Wednesday 22 July 2020

Warm bodies: "Come As You Are"

In its original form, Come As You Are was a 2011 Belgian crowdpleaser called Hasta La Vista that followed the misadventures of three young disabled men - a grouchy paraplegic, a gentle blind giant and a cancer patient, himself in a wheelchair - as they made their way to a Spanish brothel to purge themselves of their virginities. (It had been inspired, in turn, by the story of the American-born disability activist Asta Philpot.) That movie wasn't exceptional cinema, but it proved genial fun, and was notable for letting its disabled characters be who they were - cranky, klutzy and/or horny - rather than framing them as inspirational paragons of virtue; for once, a subtitled film's English language title had it spot on. It's now been remade in English, although not quite as extravagantly as the same year's comparably themed Intouchables was when the Weinstein Company converted it into the Bryan Cranston vehicle The Upside. This Come As You Are presents as a modest indie diversion with a small payload of recognisable TV faces, which carries the boys - ported over in the exact same configuration of eyes and limbs - from suburban America to a cathouse in Montreal in what uptight paraplegic Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) quickly dubs "Operation Copulation". "We're not calling it that," insists Matt (Hayden Szeto), the trio's carcinogenic conscience, but it's as apt an alternative title for the remake as any.

Anglicising (or re-Anglicising) this set-up underlines the extent to which it owes a debt to those millennial teen sex comedies - it's all but American Pie times Road Trip - in which characters such as Matt and Scotty would be tossed at most one or two lines in the back of a party scene in a fumbling attempt at inclusivity. Writer Erik Linthorst and director Richard Wong do them the honour of rolling their wheelchairs front and centre, but much else here would be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the subgenre: the snafu incurred while buying condoms, the parental panic when it's discovered the kids have flown the nest for an unknown destination, the confusion of genders that ensures Sam, the chauffeur hired to steer them on this love cruise, turns out to be a woman (Gabourey Sidibe, from Precious) who gets to impart her own kind of experience on one of the lads. (Her blossoming relationship with sweet-natured squinter Mo (Ravi Patel) is here to offset any residual squeamishness anybody might have around the foregrounding of sex work.) Like those studio-backed millennial sex comedies - an improvement of a sort on the Porky's/Screwballs school, not least in the fluency of their filmmaking - Come As You Are really isn't looking to offend anyone: its (not ignoble) aim is to reassure viewers that disabled does not equal sexless, and that that's OK. It has, however, drawn a measure of flak on its way to our screens for the decision to cast non-disabled performers in the leads.

This struck me less as an outrage than a glaring missed opportunity, particularly when you consider the size of the casting pool for disabled actors in the United States in comparison with what the casting pool for disabled actors must be back in Belgium. I was reminded of the tentative step forwards the Farrelly brothers took while casting Shallow Hal and Stuck on You with disabled performers - and that led me to consider what that incorrigible pair might have done with this odyssey's more provocative aspects. (Given our luck this year, we may have ended up with the Peter Farrelly of Green Book, and something blander besides.) As it is, the Linthorst-Wong retelling remains insistently middle-of-the-road: unimaginative in its visuals and prone to deploying Scotty's under-amusing beatboxing as a soundtrack while we shuffle between nondescript locations, this version is constantly in motion without gathering anything like the depth it would need to be properly moving. In this respect, the North American cinema really does appear to be going backwards. Nothing here will stay with me the way lines, moments and characters from an earlier indie on this subject, 1992's sadly out-of-circulation The Waterdance, have done - but then that film, born of harsh life experience rather than international remake rights, rode its wheelchairs consistently harder, throwing up chewy, sticky truths about paraplegic intimacy. Come As You Are merely potters and stutters along, amiably but forgettably.

Come As You Are is now showing at London's Genesis Cinema, and streaming via Curzon.

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