Posted tagged ‘comedy’

Ride Along

January 19, 2014

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Kevin Hart doing a stand-up routine about the making of Ride Along would probably be funnier than the movie itself. An excitable, insecure motormouth, Hart has peppered such specials as Laugh at My Pain with high-pitched ruminations on his physical stature (he stands five foot four) and insufficient gangsta skillz. His frightened but common-sense demeanor refutes what’s expected of Scary Black Men. He’s a great talker, and some of his more amusing bits in Ride Along, I’m guessing, were improvised. Hart will say something that sounds scripted, then natter on for a couple of extra beats, and the nattering is what makes his character seem like a real person, and what gets a laugh.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a school security guard (aside: only in these times would Ben’s job be sadly plausible) who hopes to make it through the police academy and become a true cop. This, Ben also hopes, will impress stoic rogue cop James Payton (Ice Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) Ben wants to marry. James has been looking out for Angela since they were both foster kids, and he disdains the flighty, videogame-addicted Ben. (Ben’s videogame fixation, gamers will be happy to learn, pays off later on several levels.) Ben asks James’ blessing to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage, and James proposes a challenge: Ben must accompany James on a ride-along to show how well or poorly he takes to police work.

This could allow for some mismatched-partner laughs, and it does; Ben’s panicky attempts to look like a hard man in front of James rub up against James’ complete lack of surprise that Ben is a soft man. Ice Cube was probably funnier in a small role in 21 Jump Street, but then again he didn’t have to watch his language there as much as he does in this PG-13 movie (he does get to drop one F-bomb). Unfortunately, Ride Along is shackled to a lazy plot involving a master criminal (Laurence Fishburne) James has spent three years trying to take down. It also involves crooked cops, the time-honored police captain who exists to tell the hero he Crossed the Line, and a scene where Angela ends up at gunpoint.

Predictability is the enemy of surprise, and surprise is the essence of comedy. I’m not talking here about well-known characters on sitcoms who behave amusingly predictably; I’m talking about a plot that cancels out any possibility of freshness or invention. The movie isn’t loose enough to let Kevin Hart run wild with sustained riffs; he’s trapped inside the stodgy, stifling structure. Ride Along doesn’t offer the randomness and digressions of the similar, superior The Other Guys, and once again I find myself wondering what the film might’ve been like if Hart and Ice Cube had swapped roles and played against their personae.

What else is there to say about such a lightweight thing? Well, given that it’s directed by and mostly starring African-Americans, it’s blandly post-racial; for the most part, white guys could’ve played the roles and it would shake out roughly the same. Is that progress or homogenization (and shrewd packaging for what the money guys call “the urban audience”)? Eddie Murphy’s early cop comedies were very aware that he was a black man in a largely hostile white world; they couldn’t have played the same if he were white, or, at least, Murphy made Beverly Hills Cop (originally a Stallone vehicle, I believe) a story about a specifically black man among the gilded and ivory. But such awareness would founder here, because the movie isn’t interested in how actual, specific people of any color would behave. There’s truly nothing to James’ character other than his protectiveness towards his sister and his mission to get the big bad guy; Kevin Hart takes over by default, filling the void with abbreviated patter. Like the comparably easily-frightened, anti-macho Richard Pryor, Hart might best be optimized alone onstage, weaving absurd mind-movies at a hundred miles an hour.

The House Bunny

August 25, 2008

I have serious problems with The House Bunny as a movie that girls and young women are going to be watching and perhaps emulating, but Anna Faris, that great clown princess, helped me look past many of them. Faris has been around throughout this decade, mostly in the margins of other people’s movies, saying sweetly lunkheaded things or falling over; she has been the unifying element of the scattershot Scary Movie series, and when she finally got her own vehicle — the stoner comedy Smiley Face, (barely) released earlier this year — the script let her down. As a fan of Faris, I hope The House Bunny does for her what Legally Blonde did for Reese Witherspoon (the same two female scripters wrote both films), though I also hope Faris holds onto her particular comic edge (Witherspoon didn’t).

