(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) In genre-literature fandom, there is this incredibly unfair cliché that the average “mainstream” literary novel is nothing much more than a college professor writing about upper-middle-class ennui, tawdry affairs, dysfunctional families and pretentious pseudo-philosophy. In this light, The Ice Storm hilariously become an example of the form despite a few references to the Fantastic Four comic books. It is about upper-middle-class ennui and tawdry affairs, as husband and wife from different couples have an affair that is exposed during the course of the film. It is about dysfunctional families, as the kids of those two families have their own experimental games. The pretentious pseudo-philosophy comes from contemplating comic books, unsatisfying lives and unusual weather events, with a side-order of communal swinging at seventies key parties. The film is sure to resonate with many viewers—the 1973 setting is convincing down to the awful fashion, Ang Lee directs with a sure hand, and the film has a strong cast of then-established actors (Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, all very good) with a miraculous near-handful of then-rising names that have since done much (Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes). But it doesn’t take much distancing to find The Ice Storm slightly ridiculous even as the film reaches for grief in the face of a freak death and familial reconciliation after trying times. From a non-sympathetic perspective, the clichés accumulate at a furious rate, the dramatic heft of the death isn’t earned and the film concludes without having much, everyone still being the same flawed characters than they were at first. But hey—it got nominated for a bunch of awards, so it must be good, right?
(On TV, October 2016) Trying to convince someone to see this tepid crime comedy about a mother/daughter pair of con artists quickly takes us to the tawdry: How about twentysomething Jennifer Love Hewitt playing up her cleavage? How about Sigourney Weaver in a lace bodysuit? No? Yet Heartbreakers’ most playful moments are spent playing the naughtiness of its premise (entrap the mark in a marriage, then create an affair and get half his wealth in a divorce settlement), so it’s not as if this is coming out of nowhere. What’s perhaps most disappointing, though, is how restrained the film has to be in order not to offend the masses, play against its stars’ persona and avoid an excessive rating. As such, Heartbreakers often feels like a big compromise, torn between sexiness and prudishness. If it felt free to cut loose with more nudity and explicit references, it could have been better; had it restrained itself and refocused, it could have been better as well. In its weird middle-ground, though, Heartbreakers often feels as if it doesn’t know what to do. Much of the plot points are predictable long in advance, with the conclusion dragging on much longer than it should (past the point most people will care, actually). Weaver’s extended fake-Russian shtick drags on for much longer than advisable, while Hewitt’s prickly romance subplot feels like the same plot point repeated five times. Bits and pieces of the film are amusing: Ray Liotta isn’t much more than adequate, but Gene Hackman cuts loose as a frankly despicable man who falls prey to the protagonists. While the film is a bit too good-natured to be unpleasant, it’s not much more than a mediocre comedy. You’ll smirk a few times, but Heartbreakers could and should have been much better.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) The risk in relying on familiar thriller tropes is that while they can provide structure, they can’t, in themselves, substitute for wit and originality. It’s not a bad idea to propose as a premise an American tourist in Spain getting caught in a complex web of espionage thrills and double-crosses, but it has to be handled with some competence. Alas, The Cold Light of Day is a purely generic product down to its meaningless title, and a roster of familiar actors can’t save the film from by-the-number plotting, familiar plot points, murky motivations and tedious pacing. Henry Cavill gets (and fumbles) a chance to prove himself a contemporary action hero as he finds himself alone and running in Madrid, but he’s easy to forget when sharing scenes with Bruce Willis (as a father with a hidden second and third life) and Sigourney Weaver (as a immediately-suspicious high-level intelligence officer). Much of the film is straight out of the “man running for his life” thriller sub-genre, and while director Mabrouk El Mechri has the occasional good eye for filming action scenes, they feel overlong and perfunctory in the middle of such a familiar framework. (The final car chase definitely has its moments, but it’s too long by at least half its duration) While The Cold Light of Day will act as a pretty good showcase for Madrid’s tourist attractions, it’s not much of a calling card for anyone else involved: the characters are uninvolving, the narrative excitement is flat and nearly everything about the film seems wasted. For a film produced with decent means and known actors, there isn’t much here to distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill TV movie.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) It feels churlish to criticize a film that’s not meant to be much more than a lighthearted comedy with a female-centric cast, and perhaps even ungrateful to do so when it does deliver a few laughs, but You Again simply isn’t as good as it could be. While the idea of a decade-deferred vengeance between bully and bullied is interesting and definitely can be mined for comedy, this script seems confused between slapstick, retribution and reconciliation. The first act is annoying in how it presents a relatively innocuous situation where an easy way out is dismissed through sheer dramatic inevitability: the main conflict of the film exists because the characters are self-destructive, and the ending doesn’t do much to send an anti-bullying or even anti-revenge message. But, OK, fine: this is not a “message” movie, even though it shoots itself in the foot comedy-wise by trying to reach for a heartfelt moment or two late in the game. It’s perhaps best to focus on Kirsten Bell’s physical comedy in the lead role, or the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver as dueling rivals, or the always-hilarious Betty White and Kristin Chenoweth in small supporting roles. (There are also a few cute cameos.) Meanwhile, the male performers all wisely take a step back in order to let the actresses shine. It adds up to a film that’s not too difficult to watch, but goes through a number of fuzzy plot choices that do nothing to bring You Again out of average mediocrity. Good casting; flat script: could have been much better.