(On Cable TV, February 2017) I’m not that much of a Ghostbusters (1984) fan, so the news of a gender-swapped reboot didn’t trouble me much beyond my usual “eh, I’d much prefer if they did original movies”. The reactionary nerd rage at the film’s release was troubling insofar as was a reflection of the current unhealthy outrage culture—but let’s face it: people who get worked up about a female Ghostbusters movie are exactly the kinds of people who wake up every day being offended at anything that makes them uncomfortable. Given the track records of movie reboots, it was almost a given that the end result would be a mildly entertaining piece of fluff. So it is: This Ghostbusters (2016) is a technically accomplished but far more mechanistic version of the 1984 original. Both Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play up to their persona in the movie, although McCarthy seems thankfully more restrained in a movie in which entire sequences are storyboarded for special effects. Wiig is up to her usual neurotic persona, which works relatively well here. The same can be said for Leslie Jones, likable in a stock role. The real surprise here, though, is Kate McKinnon, stealing nearly every scene as an eccentric scientist—again, it’s not an original character, but she makes it work. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth probably gets the biggest laughs as a scatterbrained hunk. Director Paul Feig keeps getting better every movie, and if his style is still generally bland, he’s able to keep up with the demands of a special-effects-driven production. His conscious decision to avoid glamorizing his character works well, even if some other intentions—such as limply incorporating original 1984 cast members—end up being more irritating than anything else. The upshot is a generally watchable film, even if it never steps too far away from the original film or from the basic special-effects-driven comedy template. This Ghostbusters is all surface and flash, with minimal character work and even shallower thematic concerns. It’ll do for an evening’s worth of entertainment, but I have a hunch that the original will remain the definitive edition.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I liked the first Despicable Me without going overboard for it, and much of the same goes for its sequel. While Despicable Me 2 is far too emotionally shallow to be held aloft alongside some of the finest examples of the animated family film genre, it’s amusing and zippy enough to be worth a watch. I suspect that beyond the reformed-bad-boy appeal of protagonist Gru, much of the sequel’s charm hinges upon the character of Lucy (judiciously voiced by Kristen Wiig): as a capable yet endearing character, with combat skills matched with clumsiness and over-eagerness –her non-date with Gru makes for an odd but effective bonding scene. Otherwise, it’s easy to see the overabundance of charm in Despicable Me 2, from the three daughters (as equally adorable as in the first film, if perhaps under-used) to the omnipresent minions that act as comic mascots of the series. The film is bright, colorful and directed with dynamic pacing (I suspect plenty of freeze-frame details). It may not amount to much in the thematic department (even Gru’s romantic baggage is dealt with lightly), but the speed and accumulation of jokes is more than enough to keep the film afloat. Despicable Me 2‘s comic tone seems more controlled than the original, and I was impressed at the film’s success in mastering even the most obvious jokes: There’s a gag about a cat being rejected from abduction that can be seen coming at least two solid seconds in advance –and it still gets a good laugh. I’m not so fond of the ethnic stereotyping or the somewhat linear plot, but the tone of the film doesn’t invite much scrutiny, and it should best be appreciated as a light-hearted comedy without any deep intentions.
(In theaters, June 2011) There’s definitely something refreshing in seeing a women-centric film trying to one-up the boys in the R-rated comedy department: Bad language, worse behaviour and gross-out gags aren’t the sole province of frat-boys, and seeing Bridesmaids trying to be outrageous carries its own doubtful freshness. I just wish the result would have been consistent, because the entire movie veers between downbeat humiliation and all-out outrageousness. The pacing of the film, particularly in its first half, seems slack to the point of obnoxiousness: mini-sketches go on for far longer than the joke is worth (ex; one-upping memories of the bride-to-be at the engagement party) while the story advances with little wit in its editing. (Things change, a bit, with the trip to Vegas and the “trying to get a cop’s attention” sequence.) It really doesn’t help that the script seems convinced of its ability to combine the cringe-worthy story of a woman hitting bottom while still flying off in far less subtle bursts of crass comedy. Character-driven comedy doesn’t always mesh well with pratfalls and crude silliness, and Bridesmaids shows why: By the time the heroine trashes a sumptuous bridal shower, we’re cringing rather than enjoying the self-destructive nature of the act. (It’s also annoying that at times, the film seems to ape Saturday Night Live, not only in dragging scenes longer than they should be, but building the film as a series of sketches.) Dramatically, the self-destructive lead character is too annoying to be fully sympathetic and the film seems so intent on chronicling her downward spiral that it doesn’t provide much in terms of payoffs. Still, even with mixed feelings about the film in general, I still laughed a bit too much to be entirely dismissive: While Kristen Wiig is better when she’s acting seriously than when she’s trying to mug for the camera, Melissa McCarthy steals practically nearly every scene she has, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper are both under-used and I’m already on record since Idiocracy as being happy to watch Maya Rudolph in just about anything. There are a few funny lines, successful sketches (the airplane sequence, overlong but ending on a high note), silly sight-gags and absurd non-sequiturs to qualify Bridesmaids as a comedy when it’s at its best –the problem is the time in-between, stuck watching the protagonist as she digs herself deeper in trouble. Those don’t belong in the same movie. Where’s a competent script editor when you need one?
(In theatres, May 2010) Incompetent secret agents are fast approaching cliché after Johnny English, Get Smart, OSS-117 and many others, so MacGruber has a few other issues to worry about aside from its thin inspiration from Saturday Night Live sketches. Sadly, what we get is a coarse, violent and generally unpleasant satire on the action-movie genre. It’s not exactly terrible (it certainly earns its share of laughs), but it could have been quite a bit better. MacGruber, played by SNL’s Will Forte, is not just incompetent but blustery, crass and with few redeemable qualities: He’s a full-time annoyance and sadly he’s in pretty much the entire movie. Bland co-star Ryan Philippe does a bit better, although Kristen Wiig is so conventional in her portrayal of the obligatory love interest that I gladly would have seen her switch roles with the always-cute Maya Rudolph. But character flaws aren’t the biggest of MacGruber’s problems, which betrays its SNL origins by padding 30 minutes’ worth of jokes into an hour and a half of lazy pacing, pauses for laughs and diminishing-returns call-backs to gags that weren’t funny in the first place. (“I’ll do anything to get back on the case?” Funny for ten seconds, not forty. Celery? Never funny.) The direction is hampered by a low budget, which the disjoint editing seems to make even worse. Fortunately, there is about one dumb laugh every ten minutes (how dumb? Well, I was unexpectedly amused by subtitles on “You’re loco, man”), which still places MacGruber a cut above many other comedies out there. It’s not a disaster, but the sense of missed opportunities here feels overwhelming.