As I stated in my review for the 2016 Ghostbusters, allow me to wax nostalgic and explain my own private history with the franchise: “Growing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures and toys, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place.” This franchise means something to me. I think about the hours I spent playing in this world and my imagination and my own stories illustrated with marker and crayon, and it makes me extremely happy as well as reminds me how I fell in love with weird storytelling and macabre, ironic humor. I’ve been waiting for more Ghostbusters movies for my adult life. The 2016 movie was fine, I wasn’t enraged by it in the slightest, but it didn’t scratch that itch. While replicating some of the same plot beats, the 2016 movie was not reverent to its source material. Now the 2021 Ghostbusters, delayed over a year and a half from COVID, goes completely in the other direction. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is reverent to a fault, and while it has been met with mixed reviews and complaints of overdosing on slavish fan nostalgia, I found it to be a charming and fun family adventure that left me laughing, cheering, and even crying.
Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis, R.I.P.), original Ghostbuster, is dead, killed by a malevolent spirit. His estranged adult daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her two teen children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mackenna Grace), are shocked to learn of his death and their unexpected inheritance: a dirt farm in small-town nowheresville Oklahoma. They don’t know much about their grandfather and the kids are not exactly excited about relocating to a secluded mining town. Phoebe starts discovering weird pieces of technology hidden in the old house of her grandfather’s. A presence seems to be reaching out and trying to get the family to understand their real legacy. It appears that Gozer the Gozerian was not fully defeated on top of that New York City skyscraper in 1984, and Phoebe and her family must learn about the past in order to make sure we all have a future.
I can understand the charges of Afterlife being too nostalgic, but I don’t understand the charges of it being so enamored with its past that it poses a disservice to the movie standing on its own. This movie is intended at its very DNA to live within the shadow of the original films. The director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, is the son of the original films’ director, Ivan. It’s going to be reverent but that’s not an automatic bad thing. Whereas the 2016 reboot shrugged at past convention and went completely comedic, this edition takes the opposite approach, hugging onto the lore and past of Ghostbusters with heartfelt affection. If you’re a fan of the franchise, this adoring approach will likely be more favorable, not that the 2016 film is wrong for eschewing the established canon of the franchise and trying something new. If Afterlife had been a completely original story set in a Ghostbusters universe, I would have happily accepted that. However, just because something is outwardly nostalgic, or taps into fan service, does not mean it is destined to be an exclusive retread that only satisfies the hardcore base. I didn’t need the gratuitous Easter eggs of passing shots of a twinkie or Crunch bar, but they’re blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments that don’t really relate to anything of consequence, so I can excuse them. Afterlife is similar to The Force Awakens in that it uses familiar plot beats to mirror events of its predecessors to ease back fans and new members to the fanclub, most especially in Act Three where Gozer’s demonic pooches are unleashed. I can understand many chaffing at this, but I feel that Afterlife does enough to justify its own creative existence even in facsimile rather than as some insular, facile, fan-stroking cash-grab.
This is, by far, the most dramatic of the Ghostbusters movies, a series that has existed in the realm of comedy. The prior movies were never spooky on adult terms, but they reached back into a primal, childlike curiosity and anxiousness over the unknown that made them creepy when they wanted to be. I don’t understand the umbrage some have expressed over Afterlife being more of a drama. First, the comedy is present throughout the movie with the characters making specific and wry observations that feel fitting for their situation. The humor is not as forced as the loping line-a-rama improv jazz riffs of Paul Feig’s 2016 film. I think this universe can sustain different kinds of stories being told, and I think that drama is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s earned, just like the comedy or horror elements. The central premise involves an estranged family coming to know the secret life of an absentee relative who abandoned them, so the more they learn about his Ghostbusting past and responsibilities, the closer they come to uncovering a clearer picture of who this man really was as well as their connections to him. Reitman and co-screenwriter Gil Kenan (Monster House) have smartly connected the investigation of the past into the development of personal relationships. We in the audience know the significance of the Ecto One and the ghost traps, but the new characters do not. We await them to understand the knowledge we already attain, but the movie doesn’t play this as characters dawdling. Each discovery unlocks new potential for the characters to shape who they choose to be, and each one gets them closer to their grandfather and reshaping their conception of the man who they wrongfully believed abandoned them for folly.
