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Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems is like having a panic attack. It’s frantic, unpredictable, exhausting, anxious, paranoid, visceral, and I still don’t know if I can say I actually enjoyed the actual movie. I can admire it and its effectiveness at putting the viewer in the world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a middle-aged jeweler that owes money to every shady human in New York City, though I don’t know if I want to step back into this mucky world of crime, losers, and lowlifes. It’s 2012, and Howard has procured a rare gemstone from Ethiopia and considers this his big score, which is important considering he keeps taking on more debts to pay off the last debts to angry, violent men. Basketball star Kevin Garnett, playing himself surprisingly well, visits the shop and is obsessed with the gem and the mythic power he feels it offers him. Howard agrees to allow the NBA star to borrow the gem, and from there Uncut Gems is a nonstop descent into chaos, with creditors, auction houses, family members, mistresses, and every goon in the tri-state area colliding with Howard as he spins desperate deals, escapes, and anything he can to attain that big score. The Safdie brothers, a writing/directing pair, made a big splash with 2017’s gloriously thrilling Good Time, a movie that was as brilliantly streamlined and direct as this new one is deliberately sloppy. It feels like one plot event crashing into another, with characters speaking over one another, a throbbing score constantly in your ear, and with claustrophobic camerawork and grimy lighting. You feel like you’re experiencing the constant rush of anxiety of Howard, and it’s very potent, but the movie can also feel repetitive. There’s so much happening all the time that it can feel less like things are escalating worse than things are just still happening. There are stellar sequences, in particular the later act with an auction and pulling off an escape leading to a very complicated high-risk-high-reward bet, but the movie’s sloppiness and overlapping nature also makes it feel smothering. Sandler is superb as an adrenaline junkie seeking his next fix, a self-destructive gambler who knows he can never be satisfied. With Sandler’s able assist, Howard has an offbeat charm that makes you listen when you should be punching him in the nose. Without Sandler and his live-wire performance, you probably wouldn’t care what happens to this mess of a man. Julia Fox plays Howard’s mistress and she’s a real discovery. This is her film debut and it certainly won’t be her last. She’s more than a pretty face and finds a screwball sweetness to her relationship with her boss, enough so that you think she may actually love Howard for real, in her own way. Uncut Gems is also shockingly unsentimental about its characters and what befalls them. You may laugh, you may gasp, but you’ll be surprised one way or another. The Safdie brothers continue to solidify themselves as some of the most exciting filmmakers working in the thriller genre. I’ll still prefer Good Time and a scuzzy Robert Pattinson to a scuzzy, bruised, beaten, and always-smiling Sandler, but Uncut Gems is two hours of collective adrenaline spikes.

Nate’s Grade: B

Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser (2015)

joe-dirt-2-poster-656-1How bad does bad get? That’s the question with Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, a sequel 14 years in the making to a one-joke character from an actor now in his 50s. It’s so bad that this movie is a Crackle original, a streaming service that I don’t think people know exists. You can feel every degree of sad desperation while you watch. There are so many scenes that just seem to prattle on indefinitely, varying from one or two angles, as if they only had time to film one take and kept encouraging their actors to just keep throwing things out there in the misplaced hope that somehow somebody would strike gold. It does not happen once. David Spade returns and he’s whisked away Wizard of Oz-style into the past where he watches his beloved girlfriend choose his rival (Mark McGrath) over him. It’s a weird Back to the Future Part 2 alternative timeline and one where McGrath also plays his character’s father in an inexplicable scene where he allows his family to unknowingly jerk him off. I hope that last sentence begins to reveal the true depths of comic despair that is Joe Dirt 2. It’s not that it’s powerfully unfunny, it’s not that the plot is completely inconsequential, it’s not that the jokes end up being weird pop-culture references dating back to the 90s (Buffalo Bill in 2015?), it’s not that Spade looks like he’s fulfilling some deal with the devil, it’s not that the movie has no purpose and no reason to exist, it’s that Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser is like a communal funeral. You watch it and you mourn; for those involved and for your lost time. If you can find a more pointless, depressing, past-its-prime sequel, then I think the seventh seal has been opened, spelling the doom of mankind. I figured Adam Sandler would be responsible somehow.

