(On Cable TV, January 2019) Twenty-few years later, you could think that Flirting with Disaster would be worth a look solely for being an early vehicle for writer/director David O. Russell and a cast with more known names than is worth enumerating. But Russell’s script deliberately leans in the oddball direction (like most of his other movies, in fact) and so this quirky independent comedy soon takes us through the United States with a bunch of eccentric characters as the protagonist tries to find the identity of his biological parents. The plot is contrived, but that’s the nature of the thing. There are twists and turns, humiliating moments, some flirting for both married characters and a few false leads in the biological parent search. Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Téa Leoni make up for a decent trio of leads, with decent supporting players in smaller roles. Mostly but not solely worth watching by Russell fans, Flirting with Disaster amounts to a quirky, amiable, decently entertaining film but not a particularly memorable one even despite its conscious decision to be off the wall.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) Given that Little Fockers (such wit in the titling!) is the fourth film in the Meet the Parents series, anyone who doesn’t like it despite having seen the previous movies only has themselves to blame. An easy grab-bag of humiliation comedy, repeated routines, gross gags and repetitive character interaction, Little Fockers is pretty much what you can expect from it. Oh, let’s see the protagonist spar with his father-in-law, get into humiliating situations and save the day at the end—how novel. How lazy. This is not a film for subtlety or surprises: jokes can be seen well in advance, their point seems to be as much embarrassment as possible and who cares if they’re rehashing conflicts from the previous three movies? Still, it’s surprising that the project was able to attract and retain so many name actors, including a reportedly reluctant Dustin Hoffman who barely shows up in a few disconnected scenes. Charitably, it’s hard not to mention that after four movies spanning ten years, Little Fockers feels like an episode in a long-running sitcom: What are those unchanging characters up to? Fortunately, it now looks as if the series will stop there. A good thing too, given that every time a new one is released, you can hear Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro’s reputation sink to new lows.
(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.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) Given how I really, really liked the first Zoolander as a clever silly comedy, I expected more of the same, even from a belated sequel. Alas, this Zoolander 2 seems to be taking its cues from its moronic protagonist in becoming dumber and far less clever. The obvious lesson here is that this sequel, fifteen years later, should not have been put in production: Given the original’s cult success, the follow-up was doomed to paralyzing levels of self-awareness. It doesn’t matter if the list of cameos reaches in the mid-double-digits: much of the plot feels perfunctory, with celebrity walk-on taking the place of actual humour. The first few minutes don’t start things promisingly, as a quick recap of Zoolander’s life piles on one tragedy after another. The rest of the film doesn’t have much more wit or cleverness: the fashion industry satire feels perfunctory, and writer/director/star Ben Stiller’s performance, in either one of his three realms, isn’t much more than serviceable. The rest of the film is hit-and-miss, some mildly amusing jokes being dragged down by the rest of the film’s scatter-shot approach. It may be that it’s impossible to re-bottle what had made the first film click—it may also be an acknowledgement that the first film’s success was specific to a certain audience, and that I’m not part of it any longer. No matter the reason, Zoolander 2 still feels like a disappointment, and another entry in the growing list of examples showing why it’s often better to leave comedy classics alone.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) The Night at the Museum series has its own unlikely formula perfected by this third installment: Magically-reanimated members of the New York museum exhibits get to travel to another museum on some irrelevant pretext, meet the local magically-reanimated characters, have special-effects-heavy adventures and go home. Director Shawn Levy is well-used to the formula by now and it shows in the strengths and weaknesses of the film. Ben Stiller mugs for the camera, everyone else hams it up, cheap jokes abound, there’s some Egyptian woo-woo to hold the jokes together and the movie ends before anyone gets exasperated. It’s familiar to the point that this third installment doesn’t get to try very hard to be witty or clever: Despite taking place at the hallowed British Museum, Secret of the Tomb seems rote and lifeless, coasting on familiar shtick (including a last vigorous Teddy Roosevelt performance by the late Robin Williams) but not pushing the envelope with any of its new characters — except, fitfully, Rebel Wilson’s security guard. The Hugh Jackman cameo is amusing and so is the M.C. Escher-inspired sequence, meaning that the film isn’t entirely on auto-pilot. But it does feel like a re-heated attempt to extend a concept past its prime, and this feeling that it’s about time that the show ends means that the final moments of the film aren’t as poignant as anyone would have liked. There are, thanks to the generous budget and the high-concept, a few things to see. But those aren’t quite enough to make Secret of the Tomb feel worthwhile as more than another attempt to rely on what worked in the previous films of the series. There may or may not be another installment –who cares at this point?
