Recently Watched: The Civilization of Maxwell Bright (2005)

the civilization of maxwell bright posterSpoilers, adult concepts, and bad language abound.

The Civilization of Maxwell Bright is a movie that tries hard to do the right thing, but it falls back on the old, lazy, entrenched bigotries so prevalent in Hollywood that, despite being an indie film, it might as well have been a $10M studio film for all the cultural “good” it does.

Maxwell Bright (Patrick Warburton) is a fucking asshole. He’s an entitled, white, well-off, misogynist electronics salesman who we first see running naked out of his house, chasing his girlfriend who has just hit him on the head. It wasn’t a debilitating blow, obviously, because he’s capable of violently screaming at her about how she wants to spend a selfish 45 minutes having sex. Also, she doesn’t give him enough blow jobs like he deserves. The police arrive and both officers think he’s the aggressor, which Max blames on them being female and irrational. The girlfriend then jams a garden implement into his chest.

A couple of weeks pass and Max is acting out and berating his employees. His lifelong friend and floor manager Arlis (Eric Roberts, one of my favorite actors) defends him. That night, Arlis and other friends join Max at his house for poker. They all slam women in extremely stereotypical, sexist ways, and then Max has an “epiphany”. I wish there was a better word for it, because he didn’t so much have an epiphany as come up with a stupid, paranoid theory that he thinks explains why his life sucks: Women in the U.S. are taught to be manipulative bitches in college, while Asian women are taught to please men and do anything for them. Therefore, he decides to get an Asian mail order bride.

This opening act is the perfect example of why The Civilization of Maxwell Bright fails. The encounter on the lawn with the police officers is an illustration of the failed post-sexist rhetoric that pervades allegedly progressive entertainment, media, and most especially Internet discussion. A discussion about domestic violence occurs and it takes 0.001 seconds before some guy shows up shouting “Women sometimes hit men too! Why aren’t women punished like men, huh?!” They relate individual anecdotal accounts of how a man was a victim This One Time ™ and insist that proves that men are victims of reverse sexism.

the civilization of maxwell bright
That’s how every scene is played in the film. I watched the entire movie thinking there would be payoff, that we’d see some acknowledgment that Max wasn’t a completely innocent victim, that any police officer regardless of gender would have worried about Max’s girlfriend’s safety. I mean, there’s a 6’4″, 250 lbs naked man screaming at a woman half his size, telling her in a threatening manner that she doesn’t give him enough blow jobs. But no, we’re supposed to see Max as a victim and as a metaphor for the entire U.S. culture. Post-sexist rhetoric revels in grand, sweeping judgments about all American women based on anecdata selected for maximum male victimhood, and this film is a fictionalized version of said anecdata.

The film also fails because it indulges in the worst kind of tokenism, starting with the commercially artificial group of friends that include one black man, one Asian, and everyone else white. The guy who sells Max his wife is a stereotypical, urbane, effete British man. When Max digs up a graveyard, the cop lets him get away with it because he’s a good ol’ Southern boy stereotype who has dug graves himself. Buddhism is misrepresented for comedic effect and is legitimized only when it gets the seal of approval from a Christian preacher in a small hole-in-the-wall church who dubs Mai Ling “the lamb of God”.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. After his “epiphany,” Max buys Mai Ling (Marie Matiko), 28-year-old Chinese woman, via slaver wife broker Wroth (Simon Callow). At first it seems Max shapes up a bit when Mai Ling arrives, but later that night as she meditates, he throws a pillow at her head and tells her he didn’t buy her just so she could meditate. The next day he hosts poker night and all the friends applaud Mai Ling’s service to them. Even the token Asian friend, who earlier had given Max the evil side-eye when he ranted about how Asian women were trained up real good, hoots and hollers at her like she’s a fucking parlor trick.

And that’s how this film goes. It revels in the basest kind of bigotry but has a few hints here and there that the story is going somewhere, only to let you down when you realize someone just edited in a meaningful look but forgot to follow up on it.

the civilization of maxwell bright
Mai Ling, who is nothing more than a caricature of the obedient Asian woman, puts up with everything Max does. Her purpose in the film is to rehabilitate Max because he “deserves” it, according to her ancient and mystical and super cool religion which has karma and shit. The lack of understanding of what Buddhism is really about makes Maxwell Bright look like a thread on the LiveJournal buddhism community. Both are examples of Westerners who think Buddhism seems really neat, who maybe read a book about meditation once, and who think tolerating abusive, sociopathic, violent behavior makes them tolerant just like Buddhists are. Then they pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant and just awesome Buddhists, you guys!

