Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Working part-time at a movie theater in the summers, I come across, let’s say, an interesting selection of customers with… interesting opinions. One middle-aged woman openly opined, while looking at the poster for the coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, that she’s had enough with movies told from a teenage male perspective. While this same woman had very specific and narrow demands for an acceptable movie, she got me thinking. Why do we get so many coming-of-age movies from a male perspective? Let’s forget the easy answer that Hollywood has a lot more male filmmakers than female. There’s always that sense of romance with coming-of-age films, a nostalgic look back at a supposedly simpler time that now seems better appreciated. Maybe men are just more prone to romanticizing the past while women look forward to the future. Or maybe there are really just more men calling the shots about films get made. Whatever the reason, the woman didn’t go see The Kings of Summer, and judging by her attitude, I don’t think she missed out.
Joe (Nick Robinson) has just finished his freshman year in high school. He has a long summer ahead butting heads with his no-nonsense father (Nick Offerman). Then Joe gets the brilliant idea. He and his pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is also sick of his annoying parents, will build their own home in the woods, a sanctuary where they can set the rules. Joe and Patrick pack up their belongings, find a quiet spot in the woods, and build that dream home. Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird and gangly kid, takes an interest in the youthful declaration of independence and joins in. The guys invite girls over, explore the wilderness, grow patchy wisps of facial hair, and live out their fantasies of roughing it like real men. Of course it helps when a Boston Market is just down the road.
From start to finish, The Kings of Summer kept me laughing. I did not expect the comedy to be as consistent and thorough as it was, but writer Chris Galletta has a sure handed way of making the comedy derive from the situations and characters. Even with some outsized elements, notably Biaggio and the fact that the boys home-away-from-home is way too advanced for a kid who blundered through shop class, the humor never feels forced. That is an accomplishment, though the script also overly relies on Biaggio to say outlandish or weird lines. I especially enjoyed his one-scene pep talk with his father late in the movie. That confidant sense of humor goes a long way to relax an audience, allowing us to attune to the mellow waves of the film. It’s fun to watch the guys try to forage a life out in the woods, slowly learning how hard this whole survivalist lifestyle may actually be. The adults are viewed as blithe buffoons or hardasses, though they don’t come across as caricatures. Credit the attention paid to Offerman’s (TV’s Parks and Recreation) character as Joe’s father and credit Offerman’s uncanny ability to make gruff parenting endearing. This is an easy film to like, to go along with the flow, and to enjoy. It never really falters in entertainment and routinely has another joke at the ready to make you smile. It’s a sweet movie that does enough to keep you charmed.
While pleasant, I had to stop and reflect that there was absolutely very little to these characters. The boys all kind of blend together in their youthful romanticism of freedom and rebellion of lame parents, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe them beyond core physical descriptions. The moments that do supply character development are mostly broadly comedic or somewhat generic in their coming-of-age tropes, notably the broken heart administered by a guy’s crush. Example: Biaggio is essentially little more than a walking punchline machine. While quite funny and well acted, every line of his dialogue feels like a punchline. He comes from nowhere. At one point, Joe advises Biaggio that a girl may be interested in him, but Biaggio demurs and says that won’t work out. All right, here we go. Here’s where the movie sheds some light on him. Biaggio admits to being gay. The very next line involves him confusing gay with cystic fibrosis. It’s a funny joke but it turns a moment where a character was getting added dimension and just manufactures another punchline. Again, The Kings of Summer is a very pleasant film going experience, and one that made me laugh consistently, but objectively, the impact is too limited because of the lack of proper characterization.
And I suppose this leads into a bigger question of whether this lack of substantial characterization even matters. Coming-of-age movies, like any subgenre in film, have their own expectations and conventions. We all have our different tolerance levels for narrative familiarity, and depending upon the genre, familiarity may be a necessity. Fans of coming-of-age films want to see those familiar elements. They want to see the bonds of friendship, the neglectful parents, the first crushes that lead to first heartaches. It’s just like fans of romantic comedies finding comfort in the two leads hating one another until, inevitably, they love each other, or the public sing-alongs. I think many coming-of-age films at some level tend to be somewhat broad or generic to make them more relatable. Perhaps I’m just being too generous to formulaic pictures. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age movies then you’ll probably be quite forgiving of the shortcomings in The Kings of Summer. Me, I prefer Jeff Nichols’ Mud and its more textured, empathetic look at adolescence in a working poor Missouri riverbed community.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Mash Up, Funny or Die Presents…) makes the film look beautiful. The romanticism of the youth running away to live in nature is improved with some spectacular looking natural settings and compositions. The film was primarily filmed in Cleveland and northern Ohio, and as a native Ohioan, I have to puff my chest. Vogt-Roberts is also skilled at handling his actors and balancing tone; while I criticize the over reliance on comedy at the expense of fleshing out characters, the tone is not divergent. It plays within the same cohesive wavelength throughout. If there is a breakout actor from this movie, it would have to be Arias (TV’s Hannah Montana, The Middle). The kid has a tremendous ability to tap into an oddball character, making him quirky rather than insufferable. He also has a unique look to him, and that’s got to be a plus for a working actor. Just ask Steve Buscemi.