Nate’s Grade: F

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

paul-blart-mall-cop-2-movie-posterThe first Paul Blart movie was fairly inoffensive. Much like its titular hero, it was buffoonish and loud and something to simply shrug and ignore the idiocy. It had a couple funny moments tweaking action movie conventions, less so with Kevin James’ numerous pratfalls. The world didn’t need a sequel beyond the demands of the first one making money. And much like the Die Hard sequels, the “spiritual forbearer” of Blart, our security guard finds himself miraculously being put in the same miraculous position again, this time in a different location. While Die Hard 2 is a fairly mundane follow-up, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is a true test of everything we hold sacred. Midway into the movie, I thought my review was just going to be my unintelligible suicide note.

Blart (James) is in Las Vegas for an annual security convention. He’s brought along his teen daughter Maya (Rami Rodriguez) for some valuable father-daughter time, especially in light of Blart losing his wife and mother. It’s at this convention where Blart runs across a team of art thieves lead by Vincent (Neal McDonough). It’s up to the most unlikely mall security cop to save the day again, Vegas-style. Oh, and when traveling in Vegas, make sure to stay at the luxurious Wynn Casino and Hotel. Can I get a check too for the self-promotion like this movie?

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Somewhere along the way, James and co-writer Nick Bakay decided the lovable lug needed to be a modern-day Pagliacci and be the crying clown America deserves. The opening act feels like notorious cinematic sadist Lars von Trier designed it. In the opening minutes, Blart’s wife (Jayma Mayes) divorces him not even a full week into marriage. She couldn’t stop vomiting from the thought of being married to him (this literally happens). His mother is run over and killed by a milk truck. His daughter has been accepted into UCLA but fears telling her father this joyous news because she doesn’t want to push him over the edge. This and he’s still emasculated and looked down upon by an assortment of industry peers at the Vegas convention. All of this culminates in Blart becoming a paranoid, overbearing bully who loses the sense of likeability that comes naturally to James even in dreck. Take a moment where Blart intervenes with his drunken friend. The guy has been obnoxiously making sexual advances on a woman (played by Adam Sandler’s wife) who just wants her privacy respected, and Blart saves the day by… convincing the woman that she should be flattered by the drunk’s advances. Yeah. He rejects his daughter’s academic accomplishment and demands she attend a lesser school closer to home for his own selfish benefit. He’s pushing her away. Then there’s the weird ongoing joke about his arrogant assumption that an attractive hotel employee is hitting on him; he’s dismissive of her throughout and, here’s the weird part, it ends up working. She falls for him (“I can’t say no to you”). That’s right folks, Paul Blart successfully “negged” himself a date. He’s not a loveable loser any more. He’s just an angry, bullying, self-pitying loser.

There won’t be a joke (I’ll be charitable and refer to them as “jokes”) that you won’t see coming a mile away and still roll your eyes when they arrive. When the movie has an exotic bird walk out, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before it comically engages in a fight with Blart. When he steps back onto the familiar confines of a Segway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before he does something stupid. The crux of the humor of this movie is about 90 minutes of a fat guy falling down, and it still takes 47 minutes for the plot to get in gear. Let me repeat that for those in the cheap seats: a movie that is built upon the frail premise of being a Die Hard parody takes 47 unholy minutes to actually have its plot kick into gear. I watched Blart fight a stupid bird before the movie had the villain’s scheme play out. Naturally, the film would have been bereft without that man-on-bird action (sorry to disappoint those who came here vis-à-vis a salacious SEO keyword search). Likewise we needed 28 shots of James falling over. Anything less would have been unacceptable to the viewing public. If you’re going to be a dumb comedy just be a dumb comedy and don’t waste my time. 500x281

