A Guy Thing

Macho loneliness and masculine insecurity in Eastbound and Down
by R. Emmet Sweeney  posted July 29, 2009
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Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride are building an anxiety-inducing career on the thin line between humor and humiliation. They push their studies of masculine insecurity to discomfiting levels of desperation, plumbing the depths of macho loneliness. The two projects they've collaborated on, the indie feature The Foot Fist Way (2006) and the HBO series Eastbound and Down (2009, recently released on DVD), both feature McBride as a paunchy gasbag with delusions of grandeur. Foot Fist's Fred Simmons is an insecure tae-kwon-do instructor, while Eastbound and Down's Kenny Powers is a dissolute former baseball star who snorts coke before his substitute teaching gig. They are offensive boors, and most of the jokes grow out of their megalomaniacal sense of entitlement. But McBride never allows these losers to descend into caricature and instead lets their macho masks slip off in moments of uneasy pathos. They are clowns, fools, and idiots, but recognizably human ones.

The three filmmakers (Hill directs, McBride and Best act, they all write) met at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where they also became friends with David Gordon Green (who gave McBride his first acting job in All the Real Girls). They got their big break through Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, the anarchic duo behind Anchorman and Step Brothers, who claimed to have watched Foot Fist dozens of times before helping it find distribution. McKay and Ferrell's production company went on to back Eastbound, and their collaboration is set to continue for the recently green-lit second season.

Both the B-H-M and McKay-Ferrell teams center their stories on morally flawed egotists and utilize group improvisation to tease out their eccentricites. Ferrell's characters skew absurdist, while McBride's are darkly realist, but the similarities are clear. On the audio commentary for Step Brothers, McKay says he shot 1.5 million feet of film, most of which was spent on improv. On the Eastbound disc, producer Stephanie Laing admits they shot one take with the script for each scene, then went off the book. Their style, like McKay's, prizes the performative over the visual.

The idea for Eastbound and Down was hatched in a North Carolina hot tub. Staring at the topless McBride, Best and Hill thought it would be hilarious for him to play an athlete. They also drew upon McBride's substitute-teaching experience in Virginia. Knowing nothing about sports, the trio concocted Kenny Powers, a Frankenstein's monster pulled together from the most egregious disgraces in modern athletics. There are traces of John Rocker's xenophobia, the steroid use of '90s power hitters, the monstrous ego of Terrell Owens, and the Neanderthal sexual politics of Travis Henry (among others). He's the dredged-up embodiment of competitive sport's worst impulses, and nostalgia-glazed baseball is the perfect playground for this reckoning. The idea that its steroid users are blasphemous criminals is largely absent from other major sports. Just compare the NFL's muted reaction to Rodney Harrison's positive test in 2007 (he was just hired as an analyst by NBC) and the howling outrage that met Manny Ramírez's positive test this year for a female fertility drug (that restarts the production of testosterone). Powers is a corrective to this double-standard moralizing: a baseball player allowed to display petty human weakness, albeit in a monstrously exaggerated form. (Predictably, Powers jerseys have been popping up across MLB stadiums this season.)

After one dominant year as a closer, Powers tastes fame, but his decadent lifestyle destroys his body and his fastball, and soon he's booed out of the league. Broke and beaten, he returns home to Shelby, North Carolina (the show was shot in Wilmington, N.C.) to live with his solidly middle-class brother Dustin (a warm, fidgety John Hawkes), his wife Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), and their three kids. His substitute-gym-teacher job throws him back together with high school girlfriend April (Katy Mixon), Jefferson Davis Middle School's bosomy art teacher. The series charts his pursuit of April, presently engaged to Principal Cutler (Andrew Daly), and his feckless dream of returning to the majors.

A broad, boozy, uncompromising step forward from The Foot Fist Way, Eastbound is an advance not just technically (they have a real budget this time), but dramatically. Kenny Powers's ego and appetites are Falstaffian, where Simmons was more Archie Bunker-ish. Powers's lows are lower and his (coke-fueled) highs are higher. Each episode begins immediately where the last left off, creating a continuous narrative of his endless fall. His character's collapse is depicted in the opening montage, his “You're fucking out!” catchphrase and audio book replaced with a declining fastball and an openly mocking fan base. (The audio book is a vulgar self-help/self-aggrandizing bit of nonsense that captures Powers at his narcissistic height. He listens to it in his car's outdated cassete deck where it acts as an ironic chorus, a constant reminder of his collapsed fame and slowly deflating ego.) McBride attacks his role with a delinquent swagger. He plays Powers as a teenage bad boy who's never updated his repertoire; the cocky gym teacher edging into middle age with an all-black wardrobe, snakeskin boots, and a grade-school sense of humor. His flirtation ritual consists of biting his lower lip, raising an eyebrow, and asking April if she recognizes his “essence.” Mixon's wonderfully ambiguous reaction shots alternately suggest repulsion, apathy, and flirtation. He's an asshole, but a charismatic one.

McBride is surrounded by a phenomenal group of straight men and women. Hawkes plays Dustin, a domesticated ex-pothead, with loose-limbed nonchalance (He treats Kenny with amused tolerance, while his wife handles him with aggrieved Christian grace.) Ben Best's Clegg, a hippie-slacker burnout who does lines in the back room of his sublime shithole bar, Shh-Boom Shh-Booms, is the disintegrating man that Powers is on his way to becoming. Stevie (Steve Little), a band teacher with a slapped-on lobotomized grin, latches on to Kenny as a mentor, eventually mimicking his every move, fashion and otherwise.