Genial and undemanding, The Kings of Summer isn’t anything close to royalty in the coming-of-age genre but it’s consistently funny and enjoyable. The acting is good, the jokes work, and the movie’s out after 90 minutes. It’s a nice summer diversion but doesn’t contain the resonance to be considered more than that. The weak characterization and broad humor, while opening its wide appeal, also makes the film less substantial. It’s sweet and funny but little to distinguish it from other sweet and funny coming-of-age entries. If you’re a fan of the genre or looking for a mellow and pleasant evening at the movies, think of The Kings of Summer. Just don’t think it’s going to be anything more.
Nate’s Grade: B
Relationships are serious business. In most Judd Apatow productions, they’re funny business. With The Five-Year Engagement, there’s romance to be found in surprising places, but the omnipresent feeling is one of dread. All those advertisements highlighting the comedy will start to melt away, and what you are left with is a funny, if bittersweet, anti-romantic comedy, more uncomfortable with hard-hitting truths than congenial laughs. My theater even had a few walkouts.
Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are happily in love. He’s a sous chef in a trendy San Francisco restaurant and she’s eager to gain a graduate fellowship at UC-Berkley in psychology. She doesn’t get accepted to Berkley, but the University of Michigan offers her a spot. Tom and Violet agree to put their wedding on hold and move to Michigan so that she can take advantage of an amazing opportunity. Michigan is not to Tom’s liking, especially since he can’t find a fulfilling job and settles with making sandwiches at a campus sub shop. It’s all just temporary, he keeps reminding himself. Then Violet’s two years gets extended, and Michigan isn’t just a temporary pit stop, it’s possibly home. Tom’s disappointment spirals, and he and Violet begin to drift apart, he resenting her for giving up his own dream to support hers. She begins getting emotionally attached to her Psychology professor, Dr. Childs (Rhys Ifans), in ways that straddle the mentor-student boundaries. Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Alex (Chris Pratt), Tom’s best man and coworker, at the couple’s engagement party. They get married, have kids, and Tom and Violet are still stalling. This is the story of two people who deserve their happily ever after except life keeps putting obstacles in their path to the altar.
You will be unprepared for how sobering The Five-Year Engagement can be. Some of these arguments between Tom and Violet cut right to the bone with an exacting level of painful authenticity. The level of uncomfortable intimacy can make the movie feel grueling. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some Apatow version of a John Cassavettes flick. There’s still plenty of comedy but the film is much more of a drama than any previous Apatow production. Part of the squirm factor comes in the very nature of the premise. The Five-Year Engagement picks up where most rom-coms end, with our happy couple together at last. We know these two are meant for one another; however, the majority of the screenplay involves watching two likeable, funny, loving people drift emotionally apart. Eventually they get back together in the end in a mad rush to staunch the gloom prevailing over the movie. It’s a hard act to watch people drift apart, losing the connections that once bound them together, and witnessing the glow of romance fade into complacency and resentment. Again, this is all handled in ways that find humor in uncomfortable places (like Tom, hopped up on painkillers, apologizing for smiling during sad news), but it can still be uncomfortable, and I don’t know if the ending, while happy, will justify the journey for many audience members.
I was shocked how much I found myself relating to the plight of the characters in The Five-Year Engagement, so much so that I simultaneously felt an extra level of engagement and discomfort. I will spare you the gory details, as I am a gentleman first and foremost, but relationships that just fizzle out rather than ending in some abrupt manner (infidelity, commitment issues, lack of availability, etc.) are not any more enviable. I related to the general sense of malaise that can plague a long-term relationship, the feeling of being forever a plus-one in your spouse’s circles, the resentment over the demands of a job or school, the small cracks that mask a lot of pain, the kind that is suffused with rationalization that to assert what you feel is to be selfish and inconsiderate, the loss of intimacy, physical and emotional, the guilt of being unhappy or making someone unhappy, and the sad realization that maybe love just wasn’t enough. What happens when nice people who are good for each other are just dealt rotten circumstances? Phew. I feel like I’m turning this into a therapy session. Let’s talk about something inappropriate in the next paragraph.
