(On Cable TV, February 2017) I expected much, much worse from My Sister’s Keeper. On paper, it reads as the kind of weepy manipulative Hollywood drama that got satirized out of existence decades ago: a mixture of cancer-afflicted kids, precocious protagonists and ineffectual adults manipulated into melodramatic actions. On-screen, though, it’s not quite as bad … even though its nature as a tearjerker remains intact. Part of it has to do with good actors and small moments where the script doesn’t quite go as expected. I quite liked Alec Baldwin’s lawyer character, for instance, and the ways in which an entire movie’s worth of motivations is suggested for Joan Cusak’s judge character. Professionally directed by Nick Cassavetes (no stranger to weepies) from Jodi Picoult’s eponymous novel (apparently changed to much better effect), My Sister’s Keeper also benefits from a great performance by Abigail Breslin in the lead role, and a borderline-unlikable Cameron Diaz as the mother antagonist. But perhaps less identifiably, the film does have a good moment-to-moment watchability that can often doom less well-executed attempts on similar material. It remains a straight character drama, but one put together with some skill. And that makes all the difference between something that sounds terrible, and something that’s engaging.
(On TV, December 2015) In trying to explain the mess that is A Life Less Ordinary, I’m tempted to say that one doesn’t become a daring visionary director without making a few mistakes along the way, and so Danny Boyle didn’t become Danny Boyle without making a few less-successful films on his way to Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. A Life Less Ordinary could have been a frantic star-crossed crime romance between an arrogant heiress and an oppressed blue-collar worker, but the script felt that it was necessary to frame this romance in a fantasy involving angels tasked in making two very different people fall in love. You can see here the various frantic methods that Boyle often uses to shake things up, even though they’re not always successful. Depicting heaven as a police station where everything is in white? Great visuals, all the way down to the white stockings. Spending an interminable time with characters signing Beyond the Sea in a redneck karaoke bar? Oh, shoot me now. Ewan MacGregor isn’t much more than simply OK in the lead role, while Cameron Diaz gets an early borderline-unlikable role to play –far more interesting are Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter as angels on a mission, even though the particulars of their plot-line are increasingly ridiculous. A Life Less Ordinary is a film less ordinary, and it suffers from its own quirkiness, trying to blend romance with fantasy with bloody violence. The tonal shifts are severe and the whole thing becomes some something to be appreciated more than to be experienced: I suspect that I would have liked the film more had I seen it fifteen years ago. I also suspect that the film suffered from comparisons to Boyle’s earlier Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Not, it’s not as good as those two. On the other hand, it does have a considerable amount of (misguided) energy, which isn’t too bad. If nothing else, it can still claim, more than a decade and a half later, that there still isn’t anything quite like it.
(On TV, November 2015) One of the advantages of going back in time and catching moderately-popular movies from a decade ago is that they can help fills a few gaps along the way. If I had seen In Her Shoes back in 2005, then Cameron Diaz’s similar turn in 2011’s Bad Teacher may not have been so surprising. It also helps answer the question “What has Curtis Hanson done since L.A. Confidential?” and “Does Toni Colette look better with or without glasses?” (Answer: “With”, but then again I’m always answering that.) Otherwise, the most noteworthy thing about In Her Shoes is getting further proof that a romantic melodrama adapted from a book often feels far less formulaic than similar original screenplays. There’s an added depth and complexity to the story that comes straight from the novel, along with a number of literary devices that for some reason seem more common in adapted screenplays. (Reading a synopsis of the novel does help in finding out that the screenplay isn’t above some compression and simplification, but that’s how these things go.) Balancing heartfelt sentiment about long-lost family relationship with sibling rivalry and more straightforward romantic subplots, In Her Shoes doesn’t seem like much, but it lands its emotional beat honestly, takes an expansive left turn past its first act and features a few good performances by Diaz, Colette and acting-her-age Shirley MacLaine. Hanson’s direction gets the point across effectively, and if the film does feel a bit too long at times, it definitely ends well enough.