Monday, April 14, 2008

Comedies, romantic and otherwise

Charles M. Schulz once said that cartooning was the art of drawing the same thing every day for decades without repeating yourself. I wonder why reviewing a bunch of generally good comedies as a group makes me think this.

The condensed version: If you missed The Grand or Miss Pettigrew, you missed out (although I think Pettigrew is still kicking around Somerville and/or Arlington, here in the Boston area), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is just as funny as it looks.

Also, I'd like to thank Zak Penn for using an archival still in The Grand that allows me to use my favorite tag.

Definitely, Maybe

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 February 2008 at AMC Boston Common #17 (First-run)

Just by the numbers, Definitely, Maybe doesn't make for an uplifting romantic comedy - its premise, after all, depends on things not working out for at least two of the women in the flashbacks, while the present day framing sequences tell you right off the bat that the ones that do get together wind up getting divorced. If I had been seeing it with a girlfriend on Valentine's Day, this might not be the message I'd want sent.

And even better, there's an adorable little girl caught in the middle of this disintegrating marriage! Things kick off when Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) picks up his eleven-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) from school for his weekend with her, only to find out she had a sex-ed class and now wants details about how she came to be. Will's reluctant, but she insists, so he makes it a game - he'll tell her the story, but he's changing the names, and she has to figure out who he wound up marrying - college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), fellow Clinton campaign worker April (Isla Fisher), or journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz).

Given how politically polarized the country has become since Clinton's 1992 campaign, using that as the backdrop for a film looking to attract a broad audience may seem like a commercially questionable decision - why potentially alienate half your audience when the film isn't really about politics? It works, though, because Will's feelings about candidate and later later President Clinton are a nice barometer for his romantic life and maturation as a man - initially full of wide-eyed optimism and faith, later brokenhearted and cynical, and by the end no longer in a position where his feelings must be all-or-nothing. It's a metaphor well worth enduring some political talk that doesn't do much for the movie as a romance or a comedy.

It also works because Ryan Reynolds turns in a nice performance. He's generally relied on some form of slickness or another in his previous roles, whether it be the boys that the universe can't rattle (as in Van Wilder) or the wiseasses with a quip at the ready (as in Blade Trinity). Will gets hurt, confused, and angry, and it plays well. He's gotten to the point where he can turn off the charm, let us see the character as an immature jerk for a moment, and earn his way back into our good graces. He also pulls off my favorite moment in the movie, when an excited Maya is looking at penguins, chattering about how they mate for life, and the camera turns around to show Reynolds and the actress playing Maya's mother. They're a note-perfect display of lost chemistry; it's a moment which earns the movie a shot at an improbably happy ending.

Breslin's pretty great in that moment too, all the bubbly optimism that the other characters have lost, even though it wasn't long before that Maya had been nearly crushed by the way Will's story was heading. She does have her extra-precious moments, but not too many. We're probably supposed to be equally charmed by other other three ladies in the story, but that's not quite possible. Elizabeth Banks is nice enough as Emily, but we don't get the chance to meet her for the first time alongside Will, so she seems a little bland in comparison. We do get to meet Rachel Weisz's Summer, who seems fantastically wicked and enticing, and brings along Kevin Kline as the older professor she's been sleeping with (we just don't see enough of Kline on the big screen these days). And then there's Isla Fisher as April; she's the one who makes us laugh but also deftly handles the scenes that give her character some heft.

I like the job filmmaker Adam Brooks does; he balances his mix of characters well, not tipping his hand as to the end of the movie by favoring one character too much over another. He handles the passage of time well, so that the flashbacks cover a fair amount of time without either feeling like there are gaps or that Will is ping-ponging between women without the breakups having an effect on him. There's plenty of good jokes, but you can always take the characters seriously.

Definitely, Maybe is a low-key charmer. It's arguably not primarily a romantic comedy, but a story about growing out of youthful naïveté and through cynicism to become a true adult.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental HD DVD)

Accepted is not complicated or subtle, which is part of its charm: It will, at any moment, go for the biggest joke that the people making it can think of, and will not let any opportunity for even a little one pass. The upside of this is that only something like one out of three jokes have to work for the movie to provide a pretty constrant string of laughs. The downside is that the jokes that don't work really don't work, some of the extra bits that are crammed in feel like too much (Justin Long's pratfalls, for instance), and when it starts trying to get the audience to pull for the characters in a story, it's got no weight whatsoever.

