(On Cable TV, April 2017) I had too-high hopes that War Dogs would be another strong entry in my pet geo-sardonicism subgenre—geopolitics treated with a good dose of sardonic humour as a way to make sense of an increasingly unlikely world, an updated Lord of War for the post-Iraq generation. I half-got my wish. For one thing, War Dogs is, indeed, a comedy taking on geopolitical issues: namely arms dealing and the unlikely profits coming from the unintended consequences of well-meaning government procurement policy changes. Miles Teller is the narrator and protagonist of an incredible story (partially based on real events) in which an underachieving young man ends up putting together multimillion dollar deals for the government’s war efforts. His patter, especially in the film’s first half, is interesting and damning at once. War Dogs starts out well with a first half filled with comedy, rags-to-riches incidents, and incredible war stories. It plays a bit like one of Ben Mezrich’s American-hustler books. Director Todd Philips knows how to present a film with pop and irreverent energy, and Jonah Hill does bring a degree of uncomfortable energy to the proceedings. Alas, this sugar high doesn’t last as the movie predictably settles into something far less fun in its latter half. War Dogs has to punish its villains, and those include our two protagonists. Their adventures get a great deal less fun as they turn on each other, renege on deals and get caught up in a federal investigation. There is no triumphant ending in store—at best, a soft (ish) landing. Still, War Dogs is a delight for those moment in which it does works. If the film’s not quite successful, then so be it—I’d rather see an imperfect take on procurement corruption than a more successful vapid comedy.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Having both James Franco and Jonah Hill headline a film would suggest a comedy, but True Story is far from being lighthearted and, as such, represents a bit of a departure for two actors who, while having demonstrated some dramatic chops in the past, are usually associated with big laughs. Revolving around a tragic multiple murder, a journalist disgraced by accusations of invention and sociopathic manipulation, True Story feels stark and grim, especially when it starts poking at viewer assumptions. Based on indeed, a true story, the film can be a fascinating case study of two actors circling each other like their characters, never trying to betray the harsh source material through ill-placed comic relief. Its last fifteen minutes feel like an extended nightmare, so twisted do the agendas become. If the film has a flaw, it probably that we don’t quite get to feel the betrayal of the protagonist: True Story doesn’t invest much time in trying to make us believe in the initial lies, making some of the revelations feel flat. Still, it’s a troubling film, and as the hero and the villain eventually stat matching wits, the film does get a bit better toward the end. Both Hill and Franco do fine with dramatic roles, to the point where few will assume that their next film will be a comedy
(On TV, March 2015) I’m not sure if there’s a recent dearth of college comedies, but I can tell you that Accepted acceptably hits the spot. It’s not a refined or overly clever film, but the central premise –about rejected college applicants accidentally founding their own no-rejection college—is good for a few laughs. Justin Long is likable as the protagonist who stumbles into becoming a college dean, whereas Jonah Hill plays a representative example of his early fat-nerd persona. Farther away in the background, Lewis Black has a thunderous small role as a disillusioned ex-academic, while it’s fun to see Maria Thayer’s fiery curls light up scenes as a secondary character without much to say. But it’s the film’s sense of pacing that works best: Despite a few odd misfires (the probably-improvised electric shock sequence, among others, feels out of place), Accepted’s editing is exemplary, complementing a script that often thrives on rapid-fire dialogue. While the script eventually veers into idiot-plot territory in which everything is solved via One Big Speech, much of the film actually works well, and even the unlikeliness of its premise (as if community colleges didn’t exist…) actually work in the film’s glorious intent to deliver a silly college comedy no matter its preposterousness. Accepted amply fulfills the basic requirements for a comedy: it’s fast, easy to watch, not terribly vulgar, largely amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. Heck, it may even send the viewer on a few flights of fancy as to what they would do in a similar situation, and whether the whole point of the college experience is simply paying for a social experience away from home. While Accepted could have been a bit better with a bit more discipline, it’s enjoyable enough as it is. Pick this one up for your own independent-scholar film appreciation class.
