(On TV, July 2018) I may not be a big fan of the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which has aged poorly in some respects), but I can certainly respect the fact that it dared tackle a then-difficult subject with some wit and poise. Decades later, we’re thankfully past the point where interracial relationships are scandalous—but that doesn’t mean that a race-switched remake had to go so strongly for dumb comedy. Of course, with Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, you get what you pay for. At least a pre-stardom Zoë Saldaña looks great in an underwritten role. To be honest, Guess Who isn’t so bad once you get past the sacrilege factor: Kutcher does have his charm, Mac is a strong presence, and the comedy is so strictly formula that it’s guaranteed to be acceptable for a wide variety of focus group members. (I jest, but at least one scene goes a bit farther than it needed to in having Kutcher tell a few racial jokes to a black audience, and them finding them pretty funny—at least until the last one goes over the edge.) The rest of the film is merely fine, and errs more often on the side of romantic comedy rather than racial commentary. Which is understandable enough given the soft-sell approach it takes. Every era gets the movies it deserves, and so the mid-2000s got their mostly innocuous race-relationship movie.
(On DVD, March 2018) About as generic a romantic comedy as it’s possible to put together, A Lot like Love is familiar and forgettable, but not necessarily terrible. Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet do well as a couple that repeatedly meets over a seven-year period, eventually discovering that they belong together through personal failures and growth. The nineties sequences already feel nostalgic, not to mention the early dot-com era material. Kal Penn shows up in a small role, as does Kathryn Hahn in a very brief and early role that nonetheless adds to her later persona of playing sex-crazed characters. The episodic, time-skipping structure of the film is equally interesting and frustrating, as we know early on that romantic frustration will be maintained until the story catches back up to present time. On the other hand, the film is decently scripted (witness the mini-romances going on in the background during the seven years of the story) and can depend on capable leads. Sure, the various plot threads are predictable but seeing the film from a perspective twelve years later, it’s a reminder that Hollywood studios have gone almost entirely out of the mid-budget romantic comedy genre. Seeing the film in 2018 is almost inevitably less repetitive than having seen it in 2005 … by lack of similar examples. Still, let’s not fool ourselves: A Lot like Love remains a generic romantic comedy, and it fades away as soon as the final credits roll. You won’t begrudge the time spent watching it … as long as you don’t have a big queue of other movies to watch.
(On TV, August 2015) Mix the mismatched-couple trope with the ugly-American tourist clichés and suddenly you’ve got Just Married, a rather dispiriting “comedy” in which a likable newly-wed couple sees their relationship disintegrate into loathing during their European honeymoon. Starring Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy, it’s not much than an average broad comedy film with plot points so unlikely as to court disbelief. It’s all about laughing at European countries, misunderstandings and humiliation… the kind of thing that plays better to a younger or less demanding crowd. For everyone else, the film does work in isolated moments, either as chaos engulfs the couple or they confront unexpected developments. Still, it’s a good thing that we’re virtually assured of a happy ending, because otherwise the film would be quite a bit harder to watch through the progressive fighting. Insubstantial by design, purposefully unsophisticated, Just Married is just good enough to entertain, but nothing more.
(On TV, April 2015) A surprisingly common failing of romantic comedies is the way they can twist and turn a fresh premise into nothing more than an ultra-conventional third act. So it is that the best thing about What Happens in Vegas –two mismatched characters forced into matrimony due to a series of laughable contrivances, and then trying to break out of it- is almost completely undone by a third act that could have been appended to just any other romantic comedy ever filmed. (This misdirection also applies to the setting as, despite the title, most of What Happens in Vegas actually happens in New York.) Still, it’s hard to be entirely ill-willed toward a film that does have a number of laughs, energetic performances and pleasantly absurd situations. Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher are pleasant enough as the lead couple (neither of them stepping away from their usual persona), whereas Lake Bell and Rob Corddry both do the best they can with the ingrate task of playing the friends (and expositionary appendages) of the protagonists. What Happens in Vegas itself isn’t much more than a mainstream time-waster (it’s easy to imagine a much edgier film based more or less on the same premise), but it’s innocuous and watchable without too much effort, which isn’t a bad thing as far as romantic comedies are concerned. Even the ones with interchangeable third acts.
(Video on Demand, November 2013) I will admit that I was among the skeptics when they announced that Ashton Kutcher would be playing Steve Jobs in a film biography: How could Kutcher’s slacker personae fit with the Apple founder’s latter-day visionary reputation? As it turns out, Kutcher’s casting is one of the best things about Jobs, an average docu-fictive effort that nonetheless has a few good moments. Kutcher is at his most Kutcher-esque early in the movie, playing Jobs at a time when the man was a free spirit open to eastern mysticism and counter-establishment thinking. Much of Jobs follows its subject during the eighties as he becomes a shrewd businessman, combining visionary thinking with available technology. It’s not a seamless nor magical film: Despite a rich re-creation of the nascent personal computing industry in the 1980s, Jobs gets progressively sparser at it moves throughout the nineties, eliding some important transitional periods in Jobs’ life (such as the years at NeXT, his co-founding of Pixar, the way he reconciles with his daughter or indeed much of his personal life) in the rush to present him triumphantly re-taking the reins at Apple. Little is said after 1997 save for a 2001 prologue introducing the iPod, and nothing at all about Jobs’ last years. Visually, the film is a bit flat save for the period re-creation, and while there are several interesting actors in small roles (including James Woods in a single early scene!), there isn’t much here to raise the film above made-for-TV specials. On the other hand, Kutcher is surprisingly credible, so at least there’s that. One hopes that Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming competing effort will be a bit flashier, and hopefully more substantial.
(In theatres, June 2010) Likable actors, a promising high concept, action-packed plotting and the ever-enjoyable absurdity of an assassin trying to settle down in bland suburbia. What can go wrong? Well, start by explaining why this so-called comedy struggles so much to earn even indulgent chuckles. Killers starts slow with an overlong prologue that tells too much and wounds the picture before it even gets going, only to restart again three years later. Overstaying its welcome before it even starts, this film simply never clicks. It doesn’t help that boy-hero Ashton Kutcher is never believable as a potentially murderous psychopath: even in action sequences, he seems to be preening in front of the camera, too self-absorbed to make us believe in his character. If you ever want to know what went wrong with Killers, start with the lead casting. On the other hand, there are a few good actors elsewhere in the movie trying their best to deal with what they’re given: Tom Selleck is great as a moustachioed dad, Catherine O’Hara does what she can as a boozy mom (how droll…) while Katherine Heigl –in-between high-pitched squeals—gives viewers a splendid excuse to look at her in low-cut outfits and gratuitous lingerie. None of them can save the film, but they rescue it from a complete lack of interest. The script is about one rewrite away from passable, placing far too much trust in actors who don’t have good comic timing. With so many problems, it hardly seems fair to nit-pick the plausibility of the plot, the horrible moral evasiveness of the conclusion of the preposterousness of the setup. The direction isn’t any better, wasting two otherwise promising suburban car chase through lawns and backyard fences. Killers is so good-natured that it does escape variations on “I hate this movie”, but it’s so bland, unfocused and a waste of its own potential that it can’t even reach the level of a marginal recommendation.