This all leads to a climax that had me genuinely in tears. I won’t exactly spoil it but Afterlife’s conclusion is less concerned with beating the Big Bad Gozer yet again and saving the universe. Reitman and company have smartly placed the real climax as an emotional catharsis; it’s more in keeping with Field of Dreams than some huge Marvel apocalyptic showdown. The ending is personal, emotional, and reaches into our universal desire for closure, for having that one last moment with a beloved who we no longer have any moments left to share, Reitman is clearly missing Ramis, a close family friend and inspiration who died in 2014, and this is his own way of processing his personal grief, offering an emotional output for the fans to share in, and allowing a grieving character/surrogate to find that needed release. It serves as a fitting conclusion and a special end note for any Ghostbusters fan who has held this franchise close to their heart for several decades, especially if shared with a paternal figure who may be gone.
The film also successfully channels a childhood perspective of awkward and awesome. It’s hard to create a story where a group of precocious adolescents discover strange things cooking in their sleepy small town without suggesting Stephen King and Stranger Things, but this isn’t necessarily a total negative. The earlier movies were always from a more cynical adult perspective. Yes, there were characters like Ray (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon who were true believers, but they were often set up for easy laughs. The tone of the series was mostly tied to the irony of the character of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) that looked at the supernatural with droll detachment. This is the first Ghostbusters entry where the primary perspective is from children, and there’s something hopeful and heartfelt about a younger point of view with the supernatural material. These kids are excited and eager to learn more about the somethings strange in their neighborhood. It becomes endearing to ride along with them as they get to jump into the action. I loved the concept of a sidecar gunner seat for the Ecto One and how it felt like a childhood dream coming true. But it’s more than fan service because it serves as a point of progression for Phoebe’s sense of self, of embracing her scientific interests and roots, and taking charge in the face of unknown danger. It’s a coming out of sorts. When the kids are driving through (the always empty?) town and chasing a runaway ghost, wrecking storefronts from the boom of the proton pack, it’s a blast for them and us.
This is Reitman’s most commercial and mainstream film of his Oscar-nominated career. It’s interesting to me that this indie darling, who was on such a hot streak in the late 2000s, hit some speed bumps with the critical misfires of 2013’s Labor Day, 2014’s Men, Women, and Children, and 2018’s The Front Runner, so the next movie is a retreat to a big-budget franchise film. Reitman doesn’t necessarily have the best feel for large-scale spectacle, but he knows intimate character dramas and guides his actors well. Grace (Gifted, Haunting of Hill House) is wonderful as our plucky lead. Unfortunately for Wolfhard (It, Stranger Things), his dull character has nothing to do but pine for a local girl, scoff at his family, and then fix up the old ghostbustin’ mobile. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) is as charming as ever as the school science teacher, especially as he nerds out over interacting with the Ghostbusters paraphernalia like an excitable fanboy living out his childhood dream. I wish Coon (The Leftovers) had more to do, but that’s my primary complaint in any movie where Carrie Coon is a supporting actress. Her chemistry with Rudd is strong and they could have done so much more together as adults trying to make sense of madness. They could have eliminated Wolfhard’s mopey older brother character entirely and given us more time with the goofy adults too. One feels like there is some secret contract where anything relating to 80s nostalgia requires the hiring of Wolfhard on hand.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife will not be the best movie of 2021. There are areas that could have been improved and streamlined and better developed. However, Ghostbusters: Afterlife will most assuredly be my favorite film experience of 2021. It’s a heart-warming continuation for fans with enough wit and whimsy to charm while owning its obvious and intended connections to the original. I may not be the most objective source on this particular matter, but I know what I like, and this movie had moments of pure happiness that just shot right through to my dopamine center. We’ll see if this movie can restart the dormant franchise, and strike more on its own, but even if this lone 2021 entry is all that we eventually get, I’m happy I got to experience this magic once again. I can’t wait to see it again with my dad.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.
