(On Cable TV, July 2017) I can be a surprisingly good audience for middle-of-the-road comedies, which may explain why I had a generally good time watching Keeping up with the Joneses even though it doesn’t really revolution anything. Much of it has to do with the movie giving good roles to three actors I like, and minimizing the irritation from an actor that I generally find annoying. Beginning not too far away from The ’burbs, this film begins as a comfortably married couple having shipped their kids to summer camp reacts to the arrival of a sexy new couple in their cul-de-sac: As hints of improper behavior pile up, the wife becomes convinced that the new neighbours are spies, while the husband excuses away the incidents and tries to make friends with the new guy. Complications piles up, leading to a second half that’s far more action-heavy than the comedic first half. Much of it feels familiar, to the point of missing comic opportunities by lack of daring. But who cares about originality when you’ve got Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher co-starring? All three of them get a chance to show their comic skills, with Gadot and Hamm in particular getting a further opportunity to play action heroes along the way. Gadot in particular gets a role that balances toughness, seduction and comedy—it’s not a great movie, but it’s the kind of film that encapsulates her range at this point. Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis, often unbearably annoying in his usual screen persona, is here reined in and almost tolerable as a mild-mannered HR officer targeted for counterintelligence operations. (He’s far more sympathetic than in his almost-contemporary Masterminds, for instance.) It makes up for a likable quartet of comedians, and Keeping Up with the Joneses coasts a long time on their inherent likability … and having Gadot and Fisher both show up in decent lingerie. Otherwise, the action scenes are generic, elements of the conclusion are arbitrary and the epilogue is a disappointment. Still, it’s a relatively entertaining film, somewhat unobjectionable and yet likable in its own way. I’ve seen far worse this week alone, starting with the aforementioned Masterminds.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) Director Tom Ford’s second feature is often just as controlled as his previous A Single Man, but it doesn’t quite manage to fully exploit the material at its disposal. Amy Adams is her usually remarkable self as an art gallery manager absorbed by her ex-husband’s roman à clef—thanks to some clever cinematography and dark clothes, her head often floats alone on-screen, focusing our attention on a role with a complex inner component. Told non-linearly while hopping in-between a base reality and fiction, Nocturnal Animals is happy to remain enigmatic even when dealing with terrible events. The novel-in-a-film is about gruesome murder, vengeance and a man losing everything. But what I did not expect to find here is as good a movie portrayal as I’ve seen of the reader’s experience with a great book: the way we get hooked in lengthy reading sessions, the abrupt transition from book to real life, the way the fiction bleeds into reality… I’m not sure any movie has quite shown it like Nocturnal Animal. This, paradoxically, makes the rest of it weaker, especially when it becomes obvious that reality and fiction are meant to interact and reflect upon each other (what a great idea to have Isla Fisher play Amy Adams’ fictional counterpart): the conclusion seems to hold its punches, and seems limp in comparison to what precedes it. Otherwise, we do get great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and a pleasantly gritty Michael Shannon as a doomed policeman. Add to that the terrific cinematography and Nocturnal Animals gets a marginal recommendation—with the caveat that it doesn’t all click as well as it should.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) I’m sure there’s a good movie to be made about the horrors of shopping addiction, its cruel toll on finances and families, the spiralling self-destructiveness of its insidiousness… but Confessions of a Shopaholic certainly isn’t it. Casting shopping addiction as a character quirk in a light-hearted and inconsequential romantic comedy, this tone-deaf 2009 film ended up being a paean to consumerism at a time when the United States suffered its worst economic crisis in years. (The solution to the protagonist’s financial problems? Hold a sale to that other people can help finance her debt!) It didn’t do well, either commercially or critically. A few years later, the pro-shopping message doesn’t feel so horrible anymore, but this does little to improve what will always remain an example of the worst tendencies of the romantic comedy sub-genre. As far as bubbly heroines go, it’s hard to do better than Isla Fisher. But where the film clearly takes on the worst characteristics of romantic comedies is in explaining (or rather, not explaining) how or why she would catch the eye of a Prince-Charming business mogul, rich heir and all-around considerate person. For a protagonist with significant personal problems, the film chooses to ignore a whole lot of potential issues on its way to a happy ending. Such is the nature of romantic comedies, though, which may help to explain why we’ve seen far fewer of them recently. But is this being too hard on a film that doesn’t really mean to be mean? Probably. On a surface level, Confessions of a Shopaholic is a breezy comedy anchored by the performances of talent actors. It works as it intends to work, and we can’t necessarily fault it for executing competently the somewhat dubious pillars of its chosen sub-genre. At the very least, it’s watchable enough. As a surprise side-note: the film was actually produced by action-movie-maven Jerry Bruckheimer… who would have thought?
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) The success of raunchy female-centric Bridesmaids has (sadly?) led to the realization that there was a market out there for crude R-rated comedies featuring uncouth damsels rather than frat-minded bros. This makes it easier for films like Bachelorette to be marketed: suggest that it’s kind-of-like The Hangover and Bridesmaids and, voila, instant interest. Fortunately, Bachelorette is a bit better than this capsule marketing tactic. Yes, it’s about a trio of disrespectable female leads doing bad things while on a wild night in town. But it’s written with quite a bit more wit than most comedies out there, and it dares takes chances with characters that aren’t made to be liked. Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher do great work here, and Rebel Wilson adds another good performance to a short but impressive list. What’s perhaps just as interesting are the subtle background choices made by writer/director Leslye Headland: A significant portion of the film takes place in a working strip club, for instance, and yet no nudity is shown. The male characters are interestingly flawed and don’t overshadow the female leads. This shouldn’t be revolutionary stuff, but in today’s comedy-film scene is almost feels as if it is. Offbeat without being disgusting, Bachelorette is worth a look for those looking for a bit of wit to go along their unglamorous comedies.