(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) It quickly gets obvious that Welcome to Me isn’t meant to be a conventional laugh-fest. Specializing in the kind of cringe-inducing comedy that seems all-too-popular lately, Welcome to Me wants to be an absurdist character piece, studying what happens when a woman with deep and complex psychological issues suddenly becomes (thanks to a lottery win) able to do whatever she wants in an effort to find closure. That “something” ends up being producing her own TV show, which she uses to relive her past, interview acquaintances, realize some fantasies and exact revenge on those who have wronged her. Nonchalantly wielding a chequebook to pave over any objections, she purchases the services of a struggling production studio and goes wild in conceiving and hosting the show. In other hands, with other intentions, this could have been very, very funny. But that’s not what director Shira Piven and star Kirsten Wiig are about. As you may expect from Wiig (who seems to be adopting neurotic debilitation as a crucial element of her screen persona), the film induces one wince after another, smothering the comic value of its ideas into a heavy gauze of pitiable narcissism, enablers and aghast witnesses. The ending is more than a little frustrating, showing only incremental progress rather than the all-out catharsis that many would have preferred. Wiig actually isn’t bad in the lead role, which requires a lot more dramatic prowess than comic chops. But that’s in keeping with a film that is considerably sadder than it could have been had the intention been to go for a straight-up comedy. Maybe there’s another, very different film waiting to be made using this exact premise.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) On paper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a terrific film: Ben Stiller as a dreamer forced out of his comfort zone, elaborate fantasies gradually ceding to ever-more-incredible real adventures as based on a classic James Thurber story. There’s a lot of potential here for a meaningful film, heartfelt lessons and grandiose epiphanies. The film’s budget is decent, allowing whatever fantasies and real-life vistas to be captured in detail. Why, then, does the result feel so perfunctory? While the film isn’t unpleasant to watch, it somehow fails to spark beyond mere competence. The fantasy sequences are seamlessly integrated (and at least once escalate all the way to superhero theatrics) but even they can’t completely bring sharp humor and cutting wit into the entire production. It probably doesn’t help that the third act drags on for so long, especially once the emotional high points of the story should have been settled. There isn’t anything bad to say about Stiller’s direction –especially given the visual inventiveness of some sequences– although he himself may be too old to play Mitty. (Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is pretty enough as the somewhat underwritten love interest, while Adam Scott is deliciously evil as an insensitive boss.) The integration of (now-defunct) Life Magazine is felt more deeply as thematic assistance than product placement (although if you want product placement, eHarmony, Papa John’s and Cinnabon are there to make you happy.) Much of the plotting seems arbitrary, with at least two palpable moments where narrative tension evaporates at the moment it should become more urgent. There may be an unresolvable tension at work here, between the wild fantasies and the desire to deliver a grounded and meaningful life lesson. Even when it strives to embrace a more colorful, grander life, the film seems happy in its mild-mannered ways. In the end, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty settles for being a good film rather than the great one that it wanted to be.