(On TV, July 2015) There’s a particular type of domestic bourgeois horror at the heart of Duplex, which is to say: what happens when a tenant not only refuses to leave, but makes your life miserable? Ben Stiller, in his classic manic mode, and an unremarkable Drew Barrymore star in this black comedy whose main claim to fame remains that it’s directed by Danny DeVito. Duplex is, for the most part, a reasonably entertaining accumulation of mayhem, as a sweet old lady proves to be the bane of our protagonist landlords. It escalates quite a bit, in ways that don’t feel entirely natural. The point of the film being embarrassment and violent intentions, it’s not the kind of comedy fit to be appreciated whole-heartedly. The deliberately frustrating ending plays along that vein, making this a film for specific audiences. At least it works on a basic level: most of the film is reasonably entertaining, moves from one plot point to another and packages everything in a neat bow (although, once again, you have to wonder about the sanity of antagonists trying those dangerous long-cons.) Neither particularly good nor bad (albeit maybe irritating), Duplex seems to be the kind of film you see once, shrug off and then make no particular effort to see again.
(Video on Demand, July 2015) It’s good to see Ben Stiller play something closer to his age, in a movie where he doesn’t have to mug for frantic attention via cringe-worthy humiliation, or competing with special effects. Having him play an early-forties man in While We’re Young is still shaving a decade from his age, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It helps that this is a film about aging, and the aches and pain and nagging doubts of encroaching middle-age. Stiller has been featured in so many broad comedies than seeing him in something more adult, more dramatic and more subtle is almost a revelation. Here he’s paired with Naomi Watts as a childless couple suddenly confronted by the rest of their lives as their friends settle down with kids and they befriend a young hipster couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver is good performances.) While We’re Young starts as a low-key observational comedy and does a lot of mileage out of ordinary middle-age anxieties, it does veer off into something a bit stranger by the last third: By the time our protagonist races down the freeway in an attempt to uncover the world’s most trivial conspiracy, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this is not the film it started to be. Still, the interplay between Stiller and Driver, as well as the gradual revelation of a character’s true nature, provides a lot of dramatic mileage to the film. There’s are little bits about hipsterism, the ethics of documentary filmmaking, couple relations, making friends in your forties, drug-fueled revelations, ambition masquerading as something else. The film is surprisingly absorbing, truthful, sadly a bit underwhelming in its conclusion, but a good time nonetheless. I suspect that I liked it because it’s reaching me at a very particular time in my life… but that’s how it goes.
(On TV, May 2015) The weirdest franchises can emerge from Hollywood’s idea factory, and so what we have here is some kind of “museum comes to life, allowing historical characters to interact” CGI-fest, along with actors having up playing grander-than-life personas. This second Night at the Museum is a bit weirdly structured, with Ben Stiller’s protagonist somehow selling a company in order to keep prolonging the franchise. Oh well; it’s not as if we’re really watching the film for its finer plot points as much as Robin Williams once again having fun as Teddy Roosevelt, or Amy Adams really playing it up as Amelia Earheart, complete with snappy period dialogue. The rest of the film is almost entirely based on sight-gags, a copious use of CGI and plot mechanics aimed at kids. It sort-of-works, even though nothing really stick in mind except for Adams’ performance. There should be more to say about the film, but somehow there isn’t.
