(On Cable TV, July 2017) As someone who doesn’t mind romantic movies but is easily bored with them, I’m reminded by Water for Elephants that the key to an interesting romance is largely made out of its setting. In this case, setting a relatively standard love triangle in the middle of a 1930s travelling circus feels like an instant shot of interest—watching the minutiae of a circus is fascinating to the point when it’s easy to tolerate the familiar romantic plot. None of the three main actors impress by going out of persona—Reese Witherspoon is her usual forgettable self, while Christoph Waltz genially chews scenery and Robert Pattinson continues to prove that he’s better than his Twilight character but not that far removed from it. Still, the star here is the travelling circus and its sub-culture, the details of setting up the big top every day and the challenges of trying to run a circus in depression-era America. It’s a great setting and you can lose yourself in the way the movie shows those details … before being brought to earth with the familiar love triangle featuring a good guy, a damsel in distress and an abusive husband. It wraps up satisfyingly, though, and that more than makes up for the familiar path trodden along the way. Production values are surprisingly good, and there’s a wealth of supporting characters who get a shining moment or two. I was surprised by Water for Elephants—I expected something duller and middle-of-the-road, but that was based on reading a plot summary—the actual film is far more generous than expected in its period details and richness of setting. I’ll take it.
(On TV, December 2016) I’m not sure what irks me more about Sweet Home Alabama: the rom-com formula faithfully followed, the titular insistence on southern values being preferable to Yankee ones, the easily predictable plot points or the idiot comedy segments. It doesn’t help that the film features Reese Witherspoon in her bog-standard rom-com persona—I consider Witherspoon to be an entirely neutral value as an actress, and she contributes to the film’s blandness. To its credit, Sweet Home Alabama is only mildly annoying: the magic of genre romantic comedies is that they’re usually so sweet, positive and gentle that there is a fairly high floor to how bad they can get, and even if the result isn’t particularly good, it’s not overly offensive either. The closest it gets to obnoxiousness are the various ways in which the film opposes its New York characters to its Southern ones, invariably suggesting that rural is best. This being said, this real-America-is-not-coastal-urban-America attitude is a fairly common one in movies, so it’s been defanged by sheer overexposure. Otherwise, what’s left to say? Amusing set pieces, predictable mysteries, square-jawed performance by Josh Lucas as the suitably masculine romantic lead. It’s almost the very definition of an ordinary romantic comedy. At least you get what you expect from Sweet Home Alabama.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) I will admit that over time, I have gotten used to Reese Witherspoon’s innocuous screen persona to the point of never expecting more than blandly likable performances in the vein of Legally Blonde and Walk the Line. Maybe I’ve been watching the wrong movies, but memoir adaptation Wild feels different. Obviously a passion project for the actress, it features Witherspoon in the role of a young woman walking the Pacific trail in an attempt to reboot her life after the crushing loss of her mother and an aimless hedonistic period. Shot in nearly cinema-vérité style by Jean-Marc Vallée, Wild feels raw and honest, a true-life odyssey walking north the West Coast. The scenery is spectacular, the way the flashbacks are structured as impressionistic bursts is effective and Witherspoon herself is captivating through the entire film. It feels like a far more likable version of Into the Wild, and the mechanics of how the protagonist manages to master hiking and deconstruct herself to her satisfaction is both uplifting and poignant. Both a thrilling adventure story and an effecting character study, Wild works far better than expected, and will remain a milestone in Witherspoon’s filmography.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) To be honest, I didn’t expect much from Just Like Heaven, which first presents itself as a basic supernatural romantic comedy: A man moves into an apartment vacated under mysterious circumstances, and soon discovers that he’s sharing space with the ghost of a feisty woman who doesn’t realize she’s dead. Various hijinks follow, all the way to an improbable happy ending. Standard stuff, except for a better-than-average execution and some good comic moments. Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon are both very good the lead roles, Mark Waters directs everything with rhythm and the basic concept of a ghost trying to connect with a real live human are good for some unexpected pieces of physical comedy. It does inevitably dip into drama later on, but no worries: the ending is as happy as anything you’d expect. Don’t focus on the finer points of the plotting or the obvious emotional manipulation and you’ll be just fine: San Francisco plays itself well, the side-characters are fun, and the film hooks you up without too much trouble. I started Just Like Heaven as background watching while I was doing something else, and ended up stopping my work to watch the film more often than I’d thought. That doesn’t make it a great movie… but it does make it quite a bit better than I expected.