Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

November 2, 2014

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The broad black comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas was one of the last movies Robin Williams completed before his suicide in August, and it’s difficult to watch it with this in mind. Williams plays Mitch Mitchler, a bedraggled Wisconsin old-timer who used to be a drunk and emotionally unavailable dad to his son Boyd (Joel McHale). Quite a few scenes show Mitch sitting in his truck or on his son’s front steps looking devastated and depressed. I don’t think Mitch’s demons have much to do with Williams’, but it’s impossible to see Williams in this state without being taken out of the movie — and the largely feeble comedy — on some level. Past a certain point, Williams is expressing desolation and shame and seems all too well-acquainted with them. It casts a sad pall over everything else in the film.

Boyd takes his wife (Lauren Graham) and two kids to the old house in Wisconsin, because his mom (Candice Bergen) wants a family Christmas get-together. Boyd is obsessed with keeping his young son’s innocence about Santa, since Mitch so rudely and drunkenly disillusioned Boyd one Christmas decades ago. Maintaining the kid’s naivete involves spending most of Christmas Eve on the road back to Chicago, where Boyd has stupidly left the kid’s presents. It also involves no fewer than three run-ins with an unfunny highway cop and a near-disastrous encounter with a homeless Santa (Oliver Platt) that really should’ve been fully disastrous if there were to be any point to it, this being a supposedly dark comedy.

Television director Tristram Shapeero (who helmed twenty-some Community episodes, among others), making his feature debut, doesn’t sustain much of a style or a tone; the movie will replace Scrooged or The Ref in nobody’s heart, despite a cast full of ringers (including Clark Duke, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tim Heidecker). The satirical shots at dysfunctional family gatherings are so tired as to be nonexistent, and at about the halfway mark the script just spins its wheels, going back and forth between Williams, McHale and Duke on the road doing unfunny things and the rest of the family back home doing unfunny things — there’s a drunk-dancing scene with Bergen and Graham sure to mortify fans of both actresses, and there’s pointless gross-out ancient-pickle-eating.

Meanwhile, Robin Williams shuffles around looking angry and depressed — more so than the script would justify. More than once I felt I could sense him thinking “Is this it? Is this what it was all for, me doing a TV show that gets cancelled after one season, and then doing low-budget weak tea like this that’ll barely get a theatrical release? And stuff like this is what I have to look forward to getting up in the morning to act in, until the Parkinson’s takes me apart piece by piece?” I submit that in a better movie none of these thoughts would have been relevant; I would only have been glad to see Williams again. But the man, great as he was, did not always have the greatest judgment in selecting projects. This, sadly, is one of the final examples.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.

Let’s Be Cops

August 16, 2014

media_lets_be_cops_cbGiven what’s unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as I write this, a comedy called Let’s Be Cops seems hideously ill-timed, at least if you go by the advertising. The premise put forth in the ads is simple: a couple of schmoes pass themselves off as policemen, get off on the privilege and power of their new position, and get into all kinds of slapstick debauchery. The actual movie, though, gets all of that stuff — which, if the script went into it deeply and sharply enough, could actually threaten to be subversive satire — out of the way fairly early, clearing the way for an idiotic and dull farce pitting our faux heroes (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) against mobsters of possibly Russian, or vaguely Slavic, origin. See, they pretend to be cops and then have to step up and actually do what cops are supposed to do! Get it?

I can’t adequately express how soul-sucking the crime subplot is here. The crime subplot has derailed many a promising comedy; I wished, for instance, when sitting through Date Night that the movie would forget about its mobster storyline and just let Steve Carell and Tina Fey riff and improvise. By the same token, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are amusing enough when simply roaming Los Angeles in their fake cruiser, so why not let them? The desperately tired plot, which also involves a corrupt detective (Andy Garcia, in and out in about three scenes), just leads to uninspired shoot-outs so routine that they might as well be abstract color and movement for all the emotional impact they pack.

