Sunday, January 04, 2009

Jungle 2 Jungle

Jungle 2 Jungle posterJungle 2 Jungle, an English version of the French film Un indien dans la ville (and apparently the original is no more distinguished than the remake), belongs to the "Fish out of Water" genre of intercultural comedy. A primitive tribesman finds himself in the big city. His uncouth ways are shocking and unexpected in his new urban environment. Hilarity ensues. But the joke is on us when it becomes clear that the metropolis is a jungle, too, and that an outsider can get things done by applying third-world native lore to first-world problems. We leave the cinema educated as well as amused. Or at least, such is the film-maker's gameplan.

Here Tim Allen plays Michael Cromwell, a harassed and work-obsessed Manhattan trader who makes a trip to Venezuela so as to sign divorce papers will his long-separated wife. She, it turns out, is a doctor in a remote indigenous village that is accessible only by boat. Naturally enough, the boatman leaves Cromwell stranded, so he has to learn rather more about the local tribe than he had expected... including the fact that one among them, a child named Mimi-Siku, turns out to be his thirteen-year-old son. The two of them end up returning to New York, where the young savage is the object of equal amounts of curiosity and revulsion, for instance for his habit of seeing any nearby animal (pigeon, cat, or exotic fish in a tank) as a potential tasty snack.

Meanwhile, a subplot plays on rather different notions of globalization and cultural difference. Cromwell has made an ill-judged trade in buying up several hundred thousand dollars of coffee futures, which are now in free-fall on the global markets. He tries to offload them on a Russian gangster, thinks better of the deal and buys them back, but then the price of coffee unexpectedly goes through a roof. Thinking himself to have been swindled, the Russian bad guy seeks revenge. But young Mimi-Siku shows the value of his warlike ways by helping to fend him off and send him and his henchmen packing, vowing never to return.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this otherwise cliché-ridden film comes in the final credits. It turns out that the film-makers hired a "Pemon anthropologist," presumably to show some nugget of authenticity and cultural respect in their portrayal of the Venezuelan indigenous. It turns out that this same anthropologist, one Diana Vilera, now makes a living with a Venezuelan NGO that is associated with a wide variety of multinational oil companies; she is also Total's sustainable development manager, as advertised in the French oil giant's report on "social responsibility and local development". If her work on Jungle 2 Jungle is any indication, however, Vilera is happy enough to let the most outrageous caricatures of indigenous culture gain her implicit seal of approval.

Yet the film has no real desire to show us the true face of Venezuelan tribal society. Its interest is far more focused on the urban jungle of Wall Street rather than the rural jungle of the Gran Sabana. Mimi-Siku's performance of primitiveness is a mere foil by which to cast a mildly satirical light on the lives of self-obsessed Manhattanites. Hiring an anthropologist is no more and no less a figleaf for Disney than it is for Total. But perhaps it is an admission in both cases that some kind of palliative offset is required to keep corporate consciences clean. It's the sign of an anxiety that even when these high-level capitalist flunkeys are mocked, they are still somehow let off the hook; for after all, it is only their lifestyle that is targeted, not for instance their indifference to the effects of the commodities market on anyone's personal security but their own.

Labels: ,