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Will Gluck earned a spot on my list of interesting directors after Easy A and a good chunk of Friends with Benefits: He seems at ease with fast-paced films about young characters but doesn’t necessarily talk down to his audience. Annie isn’t in the same league as Easy A, but it’s a competent kid’s film with an appealing heroine a good narrative rhythm. Given that much of it is a straight-up musical, that’s no small achievement. The story, now decades old, should be familiar: An orphan is temporarily adopted by a billionaire, who then discovers the true meaning of affection and—aw, who cares: We’re here for “It’s the hard-knock life” and “Tomorrow”. Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a very good performance as the titular Annie –quietening those who may have thought that her breakthrough role in Beasts of the Southern Wild was a feral one-shot fluke, she sings, dances and makes for a perfectly likable protagonist. Jamie Foxx also does well as a new-economy Daddy Warbucks (he makes cell phones), while Cameron Diaz adds another unsubtle bad-girl role to her repertoire. The music numbers often fizz and pop (although some of them aren’t as energetic, and the last one can be distracting as background detail-spotters can watch the shadows on the fence-posts to figure out how long it took to shoot.), while the comedy bubbles up naturally. Some of the dramatic beats are over-played, but there’s some nice cinematography at play here, especially in presenting a glorious one-percenter fantasy view of New York. I’m not as wedded to previous versions of Annie as some may be, and I have a surprisingly high tolerance for movie characters bursting in song and dance, so your mileage will probably vary.
(On TV, July 2015) Routine romantic comedies are usually best appreciated for their details rather than their familiar plot structure, and so it is that while you can read a synopsis of The Holiday (“two lovelorn women exchange houses for the holidays, finding love in the most unexpected places”) and have a pretty good idea of where the film is headed, but you may not suspect to which extent the film is filled with references to the world of movies. Cameron Diaz play a movie-trailer editor (the fake for fake movie Deception, with Lindsay Lohan and James Franco, gets the film’s biggest laughs.) and thinks about her life via voice-over narration; Kate Winslet plays a British book editor on holidays in Hollywood, befriending an Oscar-winning screenwriter and getting movies at the video store (a sequence that actually reminded me that I do, on some level, miss video stores) Some romantic comedy terms are explained, played with and sometimes even adopted wholesale. Still, there’s a little bit more to The Holiday than movie stuff: The performances are pretty good (with Eli Wallach getting one last great role), the sentiments are heartfelt, the expected scenes happen roughly in the expected order. In short (or rather; in long, since the film does run a bit too long), it’s a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy, fit to make the holidays feel even more like the holidays.
(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.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Revenge fantasies may not be good for the soul, but they can certainly drive a comic film. Here, two (and then three) women are united when they discover that they’re being cheated upon by the same man, who also turns out to be a con artist in other ways. Cameron Diaz is dependably amusing as the lead, whereas Leslie Mann becomes a delightful foil as the most mercurial of them—she has the shrieking madwoman thing down to a science. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in another striking big-screen role, does have the requisite mixture of charm and sliminess as a philandering fraudster. Other additions to the cast aren’t as memorable: Despite prominent billing, Kate Upton is a bit bland as the Third Woman, whereas I remain unimpressed by Nicki Minaj’s performance in her short scenes (and this despite unexplainably liking Minaj as a musical performer). It’s a cheap and fast comedy without much sophistication, but it does get the chuckles it’s aiming for. There are a few false notes along the way (the ending is a bit more bloodily cruel than I had expected) and the script doesn’t embarrass itself with unpredictable plotting, but The Other Woman pretty much hits its target and delivers unchallenging entertainment for a solid 90 minutes.