(On Cable TV, January 2019) As far as contemporary comedies go, Tag holds its own as an enjoyable entry in the genre. Starting with an off-beat premise inspired by real events (a group of guys playing a lifelong game of tag), it stocks its ensemble cast with known comic personas, features a script that exploits the nooks and crannies of the premise and wraps it all up in sequences that have more cinematic depth than most other comedies. As a comedy/action hybrid (naturally, with the “tag” hook), it features enough CGI and gags stolen from other action movies (including the Sherlockian slow-motion voice-over options analysis) to act as a semi-satire. The film does a credible job at rationalizing its unlikely premise, from how the game was created to the various rules that make it a bit more complex. To support that intent, it also features a coterie of observers (including a journalist played by Annabelle Wallis in a thankless role that is reduced to being the audience’s surrogate) to highlight how crazy the main characters can become in playing the game. The cast was clearly chosen for their established personas, whether we’re talking about Jon Hamm’s propensity for comedy, Isla Fisher’s energetic enthusiasm, Ed Helms as the goofy straight man, and Jeremy Renner to make use of his action-movie credentials in a more serious character than the other. The result is funny enough, although the third-act turn into drama is suspect in the way movies written according to screenwriting rules feel obliged to hit specific emotional turns. Tag is an enjoyable comedy, with set-pieces more ambitious than is the norm for many flatter comedies. The dialogue shows signs of having been written rather than improvised, which usually improves the results.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) I had been waiting for Stretch for years. A new film by writer/director Joe Carnahan? Yes, but after two years in post-production hell, Stretch was never shown in theatres and its release on the VOD market was quiet enough to go unnoticed—I learned about the film from an article about how Netflix was changing the distribution market. But it took another three years for Stretch to make it to Canadian Netflix, and I ended up watching it within days of its availability. Verdict? It’s the Carnahan movie I was waiting for: fast-paced, darkly comic, strangely conceived, tightly edited. It takes potshots at the insanity of Los Angeles, exploits Patrick Wilson’s charisma to its fullest extent and gets Chris Pine to deliver a wonderfully bizarre performance quite unlike anything an actor like him is expected to provide. Jessica Alba shows up as a gal-pal love interest, Ed Helms’ cackling voice-of-reason character has a mostly-posthumous presence … and that’s not even talking about David Hasselhoff or Ray Liotta. Produced on a shoestring $5M budget, Stretch looks ten times more expensive, and has more manic inventiveness in its 90-minutes duration than any three random Hollywood theatrical releases. The pedal-to-the-metal pacing of the film helps sell its weirdest quirks, as one day (and night) in the life of a limousine driver gets worse and worse. Stretch isn’t a great movie, but it’s pitch-perfect at reaching its target and it’s maddeningly entertaining for anyone who discovers it. I’m really annoyed that it’s still largely unknown, and somewhat grateful that, thanks to Netflix, it now has a fighting chance of being seen.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) Are Hollywood studios so desperate that we’re now down to comedy franchise reboots? Oh, you can make a good case for the Chevy-Chase “Vacation” quartet as some sort of classic (especially the Christmas one), but rehashing vacation-themed films through the son’s character in the original series seems more crassly desperate than most other attempts to exploit moviegoers. The result isn’t fit to make anyone think more highly of the process: It’s not that Vacation is terrible, but that it’s scattered everywhere, without much control over its own tone or jokes as it seemingly leaps off in all directions (sometimes literally straddling four states at once). There’s heartwarming family reconciliation, some gross-out material, several quick appearances by known comedians, undercooked subplots and an overall lack of cohesion. Ed Helms is pretty good as the stereotypically harried husband/father and some of the cameos are fine (this does not include Chevy Chase, who looks as if he should have retired a long time ago) and yet Vacation is as ordinary as it comes. It’s funny enough, but it could have been better given slightly more effort.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.