Judge Bryan Pope has no doubt that you'll have a gay old time with this double-dose of standup from the celebrated comedienne. You might even laugh once or twice.
"That's my one obligatory gay reference. I have to say something gay, otherwise some people might leave here tonight going 'She didn't do anything gay. She's not our leader. What happened to our leader?!'"—Here and Now
Therein lays the fundamental problem with at least half of this double-disc package featuring two hours of Ellen DeGeneres at the mic. Ever since her splashy coming-out party in her sitcom's "Puppy Episode," DeGeneres seems to have charged herself with the task of serving as the poster child for the entire gay and lesbian community. To be fair, one can hardly blame her supporters for embracing someone so harmlessly asexual, so cheerfully benign as their mouthpiece. Problem is, DeGeneres devotes so much time fulfilling her obligation that her standup, once fresh and brimming with acute observations, now comes across like an extended public service announcement with a few yuks thrown in to remind us of how delightful she can be.
The Beginning, which was taped in 2000, commits the most serious offenses, particularly when the comedienne performs an "interpretive dance" recounting the public's reaction to her coming out. Aided by bombastic lighting and sound design, this gimmick suffocates DeGeneres' breezy, effortless charm, and it's not long before the painfully unfunny segment has overstayed its welcome. What we're left with is an angrier DeGeneres, one who suggests resentment toward her role as a diplomat to the straights of the world, and certainly one who is less forgiving of our shortcomings (her callous dismissal of people whose conversation she finds boring is a far cry from the kind, gentle Ellen we had come to know).
That's not to say that show doesn't occasionally recapture her gift for stream-of-consciousness musings. Her hypothetical story about buying cheese races off in hilariously unpredictable directions, and her sit-down with God (who, it turns out, is a black woman with a weakness for fondu and a nice Chablis) is a welcome throwback to DeGeneres' classic "Telephone Conversation with God" routine.
The Beginning contains precisely one instance when Ellen's sexuality and humor join forces to reveal her deep well of humanity. During the audience Q&A session, one young woman tearfully thanks Ellen for giving her the courage to come out. Ellen responds by inviting the woman to the stage for a hug. It's a quiet, profoundly moving moment, the best in the entire show. Pity you have to wade through 55 minutes of mediocrity to get to it.
Here and Now fares much better. Taped at New York City's Beacon Theater in 2003, this hour-long act is a much-welcome return to form for DeGeneres. After threatening to relapse into the same tired territory as The Beginning ("Seriously, though, if you're here you're probably gay."), DeGeneres bounces back with spot-on observations of modern life and other inconveniences. She touches on the most important issues, including procrastination, celebrity fashion statements, headset phones ("Chances are if you need both of your hands to do something, your brain should be in on it, too."), airline etiquette, self-esteem, and commercials ("That woman in the shampoo commercial? She's happy. She's too happy.").
After the soapbox preaching of The Beginning, Here and Now is a refreshing reminder of how loveable and engagingly human Ellen can be. At her best, DeGeneres is nothing less than a gift from that great black woman in the sky.
Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning/Here & Now is presented on two discs with a clean full-screen transfer and perfectly serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio. The package does not include subtitles, and the only extras provided are brief text bios on each disc.
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