(On TV, February 2017) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Lasse Hallström and Nicholas Sparks in Dear John. With those four names together, you almost don’t have to do anything else to describe the result. Of course, it’s going to be an overlong (Hallström) weepy romantic drama (Nicholas Sparks) featuring a sympathetic hunk (Tatum) and a likable petite blonde (Seyfried). Any other questions? Oh, sure, the point of those films is in the details and side characters such as Richard Jenkins’ autistic father, likable in a difficult role. It’s about the homespun wisdom that kind of works even as it’s melodramatic (“Now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.”) It’s about familiar dialogue and situations that allow viewers to immerse themselves in characters that could be just like them. It’s about knowing where the journey takes us and being comforted by it. It’s not about wit or originality or being challenged or reflecting on the anxious years following 9/11. It’s not about anything else but what you see on the tin. Dear John works at what it tries to be, but it doesn’t try to be very ambitious.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) Seasoned movie reviewers often praise execution over originality, and movies like Safe Haven tend to prove their point: what works in this film is familiarity, while what doesn’t work is audaciousness. As a romance/thriller hybrid, Safe Haven feels familiar from the get-go, although the opening segment insists forcefully on the thriller aspect of it. Things soon settle down on an idyllic portrayal of a woman on the run (Julianne Hough, unremarkable) finding temporary peace in a small coastal community. Preposterously cute, this segment of the film feels the most comforting: our protagonist soon finds a job, a place to live (without showing any papers!), friends and eventually an impossibly ideal boyfriend (Josh Duhamel, in a good role). It is, after all, adapted from a Nicholas Spark novel. In parallel, sequences featuring a dangerously unhinged cop suggests that this is all about to crash down … and it does, at the same time as lies are exposed, a relationship seemingly breaks apart and the town revels in its Fourth of July celebration. Familiar stuff, ably directed by veteran Lasse Hallström but comforting all the same: Likable actors such as Mimi Kirkland and Red West help sell the fantasy of a small town where people can just come in and be warmly received. But the film does have two twists up its sleeve and if the first one isn’t too far-fetched by the standards of the thriller genre, the final one (about Cobie Smulder’s character) just feels moronic, even by the conventions of heartwarming romances. It does help cement a generally unfavourable impression of a film that, up until then, was teetering between comfort and cliché. Once the final revelation rolls by, Safe Haven becomes easily dismissible as nothing more than romantic pulp, perhaps engaging at time but ultimately tainted by one useless twist too far.
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.