Very funny and surprisingly satisfying, Game Night is a comedy thriller that further cements my appreciation for the comedic prowess of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Horrible Bosses). The premise about a group of couples on a wild “game night” they don’t know is real seems like it could go wrong in so many different ways, chiefly being unable to sustain its premise. Fortunately, the film is filled with strong characters who are each given a moment to shine. Jason Bateman and a loose Rachel McAdams are fun as our lead couple, and they’re even better when they’re bouncing off one another, but the real star of the movie is a hilarious Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) as a creepily intense neighbor. Plemons will hold onto certain jokes, taking something that was funny and pushing it into an even funnier, more awkward place. The comic set pieces are well developed and clever, set up earlier and allowed to go in unexpected directions to better complicate matters. While the movie is clearly a riff on David Fincher’s The Game, with some sly visual nods to Fincher’s signature style, the jokes don’t get lost when the action heats up. A good action-comedy makes sure that the action or suspense sequences are still constructed through the prism of comedy. I was laughing often and surprisingly hard throughout the whole movie. Game Night is a wickedly fun movie that has plenty of rewards and enjoyable surprises.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
Nate’s Grade: A
Reminiscent of adult thrillers that dominated the 1990s, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a slick and fiendishly enjoyable movie that unravels methodically and is comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are transitioning to a new city and a new job when they meet an old high school acquaintance, Gordon (Edgerton). It seems at first like “Gordo” is going to be a scary stalker with boundary issues, but Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, keeps pushing his familiar narrative further, adding different shades to the trio of characters and allowing them to be flawed humans revealing their secrets. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go dark and dwell in the unknown, especially with a note-perfect morally murky ending that leaves the viewer in the same wonderfully cruel sense of uncertainty and gnawing curiosity. Bateman pays against type as a rather strident character who definitely has issues with sticking to the full truth. Hall is more than a damsel in distress. She’s overcoming serious problems that she may or may not bear some culpability for, which makes her performance that much more interesting. Edgerton doesn’t overplay any off-kilter tics; his Gordo is a bit off, and always comes across like he’s holding back saying more, but his impression is a lot more wounded animal than psychopath. The screenplay is a model of efficiency and the secrets and reveals are evenly doled out. The Gift is an entertaining thriller with dark turns, deliberate pacing and structure, morally grey characters, comfort in ambiguity, and a healthy respect for its mature audience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Given the premise, you’d be right to assume that there are many easy laughs when it comes to Bad Words. A grown man (Jason Bateman, making his directing debut) is competing alongside children in a spelling bee, intimidating them, psyching them out, and otherwise being a rude and vulgar human being. Now, besides the fact that being older doesn’t automatically give anyone an edge over in spelling, I worried that too much of the movie would fall upon the patterned setup of Bateman just saying something inappropriate to children. Some of these jokes are funny, most somewhat expected, but the real enjoyment of Bad Words is the buddy relationship formed between Bateman and a young Indian speller (Rohan Chand). The story follows some similar beats from the more scabrously funny Bad Santa. The heart it develops in the second half isn’t quite enough to tie up everything. I applaud the film for finding a happy ending that feels at least in keeping with its tone. As a director, Bateman has a smooth handling with his actors and a sharp overall sense of comic timing, as one would hope. My issue with Bad Words is that it isn’t outrageous enough, relying on the setup or Bateman’s mean insults for oodles of easy laughs. I was entertained with Bad Words but I wish it followed the convictions of its insolent lead character and cared less about making an audience care. It’s a dirty movie that goes soft.
Nate’s Grade: B-
For once, I’d love somebody to construct a body-swap movie where the characters realize the tropes and clichés of the body-swap pictures, a parody of the genre. It’d be nice if the characters instantly accepted their situation and knew that they would each have to learn some form of a life-lesson before changing back, and they tried to falsely engineer these saccharine life-lessons. Then it would be fun if they rented all the body-swap movies to write down notes and pointers on how best to deal with their unusual situation. Then, and here’s the best part, both body-swap participants realize that they prefer their new situations. They reject turning back and simply enjoy the whims that come with their new existential home. They reject learning life-lessons and simply make the best of things. For a brief second, I thought The Change-Up might be that very movie but no such luck.