(On TV, February 2015) I really don’t have a soft spot for Meet the Parents, which relies far too much on humiliation comedy for my tastes. I only saw the sequel because it was on my to-do list, not out of any particular desire. The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t dislike Meet the Fockers as much as its prequel. The not-so-good news are that I can’t really create any enthusiasm for the film: it is exactly what it wants to be: a mainstream comedy with occasional outbursts of fake outrageousness, featuring big-name stars in relatively undemanding roles. Ben Stiller is duller than usual as the hapless straight-man-bumbler of the series, while Robert de Niro does himself not favours by riffing off once again on much better past performances. This being said, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand are relatively sympathetic as the “other” set of parents and a few of the jokes land correctly, especially those revolving around the enormous RV that serves as one of the film’s set-pieces. It all leads to a conclusion where misunderstandings and complications are all untangled, albeit not without truth-serum interrogation and a car chase. For the end results, though, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to have brought together Hoffman and de Niro together for such inconsequential pap. Ah well; at least it’s somehow not quite as distasteful as the first film in the series.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) On paper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a terrific film: Ben Stiller as a dreamer forced out of his comfort zone, elaborate fantasies gradually ceding to ever-more-incredible real adventures as based on a classic James Thurber story. There’s a lot of potential here for a meaningful film, heartfelt lessons and grandiose epiphanies. The film’s budget is decent, allowing whatever fantasies and real-life vistas to be captured in detail. Why, then, does the result feel so perfunctory? While the film isn’t unpleasant to watch, it somehow fails to spark beyond mere competence. The fantasy sequences are seamlessly integrated (and at least once escalate all the way to superhero theatrics) but even they can’t completely bring sharp humor and cutting wit into the entire production. It probably doesn’t help that the third act drags on for so long, especially once the emotional high points of the story should have been settled. There isn’t anything bad to say about Stiller’s direction –especially given the visual inventiveness of some sequences– although he himself may be too old to play Mitty. (Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is pretty enough as the somewhat underwritten love interest, while Adam Scott is deliciously evil as an insensitive boss.) The integration of (now-defunct) Life Magazine is felt more deeply as thematic assistance than product placement (although if you want product placement, eHarmony, Papa John’s and Cinnabon are there to make you happy.) Much of the plotting seems arbitrary, with at least two palpable moments where narrative tension evaporates at the moment it should become more urgent. There may be an unresolvable tension at work here, between the wild fantasies and the desire to deliver a grounded and meaningful life lesson. Even when it strives to embrace a more colorful, grander life, the film seems happy in its mild-mannered ways. In the end, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty settles for being a good film rather than the great one that it wanted to be.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) This may be the fifteenth alien-invasion film in the past four years, but it’s certainly one of the most inconsequential. As a peaceful suburban community hosts an imminent alien invasion beachhead, the mysterious death of a Costco™ security guard prompts a few post-adolescent males to gang up into a neighborhood watch in order to catch the killer. Part Costco™ product placement, part adult male fantasy fulfillment, part more-of-the-usual from Vince Vaugh, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, The Watch never hesitates to reach for the lowest-common-denominator joke when it’s within reach, and the result feels as immature as you’d think. For all of the premise’s potential, and occasional good work from either Stiller or scene-stealing from relative British newcomer Richard Ayoade, The Watch quickly finds its level by allowing Vaughn and Hill to wallow in their usual screen persona (or, more fairly, in Vaughn’s usual man-child character and Hill’s early aggressive-teen shtick.) It should work for anyone who already likes that stuff; otherwise, it’s just a dreary way to go from one plot point to the next, leading all the way to the Costco™ store showdown. (The product placement is even more blatant considering that in order to shoot the film they had to convert a closed-down store into a Costco™.) From a Science-Fictional perspective, The Watch is hollow: it doesn’t have a single new idea to offer, and merely treats the alien invasion as a plot-driver for juvenile comedy. From a comic perspective, the film has little more to offer, but it does land a chuckle or two. Alas, it feels compelled to insert a few scenes of a more serious emotional nature in the middle of the dumb jokes, creating more forced atonality. Perhaps the most intellectual thing The Watch has to offer is a not-so-unwitting study of the modern American suburban male’s uneasiness: Which SUV-driving North-American doesn’t dream of killing dangerous foreigners, punching their daughter’s creepy boyfriend, being invited to secret orgies, increasing their sperm count and earning the macho respect of authority figures? If you don’t share those obsessions, well, The Watch may feel a bit long.