Nate’s Grade: B
Tully is a Young Adult reunion, bringing back writer Diablo Cody (Juno), director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and star Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), and for people without kids, it can feel more like a horror movie. Numerous movies have conveyed the challenges of parenthood, the put upon moms and dads struggling to juggle schedules and lunches and homework, all without much time to themselves for self-care. Usually these movies will begin by displaying the hardships of parenthood but ultimately put a cheery bow on things by the end and conclude, “Yeah, but it’s all worth it.” Tully doesn’t provide that easy bow and I appreciated that. Motherhood can be a real bitch.
Marlo (Theron) is a 40-year-old mother who feels overwhelmed with life. She’s about to have baby number three and her “atypical” youngest son requires a lot of intensive supports and is upsetting his school. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is away for work often and late at night he plays online games and keeps to his side of the bed. Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) takes it upon himself to hire a “night nanny,” a person who watches the newborn baby during nighttime hours and allows the mother to get some restful sleep. Marlo is adamant about not letting a stranger watch over her child but soon relents and calls for the nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a mid-twenties godsend who is wise beyond her years, competent, and nonjudgmental. With Tully’s assistance, Marlo is able to make steps toward becoming the person she remembers.
Through its depiction, it feels like parenthood has a lot in common with incarceration. It feels like a new parent goes away for a multi-year sentence, loses all sense of sleep, is indentured into work often without any compensation, and required at a moment’s notice at all hours. Marlo’s life is certainly unglamorous but it’s also taking its toll. The needs of her children, including one with undiagnosed special needs, are snuffing out her sense of self and taking an unremitting physical and mental toll. The opening of the film has Marlo days away from her third pregnancy and she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball. Her brother’s wife cheerfully adds, “You look glowing,” that age-old pregnancy praise, and Marlo’s unfazed reaction is more of a, “Really?” She then proceeds to compare herself to the trash barge that floated along the East Coast in the 1980s, a perfectly plucked pop-culture allusion from Cody. At no point do you doubt the love Marlo has for her family, but the servitude is driving her crazy and with no relief in sight with baby number three. There’s a pristine montage of her daily routine of feeding, pumping, changing diapers, and absent sleep, the days just melting into one another, and it’s so horrifying in its mind-numbing execution that it reminded me genuinely of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream montages of drug-abuse and despair.
It’s a third of the way into the film when Tully enters the picture and serves as the long-needed change agent for Marlo. She’s the miracle worker nanny that works at night like a whimsical little elf, and the next morning the house is clean, the baby is taken care of, and Marlo has been allowed a rejuvenating night of sleep. You can chart the change in the quality time with the family, where quickie microwave pizza dinners become more advanced home-cooked meals with multiple ingredients and food groups. You can also chart the change through the magnificent performance of Theron, who appears to be regaining her sense of self and placement in the family. Tully serves as a refreshing, therapeutic conversationalist, able to get Marlo to introspectively reflect upon her life’s goals and setbacks and her sense of what she should be as a woman and not just as a mother. Tully is wise but also winsomely hopeful and optimistic; she recharges the battery for this family and Marlo in particular. These gentle, observational conversations are the best part of the film and Theron and Davis are wonderful together. Each woman seems to be learning from the other and providing a support system.
