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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sweet Revenge (originally published 10/01)

Is anything on earth sweeter than the prospect of revenge? So many of us have lusted for it, and so few have tasted it, that it represents one of the most universal objects of our wish-fulfillment fantasies. Naturally, this has not escaped the notice of filmmakers, whose business is largely based on making our wishes come true on the big screen.

Most recently, a film called "Max Keeble's Big Move" has attempted to tap into our collective recollections of being victimized in high school by everyone from bullying classmates to overbearing principals. The premise of the film is that a harried and tormented youngster sees his chance for revenge when he learns that his family will soon be moving to another town. He takes the opportunity to exact retribution on his tormentors, knowing that he will not be around to suffer the consequences.

Young Max's revenge is played for laughs, a relatively unusual choice. The video stores are overflowing with revenge dramas - the martial arts genre, for example, consists of little else - but revenge comedies are not nearly so plentiful. If you prefer your revenge stories told with a lighter touch, look for these payback comedies on home video.

"Theatre of Blood" (1973). In addition to being one of the movies' most memorable horror stars, Vincent Price also excelled at poking fun at his own sinister image. This macabre little comedy is a case in point. Price plays a thoroughly rotten Shakespearean actor who takes revenge on the critics who have panned him over the years by murdering them in symbolically Shakespearean fashion. The critic who trashed his performance in "The Merchant of Venice," for example, loses an actual pound of flesh under the aggrieved actor's knife. The proceedings are a bit grisly, but Price is having such fun that we can't help being amused rather than repelled.

"9 to 5" (1980). Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton play a trio of oppressed secretaries slaving in the service of a boss from hell. The insufferable boss is played by Dabney Coleman, doing the jerk characterization on which he practically held a patent throughout the Eighties, both in movies and on television. When the women can stand his domineering, male chauvinist ways no longer, they band together to teach the old reprobate a lesson.

"She-Devil" (1989). Fay Weldon's novel, "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," was adapted by screenwriter Barry Strugatz and director Susan Seidelman as a vehicle for Roseanne Barr. In the title role, Barr plays Ruth Patchett, whose husband, Bob (Ed Begley, Jr.), has been stolen away by romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). In a cold fury, the betrayed and abandoned Ruth methodically lists the assets that the faithless Bob enjoys: home, family, career, freedom. Then she systematically plots to strip him of each in turn.

"The Lady Eve" (1941). Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a charming con artist who romances millionaire Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) in order to swindle him at the card table. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with her mark, but by then her cheating ways have been exposed by Charles's bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest). Spurned and humiliated, Jean determines to have her revenge. She arranges to meet Charles again, this time in the guise of "Lady Eve Sidwich." Charles recognizes the resemblance to Jean, of course, but accepts Eve's blithe insistence that they have never met. Muggsy isn't fooled ("It's the same dame," he fruitlessly repeats), but Charles is in love again. With Charles once again under her spell, the way is clear for Jean to even the score by tainting his wealthy family with scandal. This is writer-director Preston Sturges at the peak of his comic talents. If you haven't seen it, treat yourself.

Speaking of Sturges, although I don't usually recommend books in this space I can't resist mentioning a wonderful science fiction novel I recently read called "Corrupting Dr. Nice," by John Kessel. It is an affectionate tribute to "The Lady Eve," recasting its story in a futuristic setting. Kessel's pastiche eloquently and entertainingly articulates the notion that whatever technological marvels the future holds, revenge fantasies will always be with us. And, as long as they can be confined to the screen or the pages of a novel, they will always be funny.

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