(Crackle streaming, February 2015) For some reason, I managed to miss this now-cornerstone of 2000s American comedy until now –I’m not a big fan of teen comedies (Proof: American Pie is still on my to-watch list) and Superbad seemed to be, what, redundant? Michael Cera acting like a nerd, Jonah Hill like an over-caffeinated potty-mouth? No surprise there. But there’s such a thing as best-of-breed movies, and while Superbad doesn’t exactly break molds or revolutionize genre, it’s pretty much hitting all the cylinders that a contemporary teen sex comedy aims for. It’s superficially crass and aggressive, but it doesn’t take too much tinkering to find the honest beating heart underneath, the paean to friendship and the curiously conventional values at the foundation of the film. But it works relatively well despite a few lengths, and with a few years of retrospection, you can see not only Cera and Hill’s early-career prototypical roles, but also early good turns by Emma Stone and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. The result may not be subtle nor unique (co-writers Rogen and Goldberg would go on to make an entire string of films about young-male friendship) but it works as it should. More broadly, as a piece of significant filmmaking, Superbad fits perfectly in the rise of Judd Apatow as a comedy producing powerhouse.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) At this point, following the successful streak from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and now 22 Jump Street, who isn’t impressed by writer/director Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s ability to take on the most hopeless projects and turn them into gold? No one expected anything good from TV adaptation 21 Jump Street, and yet they delivered a fairly successful crime comedy. Nobody expected anything from 22 Jump Street, and here they are, delivering not only another successful crime comedy, but one that comments upon the clichés of the genre, and indulges into a lot of meta-commentary on movie sequels. It’s surprisingly effective, playing off our knowledge of the characters and the genre they’re working within. Some of the best moments of the film come from seeing characters react to each other, with Ice Cube being integral to two of the movie’s funniest comic set-pieces. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill is more or less up to his usual persona, while Channing Tatum continues to impress with his comic persona. The end-credit montage by itself is practically worth the time watching the entire film. While occasionally vulgar and easy and cheap, there’s quite a bit more running under the motor than most typical sequels, and it’s that extra effort that makes the film so endearing. And while good enough should be left alone, meaning that there’s no need for a 23 Jump Street, it’s going to resist seeing what Miller/Lord have in mind when it inevitably arrives.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) Now being comfortably in my late thirties, there’s a limit to the amount of amusement I can get from rough frat-boy humor, with its soft-drugs and penile references in-between copious swearing. Still, This is the End knows exactly what kind of laughs it wants to get, and it’s successful at what it does. The focus on the nature of young adult friendships in the face of trying circumstances may not be new (Seth Rogen alone has mined it for the past decade since Superbad) but it adds a little bit more substance to what would otherwise be a juvenile festival of phallic jokes, scatological references and drug humor. This is the End, by its very nature (six actors playing exaggerated version of themselves as the world around them is consumed by a biblical apocalypse) is intensely self-referential, and the corpus of movies and celebrity gossip you have to know before getting the most out of this one is lengthy –it’s best if you have a working knowledge of the live and films of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny MacBride, along with a passing familiarity with Michael Cena, Emma Watson, Rihanna and the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Sort of a silly Hollywood home movie writ large, This is the End still manages to get a few laughs and chuckles: Evan Goldberg’s direction is self-assured, there’s a sense that there are no self-imposed limits to the comedy, and the ensemble cast is simply remarkable, both for its presence but also for the lengths at which the performers will go in order to spoof their own screen persona and get their laughs. It also has the decency to end on a very high note, wrapping up a film that compensates for its own worst excesses. The result may not be particularly refined or subtle (although there is at least one laugh-aloud implicit joke when we realize that the heavenly rapture has passed by without claiming a single Hollywood partygoer), but This is the End has the strength of its own immaturity.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) This may be the fifteenth alien-invasion film in the past four years, but it’s certainly one of the most inconsequential. As a peaceful suburban community hosts an imminent alien invasion beachhead, the mysterious death of a Costco™ security guard prompts a few post-adolescent males to gang up into a neighborhood watch in order to catch the killer. Part Costco™ product placement, part adult male fantasy fulfillment, part more-of-the-usual from Vince Vaugh, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, The Watch never hesitates to reach for the lowest-common-denominator joke when it’s within reach, and the result feels as immature as you’d think. For all of the premise’s potential, and occasional good work from either Stiller or scene-stealing from relative British newcomer Richard Ayoade, The Watch quickly finds its level by allowing Vaughn and Hill to wallow in their usual screen persona (or, more fairly, in Vaughn’s usual man-child character and Hill’s early aggressive-teen shtick.) It should work for anyone who already likes that stuff; otherwise, it’s just a dreary way to go from one plot point to the next, leading all the way to the Costco™ store showdown. (The product placement is even more blatant considering that in order to shoot the film they had to convert a closed-down store into a Costco™.) From a Science-Fictional perspective, The Watch is hollow: it doesn’t have a single new idea to offer, and merely treats the alien invasion as a plot-driver for juvenile comedy. From a comic perspective, the film has little more to offer, but it does land a chuckle or two. Alas, it feels compelled to insert a few scenes of a more serious emotional nature in the middle of the dumb jokes, creating more forced atonality. Perhaps the most intellectual thing The Watch has to offer is a not-so-unwitting study of the modern American suburban male’s uneasiness: Which SUV-driving North-American doesn’t dream of killing dangerous foreigners, punching their daughter’s creepy boyfriend, being invited to secret orgies, increasing their sperm count and earning the macho respect of authority figures? If you don’t share those obsessions, well, The Watch may feel a bit long.