Cody’s early screenwriting was dinged for its obsession to be quippy and hip, but it has matured and depended over the years. Young Adult was an incisive character study in kamikaze narcissism, and it was as cold as Tully is warm, even-handed, and honest. Having a talent as surefire as Theron is a great asset, but it’s Cody’s storytelling that gives the movie its sting and its sweetness. This is something of a comfy thematic middle ground between the ironic, quippy yet sentimental Juno and the dark spiral of stunted growth in Young Adult (seriously, rent that movie again if you can, it’s vastly underrated). Tully is a movie that is lifted on wry observations and honest dialogue. It feels very real, so much so that I was convinced the reality show-within-a-show Gigolos (Marlo is a bashful fan) was the real deal for most of the movie [Edit: it has come to my attention this is a real show. Ahh, still a nice detail about Marlo character]. I also loved the drive into Brooklyn being relegated to jump cuts, each new jump playing a different Cyndi Lauper track on an album, which feels very biographical and authentic. The details of Cody’s story feel sharply developed and authentic, and that’s the biggest draw of this movie. It’s an unvarnished look into the realities of motherhood and each little detail helps further contribute to the larger portrait of Marlo’s exhausted life. The supporting characters do get a bit of short shrift here, kept as one-dimensional peripheral portrayals. I was expecting more from her husband Drew since their relationship and the platonic valley they’ve found themselves stuck in is another significant aspect. However, the movie is really about the relationship of Marlo and Tully and how they build up one another. Marlo even sees herself in the younger nanny, and she’s also wistful of a time that her body more closely resembled that of Tully’s flat tummy and compact derriere.
Theron continues to establish with role after role what a phenomenal acting chameleon she can be. I know we gush about Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet as the finest actresses of their generation, but I feel like Theron deserves to be in that same hallowed Pantheon. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in 2003’s Monster and I think she was deserving of nominations for work as varied as a one-armed post-apocalyptic feminist warrior. Theron gained fifty pounds for this beleaguered role, which is an impressive commitment, but she doesn’t just let the weight gain serve as the focal point of her performance. She uses every exhausted muscle to communicate Marlo’s plight. When she’s slumped over in a chair and just rips her off stained shirt, you feel her utter defeat and desperation (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” one child asks). This is a woman who is tired to the bone. She’s taking everything life gives her and soldiering onward, afraid to speak up. This is best voiced when she describes her relentless day and staring into a closet and thinking, “Didn’t I just do this?” Theron’s renewed vitality as mother, wife, and most importantly, person, is a rewarding development to tag along with. Theron’s breadth of tenderness, sadness, and hard-won insight is easily relatable and emotionally engaging.
The one thing that holds me back from fully embracing Tully is a late story decision that I’m still wrestling over. It feels a bit like tonal whiplash and I immediately felt like it was completely unnecessary and that I was happy with the movie already being told. It left me jarred although I admit this decision helped provide better context for some unexpected turns in the middle between characters. Having deliberated for a couple of days, I can see how this decision plays into a larger sense of theme and character, while also tapping into something primal about motherhood and the emergency lifelines needed and provided. I’m warming to Cody’s decision and can see the rationale behind it. Still, there will be plenty of audience members that will be left questioning the thought process here.
Tully is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman and they bring out the best in one another. After two duds in a row, I was worried that Reitman had become all too mortal after his 2006-2011 run of amazing films. It’s reassuring to find Reitman back in finer form and to also experience the maturing growth of Cody’s exceptional writing. I wish there was more with the supporting characters but this is a character study of our main momma. The late plot turn will divide audiences (I’ve already identified with both sides) but it serves the film’s larger focus on the well-being and recuperation of Marlo. Tully is a funny, compassionate, and unflinching movie about the perils of motherhood and the steps we all need to take to activate a little necessary self-care.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.
The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. That core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.
It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.
I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion).
To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.
The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.
At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.
Nate’s Grade: C
Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.
Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.
The very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.
Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.
It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.
No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.
Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.
Nate’s Grade: C
The basis for the movie Young Adult sounds like writer Diablo Cody settling a few sore scores. You’d think winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2007’s Juno would have sufficed. Reteaming with her Juno director, fellow Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), the duo takes aim at the bitchy, stuck-up, popular girl that seemed to rule the school. Young Adult is much more than a vicarious act of vengeance on mean high school adversaries. It’s a revealing, awkward yet compelling dark comedy about the perils and pitfalls of arrested development.