Not that it needs it, I suppose, although the central idea - that the relentless push for every kid to attend college and the one-size-fits-all education offered there doesn't serve their interests - is good enough to merit a little weight. And there are some times when less would be a little more, given all the talent attached - there's a ton of fun young actors, and a lively performance from Lewis Black.

Nine reviews at HBS.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #10 (First-run)

Mrs. Pettigrew doesn't initially look like much, and that applies to both the character and the film itself. And in some ways, they aren't much; a simple woman and a spritely period comedy. There's beauty in their simplicity, though, along with an awareness that simple doesn't necessarily have to mean stupid.

Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess, who finds herself homeless after being fired from her last of last chances. She swiped a name before being dismissed from her agency, though, and shows up the next morning at the apartment of actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who was not looking for a nanny but a social secretary (though she doesn't quite know what one does), whose first job is disposing of Phil Goodman (Tom Payne), a young would-be theater producer. That's not the only man in Delysia's life; there's also Nick Colderelli (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub where she sings, and Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), the piano player there who was recently released from jail. Then there's Delysia's friend Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and her fiancé Joe (Ciarán Hinds), who make life difficult for Guinevere in their own ways.

The film takes place in 1930s London, and feels like a film of that period, with beautiful Art Deco style, women in fabulous gowns, and nightclubs full of jazz and sophistication. It's wiser than that, though. It's keenly aware that those glamorous images were mirages into which audiences were escaping, with the reality being the Depression. There's a dark recurring joke about Guinevere not getting a chance to eat, and the desperation she feels is palpable. Similarly, it's also the eve of World War II, and there's a wonderful moment between Guinevere and Joe late in the movie, sharing their memories of the last war as the younger characters cheer the planes flying overhead.

As you might gather from that last paragraph, McDormand is giving her usual fine performance. There is, from the beginning, something rebellious about her that doesn't quite fit with her nervous, spinstery exterior, and it's a delight to watch her come out of her shell without ever losing her grounding. McDormand handles the trick of being very funny while also being very serious like it hasn't tripped a great many actors up. Amy Adams, on the other hand, often seems lighter than air as Delysia, moving from event to event like she was blown by a strong wind and rapid-firing her lines in classic screwball style. She does, on occasion, also get serious, giving Delysia self-awareness without making her less of a naif. Neither part is a particular departure from the actress's recent work, but that just lets them concentrate on the details that make Guinevere and Delysia come alive.

The rest of the cast is good, too, although their characters are a distant third in priority behind Guinevere and Delysia. Shirley Henderson's Edythe is maybe the most complex, rather callow and selfish and yet still strangely vulnerable. The men form a continuum along which the wisdom of age and experience can be plotted, from Payne's spoiled and childish Phil to Hinds's Joe, a much more grounded fellow than the usual male character who designs lingerie for a living. Pace shows us a charming if battered romantic, while Strong makes Nick altogether more pragmatic.

Director Bharat Nalluri and company make a nifty little movie. There's actually quite a lot of story packed into Guinevere's twenty-four hours and our ninety minutes, with characters and plotlines darting in and out quickly enough for us to sympathize with how dizzy it might make her, even while slowing it down just enough at points so that actual important information is quite clear. They never lose sight of the fact that they're making a comedy, even though there are frequent and needed detours into the less cheery aspects of the period. They don't overdose on realism, though, so that when things end in the rushed but tidy manner of a stage comedy, it feels entirely appropriate.

Yes, Miss Pettigrew could be more realistic. It's perhaps just a little more sophisticated than the 1930s films it pays homage to. Its faithfulness to those films' ideals and aesthetics is a great part of its charm, though, and it would gain very little by being more complex than it is.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.


* * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2008 at The Brattle Theatre (The 80's Rock!)

I don't know if I'd actually call myself a fan of Meat Loaf's, at least not in an active, going to concerts that require more effort than getting on the T, talking him up to friends, or trying to amass everything he's done sense. I like him as an entertainer, though, and the idea of him doing a wacky rock 'n roll movie directed by Alan Rudolph, of all people, with Zalman King somehow in the mix, made me giggle at the potential for quality insanity.

Unfortunately, the "quality" part isn't always there. There are some wonderfully daffy bits, such as a sedate and charming Alice Cooper, and some of the goofy contraptions Meat's Travis Redfish constructs out of whatever's on hand at the time. There's some fun music, including a thoroughly gratuitous appearance by Roy Orbison. The batting average on the jokes isn't that great, though, and a number of them are pure "check it out - rednecks! They're stupid! That's funny!" stuff.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (sneak preview)

For all of the crazy bits that can be found within this film itself, perhaps the strangest thing about Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that the film got its creative team the chance to make the next Muppet movie. It makes sense, in a way - Sarah Marshall has that sort of anything-goes sense of humor and even uses puppets at one point - but it's also gleefully raunchy, enough so that giving its makers a beloved G-rated franchise is not the obvious course of action.

