(On TV, August 2015) It’s clear, almost from the very beginning, why The Invention of Lying will never completely work. As the voice-over laboriously explains its alternate-universe in which humanity never managed to evolve the concept of lying, the film just as quickly shreds its premise’s credibility. Telling the truth and oversharing aren’t the same thing, and while the second makes for bigger laughs (the things Jennifer Garner says early on…), we know five minutes into the film that this is not going to make a single bit of sense. So The Invention of Lying takes place in absurdity early on, which would have been fine if the film hadn’t tried to develop a romantic plot or an abrasive take on religion. Writer/producer/director/star Ricky Gervais is a notorious atheist, and while there is some interest in seeing him work out some justification for religion (as comfort to the masses given the empty void of existence), much of the film’s second half, in which religion is invented, seems filled with easy pot-shots, not-particularly-funny moments and laboriously drawn-out dramatic potholes. A bunch of comedians in quasi-cameos makes the film more interesting that it otherwise could be (Tina Fay gets a small but striking moment as an honestly resentful administrative assistant.) You can see flashes of interest here and there in the film’s extrapolation of its ground rules (the inner workings of a film studio when fiction doesn’t exist are amusing), but just as often, The Invention of Lying showcases what happens when a smart person becomes convinced of the hilarity of an idea impossible to sustain over 90 minutes. (For instance, there’s a running gag about hereditary concerns being at the base of any relationship that’s almost clever but handled too bluntly.) It doesn’t help that the film is directed and assembled flatly, without much in terms of color or filmmaking prowess –it makes everything feel even blander. There’s a lot of wasted potential here, but there’s no use denying that the film simply fails to meet its own expectations. (This being said –and can I be completely truthful here?–, I’m aware that if I ever ended up making a movie, it would probably feel a lot like The Invention of Lying –a bunch of amusing imaginative concepts bogged down by poor execution, ultimately failing to reach anyone else but me.)
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I like discovering small-scale movies lurking in the late-night schedules of specialized cable channels. You can often end up with competent fare such as Butter, a cynical comedy about Midwestern alienation, resentment and butter carving. It’s not exactly a hidden gem featuring unknown actors: Jennifer Garner stars as a driven housewife, while Olivia Wilde plays a vengeful stripper and Hugh Jackman shows up for a small but entirely ridiculous role. The story revolves around a woman taking up butter carving at a very competitive level after her husband’s retirement, only to be challenged by a young black girl with unusual natural talent for the craft. Butter comes up decently when it’s most focused on the silliness of its characters given the low stakes surrounding them. (Wilde’s character is preposterous, but despite her dodgy motivations the film simply feels funnier when she’s on-screen.) There’s a bit of heart alongside the cynicism (most notably when Rob Corddry opens up with his foster daughter), but enough gags here and there to justify the time. Butter does miss a number of its targets: There are obvious parallels here with the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination process, but they end up being more distracting than amusing. The film does take place in a slightly-altered comic reality when characters often behave in ways more outrageous than realistic, and it may have been interesting to see the script commit even more broadly to this kind of absurdity. Still, it’s tough to begrudge such a modest comedy, especially given the various pointed barbs it’s willing to feature.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Three decades after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, twenty years after the obvious tears of Philadelphia, we’re not talking about the disease the way we used to, even in historical retrospectives. Dallas Buyers Club may go back to 1986, but it does so with the knowledge that AIDS has, in some ways, become a treatable chronic disease. Rather than focus on the inevitable death sequence (although we do get that), it’s a film that dare to blend all-American entrepreneurial spirit, antiestablishment smuggling and expert-defying hunches into a fight-back story against AIDS. Anchoring the film is Matthew McConaughey’s astonishing physical transformation into a gaunt but indomitable figure, as his radical post-Lincoln Lawyer career renaissance had led him to a pivotal dramatic role (and modified audience expectations accordingly). Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner turn in serviceable supporting roles, but this is really McConaughey’s movie. Skillfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club offers a look at the early AIDS era that is both unflinching and more than occasionally entertaining as we see the protagonist defy the medical establishment’s glum predictions to provide a better life for other afflicted people. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that keeps the preaching to a minimum –as should be, considering how attitudes have changed.
(On cable TV, January 2012) Safely devoid of surprises, this romantic comedy about a slacker billionaire having to grow up is a vehicle for Russell Brand’s comic personae more than anything else. It’s a risky bet, as the spoiled man-child shtick can quickly grow wearisome and then irritating. Nonetheless, this Arthur remake manages to walk along that line and remain on the side of viewers’ affections: Never mind that Jennifer Garner is more interesting here as the romantic antagonist than in many of her previous movies: It’s Brand and Helen Mirren as her nanny that steal the show, with occasional assist from Luis Guzman and a gruff Nick Nolte. The plot beats are intensely predictable, which makes the small details of the story seem more important. The dialogues are surprisingly good, with a good understanding of conversation-as-argument and a bigger vocabulary than most romantic comedies. Still, if those strengths do save Arthur from being nothing more than a typically average remake of a much-better film, they don’t do much more to strengthen the film. At best, we end up with a watchable but inconsequential film that will gradually sink in memory even as the 1981 original will endure.