(On Cable TV, October 2018) I you want to hear me at my cantankerous best, just get me started on the hyperbolization of language and (in parallel) the tendency of ironic catchphrases to get normalized to clichés. Never mind my person crusade to teach everyone the deadly origins of the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: one of my current bugaboos is how perfectly good middle-ground descriptive words have been perverted into value judgments. “Mediocre” means “ordinary,” but most people now take it to mean “bad.” “Exemplary” means that something is a perfect example of something, and not necessarily among the best. So when I say that Failure to Launch is an exemplary mid-2000s romantic comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey (not as small a sample size as you’d think), then I’m just saying that it’s representative, not a superior example of the form. The plot is the kind of high-concept contrived nonsense that was a staple at the time, this time about a relationship specialist (Sarah Jessica Parker) who can be hired to boost the self-esteem of young men staying at their parent’s house long after they’ve overstayed their welcome. It’s not prostitution, insists Failure to Launch in the rare moments when it actually cares about the implications of its premise, except that parents do hire her to send their boys away from home. The plot built upon that premise is executed by-the-numbers, but as with many examples of the genre the charm of the film lies in the execution, the subplots and the supporting characters. The charm of the leads is considerable (there’s a reason why McConaughey found a niche in romantic comedies for so long—he nearly overpowers the material), and there is a lot of fun to find in the more interesting romantic B-story featuring Zooey Deschanel and the film’s obsession about animal bites. Bradley Cooper and a pre-hair implant Steve Carrell show up in minor roles. There’s a funny subplot about a mockingbird. Despite its familiarity, Failure to Launch is not a difficult film to watch: it’s not exceptional, but it’s well-made enough to be entertaining.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2018) Five or ten years ago, I would have naively dismissed Battle for the Sexes’ lack of subtlety, its ham-fisted moral values and its obvious plotting. In resurrecting a 1973 TV spectacle pitting an older male player to a younger female one, the movie gleefully gets to recreate the social arguments of the time, not only discussing second-wave feminism (cleanly associating male chauvinism with grifting, laziness, and a bit of anti-Semitism) but also throwing in an LGBTQ feel-good bromide along the way. But looking at the resurgence of reactionary sentiment in (North-) American society in the past few years, I’m done with naïve cynicism—no amount of repeating the basics of human decency is enough and if that means going back to basics and calling a male chauvinist pig a male chauvinist pig, then so be it. It does help that Emma Stone is effortlessly charming at Billy Jean King, facing off a Steve Carrell who commits himself fully to the role of a sexist opportunist. The plot is familiar, the caricature of the antagonist is underlined twice to make sure we can’t possibly misunderstand the stakes, and the morals are obvious to anyone who doesn’t wear a red cap in their leisure time. Still, the period feel is convincing, the film does score a few comic highlights, Alan Cumming has one of his most Allan-Cummingest roles to date (complete with a “Hear that, 2017?” coda) and the entire thing is entertaining enough to watch. If Battle for the Sexes feels a bit too on-the-nose, then it may mean that there’s still work to do.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) Hollywood is known for dumbing down everything, but the positive spin on dumbing-down is “vulgarize”, and The Big Short does it exceptionally well. Explaining the financial crisis of 2007–2008 through the perspective of traders who bet on the collapse of the US housing bubble before everyone else, this is a film that sets out to explain an exceptionally complicated topic to broad audiences, using every means at its disposal. Other than a clever script that creates dramatic tension out of real events, this includes frequent asides to the camera, sardonic narration and nakedly didactic celebrity appearances. (“And now to explain mortgage bonds, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”) The result is nothing short of astonishing: The Big Short lays out its explanations clearly, entertainingly and doesn’t make many mistakes along the way. Even readers of Michael Lewis’s original book will be impressed at the amount of detail that writer/director Adam McKay manages to include in slightly more than two hours. For McKay, The Big Short is an impressive step forward that builds upon his work on The Other Guys’ end credits sequence to deliver a film that is outrageous and infuriating in the best sense of the words, while remaining a far funnier film than either Anchorman movies. (The helps that the film has a sly sense of stealth humour, from playing “Crazy” in the background of an insane explanation, showing how regulators jump in bed with banks, or how an assessor wears blindness-inducing glasses—removing them just in time to deliver some harsh truths.) This being said, the laughs in The Big Short aren’t from jokes as much as they’re from sheer bewilderment, that so-called smart people would be so astonishingly stupid. Or short-sighted, or greedy: As befits a complex catastrophe, the motivations in The Big Short are as complicated as synthetic CDOs. Even the protagonists aren’t too sure what to feel when they win by betting against logic, tradition and the respectability of the American economy. Steve Carrell (as the outraged moral centre of the film) and Christian Bale both impress in roles that deviate a bit from their screen persona (to the extent that Bale has a screen persona, that is), with able supporting performances by Ryan Gosling and a barely recognizable Brad Pitt. It’s not a stretch to claim The Big Short as a public service—the limpid way it manages to explain the madness of an entire system is populist rage fit to justify mass entertainment as the modern jester. While not every trick it attempts works (McKay’s direction seems too deliberately off at times), it’s a fine, even impressive piece of cinema, as much for its ambitions than for how it achieves them. It makes a more than fitting companion to films such as Margin Call and Inside Job.