Life hasn’t turned out exactly the way Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would have thought. The former high school queen bee has left her small town for life in Minneapolis. She’s the ghostwriter for a successful series of young adult books, a series that is coming to an end. She’s divorced form her husband, facing financial ruin, and living alone with her tiny Pomeranian, Dolce, her only friend. Mavis decides to forgo writing the last book in the cancelled series and instead return to her hometown the triumphant mini-celebrity she knows herself to be. She’s determined to find her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and win him back. The fact that Buddy is married and has a newborn baby is no real impediment to Mavis’s crazy plan (“Hey, I’ve got baggage too,” she reasons). Once home, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) in a bar. Matt and Mavis went to high school together, though she has long forgotten the likes of him. Matt’s claim to fame was that a bunch of jocks in high school savagely beat him thinking he was gay. Matt sees right through Mavis and the two of them become an unlikely pair as Mavis plots and schemes her way to victory.
Young Adult is one of the most enjoyable squirmiest times you can have at the theater. Much of its humor, and it is very funny, is built around the pained awkwardness of Mavis’ self-involved, self-destructive mission. My friend was nervously fidgeting in his seat the entire time (he may have just had to go to the bathroom). The sense of dread is palatable; we’re watching a slow-moving car crash, waiting for the inevitable to hit. Every scene carries the apprehension of, “What is she going to say/do next? Is this it?” And yet Cody’s sharp, pointed writing makes the film compulsively watchable. We dislike Mavis, an irredeemable character who doesn’t even try to be likeable, and yet by the film’s conclusion most audience members will likely feel more pity for Mavis than outright hatred. I’ve had some friends ask me if Young Adult was anything like Bad Teacher, another movie about an abrasive, selfish, unlikeable bad apple. This movie is different. This movie is actually good. Mavis is not some wacky cartoon character, and Reitman has kept his reaction shots to a minimum, abstaining from having to remind us via public reaction how inappropriate Mavis can be. Unlike Bad Teacher, this grown-up meanie feels all too real, and her actions come across as believably threatening. This woman could do some serious damage on her way to massage her damaged ego. The movie never condones her actions, though Reitman and Cody make a point of piling on against Mavis. This woman is an ugly wreck, and Cody’s writing and Theron’s gutsy performance speaks volumes. Cody’s writing isn’t the hyper-literate, stylized dialogue we’re accustomed to from Juno. The dialogue and characters are eerily recognizable, miles away from the cuteness of Juno’s sunny, optimistic fairy tale inhabitants. Young Adult is a more nuanced, droll, mature work that deserves as much recognition as Juno and cements Cody, in my mind, as one of the most thrilling writers today (I can almost forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. Almost).
Along with all the bleak comedy, Young Adult lands a surprising number of poignant dramatic blows. Cody has crafted an exacting character study on a severe case of arrested development. Many of us can relate to knowing that one gal in high school, the pretty, popular one who had everything in life handed to her. In Young Adult, Cody shows the devastating consequences of a lifetime of entitlement and zero introspection. Mavis secretly knows that she’s past her prime, that all the people she left in her Podunk town have moved on to richer lives while she’s stayed in the same holding pattern her whole life. Some part of her has never left high school. She’s an emotionally stunted woman trying to live out the fantasy of one of her undervalued books (her misreading of the end of The Graduate into a love-conquers-all message is rather telling). Mavis’ life is hardly the stuff of Champaign wishes and caviar dreams, but to the people of her hometown, life in the “Mini-apple” is the Big Time. There’s a fabulous scene where Mavis goes into a bookstore and sees her series on a clearance stack. The bookstore employee tells her they don’t sell and will be most likely sent back to the publisher. Mavis takes out her pen and autographs one, informing this minimum-wage peon that she is the fabled author of the series. She’s expecting fawning admiration. The employee flatly tells her, “If you sign them, we can’t send them back to the publisher.” In her disgust, she tries to sign as many as she can as an act of defiance. Later in the movie, Cody sheds light on Mavis’ family life, offering intriguing clues for how this woman became so broken. Her parents just seem to shrug off Mavis’ admission of alcoholism, like they’re used to their daughter acting out, even if she might really be crying out for help. She’s a fascinating character to watch crash and burn.