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) The single biggest boon of trawling the schedule of specialized cable movie channels is discovering small unassuming gems that, for some reason, never made it big with popular audiences. So this brings us to Gambit, a Coen-brothers-scripted heist comedy featuring hugely enjoyable actors such as Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci. The plot, adapted from a sixties film, concerns a disaffected art expert (Firth, both solid and hapless) trying to con his haughty employer out of millions in exchange for a fake painting. When a Texas cowgirl (Diaz, hilariously unpretentious) is brought in to certify the authenticity of the fake, things get quite a bit off the initial plan. While Gambit won’t win any awards, it’s a joy to watch largely due to a lighthearted script, some great comic set-pieces and a few actors doing what they know best. The first ten minutes are hugely enjoyable; the rest is a bit more sedate but by no means unpleasant. At a time where multiscreen cinema is all about spectacle, the natural resting place for those mid-budget comic caper movies is going to be found in alternate distribution channels. So start looking at those cable TV listings closely –you may find unjustly-overlooked films like this one.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) Someday, a more advanced civilization will comb over sex-themed mainstream American comedies to analyze the trouble psyche of North America and the results won’t be pretty. They’ll wonder at the strange blend of titillation and reprobation that seem to form the backbone of such movies and conclude ghastly things about our hang-ups, our push-pull relationship to sex and the ways we compartmentalize aspects of our lives. In the meantime, we get to enjoy the cheeky-but-never-arousing Sex Tape, which seems determined to stay on the good old grounds of humiliation comedy as soon as naughtiness is involved. To be fair, Cameron Diaz and an unusually-gaunt Jason Segel seem game to do just about anything in order to get laughs –still, it’s the supporting players who often get the best scenes, whether it’s Ellie Kemper and Rob Corddry sharing one of the film’s rare truly-naughty moments, or Rob Lowe playing up to type as a coked-out boss. The film gets a decent amount of chuckles and grins, but often feels like a wasted opportunity by playing it as safe as possible given the subject matter. As such, Sex Tape ends up in an unremarkable wasteland of conventional comedies, curiously forgettable despite the subject matter.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2012) Now that The Mask is nearly old enough to vote, what can be said about the best of Jim Carrey’s three big breakout hits of 1994? Mostly that it has aged better than anyone would expect. Oh, sure, the 1994-era CGI is noticeable: There are numerous times where the live-action Mask is replaced by CGI enhancements, and from today’s perspective, the lack of fluidity of the seams are far more easily perceived today. What hasn’t aged, on the other hand, is Carrey’s exhilarating rubber-faced performance as the unleashed id of The Mask –a green-faced transposition of Tex Avery cartoons. The Mask is still a compelling character, and even the overused one-liners that everyone remembers are still amusing in context. On a tonal level, though, The Mask has a number of problems: At its best (such as during its riotous “Hey Pachuco!” musical number), it’s a jazzy and harmless cartoon –at its worst, it’s a mash-up between violence and stupidity. One could argue, for instance, that the silliness of The Mask should revolve around its masked character rather than in the idiot-plotting universe surrounding him. There are also problems in the way some of the violence is handled too blatantly (although, reading about some deleted scenes, it could have been worse.) Also worth noting is Cameron Diaz’s first big-screen performance: she looks amazingly good here, and she holds her own against an unleashed Carrey. The thematic underpinning of the film are more than highlighted (the mask as self, the Tex Avery comics), but the film’s silliness doesn’t require a lot of subtext. See it for Carrey and Diaz… and the Mask.
