Friday, October 19, 2007

Fever Dream Of Laughlin

I had a weird dream last night in which Gordon Ramsay was somehow brought in to run Kid Nation. Now I know the source of this dream – I was running a fever and feeling like something my dog dragged in. Well except that my dog doesn't drag anything in so I suppose it's like something my dog left outside. As strange as the idea of Ramsay bossing kids around may seem that's nothing compared to the weird mixture of formats that is Viva Laughlin. The show can either be seen as an ongoing serialized murder mystery, or as a nighttime soap with plenty of sex and intrigue, all of which is wrapped up with the central conceit of the show, namely that people burst into song and dance at unpredictable times. It is of course the song and dance that has gotten all of the notice.

Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) is a man "livin' the dream." He had a secure life with a chain of thirteen successful convenience stores but sold them to fund his dream, a luxury casino resort in Laughlin Nevada which he wants to be the biggest thing ever on the Colorado River. His casino is already built but not yet open. Still he feels confident enough to buy his son a brand new Corvette as a belated birthday present. But for Ripley, trouble is just around the corner. His biggest investor, Buddy Baxter (Wings Hauser) is pulling his money out of the project. He wants to put it into wind farms, primarily at the instigation of his wife Bunny Baxter (Melanie Griffith). Ripley bluffs and says he has investors just waiting to put their money in but Buddy isn't buying it. Persuaded by his accountant Jonesy (P.J. Byrne), Ripley decides to go see Vic Fontaine (Hugh Jackman in a recurring role), owner of the biggest casino in Laughlin, and tries to get him to invest. Fontaine isn't buying. He knows exactly the sort of trouble that Ripley's in (Fontaine: "Do you play golf? I do; every week. With your bank manager!"). As we learn a little later Vic is responsible for getting Buddy to pull his money out; his "associate," Marcus (D.B. Woodside), is one of Bunny's lovers and got her to persuade Buddy to take his money out of the project. Trying to salvage things, Ripley goes to see Bunny to get her to talk Buddy back into the project. It's clear that Ripley and Bunny have some sort of history and Bunny wants to return him to her stable of lovers. That's something Ripley won't do; he is happy with his married life even if it includes a daughter who is dating a 42 year-old professor.

Things take an even worse turn for Ripley the next day. Buddy is found dead in Ripley's office. Suspicion falls almost immediately on Riley, a situation that isn't helped when Bunny screams at Ripley "Why did you do this?!" She happens to say this right in front of Peter Carlyle (Eric Winter), the lead cop in the case. Carlyle immediately makes Ripley his primary – possibly his only – suspect and sets out with his partner to learn more about Ripley. Buddy's murder, combined with the other stresses related to his casino, is making Ripley's home life tense. So it's fairly natural that Carlyle decides to pick on Ripley's wife Natalie (Madchen Amick) to find out more about Ripley. It does seem like it will be a drawn out process though. Eventually Ripley's son Jack (Carter Jenkins) comes to his father's unfinished casino. In his backpack is a wad of money, and Ripley initially thinks his son is dealing drugs. It turns out that Jack has sold the Corvette that his father bought for him and brought the proceeds back – he loved the car but he loves his father more. Ripley takes the money that Jack gave him, and an additional $200,000 from the casino's cage and heads for Vic Fontaine's casino. He's going to risk it all, just as he risked it all when he sold his convenience stores to build a casino. The floor man at the roulette table Ripley stops at is immediately able to tell just how much money is in Ripley's backpack and tells him that management has to approve. Fontaine shows up a few seconds later and is willing to take the bet. Ripley puts the $250,000 on Red (because Vic's cars are both black) and wins, and then wins again. His million dollars is enough to get the casino up and running.

I haven`t mentioned the music in all of this. It is the show`s big gimmick but if you want to know the truth I find the music intrusive. There are four songs used in this episode. Ripley sings (or lip syncs along with Elvis) Viva Las Vegas as he drives to his casino, Vic sings along with Mick Jagger on Shake Hands With The Devil, Bunny tries to seduce Ripley to Blondie's One Way Or Another, and Ripley's bet at Vic's casino is done to Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Let It Ride. The problems with the music are that the actors aren't really singing, or at least not so much that you'd notice, and that they surround the music with dancing or at least actions synchronised to the music. Ripley doesn't just sing along to Viva Las Vegas as he drives in his car, he greets workers at his casino in rhythm to the music and ends the number by standing on top of a craps table and mimics throwing dice. When Vic arrives to Shake Hands With The Devil there's one scene in particular where a group of chorus girls cross their legs as he walks past, in time to the music. There's a dance sequence with Ripley and Bunny during One Way Or Another. As I say, I find this sort of thing intrusive in that it breaks up the presentation of the storyline. While the musical element leads to comparisons between this show and Steven Bochco's Cop Rock the difference there is that the music on that show was original and for better or for worse the actors on that show did their own singing. I don't really hear the voices of the actors in this show taking a prominent position in the songs, it's more like they're singing along rather weakly to the music.

There's some nicely done casting here. Lloyd Owen really impresses in his portrayal of Ripley Holden. Holden's a gambler who is never satisfied with the safe and secure. He brash and volatile, but at the same time you can't help but feel an attraction to him. As much as I dislike her personally, Melanie Griffith is perfectly suited to play the aging slut Bunny. Bunny is exactly the sort of person who would have that strange voice that Griffith possesses. As Vic Fontaine, Hugh Jackman dominates his scenes. He exudes a quality of sneering superiority in his scenes with Owen, as though he's on top of the world and no one is going to knock him off. We don't see much from the lesser roles in this episode, which seems to be entirely based on the confrontations between Ripley and Bunny, and Ripley and Vic.

The show isn't as horrible as I had expected but it seems rather weak and lacking in terms of how things are going to progress. The music is – as I've already said – rather intrusive, but I'm not sure this series would have been made without the music. The storyline is fairly basic – the toll a murder investigation will take on someone who is willing to repeatedly risk it all, and the machinations that surround the casino business and Ripley's efforts to live his dream. I don't know where this series goes if or when Buddy's murder is actually solved. Remember, Blackpool (the BBC series this was adapted from) only ran for six episodes with a sequel movie later. I don't know how you turn this into even a single season on American TV (not that I think we'll have to worry about it going more than one season at most, and if it does it may well be courtesy of the upcoming writer's strike). Moreover the continuing storyline of this show is a trend which the television audience overwhelmingly rejected last season. There's some interesting stuff here and at least it's not a police procedural, but I think that the only reason it gets made is the gimmick (and because of Jackman's involvement as an occasional actor and full time Executive Producer. I don't think it's horrible but I also don't think I'll make it regular viewing except in times of desperation. For myself, I'd much rather have had a fall season of The Amazing Race than this in the show's eventual Sunday time slot.

Correction: The song is of course Sympathy For The Devil. Shake Hands With The Devil is the book and now film about Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who commanded UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide there.

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