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Down to You (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 8, 2000:

The latest sacrifice to almighty gods that are the teenage market with wide pockets arrives and proves not only is the teen comedy dying, it is having its grave danced upon. And with eight inch heels worn by the fiend known as Down To You.

Want an old-fashioned love story? Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl again, and boy gets girl. Pretty old and pretty much nothing more to Down to You, minus the addition of two porn stars and a nymphomaniac. The story is the same well-beaten path where they keep the leads as far away from each other and just let ’em loose at the end. Everyone hugs and we can all go home. Geez, I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips.

The movie is very uninteresting and rather pointless as it drones on. Freddie Prinze Jr. can smile all he wants to but I’ll still never believe he’s a down on his luck college coed. At least he’s out of high school in this one. Everything in this movie has a recycled feel to it, so much so that some environmentalist group should confiscate this entire movie. People, it’s that bad. Imagine every cliché, expanded character stereotype, redundant joke, and you still have no idea how bad this script is. What the writer/director believes is quirky and cute falls closer to annoying and irresponsible.

The rest of the actors are faceless unknowns that you might as well search for on the back of a milk carton. Julia Stiles and Freddie Prinze Jr. have zero chemistry between them and are either bickering or blushing in embarrassment. Doesn’t sound like a good relationship worth a dozen flashbacks to me. Stiles at least puts forth an effort but Prinze just runs through the motions of another teen flick for his resume and comes off as nothing more than a mannequin with a goofy grin.

I stand and make a plea; please for the love of God end this Hollywood fascination with high school romantic comedies. It might have been cute to start out with but this trend has run its course. The only way the madness of teen romantic comedies will end is if the teens themselves stop supporting them. Wise up America. Take action! If this comedy is supposed to be about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been wondering for years if maybe, just maybe, I was too hard on the forgettable rom-com, Down to You. Not that it was a great movie but maybe the 17-year-old version of myself at that time in my senior year of high school had an axe to grind against blandly popular art. I can recall vividly how incensed I felt as a teenager growing up in the 90s with the rise of pop music like Britney Spears and Hanson and boy bands, the idea that these fleeting confections were somehow squeezing out the spaces for the bands and artists that I felt were more deserving of attention, alternative rock bands that were formidable for me, like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. I can feel that intensity in my derogatory use of the term “teenybopper” to describe art that was made for mass appeal. Now, decades hence, I look back at my younger self and wonder why I got so upset about people liking art that didn’t appeal to me and why I felt such a passionate intensity to take down the art I personally disliked. Who cares? You don’t like Taylor Swift’s music? Fine, but what does it matter if others happen to like it? I can appreciate the pop stylings of Ms. Spears and the boy bands of yore. I’ve learned through time not to take offense that people just have different tastes (unless people enjoy the Friedberg-Seltzer “comedies,” because that is all the judgement I need).

That’s why I was wondering whether Down to You was a victim of my teenage animus and might, upon retrospect, perhaps be a better movie than I gave it fair credit for back in 2000, the dawn of a new century. Dear reader, I am here to inform you that, having recently re-watched this Freddie Prince Jr.-Julia Stiles romance, that Down to You is even worse than my teenage-self had warned.

For starters, this movie rings astoundingly inauthentic with every moment. It was written and directed by Kris Isacsson (Husband for Hire) who was close to thirty years old when Down to You was released but it feels like a 50-year-old was trying to replicate the speaking patterns of hip young twenty-somethings and flailing badly. Every word of dialogue just has that unshakable feeling of being off, or bring cringe-worthy, or failing to articulate the rhythms of youth. It’s not even in the Kevin Williamson-Dawson’s Creek style of hyper-verbal, overly clever youth that never existed except in television writers’ rooms. It’s not even entertaining in-authenticity.