And oh what a dumb comedy it is. The first Blart film wasn’t going to be confused with Tom Stoppard but it at least had some action conventions it could tweak. This go-round can’t even manage that, and so we’re inundated with tired slapstick and comedy that rarely rises above the most obvious joke at every opportunity. Blart gets ready to attack an intruder and, wouldn’t you know it, he ends up punching an old lady. Hilarious. Even funnier is that the injured hospitality worker apologizes to her attacker. There’s also a thinly disguised gay panic joke where Blart freaks out when a guy eats a brown banana. Who cares about how brown a banana is? At one point Blart hides inside a suitcase positioned at the top of the stairs. Why? Well so that the suitcase can fall down those stairs and hit the bad guy in the head. Don’t you get it? He’s fat. There are few comic setups or developments, no payoffs. Scenarios that should be comic, like Blart stumbling on stage of a Vegas dance show, are practically played straight, with the visual of Blart cavorting his large torso as the only joke itself. In case you forgot, he’s fat.

I should not have been expecting much from Paul Blart 2 simply by the choice of jokes highlighted in the trailer. If you wanted a cursory reminder, it included Blart fighting a bird, Blart punching an old lady, Blart running into a plate glass window, and Blart getting kicked by a horse in what should be a spine-obliterating accident. Let’s take this last gag and really explore how it’s indicative of Paul Blart 2. The foundation is a dumb act of slapstick, but that’s not good enough and so it’s exaggerated to even dumber magnitude. With the help of self-loathing CGI artists (they can’t all be Jurassic World), Blart ricochets across a street and violently bounces against a car door. It’s not enough that a horse kicks this guy; he has to get kicked by a super horse because it just wasn’t funny enough. That sums up the comic ethic of Paul Blart 2: when stupid isn’t enough, amp it further, and then be proud about what you’ve done.

Nate’s Grade: D

Men, Women, and Children (2014)

MV5BMTAwMzc2OTgwOTZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg2ODA4NjIx._V1_SX640_SY720_Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.

The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. men-women-and-childrenThat core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.

It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.

I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion). thumbnail_19264-1

To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.

The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.

At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jack and Jill (2011)

I was anticipating bad, I was anticipating outlandishly bad, but nothing can prepare you for how stunning and jaw-droppingly awful Adam Sandler’s reported comedy Jack and Jill truly is. The movie swept the Razzie Awards in all categories this year, a historic feat. Sandler plays a rich ad exec and his braying, boorish twin sister, who Al Pacino, in a strangely committed performance as himself, falls in love with for no discernible reason. I’ve seen my fair share of craptacular cinema, and yet this movie is bad on a rarely seen level of human tragedy; it feels like the movie came from a different dimension, where they had no concepts of human relations, reactions, expectations, or senses of humor. It feels like you’re watching a cultural artifact of a civilization in decline. I haven’t been a fan of Sandler’s brand of naughty-yet-safe humor for a while, but this movie is weirdly cruel to all sorts of people, like Mexicans, atheists, adopted kids, Jews, and human beings with working senses of humor. The quality of comedy includes gems like, “Play twister with your sister,” and, “These chimichangas are making a run for the border.” The rampant and nakedly transparent product placement for Carnival Cruise and Dunkin’ Donuts is obscene. This is a charmless, witless film, and when it tries to wring actual emotion out of its daft scenario, the whole enterprise just implodes. Jack and Jill is so odious, torturous, reprehensibly bad that it feels like one of the joke movies that Sandler made in 2009’s Funny People. You feel like the entire movie is one long joke put on by a contemptuous Sandler. I think my good pal Eric Muller had it right; we’re on the tail end of Sandler’s deal with the devil. Jack and Jill is why the terrorists hate us.

Nate’s Grade: F

The Zookeeper (2011)

A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Just Go With It (2011)

