Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.
A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.
I was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.
I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.
However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.
Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.
Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.
The Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.
Nate’s Grade: B
People often celebrate independent films as an oasis of creativity in comparison to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that populate Hollywood. However, indie film can have just as many formulaic, half-baked, cookie-cutter films that waste your time. Case in point, the indie comedy Adult World, a movie that feels out of time and place.
Amy (Emma Roberts) is a recent college graduate who has big dreams of being a poet. Her idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), even lives in town, giving her ample stalking opportunities. But Amy only seems to get rejection slip after rejection slip in the mail. Her parents cannot afford to bankroll her lifestyle, and so Amy sets off on her own, shacking in with a transvestite, and gaining a job at Adult World, a small mom-and-pop porn store. Amy holds onto hope that she can become a great poet with Rat’s mentoring.
The movie feels overly quaint, like its premise, and much of the character interplay, came from a script from 1996 that was lost until now. The entire enterprise feels painfully dated in scope, humor, and its sense of peculiarity. I don’t even know why the filmmakers decided to set the movie in modern times. The excuses they devise for why a mom-and-pop porn store exists in the world of 4G wi-fi Internet never come close to working. Yes, we still have the traditional brick-and-mortar porn stores to this day, but those have a wealth of selection. This is like a tiny store with a few walls of movie titles, movies that people rent and return. Remember those, video rental stores? Again, dated. The very existence of the porn store disrupts the credibility of the film; not to suggest it would be perfect without this one plot element. There’s such a dated sense of titillation having a desperate woman land a job at a porn store. Oh no, she’s out of her element! The problem with the porn store is that they never do anything with it. There are perhaps four jokes directly related to the fact that it is an adult novelty store, but beyond that it would have been the same if they just sold toasters (note to self: look into potential market for adult novelty toasters). At no point does it prod our heroine along her journey or really have any larger impact besides the place where she meets her eventual love interest. The mom and pop that own the store are never seen again after their introduction, meaning the film even abandons one of the easier comedic scenarios of the elderly, folksy pornographer.
The entire storyline of a would-be poet slumming it at a porn store, learning some hard lessons, and finally finding her footing, well the whole thing just feels so much like a byproduct of 1990s filmmaking, when the broader commercial impact of indie film was being explored. The middle-class suburban girl being pushed out of her comfort zone by a band of quirky misfits in a fringe setting, well it just feels so dated. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this kind of story setup will flounder. Under the right care, even dated material can succeed, but Adult World coasts on the supposed outrageousness of its premise and characters. The trouble is that these people are more of less indie film cartoon characters with no real depth to them. Amy is mostly a brat but we never seem to go beyond the surface of her oversized ego and sense of certainty in her talent. Her relationship with the self-loathing Rat is meant to open herself up the harsh realities of the world, the rude awakening of every post-grad. Except he’s really just a jerk that treats her like garbage and eventually humiliates her. At no point do you get the impression that either character is really having much of an impact upon the other, beside general annoyance or frustration. Then there’s the character of Rubia, a transvestite Amy meets on the bus and within ONE DAY Amy asks if she can move in with this total stranger. Again, the idea of the kindly transvestite who becomes the heroine’s roommate, doesn’t that feel so dated too, so desperate to be edgy? Rubia is also ill defined and one-note. I’m surprised the filmmakers had the restraint to not give Rubia a tragic back-story.
With all that said, the movie is never as funny or as interesting or as edgy as it seems to believe it is. I may have laughed once or twice for the entire movie. I certainly wasn’t attached to the characters by any means. There’s a segment where Amy and Rubia discover Rat driving through town, so they hop on a bike and pedal after him. It’s played out like it’s supposed to be this stroke of comedy, complete with backbiting comments from Rubia, but it’s never funny and it just continues to play out, never altering to possibly become funny. Here’s something that is funny: after Amy’s parents tell her they cannot afford to pay for her poetry submissions, she runs away from home. The funny part isn’t her decision-making or the act of running away itself. The real funny part is that we don’t see or hear from Amy’s parents again for over an hour. Did her mother and father not care that their only child has disappeared? Are they secretly relieved? Amy doesn’t even refer to her parents, so we’re left wondering if there may be a missing person’s report floating around somewhere. It’s details like this, and the lack of taking advantage of the comic possibilities of the porn store setting, that showcase just how terribly Adult World goes about developing its shoddy story.
Then there’s the overall sludgy look of the film itself. Filmed on location in Syracuse, New York during a wintry period, it’s as if director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) wanted to communicate the misery of his characters with a visual style that made you feel their pain. This is one of the crummier looking wide releases I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is just dreary but without any strong sense of visual composition. I know this was a low-budget effort but Coffey and his team do such little work to hide the limitations; the set dressing is pathetically bare when it comes to locations, like the porn store. Every shot, every scene just reminds you further that Adult World just didn’t have the money, or the right people for the money. Coffey’s other sin is his mishandling of his actors. Roberts (We’re the Millers) and Cusack (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) are two very capable actors but they seem abandoned here. Cusack is just a misanthrope who treats every moment with annoyance, and it gets tiresome. Roberts is all over the place, needing a gentle tug to help bring her histrionic character back to a suitable reality.