Dave (Jason Bateman) is a business-obsessed lawyer working his way to make partner in his firm. His wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and his three children, including twin babies, are neglected at home. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a struggling actor/womanizer who inexplicably is best friends with Dave. After a night at a bar, the fellas relieve themselves in a public fountain. The fountain lady statue obviously has taken offense and thus curses the both of them. The next morning, each awakes to discover they are in different bodies. The business guy has to act like a jerk! The jerk has to act like a business guy! And then there’s the matter of Jamie, who Dave/Mitch has strictly forbidden Mitch/Dave from sleeping with. Complicating matters further, the fountain has been moved by the Atlanta parks department and lost in bureaucratic limbo.
I knew I was in trouble by the first minute of the grossly unfunny Change-Up. Not only do we suffer a poop joke so early, we have to witness a baby firing a stream of fecal matter into Dave’s open mouth. That’s just a taste of the unpleasantness that follows. The movie plays like an exaggerated, sophomoric cartoon written by children. It seems to exist in the same broad universe of 2009’s abominable rom/com The Ugly Truth. What I wrote for that movie could easily apply to The Change-Up: “It’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy.” I’m not opposed to raunchy sex comedies. However, I am opposed to sex comedies that can’t figure out how to be funny without relying on easy gags. There’s a difference between gross-out humor and simply being gross, though I don’t believe this film knows what that difference is. So we’re treated to an over-the-hill porn star, some anal defilement, a voraciously sexual nine-months pregnant lady, even more poop jokes, and 90 minutes of penis discussion. There’s one actually interesting section where the guys debate the moral ambiguity of body-swap sex. Is it really cheating if Dave/Mitch is in somebody else’s body? What is Mitch/Dave to do if his wife wants to have relations? Sadly, this lone moment of interest is crushed to death by more penis jokes and then forgotten. Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Bateman (Horrible Bosses) try to stay above the fray, fighting the good fight, but even they succumb to the unfunny script and disjointed direction.
After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Mitch persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. He’s egotistical, mean-spirited, and constantly boorish to every person in Dave’s life. He’s cruel to the daughter, he tells Dave’s wife that she’s not attractive, and then there’s the babies whom he treats like a couple of rag dolls to toss around. At one point, Mitch/Dave is on the phone and the kids are left to get in trouble with the kitchen. We’re not talking about getting messy with food, we’re talking sticking their tiny hands in a spinning blender, throwing knives, and licking electrical outlets (it’s like the Roger Rabbit cartoon that opened that flick). Instead of getting off the phone immediately, he continues talking and casually tends to the troubled tots per potential disaster. He teaches Dave’s daughter “violence is always the answer.” Mitch is an unrepentant jerk, and even when Bateman plays Mitch he’s still irredeemable. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious guy just because his dad thinks low of him? I think low of him. I detest him. Therefore, when Mitch/Dave is having his Big Emotional Catharsis, it seems facile and hollow. We can generally find a point of likeability for uncouth characters, but not Mitch. As presented, this character has no introspection and few redeeming qualities, so why do I want to spend nearly two hours with this person? You’d think Dave would be the “nice guy” alternative, but he’s smarmy and neglectful too. Besides the “family man/pussy” and “playboy/prick” designations, the characters aren’t different enough to warrant a change of scenery.
The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples, which has always befuddled me why this is more acceptable (“I’ll let everyone see 95% of my breasts but if it comes to nipple that’s too far.”). The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower amongst you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. But why was any of this necessary? Wilde’s done nudity before in 2007’s Alpha Dog (go head and Google it, horndogs). Granted the actress has a much higher profile now but why must we go through this dastardly trickery? Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts (where is the media’s feminist outrage when it’s needed?). My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts, normally a point of internal celebration now a confusing mystery again?!
