(On Cable TV, January 2015) I have a high tolerance for dumb comedies, so it takes a quite a bit to make one tip into irritation. Sadly, The Internship occasionally manages to do so in a way that seems particularly counterproductive to its goals. The story is straight out of the kind of aging fratboy fantasies fulfilled by Vince Vaughn’s persona: Here are a couple of ordinary middle-aged salesmen abruptly taking on an internship at tech giant Google, where their initial sense of estrangement will eventually give way to pride as their knowledge of how to have fun and cut loose will teach valuable life lessons to the young nerds around them. If you’re thinking anti-Revenge of the Nerds, then you’re on the right track: in better hands, this could have been a poignant exploration of the irrelevance of traditional man-child values at a time where technological knowledge and intellectualism is in vogue. But with Vaughn not only starring, but writing and producing, you can bet that this is not the case. This is about bringing party back, about telling the nerds to loosen up and finding relevance at a time where arrested development isn’t funny. My idiosyncratic reaction to all of that, being of the nerdish persuasion, is predictably irritated. The script isn’t much more than tired retreads on a familiar structure and brain-damaged sequences, which isn’t much of a surprise considering the pedigree of Vaughn and Shawn Levy as writers. The real question here is why Google allowed the film such generous use of its corporate identity: I suppose that, in Goldman’s term, nobody knew anything about how the film would turn out. All of this being said and having established that The Internship can occasionally be as obnoxious as Vaughn’s persona, there are a few saving moment here and there: There is a good restaurant sequence between Owen Wilson and Rose Byrne as they race through a decade’s worth of bad dates in a minute, Tiya Sircar has a small but striking role as the nerd-girl who know everything but has done nothing and Aasif Mandvi also distinguish himself as the putative voice of reason. Still, that’s not a whole lot to save a film. On its own as a mediocre comedy, The Intership would be barely worth a mention. As a none-too-witty aggression over nerd values couched in a Google advertisement, well, it’s obnoxious in ways that seem worse than the sum of its parts.
(Cable TV, July 2012) I’m not betraying any big trade secret when I reveal that SF nerds love to slice-and-dice SF movies to find out whether they are true examples of True and Good Science-Fiction rather than cheap sci-fi knockoffs made for the rubes. Films like Real Steel are good fodder for such conversations, because while it unarguably depends on a science-fiction premise (Boxing Robots! How much more SF can you get? Plus, it’s adapted from a short story by real SF writer Richard Matheson), it’s somewhat lazy in working out the second-order implications of such a premise on the rest of the world. Real Steel is a kid’s film, mind you, and it’s far more interested in showing father and son bonding over rock’em-sock’em robot fighting than in offering a convincing portrait of the near future. While SF nerds will be disappointed to point out the flaws in the film’s chronology (which posits vast institutions build around boxing robots by 2020, which seems like a ridiculously short time) and the lack of robots in non-boxing roles, most of the film’s audience will be satisfied by the father-son drama, the fights and the superb rural scenery. (I don’t recall ever seeing that many farms and two-lane roads in a SF film.) This nostalgic attachment to a quasi-mythical Americana extends to the safe thematic concerns of the script, which blends fatherhood, populism, scraping by and punching things into a crowd-pleasing mix. It seems all very calculated, but Real Steel is successful because it’s very good at what it attempts to do: the cinematography is luminous, the soundtrack is peppy, the plot is cleanly delivered, the special effects are impressive, Hugh Jackman is charming as a hustling ex-fighter learning how to care for his son and director Shawn Levey keeps the film moving at a good pace. Only the abrupt ending, missing an epilogue, seems to miss a beat. Still, the film is all about pleasing audiences, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned here in how a movie can humanize a technological gimmick into something that even the broadest crowds can love.