(On Cable TV, March 2017) The latest resurgence in R-rated comedies has led to good, bad and indifferent results, with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ranking near the middle of the pack. The premise certainly seems optimized for comedy, what with two fratboy-type protagonists openly advertising for dates in order to attend their sister’s Hawaiian wedding. Things get even funnier when they’re targeted by opportunistic bad girls looking for an easy holiday. Copious swearing, risqué situations, some comic violence (but no graphic nudity, given the profile of the stars) ensue, with plenty of hair-raising moments before the suitably sweet conclusion. It’s all adequate without being impressive, although there are some highlights along the way. While Zac Efron and Adam DeVine are fine as the male anchors, it’s Anna Kendrick and especially Aubrey Plaza who get the most interesting roles as bad girls trying to look like angels. Kendrick is her usual cute self even when cursing up a storm, but Plaza succeeds by doubling down on the character she played in Bad Grandpa and so scores one of her best roles to date. The rest is scenery, with the Hawaii location used effectively—you’d be able to pair this film with Forgetting Sarah Marshall without too much dissonance. This being said, the actors and sets are better than the film itself, which lasts just as long as it takes to entertain but no longer.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Comedy is intensely subjective, and it’s hard to find a better example of this than Dirty Grandpa, which had me chuckling and smiling throughout despite earning atrocious reviews from just about any serious movie critic. How to explain it? I can’t. I can only report that Dirty Grandpa manages to create, fairly early on, an atmosphere in which nearly every scabrous or raunchy gag gets a reaction. Drugs at a funeral, and a sexually obsessed retiree? From that moment on, it just gets dumber and funnier. From afar, it’s easy to claim this vulgar and meaningless film as a nadir for Robert de Niro, but if you’re under the film’s charm, his performance as a perverted old man looking for the sexual experience he denied himself until his wife’s death is nothing short of a go-for-broke exercise in deliberate offensiveness. (More intriguingly, it plays with some deeply held social convictions of how a senior should act like, giving Dirty Grandpa at least a veneer of honest transgression.) Alongside such a ferocious committal to comedy, co-star Zak Efron merely has to stay put and react appropriately. Great supporting performances by Aubrey Plaza (playing a far more active kind of comedy than she usually does) as a grandpa-chaser and Jason Mantzoukas as an unrepentant drug dealer both add a lot to the film. I’m never going to seriously argue that Dirty Grandpa is a good movie—it’s by-the-number comedy, made more daring by pushing the boundaries of vulgarity and throwing old-person jokes in the mix for added offensiveness. There are some lengthy lulls, and the secret to appreciating de Niro’s performance is forgetting his Academy Awards entirely. But here’s the terrible truth: the film made me laugh, and it made me laugh a fair amount more than many of the most respected films of the past year or so. I half-suspect that I’ll see Dirty Grandpa again in the future and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this review. In the meantime, though, I just have to think about de Niro’s gleefully crude character to get a quick smile.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) Teenage sex comedies aren’t exactly rare, but what distinguishes The To Do List from the pack are that it dares take the perspective of an awkward but intelligent overachiever who get to set her own agenda when it comes to losing her virginity during her pre-college summer. Setting the film in 1993 ensures that the answers to her fumbling exploration of the issue aren’t an Internet search away. (Incidentally, I realized watching the film that 1993 was also the year of my pre-college summer. Gee, I’m getting old when 1993 earns nostalgia points…) The film does have a pleasant narrative drive, but it quickly becomes obvious that it’s not even slightly interested in being sexy –merely amusing with a side-order of cringe-worthy. Aubrey Plaza headlines the film, but while I liked her a lot in other supporting roles, here she seems a bit generic –fortunately, supporting performances from Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as the protagonist friend have more personality. The film’s low-budget is sometimes apparent, and the humor is uneven. But I really don’t want to be overly critical of The To Do List: The female gaze of the film, written and directed by Maggie Carey, is undeniably more interesting that most American Pie-inspired boys antics and the conclusion seems surprisingly mature given the sub-genre of the film. It is, in other words, the kind of small-scale film, imperfect and easily overlooked, that’s nonetheless a small success in its own way. It would be a shame not to see it.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) For decades, the horror genre has thrived on genre ambiguity: Are there truly supernatural horrors out there, or is it all taking place in the person’ mind? Now here we have a science-fictional example of that tension between fantasy and reality, as a trio of journalists descend upon a small town to assess the craziness of a man who has posted a classified ad asking for a time-travel companion. True to its low-budget mumblecore inspirations, Safety Not Guaranteed is a low-energy affair, meandering and contemplative as a young female intern befriends an eccentric man convinced that he’s about to travel back in time. Is he insane? The film’s conclusion settles the question definitively, but it’s the journey that matters more than the answer. Safety Not Guaranteed‘s biggest asset is the unconventional charm of Aubrey Plaza as a disaffected young cynic: Her performance more than overshadows Mark Duplass as the would-be time-traveler. Otherwise, it’s all low-key until the end, with half-hearted attempts at a thriller not really registering against the off-beat romance at the heart of the script. The conclusion, as obvious as it may be, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Still, Safety Not Guaranteed remains a quirky film, and one that goes by easily.