Faris is Shelley, a bunny at the Playboy Mansion who gets booted out before she can realize her dream of being Miss November. Hugh Hefner is in the movie, so the Playboy ethos and lifestyle don’t come in for much, if any, criticism; it’s as if Gloria Steinem never wrote “A Bunny’s Tale” forty-five years ago. Shelley finds herself at the doorstep of an endangered sorority house, Zeta Alpha Zeta (the initials may be a tribute to the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy trio, of Airplane and The Naked Gun and two of the Scary Movies, known in the trades as ZAZ). The Zetas are nerds and geeks, so nobody will pledge to their house; Shelley’s solution is a Fabulous Makeover for the girls, so as to attract boys.

The House Bunny, like Legally Blonde, says that it’s okay to be superficial as long as you’re also kind and keep the sisterhood in mind. Every boy in the movie is a dunce, with the exception of Colin Hanks as a student who goes on progressively unsuccessful dates with Shelley, who tries too hard both times to impress him. First she plays the blonde bombshell, and that goes nowhere; then, having been disabused of her notion that “boys don’t like girls who are too smart,” she hits the library and buries herself in books, accumulates a lot of data without context, and recites facts from index cards. Nowhere in this does she learn that maybe knowledge is beneficial for oneself, not just to snag a cute guy. (Nor does she have occasion to use any of the information that might’ve penetrated her skull — at least Reese Witherspoon used her knowledge of perms to get Ali Larter off a murder rap.)

You will also wait in vain for the movie to notice that there isn’t much difference between the Playboy Mansion and the sorority system. Post-makeover, the girls find themselves being as snotty as the rival sisters who want to take over their house, but this is glossed over with a speech, after which the girls decide to modify their style halfway between their own and Shelley’s (again with the focus on looks). Just give up the house and reject the whole rotten Greek system, I thought to myself, but no. The movie attracted some grumbling from the real-life sorority Zeta Tau Alpha, who felt that the fictional sorority’s name and logo were insultingly close to theirs, and on a Greek message board, someone posted that those who made the movie are just GDIs jealous of the superior Greeks who’ll get better jobs and make more money. Nice. “GDI,” incidentally, is the frat term for non-Greeks; it stands for God Damned Independent. Doubly nice. This is the system the movie wants its heroines to be a part of. As for the bit where Shelley finds out one of the girls (Emma Stone) is a virgin and throws an elaborate “Aztec party” (with what money?) to “sacrifice” her, just like the parties back at the Mansion, words fail me. Is this shindig not to be seen as gross because a woman threw it?

But, again, Anna Faris redeems a lot of it. Whether it’s Shelley’s unique pronunciation of “philanthropy” or the table-wrecking results of her second date (if even “I drink your milkshake” became a catchphrase, Shelley’s hapless “Sorry for the gravity” deserves to), Faris plays dumb so warmly and with such endearing quirks (the weird vocal thing she does when repeating someone’s name) that we just give in to her, even if, once again, the movie isn’t worthy of her. Now I’d like to see her play smart and just as funny, and in a movie that doesn’t require her to show her butt or wear bunny ears.

Tropic Thunder

August 16, 2008

The closest Ben Stiller has come to creating a real character — actually inhabiting a role and playing its reality — was probably his performance as the hapless but decent Ted in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. That was ten summers ago (he did interesting work in the same year’s Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight, and Your Friends & Neighbors too), and since then Stiller seems to have been content to condescend to the jerks and nitwits he plays. A smug, superior tone has crept into his acting and calcified there. Stiller’s new vehicle, Tropic Thunder, which he also cowrote and directed, has been talked about as his comeback — his bid for edgy comedic cred after too many Night at the Museums and Heartbreak Kids. It isn’t, though. This time, Stiller doesn’t just smirk with hip disdain at the doofus he’s playing — he does it at the entire acting profession.

Tropic Thunder has one of those wheels-within-wheels insider plots much beloved of young talent disgusted by the Hollywood machine. A Vietnam war epic called Tropic Thunder is being filmed on location. Its stars — lunkheaded action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), self-destructive fart-humor hack Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and obsessive Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — can’t quite find the reality in the overwritten script (based on a book by a ‘Nam vet played by a growling Nick Nolte). The stars’ hesitations are costing the production millions, so Nolte’s character suggests turning the actors — rounded out by rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and levelheaded newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) — loose in the jungle so they can experience its pains and perils for themselves. Unfortunately, some heroin runners are camped nearby, and they have live ammo.

