(On Cable TV, July 2017) I can be a surprisingly good audience for middle-of-the-road comedies, which may explain why I had a generally good time watching Keeping up with the Joneses even though it doesn’t really revolution anything. Much of it has to do with the movie giving good roles to three actors I like, and minimizing the irritation from an actor that I generally find annoying. Beginning not too far away from The ’burbs, this film begins as a comfortably married couple having shipped their kids to summer camp reacts to the arrival of a sexy new couple in their cul-de-sac: As hints of improper behavior pile up, the wife becomes convinced that the new neighbours are spies, while the husband excuses away the incidents and tries to make friends with the new guy. Complications piles up, leading to a second half that’s far more action-heavy than the comedic first half. Much of it feels familiar, to the point of missing comic opportunities by lack of daring. But who cares about originality when you’ve got Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher co-starring? All three of them get a chance to show their comic skills, with Gadot and Hamm in particular getting a further opportunity to play action heroes along the way. Gadot in particular gets a role that balances toughness, seduction and comedy—it’s not a great movie, but it’s the kind of film that encapsulates her range at this point. Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis, often unbearably annoying in his usual screen persona, is here reined in and almost tolerable as a mild-mannered HR officer targeted for counterintelligence operations. (He’s far more sympathetic than in his almost-contemporary Masterminds, for instance.) It makes up for a likable quartet of comedians, and Keeping Up with the Joneses coasts a long time on their inherent likability … and having Gadot and Fisher both show up in decent lingerie. Otherwise, the action scenes are generic, elements of the conclusion are arbitrary and the epilogue is a disappointment. Still, it’s a relatively entertaining film, somewhat unobjectionable and yet likable in its own way. I’ve seen far worse this week alone, starting with the aforementioned Masterminds.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2017) From its first few off-beat moments, It’s Kind of a Funny Story finds strong kinship in the kind of modest teen dramedies adapted from novels that would become so popular in the 2010s. The literary origins of the script make for a more unusual premise and issues (namely: depression and institutionalization) that hit harder than the average teen movie. Keir Gilchrist is fine as the mostly-mopey protagonist, a depressed teenager who voluntarily checks into a psychiatric hold after a suicide attempt. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that he gets better over the course of the film, encountering friendship and possibly love along the way. Zach Galifianakis in fine form is the wildcard of the story, while Emma Roberts is cute enough as a likely love interest counterbalancing Zoe Kravitz’s more superficial false flame. Otherwise, it’s a movie perhaps more notable for the fractured way in which the first half-hour is handled, leading to a more conventionally heartfelt conclusion. It’s good without being great, although it does hold up decently as a teen drama. Likable, hopeful, occasionally good for a few laughs, It’s Kind of a Funny Story lives up to its title but don’t expect much more.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) You would think that a film written and directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, starring no less than Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, would somehow ends up being quite a bit better than Are You Here. It’s not that the film is a complete bore: In between Owen’s turn as a womanizing, stoner weatherman and various odd bits and pieces of comedy, there’s enough here to keep our interest… but somehow it doesn’t add up to something as good as could be expected. Galifianakis is a bit annoying, some of the subplots get tiresome and the ending is pure Weiner-enigma, leaving loose ends all over the place. There is also a surprising amount of nudity for a film that didn’t need as much of it. Ultimately, Are you Here is too scattered to make any impression; it comes softly, goes without fuss and disappears.
(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.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) After a year in which a singularly bland US presidential campaign still managed to dominate media attention, everyone was ripe for a silly comedy lampooning the American electoral process. So it is that The Campaign creates a face-off between gifted comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two men vying for a US congressman slot. This very local-level comedy works in part because it controls its lead comedians effectively, and in part because it tries to push the absurdity of modern US politics to its breaking point. Punching babies, hitting dogs, political ads spiced by amateur pornography, intentional shootings, pervasive profanity and other gags are all part of the plot, but the real insanity here is all-too-familiar. (The film gets its most acid laugh from a simple shot showing how deeply moneyed interest have perverted the electoral process at the ballot box itself.) Of course, it’s crude, blunt and unsubtle: It’s a Jay Roach film, after all, and he seems intent here on producing a gonzo counterpart to his more nuanced work on Game Change. As a comedy, it delivers: there’s a laugh every few minutes, and smiles throughout. Both lead actors are dedicated to their characters, and the level of obscenity seems carefully restrained to get laughs while avoiding going too far. While The Campaign may not have much of a shelf life in the long run, it’s good enough at the moment, and should find a modest audience.
(In theaters, June 2011) The platonic ideal of a sequel is to recreate the experience of the first film while bringing something new to it. So it’s not much of a surprise to find out that the screenwriters at work on The Hangover II felt completely justified in stealing the original’s structure almost plot beat per plot beat. It’s certainly familiar, and that may not be ideal: Part of The Hangover’s appeal was the delirious way in which it went left and right, bowing to traditional narrative expectations only late in the third act. Here, the element of surprise is gone, and viewers can feel themselves anticipating what should have been twists. It also lends an unfortunate feeling of laziness to a film that nonetheless went around the world in big-budget style. It could have been worse, mind you: The characters are recognizable without feeling reduced to catch-phrases (although Zach Galifianakis’s always-irritating “Alan” went from slightly-retarded to too-stupid-to-live in-between the two films), the Bangkok location provides plenty of good color, the rhythm of the film is fine, Bradley Cooper makes for a capable anchor, Ken Jeong is just as refreshing in his brief scenes (even though his presence is absurdly contrived) and up to a certain point, setting the film far away makes it feel a little bit less reprehensible that the quasi-local hijinks of frat-boys gone wild in Vegas. Still, the film as a whole doesn’t feel quite as joyful as the first one: the laughs seem to suffer in the face of increased danger and raunchiness. But it’s the feeling of familiarity that brings The Hangover II down, a sense that it’s quite literally going through the same motions as its predecessor.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.
(On DVD, May 2011) The mismatched-traveling-companion thing has been a comedy staple for years, so it’s no real surprise if Due Date immediately feels familiar, and if its strengths lie elsewhere than originality. Here, the premise seems custom-tailored for exploiting the comic personas of its two lead actors: Robert Downey Jr. as a high-strung professional prone to bursts of pure anger; and Zach Galifianakis as yet another supposedly-lovable loser. The plot takes them on a transcontinental journey from Atlanta to Los Angeles, but that’s really an excuse to set up one comic situation after another as two men who can’t stand each other eventually learn to –well, no big surprise there. Whether the film works hinges on how much you like those characters and the situation they get into: While Downey’s physical aggressiveness can be amusing, Galifianakis’s comic persona is more annoying than anything else, whereas the film’s constant drug-related jokes is enough to remind audiences that the current flavour for R-rated comedies seems to be frat-boy arrested development (Significantly, Due Date is billed as being from “the director of Old School and The Hangover”). The film doesn’t have plot-holes as much as it has rigidly predetermined sequences in mind: There’s enough plot-fairy dust in there to choke anyone wondering why these two characters would keep staying together, or how long it takes to “detour” by the Mexican border. There are, to be fair, a number of good sequences here and there: Jamie Foxx makes an entertaining cameo, and there is some impressive car stunt work for what is, after all, supposed to be just a regular comedy. As a “regular comedy”, though, it falters in reaching for deeper emotional meaning: Attempts to raise tears don’t really work when the rest of Due Date feels so childish, and particularly fade when compared to Planes, Trains and Automobiles which is still the most relevant reference in the traveling-horrors comedy genre.