(On Cable TV, January 2019) With the simultaneous resurgence in R-rated comedies and immersive gaming for adults, it’s not such a surprise that something like Game Night would emerge—a comedy aimed at adults, taking on the mind games of a what’s-real-and-what’s-not kind of entertainment. The plot has to do with a regularly scheduled “game night” between friends spinning out of control as mystery men burst in the house and take away a player. As the group enjoys figuring out the clues to find the kidnappers, there are plenty of warnings that the line between entertainment and real danger is thinner than they expect. What could easily have been a thriller is here presented as a dark comedy, with characters blithely walking in danger when they are expecting the safety net of an arranged scenario. The distinction is further blurred by showy cinematography far closer to off-beat thriller than flat comedy—it supports the gaming thematic by playing head games with the audience, bathing everything in shadows and even tilt-focusing the images so that we’re reminded of game board pieces. Jason Bateman typically anchors the cast by providing level-headed snark even as the other actors are left to go wild. Rachel McAdams is a good foil as his wife, while Jesse Plemons is perhaps a bit too good as a lonely neighbour trying to join the gaming group—his performance is a bit too unnerving for comfort. The result is surprisingly good, especially when compared to other R-rated films: while I would have toned down the violence, the result does manage to find the tricky balance inherent in any black comedy, and the result is highly entertaining to watch. It even finds that meta-balance between the safety net of a comedy/game and the tension of a thriller/crime. Making good use of trendy elements, Game Night is a bit of a surprise and a welcome one at that.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I watched The Family Fang based on the cast (Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Kathryn Hahn, directed by Bateman) having not heard of the film before seeing it show up on the cable TV line-up. As it turns out … there’s a reason why I haven’t heard of it until now—it’s surprisingly boring. For a film revolving around a family of performance artists putting up elaborate hoaxes (and what happens to their kids once they’re grown up), The Family Fang seems singularly irksome. It’s certainly uncomfortable, plays around with the reality of what the characters know but ultimately becomes unsympathetic and needlessly contrived. Maybe the source novel is better … but the film itself gets barely more than a shrug. Bateman, Kidman, Walken and Hahn are fine enough—they’re roughly playing their screen persona, after all. But the film’s rhythm is slack, the subject matter is meant to be off-putting and the performance-art aspect of the story seems to belong better in the YouTube generation than back in the eighties. The Family Fang should have been a delight, but it ends up a chore to watch. Comparisons with Bad Words suggest that Bateman-as-director is interested in deliberately obnoxious subject matter … we’ll see how that plays out for him.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) As an Adult Fan of Lego, I watched A Lego Brickumentary more for affirmation than discovery: I don’t need to be convinced of why Lego bricks can be fun for all ages, nor being told once again about Lego’s history or various cool facts about how people are using Lego bricks to do art, filmmaking, therapy or architecture. This being said, give me interviews with Jamie Berard and Nathan Sawaya, take me to a Lego convention, or show me what’s necessary to build a life-size Lego X-Wing and I’ll be happy. (Plus, hey, there’s Ed Sheehan talking about his Lego obsession.) The CGI/stop-motion sequences, narrated by Jason Bateman as a minifig, do have the gentle humour that’s becoming the Lego house style. It’s not a dull documentary, and it treats Lego hobbyists with respect. The mixture of talking heads, documentary footage, humorous interludes and live interviews makes the film more animated than anyone would expect, and the production credentials are excellent. A Lego Brickumentary seldom stops being anything but a Lego cheerleader, and that’s a mixed blessing: For all of the film’s radiant positivism, there’s seldom any mention of the gender issues in Lego fandom, monetary costs of a Lego obsession or any of the less-pleasant aspects to the hobby. On the other hand, Lego (as a corporation) has always been so careful to portray itself as wholesome and act accordingly that it’s hard to find unpleasant aspects to the topic. It certainly helps that, a decade and a half after Lego’s 2003/near-death experience, the company has reformed itself to a better relationship with its fans, and continues to strive for progressive values. (No, seriously; read their Social Impact report for the details.) A Lego Brickumentary does works best as affirmation that Lego bricks are awesome, and that’s more than good enough.
