(In French, On TV, January 2017) I’m more a cat person, so while I can appreciate the basic concept of Marley & Me (“A family’s life as seen through the lifetime of a dog”) as clever, I wasn’t brought to tears by the inevitable ending as much as satisfied that the story had been neatly tied up. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston star at the initially young couple that adopts a dog and then starts a family, experience setbacks, moves across the country and eventually settle into middle age while badly behaved Marley grows old. The stakes are very personal, and much of the film consists of episodes in the life of the protagonist, trying to balance family life and professional opportunities. The dog becomes progressively less important during the movie, but never quite goes away. Wilson slightly tones down his usual hangdog persona (a requirement of the character, who’s supposed to be universally relatable) and the result is a bit duller than expected. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston is Jennifer Aniston, which is to say innocuously likable but blander than necessary. More successful are minor roles for Alan Arkin (as a crusty newspaper editor) and Kathleen Turner (as a dog trainer). Otherwise, Marley & Me is cleanly shot, stylistically ordinary (except for a frantic year-in-the-life sequence that drags a bit too long) and not entirely manipulative despite the subject matter, which is already quite a bit better than expected. But, as I said, I’m a cat person.
(On TV, October 2016) Although presented as a mostly-innocuous romantic comedy (by definition, almost every film featuring Jennifer Aniston is bound to be innocuous), there is a troubling streak to The Switch’s titular premise (which has to do with, ah, mislabelled insemination) that makes the film challenging to enjoy on the level at which it’s offered. By the time the paternity issues are matched with the weighty passage of years, The Switch becomes far more unsettling than your average rom-com. It still manages to work, largely because of Jason Bateman’s blend of sympathy and antisocial faults. (I used to think of him as a likable straight man in his immediate post-Arrested Development film career, but if you look carefully at his roles since then, his persona has developed this growing streak of repellent behaviour—in other words, he’s become a credible bastard.) Meanwhile, Aniston’s persona seems to be a prisoner of the film’s plot twists—much like her character. Jeff Goldblum does show up periodically as a sympathetic boss, while Juliette Lewis continues to prove that she’s often best used in small comic roles. The Switch does end rather well, but there are a few squirm-inducing moments along the way, and the result may be more sombre than anyone expected.
(On TV, September 2016) There is little worth remembering about Along Came Polly, a wholly mediocre romantic comedy that deals limply with well-worn themes. Ben Stiller stars as an insurance analyst who gets to pick between two women (Debra Messing and Jennifer Aniston), weighing risks and betrayals in his decision. In other hands, this may have been better. But as shown on-screen, Along Came Polly struggles for laughs, barely tries for romance and suffers from Aniston’s charismatic blank. Stiller isn’t given much to do with a low-intensity take on his usual persona (although he gamely gets a great samba sequence), while Aniston is blander than beige in a character that’s supposed to incarnate risk itself. Bad casting choice—even swapping Messing and Aniston’s roles would have done wonders. The film’s problems, in a nutshell, can also be seen in Alec Baldwin’s wannabe-offensive boss character: He’s supposed to be off the wall, but the film can barely make him feel eccentric. Along Came Polly often goes for gross-out humour yet can’t even manage a yawn. And so it goes, with good actors wasted in dull turns (including Kevin Hart in a pre-stardom tertiary role) in a film that’s almost entirely generic.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t seen a screwball comedy in a long while, and veteran writer/director Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way is unapologetic about how it tries to re-create the confused romantic farces of earlier film eras. Here we have an adulterous theatre director, his wife (an actress), their friend (an actor), an escort changed by their meeting, the worst psychiatrist even, a private detective, a lonely judge … clashing together in weird and ridiculous ways. The film gradually builds it set pieces, goofs along its equally goofy characters, leaves the actors to do their best and lets the chaos take over. What’s unfortunate is that the film keeps its best set pieces (the restaurant clash) for the middle, leading to a curiously lacklustre ending. Still, the film is fun, and the surprising number of recognizable actors showing up in minor roles only adds to the film’s unpredictability. Owen Wilson is fine as the lead director, with Kathryn Hawn, Rhys Ifan and Imogen Poots holding up their end of the plot. Surprisingly enough, queen-of-blandness Jennifer Aniston also turns in a thoroughly despicable performance. She’s Funny That Way’s pacing is zippy, the misunderstandings are numerous, the dialogue relatively interesting and a stuffed squirrel even shows up as a plot point. I’m not sure I can ask for much more.
