(On Cable TV, October 2017) There’s a regular number of R-rated comedies these days, but it seems to me as if they’re coming off an assembly line. Take a comedian, take a serious actor, throw them in uncomfortable situations, be sure to feature a copious amount of profanity and make sure to wrap everything in feel-good themes about family, friendship and/or romance. No worries if they all end up feeling familiar since there will be another one six weeks later. Why Him? is PG-13 rated despite feeling like an R, but it certainly struggles with déjà vu: in-between seeing Bryan Cranston as a conventional family man visiting his daughter’s nouveau-riche boyfriend played by an unhinged James Franco, the film seems to have been assembled from familiar blocks in order to give audiences exactly what they would be expecting from the poster, the premise and/or the trailer. Jonah Hill can be spotted as producer and writer, which certainly explains a lot about the film’s well-worn comic elements. It’s not that Why Him? is bad (although some individual moments of the film are obnoxious) as much as it’s the same as half a dozen other recent movies. At nearly two hours, there’s a lot of fluff to the result (most notably a final act that just drags on and on), making the movie feel even more generic. While set at Christmas, I would be exceptionally surprised if Why Him? became anything like a holiday classic—heck, even the very similar The Night Before has a stronger shot at that title.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Even though The Infiltrator is based on the true story of a DEA agent who bent the rules in order to infiltrate Cartel operations, there is something extremely familiar with the way the film goes about its business. In a way, it may be inevitable: the mob informer genre is well-worn by now, and an agent-in-disguise plot is not that fundamentally different from the good-guy-over-his-head narrative. Still, the Infiltrator gives it a go, and the results aren’t bad at all. Bryan Cranston stars as the titular infiltrator, playing mob accountant by day and returning how to his wife by night. The tensions there are well-exploited, as is the contrast between the high-rolling lifestyle of the crooked and corrupt compared to the humdrum reality of a federal employee. The story does take overblown turns at times, such as the climax set at a fake wedding. Still, The Infiltrator keeps its focus on the impact of undercover work on its protagonist, the difficulty in separating real friendship from fake façade, and sprinkles it with a sheer on early-nineties Miami chic. While the result doesn’t fare particularly well in the crime-movie pantheon, The Infiltrator is more than good enough to be entertaining.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) Screenwriters are my Hollywood heroes, so it makes sense that I’d like Trumbo a lot more for its depiction of a screenwriter as a two-fisted creative brawler than for its on-the-nose take on the evils of the McCarthytism and its Hollywood black list. Bryan Cranston is very likable in the lead role of Dalton Trumbo, left-wing screenwriter blacklisted by Hollywood during the fifties, sent to prison, and making a living by anonymously writing movies both bad and good, even winning two Oscars under pseudonyms. Perhaps the best sequences in the film detail Trumbo’s living and business arrangement as he created a system of delegate writers to satisfy the prodigious appetites of a B-movie studio looking for affordable quality. Of course, even if Trumbo is handled by veteran comedy director Jay Roach, it gets its respectability by hammering at Trumbo’s blacklisting. That part of the film feels far less satisfying, going over familiar material about McCarthy’s red scare in a way that doesn’t feel remotely subtle. Fortunately, the film picks up toward the end as Trumbo reintegrates the Hollywood elite, thanks to people like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. Trumbo may fail in trying to present a hefty respectable drama about the dangers of political profiling, but it partially recovers by taking us within the world of a top-level screenwriter.