These college students sound interchangeable from their older parents; one pompous thespian friend (Zak Orth, channeling Orson Welles) feels completely transported from another movie. He has a test where he challenges Al to drink out of two cups, one representing true love and the other representing illusion. I did not understand the point of this game. I assume it was like Three Card Monty and he had to pick the right one after watching it be shuffled, but that’s just proving Al can follow a cup. This moment is played like some grave insight and it makes no sense. Even more than that, the behavior of the “kids being kids” can be downright cringe-inducing. Imogen will turn on music and walk around lip synching to the adoration of any crowd, but it just feels so awkward to watch, and it happens multiple times. Rosario Dawson (Men in Black II) is a one-note “hippie” friend who makes lame drug jokes. Selma Blair (Hellboy) is an active porn star and an active student at the school but is just a vampy attempt to tempt our male lead. He even keeps naughty pictures of Blair under his bed even after he’s dating Imogen. There’s also Ashton Kutcher (The Butterfly Effect) as an obtuse artist. Every character feels phony and bereft of charm and wit.

Romantic comedies live and die on two things: 1) your level of amusement in the characters, and 2) the chemistry of the lead characters. Down to You regrettably whiffs on both accounts. These are very boring characters and even by the end of the movie we know very little about them. Al says he wants to be a chef but we never see him do any cooking on his own, which seems like quite an oversight for a budding relationship. She’s an aspiring artist and we at least see her paint and describe why she likes art. Isacsson employs a Woody Allen-esque device where both participants break the fourth wall from the future to talk about their relationship ups and downs. You would think this framing device would allow for better insights and you’d be wrong. At one point, Imogen leaves for France for three or more months for an internship. You would think this would provide a difficult period for boyfriend and girlfriend to adjust and maintain intimacy, perhaps throwing some question over whether they’re fully invested. One minute later, she’s back and this entire excursion has meant nothing to their relationship. Why even include it?

Their coupledom feels as inorganic as everything else, and this is magnified by the powerful lack of chemistry between Prinze Jr. (She’s All That) and Stiles (The Bourne Identity). You don’t feel any urge compelling Al and Imogen to get together because they seem like chummy friends at best. When they have sex for the first time, three months into their collegiate relationship, the camera slowly lingers over their faces and uncomfortably frames their dispassionate and awkward kissing far too long. I defy anyone to watch that scene and argue that these two people have a spark of chemistry. I even hate their names. “Imogen” feels like it’s trying too hard and “Al” not hard enough. With the poor character writing, bad plotting and development, and no palpable chemistry, it makes Down to You feel like a painfully confounding experience lacking romance and comedy.

I was amazed at Isacsson’s sense of scene building and how wrong many of the endings come across. A scene, when well written, should serve as its own mini-movie with a beginning, middle, and end, and hopefully some conflict to explore. In a comedy, the conclusions of scenes would end on an upturn or a downturn but it’s also a good idea for there to be a discernible punchline the previous moment was leading up to. There’s one scene where Al’s roommate (Shawn Hatosy), a peculiar presence throughout that never knows what to do in any given moment, is drunk at a party and talking to an inflatable gorilla wearing a brassier. Al grabs the gorilla away and his inebriated roommate whimpers. That’s it. The generally off nature to all the writing is compounded in the comedy writing, which is compounded in its lazy or non-existent punchlines.

The worst example is when Al literally drinks a bottle of Imogen’s shampoo in a misguided suicide attempt. This is the thing I’ll always remember this absurd movie for. Al has his stomach pumped and undergoes a psychological review in the hospital, where he argues he was testing himself to see if he “needed the shampoo” and turns out he still did. This reckless act of self-destruction should provide more insights and changes to our male lead and those around him; he did, after all, attempt to end his life over being distraught from an ex-girlfriend. Al shrugs and it’s forgotten. What was the purpose of doing something this weird and harmful if it wasn’t going to matter in the bigger picture? Don’t transform a suicide attempt into a quirky anecdote for a non-dark comedy. This is what Down to You feels like as a whole, a series of contrived anecdotes crashing against one another.