Loosely based off the 1969 film Cactus Flower, the title of the latest Adam Sandler comedy feels like a transparent plea from the screenwriters and Sandler. He plays a womanizing plastic surgeon that has bedded many women under the false pretenses of being married to horrible women. Now he’s in a dilly of a pickle because he has to convince the new hottie in his life (Brooklyn Decker, former swimsuit model, clearly chosen for her acting “talents”) that he is getting a divorce from his fake wife, played by his assistant (Jennifer Aniston). Her real-life kids become Sandler’s fake kids, and the whole lot goes along for a Hawaiian vacation. At various points characters will talk about how confusing the lies are becoming. I wish. Just Go with It doesn’t have the ambition to embrace its farcical premise, instead settling on rom-com gooeyness even though most of the characters are lying jerks. Sandler’s been tricking women into sleeping with him for decades, but we’re supposed to view him as a good guy? What’s the point of throwing in Nicole Kidman, of all people, as Aniston’s college nemesis if the film doesn’t do anything with the different pretenses? Things don’t get too complicated because the characters really only assume one identity and one story, blunting escalating comic mishap. While Sandler and Aniston have a surprisingly natural chemistry together, and some of the jokes are decent in conception, Just Go With It is a wearisome rom-com weighed down with false sentiment and kicks to the groin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Grown Ups (2010)

Adam Sandler keeps his friends from the unemployment line with this lowbrow, middle-aged themed, yet still entirely juvenile, comedy, Grown Ups. The movie is really a giant fetid waste of potential. It’s Sandler and his old Saturday Night Live buddies (David Spade, Rob Schneider, Chris Rock, and Kevin James obviously filling the Chris Farley spot) chumming it up and decrying the foibles of being 40. They don’t get the kids today, nostalgically reflect on their summer camp days, and try to recreate some of that old magic with a combined family get-together. Each man falls into a rigid type and will learn some half-hearted, disingenuous form of a life lesson by film’s end. The entire dimwitted plot is as stunted as the male characters. These guys just pal around and it’s termed a movie. The female characters are all one-note: figures of lust, saintly significant others who never get to be in on the joke, shrews, or Schneider’s older wife who is a constant butt of some mean-spirited jokes. The actors do have an amiable chemistry that allows the film to coast for some time before the whole affair just becomes wearisome. These guys have played these types for many many movies, and so everyone just operates on autopilot. The heavy slapstick momentarily distracts from the truth that Grown Ups is an unfunny, crass attempt by Sandler to get audiences to pay for his class reunion. The fact that this junk won the Best Comedy Award from the People’s Choice Awards illustrates the limitations of democracy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Funny People (2009)

In two short years, Judd Apatow has become the king of comedy. He’s co-written and directed two bona fide hits that will go down as comedy classics (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), and produced gut-busters with heart, like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Apatow brand of comedy centers on characters and less on contrived set pieces. He’s built up enough comedy capital in Hollywood that he felt he could write and direct a project less ideally commercial, something tagged as being more personal and serious like in the James L. Brooks mold. Funny People is the mixed results. I applaud Apatow for trying to grow as an artist, but as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Funny People is a broken movie that isn’t funny enough to be fully redeemed.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a famous comedy actor that has made several hit Hollywood comedies. He may live in a giant mansion but his life is extremely isolated and lonely. He has no real close friends and years ago he drove away the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann). He has no one to comfort him in his time of need. This prickly man has been informed that he has a terminal blood disease. Simmons decides to go back to his comedy roots, to stand-up, and it is there that he meets the young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira has grown up with the comedy of George Simmons, so he is flabbergasted when the man himself asks Ira to write jokes for him. Ira’s roommates, fellow stand-up comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and crappy sitcom actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), can’t believe his dumb luck. Ira and Simmons build an unorthodox friendship, and Ira is the only person George has confided in about his disease and his fear of dying. And then something amazing happens. George Simmons gets better. He’s got a new lease on life and he aims his attentions on the girl that got away. Laura is married to Clarke (Eric Bana), a handsome Australian businessman, and she has two adorable kids (Apatow’s own girls), which makes it a very poor time to restart her romance with George.

Funny People is the first Apatow-helmed film that feels sadly incomplete, even at two and a half hours. The movie is staggeringly sloppy when it comes to plot structure and character work. First off, when a character is informed that he has a terminal illness at minute three, it doesn’t have the impact that it would if the audience got to know and feel for that individual. In fact, the first half of this movie feels like, and this may get confusing, the second half of another movie. It centers on a selfish character coming to grips with his choices in life, mostly wrong, and beginning to reconnect with people once more, building a mentor friendship and finding the “one that got away.” But there are segments during this first half of Funny People where the impact just cannot be felt because the dramatic legwork has not been achieved. Watching Simmons’ estranged family berate him through tears doesn’t have much of an impact when they discover the news. Seeing George Simmons spend his potential last days jamming with Jack White and other musicians is cool, but it doesn’t come across as anything but another indication that the fake George Simmons is famous in this alternative Los Angeles. It doesn’t have setup, like Simmons talking about one of his life’s pleasures is strumming the guitar or playing before things got complicated. So it’s basically just another celebrity cameo snapshot. While I’m on the topic, the multitudes of celebrity cameos are strangely unfunny, save for a bit where Sarah Silverman describes her lady parts.