Wayans’ character works at a videogame company, and his big idea for a game puts the player in the shoes of a purportedly realistic patrolman having supposedly realistic adventures. The game actually looks like every other escapist first-person-shooter game, and so does the police action in the movie. Let’s Be Cops would have some point, some satirical juice, if it set up its two idiot protagonists as wannabe-cops based on what they imagine police work is from all the movies they’ve seen, and then harshly showed them what actual police work entails — going into scenes of very human despair and squalor. But that wouldn’t make for a rowdy Saturday-night farce — not that the movie ends up being one anyway, since it pulls its punches while remaining squarely sexist, racist and homophobic, and not even in transgressive ways that might be cleansing and redemptive, just lazily status-quo.

It’s something, I guess, for the black guy to take up with a white girl (Nina Dobrev, not allowed to show a fraction of what Vampire Diaries fans know she can do) and have it be no big deal. Some things are changing. And I liked how she’s allowed to contribute to the heroics by plying her trade — she’s an aspiring make-up artist — to make Wayans look like one of the mobsters’ scary couriers. (The courier he’s made up to look like is played, with welcome idiosyncrasy and improvisational flavor, by Keegan-Michael Key.) We don’t have to look at the head mobster (James D’Arcy) holding a gun to Dobrev’s head until one fake cop or the other mans up and shoots him. That job — the manning up, that is, not the Dobrev-menacing — is left to actual cop Rob Riggle, most likely doomed to play military, cops, or other alpha-male stereotypes until some imaginative director rescues him.

That director certainly isn’t Luke Greenfield, who acquits himself here with the same blandness and unfailing ability to miss the point (and the laugh) with which he directed The Girl Next Door ten years ago. The Girl Next Door was an R-rated movie about a porn star in which we never saw the porn star naked — not that I’m pining for nudity, but a movie with raunchy subject matter would do best not to chicken out of it — and Let’s Be Cops never hits the delirious highs or revolting lows that a truly daring cop comedy could go for. No, it sticks to its witless, anti-comedy gangster plot, involving a generic Slavic community that Nina Dobrev’s character doesn’t seem to be a part of, even though the actress is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently. But then this would have to be a movie that showed the slightest affinity for being culturally astute or for giving its actors something interesting to do.

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 2, 2014

maxresdefaultIf you take a piece of white bread and stick weird things into it, what you have isn’t anything bold or dazzling; it’s just white bread with weird things stuck into it. Guardians of the Galaxy is that white bread: ornamentally eye-catching but fundamentally bland. The movie is set in the same universe as Iron Man and The Avengers and the other interconnected Marvel-comics films, but it’s set somewhere in the cosmic margins, away from Earth, off to the side. It’s a milieu we sort of have to agree to accept as alien, though many of its inhabitants pretty much look human, only with fresh coats of blue or green paint. It’s not futuristic; it’s happening in 2014, except that its main Earth character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been off-planet since 1988, so his references to terran culture end then.

Peter has an Awesome Mix Tape filled with his dear dead mom’s favorite tunes, which tend towards classic rock from the ’70s. The presence of this music in what’s supposed to be a planet-hopping adventure occasionally lends it the aura of a midnight movie, albeit a midnight movie that cost $170 million. Guardians has been written (by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) with a good portion of snark, though none of the verbal barbs turn around and aim at the movie itself, or at Marvel (or Disney). It feels like a parody that isn’t parodying anything; a movie that costs that kind of money can’t be expected to have sharp teeth, and it doesn’t. It’s just smug, engaging in lightly inane badinage and lumbering into any number of cluttered action set-pieces. The jokiness commands you not to take the proceedings too seriously, as if you would anyway.

Peter, who calls himself Starlord, finds himself aligned with several other outlaws — assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista), sentient walking tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — against the usual dull villain who wants to destroy everything. This good-vs.-evil plot unfolds inside the usual meaninglessly convoluted web of allegiances, various people who don’t like the Guardians, as well as tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians (ah, yes, that old conflict). Guardians would like us to find it hip and quirky, but at heart it’s like every other obscenely expensive summer movie about heroes trying to stop bad guys from doing bad things. The bad guys want to do bad things for reasons we barely comprehend — they do bad things because they’re bad guys, I take it. And they have to be stopped. This requires extremely pricey, poorly edited chase scenes, things blowing up, people shooting at or punching other people, and other greatest hits.