There is one lone saving grace for this entire enterprise and that’s Henry Winkler (so brilliant on HBO’s Barry) as Al’s father, a famous TV chef who has an exciting idea for a reality TV show. He’s modeling it after Cops, that stalwart of 90s television, but it would be called Chefs. It would feature a traveling truck of chefs that would come to a stranger’s home, prepare a delicious meal, and teach the family how to do it themselves. Not only does that sound like a great idea for a TV show in 2000, I’m positive some show has run with this concept and had great success since. I would have rather watched the movie from Winkler’s point of view trying to get this show on the air and dealing with a son who drinks shampoo as a cry for help.

Looking back on my original review in 2000, I was wincing at how many joke-slams I was attempting at the film’s expense. Look, Down to You is still a bad movie but I didn’t need to add lines like, “I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips,” and, “if this comedy is about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.” This was still less than a year into my pursuit of critically reviewing movies, so I think I was forcing ready-made blurb-tendencies. My critical charges were on par but failed to go into more detail and seemed too general, which is why I wondered if my charges were colored by my teenage biases at the time. Given the time and distance, Down to You feels even more phony and confusing to watch as an adult. I was muttering to myself and my girlfriend while re-watching it and trying to understand the distaff storytelling choices. It’s flabbergasting and dated and even worse than I remembered. Down to You might be the nadir of the teen comedy movement from the early 2000s. I will never have to see this again. So, future me reading these words, heed this warning – stay away. Stay far away.

Re-Review Grade: D

Killers (2010)

Where to begin with this? It’s an action romantic comedy that can?t commit to either genre. First off, this witless rip-off of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (or Knight & Day) can?t even get on track thanks to zero chemistry between Katherine Heigl and a routinely shirt-free Ashton Kutcher. They don’t gel at all. Just because two actors can make goofy faces doesn’t mean they’ll light up the screen as a couple. Their energies do not click. Heigl emits some magic combination of elements that makes her an unusually likeable and compelling actress on screen; note, I never said good, but she’s an ace with the rom-com material. When will she start choosing better material, and movies where she gets to assert herself instead of being a ditz and the butt of jokes? The plot is absurd and the film’s tone doesn’t know how to settle down. One second it’s a jaunty, irreverent action jag, and then the next it’s trying to be some winsome romance about two people who may have rushed into marriage. Oh, and they happen to be living in a neighborhood crammed with sleeper agents all trying to kill Ashton. When you hear the reveal for why this is happening, it will seriously make you rethink the notion of “tough love.” It makes little sense in any realm of thought. The action lacks flair and sizzle, let alone minute tension, and the comedy is just as joyless. Heigl slides right into screwball mode and the film confuses an ongoing argument as characterization. The duo act so cavalier conveniently forgetting that people from all walks of life are trying to kill them at every turn, for the lamest of reasons. Why hire sleeper agents to lie and wait if you want to kill a guy? Is that really the most cost efficient policy? They don’t even get a single decent joke out of this premise. The only thing this movie kills effectively is time.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Guardian (2006)

Ever since 9/11 we’ve been redefining who exactly qualifies as a hero. We’re stepping away from the old line of thinking, money and fame, and reexamining those selfless few that protect us, like firefighters, policemen, doctors, and military personnel. But when the culture defines a new hero, then the Hollywood tribute canonizing that role is sure to follow. We’ve had plenty of recent films looking at those who put their lives on the line, but are we, as a friend asked, scraping the bottom of the hero barrel when we devote an entire movie to the U.S. Coast Guard? And does it help your film in this day and age to feature Kevin Costner in a leading role?

Ben Randall (Costner) is a senior officer in the Coast Guard’s team of rescue swimmers, men and women first on the scene no matter what the situation is like. He’s the lone survivor of a rescue attempt gone awry and it’s badly shaken his confidence and ability to perform. He’s reassigned to a teaching position to mold the next generation of rescue swimmers. Enter Jake “Fischbowl” Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a champion swimmer with an oversized ego. He takes every abuse Ben can dish, and slowly but surely he learns what it takes to devote your life to a job whose motto consists of, “So that others may live.”

