(On Cable TV, January 2019) As a parent who just got out of the first few tough years, there’s an innate relatability to Tully’s phantasmagorical premise that rings true—given the sleep deprivation during a baby’s first years, I’m not sure that any parent is actually totally sane during that period and this film runs with the premise. Charlize Theron adds another impressive notch to her multidimensional screen persona by playing an overworked, super-stressed mother of three, with Mackenzie Davis in a strong supporting role and Ron Livingston to tie the narrative threads together. As a portrait of parenthood, Tully is more ruthlessly honest than most other movies—there’s little idealization going on here, and we’re miles away from shiny mommy blogging. There’s a nice balance between domestic details and frustration and the more outlandish flights of fancy that the story requires. Reuniting with scribe Diablo Cody (herself a mother of three), director Jason Reitman doesn’t try to recapture Juno’s motormouth wit but wisely stays grounded given the third-act twists. Going closer to spoilers, I remain as dumbfounded as anyone as to the popularity of the “Fight Club in another setting” premise (taking over from “Die Hard in another setting”) as shared by Tully and near-contemporary Adrift—it’s a narrative strategy build on deceit and now-cheap revelations, and I’m not sure it’s a subgenre that will age well. Still, I found a lot to relate to in Tully’s sleep-deprived fantasies and can’t stay mad for long at the plot cheats that it needs in order to justify itself.
(In theaters, December 2010) Burlesque does quite a few things blandly or badly, but the real test of musical comedies is whether they deliver the expected music, laughs, dance choreographies and smiles whenever the final credits start to roll. So it is that we can’t really fault the film for an intensely familiar structure, predictable plot developments, weaker tunes or a very PG interpretation of “burlesque”; not as long as it has enough song-and-dance. There are plenty of good news: Christina Aguilera proves to be a credible actress, Cher looks amazingly good for her age (and you can see this as an invitation to cue all of the usual cosmetic surgery jokes), Stanley Tucci is as good as he usually is, the somewhat better-than-usual banter probably comes from Diablo Cody’s screenwriting and in terms of choreography, Burlesque has more or less what we can expect from a contemporary musical. Unfortunately, there is little here to set the film apart from more notable musicals: The songs are instantly forgettable (the one exception, a maudlin solo number by Cher, stays in mind because it uses the flimsiest of pretexts to stop the entire film dead in its tracks), the plot offers few surprises, the choreography of each number blurs into an indistinct mush, and the choice to play much of the story earnestly rather than as ironic camp seems like a modestly wasted opportunity. There’s no risk-taking here, and the film’s family-friendly take on neo-burlesque is a telling clue as to what kind of middle-American target the filmmakers were aiming for. Fortunately, there are still enough fancy fishnet stockings on display to resort to sheer sex-appeal when the film’s other qualities prove defective. No matter what, there is at least some redemption in the mud: Burlesque may be ordinary, but it’s not often boring.
(In theatres, September 2009) Juno, Mamma Mia! and the Transformers have little in common except for how they set up expectations (and reactions) to this hum-drum horror/comedy movie in which a high-school sexpot is transformed in a man-eating succubus. Would screenwriter Diablo Cody resurrect a tired genre with her lively dialogue? Would Amanda Seyfried look less like a froggy muppet? Would Megan Fox know what to do without giant robots around? But while Jennifer’s Body is more interesting than most of the other teen horror movies out there, it’s practically the definition of a sophomore slump: Unsatisfying, disjointed and “off” in ways that are hard to pin down precisely. (Although if you want an idea of why the dialogue doesn’t always work, wait for the “Wikipedia” line.) While the script shows moments of cleverness, genre-twisting and killer quips in answering the age-old question “what if the virgin sacrifice wasn’t a virgin?”, the plot as a whole seems to advance in unnatural fashion as determined by the screenwriter: Motivations are suspect, clichés abound, scenes don’t make much sense and even the self-conscious dialogue heightens the artificiality of the story. Worst of all, Jennifer’s Body seems curiously unambitious in what it’s trying to do: the comedy falls flat, the horror is banal, the metaphors are weak and more than a few scenes seem to go through the expected beats. At least some of the actors do well: well-cast Fox gets a bit more to do here than in Transformers, while Seyfried shows signs of being able to outgrow her current round-faced cuteness. Overall, though, Jennifer’s Body is a letdown considering the anticipation surrounding its release, and a generally lacklustre film even taken solely on its own. While its surface qualities are interesting (it’s a rare high-profile horror film written and directed by women, acknowledging teenage sexuality, and featuring two actresses with only secondary roles for the actors), it’s far less subversive than you may expect or hope for.