoda, Al Lewis, Harvey Fierstein, Classy Freddie Blassie or anyone with a dram of charisma to camp it up, but no one shows. They were all at a David Hasselhoff celebrity roast.
Even with all its negative castification Joe’s Apartment might have been able to pull itself out of the sump by its bootstraps, but then you listen to the lyrics the cockroaches sing and you’re right back in the septic soup again.
Here’s a sample: “Garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage/Garbage in the moonlight gives off a lovely smell (lovely smell)/Sipping sewage with my baby in our little roach motel (please don't tell)/zum zum zuma zum zum zum/doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doodly doo/Take an ocean trip on our garbage ship with the cockroach I adore/We'll take a taste of the medical waste that washes up on shore.”
“Positively 4th Street” it ain’t. Or “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats,” either.
There’s only one more thing to be said about this celluloid angel-dust aftereffect: Donruss had the trading-card license.
Of course Donruss had the trading-card license. How the heck else could it follow up Kazaam?
You ought to be getting the message that Donruss’ ear for trading-card licenses was crafted of the finest tin, but it’s not all Donruss’ fault. In the pop-culture licensed-product market at that particular time Joe’s Apartment  had multiple positive attributes: It had a soundtrack, the card license was available, and it was made by MTV.
The history of MTV and trading cards as I remember it goes something like this: First the Yo! MTV Raps! Cards from Pro Set (memorably profiled here), then Beavis and Butt-Head sets from Fleer (including – unless I’m hallucinating again – a Flair/Ultra-ish version, since the one thing B&B-H fans want to do is pay more for trading cards), an MTV Toons set that showed all the shows that weren't music videos and weren't as good as Beavis and Butt-Head, and the MTV Films/Joe's Apartment set, and then everyone said, "Uh, I think we’re good."
So the big problem for Donruss wasn’t that it had a bad eye for licenses; it picked a good(ish) license, only at a really bad time.
(Okay, so it picked a really bad license. As former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler remarked when he heard I was writing about this set, “Yeah, unbelievably a card set about an agoraphobe and talking cockroaches did not become the next Mars Attacks.” He also dismissed its wretched sales by saying, “It came out about the same time as the Flipper set.” Because a card set for a dog movie featuring a semi-talking dolphin takes down a card set for a dog movie featuring talking cockroaches any day.)
The set didn’t do buyers or collectors any favors, though it has about as much fun with the material as your average Project Runway All-Star, with nary a Heidi Klum or Alyssa Milano in sight, sorry to say. The set is pitched in terms of “Etymological Order & Phyla,” making it the only trading-card set ever to be categorized the same way as dung beetles or, yes, cockroaches. (Can’t say these guys didn’t know their subject matter.) Chases include seven Roach cards, because 10 would be too many, and every pack has a free tattoo – yet another reason why tattoo removal is the growth industry of the twenty-teens.
In case you’re curious, the cards were advertised with the line, “The TRADING CARDS crawl from behind the fridge into stores everywhere.” It’s no “He's A Rappin' Genie With An Attitude ... And He's Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!”, but it’ll suffice. At least it didn’t kill any sales that weren’t dead already.
At one point in the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby Katharine Hepburn is trying to explain to her aunt why Cary Grant is standing in front of them in a peignoir. Her aunt says, quite sensibly, “Why, that doesn’t make any sense,” to which Cary Grant replies, “And take my word for it, madam: It never will.”

The Joe’s Apartment set is like that. The difference is that in Bringing Up Baby you get Cary Grant in a peignoir, and in the Joe’s Apartment set you get talking cockroaches. It doesn’t make any sense, and it never will.

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