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A review of "High Strung" (1991)

The Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

A low-key mix of stand-up comedy, slapstick, satire, and experimental film, High Strung is an uneven but overall entertaining movie that doesn't overstay its welcome.  It functions both as an Angry White Man diatribe and parody, which is hard to do, and it makes the most with a limited budget and setting.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Bit Where I Describe the Plot

Thane Furrows (Steve Oedekerk) is a cynical, wound-up children's book writer who can do nothing but complain about everything he sees. From word one, all he does is bitch.  His cereal bowl has too much milk in it?  Rant.  He's got junk mail?  Rant.  Somebody suggests that he go out to a restaurant to eat lunch?  Rant.

You might be tempted to say that the movie is about a particularly bad day in his life, but you get the impression that this is just how he is every day.  The fact that (spoilers) he gets fired and "dies" doesn't really seem to do anything other than change the subject matter of what he bitches about.

So... that's pretty much it.  It's basically just Thane walking around his apartment all day and complaining.

There's a few diversions here and there.  Occasionally somebody from Thane's life will either call or stop by to visit, such as his boss's wife (Denise Crosby) or his best friend (Thomas Wilson). He also keeps having recurring visions of Jim Carrey and he keeps hearing vague, ominous references to something that will happen at 8:00 that night.  But these are minor distractions from the main event, which is that Thane is just a super cranky dude.

Considering that the movie is light on plot, and what little plot there is sounds awful, I'm impressed that I liked this movie as much as I did.  I'm still struggling to put my finger on exactly why.  I guess it's just a good movie about anger.

The Bit Where I Talk About Anger

My first impression would be that this is a movie where a crotchety white guy "tells it like it is" and harrumphs and we're all supposed to laugh and applaud him for having the audacity to tell ~~the truth~~.  You know, basically the shitty stand-up routine that we all got tired of back in the '80s, but which people keep dragging up from time to time to use in new sitcoms?

The good news is that it's not that.  At least, not entirely.  Oedekerk and company were smart enough to realize that the Angry White Man shtick wears thin really quickly, so Thane ends up being the butt of the joke more often than do the targets of his angst.

Anger is a tricky ingredient to use in your stories.  It's polarizing by nature.  When used properly, it creates endearing characters and hilarious jokes.  But nothing else will turn people away from your story faster than some improperly-placed anger.  You have a guy who's cranky and makes an ass out of himself?  People laugh.  You have a guy who's cranky and makes an ass out himself, but also tells people that their dead relatives are going to Hell?  People just want nothing to do with him.  You're using anger either way, but in one case you're self-aware enough to realize how stupid you look and in the other you're trying to encourage other people to put on the same stupid face with you.

High Strung is uneven because it tries to do both to some extent.  There are times when Thane goes off on tangents that are clearly the result of his own ridiculous attitudes, such as his phobia of pizza ("They touch it!") or his inability to cope with having pets.  These moments are, at worst, amusing, and at best refreshing and fun.

Other times, you get the feeling that the movie is no longer making fun of Thane, but rather trying to convince you that he actually is making a good point.  For example, there's a prolonged and nearly insufferable scene in which he receives several automated calls from a carpet cleaning service and he keeps making smart-ass chit-chat with the robotic voice on the other end.  If Thane erupted into uncontrollable rage at every call, you might laugh, but instead we're supposed to, what, find his smartass musings clever?  Suddenly the asshole who's been whining about every single thing he sees is a voice of reason?

There are still other moments that just plain don't belong.  Thane at one point has a diatribe about restaurant servers that starts out as snark... and then just kind of becomes exaggerated observational comedy... and then works up into homicidal rage.  He begins as George Carlin, works his way into Jerry Seinfeld, and then finishes as Sam Kinison.  It's still funny - but it's incredibly uneven.

Mostly, though, I think the movie hits the right tone: Thane is an asshole less because of his anger and more because he knows that his anger is unjustified, but he persists with it, anyway.  It's an overall critical look at a dude who knows nothing but criticism, yet is incapable of change.

Perhaps the best scene in the movie is a moment where Thane has to suffer a surprise visit from his boss's racist wife.  She lights up a cigarette (without permission) and goes off on a diatribe about how minorities and the poor shouldn't be able to vote.  Cut to Thane's inner monologue, wherein he screams at himself for not expressing dissent.  "You're wrong!" he shouts - in his head.  But out loud, he doesn't call her out on her bullshit.  He doesn't say, "That's still a totally racist thing to say even if you preface it with, 'I'm not racist, but.'"  He just lets her go on and on... until she says something personal about Thane's latest book.  Then, and only then, does he choose to express himself: by accusing her of sleeping her way to the top.

So, instead of being motivated to stand up for a noble cause and try to quell a terrible attitude, Thane withdraws and becomes even more selfish and abrasive until he works to his own detriment.

This scene best sums up the point of the movie, which is that all anger - even if it's justified - needs to be channeled through a constructive filter or else you'll simply push people away and die alone.  It's a good message.  One that the Internet desperately needs to learn.

The Part Where I Talk About the Direction

Sometimes I wonder if there's a rulebook out there for new directors that I'm not aware of, and the first page in it says, "You need to make a movie set in a confined space."  It seems like early directorial efforts often end up as one- or two-set films like this one.  Obviously there's strong financial motivation since the budget is significantly lower if you only have one or two sets, but the restriction of space gives directors more of a chance to try their hand at inventive camera angles, lighting, depth of field, and so on.

High Strung is one of the better examples I've seen.  Even though about 95% of the movie takes place in Thane's apartment, it never once feels claustrophobic.  To be fair, his apartment is unrealistically massive, but even so, they move the camera around with enough energy and flair to break up the monotony of his rants.  At times the camerawork is almost distractingly animated, but for the most part it is seamless.

I think it deserves special mention here.  No matter how you slice it, this is still a movie about an asshole shouting at the camera for 90 minutes.  That's a hard sell.  Any bit of pizzazz or energy you can add makes it much easier to swallow.

You can watch High Strung on Youtube.