Gunn is clever, and I’m not immune to his nudging; I chuckled a few times (mostly at bits of business involving Groot or Rocket). But anyone expecting the perversities of Gunn’s Troma-meets-Cronenberg horror-comedy Slither (2006) or his previous film, 2010’s Super, had better keep waiting. I much prefer Super, which had the sting of human frailty, and which, perhaps not coincidentally, cost 68 times less than Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has already made his superhero movie; this new one doesn’t really feel like his. It feels like a corporate jest, of the sort that Marvel used to indulge in briefly in the ’80s, when they would launch stunts like Assistant Editors’ Month — titles like Spider-Man or Daredevil would be turned over to less serious writers for tongue-in-cheek meta-stories that happened more or less out of continuity. Guardians is like an Assistant Editors’ Month issue writ large. But readers were expected to pay the full sixty cents for those issues back in 1984, and audiences are expected to pay full ticket prices for it now.

Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

The Fault in Our Stars

June 8, 2014

fault-in-our-stars-movie-clipsEvery young generation deserves its own great love story. But does The Fault in Our Stars qualify? I can’t truly be the judge of its greatness; that call isn’t mine to make. (My generation has Say Anything and the Before trilogy, and I can imagine the generation before mine taking issue with that.) I am no longer a teenager, the ideal age at which to experience doomed, star-crossed love — in fiction, mind you, not in life — for the first time. Really, I can only convey to what extent the movie successfully got around my defenses and spoke directly to my inner romantic teenager. Like John Green’s mega-popular 2012 novel, on which it’s faithfully based, The Fault in Our Stars flatters its audience for its hipness to the usual tragic narrative. But when it comes time to push the time-honored emotional buttons, goddamn, the movie works those buttons, pounds them. Even my inner teenager was offended.

The Fault in Our Stars is two-thirds of a graceful romance. The self-deprecating, sardonic teenager Hazel (Shailene Woodley, charming as usual), who narrates, barely holds cancer at bay with experimental drugs and an oxygen tank. At a rather pitiful support group — the movie is rather cruel about the basement-dwelling, Jesus-loving goof with testicular cancer who runs the group —  Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an equally sardonic kid who lost his leg to cancer. They forge a bond out of shared gallows humor; Augustus instinctively senses that Hazel has no time for uplifting bromides, and the two fall with relief into easy chat. They’re smart, well-read teens — Augustus favors adventure paperbacks, though, while Hazel idolizes a cancer-kid novel written by a recluse (Willem Dafoe) who hasn’t published anything since.

The recluse’s novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel wants to know what happens after it ends, which is to say she wants to know what happens after she ends. Does the fictional cancer girl’s family go on and find some sort of happiness? Hazel worries about her mom (Laura Dern), worries that too much of her is tied up in being Hazel’s mother and that she’ll be left with nothing once Hazel goes. I felt my eyes sting a couple of times, and Laura Dern owned both of those moments; just the way she runs into Hazel’s room, expecting a disaster, when Hazel has merely exclaimed about a surprising email, is heartbreaking. Dern does a huge amount with very little here; it’s heroically open work from a great actress.

The plot takes the two kids to Amsterdam, where Dafoe’s bitter alcoholic writer hides in a clutter of ignored fan mail and refuses to give Hazel an answer. In my mind, this is the most sensible thing he can do, because there isn’t an answer, but his harshness drives the couple out of his flat and into the Anne Frank house, where they have their first kiss while other tourists applaud. This sort of self-absorption is easily forgiven among (a) the dying and (b) the young, and Hazel and Augustus are both. It’s also an indication that Hazel may not be the most reliable narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars becomes aggressively, almost brutally manipulative in its final stretch. It’s an old-school weepie, all right, and the usual weepers will weep loudly, as they did at my screening. I stayed dry, ticking off all the bullet points. The purest love, the movie says, is not long for this life; true love can only spark between two people who won’t live long enough to get sick of each other (or to have a kid with cancer and to watch their married lives become about medical bills and wolf-hour hospital runs). As long as it stays with the two kids who have suffered far too much to be anything but honest around each other, the movie is fine. But then there’s middle-of-the-night melodrama and a fake funeral and a real funeral — so many attempts to raise a lump in the throat that even the most forgiving viewer may feel a bit throttled. The movie, like the book, may gather a patina of greatness for those who look back on it fondly once safely out of their teens. But both the movie and the book should have had the courage to end mid-sentence.