It should be said that Robert Downey Jr.’s annus mirabilis continues here. As a blonde Aussie actor straining for verisimilitude in anything he does, including getting skin-pigmentation surgery to play the black soldier Lincoln Osiris and never breaking character, Downey imbues the movie with whatever soul (though I use that word cautiously in this context) and commitment it has. Kirk Lazarus’ devotion to his craft is supposed to be one of the movie’s little jokes, but Downey transcends the joke. The script tries to make fun of Lazarus for appropriating black skin and attitude, but the joy Lazarus/Downey takes in the performance — which never comes close to mockery or “blackface” — wipes out the movie’s inside-baseball jeers at self-serious actors. He’s certainly more fun than anything else in the film.

Even Lazarus, though, is ultimately betrayed by the movie’s big banal point — that actors are insecure princes ruled by coarse kings with money. The coarse king here is Tom Cruise as a fat, bald studio boss; the problem is that Cruise is too identifiably Tom Cruise larking in a bald cap and padding — he doesn’t bother to create a character, either. (It’s his usual win-win-win persona in Homer Simpson drag. Cruise could use some Kirk Lazarus juice.) Actors are insecure! Stop the presses! The movie is also about how they man up and prevail under pressure, so the satire doesn’t cut very deep. The jaded, cynical screenwriters (including Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux) take soft shots at the hand that feeds them.

Aside from Downey, a chameleonic actor without the need for De Niro-esque physical transformation, Tropic Thunder probably needed to be cast with actual stars ribbing their standard personae; imagine Vin Diesel in the Tugg Speedman role (and how much funnier he’d have been going “full retard” in the Simple Jack clips). Stiller and Black are playing actors hackier than they are (Downey isn’t, and doesn’t condescend to Lazarus or Osiris), which is a way of being a hack while pretending you’re above it. For all its movie-within-the-movie cleverness, Tropic Thunder says nothing new or particularly funny about the movies we watch or the tropes we fall for (I did, however, laugh heartily at a bit between Downey and a fellow superhero-blockbuster actor who will go unnamed here). At the end of the day, what we’re watching is a lot of sketch-level buffoonery against a backdrop of big-budget explosions and gunfights — which are supposed to be taken ironically, of course. But ironic explosions are still as loud and stupid as the same old ones.

Pineapple Express

August 11, 2008

Last summer’s Superbad was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were thirteen. Their new one, Pineapple Express, could’ve been written when they were twelve. In fits and starts, that’s a good thing. Pineapple Express is an intentionally unstable mix of two vastly different elements — the slacker-stoner comedy and the violent drug-runner action movie. Even the title — referring to a particularly potent blend of marijuana — is bifurcated: the first word suggesting relaxation and tropical drinks, the second evoking the paranoid busted-for-possession drama Midnight Express. The result is an odd but intermittently pleasing experiment that might lose stoners with its gore and action fans with its glazed, circular weed chat.

Dale Denton (Rogen) is a scruffy process server who tokes on and off the job; his dealer is Saul (James Franco), who sits in his apartment all day watching two TVs and hoping for some worthy company. Dale witnesses a drug killing, and the two go on the run; they can’t go to the police because one of the killers (Rosie Perez) is a cop. The movie, directed by indie-film critics’ darling David Gordon Green in a radical change of pace from quiet dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, follows these two shambling nitwits as they flail through a paranoid nightmare, a stoners’ worst-case scenario.

Bill Murray once told Roger Ebert that he knew movies were changing when he saw a comedy that featured someone getting shot and smearing blood across a mirror. “I thought, wait a second, this isn’t comedy. This is something different,” Murray said. Pineapple Express, and next week’s even more brutal Tropic Thunder, are the latest examples of that something different: black comedies in which people die graphically and you aren’t expected to care. The blood is spilled as casually as Saul’s Slurpee across a cop’s windshield; people are crushed by flaming cars, have chunks of their ears shot off, are shot multiple times yet still inexplicably walk around. If I’m in the mood to see someone faffing about with a severed flap of ear, I’ll go to a horror movie. Or an emergency room.