(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, August 2015) I have now seen too many so-called comedies about breakups and they all share one common characteristics: They are depressing, unfunny, unpleasant and almost a chore to go through. The Break Up may be directed by Peyton Reed –who, in between Bring it On and Down With Love, once seemed such a promising director), it’s not particularly funny, compelling nor all that insightful regarding human relationships. The basic premise has something to do with a couple breaking up but being forced to live together for some reason, but the basic dramatic arc here is one of likable people being quite unlikable with each other, and I suppose that I’m really not a good audience for that kind of stuff. It doesn’t help that the lead couple is played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston: I’m not a big fan of Vaughn even in the best of circumstances, and I find Aniston to be a dull actress, usually playing parts that could have been far better handled by many other actresses. Such comedies often live on the strength of secondary characters and comic set-pieces, but there is almost nothing of interest to find here –The Break-Up is just a sad film, and the longer it goes on, the more unpleasant it gets.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) Perhaps the most interesting thing about Horrible Bosses 2 is the length to which this sequel is determined to follow-up on a film that didn’t need a sequel. I mean; our heroes having gotten rid of their horrible bosses, what’s left to do? Get newer even more horrible bosses? For a short while, as they create their own company and bumble around making terrible mistakes, it almost looks as if the sequel is ready to invert the roles and allow them to become the horrible bosses. But that’s not to last, as they are swindled by a horrible client, stuck with a kidnapping victim with plans of her own, and overextend itself to bring back the two surviving horrible bosses of the previous film. All handled with a slick tone that never gets too far out of control: For all of the potential violence (and sexual debauchery) hinted at, Horrible Bosses 2 knows that it’s meant to be a mainstream comedy and wouldn’t dare go where audiences won’t like. (Although at least one innuendo in the coda is deeply disturbing) Still: the film moves fairly quickly, gives short but striking moments to both Kevin Spacey (as a horrible boss who won’t let prison tone down his disdain for the protagonists) and Jennifer Aniston (once again playing sultry nymphomaniac), whereas leads Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are once again up to their own comic personas. The film does have a few visually ambitious moments: There is a good business start-up pan shot early on, and the film is never better or more engaging than when the protagonists lay out their plan (which fails horribly, as expected.) Otherwise, Horrible Bosses 2 is a disposable sequel that’s not too difficult to watch –a bit of faint praise, maybe, but also an acknowledgement that it could have been much worse.
(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 Aniston 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.
(On-demand video, July 2012) This mostly-innocuous mainstream Hollywood comedy may feel familiar, but it’s in the service of a decent film. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple forced to leave New York after professional setbacks. On their way to relatives in Atlanta, they discover a commune and are seduced in staying. Of course, the reality of living in a commune doesn’t match their first impression… and there lie the laughs. The rest may use (as is the norm with Judd Apatow-produced comedies) pervasive bad language and a few edgier moments, but let’s not fool ourselves: This is a classically-structured comedy, with the expected plot beats, character quirks and familiar humor that we’d expect from this kind of film. Rudd and Aniston are fine (Rudd may be developing as the more dependable straight-man in comedies: it helps that he’s so effortlessly likable), but the laughs belong to the large number of quirky supporting characters. Not every joke works (the film is marred by an overextended dirty-talk scene, flat references to outdated technology and an inability to cut away scenes on high notes) but much of the film is just good-natured enough not to mind. While Wanderlust could have been better, faster and a bit less predictable, the end result is quite enjoyable, and will whittle away a nice evening as long as you have some tolerance for profanity and brief naturalistic nudity.
(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.