(On Blu-ray, November 2016) I think I expected just a bit more from The Gift than I got. Which isn’t necessarily a knock against the film: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also holds a pivotal role in the film), The Gift is an understated psychological thriller than eventually deals with some very primal emotions on its way to a devastating conclusion. It’s a powerful anti-bullying statement (you never know what your victims will become … or how much you’ll have to lose to their revenge), an uncomfortable suspense film and an unsettling drama as well. It plays games with our perception of the characters, not to mention exploiting Jason Bateman’s screen persona very effectively. (Bateman has often played the everyday hero, but many of his performances have had a streak of meanness to them, and The Gift plays up that looming menace exceptionally well.) Edgerton himself plays his character well, even when he’s written himself as an ineffectual loser. Sadly, Rebecca Hall doesn’t have much to do here—her persona as a brainy sophisticated woman is custom-made to make her one of my favourite actresses, but doesn’t always find appropriate scripts. But the biggest issue against The Gift may also be one of its best assets: a relatively slow forward rhythm that leaves plenty of time for uneasiness, dread and boredom. It’s a finely controlled film, but it’s also a bit long and often underwhelming along the way … even though the conclusion does pack a punch. It will work best with audiences who don’t necessarily expect a thrill a minute, and who enjoy the often uncomfortable situations that it presents.
(On TV, October 2016) Although presented as a mostly-innocuous romantic comedy (by definition, almost every film featuring Jennifer Aniston is bound to be innocuous), there is a troubling streak to The Switch’s titular premise (which has to do with, ah, mislabelled insemination) that makes the film challenging to enjoy on the level at which it’s offered. By the time the paternity issues are matched with the weighty passage of years, The Switch becomes far more unsettling than your average rom-com. It still manages to work, largely because of Jason Bateman’s blend of sympathy and antisocial faults. (I used to think of him as a likable straight man in his immediate post-Arrested Development film career, but if you look carefully at his roles since then, his persona has developed this growing streak of repellent behaviour—in other words, he’s become a credible bastard.) Meanwhile, Aniston’s persona seems to be a prisoner of the film’s plot twists—much like her character. Jeff Goldblum does show up periodically as a sympathetic boss, while Juliette Lewis continues to prove that she’s often best used in small comic roles. The Switch does end rather well, but there are a few squirm-inducing moments along the way, and the result may be more sombre than anyone expected.
(On TV, July 2015) The best and worst thing about Couples Retreat is how resolutely predictable it can be. A fairly traditional (albeit PG-13-rated glancing at R) Hollywood comedy about matrimonial reconciliation, it relies heavily on the comic persona of its lead actors: Jason Bateman plays the straight-man with a bit of unpleasantness lurking at the edge of his personality; Vince Vaughn plays the overgrown-frat boy loudmouth; Jon Favreau is a lout… and so on. Characters are established early and seldom deviate from their broad personalities, the reconciliatory ending is a foregone conclusion and the gags along the way tend to be fairly obvious. Much of the details are inane bordering on moronic (I’m still figuring out why Guitar Hero would need a dedicated salesman) but the film goes have the “tropical retreat romantic comedy” atmosphere in the tradition of Just Go With It, Blended or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even though most jaded viewers may not appreciate the leisurely pace of characters on holidays, there’s a little bit of vicarious living in spending an hour or so in tropical settings. The main players are up to themselves: Bateman and Vaughn don’t really stretch their persona, but Jean Reno makes for a fun self-help guru while Peter Serafinowicz has a small but hilarious role as a demanding host. All of the film’s slight qualities don’t manage to make it stand out as anything but a middle-of-the road kind of comedy. There was potential for something a bit more unnerving (a comparison between trailer and final film suggests that at least one risqué subplot was cut out –although a reference to realized infidelity stays in the film and comes as a bit of a surprise.) but in the end embraces traditional values. And yet, as predictable Couples Retreat can be, it’s also comforting in a way.