It's crude almost from the very beginning, when TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) returns home early to break up with her boyfriend Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), but finds herself rather distracted by his nakedness. She does manage to get the job done, though, leaving him a quivering mass of jelly who finally bends to his brother's advice to get away for a few days. That's a good idea, but he makes it a bad idea by choosing a Hawaiian resort that Sarah had told him about, and he gets there at the same time as Sarah and her new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The woman manning the front desk (Mila Kunis) takes pity on him, though, and soon he and this Rachel Jansen are hanging out during her off hours, which makes things awkward for everybody.

Star Jason Segel wrote the screenplay, and it turns out that he's pretty good at it: He's got a knack for good pop culture jokes that are more than just name-dropping, for instance, and the dumb or strange things his characters do are dumb or strange in a way that seems to be in character. The movie isn't bogged down with characters who advance the plot but are not actually funny, and all the main characters get a chance to be both sympathetic and unreasonable at various points.

As an actor, Segel avoids being the boring center that all the insanity happens around mostly by being kind of over-the-top mopey, but every once in a while he breaks out something that makes us realize that Peter is more than a little weird; he's got quite a knack for finding the border between eccentric and uncomfortable and hovering there. Mila Kunis is the closest thing the movie's got to a straight man, but she's good at adding a bit of snap to her set-ups and reactions and being generally charming enough to distract Peter from Sarah. That's pretty remarkable, because Kristen Bell does not play Sarah as the villain of the piece; she makes Sarah likable enough that we never wonder what Peter was doing with her in the first place. There's material for a cute love triangle here.

And then there's Russell Brand, who plays Aldous as broadly as he can and collects big laughs whenever he's on-screen. Yes, he's every spoiled rock-star cliché rolled into one, but he's too hilariously relaxed about it to be the bad guy. He's joined by a bunch of supporting characters who are sort of one-note, but hit that note with perfection: Jonah Hill's over-eager waiter (who happens to be a big fan of Aldous), Jack McBrayer and Maria Thayer as as a pair of newlyweds who, having saved themselves for marriage, are having radically different reactions to their new intimacy, and Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor whose memory is pretty much fried. Rudd has built up quite a roster of scene-stealing minor roles, but for this movie it's tough to beat Billy Baldwin's self-parody as Sarah Marshall's co-star in Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime; every clip of that series kills.

There are going to be a lot of people who assume Judd Apatow directed this movie from the advertising, and hopefully Nicholas Stoller will take that as a compliment. It does have a lot of the same feel as The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and winds up being a little better than the latter. It's got a very nice balance of crude but effective jokes and honest emotion, and seldom stops being funny in order to be sentimental - in fact, the final sequences, when the movie could have gotten maudlin, are some of the most densely-packed with jokes of the movie.

Which is saying something; there's a lot of funny stuff in the movie. Wouldn't it be great if all actors could write such good vehicles for themselves?

On HBS as soon as the movie comes out; there will probably be more than one other review then.

Run Fatboy Run

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run)

There's a scene in Run Fatboy Run where Thandie Newton's Libby more or less baldly states that the basic outline is ridiculous - she's not going to dump her boyfriend and go back to the man who has disappointed her so much just because he runs a marathon. This makes a ton of sense, because as insanely difficult as running twenty-three miles is for someone who starts from where Simon Pegg's Dennis does, it's nothing compared to getting back into a woman's good graces after what he's done.

What he's done is leaving her at the altar on their wedding day - when she was seven months pregnant. Now, five years later, there's a new man in her life, and Whit (Hank Azaria) is everything Dennis is not - handsome, well-off, responsible, and athletic - he even runs marathons. In a bid to not look totally emasculated in front of Libby and their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), Dennis says he could run one, too, and it becomes harder to back out once Libby's cousin (and Dennis's best mate) Gordon (Dylan Moran) bets on him to finish, and he bets his landlord Maya Goshdashtidar (India de Beaufort) his back rent versus eviction. So it's training time, though Jake, Gordon, and Maya's father (Harish Patel) aren't exactly a crack coaching staff.