The biggest reason for sticking it out, both for Tom and Violet and the audience, is that Segel and Blunt have terrific chemistry together. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is a big endearing lug of a man, and putting his career on hold to support his fiancé gives him an extra surplus of sympathy as we watch him spiral into despair and then resentment. He’s a funny, likeable guy, and we know he and Violet are meant for one another and we want them to get together, even as this looks less likely to come true after the circumstances that push them away. Granted, you must swallow the hard-to-believe reality that Tom couldn’t find a decent job in Ann Arbor, a college town that has to have some fine dining along the outskirts of town if not in the city. Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) makes me fall in love with her yet again with a performance. Just like in 2011’s Bureau, she creates a charming, vibrant, luminescent portrayal of a person in love, so much so that I am envious of the man of her affections (her pantomime of “Circus Solei sex” made me feel all warm and fuzzy in multiple places). Violet has her own share of flaws but that just made her more relatable. I enjoy the way Segel, as a screenwriter (he co-wrote the movie with his regular collaborator, director Nicholas Stoller), is charitable with his characterization. He’s not afraid to make himself look mean and hurtful and wrong. He’s not afraid to make the girlfriends in his movies, even the ones who are about to dump him, justifiable in their decision-making. This is not a case of good guys and bad guys; it’s much more like life where everyone can draw good reasons, and the consequences just suck. Out of all of the Apatow films, Segel has done the best job of making his characters feel most like actual people than broad comedic types.
Luckily, the movie has its funny, peculiar little moments to make the drama bearable. I appreciate the little touches of comedy, which percolate through the heaviness. The wide supporting cast is peopled with the usual blend of oddballs and loudmouths. Pratt and Brie provide an ongoing foil as the couple who didn’t seem right for one another, made initial impulsive decisions, but have stuck it out and are happy; instead of waiting for the right time they embrace the mantra that there is no perfect time in life but the present. Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is great as a smart-aleck who grows into a responsible father. Brie adopts a British accent and becomes even more adorable, as all fans of Community would know. She’s quite funny as Violet’s sister and has a standout sequence where she and Violet have a very adult conversation in front of children so they disguise their voices as Cookie Monster and Elmo. The juxtaposition is a hoot and yet also a nice moment to add characterization. I also enjoyed seeing Chris Parnell (TV’s 30 Rock) as a sad sack faculty spouse stay-at-home father who clears his misery with kitting. There are some gory comedic set pieces around arrows being shot into legs and toes getting amputated, but the movie’s best comedy comes in the small moments, from Tom ‘s patchy “I’ve stopped caring” facial hair, to a self-described “pickle nerd” played by Brian Posehn, to the percentages of every undergrad named “Ashley” or “Zack,” to Tom’s hopelessly overmatched chase with Professor Childs, to a running gag about grandparents dying before Tom and Violet wed.
I would like to take this time and observe that the University of Michigan, as well as its tenured professor, is responsible for the disruption of happiness between a young couple in love. How many other couples have you destroyed, U of M? When will your taste for suffering ever be quenched? And no, I’m not just saying this because I’m a diehard Ohio State Buckeyes fan, as well as a grad student. My point being: Michigan wants to kill Tom, Violet, and every person you hold dear (In short: Go Bucks).
You’d think with a title like The Five-Year Engagement they wouldn’t want to overstay their welcome, but like most Apatow productions, the film runs a bit on the long side. About 20 minutes into the movie, I felt the need to go to the bathroom. I rationalized staying put. Then about 90 minutes in, that urge became overwhelming but I reasoned the movie had to be over soon. And I kept telling myself that… for another 30 minutes. Then I just ran out and did my business, feeling the elation of relief. At over two hours, the movie feels excessive. Because of the drift away structure, the movie feels especially long in the second act, where we get hurtful scene after hurtful scene, and where Tom and Violet go their separate ways and start dating new people (the fact that Violet dates her smarmy professor feels realistic and yet also like a gut-punch to Tom). Some of the colorful characters that typical people Apatow productions feel more forced than usual, especially Violet’s collection of fellow psych grads played by the likes of Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Office). They don’t seem well grafted to the story. The happy ending, while welcomed, also feels unlikely given the proceeding drama, and its brash adherence to rom-com conventions is a tad disappointing.
Watching the dissolution of a relationship is something of a hard sell to mainstream audiences, though Vince Vaughn was able to get audiences to see his anti-romantic comedy, 2006’s The Break-Up, which admittedly had bigger names and a lighter touch on the material. The Five-Year Engagement has its share of comedy but it’s pretty sublimated to the heavy drama of watching two people in love fall out of love and battle resentment, self-destruction, and apathy. Segel and Blunt are so good together we’re willing to give them a wider berth to stretch their wings, sow their oats, and eventually find one another again, falling back in love after a flurry of obstacles, realizing that finding and connecting with your right person is an ongoing process and not some prize to be awarded. I found myself connecting with the movie in several ways, so much so that it made me fee dour for the rest of the evening (you may feel differently). The movie gets so many subtle things right about how relationships can sour, and yet it still manages to overstay its welcome and fill its roly-poly narrative with annoying characters. At least the movie has helped me discover my perfect woman: Alison Brie with a British accent. However, Emily Blunt will also do in a pinch.
Nate’s Grade: B