(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(On TV, May 2017) Innocuous but likable, Music and Lyrics manages to exceed the familiar average for romantic comedies, largely based on the strengths of its lead actors and the interesting backdrop in which the familiar rom-com situations occur. Hugh Grant stars as a washed-up popstar eking a living through royalties and small concerts in dismal places. When he’s asked to pen a song for a young and impulsive signer (Haley Bennett, playing a character that now seems like a slightly demented blend of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry), he comes to rely on an eccentric woman (Drew Barrymore, less bland than usual) to break through his creative block. The music-industry backdrop adds a lot to the film, especially in its high-comedy moments. Meanwhile, Grant and Barrymore work effectively together despite the fifteen-year age difference. Given those assets, it’s somewhat disappointing that the film can’t do anything else beyond relying on stock rom-com situations and false conflicts to juice up the drama. Even a mildly intriguing subplot about the female lead being the inspiration for a popular fictional antagonist eventually peters out to nothing much. Still, the film can coast a long time on its lead and backdrop, which helps make Music and Lyrics slightly more interesting than most of the other rom-com of the time. Give it a shot if you’re in that kind of mood.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.
(On TV, July 2016) Curiously enough, I’d never seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, even despite being familiar with the stream of romantic comedies inspired by its success. Going back to the roots of the subgenre shows a film with the quirks and strengths of a relatively original script trying something its own way … rather than copying what’s been done before. Richard Curtis’s script is loosely structured around, yes, four weddings and a funeral (not in this order), this romantic comedy follows a foppish man (Hugh Grant, in a persona-defining performance) falling for a mysterious woman over a few key events. There’s a refreshing chaos to the amount and nature of the exposition required to set up a film with a core of friends and their acquaintances, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is perhaps most notable for the amount of stuff it doesn’t spell out along the way, trusting viewers to make up their own minds. This, however, can be taken too far: As much as I like Andie MacDowell in general (to the point of tolerating some dodgy line readings), she’s simply not given much to say here and the film feels weaker for being built on such a mystery. You can see how a modern retelling of the film, based on its imitators, would try to streamline the various charming little imperfections of the film—restricting the time continuity of the story to the days of the five events, spelling out subtleties, polishing some of the rough moments. It probably wouldn’t be as good, though: part of Four Weddings and a Funeral’s charm is how unassuming it is, and how it succeeds almost against all odds. That the result was often imitated yet rarely surpassed may be the ultimate compliment.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) I probably asked too much from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or wanted something different from what director Guy Richie had in mind. High expectations weren’t unreasonable, though, considering the good memories that I have of Richie’s oeuvre so far, from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the way to Sherlock Holmes 2. But I wasn’t quite convinced by Richie’s intentions in designing this homage to sixties spy comedies. The directing seems inspired by period style, to say nothing of the visual atmosphere of the film or its plot. Those expecting a modern take may be surprised by a slow pacing, off-kilter humour, strange action sequences choices and relatively small stakes. Oh, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does have its share of pleasures: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Viklander are all very photogenic and capable (for Hammer and Cavill, their performances are confirmation that they can do more than their best-known roles), Hugh Grant is unexpectedly fun as a minor character and there are a few very good moments. While the charm of the film may be overstated, it’s nonetheless present. Still, it feels overly restrained, a bit dull on the side and not as triumphant as it ought to have been. It’s meant to set up a series, but even a sequel looks doubtful at this point, given the film’s understandably tepid reception.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Newsflash: comedy aimed at middle-class Midwestern Americans espouses and promotes middle-class Midwestern values. In the generally unobjectionable (if rather empty-headed) Did You Hear About The Morgans?, a couple of upper-class newyorkers accidentally see something that lands them in the witness protection program, where they are relocated to an isolated Wyoming town where they discover the values of hard work, law-and-order enforcement and factory outlets. The script practically writes itself around the fish-out-of-water gags and the impending-arrival-of-hired-killer ticking clock, and the result is just about as formulaic as it can be. Fortunately, the film is more or less saved by two pairs of performances: Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as the amusingly estranged lead couple that has to re-learn life in the slow lane, as well as Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the no-nonsense cops that host them. Did You Hear About The Morgans? isn’t particularly sophisticated, but then again consider the broad target audience: the easy jokes all line up in a row, and the ending is as pat as it needs to be. The actors don’t have to stretch their usual screen persona, and everyone is more or less happy by the time the credits roll.