Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) and I on the new releases for 11/23/09

Comedy! It’s just the cure for that mashed potato-malaise you know is coming this Thursday. This week’s new releases are a mixed bag as Videoport Jones and I are concerned about Judd Apatow’s latest film and rail against Dan Brown’s spooky DaVinci Empire. And again we’re forced to ask “Holiday movies, really Hollywood? Really?!”

Funny People

Videoport Jones: “I love Judd Apatow. ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ and ‘Knocked Up’ both served to revitalize screen comedy with their unique blend of improv-flavored dialogue (which practically tingles up there on the screen), a stable of nimble comic actors who specialize in such dialogue, and an audience-pleasing yet surprisingly-mature and resonant sensibility. Plus, they are two of the funniest damned things I’ve seen in a decade. (He’s so money that my friend, the estimable Guak, and I ritualistically greet each other, whenever the man and his films are mentioned, with the refrain “Apa-TOW!”) So, I was understandably, ridiculously excited for this, his third film, and, sadly, I must report that his streak is over. Now, I am not, at all, saying that ‘Funny People’ is a bad movie – it most certainly is not. I will say however, that in this case the delicate alchemy that turned his first two films into (in my humble opinion) two of the best comedies in recent years is off-kilter here, and the results are…mixed. The story of a spoiled star of such lowbrow, high-concept comedies as Merman and Re-Do (Adam Sandler, being pretty bold with the self-parody) who discovers he’s gravely ill and hires a struggling young comedian (a slimmed-down Seth Rogen) to help him return to his standup roots (and pursue the one who got away), ‘Funny People’ is nothing if not ambitious; a deconstruction of standup comedians, a buddy picture, a raunchy-yet-melancholy mediation on life and death, a chance for Apatow’s ensemble to show off their improv chops – check, check, check, and check. The film starts out very well indeed, with Sandler proving, as he did in ‘Punch Drunk Love’ and ‘Spanglish,’ that, lurking inside his doofus manboy persona lurks a more-than-passable dramatic actor (he’s especially good at hinting at the reservoir of loneliness underneath), and Rogen matching up well as the new assistant/companion who moves from hero-worship to ambivalent accomplice as Sandler’s condition causes him to make some questionable decisions. Sandler eases into the Apatow stable gracefully and he really holds the screen, at least until things start to get muddy about 2/3rds of the way through, when, chasing down his now-married real love (Leslie Mann) to her family’s home, he, and the movie, just sort of sit around her house and mope. In his director’s commentaries, Apatow is always candid about the fact that the success of his films comes largely down to the editing room where he, heretofore, has been adept at pulling together the masses of footage (he encourages his talented cast to improvise) into a cohesive whole. Well, this time, I think ‘Funny People’ gets away from him. Stil l- good work from Sandler and Rogen (who create a pair of surprisingly-complicated characters and aren’t afraid to be sort of unlikeable at times), Mann (until her character becomes inconsistent), Eric Bana (a hoot as Mann’s hunky Aussie husband), and Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman (slyly funny as Rogen’s more successful friends), and a noble attempt from Apatow to stretch himself a little.”

Justin: “I’d sum it up as ambitious but uneven. I don’t know how better to describe it, though some have said it’s almost like two movies. Which is fitting because Apatow is doing many things with ‘Funny People,’ but it’s largely a love letter to the world of celebrity stand-up comedy…with an ill-advised romance thrown in. This movie is unbelievably touching and funny (a trademark of Apatow) when it is dealing with Sandler’s character trying to come to grips with who he is as a person and as a comic. You’re right when you say that Sandler has some sneaky dramatic chops because in this movie he brings out a lot of raw emotion as someone trying to come to grips with death. This is all weaved together with a behind-the-curtain look at the world of comedy and insights on writing comedy, competition and the personalities in the comic world. And my GOD the cameos are too long and funny to list (though I will say once again Aziz Ansari knocks the ball out of the park in a minor role. See if you can guess who his character is lampooning). And then, suddenly, this all comes crashing to a halt and you wind up in this torturous romantic story which, if I’m being honest, is pretty poorly conceived and hard to watch. Apatow pushes the Sandler’s character too far in trying to redeem and fix his life, and really throws the movie off as Sandler tries to win back Mann. It’s surely a miss, especially when you consider the romantic plots in his other movies were executed almost seamlessly. Still, I’ll agree that this is not a bad movie. I repeat: This is not a bad movie. Just a flawed one. Rent it for the funny, not for the people. ZING!”

Angels & Demons

VPJ: “It’s the sequel to ‘The Da Vinci Code!’ That’s pretty much all we have to say, really, isn’t it? I mean, people who would want to watch this are already fanatical about doing so, and the rest of us, well, what would it take for us to actually sit through he whole thing? Money? Sure, I’d let someone pay me, say twenty bucks to watch it. Threats? That didn’t work with ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.’ Sexual blackmail? Well, who’s asking? But I kid underperforming would-be blockbusters made from laughably-written pulp novels. Tom Hanks is back as the smarty-pants expert in all things spooky and church-y, uncovering poorly-researched arcane rituals, secret societies, cabals, and whatnot, with the requisite hotsy arm candy assistant (this time it’s ‘Munich’s’ Ayelet Zurer) by his side, and blandly-competent director pal Ron Howard blanding things up along the way. I dunno, it royally cheesed off religious types, which I can appreciate, but Dan Brown’s inexplicably-popular bestsellers have a distinct, laughable aura about them (check out this article examining some of his most laughable prose), and, as likeable as Hanks remains, I’m just not prepared to watch him dodge poison arrows like Indy in a hairpiece without getting the giggles.”