This is also the first Apatow comedy where it feels like twenty percent of what I saw promised from TV spots, trailers, making-of specials (there was a good one on Comedy Central to check), the advertising unit if you will, was not in the movie. This gave me the distinct impression that even at a lengthy 150 minutes that Funny People feels misshapen, that there are swaths of material on the cutting room floor that would have assisted the narrative and sad amount of underwritten supporting characters. I’m not saying Funny People would necessarily be a better movie at three hours length, but it would at least feel more fully formed and satisfying.

The main problem with the film, outside of the reverse plot structure, is that everything just goes slack during the uneven second half. George and Ira spend about an hour of the movie with Laura and her family, and it feels like one long uncomfortable detour. Part of the squirmy feeling is intentional, as the audience is supposed to be in Ira’s shoes and see George’s homewrecking as the bad decision train wreck it is. But I also felt uncomfortable because George kept extending his stay day after day and I was getting impatient. I wanted these characters to head back to L.A. and deal more with the Ira/George relationship. During this second half, Ira becomes a background figure that is good for nervous reaction shots. This stalls all the character work that had been done up to this point and Ira goes to pause mode for an hour. This second half section isn’t particularly funny, it isn’t romantic, and it gives little insights into the past between George and Laura. She has established a nice living for herself, with two cute kids and a hunky husband who seems to be a good father when he’s around. In fact, despite the movie’s insistence that Clarke is a cheater (thus ensuring the movie law that it is then acceptable to cheat on him), I found myself liking the hyperactive and sensitive lout. Every plot movement in this second half feels wrong, some of it intentional, but it makes Funny People feel like it has been hijacked and taken hostage. Where did the movie I was kinda liking go? What happened here? This hour feels like a separate movie and one that Funny People would have benefited from simply being dropped entirely.

Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Mad Men in anticipation of its third season, but this movie also disappoints by failing to delve into the creative process of comedians. Despite its running time and subject matter, there isn’t that much standup witnessed. Usually the movie will display about one line or one bit and then cut back to the characters offstage again. We don’t get to see the evolution of comedy or the professionals talking shop about what makes a good joke. There isn’t even much collaboration, so we don’t get to see multiple minds banging out jokes together. There’s a comedian named Randy (Aziz Ansari) who is popular with audiences because he’s loud and spastic, and all the other comedians hate him, but then the movie doesn’t return to this. Go back to this topic. I want to hear more about the divisions within the comedy world, the people that feel like they are more pure or textured in their funny compared to the people that play to the crowd and lap up the easy yuks. Ira’s character work is mostly explored through his changing standup persona, where he seems to gain more confidence and a voice. But there’s this whole other storyline where Ira is a “joke thief” and takes other people’s material and repackages it as his own. This is an interesting story and provides conflict and glimpses into the character of Ira as an insecure and ethically challenged opportunist in a competitive field. It makes him a more dynamic character. I saw more of this storyline in the making-of special for Funny People, and sadly it is only hinted at in the final product. The other comedy players, like Ira’s roommates and his quasi-love interest (Aubrey Plaza), are barely explored as people and professionals.