(In theaters, July 2011) R-rated comedies often seem to live in a different universe than the rest of comedies, and one of their chief characteristic is how much irreverence they can throw at institutions and beliefs that are otherwise untouchable. Here, nothing less than the sacrosanct image of the teacher as a virtuous force is under full attack with Cameron Diaz’s unhinged portrait of a strikingly inappropriate junior-high teacher. Drugs, embezzlement, thievery, coarse language and wanton seduction are all part of her repertoire, and if nothing else, Bad Teacher provides Diaz with a plum comic opportunity. Diaz isn’t the only good actor in the mix: Lucy Punch is a revelation as the neurotic Amy Squirrel, while Jason Segel is unexpectedly sympathetic in an everyman role and Justin Timberlake takes a few risks with a dweebish performance. Too bad, then, that it’s handled so unevenly: The script doesn’t really start to click until its second half (where characters are forced to act against their nature in the hope of gaining something), and the touchy balance between portraying an offensive character entertainingly is sometimes in doubt. It’s almost, yes, as if Hollywood tried to soften the edges of an edgier kind of comedy; in the subgenre, Bad Santa will still remain a reference. Meanwhile, the end result of this film is average, although individual moments stand out as being better than their sum. Some people will be offended; the biggest problem with Bad Teacher, however, is that it doesn’t give nearly enough laughs to those who are willing to play along.
(In Theaters, January 2010) I had no preconceived notions of how the Green Hornet character should be portrayed on-screen. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have a similar blank state of expectations regarding Seth Rogen: I find his man-child shtick annoying (Gaaah, Pineapple Express, gaaah), and this film pretty much revolves around it. If the final result can be watched without too much pain, Rogen is irritating throughout, and not just because he plays a spoiled boorish incompetent: The Green Hornet flirts so effectively with the idea that his sidekick is a far more deserving superhero that Rogen becomes an intrusion more than anything else. (Big Trouble in Little China did this trick far more effectively, albeit with a hero that was far more likable than Rogen’s usual loudmouth stoner-dude.) As far as action-comedies go, The Green Hornet isn’t anything particularly special: A few laughs, a few action sequences, some interesting visuals. That’s already better than we usually get for January dumping-ground films, even those adapted from sources that few people care about. Parts of the film actually do play better than average: Thanks to director Michel Gondry’s visual sense, the action sequences benefit from judicious editing, well-placed slow-motion and a classic sense of pacing that avoids the new shaky-cam spastic-editing norms. Gondry sneaks in a psychedelic sequence late in the film, and the green color scheme is used judiciously. When Rogen shuts up and behaves like an action hero, the film works quite a bit better than when it tries to showcase his comedy. The script is particularly poor in amusing sequences, delivering scene after scene that only work if you assume that every character is mentally retarded. (Poor Jay Chou, undeservingly playing second fiddle; poor Cameron Diaz, relegated to MILF-prize for two boys.) In other hands, The Green Hornet might have been good, or at least entertaining without moments of irritation. Here, though, it just plays to Rogen’s crowd and leaves everyone else waiting until the next good moment.
(In theatres, June 2010) A breezy summer action comedy doesn’t have to do much to charm me, but the mess that is Knight and Day tests the limits of my indulgence when it comes to those kinds of would-be summer blockbusters. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable: It’s good-natured, leaves its stars free to grin madly and does present an enjoyable escapist fantasy. There are interesting things to see in the action sequences, and a few laughs here and there. But something feels off about the way the film is directed and edited: Director James Mangold has an intriguing way of showing (or rather, not showing) what happens in the film, but this kind of experimentation doesn’t fit with the far more conventional thrust of the movie and is hampered by some fairly obvious CGI work. Furthermore, the editing is so choppy that it feels as if crucial connective tissue has been left out of the script or the final cut: Knight and Day feels rushed and borderline incoherent, in-between zippy changes of scenery, abrupt shifts in tone and characters whose unhinged nature seems more forced by dialogue rewrites than anything like psychological complexity. (Even the title almost defies explanation, and you have to squint really hard at the last lines of dialogue to figure it out.) So far removed from the moviemaking process, it’s tough for viewers to know where to assign blame: the script was reportedly re-written almost a dozen times, passing through a number of proposed stars before settling on Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Neither do too badly, although Cruise overdoes his preening while Diaz seems happy to squeal dizzily through much of the film. The result is about a third good, a third charming and a third mystifying: not exactly the ideal mixture for a formula movie that should have been an easy slam-dunk.