Mai Ling’s other purpose is to portray American women as having lost their way, with reasons galore for how buying and selling daughters and arranged marriages work better than women having free will. Not joking.

Max’s business fails so he very rationally holes himself up with a semi-automatic weapon and shoots the television sets to keep the repo men from getting them. His employees — all men — are shouting, “Don’t shoot him, he’s not going to hurt anyone, he just wants to shoot televisions!” and acting like the female police officers are the ones who are irrational. Max shouts at the policewomen that he won’t be arrested “by some bull dyke bitch cunts.” He’s then felled by a panic attack mimicking a heart attack, only to find out in the hospital afterward that he’s riddled with cancer on multiple organs.

Mai Ling then has her third purpose: To rehabilitate Max before he dies. When Max comes to understand that he’s been cruel to a lot of women, he’s immediately excused by Lamb Of God Buddhist Nun Feng Shui Expert Mai Ling who says women have screwed him, which is why he’s the way he is.

There are good points to this film. I didn’t just stick with it because I thought there would be a decent resolution, although that was the main reason. The first and biggest positive point about this film is Patrick Warburton, who absolutely kills with his performance. He plays Max as the paranoid, ridiculous asshole he is, as a man without any redeemable qualities whatsoever. There’s really no other way to play Max, although director David Beaird obviously disagrees. In fact, Warburton’s performance undermines the labored metaphors Beaird was working for, and I consider that a good thing.

Eric Roberts is wonderful in the film, just spot on. His Arlis is the only guy who calls Max on his bigotries, and he is frequently the only one who knows lines have been crossed at all; the other characters apparently know nothing of boundaries. His niceness, acceptance, and tolerance are bashed constantly in the film, and again that’s something that could have been used so effectively in the film but was just ignored.

What I thought was interesting but obviously unintentional was how the women in this film acted. They put up with everything as though the abuse and insults were just how life was for them, and speaking from experience, that’s often the truth. Women in professional situations silently moved on when they were called “fucking cunts” by Max, although the oncologist does show a momentary flash of anger. She immediately follows with compassion and understanding, just ignoring Max’s outbursts, which again is what women are expected to do.

One woman, though, stands up to him. A police officer arrives when his furniture is being repo’ed. She saw Max on the news as he shot up televisions in his store and remembers his rant about how “those feminist dyke bitches are trying to ruin men”, and tells him so when he starts calling her sexist names. When his friends defend him saying he’s sick, she says, “Good. I hope he dies.” Then his friends yell at her for stepping over the line, but note that none of them yelled at Max during any of the dozen times he yelled variations on “bitch cunt dyke whore feminist twat” at women he didn’t like. At strangers he didn’t like. Just as it was with the incident with the girlfriend at the beginning of the film, the cop who wouldn’t take Max’s shit was intended as an example of how women screwed Max over and caused him to be this way.

The film could have done well as a dark comedy if they had just stayed on that path and focused on the relationships between American males and the slow, ugly disintegration of our male-dominated culture (which my husband insists “The Venture Bros” is about… but I digress). Instead, someone felt a story about a horrible human being literally purchasing a woman so she could save him from American women who are ruining the lives of all men was the story to tell.

 

10 Comments

  1. Vanwall says:

    Whatever made you watch this? Too many freaky signals of hambone acting – Warburton and Roberts, for starters, altho I woulda reversed those players, so I’m off a little there, (Roberts as a sympathetic, caring person? Who’da thunk that?), for me to watch, and I actually looked this up on IMDB once to see what was up with it. I liked Warburton in “The Woman Chaser”, and in “Big Trouble”, but nothing much interested me about him since, and Roberts is almost the encyclopedia example of downward trending. You have a curiosity beyond mine, and I salute you.

  2. Stacia says:

    Someone on another forum mentioned this, and the description I saw was that this was a comedy where a guy searches for the perfect mail order bride. Neither of those descriptions was accurate, honestly, although you could say the first third of the film was dark comedy.

    I like Eric Roberts. I don’t think I’ve really gone into this on SBBN, but one of my guilty pleasures is 80s and 90s B movies, straight to cable stuff, and “erotic thrillers”. I used to talk about it all the time on rec.arts.movies.past-films, but haven’t really mentioned it here. It’s a fascinating genre.