Apatow comedies are notable for being character-based, but Funny People doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing characters that you want to be around. I found little reason to care. I found most of the characters to not be engaging; some were unlikable but most were simply flat. George Simmons is supposed to be a selfish man, though there’s something inherently selfish about being famous in Hollywood. Comedy itself is inherently selfish, where individuals guard their observations and exploit personal stories for the endorphin highs of audience approval. Is successful comedy linked to selling out? Funny People occasionally visits the dark recesses that comedians utilize for material, like self-lacerating humiliation and family trauma that gets aired out as a means of therapy. Simmons is a selfish and lonely guy and the point of the whole movie is that even after a near-death experience, he’s still selfish and lonely. He’s said he’s changed but has he really? That seems to be the movie’s cosmic joke. This is clearly a personal movie for Apatow, which might explain why it has less resonance for an audience that isn’t as steeped in the history of comedy or the rigors of fame. I just don’t have the same point of interest.

Sandler revealed his acting talent in 2002’s beguiling Punch-Drunk Love, and in Funny People he plays a completely different character than his other adolescent roles. He doesn’t pander to be likable at any point, and he’s generally standoffish from beginning to end. He hasn’t done a lewd, crude movie in over ten years, and this return to raunch rekindles the Sandler I remember listening to constantly in the mid 1990s. This role isn’t as taxing for him as an actor, nor is he given too many chances to reveal deeper layers to George Simmons. I think this is by design from Apatow. Rogen is less his charming self and during the second half of the movie he pretty much shifts his eyes and makes pained faces. He feels at ease in the stand-up sequences, probably because Rogen performed stand-up comedy when he was 13. Mann gets her biggest acting role in years and cries enough, but it made me realize that she works best as an actress that can steal scenes rather than an actress who has scenes built around her. I think Bana (Star Trek) actually comes off the best. He showcases an exuberance for comedy not seen before, and when his character gets emotional it still manages to be funny and believable.

In the end, Funny People just isn’t that funny. There aren’t any particularly clever comedic setups, the characters don’t get many chances to be humorous even as comedians, and the movie just goes slack during its uncomfortable and uneven second half. The Hollywood satire lacks bite, and the best bits are saved for the scathingly unhip and formulaic “Yo, Teach!” sitcom of Schwartzman’s. Apatow is more interested in purging a personal tale onto the screen rather than fashioning a relatable mainstream comedy. I feel that the salutations that Funny People is “more challenging” and “serious” are unwarranted. This is certainly a different movie but is it any more serious than navigating the uncertainty and awkwardness of an unplanned pregnancy or beginning sexuality at middle age? I don’t think so. Beyond this, the movie doesn’t establish its plot well and spends far too much time in side diversions, failing to round out characters and ignoring intriguing premises and storylines. Even the camaraderie, usually a hallmark of Apatow productions, feels lost as the characters have much more friction. On a personal note, I saw this movie while I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. On our car ride back to our beach house, my wife and I got into a car accident. We were both physically fine but her little Ford Focus was totaled. I will now forever associate Funny People with a car accident. If that isn’t enough of an on-the-nose metaphor, while we waited along the hot road for police and tow trucks, I thought to myself, “I just wish the movie was worth this.” It wasn’t.

Nate’s Grade: C

Reign Over Me (2007)

Adam Sandler in a serious drama? Well it worked in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but that was aided by Paul Thomas Anderson deconstructing the typical Sandler goofball in his glut of crude yet successful comedies. Can Sandler work his thespian skills in a story not tailor-made for him? I think writer/director Mike Binder’s 9/11 human drama, Reign Over Me, is proof that Sandler can step outside his popular persona for a worthy cause. But this movie isn’t it.

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is an ordinary dentist living his family life in Manhattan. Then one day he spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), zipping along on an electric scooter. He looks drastically different than Alan remembers, and this is because Charlie’s wife and children, and even his dog, were on one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Charlie’s life now consists of a new adolescence where he does what he wants because of the insurance money, so he plays video games late at night, goes to see Mel Brooks retrospectives, and keeps remodeling his kitchen over and over. He is without friends and refuses to even think about any painful memories. Alan takes it upon himself to help his former dentist school pal confront his grief and get back on his feet.

