But it is about a good time and a lot of laughter
It was a long week. Anybody else need a break? Have a laugh. Have a laugh with a friend.
Shared experiences build communities.
These experiences, be they war, a calamitous event or a laugh are reference points we use to construct our shared reality.
Of these, the most truly American shared experience is watching a movie in a darkened auditorium with people you often do not know. Books have been written, college classes taught, and many hallucinogens ingested in pursuit of understanding this link among the many disparate tribes of humans across the planet.
A philosophy professor in a class I took at the University of Missouri in 1980 proposed that the American Century (the 20th century for those who are wondering) was made possible because of Hollywood. He claimed he minored in history and the Russian language, and also told us he came up with his theory after a Summer abroad in Russia and a weekend train trip to Moscow where he was robbed (the Moscow part is a joke – you’ll understand in a minute), but that’s a different story - and it may have been influenced by hallucinogens. Still, there is no doubt that American cinema has been one of the largest exporters of American culture across the globe.
The advent of social media, some argue, has destroyed this community building tool. Epic larger-than-life movies and actors have been reduced to Tik Tok videos you view on your cellphone and everyone – regardless of whether or not they are in SAG/AFTRA or the WGA and despite the ability to act, write, direct or produce (and many cannot) – they all get their 15 seconds of fame on the phone you hold in the palm of your hand.
The Covid pandemic exacerbated this problem and Hollywood responded by streaming many movies so you can now watch them in the privacy of your own home on a television screen bigger than the living room window in my parent’s old house. You can eat, recline, sleep, relieve yourself, have sex by yourself (or with others) and watch a new movie in the comfort of your own home while wearing nothing but your dirty underwear if you so desire. You’ve gained that. You’ve lost the shared experience - well unless you're having sex with a lot of people while watching the movie.
Theaters have responded by giving you reclining seats, alcohol, food, nearby bathrooms and all the conveniences of home – except the ability to watch the movie in your dirty underwear while having group sex, and who knows that might be next. But the big selling point – and the irony is you have to be at the theater to see this – is Nicole Kidman extolling the virtue of the shared experience of the big screen, on the big screen, as she introduces whatever movie you’re about to see.
I found this out recently when I ended my self-imposed exile from the theaters to rejoin the shared cultural experience to see “The Machine.”
How’s that for preamble to a movie review? Wait. There’s more.
My first experience in large groups of people other than church, (which more often than not led to a nap rather than enlightenment), was a visit to the Ohio Theater in downtown Louisville. My parents took me to see “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It was the first time I experienced laughter, surprise, shock, fear and anger in a crowded theater. It was magic. Other people thought the same thing I did – at the same time! It blew my young mind. I loved listening to people laugh together. Sometimes the laughter of one person was so funny that it triggered others to laugh. I discovered the Super Power of the movies. To steal a quote from Bert Kreischer, that’s my origin story.
Over the years, of course, you forget why you like going to the movies. The magic faded.
“The Machine” brought it back. I haven’t laughed this hard at a movie since I saw “Blazing Saddles” – in the theater.
Excuse me, while I whip this out:
The movie is a fictional account of comedian Bert Kreischer’s life during the summer of his 22nd year on the planet as he traveled to Russia with other members of his Florida State Russian language class in pursuit of a minor in a language that Kreischer admitted he didn’t speak, understand or write.
It's a dangerous time in Russia. Mobsters run everything and his class has a few assigned to them as chaperones. Bert? He ends up partying with his chaperones after mistakenly telling them in Russian that he is "The Machine."
As funny as that part of the story is, and I’m not going to give it away, it only gets funnier when it flashes forward to more than 20 years later and Kreischer’s father, played by Mark Hamill, enters the scene as the two are kidnapped and forced to go back to Russia to make right what once went wrong. (You know; “Quantum leap” with Sam and Al but without Ziggy). During the trip, the fictional Bert has to come to grips with the myth of “The Machine.” In Russia, the dude even has a vodka named after him.
I didn’t find out about Bert Kreischer because of the bit that made him famous, or the fact that he became notorious for doing bare-chested standup comedy. “National Lampoon's Van Wilder,” a movie featuring Ryan Reynolds, is loosely based on Kreischer’s life at Florida State University – the biggest party animal at the college voted the best party campus in the country. Okay, I didn’t hear about him because of that either.