The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, nasty, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Writer/director Mike Judge’s third movie isn’t quite as funny or just plain fun as his previous pair, Office Space and Idiocracy. Set in a local factory, we follow the misadventures of the boss (Jason Bateman) as he deals with incompetent employees, looming lawsuits, and a wife (Kristen Wiig) who he feels disconnected with. What Judge has is two competing movies; one of them garners the bulk of the first 45 minutes and proves to be funny. The other gets most of the second half and plays out sloppy and dumb. The more interesting half involves Bateman trying to feel guilt-free about wanting to have an affair, so his friend (Ben Affleck, very funny) hires a clueless gigolo to seduce the wife. This scheme actually works but causes humorous complications, like when the gigolo keeps going back for more. This comedic scenario would be enough for one movie. The other half of the tale involves Bateman trying to sell the company but the buyer is wary of an impending lawsuit due to an accident on the work floor that left a man sans his testicles (so much wasted potential here). Mila Kunis is the sexy con artist behind the scenes, encouraging the ball-less worker not to settle. Obviously Judge had work-related gags he wanted to tackle, but he proves that his real interests lie in the complicated relationship comedy. Extract fumbles forward not knowing what kind of movie its really wants to be, so it settles for hackneyed solutions and abrupt endings. Extract would have been a better comedy completely removed from the workplace.
Nate’s Grade: B-
\Vince Vaughn is a likable scamp. He’s generally played the same quick-witted, charming, motor-mouth lout in every movie since 2005’s smash, Wedding Crashers. He’s been working fairly nonstop since then and has, by all accounts, become something of a box office draw, which seems bizarre if you think about it long enough. So the best thing I can say about Vaughn’s new comedy Couples Retreat is, hey, at least he’s making sure his pals can pay the bills.
I think it was that famed poet Pat Benatar who said love is a battlefield. She never went through marriage counseling (note: maybe she did, I don’t care to actually research this). The movie centers around four dysfunctional couples that take a vocational to a tropical island resort. Dave (Vaughn) has trouble prioritizing his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have been together ever since she got pregnant in high school. They’re at each other’s throats and secretly looking to cheat on each other. Jason (Jason Bateman) and his way younger wife, Cynthia (Kristen Bell), are unable to conceive a baby. They’re very organized about their life and cannot handle life’s deviations. Finally, Shane (Faizon Love) has been dumped by his wife and is taking the loss hard. He’s found comfort in a flighty twenty-year-old girl (Kali Hawk) that he can barely keep up with. The vacation is interrupted when the couples learn that they must participate in the resort’s relationship therapy sessions or leave. The couples must stick it out to in order to save failing relationships and ride those nifty Jet skis.
Couples Retreat sure doesn’t feel like any vacation for the audience. Directed by Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley (longtime friend and producing partner for Vaughn and Favreau), the pacing is leaden and the movie feels like its coasting without any momentum. Structurally, the plot is not your series of escalating events but more a relentless parade of tiny plot speed bumps, seemingly indistinguishable from the last. Many scenes just bump right into each other with little transition. Billingsley does not show that he comprehends the rhythms of comedy. Even at a mere 107 minutes, this movie felt twice as long to me. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it just takes way too damn long for these people to get to the freaking island. I don’t need a half hour of setup for stock characters. Many scenes will go on too long and then just sort of come to an abrupt end, like Vaughn and his friends were saying, “Well, we’ve taken this as far as we can go. The scenes don’t end in climaxes or revelations or punch lines, they just end. So after a while I felt like Couples Retreat was one long draggy middle of a mediocre movie stretched out interminably. It’s the equivalent of an eternity of waiting in a doctor’s office.
The character work is haphazard at best. You would think with the premise involving introspection and communication that the screenplay might offer up some deeper characters. You would be mistaken. Each character is given one note/generalized conflict to work, and they stay exactly within that narrow field of play. The male-female dynamics are Joey and Lucy have been together since high school and now they each have wandering eyes. Of course this kind of waffling infidelity is played for such sophomoric yuk-yuks like Joey getting caught masturbating and Joey getting an erection during a massage. You see a trend there? Cynthia and Jason are too anal retentive about their lives and the fun has died out. Sounds like room for some comedy. Oh, and they are also having trouble conceiving, which is way too serious a topic for this kind of movie. It’s somewhat amusing to think of Vaughn as the most stable character in a family comedy; it’s sort of like when Christopher Walken was the voice of reason in 2004’s equally bad, Man on Fire. What is Vaughn’s problem exactly anyway? He’s a “video game seller” who spends too much time… selling video games? The particulars of his job are too nebulous; does he work at a large chain, does he work at a software production company, what does he do that he can’t bother helping out his wife for one afternoon? You could almost certainly eliminate Faizon Love’s character completely. He’s just in the movie to crank out obligatory “older guy with too young girl” jokes, and his resolution is so hackneyed and reliant upon ridiculous coincidence (surprise, his ex-wife has tracked him down to the resort!) that it hurts the brain.