To enjoy this movie you must come to grips with the fact that it is born atop a mountain of clichés. I mean a whole slew of clichés, so many that you may feel genre fatigue by the end of its 140-minutes. It’s like every other military training film. The old buck readjusting to his new position as teacher. The young hotshot he butts heads with but eventually forms a father-son relationship. The tragic pasts both have that still haunt them. Old buck’s job demands cause marital discord. The many many training montages. The requisite bar fight as team building activity. The local girl who starts off as a fling but develops into something more. The lessons about teamwork over individual gain. There’s a sassy bar owner that dispenses life advice. The old buck being pulled back into the game one more time to save his pupil and consequently overcoming his guilt/fear/apprehension from losing his team. And even the heroic ending. Like I said, you will accurately be able to guess where every storyline and every character is heading because you’ve seen them all long before. You might even call the film Top Gun with fins or Kevin Costner Returns to the Water (and just when you thought it was safe to go back in).

And yet the film works. It’s a sturdy, no-frills genre movie that goes about its business in a respectable manner. I may have known every turn but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. The characters are a bit rote, but the harrowing situations they thrust themselves into and their sense of heroism was very affecting. The story is familiar but the demands of the genre almost require a familiarity for success. The Guardian isn’t going to change the world (it will definitely increase Coast Guard recruit numbers), but it’s more than suitable entertainment for a weary moviegoer let down by bigger, louder Hollywood fare and looking for something more adult.

When it comes to genre movies, great acting and great writing can elevate the material. I found the details about how exactly the Coast Guard goes about rescues to be interesting, and the movie is effective at filling in the minutia of this life. I learned a lot of things about the Coast Guard and was impressed with what they go through, despite the misconceptions and dismissals. There is intelligence to the illustration of this world, and the dialogue often has a certain snap to it. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) stages high excitement on the seas with great editing and seamless use of CGI.

Make no mistake about it; The Guardian is definitely tilted to an older audience. It’s a bit of a familiar, old-fashioned story and it doesn’t come close to rocking any boat, but it’s also a durable movie that plugs in the needs of this formula effectively and satisfying. This is a movie that will appeal to dads and granddads and, who knows, may get them to tear up. It’s hard to dislike a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and has such affection and reverence for those in harm’s way. It’s harder when the story, mountain of clichés and all, still resonates with semi-palpable emotion.

There is one very big misstep at the conclusion of the movie. I won’t go into great spoiler detail, but the film leaves you in two positions: 1) the ludicrous notion that something we saw minutes ago did not happen, or 2) a somewhat sappy but too-detailed-to-come-across-as-coincidence puzzler. All The Guardian had to do is trim a few words or made its final lines of dialogue a little more vague, then none of this would matter.

Costner seems to be settling into a nice second life as a middle age supporting actor. Here is an actor that’s had his share of setbacks and creative wounding (The Postman?), and yet he’s still immensely likeable when he turns on the grit and aw-shucks determination. He’s the film’s mentor and father figure and infuses a lot of personality into what could have come across as an idol of worship rather than a human being. After a sublimely laid back performance in The Upside of Anger, and now this, it looks like Costner is back on track and well over dud territory.

Kutcher is a mystery to me. I’ve mostly found this kid to be grating and overdoing his one-note joke of a dimwit persona. The Guardian is the first film where I’ve begrudgingly found myself enjoying a Kutcher performance. He’s got the physique for hard duty but he finally gets a chance to flex some acting muscle as well. While I won’t say he opened my eyes to the talent behind one half of Dude, Where’s My Car?, I will concede he’s worthy of taking a chance on in upcoming dramas. Don’t let me down Kutcher now that I’ve gone out on a limb for you, boy. Don’t punk me.

The Guardian is in a lot of ways very similar to Ladder 49, another fawning tribute to brave first responders. Whereas Ladder 49 idolized firefighters to the point of worship, The Guardian does a better job of molding penetrating characters. I think firefighters and rescue swimmers are heroes, obviously, but I find their courage and selflessness more admirable when we don’t place them on a pedestal. When we don’t make our heroes into something super-human that makes their decisions and acts that much greater.

