(On Cable TV, February 2017) Playing like the demented fever dream of a horny teenager discovering sex, swearing and atheist philosophy at once, Sausage Party definitely isn’t your average animated movie. Conceived by Seth Rogen, this movie takes a look at sentient supermarket food as they gradually realize that being chosen and put in the cart means that a horrible death awaits them. As a mad adult take on talking-objects movies, Sausage Party further amps the dose by going for all-out gross humour, featuring a near-constant debit of foul language, sexual references that skirt the NC-17 rating (and would definitely exceed it had it featured real humans) and violent matter. (Being eaten is, well, not for the faint of heart.) It’s almost amazing that respected notables such as Ed Norton and Salma Hayek would be game to voice the result, but there they are. The animation is of noticeably lower quality than the current state-of-the-art (there have been unpleasant reports about the working conditions in the studio that produced the film) but few will mind when the script takes such a centre stage. To its credit, Sausage Party does work: Beyond all the crude jokes and wearying accumulation of swearwords, the concept is clever, some jokes land well (I really liked the “Gum” character) and the ending goes for another conceptual breakthrough that sends off the film on a high note. For all of its juvenile energy, there is something vaguely audacious and subversive about Sausage Party—a form/function mash-up between a kind of movie typically aimed at kids to talk about adult matters of indoctrination and belief. DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT let younger kids see this film. Heck, don’t even let easily offended adults see it either. Still, in a predictable studio system that churns out big-budget formulas every week, there’s something endearingly anarchic and rebellious about Sausage Party that makes it stand out even in a crowded field. Much like a too-smart teenager trying out shock humour before settling down to more mature pursuits.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) There’s something to be said for consistency in evolution, and so the best thing to say about Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is that it should make fans of the first film happy without necessarily re-threading its plot. Here, our new-parent homeowners (now expecting Child #2) have to deal with a sorority moving next door, further complicated by the fact that if the girls may be unbearable as a sorority, they’re not unsympathetic on their own or in their overall objectives. It predictable escalates, especially when the party wildcard of the first film (Zac Efron, still remarkably likable) is brought back by one side, and then the other. While the film takes a few minutes to bring together its three subplots, it predictably escalates to tit-for-tat aggression and a ramp-up to a big ultimate party in which everything gets solved. The R-rated humour is rarely subtle or refined, but the film does earn its share of smirks and smiles. Seth Rogan plays Seth Rogan, while Rose Byrne is once again very funny. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is not particularly refined filmmaking, but it works at being a crude comedy. Given the suburban ending, though, I wonder where else the series can go from there.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) By this time in his career, Seth Roger has such a defined persona that “Seth Rogen does a Christmas movie” is enough to suggest a fairly accurate picture of The Night Before. We’re going to see crudeness (especially penile jokes), copious drug use, dumb jokes, a paean to male friendship and some anxiety about (finally) growing up. Roughly half of Rogen’s movies in the past ten years have played variations on the same themes and this latest one isn’t any different. For all of the emotional scaffolding about three friends wondering whether their Christmas traditions are holding them together or holding them back, this is really an excuse for Christmas-themed drug jokes and assorted shenanigans. It does work reasonably well, but usually thanks to the actors more than the jokes themselves. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, and, yes, Seth Rogen all bring something extra to their roles even when they’re just doing what they usually do best. (Well, that’s not exactly true for Michael Shannon, who seems to be enjoying himself in a coarser role than usual.) Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer, James Franco and Miley Cyrus also show up in small but striking roles. Some of the comic set-pieces work well enough, and the film’s conclusion is just as gooey-reassuring as we’d like in a Christmas movie. As far as holiday classic go, The Night Before aspires to a place alongside Harold and Kumar’s 3D Christmas and Bad Santa, which isn’t terrible company when the syrupy nature of year-end celebrations becomes a bit too much to bear. “Seth Rogen does Christmas movie” it is, then.
