(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) A while ago, I started suspecting that I was seeing a too-limited selection of movies, and started letting my viewing being influenced by popularity lists as an opportunity to look at genres I’d normally avoid. And while I may roll my eyes at Adam Sandler comedies, weepy romantic dramas, gory horror and other movies on those lists, there’s one category that has consistently outperformed my expectations: Coming-of-age drama-comedies. From The Fault in Our Stars to Sing Street to Paper Town to The Way Way Back, I’m discovering authors such as John Green, investigating the early movies of rising stars and finding much to like in the results. The Way Way Back has a few passing similarities to films such as Adventureland, featuring a socially marginalized teen finding guidance and companionship on a summer job. Liam James is featureless but likable as the lead character, but it’s the supporting actors who often shine more brightly: Sam Rockwell is particularly good as a man-child compelled to mentor our hero, while Steve Carell plays an unusually detestable role as an antagonistic, philandering would-be father-in-law. A few familiar faces also show up in minor roles, from Maya Rudolph to Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. The portrait of a small seaside town and its attendant water park is warm and sympathetic, fitting almost perfectly with the script’s goals. While the story is familiar and the beats are predictable, The Way Way Back is satisfying for all the right reasons. It may not set the world on fire, but it’s a sure-fire choice for a quiet evening. It may be about today’s teenagers, but the extemporal setting will ensure that the themes will resonate with a wide group.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) At first glance, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a lot going for it: An ensemble of high-powered comic actors, a rich premise that opposes old-school stage magic with new-style street magic, a return to glitzy Las Vegas and a can’t-miss redemptive arc for the protagonist. What we get is quite a bit less straightforward. From the laboured beginning all the way through an overlong third act, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone can’t quite find either a consistent tone or a sustained rhythm. Scenes run too long (even when the directing bets on the old “repeat it long enough and it will start being funny again” fallacy), the tone keeps going back and forth between attempted sincerity and zany antics and there’s a distinct sense that the film just isn’t trying hard enough to make good use of the tools at its disposal. Steve Carrell may have a likable hangdog charm, but the film takes a lot of time to dispense with the initial arrogance of his character, and then goes through the exasperating romance with a co-star half his age. Fortunately, the cast is usually better than the material. An occasionally-unrecognizable Jim Carrey steals most of his scenes as a street magician with a poor sense of self-preservation (while his scenes are generally the funniest of the film, they’re also the most out-of-place, contributing to the tonal problems), while Alan Arkin makes the most out of a plum grouchy-old-mentor role. Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini bring added depth to perfunctory-written supporting characters, but even they seem a bit bored with the material. As with the similarly-themed Now You See Me, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes the mistake of using CGI to accomplish magic tricks, undermining its basic credibility in the process. Alas, it doesn’t have the breakneck pacing of Now You See Me, and the result feels decidedly average. It’s not that the film doesn’t have its moments (there’s a really good bedtime magician patter scene, and the film always becomes funnier once Arkin or Carrey are on-screen), but it feels as if it’s not trying hard enough the rest of the time. While it’s funny and entertaining enough to warrant a look, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t earn much more than a final shrug. There is, simply put, too little magic in the final result.
(On TV, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(In theatres, April 2010) There’s something refreshing in seeing a comedy for adults that delivers entertainment while avoiding the crassest demands of teenage audiences. It’s not that Date Night is short on violence, profanity, sexual references and overall bad behaviour, but it refuses to indulge in them for their own sake. The result is, for lack of a better expression, well-mannered. Date Night is seldom mean or meaningless; it features two mature comedians (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) at the height of their skills and it’s obviously aimed at an older target audience of long-time married couples. Date Night has too many plotting coincidences to be a perfect film, but it does end up better than average, and that’s already not too bad. If the script logic is often contrived, it’s far better at making us believe that the lead couple’s reactions are what bright-but-ordinary people would say or do in dangerous situations, rather than what the Hollywood stereotypes may dictate. There are even a few particularly good sequences in the mix, including a deliriously funny car chase through the streets of New York City, and a thinly-veiled excuse for Carell and Fey to dance as badly as they can. A bunch of recognizable character actors also appear for a scene or two, from the sadly underused William Fichtner to an always-shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a pasta-fed Ray Liotta. Add to that the somewhat original conceit of involving a bored married couple in a criminal caper (rather than using the thriller elements to make a couple “meet cute” as is far more common) and Date Night is original enough, and well-made enough to be noticeable in the crop of films at the multiplex. A few laughs, a few thrills and a few nods at the difficulty of staying married; what else could we ask from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood action comedy?