I’ve been to few movies where the audience broke out in applause at the end credits. This was one of them. I could understand why. The Guardian is a familiar formula aimed at older adults and reminds them of the sacrifice and heroism of those who keep us safe. This flick is an adoring testament but also succeeds as a respectable, mostly engaging genre piece that manages to be emotionally involving without getting too sappy. It’s a meat-and-potatoes male weepie. Costner and Kutcher create a solid father-son bond and both actors reveal a bit more about themselves. This isn’t a movie that dares to reinvent the wheel, but it is worth a spin if you’re a fan of this genre and don’t mind reworking old clichés into something new.

Nate?s Grade: B-

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Notice: I found Ashton Kutcher, star of The Butterfly Effect, on a trip to buy dog food, and cordially asked him to write a review. This is what he sent me. It’’s totally him. I wouldn’’t make this stuff up. That would be dumb.

“So, like, this Nate guy asked me to do a review of my new awesomest movie, The Butterfly Effect. Dude, like anyone needs a review for the most awesomest movie ever. I mean, like, the term “awesomest movie ever” should say, like, everything. The only thing possibly more awesome than The Butterfly Effect would be trucker hats …… or two chicks totally making out. And I only said “possibly more awesome,” which doesn’’t mean it is more awesome, because, dude, like I said before, The Butterfly Effect is the most awesomest thing ever. You can’t dispute that. Don’t even try. I’m awesome!

Like, the story goes like this, man. I play this guy, like I know big stretch there, but he’’s not the most awesome guy ever, which is what you’’d be thinking since it’s the most awesomest movie ever. But no, he’’s like this kid who blacks out and has this wickedly twisted childhood where he stars in his neighbor’s kiddie porn, has his dog set on fire, and, like, his dad is all crazy, or, like I like to say, insane in the ole’ membrane. Ha, I totally made that up right now. I’’m awesome!

So, you’’re like saying, “’Dude, that movie sounds less than awesome. Yes, sir, I am having definite doubts about the awesomeness of this movie. Like, do I need to go to the movies to, like, feel bad? I got my parents to do that for me. That and school.’” Hey man, I’’m there, I know what you feel. ‘Cause right when you are like, “‘Dude, when is Demi gonna’ show up playing his mom?”’ I find these old journals of mine and, dude, use them to travel back in time. I know, the awesomeness has returned. And I use the journals to go back and try and punk time, man. I try and make things better and change the future but I like totally just make it worse. I know, double punk’d, man! I try and fix the life of this hot girl in the movie (she showed her boobs in that Road Trip movie, did you see that? That part where she shows her boobs, oh man … It is awesome) but things don’’t work out. Like she becomes a crack ho at one point. Dude, total punk’d. I’’m awesome!

I should be taken as a serious actor. I didn’’t hit my head on something and I grew a beard, what more do people need to know I got the goods? I mean, I don’’t want to keep saying it but …… beard. C’’mon! When actors want to be taken seriously they, like, grow beards. That’’s why all those people in movies before 1970 (I know, it surprised me too that there were older movies) got awards and stuff. Beards, dude. Beards. When Billy Dee Shakespeare, like, invented acting, he totally imagined dudes, and chicks too, with beards. That’s why girls can’t be taken as serious actors, ‘cause they can’t grow beards. But dude, don’’t tell that to Demi, because she totally has one wicked ferocious beard, if you know what I mean. Ha. I’’m awesome!

So, like, if you ever wondered what it would be like to see me, Ashton Kutcher, the most awesome man alive …who ever lived, no… the most awesome human being …-the most awesome thing …- ever, as a frat boy, or like, some poor dude with no arms, then you should see my new movie, The Butterfly Effect. After all, it is the most awesomest thing ever. That’’s awesome. So, like, you people reading (is that what school is for?) should go see my movie. I’ll tell you why in two words: beard.”

Nate’s Grade: C+

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