(On DVD, December 2015) Watching Zack and Miri a few years later, knowing the trajectory of mainstream American comedy films toward the Judd Apatow model, becomes an exercise in pinpointing the passing of the torch from Kevin Smith to Apatow, with Smith basically capitulating and trying to ape Apatow’s style. There’s some logic in this evolution: Smith is, after all, largely responsible for normalizing bad language and sexual references in mainstream comedy. Seeing him pass the baton to Apatow feels like a natural succession. It doesn’t help that Zack and Miri feels a lot closer to Apatow’s films than to Smith’s ones. From the raunchy subject matter to the chaste execution, passing by the presence of Seth Rogen in a lead role and some improvisation breaking through Smith’s usually tightly-scripted style, this is a film that would look undistinguishable as part of Apatow’s filmography. For Smith, Zack and Miri is something strange: A not-so-good, now-derivative script combined with what is perhaps the slickest direction of his career so far. There are a few laughs, but much of the film’s emotional arc is predictable, although viewers will be asked to suffer through other people’s misery for a rather long time on the way to a happy conclusion. The wall-to-wall profanity gets tiresome and feels like endless immaturity; the sexual content is handled in a way designed to neuter it of anything but comic value. It’s not a bad film, but it now probably doesn’t feel as edgy or clever as Smith originally intended. The torch, as I said, has been passed.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) There is a good reason why Funny People often comes up in any discussion of Adam Sandler’s career: While Sandler has done dramatic roles elsewhere (Punch-Drunk Love, Reign over Me), his turn in Funny People as a terminally-ill famous comedian trying to grapples with his impending mortality builds upon his performances in other, far sillier movies. It’s a masterful use of an existing actor persona by writer/director Judd Apatow, and Sandler actually gets some dramatic mileage out of his role. A good chunk of the film isn’t bad either: the dramatization of the stand-up comedian’s life in Los Angeles is fascinating, and the film features a bunch of good performances by other actors, from an unusually serious turn for Seth Rogen (with similarities to material later explored in 50/50), to fine performances by Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, Jonas Hill, Aubrey Plaza and a ton of comedy cameos. (The Hill/Rogen interactions are fascinating, especially given the trajectories that both of their careers took afterward). Some of the meta-commentary about Sandler films, usually seen through glimpses of the terrible movies featuring the protagonist, are a treat for any followers of American comedy films. Happily, there is some thematic and emotional heft to it all, striking a good balance between comedy and drama. But it could have been better. The first half of Funny People is conventionally satisfying… then comes The Twist, and the second half of the movie seems at odds with the first, the pacing slowing down to a crawl, the setting, characters and tone changing significantly. Apatow, of course, does what he pleases –and his films have never been accused of being too short. But at two-and-a-half hour, Funny People seems to lose its way at some point, and tightening up the result could have worked wonders. Still, Sandler’s striking performance remains, and the result is an impressive collaboration between a gallery of notable circa-2009 comedians.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Complaining that college fraternity comedy Neighbors is too frat-boyish is entirely missing the point of the film and yet… it may still be a worthwhile point. As someone with fresh memories of taking care of a baby, I expected to feel more sympathy for the protagonist couple of this film, as they try to live next door to a fraternity house with raucous parties. But there’s a limit to the respectability of a protagonist when he’s played by Seth Rogen: weed addiction, profanity and raunchiness usually follow in close succession, and his performance as a flawed father in Neighbors is no exception. (I had to restrain myself from muttering a few instances of “Bad parenting! Bad parenting!”) I’m not going to pretend that the film isn’t funny: Both Rose Byrne and Zac Efron get a chance to earn theirs laughs and the escalation of absurdity between the protagonists and the frat-house denizens gets steadily more ludicrous. This is quality comedy, sometimes sloppy in its details but dynamic from beginning to end. For all of the reprehensible humor of the film, most characters get a few more introspective moments than strictly warranted and there’s a bit of thematic content about impending adulthood running through the film… all without ruining the often go-for-broke comedy. The very thing that makes Neighbors annoying (the irresponsibility of its so-called protagonists) is exactly what makes the film a bit deeper than expected. While it won’t become a classic, Neighbors should, at least, earn a grudging respect, even when it dips a bit too deeply into gross dumbness.