(On Cable TV, October 2015) I may be seeing too many movies lately, because it seems to me that I’d already seen The Bounty Hunter before even seeing it. I suppose that having Jennifer Aniston and Gerald Butler play close to their usual screen persona doesn’t help, nor does a basic by-the-number hybrid plot between romance and gentle crime comedy. It feels a lot like the latter One for the Money, or like most movies in which Butler plays a likable cad, or all movies where Aniston simply recites lines in her endearing personality-free way of hers. There isn’t much to distinguish The Bounty Hunter from countless other similar films, and if the result does have an acceptable forward narrative rhythm (as in; it doesn’t feel as it’s too much effort to watch it once it starts), that doesn’t necessarily translate into much more than a very marginal recommendation, mostly to those who think that they’ll enjoy that same kind of material.
(On TV, December 2014) A good chunk of Jim Carrey’s early filmography from Ace Ventura to Liar, Liar (both also directed by Bruce Almighty’s Tom Shadyac) is made of high-concept comedies built around Carrey’s mannerisms,: Past 2003, Carrey would attempt more and more dramatic roles, and his return to comedy would either feel dated or aimed in a different direction. In this light, Bruce Almighty certainly feels like the last in a good Shadyac / Carrey line-up, offering Carrey the chance to play both mild-mannered everyday-man and unhinged rubber-faced maniac. The premise couldn’t be simpler: Following a terrible day, an ordinary man curses God and is given his powers and responsibilities to see if he would do better. As an excuse for Carrey to play with divine powers, it couldn’t be better: water parts, girlfriends get curvier and various religion-based puns rain down on the audience. It’s not hilarious, but it’s relatively amusing, almost entirely unthreatening despite the religious subject matter and Carrey gets one good reason to play the kind of comedy that made him famous. Morgan Freeman is perfect as God, while Steve Carrell has an early supporting role as a foil and Jennifer Anniston is cute but unremarkable as the perfunctory girlfriend. For all of the chuckles, though, there are few outright laughs, and the film’s insistence to remain respectfully grounded (all the way to third-act sermons) stops its absurdity from being more gripping. The results, in other words, don’t quite live up to the premise and the result settles for a middling average.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) There’s little in We’re the Millers to suggest that it’s more than a middle-of-the-road Hollywood family comedy, but sociologists and policy wonks may be fascinated to note that public acceptance of soft drugs is now high enough that a mainstream Hollywood comedy can feature protagonists smuggling tons of marijuana into the United States without raising much of an eyebrow. It helps a lot that the film is both broad and amiable enough to soften the blow: Our hero-dealer (Jason Sudeikis, making a career out of playing lovable pushers and likable perverts) is nowhere as bad as the other dealers in the story, and at its core this is a film about misfits building a family together, which pretty much fits Middle-America’s core values. Not that this is a PG-rated film by any stretch of the imagination: it earns its R rating through copious drug references, sexual content, comic violence and pervasive profanity. However, We’re the Miller seems almost innocuous compared to some of its gross-out R-rated comic brethrens of a decade ago: it’s never mean-spirited, keeps its wilder references implied rather than demonstrated (for instance, while the entire plot is drug-based, you never see anyone doing drugs) and eventually builds toward the kind of conclusion that everyone can cheer for. The jokes are numerous enough that some will stick even when others won’t, earning enough chuckles to make the film a success for nearly everyone. While We’re the Millers may not be as hilarious as it could have been, and suffers from Jennifer Aniston’s bland screen persona (she earns a laugh when revealed as a stripper, but it’s a laugh at her expense –many other actresses could have done quite a bit better in this role), it’s good enough to keep audiences satisfied, and that’s in keeping with the film’s place as a big Hollywood comedy.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler, but he can be effective when used in the right context (ie; not left free to indulge his man-child persona) and Just Go With It comes closer than most attempts at producing a non-irritating Sandler comedy. It helps that the film uses some fairly convoluted plot mechanics to keep him from taking center-stage: the script involves a decent amount of romantic deceptions, mismatched identities, fortuitous meetings and tangled lies. Set against the pleasant backdrop of a Hawaiian resort, well, it could be worse. Sandler is restrained in a role that asks for more maturity from him than usual, while Jennifer Aniston gets a more interesting role than usual as his assistant-turned-fake-wife. Nicole Kidman gamely tries to keep up, but this kind of comedy really isn’t her thing, and it shows. Still, the plot circumvolutions are enough to keep our attention and while the end result doesn’t aspire, let alone attain, greatness, it’s good enough to fill up a lazy afternoon. As the title says, just go with it.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.