Rogen and Franco make a classic comedy duo: the (relatively) straitlaced, uptight guy — well, he has a job anyway — and the hapless cretin. Dale, however, is so immature he’s dating a high-school girl (Amber Heard), while Saul is only into selling pot to save enough money to provide for his beloved grandma. Pretty much everyone onscreen is pathetic in some way, and Rogen and Goldberg try to breathe quirky life into some of the characters, like the bickering hit men pursuing our heroes, one of whom wants to be done with this whole dirty business so he can go home and have dinner with his wife for once. Judd Apatow produced Pineapple Express (yep, here’s yet another Apatow thing), but unlike most Apatow comedies, this one doesn’t deliver its childish heroes into respectable lives with good women; indeed, it rejects that altogether in favor of bromance.

I laughed a few times, mainly at the desperately klutzy quality of some of the violence. A fight between Dale and Saul’s dealer Red (Danny McBride) practically takes out the entire apartment; the choreography must have been very precise (or Rogen and McBride would probably be dead) but looks realistically ramshackle. And some of the comic friction between the many pairs of characters in the film pays off nicely: Rosie Perez and Gary Cole (as the murderous drug dealer) are the unlikeliest sexy partners in crime since Kelly Lynch and Sam Rockwell in Charlie’s Angels. But I was still left feeling nonplussed and unsatisfied. The experiment doesn’t work, especially when, like Hot Fuzz, it devolves into gunfire and explosions. Special effects and stunt people take over, and the comedy suffocates in the din. It may be Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of a really cool way to end a stoner comedy, but then I think of the blockbusters of the last two decades and how they’ve fostered young filmmakers’ ideas of what’s really cool — things blow up! Lots of people die! — and it gets a little depressing.

Hancock

July 7, 2008

A powerful being who does more harm than good isn’t funny — it’s scary. Scarier still, at least to some citizens of this great land, is a powerful black being. (Remember that in the fall, when what Jon Stewart calls “Baracknophobia” swings into high gear.) Still, Hancock, starring Will Smith as a drunken, surly übermensch who costs Los Angeles more in property damage than the bank robberies he’s wantonly trying to stop, doesn’t get much into race — at first. Hancock isn’t hated because he’s a black superman — he’s hated, like Jack Smurch in James Thurber’s satirical story “The Greatest Man in the World,” because he has remarkable gifts and yet is still a dickhead. (He’s like Mike Tyson without the clammy psychosexual unease.) At the same time, he’s every racist’s worst stereotypical nightmare — an embodiment of what crackers think blacks will do with a little power (get drunk, bust shit up, sleep on park benches).

It’s good — isn’t it? — that Will Smith, probably Hollywood’s most valuable African-American player, feels comfortable enough to take on a role like Hancock. (Much as I admire him as a filmmaker, I shudder to think what Spike Lee will have to say about it.) Smith invests Hancock with enough of his offhand charisma to put us on his side no matter how much damage he wreaks. Hancock isn’t evil; he’s just lost, the only superhuman on earth (as far as he knows), and he’d rather be left alone to drain bottles and forget how weird his life is. He muscles through the movie under a cloud of sarcasm: at this point he’s so bored by criminals he just plants himself in their back seat during a police pursuit, waiting for them to be stupid so he can make this outing somewhat worth his while.

Teaming Will Smith the alcoholic Superman with Jason Bateman was a stroke of casting genius. Bateman is Ray, a struggling worker bee in public relations, whose life Hancock saves; Ray pays him back by offering to improve Hancock’s image. Ray’s young son (Jae Head) idolizes Hancock; his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t — she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him, it seems. Theron summons up some power in her sparring with Smith, who makes Hancock baffled and intrigued — who is this woman who seems to have as much contempt for him as he does for most humans? Scurrying around all this, trying to make everyone happy, Bateman draws on his quick-witted Michael Bluth groundedness and keeps the movie founded on humanity. (It’s also a treat for Arrested Development fans to see him reunited with Theron, his girlfriend in the “Mr. F” storyline.)