(In theaters, November 2011) Brett Ratner has never been accused of being an elitist director, and his latest Tower Heist is populist in more ways than one. A rob-the-rich comic thriller with the luck of being released just as the United States are developing their first wealth-equality protest movement in a long time, Tower Heist is just as mainstream-minded in the way it unfolds. The happy coincidence of showing up alongside various “Occupy” movements may not be an unqualified plus: The antagonist of the piece is sufficiently arrogant, cruel and unrepentant to qualify as a terrible human being without even invoking the populist rhetoric. Nonetheless, this is still a story about working-class ordinary people taking justice against rich people who stole from them –no matter how we may try to treat this as a standalone story, it does find a special resonance in a post-Madoff, post-financial crisis, post-recession American society. Fortunately, the film is entertaining enough on its own merits to avoid depending solely on current events: Ben Stiller is just fine as the savvy leader of the bunch trying to take away millions of dollars that Alan Alda’s super-rich character has stolen from their pension funds. Eddie Murphy is in rare form as an unrepentant criminal asked to use his skills for a slightly-greater goal. Supporting players such as Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe and Téa Leoni all get a few moments to shine. As for the rest of Tower Heist, it’s a slick big-budget heist film: clean cinematography, steady forward rhythm and a suitably hair-raising action climax set against a festive backdrop. Only the coda has the power to annoy in its insistence that the poor stealing from the rich must face the consequences of bucking the system. Still, the movie itself is entertaining enough, and the populist message is matched by its tone. Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary and you should like it.
(In theaters, October 2001) Some comedies act a lot like mirrors, reflecting to us our own attitudes toward the film. If, say, you expect Zoolander to be dumb, well, it will be. If you expect it to be clever, it’ll be clever. It’s one of those stupid comedies by clever people, so deeper levels of comedy are available if ever the surface slapstick isn’t for you. As a spoof of the modeling world, it certainly reaches its target with the character of vacuous Derek Zoolander. Ben Stiller is as good as always as an actor and his directing skills are adequate for the job. A ton of cameos complete the fun, the best one of the bunch probably being David Bowie (Tam-tam-tadam-tam!) There are a few lengthier moments in the second half as the plot dynamics are advanced. (Of course, the best laughs come in the throwaway pieces in the first half.) Not a memorable film, but one that’ll lift your spirits on a depressing day. As long as you allow it to do so.
(In theaters, December 2000) Not another one of those predictable “comedies” that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Predictably enough (and the script is completely predictable), it’s built upon a dumb premise and a strategy of protagonist humiliation (Couple meet girl’s parents, dad’s a bastard and several things left unsaid suddenly pop up… Yes, everything-that-can-go-wrong-will) plus an uplifting finale that solves all problems. No wonder if Meet The Parents raked it in at the box-office, most probably attracting people who see only one or two films a year and whose critical abilities are more adapted to football games than cinematic endeavors. Satisfactorily directed by Jay Roach, sustained by Ben Stiller (not his best performance; no chance to go wild) and Robert De Niro. The film is long, obvious and unpleasant for most of its duration, picking up toward the end when Stiller’s character finally reaches his long-awaited boiling point and lashes out a long satisfying rant. That part being quickly over, we move on gratefully to the expected sugar-sweety finale. Word has it that there will be a sequel. Oh my.