What gives the film its most potent sense of heart (Grinch-sized though it may be) is the unlikely yet compelling relationship between Mavis and Matt. Unlike Mavis’ perceived slings and arrows, Matt has suffered real trauma from high school. His bones were shattered from that brutal beat down and he’s left to limp with a crutch. He hasn’t been able to mentally leave high school behind completely himself, but then again he has a constant reminder. Mavis is strangely her most open with Matt, possibly because she doesn’t view him as a threat or a credible alternative (the joys of high school revisited – the pretty gal ignoring the existence of the lower classes). He’s portrayed as the film’s voice of reason, voicing concern over Mavis’ kamikaze narcissism. Together they form what could charitably be described as a friendship. She seeks him out to talk at odd hours of the night and he’s straightforward with her. He thinks her plan is nuts, but he’s also secretly enjoying his unexpected friendship with the queen bee of high school, albeit twenty years later. “Guys like me are made to love girls like you,” he confides to Mavis. Oswalt has shown some dramatic skills in the underappreciated sports fanatic flick, Big Fan. With this movie, Oswalt gives an achingly felt performance, the most empathetic character in the whole movie and a joy to watch onscreen in a high-profile role that fits him like a glove.
But the true star of the film is Theron, who gives a fully formed and entrancing performance as someone who is as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside. Her character could have easily slipped into being an unsympathetic monster; someone the audience wants punished (like Cameron Diaz’ character in Bad Teacher). But the actress finds her own twisted, tricky way to center the character. Every detestable glance, every pained inhalation, every rigorous attempt at seduction, it feels like the character coming alive before our eyes. Theron has dissolved into the abhorrent mess that is Mavis Gary. She’s convinced that Buddy could never be happy with such a mundane life in a mundane town (“There’s a restaurant that’s a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC in one building” she says incredulously). Her perspective is so deluded that you start to see the manufactured world Mavis has so cautiously built around herself as a defense from reality. She watches wall-to-wall reality TV, the perfect metaphor of our times concerning the idolization of idiocy and self-absorption. She may not be likeable but she’s definitely compelling, and Theron is so good as that-girl-from-high-school all grown up, that she might even win over some slight sympathy by the film’s end. At one point, the inner fear of Mavis reveals itself, and she expresses her confusion about the attainability of happiness. Why can others find happiness with so little, and she cannot find it with everything that she has?
Young Adult is a dark comedy of squirm-inducing, uncomfortable bleakness and a drama of surprising poignancy and depth. It’s the good kind of uncomfortable, the kind where you can’t look away or leave the vicinity of your seat. Theron and Oswalt are fantastic. Cody’s gift with words, teamed up with Reitman’s gift with actors, makes a beautiful combination even when the end product is charting the misery or a miserable person. The measured tone is kept from start ot finish, meaning even when the movie appears on the precipice of life-lessons and Mavis might turn her life around, it pulls back. There will be no hugs and gained wisdom with this movie, a crackling comedy that’s also one of the best pictures of the year. Take that, popular girls who never gave me the time of day.
Nate’s Grade: A
Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.
Nate’s Grade: A
Juno is a hysterical teen comedy with equal parts sweetness and sour. The idea of an underage pregnancy certainly presents a lot of conflicts and seriousness but the film avoids direct messages on the big topics thanks to large doses of levity and some hard-earned wisdom. With this serving as a companion piece to Knocked Up, I suppose Hollywood is convinced there’s something inherently funny about unplanned pregnancy. Remember that, suddenly expectant fathers and mothers.