I cannot think of any reason a person should take useful time out of their day to watch Adult World. The film isn’t funny. The characters are bothersome and lacking depth. The essential premise, the hook of the movie, is incidental and inconsequential. There is just a general malaise about the film, a lack of development that saps the characters and the story. Oh sure, things occasionally happen, or characters will magically reveal insights, but it’s always in the most hasty, inorganic fashion. Even the title is so on-the-nose to be annoying absent further examination. By the end of the movie, I think we’re left with Amy realizing that she might not be as talented as she thought, but hey, at least she has an arty boyfriend now. If this is a late blooming coming-of-age tale (a la Frances Ha) it misses all the necessary elements that push our heroine to grow. Instead, we’re saddled with a crummy looking movie with poorly developed characters, a nascent sense of comedy, and a plot that feels quaintly dated at every turn. If this is what growing up looks like, take it from me and skip Adult World.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I finally caught one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, and while fitfully entertaining, mostly in its second half, I have to wonder what made this film the hit it was, despite lack of clear comedy competition. The setup involves four people (Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter) posing as a model nuclear family to smuggle drugs into the United States. You’d think the difficulty would be getting back into this country, but no, it’s all about keeping their cover, especially when a vacationing DEA agent (Nick Offerman) pals around. The flimsy setup gets much better in the second half as the false family dynamics and roles are skewered, particularly an educational kissing session between siblings and mother. I can also see the markings of why audiences gravitated to this otherwise so-so comedy. It offers each member to contribute meaningfully, it gives each a lesson and a triumph, and they form a likable bond. So while the joke payoffs may whiff, there’s a character payoff to pick up the slack. Plus there’s an Aniston stripping sequence to showcase the fitness of the forty-something actress. The jokes settle for easy vulgarity a bit too often but every now and then the film surprises. Sudeikis is slyly enjoyable channeling a young smarmy smartass Chevy Chase, and Offerman is hilarious, enough to make you wish the movie followed his family. We’re the Millers reminds me of the 90s works of the Farrelly Brothers, a mixture of gross-out gags, slapstick, uninspired villains, and a dash of sentiment. We’re the Millers is an acceptable comedy, not a great one, but after its quarter billion dollar box-office riches, get ready to meet the Millers all over again.
Nate’s Grade: C+
There are three apocalyptic comedies this year and Seth Rogen’s This Is The End is undoubtedly the biggest in profile. The plot is simple: Rogen and his pals, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, are holed up in James Franco’s lavish home while the world comes to an end outside. Your enjoyment level for this movie will largely depend on your enjoyment level of the cast since they are playing self-involved, idiotic versions of themselves. While it dithers with the occasional self-indulgent sidetrack, I found Rogen to be savvy about providing enough for an audience to invest in. There’s a slew of Entourage-style cameos, though mostly pre-apocalypse, to ease us into the film. It’s fun seeing Michael Cera and Emma Watson (Perks of Being a Wallflower) play against type, but there’s so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them figures that it can be tiring. But once it rains fire, demons emerge, and the righteous are Raptured, the movie gets outlandish and even better. For a solid hour it’s a survival tale where egotistical actors are at one another’s throats and it genuinely gets funnier as it goes. The comedy is, as you would expect, completely vulgar but hilarious often enough. A shouting match between Franco and McBride over masturbation habits, complete with angry, enthusiastic miming, is a thing of comic glory. I was not prepared for how well Rogen and his collaborator Evan Goldberg (they wrote and directed the movie) are able to handle suspense, special effects, and a climax that is equal parts silly and heartwarming. There is a rewarding payoff to a character arc amidst all the talk about penises, human and satanic, and cannibalism, and that’s saying something. I only wish the ending had more punch, settling for an extended and mostly lame pop-culture cameo that seems to sap the good times. Still, if you had to spend the apocalypse with a bunch of guys, you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: B
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Sandberg) have been best friends ever since high school, the couple everyone admired. They’ve been married for six years but now they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. Why? Celeste loves her longtime best friend but worries he’s not maturing or stable to be her marriage partner. During their separation, Jesse admits he’s found another woman whom he cares about. Celeste professes to be happy but deep down is troubled, second-guessing her decision now that there’s a real threat she might lose Jesse. The two buds act like nothing has changed, goofing around and paling it up, but how long can they keep up this façade? Eventually, someone is going to get hurt because divorce cannot be shrugged off. Reality has a way of outliving ironic detachment.
