(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) It had to happen at some point: I think I’ve reached a certain jadedness level regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The time to wonder at how Marvel maintains such a level of quality has passed; we may have entered the age of diminishing returns. Or I’m being grouchy for no good reason: Ant-Man, after all, is competently made, decently paced, suitably integrated with the rest of the MCU … it’s hard to point at the film and say that something is wrong with it. Paul Rudd is a good choice for the titular role, bringing his usual affability on-screen and setting up an interesting addition to the ongoing MCU serial. The film’s microscopic action sequences feel new enough, and the film’s relatively small scale and restrained ambitions is a welcome change of pace from the usual save-the-world grandiosity of most other comic-book movies. However… Ant-Man does feel quite a bit more ordinary than it ought to have been. The scale-switching action leaves us hungry for more, the usually-enjoyable Corey Stoll seems wasted in a fairly typical villainous role, while Evangeline Lilly seems far more capable than what little she’s given to do here. (But then there’s the sequel to consider.) In short, there’s a sense that as competent as it is, Ant-Man is holding back from its true potential. Without getting into the what-ifs of the film’s troubled production history in which director Ed Wright (whose movies I love) was replaced by Peyton Reed (whose first two movies I love), it seems as if Reed wasn’t able or allowed to push Ant-Man as far as it could go. The result is fine, but the problem with MCU films is that they have to top themselves in order to keep the wow factor: Once you’ve hit The Avengers, Guardian of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier levels, it’s hard to go back to mere competence. Heck, when even Age of Ultron starts smelling like déjà vu, the MCU enters a new phase: how to keep things interesting without necessarily saving the world every time. Ant-Man is a sufficiently different beast to keep things interesting, but it also hints at how difficult it’s going to be to keep up interest at a time when half a dozen new comic-book movies are scheduled every year.
(On TV, March 2015) The shadow of Judd Apatow looms large over this movie, even though he had nothing to do with it. It stars Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, who both got huge breaks in Apatow films. But more significantly, it’s an R-rated exploration of a tricky area of modern American society, which is to say how men make friends after they hit thirty. Here, a groom-to-be is forced to face the fact that he has no reasonable best-man prospects, and decides that he ought to make a few friends before it’s too late. Applying the conventions of romantic comedies to platonic same-sex friendship is good for a few laughs, especially when you mix Rudd’s leading-man earnestness with Segel’s laid-back coolness. The script isn’t bad (although the gibberish wordplay stuff gets old quickly) and it has a few things to say about a subject often neglected. The tone is breezy, supporting actors all get a chance to shine, and the conclusion couldn’t be more upbeat if it tried. In short, I Love You, Man is a well-executed piece of comedy that fits almost perfectly with the zeitgeist of American mainstream comedy of circa-2009. You can’t ask for much more.
(On TV, February 2015) It’s obvious that Role Models doesn’t try to do anything new; beyond the surface of a crude comedy in which irresponsible men get to mentor impressionable teenagers, much of the film is bog-down standard Hollywood sweetness and conventional values in rude gift-wrapping. (As with most movies in that mold, the irreverent first act gradually leads to a far more sentimental conclusion.) At least the film doesn’t err in featuring Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott in roles well-suited to their comic personas and letting them play off each other. Jane Lynch and Ken Jeong have smaller but striking roles. Much of the film’s interest is in the small set-pieces, or the unusual emphasis on Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP) as a sub-setting. There’s not a whole lot more to say about the film because it’s so familiar: Playing with genre formula to the hilt, Role Models at least has the advantage of executing said formula competently, with enough laughs on the way to a satisfyingly conventional conclusion. It’s watchable enough.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) If you can’t be bothered to watch yet another romantic comedy, then how about a romantic comedy parody? They Came Together takes aim at rom-com clichés with a considerable amount of deadpan sarcastic silliness, using actors who have played those very same roles dozens of time before. To its credit, writer/director David Wain doesn’t try to parody specific scenes or movies, but stick to the archetypical structure of romantic comedies as a clothesline on which to hang the gags. (“Oh, and… Thanks.”) Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler ably anchor a large cast of familiar comic actors, which adds to the interest. As the kind of comic film that embraces absurdity and is willing to try just about anything to get a laugh, They Came Together is definitely uneven: good jokes can be followed by dumb stuff, and the film is a bit too fond of the idea that some things are funnier the more often they are repeated. (“Oh, and… Thanks.”) The humor is a bit snarkier-than-thou –which is a way of saying that some will laugh a lot and others won’t see the point. It may be a bit too clever for its own good at times, but I’ll take excessive cleverness over the kind of painfully unfunny stupidity that parodies have all-too-often become over the past two decades. They Came Together is best seen without too many preconceptions, and funny enough to stock up a late evening.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) While it’s refreshing to see a comedy avoid the usual formula for the genre, Admission risks audience sympathies by doing its own off-beat thing. The unusual choices made by the script and director Paul Weitz (who’s done quite a bit better in the past) may be explained by it being an adaptation of a novel, but once it becomes clear that Admission is not going to play by the usual rules of film comedy, much of the film becomes predictable and so is the resignation that it will withhold a complete release. Still, there is a lot to like here: the look at competitive college admission procedures may feel odd to this Canadian viewer, but it’s interesting, and the quasi-satiric look at academia is good for a few laughs. As leads, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are at their usual most charming selves, with a remarkable supporting turn by Lily Tomlin. It’s amiable enough, and the film does try hard to be something more than a generic romantic comedy. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of watered-down comedy and intentional misdirection here that makes it hard to wholeheartedly endorse. Admission will certainly do as a good-enough film, but there are certainly funnier, more heartfelt choices out there.
