Back in 1980 my creative writing instructor at NYU School of Continuing Ed made a point that has stuck with me all these years. He said that it is harder to write comedy than serious drama or fiction. When I think of all the garbage that Hollywood churns out, I am grateful for something as sharp and as adult as Jeff Garlin’s “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.” There is practically no publicity for the film. Even though Garlin is a star of the popular “Curb Your Enthusiasm” show, HBO has not even seen fit to spread the word. Since it will probably close before I even finish this review, I strongly urge New Yorkers or anybody fortunate to live in a city that is not monopolized by “Superbad” and “Balls of Fury” to go check it out. It is something special.
Garlin wrote, directed and stars in the film. As executive producer and co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, it should not come as any surprise that the movie has a strong family resemblance. Like Larry David, the Jeff Garlin character is a professional comedian whose daily vicissitudes serve as a plot mechanism. Garlin’s cast includes a number of familiar faces from the HBO show, including Mina Kolb, who plays his mother in the film and on HBO. Garlin, Kolb and a number of other the crew are veterans of Chicago’s Second City comedy improvisational troupe. Second City has been a spawning ground for many of Saturday Night Live’s top talents, from Danny Aykroyd to John Belushi.
Indeed, the movie probably incorporates autobiographical elements since the main character James Aaron, who is played by Garlin, is a member of Second City who lives in Chicago. Unlike the high-powered talents of Second City, James Aaron is something of a loser. He lives with his mother, is grossly overweight, and can’t find a girlfriend. His career is also going nowhere. When the film begins, we see Aaron doing a television gig that involves “Punked” type gags against unsuspecting, everyday people including an auto mechanic played by Tim Kazurinsky, another veteran of Second City, SNL, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Playing a television personality who supposedly reunites long-lost relatives, James Aaron introduces a teenage girl as the auto mechanic’s daughter from a youthful one-night stand. Just about as he is to embrace her, Aaron lets him in on the “joke”–she is just an actress hired for the spoof. As the broken-hearted mechanic walks away, he tells Aaron that it was not funny at all. Clearly, this is Garlin’s take on the cruel nature of most comedy today.
Eventually Aaron discovers that a new version of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” is being filmed in Chicago. Eager to star in a movie that seems made for him, he shows up at a casting call only to discover that a heartthrob teen idol is playing the overweight butcher who lives with his mom. Clearly, the real remake of “Marty” is not the film Aaron auditions for, but “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” which unlike the original is played for laughs. Despite the comic intent of Garlin’s film, it retains the wistfulness of Chayefsky’s classic. When James Aaron sits at the dinner table with his mom discussing his lonely life, we are witnessing the same kind of heartbreak that Marty, as played by Ernest Borgnine, suffered.
In the original “Marty,” there’s a happy ending as the butcher discovers a homely spinster who is ready to share her life with somebody like him. In keeping with the somewhat more shark-infested waters of the entertainment industry as opposed to retail butcher shops in the Bronx, James Aaron’s love interest is an oversexed and somewhat malicious character named Beth who works part-time in an ice cream shop that he has visited to drown his sorrows in. Played by Sarah Silverman, the “edgy” young comedienne who has a mean streak like her character, the female part of this budding relationship seems iffy at best. One cannot escape feeling that Jeff Garlin has run into a fair amount of Beths in his life.
Although the comedy in Garlin’s flick appears to be drawn from the same well as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I was reminded of more than anything Jules Feiffer’s classic comic strips from the Village Voice in the early to mid-1960s when his characters sat around discussing their frustrations in love or in making a living. Garlin has a golden ear for the way that real people talk to each other and complete sympathy for their survival mechanisms.
In real life Garlin has struggled with a weight problem as well as with Adult Attention Disorder (ADD). Doctors have warned him that it is a matter of life and death for him to shed pounds. Only 7 years ago, he suffered a stroke at the age of 37. A June 25, 2006 NY Times Magazine profile on Garlin summed up his outlook on this and other challenges. Given the obsession with fame and wealth cultivated by the entertainment industry and its publicists, his take on things is a breath of fresh air:
Garlin recently appeared in the documentary ”Fired” because, he said: ”I’m notorious for getting fired and A.D.D. has led to a lot of it. I was fired from Fashion Conspiracy at the Broward Mall — I was a stock boy — for pushing my friend, who was also a stock boy, into the mannequins. Every time the manager would go, ‘What happened?’ I’d say, ‘It’s a conspiracy.’
”As a stand-up comedian,” he went on, ”I’ve been fired a dozen times easily. I got fired from a pilot with Julianne Moore. My show not being picked up is essentially being fired. But I think everyone should aspire to get fired. There’s nothing better when you’re down, those moments of picking yourself back up. And that even goes for having heart problems, having epilepsy, Type 2 diabetes, a stroke. Man, to battle through adversity, to rise above it and beat it — there’s nothing better than that. I don’t look for adversity. I deal with adversity.”
Despite this, Garlin has been a tremendous success in getting people to laugh. Go see “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” and you’ll see what I mean.