Miguel Arteta is responsible for some of the nastiest, most squirm-inducing, warm, lovely, humanistic indie comedies to come out in the past 20 years.
  • Miguel Arteta is responsible for some of the nastiest, most squirm-inducing, warm, lovely, humanistic indie comedies to come out in the past 20 years.
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Sometimes the first impression of an artist whose work one will later grow fond of drops anchor in the unlikeliest of places. Such was the case of Miguel Arteta, whose latest, Beatriz at Dinner, opens Friday. The director’s debut feature, the gritty indie comedy Star Maps, opened in Chicago at of all places a multiplex hellhole located smack dab in the middle of the city’s haughty Boul Mich (Michigan Avenue) district. I remember it well.

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Beatriz at Dinner ***

Located on the city’s Magnificent Mile, Water Tower Place — part skyscraper, part shopping mall — occupies a square-block of prime Gold Coast real estate. Once there was a multiplex, seven screens to be exact, dwarfed in size by any of Snow White’s companions. It was the first movie theater in the city to ask that patrons leave the comfort of their living room to sit in a theater that in many cases wasn’t much bigger than their living room.

More thought went into designing the glittering lobby than any of the auditoriums. What did Water Tower have in common with Wrigley Field? Both sold obstructed-view tickets. Two of the houses had floor-to-ceiling support beams sticking up in the back rows that effectively blocked two-thirds of the screen for those unfortunate to be parked there.

By the time 1997 rolled around, afternoon showings in the city proper all but dried up for eight months out of the year. Matinees went into hibernation the second the school year commenced and didn’t return again with any regularity until Spring. Chains couldn’t justify the amount it cost to heat the auditoriums for the 20 or so schmoes that bought tickets. The Water Tower Cinemas, so tiny that 20 patrons would practically constitute a sellout, ran matinees daily.

John C. Reilly as Dean Ziegler in Cedar Rapids

Imagine a movie theatre, even one as puny as this, situated within spitting distance of your front door and the joy of not having to button up an overcoat to survive a frigid mid-January trip to the cinema that came with it. If your husband croaked and willed enough dough to afford a condo — or perhaps a room at the adjacent Ritz Carlton — seven cinemas were but a climate controlled elevator ride away!

Don’t get me wrong — I hated watching movies in such a degraded manner and did so only when no other alternative presented itself. Location is everything, and in its heyday Water Tower played home to numerous exclusive engagements. This could have been the one and only week the film played town for all I knew. This meant having to put up with the yenta brigade, a passel of chatty, blue-haired, and black-gloved widow women invariably in attendance for the first-day, first-show matinee.

What drew them to Star Maps? Could it have been the title’s vague hint of nostalgia or were the 30 or so ladies who joined me on opening day really expecting the long-awaited big-screen reunion of Junes Haver and Havoc? What they got was a sweet-natured, bracingly black comedy about a young male prostitute who joins his father’s stable.

Before it was over, the cheese sat alone, not one of the 30 who began the journey lived to see the film’s happy ending. It wasn’t the first time a film brought about a house-emptying mass exodus such as this. You should have heard the sounds of shock and indignation coming from behind as two-by-two the gals fled a morning presentation of Bernardo Bertolucci’s delirious incest opera, Luna. Only David Elliott [former Reader movie critic] and I remained, and to this day we consider it one of the high points of our moviegoing friendship.

I haven’t paid a return visit to Star Maps since opening day. Oddly enough, it’s the only one of Miguel Arteta’s films I don’t own a copy of. I recall the curtain shot — our hero and his mother both clad in spacesuits and floating off to heaven — and thinking the guy who made it was either crazy or a crazed original. Maybe both.

That was 20 years and 6 features ago. Arteta doesn’t simply create characters, he celebrates them, proving once again that if you’re going to drag your actors through scenes of despair and hopelessness, it’s always best to do so in an honest, upbeat, and frequently hilarious manner.

If given a choice to take but one Arteta film to accompany me on my journey to hell, it would be Cedar Rapids, which is exactly where we begin.

Scott Marks: Talk about brazen! Who saw a demand for a comedy about insurance salesman? Didn’t that subject as a topic of comedy go out with Joe McDoakes and mother-in-law jokes? You son of a gun, you go and smuggle in a great film about nothing less than America. I was really touched by John C. Reilly’s Dean Ziegler. He is one of the most finely crafted jagoffs to hit the screen in ages. To me, he’s your ultimate comedic creation to date. Was he one of your creations?

Miguel Arteta (Laughing): No. The writer, Phil Johnston, had met a guy that he based the character on. He just had that manner of speaking and he fell in love with him. I think they met at an airport or something like that. He was the inspiration. I’m so glad that you love him. I love what John did with the character, the way he laughs in the swimming pool while wearing the trash can on his head. He had so much fun. It’s really hard to be an actor and laughing and feel like it’s honest. Laughing is very hard to portray in an honest way and the way John did that was unbelievable.

He turned to me at one point during the making of Cedar Rapids and paid me the greatest compliment. It was late, like 3 o’clock in the morning, and we were in a bar shooting a scene and he said to me, “This might be the dumbest character I’ve ever played.”

SM (Laughing): That all changed with the release of The Step Brothers. Ziegler has heart. The fact that you were able to endow this reprobate with a human streak speaks volumes about your humanistic leanings.

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