I first became aware of Kreischer when I heard a standup bit of his on Pandora radio while driving somewhere in the country covering some story I’ve now forgotten. It was about dropping acid at Disney World and going to Disney jail. I laughed my way through a red light and thankfully didn’t crash into a log-hauling truck. Those things stick with you.
I became aware of Mark Hamill before “Corvette Summer,” “Star Wars”, and before “Eight is Enough.” He played the kid who had a crush on Laurie Partridge when she got her braces. Of course I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I remember the episode.
Later, he played Schneider’s nephew on “One Day at a Time” across from Valerie Bertinelli, who like Susan Dey was another one of my teen crushes. I recognized Hamill from the earlier “Partridge Family” episode. You tend to remember the guy that gets all the good-looking girls. Those things stick with you.
My favorite Hamill movie had nothing to do with Star Wars. I loved the World War II ensemble piece, “The Big Red One.” Lee Marvin and Hamill share a poignant cinematic moment . . . so watch it to see what that is.
That’s a hell of a way to introduce a comedy, but there it is. “The Machine” is not only well written and well-acted, but there is great chemistry between Kreischer and Hamill.
This movie has serious daddy issues – so naturally I took my sons with me to see it. There’s the whole, “I want to please daddy, but I can’t stand him” vibe going on – and that’s just with the strong female lead played by Iva Babic who is the biggest bad ass among the testosterone-fueled Russian mobsters. She owns it.
Bert’s fictional father Albert bothers him just by the way he moves his jaw. It is Hamill's story arc - by the way - that is most interesting. After taking speed and seen suspiciously dressed in black like Luke Skywalker at one one point (Yes, The obligatory Star Wars reference), Albert's journey is complete. It appears he has become more like his son. Or, maybe he just discovered his inner "Machine." At any rate, when the two gather to take in a day fishing, later, the conversation is golden.
“The Machine” has pathos and a very funny father/son story at the heart of it.
It carries a great message, subtly delivered by Nikola Djuricko as Igor. This is both the theme of the movie, and it is the movie. In divisive times, “The Machine” is a time machine that takes us back to a place where we can all laugh together.
Igor was the mobster Bert hung around with that college summer in Russia. But when his class was to travel on a train to Moscow, Igor couldn’t go because a different mob runs the train. Igor sets Bert up with the mobsters on the train and tells them to give vodka to “The Machine” and everyone will have a good time. After Bert finds Igor 20 years later, he laments his actions as a college kid on that train, helping Russian mobsters do bad things. Igor tells Bert that there was a deeper reason he set him up with a bunch of train mobsters – to keep Bert’s fellow students safe.
He knew that Bert’s party-animal could tame the savage mob beast. Thus, Bert’s role in life – bringing laughter and fun to others is revealed. The pot brownies may or may not have had something to do with it. It is poignant, and yet deftly comic.
The movie does the same thing – without the brownies. It’s escapism. It is a release. It is just what the doctor ordered for the national psyche. Reset and have some fun.
Mark Hamill damn near steals every scene he’s in – including saying “He’s the Machine” in such a Joker-like fashion that your skin will curdle - while you laugh. Babic shows great comic ability as the daughter of a Russian mobster.
As the younger Bert, Jimmy Tatro brings to life Kreischer's college days in a seamless fashion. And the dream sequence he shares in the Russian woods with his older self is hilarious.
But, Kreischer owns his movie. He displays a great ability to laugh at himself and with a standup comedian's timing he delivers the punch lines with aplomb.
The line that had my 27-year-old son laughing so hard he infected the entire theater with laughter was when Bert explains to an Ivan Drago beefed-up mobster from central casting that FSU is known for three things – and Bert can’t do one of them very well. But, as it turns out Bert does have a bit of "Mongo" in him. Who else could light a cigar with an automatic weapon?
The movie will make you laugh and cry. It has everything. We will be here all week. Try the veal.
Me? I’m not a professional movie reviewer. I cover divisive politics. But I want to thank a mutual Twitter-follower for encouraging me to talk about something very enjoyable for a change.
I always extend a thank you to those who read my tweets and my column, so thank you Mark Hamill for encouraging me to write about this shared experience. And thanks Bert, Mark and a stellar cast for making us laugh. There is not one weak point in the movie - well except that shirt at the beginning.