Directed by the perpetually underrated Peter Berg, Hancock delivers the comic-book thrills with a twist — the movie may have scooped what the Iron Man sequels probably intend, making Tony Stark an erratic drunk useless as a hero. (It also scoops the Watchmen movie with its sequence of Hancock jailed among all the criminals he put behind bars.) The script’s iconoclastic take on powerful immortals took me back to Alan Moore’s Miracleman, of all things, wherein the god met a goddess, making his mortal wife feel like a weak bag of meat. The film leaves us with a lot to chew on vis-à-vis race and power, especially when Hancock learns more about his past (shrouded in amnesia) — it’s not the usual toothless riff on Richard Pryor’s “Supern—–” routine. Some have voiced issues with the third act, but that’s where I felt it got really interesting. Though not based on an existing comic book, Hancock is like a graphic novel that perhaps leads to a regular series — at least I hope it does, either onscreen or on the comics racks. It’s certainly the most complexly ornery superhero flick we’re likely to get this summer.

Get Smart (2008)

June 23, 2008

In Get Smart, Steve Carell plays the new Maxwell Smart as a sort of genius of compassion. Max has been passed over for field work for years, possibly because he used to be 150 pounds overweight; leaner now, he’s an expert at listening to and decoding terrorist “chatter.” Max’s insight is that “bad guys are people too” — he doesn’t mean that in a touchy-feely way, he means that in order to predict what they’re going to do, you can’t forget they have real, motivating problems. In the world of espionage and counter-espionage, this practically makes him a visionary. Kinder and gentler, yet willing to use deadly force if absolutely necessary, Max is perhaps — dare I say it? — a hero for the Obama generation.

Get Smart is an affable pile-up of action-comedy climaxes, spoofing the same ground that the old Don Adams show (1965-1970), created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, covered. It also spoofs newer spy movies (it gets considerable mileage out of the obligatory negotiating-through-a-laser-protected-room scenario); by now, we’ve had dozens of secret-agent adventures for Max to send up, as opposed to the relative few extant during the show’s run. It used to be that Austin Powers owned this side of the parodic street, but that series got more smug and unfunny along with Mike Myers, and it’s poetic justice that the humbler Steve Carell turned out to be the Myers-killer when Get Smart opened opposite Myers’ The Love Guru and made over three times as much money.

Stuck in the rear with the gear too long, Max isn’t especially skilled in the field, so of course he’s assigned to the older, more experienced and impatient Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, whose character’s youthful appearance is explained away by plastic surgery). Their mission is to stop the usual megalomaniac — KAOS mastermind Siegfried (Terence Stamp) — from assassinating the President with a nuclear bomb. (James Caan gets his Dubya on as the Prez, saying “nucular” and introduced reading a kiddie book to a classroom.) There’s also Agent 23 (a smoothly self-satisfied Dwayne Johnson, whose future most likely lies in comedy), the Chief (typically exasperated Alan Arkin), and a pair of tech geeks (Nate Torrence and Masi Oka) who supply Max with gadgets more dangerous to himself than to the agents of KAOS.

This is probably the highlight of director Peter Segal’s underwhelming resume (which includes three Adam Sandler comedies); he doesn’t let his cast get lost in the action or the slapstick. I do wonder, however, why the movie builds up Max’s particular skill set and then turns him into a stock action hero. He does use his insight to defuse a hulking assassin (wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, also in Segal’s The Longest Yard, here again playing the Richard Kiel role), but when he treats a plump Russian lady to a dance — a nicely empowering moment in itself — nothing comes of it (I expected her to show up again and be more integral to the resolution), and in the end he’s left hanging from a speeding SUV and tackling an elderly man. Still, the action scenes do pack more tension than many another blow-out this summer, and the cast has ample charisma. And any movie that finds room to include a cameo (a literal cameo, only his face visible in an oval) by a comedy legend — a cameo that seems to spoof the whole concept of cameos — is welcome at the summer-flick table anytime.