There's no question about it: Chelsea Handler is smart and funny. But is that enough?
"Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang," her latest collection of essays, follows the formula of her last two books -- zany, at times implausible, situations with a running commentary full of biting observations.
We first encountered that formula five years ago, in "My Horizontal Life," when Handler took us on a spirited trip through her wild sexcapades.
It didn't matter that most readers hadn't experienced anything close to the bizarre exploits Handler recounted: We could still relate. She was everygirl in the sense that she was out there dealing with the trial and error that comes with being a single young woman in the dating world, and we liked her for surviving with humor and toughness intact.
Today, Handler has a bestseller, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea," and her own late-night show on E! She's also moved up in her personal life: Her latest boyfriend is a CEO, who is also her boss, though she's the bossy one -- a situation used to comic effect in "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang" with mixed results.
This new collection looks at her upscale new life: playing pranks on her boyfriend, debating what sea life should fill the aquarium in their new condo, arguing about who should join them on a trip to Turks and Caicos, and complaining -- while at the same time being complicit in the faux pas -- when a helicopter picks them up at her friend's rooftop wedding.
At times, though, instead of going along for a fun ride, the reader feels more like she's witnessing a nonstop session of couple's therapy. It isn't just that Handler's life is less relatable now, it's that she doesn't bring us in: You feel more like an audience member than a fellow traveler.
That isn't to say that there aren't moments when she connects (when she does, she's delightful) -- there just aren't enough of them. "Grey Gardens," for instance, is a perfect illustration of how quickly anyone can go from an orderly life to a slovenly one. Who hasn't had one of the weekends that she describes? You start off, on a Friday evening, with a plan to be low-key and get some work done, and end up Sunday night with empty food containers and soda cans surrounding the bed you barely got out of, realizing that, in the last 48 hours, you moved well into Edith Beale territory.
Other essays show off Handler's abundant cleverness. In "Deep Thoughts," she describes her gay friend Paul, for instance, as someone who looks "at every situation as a glass half gay." In the story "Chunk," she sums up flying on Southwest Airlines as an experience akin "to being the last one picked for kickball in the third grade."
Pitch-perfect observations and trademark zingers are sprinkled throughout "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang," but the thrill passes quickly when Handler veers off into self-indulgent riffs, in particular one about her clueless father and the e-mails to and from her siblings about how to deal with Dad and his so-called hooker girlfriend. These exchanges are meant to be irreverent and entertaining, but they come across as just standard comedian fare -- the comic's dysfunctional family.
"Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang" makes you wish that Handler would start focusing her talent on subjects more worthy of her wit. Or another way to put it: It's one thing to have an original voice, it's another thing to keep it. For what it's worth, I'd love to see Handler tackle the world of politics. We could all benefit from her skewed look at some of our clueless lawmakers. How about a "Chelsea Handler Goes to Washington"? Sounds like a perfect match to me.
Wolper is the author of the novels "The Cigarette Girl," "Secret Celebrity" and "Mr. Famous."