The movie has the benefit of being made in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I’m sure the cast and crew had a great time making this movie. Too bad it doesn’t translate well to the paying customers. I was surprised at how stodgy the overall film is. I expected it to look down on hedonism, and I appreciated the movie treating marriage as a serious commitment that constantly needs to be engaged, but what is up with how stuffy this message comes across? The people who aren’t in relationships are seen as little party animals looking for their next carefree fix. Sure marriage is going to look better to the masses when you make the alternative so irresponsible. However, prolonging unhappy, extremely dysfunctional couples who can no longer stand each other isn’t helping either. Can’t some dysfunctional couples just grow apart? Why must there be reprehensibly forced happy endings all around? Couples Retreat, after awhile, kind of feels like your grandmother lecturing you about your relationships.
There’s much potential for laughs with Couples Retreat, but you’ll do no better than scattered chuckles. This is definitely a case where all the good jokes were highlighted in the trailer. Couples Retreat squanders so much talent, mostly consisting of a boy’s club and giving the actresses little to do or play off of. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Davis (Sex and the City) are all very capable comedic actresses; Kali Hawk quickly becomes irritating with what she’s been given. The island therapists include the hilarious John Michael Higgins (The Ugly Truth) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover), who must be contractually obligated to appear in every movie this year. I would have thought that eccentric therapists plus the natural conflicts of couples counseling would have provided a wealth of funny material. It’s a shame then that the counseling scenes are kept short. It would be a better asset for this movie if it spent more time in therapy and less time doing goofy, trust building exercises by island guru Jean Reno. Seriously, swimming with sharks is supposed to help a deteriorating marriage how? There are comic setups that look like they’re going to lead to something juicy, and then they just fizzle, like a Guitar Hero battle that goes from silly to lame all too quick. A buff and tan yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) gets a little too in touchy-feely with his female pupils. But then it stays at a distance, hammering home the same PG-13 safe sight gags. It’s like watching people dry hump for laughs. As I expected, the funniest parts are the naturally combative interplay between Vaughn and Favreau. Part of that may be because they’ve been friends for over a decade and part of that might be that both are credited as screenwriters, along with producer Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).
Let’s look at how I’ve described Couples Retreat in this review. Waiting in a doctor?s office. Listening to your grandmother condemn your relationship. Doesn’t sound like much of a good time, does it? The comedy consists of mostly one-liners with a whole lot of dead space in between. The characters are so limited, the actors are shamefully wasted, and the comic set pieces are too meandering to be amusing. Somewhere there’s an edgier, R-rated version of this movie that got scrubbed clean to fit a PG-13 mandate. You see glimpses of the naughtier movie Couples Retreat might have been. This is a movie in need of some serious counseling of its own.
Nate’s Grade: C
Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”
Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.
The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.
It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.
The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.
Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Hancock is perhaps the first movie that looks at the consequences of being a super-powered do-gooder. I’m not talking the self-doubt or placing your loved ones in danger. I’m talking about money. A super hero can rack up super amounts of damage to a city, and the titular character often causes millions of dollars in destruction as he sloppily combats crime. In some ways, the super hero is more costly than the criminals. As you can imagine, the public at large isn’t too taken with Hancock (the film misses the opportunity to have neighbors worry their property values will plummet if Hancock moves into town). It’s too bad that Hancock, the film, doesn’t stay as original.
John Hancock (Will Smith) is a disgruntled man. He likes to drink, sleep, and keep to himself. Unfortunately, people keep bugging him for help. This may have something to do with the fact that Hancock is a man with the abilities of a super hero. He can fly, has incredible strength, and appears to be physically impervious, but that doesn’t stop criminals from emptying their guns at him. One gang learns firsthand the anger of Hancock when they destroy his whisky bottle. The city doesn’t know what to do with the world’s lone super being because he causes so much destruction. Ray (Jason Bateman) is a PR man fighting a losing battle to convince major corporations to donate supplies to needy countries for free. Hancock saves his life one afternoon and Ray decides to use his skills to give the irritable super hero an image makeover. He’s going to use Hancock to help change the world for the better. The plan to reform Hancock involves sending him to prison and waiting until the city begs for his assistance with rising crime. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), is wary of her husband’s super hero project. She just wants to live a quiet life with regular meatball madness dinners with her family.
