Gulliver’s Travels (review)

Swift Kick in the Crotch

If you’ve been possessed of a burning desire to behold Jack Black’s belly flab in 3D, then I am delighted to announce that your moment has arrived. What’s that? You say it’s Black’s buttcrack you crave the sight of, rendered in three glorious dimensions? This, my friend, is your lucky day.
Oh, but the daring of this updating of Jonathan Swift’s classic tale of rollicking adventure and biting cultural satire must be acknowledged! Black’s (Year One, Tropic Thunder) Lemuel Gulliver is a character unlike any we’ve ever seen on film before (and unlike any that Swift himself would have had the nerve to imagine): he’s a 40something layabout who happily toils, unambitiously and minimally, in the mailroom of the (fictional) New York Tribune and plays Guitar Hero more than he delivers the interoffice memos. He dreams of romancing travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet: 2012, The X-Files: I Want to Believe) but barely can muster the nerve to say hello to her, never mind ask her out. Gulliver is, to coin a term, a “manchild,” a perpetually immature, idiotic specimen of manhood even into middle age. What a fantastical sendup of modern life screenwriters Joe Stillman (Planet 51, Shrek 2) and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, Yes Man) have invented! Who could possibly believe that such a state of maleness could exist, much less be cast as the hero in a tale of noble questing and chivalrous romance? We simply do not see films evincing such audacity, ever.

Then there is Darcy Silverman, who — one would presume — must be an intelligent, sharp-witted woman to have reached the professional level she has. Yet she is utterly bamboozled by Gulliver, who cobbles together a “sample” travel essay by cribbing content from respected professional travel sources, and she hands him a writing assignment on the basis of that con job. Brilliant! The notion that an untried, inexperienced writer would be able to snag a primo writing assignment — complete with international travel! — is outrageous to begin with, and it is made even more so by the fact that supposed professional writers never plagiarize, and never benefit because of such a professional crime.

So this is how Gulliver embarks upon his adventure, when he — who is, recall, a slacker mail room clerk — is sent to the Caribbean to write a travel article and ends up shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput. More brilliance abounds here! When Swift published his novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] in the early 18th century, the court of the Lilliputians would have been seen as something recognizably contemporary, if satirically exaggerated, by his readers. But Stillman and Stoller avoid the complications of inventing a Lilliputian society that might satirically mirror our own, and instead posit a realm where the inhabitants are stuck in a Renaissance Festival parody of court life. It’s funny because they talketh strangely! The Lilliputians do retain the tiny, tiny stature Swift bequeathed upon them, because it’s also funny how huge Jack Black and his belly flab and buttcrack are by comparison. In the highlight of the film, Gulliver urinates on the grand Lilliputian palace to put out a fire. Genius!

The biting wit of the screenwriters is endless: the villain, General Edward (Chris O’Dowd: Dinner for Schmucks, Pirate Radio), is the only one of the Lilliputians who has reason enough to see through the blatant lies of Gulliver, who becomes a hero to this island nation; clearly, Stillman and Stoller are sending up our culture’s propensity to denigrate rationality and intelligence. But director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens, Shark Tale) is on his A game as well, taking the dry drollness of British comedienne Catherine Tate (Doctor Who, The Catherine Tate Show) and utterly ignoring her talents to cast her as the witless boob Queen Isabelle, for example. But it’s the overall moral of the film that embodies its greatest instance of satire, in how it comments on the current state of American society. One need not be clever, hardworking, and talented to succeed — in fact, such things are detriments to success, turning one either evil (Edward) or a sucker (Darcy). The best way to make good for oneself is to avoid all work, wisecrack a lot, and expect others to look after you… and all good things will come your way. What a hoot!

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