  3. Vanwall says:

    Roberts was pretty good in a few films, I do admit, but somewhere he crossed the line into self-parody, sorta. Ooh, those erotic skeevy films, a whole genre virtually unwatched today, and mostly as a guilty pleasure, I’d guess. Where would ya see some of ’em, anyway, unless ya had access to some shaky VHS tapes?

  4. Stacia says:

    Exactly. Back when local video rental places were all VHS, there were tons of erotic thrillers to choose from. We also subscribed to Cinemax, which showed a bunch back in the 90s.

    Regarding your first comment, I should mention that Roberts’ character is sexist in his own right, but he seems to have some humanity while the rest of the characters lack any sort of depth. He’s not completely sympathetic in this movie.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think you totally missed the point of this highly spiritual, loving and uplifting film. You are so far off base in your critical assessment that I don’t even know where to begin. So, I’ll leave it at that.

  6. Stacia says:

    Only on the internet would someone show up to tell you anonymously that they refuse to even speak to you. I can’t even imagine what the point of your comment is. You really don’t have the guts to make up a fake name on the internet and tell me why you think I’m wrong?

  7. Joe says:

    I’m not going to give you my name (I don’t know you) but I agree that this review at times misses the point.

    First, it is supposed to be a redemption story. We are supposed to understand Max is an asshole. The whole point of the title is that he has to be “civilized.” But, he also is a self-hating asshole. The pain is inner directed too.

    Him dying is something of a cheap method here, but he eventually realizes he is an asshole. He wants to be better. He has a spiritual awakening. He is not an asshole when he dies. This to me is a “payoff.”

    The opening is not meant to tell us “hey men too are domestically battered.” It’s supposed to show he has a shitty relationship with women. More than even his sexist friends. His friends know not to ask his wife about her private parts or to see her naked. But, Max is a total ass. He is an animal really. He needs to be civilized.

    [you reference various points where he is … an ass … yeah. but he wouldn’t be the first one who lashes out those who repossess their stuff, even without after finding out he is DYING … what a f-ing asshole, right?]

    I really didn’t focus on the tokenism and given he is in sales, it makes sense that his employees (the poker buddies all seem to work for him) are biracial. The cop let him get away with it because “I’m not going to arrest someone dying and who wants to dig his own grave.”

    His wife and her religion come off well long before the scene you reference. It is legitimized for HIM then but even Max respects her being a nun earlier.

    The “slave broker” is pissed off when he mistreats his wife. Throwing a pillow at her head was wrong, but isn’t exactly cruelty, and this is before he changes. Many men (and women) would make comments about how attractive a spouse is etc. Again, when he crossed the line, they would not go along.

    I don’t know enough about Buddhism to judge the film’s portrayal of it, but quite a few movies aren’t that deep in its expression of religion, positive/negative. But, she expressly notes that she has free will, that she can say “yes” or “no” and that many young girls really have no knowledge of what sort of man to make them happy.

    And, arranged marriages happen all over the world. Are they all glorified slave trading? Finally, the bit about prenups had bite. The idea we don’t “arrange” marriages in this country is a bit of a lie.

    But, the evil of American women wasn’t the point. Max is supposed to be an extremist on the point. This advanced the plot, but the idea wasn’t that a bunch of Asian women will save us or anything. And, even the ‘slave trader’ underlines the need to respect women.

    I don’t know all these women who just put up with mistreatment. Really? The movie STARTS with a woman attacking him and him being pissed off she didn’t simply give in to him. The female cops don’t take his shit, even when they see him bleeding from the head. The day after his mail order bride came, she said “no” to him and complained. His doctor (Jennifer Tilly! not bad actually) didn’t take much from him either, though since he just found out he was going to die (at around 40), she not surprisingly took it somewhat in stride.

    I didn’t care for the death plot myself. A bit too simplistic. But, as to karma, come on. The guy is an ass. Well, he died of cancer at 40. It’s not like he got “off” or anything. He died. I think we should have got more insight why he was such an ass. Did his parents die young? It is surprising both are dead — he isn’t that old.

    I can say more. Maybe this is why the more sane approach was perhaps just to say how off the mark you were.

  8. Stacia says:

    His friends know not to ask his wife about her private parts or to see her naked. But, Max is a total ass.

    Are you saying that because Maxwell is even more sexist than his already-sexist friends, this illustrates how deeply he needs to be civilized? If so, then the movie is essentially condoning the friends’ level of sexism, because they are clearly portrayed as the “normal” people. They’re the control and Maxwell is the experiment.

    but he wouldn’t be the first one who lashes out those who repossess their stuff, even without after finding out he is DYING … what a f-ing asshole, right?