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) There’s something almost unapologetically sweet in Dan in Real Life’s blend of large-family dynamics, romantic entanglements, good-natured characters and picturesque setting. (That house!) That doesn’t mean that the film lacks conflicts, just that they’re held at a controlled boil and are all happily resolved by the end no matter how unlikely they may seem. Steve Carell is a solid anchor for the movie as the titular Dan, a widower trying to keep three daughters under some semblance of control while finding himself attracted beyond reason to a lovely stranger who is eventually revealed as his brother’s latest girlfriend. Don’t worry: it work out. Much of the time in-between is spent witnessing a very large family gathering, with all of the associated quirks that suggests. It’s charming and undemanding, which should hit the spot for audiences. Juliette Binoche is fine as the object of Dan’s attraction, with a number of good actors in smaller roles. Dan in Real Life unspools without too much trouble, the virtues of its lead characters easily winning over viewers and justifying even the happiest of endings. There’s a bit of sentimental sap, as you’d expect, but it’s not unwelcome in its own way.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) I’m genuinely perplexed at Evan Almighty, and not for any single one reason. I’m perplexed, for instance, at the film’s insistence at tying itself to Bruce Almighty through a tenuous set of coincidences (as in; a minor character of the first film becoming a congressman and seemingly changing personalities entirely –this makes more sense when you know that the script was developed as its own thing and was then retrofitted to become part of a series) I’m perplexed at the guts it must have taken to take an explicitly religious topic (as in; God telling the protagonist to build an ark, because a flood is coming) and turn it in an expensive special-effects-driven mainstream comedy film. I’m perplexed at the inclusion of political content in the story. I’m perplexed at the way the film builds itself up to a biblical catastrophe… only to deliver a relatively modest disaster. I’m perplexed at the practical scale of the film’s sets… and the moderate results delivered by the script. Thanks to Steve Carrell and director Tom Shadyac, Evan Almighty does have its share of comic moments, although it has just as many exasperating scenes and lulls as the film underlines everything two or three times. It doesn’t help that the story aims for profundity but falls into mediocrity: For all of its sanctimonious attitude, Evan Almighty forgets that audiences will forgive anything in an entertaining film, and condemn everything in a dull one. Evan Almighty has serious tonal issues (Wanda Sykes is relatively entertaining, but she seems to be playing in a different film than Morgan Freeman) and scatters itself in too many directions to be successful. The result is, as I’ve mentioned, perplexing: Why does this movie exist, and what exactly were they trying to accomplish with it?
(On Cable TV, October 2015) I wish I liked this film a bit more. On some level, it’s a fascinating take on the American dream, filled with ironic use of America-the-great rhetoric, presenting Masters of the Universe (Olympians, Billionnaires) as pathetic lost souls. That’s the kind of contrarian message that appeals to me, and using that kind of thematic material to showcase dramatic performances by Steve Carrell (unrecognizable), Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo should be enough. But that’s not counting on the slow and dreary tone used by the film: From the first few minutes onward, it’s obvious that Foxcatcher can’t be bothered to make its points in thirty seconds if it can make them in sixty: the film is dark, bleak, slow and almost insufferable in how it seems determined to revel in misery. The crime on which this true story revolves is presented almost as an afterthought. It is, quite consciously, not a pleasant film to watch and by the end I felt as if life itself had been sucked out of me. Good film? Maybe. Something I’d recommend? Almost certainly not.
(On TV, December 2014) A good chunk of Jim Carrey’s early filmography from Ace Ventura to Liar, Liar (both also directed by Bruce Almighty’s Tom Shadyac) is made of high-concept comedies built around Carrey’s mannerisms,: Past 2003, Carrey would attempt more and more dramatic roles, and his return to comedy would either feel dated or aimed in a different direction. In this light, Bruce Almighty certainly feels like the last in a good Shadyac / Carrey line-up, offering Carrey the chance to play both mild-mannered everyday-man and unhinged rubber-faced maniac. The premise couldn’t be simpler: Following a terrible day, an ordinary man curses God and is given his powers and responsibilities to see if he would do better. As an excuse for Carrey to play with divine powers, it couldn’t be better: water parts, girlfriends get curvier and various religion-based puns rain down on the audience. It’s not hilarious, but it’s relatively amusing, almost entirely unthreatening despite the religious subject matter and Carrey gets one good reason to play the kind of comedy that made him famous. Morgan Freeman is perfect as God, while Steve Carrell has an early supporting role as a foil and Jennifer Aniston is cute but unremarkable as the perfunctory girlfriend. For all of the chuckles, though, there are few outright laughs, and the film’s insistence to remain respectfully grounded (all the way to third-act sermons) stops its absurdity from being more gripping. The results, in other words, don’t quite live up to the premise and the result settles for a middling average.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) There have been a lot of films about the end of the world lately (a wave that shows no sign of abating), but there’s always a place for something different, and it’s in this light that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is best appreciated. Once the first few minutes establish that this is indeed the impending end of the world, the rest of the film follows an everyman protagonist as he witnesses the end of civilization, the various responses to the impending apocalypse, and even gets to find solace of sorts. It’s too amiable to classify as a drama, but as a comedy, don’t expect big laughs as much as a series of poignant vignettes and a gentle romance. Steve Carrell is almost perfectly cast as the melancholic protagonist, while Keira Knightley gets an easy role as the girl who brightens up the last days of his life. Based as it is on a road-trip series of vignettes, the film can’t escape some severe tonal consistency problems, but it does end in a satisfying (albeit predictable) fashion. Cranking up many romantic clichés against the big ticking clock of the impending apocalypse, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World works best as a break from the usual bombastic disaster clichés, and as a slower deliberate exploration of what the end means to everyone.