(On Cable TV, October 2018) Don’t tell anyone else on the internet, but I have a special place in my cinephile’s heart for the kind of big brash musicals that Hollywood almost doesn’t make any more. From the get-go, The Greatest Showman sets high expectations with an eye-popping circus-and-dance number that clearly tells us that we’re not going to watch an attempt at mimetic realism. Hugh Jackman is known for his singing and dancing prowess on-stage, but little of this ever made it on the big screen until now. (let’s forget about Les Misérables…) Fortunately, The Greatest Showman makes the best use of his affable persona in telling a highly romanced version of P. T. Barnum’s life story. Most movies reflect the obsessions and values of their times, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that a 2017 retelling of Barnum’s life would focus on themes of anti-discrimination and empowerment, ennobling those who—in earlier days—would have been presented as freaks. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the real-life Barnum was far more complex than the amiable huckster-who-learns-better from the movie—after all, much like Barnum’s marks, we’re here for the show and what’s a little mutually agreed-upon film-flammery if we’re decently entertained? It helps that the musical numbers are usually as broad and brash as the film requires—I particularly liked “The Other Side” with its synchronized use of diegetic sounds in a context that goes from reality to fantasy in a blink, and, of course, both “The Greatest Show” as meant to be the marquee song and “This is me” as the power empowerment ballad. Jackman is great in the title role, fully able to do the big song-and-dance routines he was pining for. Michelle Williams is adequate in a supporting role, although Zac Efron proves better than expected in a role that, after all, goes back to his teenage-heartthrob musical roots. Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya and Keala Settle all seize their chance to shine in smaller roles. We can certainly quibble about the deviations from the historical record (or should we, given the film’s clear and early refusal to be realistic?) and the way that a proudly diverse cast ends up validating a white businessman’s life, but the film works really well in its chosen musical genre. At barely 105 minutes, The Greatest Showman focuses on the razzle-dazzle more than that rather simplistic plot and it works well enough to sustain the film. Director Michael Gracey does well in his first feature film. During the credit sequence, pay attention to the corners of the title cards for extra jokes.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There are times when, watching a movie, you get a glimpse at the confusion that must have gripped its production. So it is that Baywatch doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. It certainly understands that it’s an adaptation of a widely derided TV show with ironic elements. In fact, it has a character (played with increasing likability by Zac Efron) that seems dedicated to reminding us of all of the logical potholes that such a pedigree implies. Alas, the movie seems determined to become a hard-R comedy with copious grossness and overdone violence. How did we get here from there? The superior example of 22 Jump Street looms large over Baywatch, by showing how it’s possible to lampoon source material without bashing it or ending up with something completely unlike the source. What appears on screen feels like an incredible waste of talent. Dwayne Johnson does his best work at the PG-13 level: burdening him with swearwords and gross-out gags runs counter to his persona. Actresses such as Priyanka Chopra, Ilfenesh Hadera and Alexandra Daddario outdo Pamela Anderson in sheer sexiness but aren’t given anything to work with—even though Daddario does get a few self-deprecating jokes. Hannibal Buress is also wasted, although David Hasselhoff does get chuckles in yet another one of his self-aware extended cameos. The main problem is that the film just isn’t funny, and pushing the R-rated envelope actually makes it less comic and more pitiable. As far as I’m concerned, perhaps worst is that Baywatch‘s R-rating is used for gross jokes, swearwords and male nudity rather than maxing out the original series’ male gaze on curvy lifeguards. Seriously, what’s up with that?
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The latest resurgence in R-rated comedies has led to good, bad and indifferent results, with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ranking near the middle of the pack. The premise certainly seems optimized for comedy, what with two fratboy-type protagonists openly advertising for dates in order to attend their sister’s Hawaiian wedding. Things get even funnier when they’re targeted by opportunistic bad girls looking for an easy holiday. Copious swearing, risqué situations, some comic violence (but no graphic nudity, given the profile of the stars) ensue, with plenty of hair-raising moments before the suitably sweet conclusion. It’s all adequate without being impressive, although there are some highlights along the way. While Zac Efron and Adam DeVine are fine as the male anchors, it’s Anna Kendrick and especially Aubrey Plaza who get the most interesting roles as bad girls trying to look like angels. Kendrick is her usual cute self even when cursing up a storm, but Plaza succeeds by doubling down on the character she played in Bad Grandpa and so scores one of her best roles to date. The rest is scenery, with the Hawaii location used effectively—you’d be able to pair this film with Forgetting Sarah Marshall without too much dissonance. This being said, the actors and sets are better than the film itself, which lasts just as long as it takes to entertain but no longer.