    No, of course he’s not the first person to lash out at repo men. This sounds like grade school logic, that because others did it first then he can do it, too.

    By the way, he didn’t know he was dying until after the repo incident. Is that what “even without after finding out” is supposed to mean?

    I really didn’t focus on the tokenism

    You don’t say.

    Throwing a pillow at her head was wrong, but isn’t exactly cruelty

    Don’t try to re-frame this. He repeatedly throws stuff at her to force her to stop practicing her religion.

    I don’t know enough about Buddhism to judge the film’s portrayal of it

    And yet, here you are, judging the film’s portrayal of it.

    but quite a few movies aren’t that deep in its expression of religion

    This isn’t about other films. This is about THIS film, where Mai Ling’s religion is CENTRAL to the plot.

    And, arranged marriages happen all over the world. Are they all glorified slave trading? Finally, the bit about prenups had bite. The idea we don’t “arrange” marriages in this country is a bit of a lie.

    If you think a woman being sold for money into a marriage is the same as a prenup, then you need a level of help I just cannot provide you.

    And, even the ‘slave trader’ underlines the need to respect women.

    “Sure, I buy and sell women all the time, but even *I* know they should be respected!”

    The day after his mail order bride came

    Left on the front porch by UPS.

    A bit too simplistic. But, as to karma, come on. The guy is an ass. Well, he died of cancer at 40. It’s not like he got “off” or anything. He died.

    For cryin’ out loud, buddy, EVERYONE dies. Dying is not karmic justice. In the actual Buddhist concept of karma, death has many functions, but that is not one of them.

    Look, the problem with this movie is that it took uninformed Western ideas of Buddhism, karma, selling women into marriages, etc. and presented them as fact. Buddhism is wildly misrepresented: Feng shui isn’t Buddhist. The historical treatment of women in Buddhism makes the use of her religion and being sold into marriage VERY problematic. This was supposed to be a realistic movie, not metaphorical or impressionist, so there is no excuse for the blatant misrepresentations here.

    The same goes for you: You’re obviously on the internet and can go look this stuff up. Instead, you chose to come here and scold me based on your preconceived, unexamined notions regarding things you admittedly know nothing about.

    I think we should have got more insight why he was such an ass.

    As I said in the review, Mai Ling says it’s because women in his life treated him poorly. It’s right there in the film. THAT is the explanation. I’m truly, genuinely sorry that you don’t get it.

    I can say more. Maybe this is why the more sane approach was perhaps just to say how off the mark you were.

    It’s cute that you think you’re the sane one here.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The movie was not supposed to be realistic! It’s obvious that the first half plays as a far-fetched white chauvinist male fantasy about asian women. She dresses in frickin costumes / inappropriately traditional clothes on poker night for chrissake! Nobody is going to believe this is an attempt at realism. The plot of the film doesn’t matter that much. It exists only to serve what the film actually is: a character study.

    The idea that the movie starts off with this horribly misinformed westernized fantasy view of asia is just a way of playing with the viewer’s expectations / ability to tolerate it. The story is ultimately about a fantastically beautiful woman who is even more beautiful on the inside than the outside, whose beauty ultimately shines into the deepest and darkest crevice of humanity. To get too caught up in its realism, accuracy, or unintended consequences of the plot’s male chauvinism, to me seems to be a misinterpretation of the writer/director’s intent. The script didn’t needed to be vetted by feminists or buddhists, that wasn’t really the point.

  10. Stacia says:

    The idea that the movie starts off with this horribly misinformed westernized fantasy view of asia is just a way of playing with the viewer’s expectations / ability to tolerate it.

    It doesn’t merely start off with it, it continues this misinformed view throughout the movie and ends, even at the very last moment, with that view still in place.

    A main plot point, the drive, the almost entire reason for the character of Maxwell Bright’s being is that he is sexist and that his life is consumed by it; saying that his actions are “unintended consequences” is so far off the mark I can’t help but wonder if you even realize that this was a film. Unless it’s documentary or improv, everything in a film is conceived, then written, then produced, cast, rehearsed, lit and set, costumed, then filmed multiple times. It’s micromanaged. To act like something you saw in this film was “unintended” is almost literally unbelievable.

    And given that Bright basically dies because he’s riddled with metaphorical and literal cancer from his hatred, I can’t believe the film wanted us to think these consequences were “unintended”.

    But, hey, you do. Maybe you also think Charles loved his foster dad, Scarlett didn’t care that much about Tara, and they saved The Titanic at the last minute.

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