By Stacey Harrison
It doesn’t take long to spot an Alexander Payne project. Whether he’s shooting in his native Omaha (Election, About Schmidt), California’s wine country (Sideways) or in this case, post-industrial Detroit, the director instills such a sense of place in everything he does that it becomes impossible to picture them happening anywhere else. With Hung, we open on Motor City landmarks being torn down and other sights of urban decay, while Ray Drecker begins his narration with, “Everything’s falling apart. And it all starts right here in Detroit, the headwaters of a river of failure.”
Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) is a former high-school basketball phenom gone to seed, now teaching history at his former school and coaching the team he once starred on. He gives his West Lakefield Tigers a pep talk that revolves around a dung beetle and begins to lead them out to the court when he doubles over in pain. Handing off coaching duties to his assistant, he makes his way out to his Jeep, but not to visit a doctor. He heads into the city, into his first day working in “the oldest profession.” How did he get here?
Let’s just say it’s been a rough couple of years for Ray. His wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), left him for a squirrely, rich dermatologist, and the subsequent financial fallout forced him to move back into his childhood home. The house retains its humble roots while McMansions spring up around it, and the McNeighbors inside them keep pestering him sell and move out. The kidney stone and prostate scare didn’t help, but at least Ray had his kids to cheer him up. But then the bottom fell through. A late-night fire guts the house, burning up most of the remnants of Ray’s glory days. It’s when he insists that he and the kids camp out in the back yard instead of going to a motel that they want to go back to their mom. Ray tries to sell it as wanting to keep looters away, but in truth he’s let the insurance lapse.
Swallowing his pride, he approaches his ex-wife at a party at her new home to ask for a loan. What he comes away with is the information that she wants to keep the kids permanently. That moment in the car after being rebuffed by Jessica is probably the lowest Ray has ever sunk. It is then when his eye catches a stray piece of junk mail, advertising a seminar on becoming wealthy. He decides to check it out, and while sitting through the usual motivational spiel he notices a familiar brunette in the crowd that he can’t quite place. Then he remembers it’s Tanya (Jane Adams), a local poet with whom he had a one-night stand. They meet up after the session, Tanya asks him out for some tea, and they’re quickly picking up where they left off, with Ray taking charge and trying to not go deaf as Tanya screams in ecstasy and comments on the size of his manhood. Ray’s not much for poetry, though, so he coldly tries to sneak out, which sets Tanya off. She yells at him that he should try to market his rather large endowment. Yes, she meant it as an insult, but it rings true for Ray.
He starts investigating how best to market his “tool,” opting to buy a disposable cell phone, a box of condoms and a classified ad promoting his — ahem — product. “Big Donnie,” who will give you “every inch of his love,” gets a call right away to meet at a hotel that Friday. When he gets there, though, he knocks on the door and gets no answer. Only a handwritten note slipped underneath the door informing him his potential client has changed her mind. After throwing a bit of a fit, explaining he rearranged his whole schedule to accommodate her, she slides a fiddy to him for his trouble.
Tanya visits him later that night to give him a sample of lyric bread — her invention based on fortune cookies that includes a bit of poetry in each loaf. Ray had a helpful idea to laminate the poems so that the ink wouldn’t leak into the bread. Plus, he hasn’t been to class in a while, and Tanya was worried about him, so she thought a loaf of gluten-free Neruda cranberry walnut would help. When she finds out about Ray’s attempt to be a man-whore, at first she’s disgusted, but then her newfound business acumen takes over. She decides she can help him market himself. For a percentage, of course. Meet Ray, the ho, and Tanya, the pimp.
Ray’s feeling pretty good about things, so he uses that $50 from his first job as Donnie to give a gift to his son. He finds Damon camping out in line for a Goth concert and hands the boy the $50 he had tried unsuccessfully to borrow earlier. For the first time in a while, Ray has hope.
As do we all, that HBO has another winner on its hands. A show about a guy with a big wang could so easily be one-note and tired, but Hung manages to be about so much more than that. It’s really about desperation, and a guy trying to figure out what to do with his life. Should he try to fix the life he has, or just pursue a different one altogether? If you made Ray about 20 years younger, you’d have a story that’s going on with countless teens, but with often more tragic circumstances. I couldn’t disagree more with a recent Entertainment Weekly review, which prompted Hung to go further in the sex-romp direction instead of bothering with all this other meaty drama and satire. Maybe if it were just TV. But this is HBO.
Photo: © HOME BOX OFFICE Credit: Chuck Hodes