16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) drinks her “weight in Sunny D” to take pregnancy test after test, but each pee-dipped stick gives the same result: Juno is going to become a mommy. The father is Paulie Bleaker (Michael Cera), a fellow high school student who has a fondness for jogging shorts and orange Tic-Tacs. Juno’s father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney) lament that they wish their daughter would have told them she was expelled or into hard drugs instead of being pregnant. Still, they are supportive and Juno decides to give away her bun in the oven to a childless couple, Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner).
Juno doesn’t patronize or dismiss the gravity of what is indeed happening (a life is being brought into this world); Juno says she is trying to come to grips with issues “way beyond my maturity level.” There are moments that reveal real sadness and regret for some of these characters, and moments of palpable doubt about what it means to officially grow up and assume responsibility for another. Juno also refrains from easy high school stereotypes and coarse humor. Juno is an intelligent comedy that doesn’t make light of its circumstances even if the sarcasm is off the charts. It’s this winning combination of wicked wit and heart that makes [I]Juno[/I] destined to be a crowd-pleaser.
Writer/blogger/former stripper Diablo Cody makes one hell of an impressive screenwriting debut. The dialogue is practically sparkling and revels in the hip, hyper-literate realm that used to dominate the teenage speech patterns of shows like Dawson’s Creek. Sure, it’s not terribly realistic when characters can spout pithy one-liners mixed in with heavy jargon and lots of cool speak, but what do I care when I’m cracking up with laughter so often. But Juno cannot easily be dismissed as glib because Cody throws in some incisive moments that display shades of vulnerability and tenderness with her wacky assortment of characters. Even the aloof oddballs have moments that deepen them from just being quirky for quirky’s sake. These people are more than just receptacles for Cody’s wonderful words; they may begin that way but through the course of 96 minutes they manage to transform into flesh-and-blood where we, the audience, feel their pain and celebrate their happiness. You may be surprised, as I was, to discover yourself holding back tears during the movie’s inevitable and tidy conclusion.
The heavily acoustic score banks on a lot of pleasant, leisurely strumming but it suits the film and the song selections are apt. The very end involves a long acoustic duet rendition of the Moody Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” and it may be one of the most disarmingly sweet, romantic moments of the year (the repeated lyric “I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else” is a perfect summary for two outsiders finding their match). In fact, it’s probably the most potentially romantic song ever to include the line “shook a little turd out of the bottom of your pants,” but then again I do profess ignorance when it comes to romantic odes that include defecation references. Somewhere there has to be a Barry White song that has to cover this.
Director Jason Reitman feels like a natural fit for this smart-allecky material. He lets the story take center-stage and, just as he proved with last year’s Thank You for Smoking, he can coax terrific performances from a strong body of actors. He keeps the pace chugging along and keeps form command of the many storylines and characters needing to be juggled. Juno is a comedy that says more about a character through a handful of smart, wry observations that cut to the bone, which is helpful considering the short running time means the film needs to do the most with its time.
Page should have been crowned a star immediately after her blistering performance as jail bait with claws in Hard Candy, but perhaps her top notch comedic turn in Juno will right this slip-up and give Page the opportunity to star in, at least, the same amount of movies as, oh, I don’t know, Amanda Bynes (Seriously, Hollywood, are you just throwing money at her?). Page is the perfect embodiment of the wiseacre teenager that thinks she knows more than anyone else. She recites the refined dialogue with such precision and ease, always knowing what segments to enunciate or de-emphasize to maintain a seamless comedic tone. Page brings great empathy to a know-it-all character and is the snarky spirit that makes Juno resonate.
