(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.
(On TV, January 2015) I’m not sure when the Jim Carrey golden era ended. We all know it started in 1994, but the classic rubber-faced speed-talking Carrey sort of petered out during the mid-2000s, and Yes Man, with its similarities with archetypical Carrey vehicle Liar, Liar, feels like the end of an era not even eight years later. Suffice to say that a simple premise (a man convinced he must say Yes! To all questions asked of him) leads to ample opportunities for broad comedy in the typical Carrey mold, stripping away a clean-cut exterior to reveal madness within. Carrey is pretty good as his usual shtick, even though the mechanics of the say-yes plot are moronic at best. This being said, the film doesn’t quite work as a romantic comedy, partially because Carrey is eighteen years older than co-star Zooey Deschanel (and looks like it; the role plays better as a young-man one) and partially because the film has such a high concept that it sucks all the oxygen required for a romantic subplot to truly breathe – it simply falls back on broad strokes in which the audience supplies their own emotional connection based on generic subplot knowledge. Still, Yes Man isn’t hard to watch – it’s good-natured, dumb and goofy enough to be pleasant even when it doesn’t do much that the expected. Terence Stamp has a fun turn as a cranky motivational speaker and, of course, Carrey is likable no matter the circumstances. While the results may not be spectacular, they do extend what we could think of as the classic-Carrey filmography and that’s already nothing to dismiss.
(On TV, December 2014) Romantic comedies are too-often considered from the point of view of the woman that it’s still a bit of a novelty when one is told from the point of view of the man. It’s even rarer to tell a very funny film about a relationship that doesn’t end well. I’m not spoiling much about the film given its definitive title and non-linear narration, in which we jump back and forth between the seasons of a romance, and know that it’s not going to end with the union of the protagonists. How we get there, however, it more than part of the charm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (offering an interesting counterpoint to his latter role in Don Jon) plays the protagonist, a young man infatuated with the idea of romantic love and having the misfortune of loving someone who definitely doesn’t. The film is told from his perspective so closely that the female lead character isn’t much more than a superficial façade behind which he stuffs his hopes and dreams. (Ironic points for casting Zooey Deschannel, often better liked for her persona than her specific characters) That it doesn’t quite work like that is part of the film’s ironies. Fortunately, the writing of the film is crisp and hip (musical number? Sure!), blending modern cynicism with very real heartbreak. That it works, and ends on a relatively high note (not only punning on the film’s title, but appropriately – for a budding architect- climaxing within Los Angeles’ Bradbury building) is an eloquent testimony to the film’s peppiness, from two likable lead actors to a style that throws everything on-screen in a dizzying montage of narration, pop music, flights of fancy and plain old good moviemaking –it’s an impressive debut for director Marc Webb, who should take a break from the meaningless Spider-Man films and get back to these kind of films. Occasionally hipsterish, (500) Days of Summer nonetheless feels like an original take on an overdone genre, and more than worth a look even for those who think they are tired of romantic comedies.
(On cable TV, April 2012) There’s something almost archetypical in the holy fool that Paul Rudd plays so loosely in Our Idiot Brother: a childish man with no perceptive filters and an almost-infinite good faith in his fellow humans, the titular brother becomes a catalyst for dramatic change when he’s forced to spend time with his three sisters and their families. The specific of the plot becomes secondary to the character work and the conflagration when too much unfiltered truth exposes everyone’s illusions. The trailer makes the film look like a laugh-a-minute, but the actual film is more measured and demands to be taken more slowly. In the roles of the three sisters, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer do fine work, but it’s really Rudd who holds the film on his shoulders. With all the self-deluded characters, painful confrontations and elaborate rationalizations, Our Idiot Brother becomes a profoundly humanistic film. As a result, and with the help of a conclusion in which everything predictably goes well, it’s a charming, likable and self-assured film. It may be a bit too gentle and slow-paced to please those looking for laugh-a-minute hilarity, but when a film has so much charisma, it doesn’t really matter.
(In theaters, April 2011) I was pretty sure I would loathe this film: After all, I really didn’t care for Pineapple Express, and this follow-up seemed to be heading for the same coarse stoner humour. But I had forgotten that I dislike bad self-important heroic fantasy even more than I don’t care for stoner fantasy. So that’s how I end up feeling relatively warm regarding Your Highness, which seems happy stuffing drugs, profanity and coarseness into a bog-standard fantasy premise. It works better than anyone would expect, in no small part because the framework of the film itself works fine, and it features decent set-pieces (a coach pursuit action sequence more than holds its own when stripped of comic elements). Otherwise, we get a deeply reluctant hero, a perverted mage, pervasive swearing, nudity, crudity and far too much gore for what’s supposed to be a light-hearted film. (As with Pineapple Express, there’s a feeling that a film as juvenile as Your Highness doesn’t actually deserve the level of gore that it features.) As a comedy operating at the edge of good taste, You Highness often over steps into material that goes beyond humour and into bad taste, hitting sexism, homophobia, immaturity and lameness along the way. Danny McBride bears the brunt of the film’s humour as the foul-mouthed cowardly protagonist while James Franco is fine as the always-smiling hero, whereas neither Natalie Portman nor Zooey Deschanel embarrass themselves through their performance –although, mind you, Portman is playing the straight-woman, while Deschanel doesn’t have much to do except being the classic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, it’s not much of a film for the ages (I suspect that seeing it at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse helped a bit in assessing the film above its true value), but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in the movie landscape: Given the cost of fantasy films in general and their inconsistent level of commercial success, it’s almost mind-boggling that anyone took enough chances on the concept to see the film through to completion. I suspect that Your Highness will appeal mainly to those who can’t take another ponderous high-fantasy film. It’s not much as itself, but as an antidote to worse films, it’s almost refreshing.