Powers constructs his own reality around these subordinated players, their reproaches processed into affirmations in his mind. Dustin urges him to accept his new working-class life, but Powers hears it as encouragement to train for the majors and deplore the travails of normal folks. Stevie offers his needy hand in friendship, and Kenny takes it as a request to become his much-abused assistant. His brain is a well-oiled denial machine to feed his damaged ego. What's essential to the show are the moments when the machine breaks down and the humor edges into pathos. B-H-M tend to couple Powers's most grotesque acts of slapstick with revelations of his absolute despair.

The early apex of his humiliation occurs in episode four, when a furtive embrace with April at a barbecue leads to a premature ejaculation, while the date he arrived with hits on Principal Cutler. Leaving the party with a paddle to the ass and cake on his face, he can no longer manufacture any arrogant rage. McBride plays him as a defeated man as he listens to the conclusion of his audio book, the ghost of his formerly cocky self taunting his failures. In his first honest statement of the series, he tells Dustin that he's “ashamed of myself.” The episode ends with Powers clumsily destroying his brother's living room. His stiff gait and impotent rage recall Charles Foster Kane's furious dismantling of Susan Alexander's boudouir. It's a scene of startling nihilism—there is no longer anything funny about his humiliation.

David Gordon Green directed this episode (as well as episodes two and three), and what's fascinating is how clearly each director's personality comes through on the same material. Jody Hill's favorite trick (he directed episodes one and six) is the ironic slow-motion tracking shot (seen in the openings to both Foot Fist and Observe and Report), and there's a doozy in episode one: Kenny Powers, a hero in his own mind, hot-steps down the school hallway, with a throng of screaming tweens clinging to his every move. Then there's a cut to normal speed, the kids oblivious to Kenny's gyrations—a neat setup of his deluded worldview that comes crashing down in episode four.

Green's episodes, with all the exposition taken care of, are looser and more character- oriented. On one of the audio commentaries, he recounts his use of two cameras to capture all the action in the highly improvised scenarios. This extensive coverage enhances the show's communal feel. It's probably no coincidence that the most moving scenes in the series, Stevie's pitch for friendship and Powers's breakdown, occur on Green's watch, given his talent for character-driven ensembles (George Washington, All the Real Girls).

The shift from Green's low-key approach to McKay's brightly colored absurdity in episode five is bracing. Hill has admitted that the fifth show is “intentionally a little goofier than the other episodes.” That's putting it mildly. McKay and Ferrell have brought Hollywood its most irrational comedies since the Marx Brothers. By the end of Step Brothers, the plot disappears for a series of subjective fantasies involving lumberjacks and centaurs, and what feels like a group hallucination of Ferrell singing Andrea Bocelli. McKay's episode, a strangely optimistic vision of Powers's future, acts as a dream appendage to Step Brothers. In that film, Ferrell and John C. Reilly abandon their childish lifestyles and accede to adulthood, willing to be “all crushed and normal,” before giving themselves over to delirium at the end. In the beginning of episode five, Kenny destroys his brash audio book and records a new start:

From this moment forward, Kenny Powers is just like everyone else: normal, not special, no hopes, no dreams, pretending to be happy when he's really super-sad. Just an average guy, with exceptional hair. Nothing more, nothing less.

The arc of this episode matches Step Brothers exactly, down to the sublimely fantastical close. Ferrell blusters his way onscreen as Ashley Schaeffer, used BMW salesman, to cement the comparison (his only other appearance is in episode two). The plot is a succession of miracles—as Kenny rediscovers his fastball, reconnects with April, seems to once again find his place in the world—and McKay plays it at such an inflated pitch that it's impossible to take it seriously except as a projection of Powers's deepest unconscious. Schaeffer, a sneaky homage to Southern-born pro wrestler Ric Flair, is another monstrous creation, and Ferrell plays it to the hilt: syrupy Southern accent, mistimed yelps, bizarre sexual metaphors (“I can feel it down in my plums . . . getting ready to take them to the farmer's market”), and fake bleached blonde wig.

He brings Powers to his dealership to participate in a “pitch-off” with his former nemesis, Reg Mackworthy (Craig Robinson), who hit the home run that ended his career. The setup has the feel of a deranged deus ex machina, with all of Powers's demons lined up for him to knock down in one go. McKay films this parody of the super-happy ending as an explosion of the id (and also gets in a dig at The Natural's spark-flying denouement). Powers nails his fastball, and all hell breaks loose. Kids start destroying cars and tossing garbage cans, Schaeffer wildly swings his bat at bystanders, April races into Powers's meaty arms, and Kenny Rogers's “Love Will Turn You Around” coos on the soundtrack. It's an insane and beautiful lie.

This lie seeps into the beginning of episode six, as Adam Scott slithers into the frame as a fast-talking scout for Tampa Bay promising salvation. Powers immediately accepts the offer as confirmation of his outsize dreams, and the brief lucidity he experienced in episode four is once again subsumed by his rapacious ego. He shows up at April's door in a jumpsuit, bluetooth headset, and SUV, hoping his material gain will magically restore his virility. Jody Hill's acidic worldview (as seen in the antagonistic Observe and Report) makes him the ideal director to frame Powers's comeuppance. In another montage of slow-motion queasiness, his constructed world collapses, and Mr. Kenny Powers steers his Denali into a lonesome oblivion. 


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Courtesy Paramount Classics
Jody Hill and Danny McBride in The Foot Fist Way
Photo Gallery: A Guy Thing


R. Emmet Sweeney writes a weekly column for Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies. He has also contributed to Film Comment, Time Out Chicago and The Believer.

More articles by R. Emmet Sweeney
Author's Website: Movie Morlocks