Can you remain best friends with someone you once loved? How about someone you once knew as your spouse? Celeste and Jesse are certainly trying but their idealistic “BFF” status seems destined to meet a harsh reality. Celeste and Jesse Forever is labeled as a “loved story” and I think that’s a pretty apt description. These two characters clearly have a deep affection for one another, but after six years the feelings just aren’t enough. What happens when you marry your best friend but that just isn’t enough? I was hoping for some greater answers from the movie, or at least a harder examination on why some relationships fall apart when things look like they should work. That’s not exactly what the movie offers. For a film with an aim to be more realistic about the fallings out of love, the movie follows a familiar formula. There’s the cute guy at yoga (Chris Messina) into Celeste, but first she has to get settled. I think I wouldn’t have minded this character if he didn’t feel so much like a plot device, a hasty happy ending meant to be put in a holding pattern until called upon. The “Jesse” half of the title will be gone for lengthy chunks of the movie. His portrayal also borders on simplistic. I wish we got more of his side of the relationship, especially since he’s going through sudden change himself. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was going to find the movie immensely relatable. Maybe I just got all the recognizable personal drama out of my system with The Five-Year Engagement (double feature for bitter lovers?).
Fortunately, the movie is also fairly funny. The comedy can feel a tad sitcomish at times with misunderstandings and catching people in embarrassing situations. The screenplay by Jones and co-star Will McCormack (TV’s In Plain Sight) is routinely amusing, settling with soft chuckles rather than anything histrionic. It fits the subdued tone of the movie, since it’s about people coming to terms with messy emotions and not whacky mishaps. Then there’s a whole subplot involving a teen pop star (Emma Roberts) that feels recycled from a whole other movie. This storyline leads to a few good jokes but it doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the plot. The comedy doesn’t overpower the dramatics, and Celeste and Jesse Forever finds a nice tonal balance between the heartache and humor. I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily quirky but it certainly operates to an offbeat comedic rhythm. There are a few cringe-worthy editions but the characters and the actors make it worth any personal discomfort.
If Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) needs a good boyfriend I will gladly volunteer my services. My God this woman is beautiful. I don’t want to set off any alarm bells, but this woman is a goddess. She’s also extremely talented and a naturally charming presence. Her chemistry with Sandberg (That’s My Boy) is out of this world. They are so relaxed together, so amiable, so enjoyable, that it really does come as a shock when their unamused friends have to sternly remind them they are getting a divorce. They have a wealth of in-jokes and secret couple codes, and they’re so cute together that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconcile by the end. Sanberg is better than I’ve ever seen him, giving a strong, heartfelt performance as a nice guy trying to make sense of his eroding situation. But this movie is Jones’ movie, and she shines. While her facial expressions can get a little overly animated at times (TV-ish mannerisms?), this movie is a terrific showcase for her dramatic and comedic talents. This woman will excite you, frustrate you, break your heart, make you laugh, but you’ll be glued to the screen.
The tricky part is that Celeste is both our protagonist and antagonist. She is the root of her own unhappiness, and coming to terms with the fact that she was wrong is a big moment of personal growth, however, it’s not exactly the direction audiences may be happy with. It’s harder to root for a character that is sabotaging her own progress. Jessie, especially as played by Sandberg, is pretty much an adorable puppy dog throughout the whole movie; it’s hard to stay upset with him, and occasionally Celeste will lead him on and then punish him for following. She tells him to move on but then pulls him back to her when he threatens to do just that. She chastises him for not being serious enough, for not having direction, yet you get the impression throughout the movie that Celeste bares some responsibility in this situation as well. Jesse is laid back, though hardly the arrested development slackers dotting most of modern comedy these days. As one character notes, perhaps Celeste enjoyed keeping her husband grounded, limited, stuck. I don’t chalk it up as malice, more a comfortable situation that Celeste is afraid to disrupt. She’s the overachiever, he’s the underachiever, they compliment one another, that is, until Celeste decides they don’t. Then when it looks like Jesse’s growing up, she wants him back, or thinks she does, at least this newer version of Jesse. As you can see, it’s complicated. At no point would I dismiss Celeste as a callous person, but the movie is tethered to her personal growth of being able to admit fault. Her window with Jesse has passed. The movie is about her journey to realizing that.
Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like a movie of small waves. It doesn’t have the Big Declarative Moments of most rom-coms or indie romances, and that’s because it’s not a romance as much as an autopsy on why a romance went down for the count. It’s melancholy without getting mopey. It has certain hipster tendencies but nothing that rises to an insufferable level of twee; it’s routinely adorable and rather heartfelt in places, though I wish it had offered more potent insight into its characters. This isn’t going to be a movie that people build up great emotion for. By nature it’s pretty low-key, choosing to handle its emotional pyrotechnics with delicacy and the occasional comedic set piece. For a comedy about divorc,e this si surprisingly sensitive. These are nice people, good humored, and you sort of wish the movie would just scrap any indie ambitions and substitute a happy ending. You want to shout at the screen, “Just reconcile already!” Maybe that was me just using the movies as good old therapy again (see: The Five-Year Engagement review, or don’t). Celeste and Jesse Forever is an agreeable, affable, bemusing movie, with enough laughs and emotion to justify giving it a chance.
Nate’s Grade: B
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+