(On Cable TV, June 2017) Movies often get a bad reputation as a sub-literate art form, especially when compared to prose fiction. But that narrow-minded view of cinema usually ignores a small but strong subgenre that portrays writers as authentic characters on-screen. Even ignoring films based on Stephen King fiction, there’s enough material out there from Wonder Boys to Stuck in Love to Genius (and others) to hold a writers’ film festival, and one of the newest additions to the corpus is The End of the Tour, which details five days in which Rolling Stone journalist (and envious novelist) David Lipsky interviewed novelist David Foster Wallace at the end of his promotional book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky is played by Jesse Eisenberg in a likable and very Eisenbergian performance, but it’s Jason Segel who earns most of the attention by playing Wallace: Segel is better known as a goofy comedian, but seeing him in a strongly dramatic performance as Wallace is enough to demolish his usual screen persona. Shot in a very naturalistic fashion (i.e.; grimy, unglamorous, etc.) by director James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour focuses on the lengthy, literate, eventually contentious conversation between Lipsky and Wallace as they meet, share Wallace’s house, fly to promotional events, spend a day goofing off, compete for two women’s attention and come back home with loathing for each other. It’s not a very dramatic film, but it does have drama, and most importantly it allows the conversation to unspool at an unhurried pace. The portrait of a profile-writer journalist is revelatory as well, giving us uncommon insight into something rarely explored elsewhere. This, in short, is a movie about two writers, two intellects that can’t help but measure themselves to the other. It’s surprisingly compelling, occasionally profound and decently far from the usual formula fed by Hollywood. And it does so while having some Broken Arrow footage thrown in—if it gets better than this, please tell me how. I have a hunch that The End of the Tour will soon earn a place on the film curriculum of novelists and journalists, alongside other celebrated depiction of writers on the big screen.
(On TV, March 2015) The shadow of Judd Apatow looms large over this movie, even though he had nothing to do with it. It stars Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, who both got huge breaks in Apatow films. But more significantly, it’s an R-rated exploration of a tricky area of modern American society, which is to say how men make friends after they hit thirty. Here, a groom-to-be is forced to face the fact that he has no reasonable best-man prospects, and decides that he ought to make a few friends before it’s too late. Applying the conventions of romantic comedies to platonic same-sex friendship is good for a few laughs, especially when you mix Rudd’s leading-man earnestness with Segel’s laid-back coolness. The script isn’t bad (although the gibberish wordplay stuff gets old quickly) and it has a few things to say about a subject often neglected. The tone is breezy, supporting actors all get a chance to shine, and the conclusion couldn’t be more upbeat if it tried. In short, I Love You, Man is a well-executed piece of comedy that fits almost perfectly with the zeitgeist of American mainstream comedy of circa-2009. You can’t ask for much more.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) Someday, a more advanced civilization will comb over sex-themed mainstream American comedies to analyze the trouble psyche of North America and the results won’t be pretty. They’ll wonder at the strange blend of titillation and reprobation that seem to form the backbone of such movies and conclude ghastly things about our hang-ups, our push-pull relationship to sex and the ways we compartmentalize aspects of our lives. In the meantime, we get to enjoy the cheeky-but-never-arousing Sex Tape, which seems determined to stay on the good old grounds of humiliation comedy as soon as naughtiness is involved. To be fair, Cameron Diaz and an unusually-gaunt Jason Segel seem game to do just about anything in order to get laughs –still, it’s the supporting players who often get the best scenes, whether it’s Ellie Kemper and Rob Corddry sharing one of the film’s rare truly-naughty moments, or Rob Lowe playing up to type as a coked-out boss. The film gets a decent amount of chuckles and grins, but often feels like a wasted opportunity by playing it as safe as possible given the subject matter. As such, Sex Tape ends up in an unremarkable wasteland of conventional comedies, curiously forgettable despite the subject matter.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Looking at the quasi-complete success of The Muppets, it’s hard to fully recognize the challenges that its writers and producers were facing in reviving the Muppets for the twenty-first century’s big screen: Would fond memories of the Muppets translate well in this ironic age? Would it be possible to ground the Muppets into a contemporary reality? What to do with the iconic characters? The first surprise of The Muppets is that it works. The second surprise is that it works really well, carefully balancing itself between opposing objectives. It’s self-aware without being ironic, sentimental without being sappy and self-deprecating without being sardonic. Writer/star Jason Segel deserves a lot of credit for spearheading this revival: his affection for the Muppets is obvious, and he lets them grab most of the film’s glory. The winks to the modern audience are frequent without being annoying, and the way The Muppets plays with familiar tropes is amusing without being too annoying. Groaners accompany wit and the familiar is combined with the new. It’s a great film for the entire family, and it should herald more Muppets in the near future.