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Jason Bateman’s usual screen persona is usually that of the good guy, albeit often tempered with a bit of bad passive-aggressive behavior. He rarely goes as full-shmuck as he does in Bad Words, where he undertakes a fairly difficult turn as a highly intelligent, but a just-as- belligerent middle-aged man who finds a way into the national spelling bee contest. He’s out to prove something, and he doesn’t intend to let anyone stand in his way. The result is one of the most strikingly unlikable protagonist in recent memory, one that doesn’t do much to earn audience sympathies and, in fact, such a repellant protagonist for so long that when his redemption comes (as it usually does in those films), it feels forced and not entirely convincing. Still, it’s a strong performance and Bateman does even better as the director of the film, delivering the film’s laughs in an effective fashion. Still, much of Bad Words is just an unbearable as its lead character: it’s deliberately offensive, rife with bad behavior and takes a long while to earn even a smidge of sympathy. At least Bateman acquits himself honorably on both sides of the camera (few will be able to call this a vanity project given the unlikeability of his character), with able supporting performances by Kathryn Hahn (playing another character with a streak of depravity) and newcomer Rohan Chand. Bad Words certainly is a specific kind of comedy that will find fans and haters alike. Your reaction is likely to be based on your tolerance for the kind of antisocial behavior exhibited by the protagonist.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Considering the amazing cast put together for This is Where I Leave You, it would be understandable to expect a bit more from the results. I count at least nine interesting actors on the top bill, and seeing some of them play against each other is almost fun no matter the material they’re given. As siblings (and their assorted partners) reunite after the death of their father, the film becomes an intricate multi-ring circus of entwined subplots –enough of them that you’re guaranteed to relate. There are laughs, cringe-worthy situations, a surprising amount of R-rated material and an ending that ties up most loose ends hopefully. Jason Bateman is his usual leading-man self, Jane Fonda gets a late chance to play her curves, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver finally gets substantial big-screen comedy roles, Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn are effortlessly likable… think of this film as a buffet and you won’t be too far off the final impression. Of course, this means that some parts don’t entirely work, or feel contrived, or are executed more mechanically than anything else. There’s wasted potential here, magnified by the known-name actors. (I suspect that had it featured unknowns, the film would have earned better reviews.) Still, as far a dysfunctional family comedies and assorted romantic dramas go, This is Where I Leave You is decently enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations and set-piece sequences to justify the running time.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) It’s easy to see why The Longest Week would annoy many of its viewers. It has, after all, a pampered trust-fund protagonist (played by Jason Bateman, in a bit of a stretch from his usual everyman persona) who ends up learning about life during a week in which he’s cut off from his allowance. Bereft of useful skills, housing, emergency money or lasting friendships, he ends up pursuing a woman despite his friend’s obvious attraction for her. “What a cad!” seems to be the refrain, and it’s easy to be exasperated by this affluent-first-world-problems film. It’s tough to sympathise with such a protagonist, and even tougher to actually care when he behaves so badly. This being said, the movie isn’t as exasperating as the preceding may suggest: Droll narration bolsters the movie almost as much as the raw charm of Bateman and Olivia Wilde as the love interest. The slight dialogue and scattered laughs mean that even if this romantic comedy fails, it fails to the generally amiable level of average romantic comedies –which is to say that you don’t have too bad of a time watching it. The Longest Week is a bit smug and precious and pretentious, but it’s charming in its own one-percenter-narcissistic-Manhattanite way, which is quite a bit more than you’d think.