The varying elements never truly mesh, and Reign Over Me has a very haphazard, clumsy feel as it never comes to a firm landing. There’s a mixture of the serious and the sitcom, and both elements go together as well as vodka and motor oil — sure it may work in the immediate but couldn’t it be much better? Many of the connections feel tenuous and it’s hard to care about certain storylines, especially the film’s preoccupation with Alan’s midlife malaise. Are we supposed to be in Alan’s corner as he argues his adult life sucks because women at the office throw themselves at him and his wife wants him to open up? Am I really supposed to believe the film’s assertion that he covets the freedom of a 9/11 widower? Reign Over Me never shifts gears smoothly when it comes to tone. The audience is left to question why this story needs to be told through the prism of a bored dentist. It never truly feels right.

Charlie isn’t just bummed out, he is severely damaged from the shock of 9/11; this is far beyond post-traumatic. At several points he just freaks into violent fits out for no discernible reason, but people still tolerate him and don’t call for greater help. It would be naive to think that one friend could fix all of the psychological horrors of one man, but then you remember this is a movie. Charlie could use some serious meds. Friendship is important, but Reign Over Me toys with the object of abject loss without delving too deep, instead feeling that one good crying confessional and a terribly manipulative and unbelievable court battle will sum everything up.

I think that feeling was pervasive for me while watching Reign Over Me was that I felt toyed with. The drama takes a long time to wind down and even then it settles on surface-level solutions that always seem so easy in movies. Many of the comedic elements feel too dependent on sitcom generalizations. Charlie comes to Alan’s apartment late at night and asks his wife if he can go out and play. Alan chastises his friend, saying he’s an adult and doesn’t need his wife’s permission to go outside. Can anyone guess what the next moment will entail? That’s right, he asks his wife if he can go out and play. You’ll be forgiven if you hold for expectations of a laugh track. Reign Over Me even is also filled with the usual suspects like the brassy receptionist, the shyster lawyer, and the hilarious misunderstandings between the sexes that bring about sexual harassment lawsuits.

Let me stop and illuminate on that last bit. Alan’s patient is obsessed with wanting to orally pleasure the good doctor, enough that she sues when he declines a second time. For whatever reason, he sees her again and she apologizes in some ham-handed back-story about how her husband dumping her left her devastated (and if you can figure out what Binder has in store for the film’s broken female and broken male, then you too deserve a lollipop). This storyline is beyond tacky, a bit humiliating for the actress, and a prime example of how poorly the all the female roles are written. It’s shocking that Reign Over Me can examine male adult male bonding so well but completely drop the ball with every single female character. Alan’s wife seems nice and responsible but the film tries to convince us she’s sucking the life out of him because she likes jigsaw puzzles, quiet nights at the home, and knowing where her husband is when he’s out odd hours of the night. It’s appalling how this movie treats its female characters. They are either seen as flighty beings at the control of their sexual desires or as cold, non-sexual wet blankets. After the hour mark you can almost forget about seeing anything about Alan’s family except for an implausibly tidy “I’m sorry/No I’m sorry” phone call.

Sandler can be a fine actor when given the right material, and a character that retreats into an infantile existence seems like a plum role for him. He effectively channels Charlie’s disconnect from reality, but a lot of his grief tics will start to remind you of Rain Man-style autism, like repeating phrases, obsessive behavior, and moaning and rocking while upset. He gets lots in his Bob Dylan bird’s nest of hair.

Cheadle is always dependable as an actor and proves to be a stable center the film needs because of its narrative shortcomings. He’s doing primarily a lot of reaction but still manages to work above his material and build sympathy to a character that really deserves less. Sandler bounces around like a ping-pong ball and Cheadle holds steady, and the two men form a rather strong acting unit that just makes me wish the material were up to their task.

Ultimately Reign Over Me is hard to pile on because of its wealth of good intentions and fleeting moments of dramatic heft. It’s a messy film that somehow believes all its disjointed elements fit together, when in reality the movie never settles on a cohesive tone. The acing is generally strong and there’s some mature and realistic writing regarding male relationships, however, there are just as many frustrating moments. The film skims the surface of Big Issues like 9/11 grieving but never wants to develop into something more thoughtful. Instead, the film retreats much like Charlie into an easier existence where the questions are only momentary. Reign Over Me is a fine if unremarkable drama, but good intentions can only take you so far. At some point, to be memorable, you have to actually be good.

Nate?s Grade: B-

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