Jonathan Swift was a cheeky dude in his time, nearly 300 years ago. Wrote a book tweaking then-modern society, politics and religion titled Gulliver's Travels that is considered a masterpiece.
One thing about Swift is seldom mentioned: The guy enjoyed shocking readers with bawdy humor, riffing on private parts and bodily functions almost like a screenwriter penning The Hangover 2. For example, a key passage in Gulliver's Travels involves the hero — an ordinary man in a diminutive dilemma — dousing a tiny castle's flames with a stream of urine.
Proving grossness is timeless, that episode is a comical highlight of the updated Gulliver's Travels, starring Jack Black as the human fire hose. It felt strange laughing so hard at that gag and others just as juvenile, a day after ripping the whoopee cushion smuttiness of Little Fockers. But it's like choosing to hear a dirty joke from Louis C.K. or Dane Cook. Setup, delivery and personality make a huge difference.
Gulliver's Travels has loads of personality, starting with Black, dialing back his gonzo enthusiasm several clicks. He's easier to like in the flesh here (as opposed to voicing Kung Fu Panda) than at any time since School of Rock. There's also a spry supporting cast treating this material like a fractured fairy tale, and a script making Swiftian work of 21st century culture, even Guitar Hero and Transformers.
Now, Lemuel Gulliver (Black) is a mailroom clerk at a New York newspaper, slouching through life with a crush on the travel editor, Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet). He lies about being an experienced traveler and writer to impress her. She responds with an assignment to visit the Bermuda Triangle for a story. Lemuel gets caught in a waterspout that deposits him in the miniature land of Liliput.
At first considered a "beast" sent by a rival nation, Lemuel soon becomes a celebrity, regaling the wee folk with tall tales of his life suspiciously sounding like the plots of The Empire Strikes Back, Titanic and Avatar. That's funny. Watching the biography acted out by a Liliputian little-theater group is hilarious. Size really does matter in the humor of Gulliver's Travels, from foosball games using real people to a gigantic coffeemaker built by the kingdom's impossibly fast construction crew. In the real world, Lemuel is nobody; in Liliput his ego balloons into a Times Square built in his image.
But the screenplay is also about a person's size within, with Lemuel and his little friend Horatio (Jason Segel) each infatuated with women considered out of their leagues. Lemuel assists Horatio in courting Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), at one point playing Cyrano, feeding him the lyrics of Prince's Kiss for come-on lines.
Gulliver's Travels couldn't arrive at a better time for moviegoers, when dramas are angling for awards and Little Fockers passes for comedy. This is what the holidays need: a good, Swift kick in the funny bone.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.