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) The Interview is no mere movie. It’s the one that earned the ire of North Korea, (allegedly) got Sony Studios hacked, got pulled from North American chain theatres, became a reference for the President of the United States of America and ended up released digitally as a hail-Mary attempt to recoup some of its production costs, eventually ending up as one of the top-grossing VOD release of all times (so far). What a strange fate for Yet Another Rogen/Franco Stoner Comedy taking vulgar pot-shots at respectable subjects. After Pineapple Express (crime thriller stoner comedy), Your Highness (Epic Fantasy stoner comedy) and This is the End (Post-Rapture stoner comedy), the results are familiar. Silliness meets the sublime as a Very Serious Topic (ie; the assassination of foreign dictators by the US government) is demolished through an endless parade of lurid, stupid, dumb and crude jokes. And yet… The Interview is surprisingly entertaining. The friction between our hapless entertainment-TV host (James Franco, for once playing the goofball compared to Seth Rogen’s more serious news producer) and the important geopolitical assignment he receives is at the root of quite a few laughs, but the good-natured stupidity of the characters (“The tiger is wearing night-vision goggles?!?”) is enough to carry the film. Franco is surprisingly droll (making the most out of his persona’s sexual ambiguity), while Randall Park manages a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of “President Kim” and Diana Bang makes for a spirited regime representative / love interest. The Interview is directed with energy, featuring a terrific soundtrack and an ambitious cinematography for a dumb comedy. It’s not a great movie, what with its occasional lulls, needlessly graphic violence and lowest-common denominator crude humor. But it’s surprisingly funny, and at times provocative in how it mixes low-brow humor with geopolitical issues. The Interview ends with fireworks, and stands on its own as a film that meets its intentions.
(On TV, January 2015) I’m slowly getting up to speed on the comedy landmarks of the past decade, and Knocked Up certainly looms large on the list of unmissable films that I had managed to miss. I’m not a big fan of Judd Apatow’s school of crude observational comedies: Their scripts feel loose, the laughs a bit weak, and far too many of the premises are based on cringe-worthy material. I simply don’t identify with the result. Knocked Up is, in many ways, an encapsulation of it all as it studies the aftermath of a one-night stand between a pot-addled slacker (Seth Rogen, who else?) and a wound-up career woman (Katherine Heigl, in something near a career high). It does have the merit to use laughs as a way to address a complicated scenario, and in ways that won’t fail to resonate (even faintly) with any couple. It can also boast of a cast of supporting that would become, later on, a credible who’s-who of American comedy films, from Paul Rudd to Jason Segel to Kristen Wiig to Jonah Hill to Ken Jeong to Jay Baruchel and so on. There are poignant moments and silly laughs all wrapped up in a film that is daring enough to be noticeable, but not so much as to turn everyone against it: Traditional family values are espoused despite the raunchy details. Still, the film feels long and meandering at times, and I’m at the stage in my life where I see the fable of “shlubby nerd gets hot girl” as more toxic than empowering. (To summarize endless pages of hard-earned diatribes that go well beyond the scope of this review, my messages to my younger fellow nerds isn’t “be yourself and something magical will happen” but “grow up; it’s good for you”.) But back on track: Knocked Up may not be everyone’s cup of tea (the sexism is undeniable and the stoner-chic movement has to go away), but it is a films of cultural significance when put alongside the films it drew from and those it inspired. That’s something I’m willing to concede, even if I may not be the best public for its kind of laughs.