Neighbors

May 11, 2014

20140511-211738.jpgLast month, Seth Rogen turned 32. That’s about the age that an overgrown boy starts taking on the responsibilities of a man, while sorely wishing he didn’t have to. In the amiably dirty comedy Neighbors, Rogen is Mac, a new father to an adorable baby daughter. Mac and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are both happy to be parents, but a large part of them resists the idea that their lives need to change now. They met in college, and they’re still college kids at heart and in bed (though they seem to prefer sex everywhere in the house except the bed). Kelly stays at home with the baby while Mac drifts through a generic cubicle job, getting stoned on break whenever possible.

When the frat Delta Psi moves in next door to Mac and Kelly, the couple actually don’t object in principle. The guys seem friendly enough, if a bit too legendary for their epic parties. Mac and Kelly might co-exist peacefully with them, even attend their parties regularly, if they didn’t have to get up in the morning to go to work and look after the baby. They’re welcomed to the first-night blow-out, and they get blitzed (it’s a good thing the baby seems to sleep through the night easily). After that, though, it’s back to the grind, and when they call in a noise complaint on the second night, the frat leader Teddy (Zac Efron) is hurt. Not angry — just hurt.

The nice thing about Neighbors, which made me laugh pretty consistently, is that nobody is the good guy or the bad guy. The frat boys like their fun but aren’t terribly vicious. Mac and Kelly try to short-circuit the frat, and go too far on several occasions. It’s certainly a more good-natured comedy than the inept 1981 film of the same name. People talk to each other in this movie, and try to understand each other. The commercials emphasize the slapstick, but the verbal barbs, many of which sound improvised, keep a certain level of wit in play (my favorite, regarding a frat pledge wearing a blocky pair of camera-equipped glasses: “He looks like J.J. Abrams”). And there’s a useful symmetry in the notion that Mac and Kelly devolve to frat-like behavior themselves, while the frat boys have to embrace responsibility, or at least simulate it.

Comedies generally aren’t cinematically exciting. If they make us laugh, they don’t have to be. But more recent comedy directors like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Neighbors) bring welcome visual brio. The party scenes in Neighbors have some of the candy-colored skankiness of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. As in his Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wants to make each scene lively and eye-catching, while within the engaging frame the actors seem to be given license to riff, to deepen bonds between characters — the conflicts as well as the affections are credible. Neighbors could have been a lazy beer-fart comedy in the Adam Sandler mold, but, like Teddy, it knows it has to work to earn that spot on the wall next to its ancestors.

Which, ultimately, it does. The original text, of course, is Animal House, which aside from its performances and a couple of sequences involving Belushi hasn’t aged all that well. There’s also Old School, which I have trouble recalling outside of Will Ferrell’s breakout work as an overgrown frat boy who gets a little too into it (I love his grief-stricken funeral tribute to an elderly frat bro: “You’re my boy, Blue!”). Neighbors seems to have more going on under the hood, including the post-Bridesmaids insight that women can be as debauched as men. The key to the movie is the big fight Mac and Kelly have over the fact that neither of them wants to be a responsible adult. Kelly doesn’t want to be the nagging wife familiar from every comedy (i.e. Leslie Mann in many of her husband Judd Apatow’s films), and so she isn’t. She agitates to be a person, not a type. She’s ridiculous, but so is everyone else, ranging from Lisa Kudrow as the headline-obsessed college dean to Hannibal Buress as the cop who keeps answering the noise complaints primarily because it seems to amuse him. Believable, individualized people and playful filmmaking are rare in big-studio American movies just now; we’ll take them where we find them.


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