Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Only Way I'll See Eddie Izzard

I've always thought that comedians, especially improv standup comedians like Robin Williams, have a certain type of genius. If this is the case, Eddie Izzard should win a Nobel Prize. He rifs on subjects as diverse as the Death Star to Colonialism. He's performed entire routines in French. And he hopes to learn German next. Robin Williams himself is a fan. And he happens to be a transvestite, in case you clicked on those links, but it's just not the most interesting thing about him. But lately, he's hung up the fishnet and stillettos he was famous for as a standup for a suit.

Perhaps spurred by the fact we missed our chance to buy tickets to his show over the weekend (should have bought it first thing Sunday, they are now $115 -$648), my husband and I decided to watch Season One of The Riches, which fortunately can be found online at Hulu.

In a way, The Riches doesn't do him justice, but if he had to play a character other than himself, a grifter who gets by on his ability to improvise is perfect. In his standup, what impresses you are his monologues, are so random he at least appears to be composing them on the spot. In playing his gypsy character Wayne Malloy, it's not just about the words anymore, and he doesn't fail to impress.

In the pilot, Wayne's family, fleeing from their gypsy bretheren in their RV, inadvertently causes Doug Rich and his wife to careen off the road, killing both. As it happens, the Riches are moving into a new home in Louisiana that very day, having purchased it sight unseen on the internet. Yearning for something more than living from scam to scam, Wayne pulls the biggest con of his life by assuming the identity of lawyer Doug Rich.

In the scene below they have just spent the night in the Riches house. Watch Eddie's eyes to see the moment he decides to become Doug.

(Note: this clip is cued up to the scene, but you can also watch the entire show when it finishes).

In Wayne's life, even his three kids are props for his scams, though they seem to love the game. As props though, his moments of intimacy with them are rare, at least in the pilot (I do not know if this is a reflection on Eddie as an actor as a self-absorbed performer, or a conscious choice, either way, it is effective; his children are merely satellites, actors in a play he is directing). Intimacy, both in the spiritual and physical sense, is reserved for his wife, Dahlia, who has just finished a stint in prison. She's the only one he really needs, because he doesn't need anything from her. And his guilt over the fact that he's the one who should have been doing time for the last two years is palpable.

But the people Wayne really connects to, really wants to draw in, are his marks, or "buffers" as his kind likes to call them, and it's in these scenes where where Izzard shines, moving in like a snake that has mesmerized its prey. He's like a witty but average-looking lothario who wants to see if can bed an attractive woman, not because he likes her but as a test of his skills of seduction.

Wayne doesn't want to use his skills living from scam to scam, constantly having to pay deference to his clan head and idiot son. He doesn't quite know how, but he wants to be his own man so when Doug Rich's untethered identity just drops in his lap, he seizes the opportunity. But even here, he doesn't reject his skills of obfuscation, he just raises his game. This "liar" tries to pass as a "lawyer," and, as emphasized by the drawl of his new, southern boss, he realizes those roles are not so different.

Izzard's own ambitions seem to parallel Wayne's. Reading this article from the New York Times, he's not a comedian on a lark. He's an aspiring actor who had to break in doing sketch, happened to find success as a whip-smart standup, but wants to be taken seriously.

Or perhaps that ambition is in all of us. Hasn't everyone felt at some point that our special abilities weren't being used in the best fashion, that our current employment is beneath us and that we are capable of much more? Maybe that's the appeal of The Riches--we all want to feel that if we went for that brass ring, that would pull it off with as much panache as Wayne Malloy.

Season Two of The Riches started on FX this past Sunday. To catch up on Season One, watch it free and legally at Hulu.

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