(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, June 2013) Cancer is usually the domain of the made-for-TV sentimental tear-jerker aimed at women, not the kind of quasi-comedies aimed at young men. But 50/50 takes the bet that it has something to say about cancer and friendship between young men and the result is far more impressive than you’d think. Joseph Gordon Lewitt stars as a young radio producer who discovers that he’s got a rare and potentially fatal form of cancer. Seth Rogen brings most of the laughs as his crude friend trying to cheer him up. (The film squarely earns one of its most emotional moments when the protagonist discovers the highlighted best intentions behind his best friend’s cheerful facade.) Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick gets a thankless role as a grief therapist who, against nearly all imaginable ethical guidelines, falls for her patient. As a refreshingly younger and brasher take on the familiar cancer narrative, 50/50 ends up reaching a new audience in an honest way, and the result is both hilarious and affecting.
(In Theaters, January 2010) I had no preconceived notions of how the Green Hornet character should be portrayed on-screen. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have a similar blank state of expectations regarding Seth Rogen: I find his man-child shtick annoying (Gaaah, Pineapple Express, gaaah), and this film pretty much revolves around it. If the final result can be watched without too much pain, Rogen is irritating throughout, and not just because he plays a spoiled boorish incompetent: The Green Hornet flirts so effectively with the idea that his sidekick is a far more deserving superhero that Rogen becomes an intrusion more than anything else. (Big Trouble in Little China did this trick far more effectively, albeit with a hero that was far more likable than Rogen’s usual loudmouth stoner-dude.) As far as action-comedies go, The Green Hornet isn’t anything particularly special: A few laughs, a few action sequences, some interesting visuals. That’s already better than we usually get for January dumping-ground films, even those adapted from sources that few people care about. Parts of the film actually do play better than average: Thanks to director Michel Gondry’s visual sense, the action sequences benefit from judicious editing, well-placed slow-motion and a classic sense of pacing that avoids the new shaky-cam spastic-editing norms. Gondry sneaks in a psychedelic sequence late in the film, and the green color scheme is used judiciously. When Rogen shuts up and behaves like an action hero, the film works quite a bit better than when it tries to showcase his comedy. The script is particularly poor in amusing sequences, delivering scene after scene that only work if you assume that every character is mentally retarded. (Poor Jay Chou, undeservingly playing second fiddle; poor Cameron Diaz, relegated to MILF-prize for two boys.) In other hands, The Green Hornet might have been good, or at least entertaining without moments of irritation. Here, though, it just plays to Rogen’s crowd and leaves everyone else waiting until the next good moment.
(On DVD, December 2010) I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the increasing cooptation of geeks from social outcasts to lucrative market segment, but even I have to admit that Fanboys is a fun comedy aimed squarely at that audience. The story of four Star-Wars-loving friends racing to steal an early copy of The Phantom Meance from Skywalker ranch, Fanboys gleefully indulges in geek references, inside jokes and enough re-quoted dialogue to qualify as a derivative work. I’m not sure why I was expecting something cheap, because the end result is polished B-movie, low-budget but not necessarily unpleasant to look at. The actors do their best (Jay Baruchel shows up in a decent early role, even showing his maple leaf chest tattoo), but it’s really the geekery of the film that takes center-stage in reflecting in the state of fandom circa winter 1999, still hoping that George Lucas would pull off a new trilogy of classic Star Wars films. (Part of the film’s humour is in the knowing references to the post-1999 reputation of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks or Harrison Ford) The geek stereotypes are extreme, but good-natured and even endearing when it comes to the five heroes of the story. If nothing else, fans should see Fanboys for the succession of cameos and bit parts for notables such as William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Seth Rogen (in three different roles), Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and many more. (Only Kevin Smith’s cameo feels rushed and incoherent.) There’s also a snappy pop soundtrack. Fanboys isn’t much of a comedy without the geek references (people without knowledge of the Star Wars universe, in particular, will miss out on much), but it’s good enough to exceed low expectations. [Classification note for metadata nerds: The film was shot in 2007, pushed back numerous times during the film’s troubled production history and eventually released in theaters and DVD in 2009. IMDB thinks it’s a 2008 film, but I’m listing it here as a 2009 release.]