(On TV, January 2017) I have a list. A list of movies. Popular movies. It’s generated automatically from votes on a web site. I don’t ask why the movies are popular—I just record them off the TV, watch them and cross them off the list. The list tells me what to do. I don’t question the list. The list told me to watch High School Musical. I did. I don’t dislike musical, but I really didn’t realize that this is a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie. I’m a grown man. I will watch what I want. I will feel no shame about it. Even if it means watching something made for tweenagers. Fortunately, High School Musical isn’t too bad, considering its pedigree. The sugared squeaky-clean fantasy vision of a high school is a welcome antidote to far darker movies. (High School Musical vs Brick; discuss!) The actors are all preposterously good-looking, but the small treat here is seeing Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens in likable but soft-edged early roles, almost as prototypes of the screen persona they’d build over the following decade. Of the songs, I liked the ironic “Stick to the Status Quo”, but couldn’t find anything else to hum. I’m far from being the target audience for this film, but I found it charming and inoffensive—I’ll take that over downbeat bore-fests passing themselves off as grown-up entertainment most days of the week. And that’s the power of the list I follow: It takes me away from my comfort zone.
(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.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Comedy is intensely subjective, and it’s hard to find a better example of this than Dirty Grandpa, which had me chuckling and smiling throughout despite earning atrocious reviews from just about any serious movie critic. How to explain it? I can’t. I can only report that Dirty Grandpa manages to create, fairly early on, an atmosphere in which nearly every scabrous or raunchy gag gets a reaction. Drugs at a funeral, and a sexually obsessed retiree? From that moment on, it just gets dumber and funnier. From afar, it’s easy to claim this vulgar and meaningless film as a nadir for Robert de Niro, but if you’re under the film’s charm, his performance as a perverted old man looking for the sexual experience he denied himself until his wife’s death is nothing short of a go-for-broke exercise in deliberate offensiveness. (More intriguingly, it plays with some deeply held social convictions of how a senior should act like, giving Dirty Grandpa at least a veneer of honest transgression.) Alongside such a ferocious committal to comedy, co-star Zak Efron merely has to stay put and react appropriately. Great supporting performances by Aubrey Plaza (playing a far more active kind of comedy than she usually does) as a grandpa-chaser and Jason Mantzoukas as an unrepentant drug dealer both add a lot to the film. I’m never going to seriously argue that Dirty Grandpa is a good movie—it’s by-the-number comedy, made more daring by pushing the boundaries of vulgarity and throwing old-person jokes in the mix for added offensiveness. There are some lengthy lulls, and the secret to appreciating de Niro’s performance is forgetting his Academy Awards entirely. But here’s the terrible truth: the film made me laugh, and it made me laugh a fair amount more than many of the most respected films of the past year or so. I half-suspect that I’ll see Dirty Grandpa again in the future and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this review. In the meantime, though, I just have to think about de Niro’s gleefully crude character to get a quick smile.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There’s a sub-genre of movies that could be called (for lack of a better name) “forgettable romantic comedies featuring up-and-coming movie stars”, and That Awkward Moment is a perfect addition to that canon. Its most noteworthy feature is that it stars Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zack Efron—while the third is already a star in his own way, Teller and Jordan both have other movies (Creed, Whiplash) that hint at their true acting talent. Here, they’re not actually asked to do any dramatic heavy lifting: the film coasts a long time on their basic charm, even as their characters aren’t particularly admirable. Another romantic comedy for men that celebrates immaturity and boorishness, That Awkward Moment is perhaps best appreciated as a fake-anthropological study of young males on the cusp of romantic responsibility, although by the time the Hollywood process is done with the film, there’s nearly nothing authentic left to see. Various bits and pieces work; other bits and pieces are just puzzling or unpleasant given the casual misogyny of the script. Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis do well as the female matchups for the male protagonists, and as usual in these kinds of films they’re far more level-headed and sensible than our nominal main characters. It doesn’t amount to much: by the end, That Awkward Moment is slight enough to escape making any lasting impression other than a vague feeling that this isn’t going to be one of the films that Jordan or Teller will highlight once they become authentic megastars.
(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.
(On TV, March 2015) “Adults becoming kids” is a surprisingly common trope with well-established elements, so it’s no surprise to find 17 Again trotting over familiar grounds: As an adult filled with regret is magically made 17 again, he gets a chance to make things right with his estranged wife and children… by posing as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager. The comic possibilities are obvious, and so are the dramatic plot points. So it’s no surprise that the closer the script sticks to those plot points, the duller the film becomes. But 17 Again has two or three magical weapons in its inventory, and those end up making the film more worthwhile than you’d think. The first of those is a willingness to go off-course from time to time, letting go of the obvious story in order to poke at the comic eccentricities of the supporting characters. The most obvious of those revolve around Thomas Lennon’s geeky Ned character, and a romantic stalking subplot that should have been agonizing but somehow isn’t. Many of the scenes in 17 Again start out with the obvious, and then veer into something more interesting. This gives a lot of unevenness to the film, but what ties it together is the film’s biggest strength: Zac Efron, who finds a tricky balance between earnestness and self-confidence. Anyone who isn’t already a fan is likely to be one by the time the cafeteria taunting scene ends, as if features an amazingly enjoyable bit of motor-mouthing alongside some physical comedy chops. I’m nowhere near his target audience, but Efron makes the entire film better just by giving a good performance. It’s good enough to forgive much of the script’s weak spots and uneasy pairing of teen comedy with adult anxieties. (No, but seriously: “adults reliving their childhood” usually carries a lot of mature baggage, and I’m not sure where the ideal audience for these films can be.)