I think I’m already starting to get sick of super heroes and there’s still more to come this summer. There are several good ideas rolling around inside Hancock, but at a scant 92 minutes there’s little time to develop them. The movie takes off in a mildly satisfying manner but then botches the landing.
Smith’s considerable charms at put at odds with a character that resembles an ornery bastard. It’s a bit of a wink to the audience because no Hollywood studio would let the most popular international movie star release a super expensive summer movie where he begins and ends as a total jackass. The film seems to be tailor-made to Smith’s strengths, which still include his ability to naturally command attention and likeability. The idea of a lone super hero who drinks heavily, destroys personal property, and whom the public vocally dislikes is a sound idea and allows Smith and the filmmakers to explore certain realities not seen in other super hero flicks. The public griping over the methods Hancock chooses to save the day seems rather believable, especially when those methods usually involve heavy-duty collateral damage consequences. I like the idea that every time Hancock lands from flying he takes chunks of concrete or tar with him. There are several interesting ideas that come from the conflict between society and a super hero who would rather sleep off a hangover. I think the idea of paring a disgruntled super hero with an idealistic PR man is a great concept, benefited by Bateman’s sterling comic abilities fine-tuned from Arrested Development (where he also romanced Theron). I really enjoyed the interaction between Hancock and Ray. For a decent 60 minutes, Hancock is a passable super hero excursion lifted by Smith and Bateman’s chemistry.
Hancock starts with some promise but then goes in a completely different direction for its third act (let me just say this: there’s a reason they’ve been hiding Theron from any advertisement). The film also overplays its hand early. When Hancock and Mary first meet they hang on to each other, then she looks at him suspiciously and continues to, then she says some very leading dialogue that is a bit on-the-nose. All an audience needs is one award, penetrating look to understand that something is up. Hancock ends up feeling pulled in too many directions. It begins as a sly satire on super heroes and is mostly confined to jaunty comedy, but then the movie gets dramatic and grim and a bit hard to follow. The film begins as a jokey riff and then gets gritty, finding room to fit in mythology, religious questions, age-old racism about interracial dating, and a terribly clunky villain (Eddie Marsan) who breaks out of jail so that he can seek improbable vengeance against an immortal. Hancock’s origin is muddled and as preposterous as most other super heroes. The third act shift seems to drain all the fun out of the movie and it gets too serious, too confusing, and too convoluted (what’s the distance rule here between super people?). Hancock ultimately has too many chefs in the kitchen and becomes a mess.
I’m sad to say but director Peter Berg really whiffs with this movie. His visual style is a hindrance to the film. I recently re-watched his first action film, 2003’s The Rundown, and Berg was able to craft stylish, highly playful action sequences without shaking the camera all over the place. A tripod served the film’s best interest and Berg tailored his visual style to the material. I expressed worry with his previous film, 2007’s The Kingdom, that Berg has become locked in to his handheld docu-drama style that bobs and weaves around his actors and employs numerous quick cuts and odd angles. His erratic style can improve and assist narratives but it can also hamper the storytelling. Nothing is really gained by Berg filming his tender moments at obtuse angles, extreme asymmetrical close-ups, and a hovering camera. It feels like a style completely unsuited for the material. I would have liked to fully watch the action sequences and enjoy the clever tweaks on the genre. Berg is an imaginative and underrated director, but his jittery docu-drama style he has embraced can also make his films seem cobbled together and overly rushed and, potentially, half-assed.
Hancock is much like the title character. It means well and wants to help but an audience can’t help but grumble about its methods. The concept of a super hero that is rejected by the people he saves is a subject ripe with subtext that could explore meaningful and insightful glimpses about guilt, the weight of expectation, the desire for human affection and acceptance, the frustration to be understood, the questions of personal responsibility and loyalty, and rejecting or heeding the call to do better. Hancock does not delve into any of these potent psychological areas. That’s fine, as long as the film delivers top-notch popcorn thrills and makes me forget about its wasted potential. Sadly, Hancock fails to deliver. The special effects are generally sub-par, the story misfires, and the whole film begins with promise but ends up turning into a mundane mess. Berg’s aesthetic doesn’t square with the material. Smith is still as charming as ever and will always be a genial presence onscreen, but Hancock turns into a movie that feels like a super hero hangover itself.
Nate’s Grade: C+