JE: “I think we’ll just have to sit in the back of the theater and heckle this franchise, because much like the Harry Potter phenomenon and (lord help us) ‘Twilight,’ this is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by conventional means. Maybe we should start our own clandestine society to expose and stop these movies from being made? We can all wear cloaks and meet in scary locations. There will also be snacks. I feel this is a good plan. ANYHOO, this film has things I would usually like, including Hanks, Howard and Ewan McGregor. And I’m not afraid to admit I can get sucked into nefarious plot/alternate history/adventure riddle stories from time to time. The thing that turns me off is that it’s all presented a little too seriously. Somehow this whole adventure involves the Vatican and the Large Hadron Collider? And the only person to save the day is a ‘symbologist?’ If you want me to follow an adventure at least give the hero a realistic sounding day job. Was anthropologist or archeologist not sexy enough? I’m with you on this one buddy, count me in for watching it only if it’s MST3K-style over a couple of beers. Also, those cloaks.”

Four Christmases

VPJ: “Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are a very height-inappropriate couple; he’s listed at 6’5″, while she’s billed at a charitable 5’1″, and when she’s standing all pixieish and wee next to his hulking mass, it’s just plain incongruously-adorable. Why am I spending so much time on this height issue? Well, it’s either that or talk about the movie they’re in, yet another in the nearly-identical succession of seemingly-mandatory holiday comedies we are subjected to every year. This time, they’re a selfishly happy couple who successfully avoid their four divorced parents until, well, they don’t and the movie begins. Then we go see each of the four families in turn, and they’re wacky, and everybody falls down, and there’s at least one cute pet, and then there’s the hugging. Slumming older stars filling the parent quotient this time include Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, and Mary Steenburgen, while professional Vaughn pal Jon Favreau’s on hand to keep big Vince company. I laughed one and a half times. Enjoy.”

JE: “I really, really wish that Vaughn and Favreau could just get together and make another buddy flick and stop supporting each other when they’re slumming it. In some respects its admirable because they’re trying to help each other out (or make the other suffer as much as they are.) and that’s what friends do. On the other hand we end up with stuff like this and ‘Couple’s Retreat.’ I just recently caught part of ‘Swingers’ again on TV. Now aside from the fact that I watched this movie too many times to count in college and it was cornerstone of my relationship with my roommate, it’s a reasonably good film. Why? Because of the chemistry of Vaughn and Favs. Please guys, help us all out. And while I’m in a ranting mood, you know what the worst part is about these holiday movies? They subject the public to them in two big publicity pushes, because unlike regular DVD releases, holiday films only get dropped in theaters and on DVD once a year. December. It’s a magical season, where we get reminded, ‘Oh yeah, I had no interest in seeing that in the theaters, and I really have no interest in renting it.’ Hollywood, just do everyone a favor. If you’re not going to make better holiday movies at least just release them on DVD in the same time table as other movies? Don’t rub it in our faces in the name of yuletide spirit. Add holiday movies to the list of targets for our secret organization.”

Shorts

VPJ: “Robert Rodriguez is a cool story. Raising the money for his (still best) film ‘El Mariachi’ by literally selling his body for medical experiments, seeing that movie catch on, and then vaulting into the Hollywood big time (‘The Faculty,’ ‘Desperado,’ ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico,’ ‘From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’) but using that industry cred to start his own production company to make a series of kid-centric adventure films – it’s a feel good story for the ages. I just wish I liked his movies better. Especially these special effects-heavy kiddie things (the Spy Kids franchise, ‘The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl,’ and this one, about a magical wish-granting rock…yeah). I hate it when mediocre reality gets in the way of my warm fuzzies.”

JE: “This is going to be one of those few occasion where we’ll have to disagree old chum. As Ron Burgundy once said, ‘Well, when in Rome.” While not terribly original, ‘El Mariachi’ was a fun, bullet-ridden movie. ‘The Faculty’ gave us one of the most memorable acting experiences of Jon Stewart’s career. (Seriously people go seek it out. Ranks very high on the unintentional comedy scale). And his kids movies aren’t half bad. The Spy Kids stuff and even ‘Shark Boy and Lava Girl’ were light, poppy fun that I would have no problem sitting through if I had a son or daughter and was looking to kill a few hours. Is it the best family fare? Of course not. Could it be a little less heavy on the special-effects? Sure. But it’s fun, and more importantly to parents, NOT ANNOYING. ‘Shorts’ runs along those same lines, light and more than likely forgettable, it’s a decent kids flick. As someone who apparently wants to make kids movies, Rodriguez could do worse. I just wish he would devote more time for stuff for us grown ups.”

PARTING SHOTS:

– Did Apatow fall short with “Funny People?” What do you think?
– Would you join a secret cabal to end bad movies?
– Is it time for Favreau and Vaughn to team-up for a buddy movie?

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Published in: on November 24, 2009 at 3:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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