The supporting cast around Page doesn’t let her down. Cera gives another fine performance of comic awkwardness befitting a teenager contemplating fatherhood. Simmons and Janney make a great pair of unflappable parents, particularly Janney who gives an ultrasound doc a memorable tongue-lashing for an off the cuff remark about Juno. Bateman works the same laid-back demeanor that he excelled at on TV’s Arrested Development. Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) makes a very funny cameo in the beginning.
Garner as an actress has been somewhat hamstrung by her roles, either focusing on her multitude of ass-kicking abilities or landing her leads in romantic comedies that don’t require more than dimples and twinkling eyes. In Juno she is driven by her desire to have a baby; she’s affluent, prim, and an easy joke thanks to her stick-in-the-mud seriousness. But then Juno and the audience get a glimpse about how important being a mother is to Vanessa, and Garner nails a rather touching scene where she directly speaks to the growing child inside Juno’s belly upon Juno’s request. She speaks softly to the baby, briefly mentioning how loved they will be, and then she marvels at feeling the baby move. In lesser hands this scene could have induced eye rolls but instead seems genuine and a turning point for how we see Vanessa.
If Juno does have a flaw it is a minor one. The film places its teen romance on the back burner for so long that when it resurfaces and positions itself front and center the storyline lacks credence and believability. The conclusion would have had more emotional weight had the filmmakers spent more time on the teen romance angle, but regardless I was still amused, entertained, and grateful for the ending that came.
Juno is a delightfully tart and hysterical comedy that is easily quote-able thanks to Cody’s quick-fire retorts and snappy dialogue. Page is destined for greatness and Reitman proves once more that he can handle anything thrown at him with deftly comic aplomb. This is an impressive and assured comedy that bristles with comic vitality and confidence. This holiday season, make sure to take a trip to Juno.
Nate’s Grade: A
As soon as I saw a trailer for Thank You for Smoking I was in love. I found the book for cheap and read it with months to spare before the film reached my local theater. Admittedly, my expectations were high because the book was wonderful, and Thank You for Smoking as a movie is equally wonderful and a very good film adaptation.
This is a wickedly funny satire that skewers all sides in the political debate about Big Tobacco, and the film doesn’t take a stand, which is refreshing. It has a firm grip on its humor and gleefully gives its finger to political correctness. There?s a lunch group called the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) squad where reps for Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, of course, argue over whose product is harder to spin. It’s likely the snort-because-you-can’t-believe-they-said-that movie of the year. The tar-black humor in Thank You for Smoking rolls off so casually. This is a comedy that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn’t dumb down its barbs or its satire. Aaron Eckhart was born to play the role of Nick Naylor, tobacco’s master spin artist and public charlatan. Naylor is conniving, slippery, and yet immensely likable not in spite of these traits but because of them. Eckhart is downright charming and you can see how he could dupe a nation, even if he’s only doing it for the challenge. Thank You for Smoking has one of the finest assembled casts in a long time, and every member fires on all cylinders. This is a film brimming with confidence and it’s evident with every frame. You almost might feel guilty for wanting to capture a contact buzz from how polished, assured and witty the flick is.
I never thought I’d say so but it sure looks like adapter/director Jason Reitman has a far more promising future right now than his dad, Ivan. Jason, the son, keeps the movie brisk, packed with characters, subplots, jokes, and a visual whimsy. This is a terrific adaptation of a terrific book, and Reitman really hones in on the mechanics of debate and lobbyist practices with aplomb. A scene where Nick teaches his adoring son the tricks of debate with ice cream is outstanding. Thank You for Smoking crackles with dialogue to die for, like Nick’s boss BR (J.K. Simmons) saying, “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool, and addictive, and available — the job is practically done for us.” My only complaints with the film, besides that it’s too short at just 90 minutes, is the manufactured danger seems a bit too slight and too easily overcome. Nick quite simply vanquishes whatever threat his reporter sex buddy Heather (Katie Holmes) posed. Otherwise, Thank You for Smoking is a superb movie all around and there’s no reason you shouldn’t see it. Take the hit.
Nate’s Grade: A