The comment from Libby that Dennis running the marathon won't win her back, aside from being a challenge to the filmmakers to come up with a situation where that could actually happen, has the additional effect of moving the film out of the romantic comedy arena. This is a nice move - it keeps Libby from being presented as just a prize to be won, and running a marathon for a prize is kind of a silly thing to do, anyway. You do that sort of thing to improve and test yourself, not beat someone else, and that's what we see Dennis do - go from slacker man-boy to maybe being someone who can accomplish something.

Pegg and Moran make an entertaining pair of slacker man-boys in the meantime. Pegg plays the excitable, sort of whiny one; he's the victim of all kinds of good slapstick and abuse, while also being kind of off-handedly charming and funny. Moran, on the other hand, plays Gordon just about as dry as is possible; he's got the sort of accent that makes one feel as if they've just been insulted by someone a great deal more learned than is actually the case. Hank Azaria does a really nice job with Whit; for much of the film, the audience is actually inclined to like him. Azaria, director David Schwimmer, and writer Michael Ian Black do a nice job of piling little things on so that the audience feels some of Dennis's natural, if not necessarily fair, annoyance at the very idea of this guy; when he starts doing kind of jerky things, there's the feel that Dennis brings out the worst in him, rather than him just being a bad guy and Libby being unable to see it.

It's interesting that the creative team for this movie is mostly actors - sitcom veteran David Schwimmer directs, Michael Ian Black writes, with Pegg Anglicizing American Black's script. The three of them know their comedy, and tend to approach it by giving people funny things to do rather than just setting up a situation or having the cast read potentially-funny lines. Pegg, especially, tends to act with his whole body here, and just the way he stands when discovering he's locked himself out of his apartment again can draw a laugh. The climactic race itself has a bunch of little gems sprinkled through it, as well - I'll probably giggle during sports coverage for a while, imagining the commentators yelling "Bastard!" during instant replays.

Run Fatboy Run isn't sophisticated comedy, and there are some things like Gordon's aversion to pants that maybe play better in the UK than they do in the States. It's got plenty of laughs from start to finish, though, more than enough to make up for the occasional bit that doesn't quite work.

On HBS along with three other reviews.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run)

George Clooney has many fine qualities, but among the ones I most appreciate is an appreciation for past eras in film and American life that doesn't approach blind worship. Leatherheads could easily wallow in nostalgia, but that wouldn't really be funny, and it's always worth noting that the good old days had a lot of the same issues as today.

The film opens with a comparison of professional and college football in 1925. The college game, as exemplified by Princeton's Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), is just as huge as you might remember from Harold Lloyd's The Freshman; the "professional" Duluth Bulldogs play in cowfields with shoddy uniforms and equipment, booking games with whichever teams haven't yet succumbed to bankruptcy. When the Bulldogs go under, its fortysomething star player and brain trust, Dodge Connelly (George Clooney)comes up with a radical plan to save it - recruit Rutherford and use his star power to draw a much larger crowd. There's side effects to this, though - Rutherford brings reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who is secretly trying to expose the truth behind Rutherford's war hero status, and the increased money in play attracts the likes of C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), who acts as Rutherford's agent.

Clooney's film is something of a throwback, though not quite all the way to its period - that would have meant making it black and white and silent, which the studio likely would have balked at. Still, he gets as far back as the thirties, and the rapid banter between Clooney and Zellweger is well worth it. They've got a sharp chemistry from the very start, and the script never insults us by having them not recognize it. There's just Carter, who is legitimately charming, and neither of them is really the romancing type. Zellweger is prety good here; the sharp-tongued character suits her, and she's able to make Lexie more than just abrasive.

Clooney gets a chance to do a little bit of everything. His character is something of a tragic figure, in that he winds up destroying the thing he loves in order to save it, but he's not an angry or self-pitying character. Clooney's got gobs of matinee-idol charm, and has the knack for making Dodge both kind of cocky and self-deprecating at once. He snaps of his lines with perfect rapid-fire pacing, but gets some of his biggest laughs just from facial expressions.

John Krasinski is pretty good, too; he makes Rutherford smooth without making him seem deliberately smooth. There's a lot to like about the guy, although you can also see where Dodge might resent him, from the way everything seems to come so easily. There are a bunch of other fun supporting characters, though the team itself isn't a big part of that, the way one might expect it to be. Stephen Root is laid back as the rummy sportswriter who lets Dodge dictate his stories, and Johnathan Pryce is perfectly oily as the money man who represents every negative of the transformation of the game into a business. I also like Jeremy Ratchford (a regular scene-stealer on Cold Case), who shows up in the last act as an old war buddy of Dodge's.