(On TV, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) Aimless character-driven comedy about the humanity of relationship makes for a nice change of pace from a diet of highly-plotted action-driven special-effects extravaganza, and you couldn’t ask for more amiable actors than Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as lead protagonists. This is 40 aims to provide a warts-and-all look at the dynamics of an established marriage, and it doesn’t take a lot to see echoes of universal experience in the sometimes-horrid thoughts expressed here. Still, it’s about sticking together no matter how difficult circumstances can be, and it helps that the dialogue is both cutting and revealing. There is a lot of depth to the ensemble cast, with particularly challenging roles for Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as polar-opposite grand-dads. Everyone is playing their part in a very relaxed fashion, which may explain how and why such a seemingly plot-less film can sustain attention for so long. Where the film falters is in its coda, which wraps up too quickly without giving decent send-offs to the myriad subplots introduced throughout the picture. Still, this is a film about moments, not dramatic arcs: Writer/Director Judd Apatow’s been mining the less-romantic aspects of romance throughout this career, and This is 40 fits squarely in this niche.
(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.
(On cable TV, April 2012) There’s something almost archetypical in the holy fool that Paul Rudd plays so loosely in Our Idiot Brother: a childish man with no perceptive filters and an almost-infinite good faith in his fellow humans, the titular brother becomes a catalyst for dramatic change when he’s forced to spend time with his three sisters and their families. The specific of the plot becomes secondary to the character work and the conflagration when too much unfiltered truth exposes everyone’s illusions. The trailer makes the film look like a laugh-a-minute, but the actual film is more measured and demands to be taken more slowly. In the roles of the three sisters, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer do fine work, but it’s really Rudd who holds the film on his shoulders. With all the self-deluded characters, painful confrontations and elaborate rationalizations, Our Idiot Brother becomes a profoundly humanistic film. As a result, and with the help of a conclusion in which everything predictably goes well, it’s a charming, likable and self-assured film. It may be a bit too gentle and slow-paced to please those looking for laugh-a-minute hilarity, but when a film has so much charisma, it doesn’t really matter.
(On cable TV, April 2012) Watching well-made romantic comedies is so effortless that making them seems easy… and then you find one that doesn’t quite work as well as it could. On the surface, How Do You Know isn’t a hard movie to like: It has four good actors in the lead (Paul Rudd is charming as the co-protagonist and Owen Wilson is almost hilarious as a clueless baseball player but the film’s highlight is that Reese Witherspoon is aging really well –I can’t recall her looking any better), appealing characters, quirky details, a few big laughs and a somewhat witty script. Shot to glossy perfection in the streets of Washington DC, it’s the kind of film fully steeped in movie-magic, fit to send audiences in a feel-good trance. And yet… it never quite clicks. The dialogues, even from the first few scenes, seem willfully scattered. The scenes go on for longer than they should, and no amount of character charm nor scene-setting can excuse the tepid rhythm. While How Do You Know earns a few credits for avoiding the more obvious clichés of romantic comedies, it doesn’t quite replace those clichés with anything remarkably compelling. The look at the struggles of an aging female athlete seems eclipsed by the look at the idiocy of an aging male athlete, while the corporate malfeasance plot doesn’t quite boil at any point in the story. It all amount to nothing much; at best, a pleasantly eccentric but forgettable romance. But then, looking up the film’s production information, you find out that it cost $120 million, almost half of which was spent on five key salaries… and the film goes from unobjectionable to incomprehensible. Really, writer/director James L. Brooks? Did you really need Jack Nicholson to play his same shtick for that amount of money? How Do You Know feels like the kind of low-budget romance given to hungry up-and-coming directors for a quick release a modest box-office… not blockbuster budgets and massive audiences: there’s nothing here to warrant more attention. No amount of “Eh, it was all right” can recoup those losses.