One of this reviewer’s favorite topics lately is the cultural phenomena of how the boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage has gone missing from modern, “civilized” society.
Another favorite topic is the reason so many movies are being made about assassins and ex-assassins.
Imagine my delight upon learning the premise of “Ashby”: a fatherless, high school boy moves next door to an ex-assassin. Bingo! We predicted and explained the connection between boys who lack guidance, and assassins, in the article “Why We Like Movies About Reformed Assassins so Much,” and now they’ve gone and made a movie about that very thing.
Would that this perfect premise had been able to deliver a well-told tale of a boy becoming a man before our popcorn-stuffed faces, but it was not to be. In the way an artist does a “study” (a sketch for a painting concept), “Ashby” is a study for the engrossing, coming-of-age movie that could have been.
“You’re a bunch of Ritalin-addicted porn freaks,” says the high school English literature teacher to his class, more matter-of-factly than disapprovingly. Then he asks new-kid Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff), what he knows about Hemingway. Ed knows a lot. Which instantly lands him in the nerd box.
But Ed wants to be a football star. Didn’t we all? We buy that. What we don’t buy is the elaborate, multi-thousand-dollar-looking backyard football-practice setup Ed has, replete with one of those ball-rocketing catapults we know from movie scenes featuring wealthy people who practice tennis.
We don’t buy it because we know Ed’s recently divorced mom (hilarious, normally foul-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman, underutilized here) doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy her boy such a pro-level training facility. She’s busy looking for love in mostly the wrong places for the duration of the movie, much to her son’s mortification.
Actually Ed does have a dad. But he’s a promise-breaking, self-involved, “Heeey budd-eee!” schmoozing kind of dad. Everyone’s got a favorite word for that kind of guy; feel free to use it here.
Anyway, back at school, the homework assignment for English is basically to have a talk with a wise old person and write about it. So Ed goes next door and states his intentions to the older man there, who looks like Mickey Rourke in a fright wig.
It’s Rourke alright; it’s also his hair, but it’s got a blue tint to it—not like a Floridian, pale blue dye-job, but a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Like if Mickey Rourke talked to the hair department with some ideas. Because a little known fact is that Rourke’s day job as a young actor was as a hairdresser; he has professional opinions about hair.
Rourke’s character is named Ashby and apparently he sold napkins. That was his (cough) “profession.” This is in keeping with the time-honored tradition of operators hiding their military or spy professions by saying, “I wax dolphins for a living,” or, “I’m the guy who sits inside the ATM machine and dispenses cash.”
Ashby, reluctant at first, finally agrees to be interviewed while the kid drives him around to do “errands” in his car. Because Ashby’s got an agenda of his own—young Ed’s initial prying questions have revealed to Ashby that he’d been taken advantage of as an assassin. He’d ended up terminating some people that didn’t need terminating because of selfish reasons on the part of his employers. Ashby goes to seek out a priest for some answers.
Thus former CIA black-ops agent Ashby “grows a conscience,” and wants to “right” some wrongs, but in that particular way that assassins tend to do. And so the kid conducts his interviews while doubling as an unwitting getaway driver for hits; a running gag that warrants a few chuckles.
So There’s That
And then there’s also a cute romance between Ed and Eloise. Cute actress Emma Roberts has put on some geek glasses and jumped in the nerd box with Nat for the role. Eloise has an MRI machine in her parent’s basement with which she would very much like to study Ed’s brain. She’d also like to study the brain of each member of the football—imagine all that exciting concussion data!
Nat’s Not Nearly Nerdy Enough
Nat Wolff may be single-handedly ushering in a new form of movie nerd—the non-nerd. We just saw him in “Paper Towns,” and I wrote the following about what’s going on with Nat and nerd-dom:
“Geeks nowadays are borderline seriously cool compared to geeks of yesteryear—maybe they can’t even be called nerds or geeks anymore. They have witty patter, they’re highly fluent in Ebonics (and the accompanying body language thereof), they have dance moves, and they’re almost comfortable enough in their own skins to be taken seriously by the coolest of mean girls.”
Well Nat’s doing it again here. His character Ed is way too fearless and has too smart a mouth when hanging around, and even dissing, a known assassin. He furthermore can’t be taken seriously in this regard, because even though he can quote Hemingway, he can also waltz his alleged nerd self with his trained-up football skills into the football team meeting and proclaim himself the new wide-receiver. Sure, he gets laughed out of the locker room—but then he comes right back in and backs up his outrageous claim! Who does that? Alpha teens. But he does look nerdy. So Nat’s confusing the classic storylines.
There would seem to be a movie-nerd paradigm-shift afoot, that can probably be traced to Judd Apatow. Just saying “nerd” might even be a little … racist? Classist? It might soon be the other “N” word. Just who in high school is a true, old-school, high school nerd nowadays? Anybody? Bueller?
Because what have American movies been for the last 40 years but instructional videos on how to achieve coolness? How to be popular, how to be a mean girl, how to win friends and influence people. Where have all the unpopular kids gone?
Well, they say the business of America is business, but what it really is is show business. From an early age people are now aware of how to package their personal product and how to promote it via social media. Nerds now know their worth. They know the market value of having a big brain. A bunch of them know Brazilian jiu-jitsu, too.
Nerds have to navigate a whole new, potent level of cyberbullying; they have to be savvier than in the nerd days of yore to survive. They know good looks are the predominant high school calling card for the club of cool, but they also know looks fade, and their big brains will only get bigger, and make mo’ money.
And you really need to think twice about messing with nerds these days, due to the proliferation and accessibility of automatic weaponry. Which is why, more than ever, it’s a good idea to pair unpopular boys with reformed-assassin mentors. Especially ones named Dylan. Do I need to spell it out? Two words: Klebold, Roof.
Rite of Passage
So, be all that as it may (the fact that this is not the greatest example of mentoring because Ed’s a smart mouth, substantial autodidact who would appear not to need much guidance), still, on the other hand, as self-confident and borderline cool as he might be, the Eds of the precocious, cyberhip iGeneration still need forging. All boys do. Because cool or uncool—they’re still boys. They need to learn how to become men.
The assassins and the spec-ops warriors that have overrun movie-plexes lately embody the essence of the warrior, which is what all boys need to learn from older males in order to become real men. Moms and feminists can’t teach boys to become men, and so the morally reformed assassin is (has been, is trying to be) the potential ticket to our seeing, in the movies, a satisfactorily performed forging of a boy into a real man. One who knows how to assert himself, face his fears, set boundaries, stand guard over truth, look up to the noble, decide for the good—and attract the girl of his dreams.
It’s a Study
“Ashby” is a study of boyhood-to-manhood mentoring, because there’s just a smattering of that. Ashby does call attention the fact that Ed’s dad is definitely a loser, when it comes to caring for Ed. Ashby shows the boy how to take a punch, and stop being afraid of taking the hit in football. He dispenses with some elder wisdom along the way. But it’s mentor-lite. And the soundtrack’s dreadful. A teen film must have a rockin,’ stand-alone soundtrack. Other than that, it’s a good study.
Now let’s hope someone steps up and, ahem, “executes” the real picture of how this is supposed to go.
Director: Tony McNamara
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Dunn, Nat Wolff
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 25
2.5 stars out of 5