Composer Randy Newman has a funny cameo in the same scene (he is, of course, the piano player), and he contributes a soundtrack that embraces its period but is seldom intrusive about it. The whole production feels like that; there's attention to detail and fondness for the details of the period and classic movies - it's a shame sleeper cars don't come into play in more modern movies - but the story recognizes that although the past is something that has great appeal, holding steadfastly to the way things are doesn't make a bad situation better.

The movie's not perfect: The last act both forces an unlikely "big game" scenario and a fairly ridiculous resolution to it, and as director George Clooney occasionally sets too slow a pace both for a modern movie or an authentic screwball comedy. Many more moments zing than drag, though, and the cast fits their parts so well as to make up for any issues with the story.

On HBS along with three other reviews.

The Grand

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Like the Marvel superheroes in the movies for which he writes screenplays, Zak Penn lives a double life. Sure, by day he's churning out nondescript comic book adaptations, but by night he directs mock documentaries with Werner Herzog - and they're far more entertaining than the likes of his X-Men scripts would have you expect.

The Grand focuses on a Las Vegas poker tournament with a ten million dollar winner-take-all pot. Though it takes place in the Golden Palace, it was started by the founder of The Rabbit's Foot, whose embattled owner Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) needs the money to cover a bridge loan or risk losing his grandpappy's casino. He starts the movie in rehab for every kind of addiction available - drugs, alcohol, tobacco, marriage (he's been married approximately 72 times). He's got some stiff competition at the tournament, though: Twins Larry (David Cross) and Lainie (Cheryl Hines) Schwartzman hail from Long Island, New York, and have been competing from a very early age, when their father (Gabe Kaplan) would pit them against each other but only encourage Lainie in order to motivate Larry. Lainie brings her family along with her, three kids and husband Fred Marsh (Ray Romano), who has been more than a bit peculiar ever since surviving a lightning strike. He doesn't quite compared to Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell) In the strange department, though; Melvin still lives with his mother (Estelle Harris) in his late twenties or early thirties, although his obsessive nature (to the point of being Asperger's) gives him a leg up calculating odds at the table. We also meet "Deuce" Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), who is basically Dennis Farina, an old rat-packer who misses the days when Vegas was committed to his trashiness; not enough legs get broken these days. Then there's The German (Werner Herzog), who is basically Werner Herzog on an especially crazy day, and Andy Andrews (Richard Kind), a rube from Wisconsin who won his seat playing poker online.

Those are just the main characters, of course; the likes of Jason Alexander, Judy Greer, Michael McKean, Hank Azaria, and others show up for quick bits as other players or supporting cast. The script for this movie is said to be only thirty or forty pages long, which means that there was not only plenty of room for improvisation, but most of the good jokes likely had to come from there. Some of these actors are playing fairly familiar personae - Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, and David Cross are playing exactly the characters one might expect, for instance, but that just means they know just what these people will do without thinking.

The less-obvious characters are just as funny, though. Werner Herzog arguably belongs in the "familiar" category - the photographs of Herzog used to tell us of The German's strange exploits are likely unretouched - but The German is so deadpan bizarre that even Herzog's reputation for eccentricity isn't enough. Consider that during the sit-down interview segments, he's patting his pet rabbit like he's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and it still feels like a tease for something even stranger. Then there's Parnell's Harold, who eschews the usual basement-dwelling nerd stereotypes in favor of an obsession with David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, which is just far enough off the beaten path to be humorously strange to non-fans but to give those who are just familiar with the franchise a laugh when he recites the Mentat's Mantra or says Lainie has the hairstyle of an Arrakinean prostitute. Which, of course, leads to a joke about the announcer who immediately claims experience with Arrakinean prostitutes.

Penn does a nice job herding all these strange characters; there was likely a lot of good stuff to edit. In style, it's much closer to Christopher Guest mockumentaries like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show than his previous entry in the genre: Incident at Loch Ness, aside from having Werner Herzog play the sanest person in the cast, was played with a completely straight face and a fairly linear story. There's story to The Grand, but the majority of it is jokes packed into a loose structure.

Most of them are good jokes, although every viewer will likely have a list of things they'd like more of and less of (I would trade a bunch of Ray Romano for more Werner Herzog). I'm sure aficionados could find flaws with the poker, as well, but you don't have to be a Mentat to calculate that the bits that work add up to much more than the bits that don't.

On HBS along with two other reviews.

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