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Viewer! Hey, viewer! Did you know that Sofia Vergara’s persona is a beautiful fiery high-class woman with a shrill Spanish accent? Knowing this, and being able to rely on Reese Witherspoon as the straight-woman of the duo, you can now write about two-third of the jokes in Hot Pursuit, a crime comedy built almost entirely around Vergara’s ability to deliver what she does best. It’s not a bad film, but it’s obviously formula-driven to a distracting point. It’s a good thing that Vergara and Witherspoon have an easy chemistry, otherwise the film would fall flat. But they do, and the film flies highest when both are engaged in physical comedy of some sort, either falling outside windows or vamping it up for unsuspecting supporting characters. There’s a pleasant rhythm to it, and it’s undemanding enough not to be disappointing in the right frame of mind. It probably could have been a bit tighter, a bit funnier and a bit wittier, but the point of the film is to showcase its two lead actresses, and anything that allows this objective to be fulfilled is good enough. I usually find Witherspoon unremarkable and Vergara annoying –so it’s a mark of Hot Pursuit’s success that I actually found both of them likable in their own way. Still, there’s no use denying the domination of the film by its own formula –if you’re looking for something off-beat, then keep going.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) On paper, This Means War has a terrific (if risky) premise: What if two spies vied for the same woman? What could they do with the resources of the state at their disposal if the goal was all-and-out romance? It’s a promising idea, tempered only by the balance required to tone down the unbound misogynistic stalkerism inherent in the premise. But that’s asking far too much of director McG’s rather silly take on the idea, as he’s barely able to present the basic idea in an entertaining fashion. The fault, to be clear, isn’t in leads Chris Pine, Tom Hardy or Reese Witherspoon: All three are capable actors more than able to use their established screen persona to elevate the film above its true weight. But it’s just not a good script, and McG’s execution doesn’t do much to make it better –to the point where it’s easy to wonder what happened to the guy who delivered two relatively successful Charlie’s Angels film in the more or less the same vein. It’s easy to blame a mid-sized budget: This Means War was visibly shot in Vancouver (all the US Post boxes in the world can’t hide the Vancouver Public Library, President’s Choice breakfast cereal, or transform an HMV store into a video-rental place) and its obvious Hollywood gloss (spies in shiny high-tech offices, implausible apartments, CIA having access to priceless paintings, a foreign national working for the CIA… aaaagh.) only make it a lazy, contemptuous film. The most infuriating thing about it may be how it makes a mess out of a can’t-miss idea, a director who’s done good things in the past, and three actors who basically show up to play their usual kind of role. (Tom Hardy is particularly wasted given his chance to riff off his violent-guy persona into something more accessible.) While there are a few suitable scenes of mayhem, a few good quotes and the occasional directorial flourish, there’s very little in This Means War that works on a sustained basis. It’s the kind of Hollywood film that gives a bad name to Hollywood films, and the fact that they shot a film set in Los Angeles in Vancouver may be all that is required to be said.
(On cable TV, April 2012) Watching well-made romantic comedies is so effortless that making them seems easy… and then you find one that doesn’t quite work as well as it could. On the surface, How Do You Know isn’t a hard movie to like: It has four good actors in the lead (Paul Rudd is charming as the co-protagonist and Owen Wilson is almost hilarious as a clueless baseball player but the film’s highlight is that Reese Witherspoon is aging really well –I can’t recall her looking any better), appealing characters, quirky details, a few big laughs and a somewhat witty script. Shot to glossy perfection in the streets of Washington DC, it’s the kind of film fully steeped in movie-magic, fit to send audiences in a feel-good trance. And yet… it never quite clicks. The dialogues, even from the first few scenes, seem willfully scattered. The scenes go on for longer than they should, and no amount of character charm nor scene-setting can excuse the tepid rhythm. While How Do You Know earns a few credits for avoiding the more obvious clichés of romantic comedies, it doesn’t quite replace those clichés with anything remarkably compelling. The look at the struggles of an aging female athlete seems eclipsed by the look at the idiocy of an aging male athlete, while the corporate malfeasance plot doesn’t quite boil at any point in the story. It all amount to nothing much; at best, a pleasantly eccentric but forgettable romance. But then, looking up the film’s production information, you find out that it cost $120 million, almost half of which was spent on five key salaries… and the film goes from unobjectionable to incomprehensible. Really, writer/director James L. Brooks? Did you really need Jack Nicholson to play his same shtick for that amount of money? How Do You Know feels like the kind of low-budget romance given to hungry up-and-coming directors for a quick release a modest box-office… not blockbuster budgets and massive audiences: there’s nothing here to warrant more attention. No amount of “Eh, it was all right” can recoup those losses.