For me, the path to movie criticism began at the Boston Phoenix newspaper, where I sold advertising space to transsexual prostitutes. These entrepreneurs of pleasure were not my only customers, of course, just the ones I remember most vividly. The year was 1979. Dreaming of glory in the world of big-city alternative journalism, I had applied for a job at the Phoenix and, to my surprise, was immediately granted an interview with its second-in-command.
As it turned out, however, he wasn’t the weekly’s editor but its sales director, an individual I would come to learn was legendary for his boiler-room tactics, tyrannical management style and natural gift for psychological manipulation. I had woken that morning with fantasies of becoming the next Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe. I went to bed the Phoenix’s new classified advertising sales manager.
At the time, the paper was well known for — and, to a significant degree, financially fueled by — its infamous classifieds section. Sure, we sold help-wanted notices and ads for rental apartments. What distinguished our listings, though, were our “personal ads” — barely disguised offerings for sexual services of every variety imaginable, along with a good many it had never occurred to me to imagine. When I wasn’t expecting the police to storm the place, I frequently spent my time wondering what my mother would think about her former altar boy earning a living as a print-outlet pimp for street-walking she-males.
To say the least, my three years at the Phoenix were a learning experience. One thing about which I learned a great deal was the camaraderie that develops when a group of strangers are thrown together in a high-pressure sales environment. Eventually, I would move on to take a job as marketing director of the Vanguard Press, Burlington’s dearly departed alternative weekly, and, through a fluke, get a shot at writing its movie reviews. Which is the long way around of explaining why I have a special fondness for films about the breed of people who sell for a living, movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, Tin Men and, now, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.
The first release from the production company formed by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) and the feature debut of “Chappelle Show” writer/director Neal Brennan, The Goods stars Jeremy Piven as super-salesman for hire Don Ready. When he’s not enjoying breakfast in a strip club or inciting an orgy at 50,000 feet in a passenger jet, Ready sells cars. He leads a team of mercenaries who specialize in saving dealerships on the brink by staging blow-out sales that are a twisted cross between a three-ring circus and a revival meeting.
Ready’s crew consists of Brent (David Koechner), Jibby (Ving Rhames) and Babs (Kathryn Hahn), and, in tried and true Anchorman tradition, it’s beyond motley: It’s lewd, crude, rude and politically incorrect with a vengeance. All four leads are a laugh and a half, but Hahn’s performance has “breakout” written all over it. Her Babs isn’t merely one of the guys. She’s twice the predator, twice the partier, and twice the pervert any of her coworkers would ever claim to be.
James Brolin costars in the role of Ben Selleck, owner of the ailing Selleck Motors, a closeted husband who immediately hits on Brent. He’s also father to Peter (Rob Riggle), a 10-year-old who has the body of a strapping adult as the result of a hyperactive pituitary gland. One of the picture’s most tasteless and hilarious running bits involves Babs’ carefully calculated scheme to seduce the overgrown tyke.
Will Ready and company succeed in unloading all 200-plus used cars on Selleck’s Temecula, Calif., lot over the course of a Fourth of July weekend and save the day? Will the sales machine seal the deal with his client’s daughter (Jordana Spiro)? Will Bo Bice’s brother Eric show up to perform and draw massive crowds of potential customers? Are mutton chops a good look for Ferrell? (He’s a riot in a series of cameos.)
These and many of life’s even less important questions are answered in the course of The Goods’ gag-plastered, variously surreal and deliriously dumb 90 minutes. The movie doesn’t even try to break new ground — it’s shot entirely on location in familiar Ferrell-McKay territory. But, speaking of questions, ask yourself this: In the waning days of a movie season dominated by robots, attic-dwelling aliens and Hasbro action figures, is there any place you’d really rather be?