(On-demand, October 2012) Most romantic comedies end up when both protagonists are reasonably certain to stay together, but what happens afterwards? The Five-Year Engagement starts with a marriage proposal and then cackles as the protagonists can never completely manage to finalize their wedding plans… for years. Exasperation sets in for the characters, although viewers will be entertained to see Jason Segel (in his usual vulnerable good-guy persona; he co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt try to figure out the rest of their lives. More sweet than funny, The Five-Year Engagement is stronger on supporting characters and awkward gags than it is at an overarching plot and structure –much of the overlong second act repeats itself, while elements of the third act notably seem too convenient at that stage of the script. What makes the film enjoyable are the performances –not only from the lead actors, but from the colorful supporting cast as well. While the film may not be on solid grounds in some details (if I eat stale doughnuts before they are replaced by new ones, I get twice as many doughnuts, and let’s not kid ourselves: even day-old doughnuts are delicious), it’s a script that has a few unusual things to say about the Happily Ever After part that other movies neglect to explore. (It’s interesting to note that comedy mega-producer Judd Apatow has been mining the less-often-explored aspects of romance for a while, and that the results are usually worth a look.) While The Five-Year Engagement may not be the ultimate or funniest take on the idea of a very long engagement (somehow, you’d expect bigger, clearer and more unpredictable obstacles), there’s enough left on the table to warrant a look.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) If you believe in the idea of Hollywood as one big giant conversation during which the same group of people build upon each others’ ideas in order to make genres “evolve” (acknowledging that evolution isn’t always progress), then Forgetting Sarah Marshall now seems like an essential piece of 2000s American comedy. It’s from well-known comedy producer Judd Apatow; it features early feature-film appearances by a number of performers who would earn further notoriety in other films; and it fits in the revival of the raunchy R-rated romantic-comedy-for-boys sub-genre that stretches from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to counter-exemplar Bridesmaids (so far). In short, Forgetting Sarah Marshall has become an essential piece of the conversation about the comedy genre over the past ten years, and I had to see it after missing out on its inauspicious release four years ago. Fortunately, it lives up to the hype: It’s biggest enduring legacy is bound to be writer/actor Jason Segel’s break-out performance as a relatively more charming man-boy character than the Will Ferrell type. Forgetting Sarah Marshall also remains noteworthy for bringing Russell Brand to the movies; something that would lead directly to Bring Him to the Greek. Otherwise, there are good performances here by Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Jonah Hill, all of whom would go on to star in other high-profile comedies. The film itself is decently funny, if sometimes over-long and almost repetitive at times. The ending clearly shows the way to 2011’s The Muppets, as a further piece of evidence of Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s crucial link in the Hollywood comedy conversation. You don’t have to see it for what it set in motion: the film is successful enough by itself. But it’s far more interesting as part of a genre than as a film completely disconnected from its context.
(In theaters, July 2011) R-rated comedies often seem to live in a different universe than the rest of comedies, and one of their chief characteristic is how much irreverence they can throw at institutions and beliefs that are otherwise untouchable. Here, nothing less than the sacrosanct image of the teacher as a virtuous force is under full attack with Cameron Diaz’s unhinged portrait of a strikingly inappropriate junior-high teacher. Drugs, embezzlement, thievery, coarse language and wanton seduction are all part of her repertoire, and if nothing else, Bad Teacher provides Diaz with a plum comic opportunity. Diaz isn’t the only good actor in the mix: Lucy Punch is a revelation as the neurotic Amy Squirrel, while Jason Segel is unexpectedly sympathetic in an everyman role and Justin Timberlake takes a few risks with a dweebish performance. Too bad, then, that it’s handled so unevenly: The script doesn’t really start to click until its second half (where characters are forced to act against their nature in the hope of gaining something), and the touchy balance between portraying an offensive character entertainingly is sometimes in doubt. It’s almost, yes, as if Hollywood tried to soften the edges of an edgier kind of comedy; in the subgenre, Bad Santa will still remain a reference. Meanwhile, the end result of this film is average, although individual moments stand out as being better than their sum. Some people will be offended; the biggest problem with Bad Teacher, however, is that it doesn’t give nearly enough laughs to those who are willing to play along.