(Video on Demand, March 2016) Screenwriters are my Hollywood heroes, so it makes sense that I’d like Trumbo a lot more for its depiction of a screenwriter as a two-fisted creative brawler than for its on-the-nose take on the evils of the McCarthytism and its Hollywood black list. Bryan Cranston is very likable in the lead role of Dalton Trumbo, left-wing screenwriter blacklisted by Hollywood during the fifties, sent to prison, and making a living by anonymously writing movies both bad and good, even winning two Oscars under pseudonyms. Perhaps the best sequences in the film detail Trumbo’s living and business arrangement as he created a system of delegate writers to satisfy the prodigious appetites of a B-movie studio looking for affordable quality. Of course, even if Trumbo is handled by veteran comedy director Jay Roach, it gets its respectability by hammering at Trumbo’s blacklisting. That part of the film feels far less satisfying, going over familiar material about McCarthy’s red scare in a way that doesn’t feel remotely subtle. Fortunately, the film picks up toward the end as Trumbo reintegrates the Hollywood elite, thanks to people like Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. Trumbo may fail in trying to present a hefty respectable drama about the dangers of political profiling, but it partially recovers by taking us within the world of a top-level screenwriter.
(On TV, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) After a year in which a singularly bland US presidential campaign still managed to dominate media attention, everyone was ripe for a silly comedy lampooning the American electoral process. So it is that The Campaign creates a face-off between gifted comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two men vying for a US congressman slot. This very local-level comedy works in part because it controls its lead comedians effectively, and in part because it tries to push the absurdity of modern US politics to its breaking point. Punching babies, hitting dogs, political ads spiced by amateur pornography, intentional shootings, pervasive profanity and other gags are all part of the plot, but the real insanity here is all-too-familiar. (The film gets its most acid laugh from a simple shot showing how deeply moneyed interest have perverted the electoral process at the ballot box itself.) Of course, it’s crude, blunt and unsubtle: It’s a Jay Roach film, after all, and he seems intent here on producing a gonzo counterpart to his more nuanced work on Game Change. As a comedy, it delivers: there’s a laugh every few minutes, and smiles throughout. Both lead actors are dedicated to their characters, and the level of obscenity seems carefully restrained to get laughs while avoiding going too far. While The Campaign may not have much of a shelf life in the long run, it’s good enough at the moment, and should find a modest audience.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage. Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate. At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate. It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election. True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could. Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities. The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film. The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort. Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others. Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.
(In theaters, December 2000) Not another one of those predictable “comedies” that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Predictably enough (and the script is completely predictable), it’s built upon a dumb premise and a strategy of protagonist humiliation (Couple meet girl’s parents, dad’s a bastard and several things left unsaid suddenly pop up… Yes, everything-that-can-go-wrong-will) plus an uplifting finale that solves all problems. No wonder if Meet The Parents raked it in at the box-office, most probably attracting people who see only one or two films a year and whose critical abilities are more adapted to football games than cinematic endeavors. Satisfactorily directed by Jay Roach, sustained by Ben Stiller (not his best performance; no chance to go wild) and Robert De Niro. The film is long, obvious and unpleasant for most of its duration, picking up toward the end when Stiller’s character finally reaches his long-awaited boiling point and lashes out a long satisfying rant. That part being quickly over, we move on gratefully to the expected sugar-sweety finale. Word has it that there will be a sequel. Oh my.