(On-demand video, July 2012) I really did not expect this movie take on 21 Jump Street to be any good: Eighties nostalgia leaves me cold, I’m still dubious about Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum never struck me as a comedy lead. But the film’s reviews were generally positive and I was in the mood for some silly stuff… So it is that, surprises of surprises, 21 Jump Street proves to be a clever and hilarious action-comedy, perhaps the most satisfying take on the 21 Jump Street concept possible given today’s movie-comedy zeitgeist. Crucially, this movie version acknowledges the shortcomings of the original’s concept and then proceeds to maneuver away from it by taking on a quasi-parody of high-school movies and inverting traditional archetypes. So it is that the jock discovers that the nerds have taken over, that the nerd is forced in a jock role, and the old rules don’t apply. The screenwriters clearly have fun with the source material, going as far as casting Ice Cube as a police sergeant, put together a hilariously un-heroic car chase, and killing off characters from the TV show. Mind you, the comedy isn’t all hilarious: in keeping with today’s current R-rating comedy shtick, profanity is pervasive and a significant fraction of the film’s gags revolve around male genitalia. Still, there’s enough humor delivered at such a fast pace that a good joke will almost always follow a lame one, and the snappy direction accounts for much of the film’s fun and forward momentum. Channing Tatum proves himself to be a charming straight man, while Jonah Hill gets one of his least-annoying roles to date here. The rapid-fire end credit sequence suggests a number of cut subplots, but the result on-screen is more than fun enough… even for people with no affection or knowledge of the original series. A surprise comedy hit, 21 Jump Street is a bit more than just a nostalgic re-hash of a familiar concept: It succeeds best once it becomes its own comedy vehicle.
(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.
(On DVD, September 2010) This movie pushes a lot of my anti-humour buttons: I’m still sceptical about a good chunk of the latest British comics, and Russell Brand’s fame seems as unexplainable to me as that of Steve Coogan or Sacha Baron Cohen. (To say nothing of Jonah Hill, who feels like a less-funny Seth Rogen… and I don’t think of Rogen as particularly funny.) Raunchy comedies aren’t my favourite sub-genre either, and I’m getting too old to play the spot-the-pop-references game in which Get Him to the Greek often indulges. Those biases exposed, I still had quite a good time watching the film, in part because of its go-for-broke willingness to throw just about everything at the screen and hope some of it will be amusing to viewers. Much of the celebrity cameos were wasted on me, except for Paul Krugman’s deliciously unexpected appearance. Who would have thought? Brand’s grander-than-life portrait of a rock star living to the maximum is enough to make us pine for the decline of mass-marketed music, while Sean Combs turns in a equally-enjoyable performance as an overblown music executive. The film’s R-rated language and themes creates an atmosphere in which nearly anything can happen (including some things that you hope wouldn’t) and that kind of dreamlike no-limits feeling is something that’s relatively rare in today’s PG-rated comic landscape. Get Him to the Greek is undisciplined and scattered, but there isn’t as much grossing-out as you may expect… and even some overdone sweetness by the end. Too bad that the more responsible plot elements end up looking so dull and worn-out compared to the film’s excesses: a script polish may have been able to smooth out some of those edges. What’s there, however, is at least funnier than most other comedies on the shelf. It may even surprise those of you who don’t expect much.