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) What happens when Hollywood’s insistence in showcasing an irritating comic persona runs into a complete lack of sympathy? I’ll be the first to admit that Melissa McCarthy’s supporting turn in Bridesmaids was one of the best things about it. But based on The Heat and now Identity Thief, it looks as if that kind of humor doesn’t work as a leading performance. Once again, McCarthy finds herself playing an abrasive, brash and thoroughly unlikable character: an identity thief, living large on other people’s accounts while incidentally ruining their lives. Well, I’m not laughing. Of course, thing being a bog-standard mainstream Hollywood comedy, we know what’s next: rehabilitation of her character through even worse antagonists, pitiable childhood trauma, deep-seated sweetness and out-of-character heartfelt actions. Well guess what, Hollywood: I’m still not playing along. That character remains unlikable throughout, and much of the film follows along with it. It doesn’t help that Identity Thief remains by-the-numbers as a road movie featuring opposites: the plot beats are always obvious, and nothing makes the material rise above mediocrity. Too bad; I really like Jason Bateman as the straight man, there are plenty of interesting actors buried in secondary roles (from Genesis Rodriguez to Robert Patrick to John Cho) and the film is directed cleanly by Seth Gordon, with even a spectacular car chase midway through to keep things interesting. (But then again, mid-movie car chases have becomes something of a fixture in recent mainstream buddy comedies, and I’m not sure why.) Identity Thief earns its audience’s antipathy early on and never lets go –by the time it’s over, we’re just glad it’s over.
(On-demand, September 2012) Body-switching is a surprisingly common trope in live-action films, up to a point where when it’s used in The Change-Up, the focus is less on the fantastical nature of the switch than in the comic potential of the premise. Here, a perennial bachelor (played by Ryan Reynolds) switches bodies with a career-driven family man (played by Jason Bateman). It goes without saying that the film’s biggest pleasure is in seeing Bateman and Reynolds play with their on-screen personas, Bateman undermining his wholesome image while Reynolds reverts to his old Van Wilder days. From the first few minutes, we know that the film will be burdened with scatological references, phallic humor and pervasive bad language. We also know that it’s in the nature of such films to end in a way that reinforces everyone’s social expectations. In other words; don’t expect anything subversive… in fact, brace yourself for mid-thirties juvenility. If you’re in the right mood (amused, forgiving, certainly immature), it works relatively well: there are enough funny gags in-between the formulaic plot scaffolding and the mandatory sentimental moments to make it seem worthwhile. The Change-Up was critically savaged upon release and it’s not hard to see why, but the result is still a slickly-made, occasionally hilarious comedy with two of the most capable comic actors in the business: once you get past the crudity factor, it’s not too bad. It may even have something to say about the nature of one’s place in the world and the happiness we can make for ourselves… in between the constant swearwords and the graceless nudity, of course.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.
(In theatres, September 2009) This risqué yet generally amiable comedy by Mike Judge has little of the cubicle universality of Office Space of the striking conceptual strength of Idiocy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit its appeal and give it little memetic traction. In less pretentious terms, Extract is easily forgettable even if it’s not unpleasant to watch. A good chunk of this appeal rests on the shoulders of the capable cast headlining the ensemble comedy. The lead character of the piece, a harried chemist turned businessman now hitting a mid-life crisis pretty hard, wouldn’t be half as sympathetic if he wasn’t played with the good-boy charm of Jason Bateman. Gene Simmons pops up as an intense ambulance-chasing lawyer, whereas J.K. Simmons is a bit wasted as a voice of reason in the middle of so much low-key craziness. Extract’s plot scatters in multiple directions, with a number of small twists when characters don’t behave as they usually do in other comedies. If the actual execution of the plot is hit-and-miss, Judge’s portrait of American working-class banality is just off-the-wall enough to keep viewers interested. Time will tell if the film ends up producing as many catchphrases as the writer/director’s previous efforts, but a first glance suggests that this won’t be the case. On the other hand, Extract does manage to hits its own targets consistently, and if a little more ambition (or class awareness) wouldn’t have hurt, at least there’s something to be said for decent entertainment.