Seemingly sure-fire Oscar bait, Saving Mr. Banks left enough Academy voters cold and it’s easy to see why. First off, the behind-the-scenes sparring to adapt Mary Poppins is the movie we want to see, watching crotchety author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) butt heads with head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The movie is at its best when these two share the screen, with Walt’s genial strong-arming finding little traction with Travers stern refusals (no Dick van Dyke, no animation, no mustaches). What I wasn’t expecting was a parallel storyline detailing Travers childhood in Australia dealing with an unstable home life thanks to a drunken father (Colin Farrell). It literally takes up half the movie, and while there are a few interesting juxtapositions, the screenplay just trades off scenes; one in 1961, then one in 1906, then back again, etc. The issue is that the flashbacks are never very revelatory and have no business dominating the running time. All of the information gleaned from these flashbacks could have been corralled into one late flashback, or even mentioned in a speech. Saving Mr. Banks gives you two movies running parallel, but most people will only be interested in the one. It’s a pleasant film, benefiting from strong performances by Thompson and Hanks (perfectly cast), but one can’t shake the feeling of Disney P.R. pervading the film’s retelling. It comes from the perspective that Disney is always right and that Travers was always wrong, having to work through her personal issues before relenting, even tearing up at the final product. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney and never allowed another of her Poppins books to be adapted into a film, though not for want of trying by the studios. It feels unfair to portray an author’s artistic integrity as an obstacle that needs to be defeated, but there it is, and Disney’s Mary Poppins, while beloved, resembles much of what Travers feared. Who defends the cranky authors of the world when they have a point? Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining film, charming and likeable, until you begin to look beyond the fairy dust and realize the revisionism before your eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In two short years, Judd Apatow has become the king of comedy. He’s co-written and directed two bona fide hits that will go down as comedy classics (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), and produced gut-busters with heart, like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Apatow brand of comedy centers on characters and less on contrived set pieces. He’s built up enough comedy capital in Hollywood that he felt he could write and direct a project less ideally commercial, something tagged as being more personal and serious like in the James L. Brooks mold. Funny People is the mixed results. I applaud Apatow for trying to grow as an artist, but as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Funny People is a broken movie that isn’t funny enough to be fully redeemed.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a famous comedy actor that has made several hit Hollywood comedies. He may live in a giant mansion but his life is extremely isolated and lonely. He has no real close friends and years ago he drove away the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann). He has no one to comfort him in his time of need. This prickly man has been informed that he has a terminal blood disease. Simmons decides to go back to his comedy roots, to stand-up, and it is there that he meets the young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira has grown up with the comedy of George Simmons, so he is flabbergasted when the man himself asks Ira to write jokes for him. Ira’s roommates, fellow stand-up comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and crappy sitcom actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), can’t believe his dumb luck. Ira and Simmons build an unorthodox friendship, and Ira is the only person George has confided in about his disease and his fear of dying. And then something amazing happens. George Simmons gets better. He’s got a new lease on life and he aims his attentions on the girl that got away. Laura is married to Clarke (Eric Bana), a handsome Australian businessman, and she has two adorable kids (Apatow’s own girls), which makes it a very poor time to restart her romance with George.
Funny People is the first Apatow-helmed film that feels sadly incomplete, even at two and a half hours. The movie is staggeringly sloppy when it comes to plot structure and character work. First off, when a character is informed that he has a terminal illness at minute three, it doesn’t have the impact that it would if the audience got to know and feel for that individual. In fact, the first half of this movie feels like, and this may get confusing, the second half of another movie. It centers on a selfish character coming to grips with his choices in life, mostly wrong, and beginning to reconnect with people once more, building a mentor friendship and finding the “one that got away.” But there are segments during this first half of Funny People where the impact just cannot be felt because the dramatic legwork has not been achieved. Watching Simmons’ estranged family berate him through tears doesn’t have much of an impact when they discover the news. Seeing George Simmons spend his potential last days jamming with Jack White and other musicians is cool, but it doesn’t come across as anything but another indication that the fake George Simmons is famous in this alternative Los Angeles. It doesn’t have setup, like Simmons talking about one of his life’s pleasures is strumming the guitar or playing before things got complicated. So it’s basically just another celebrity cameo snapshot. While I’m on the topic, the multitudes of celebrity cameos are strangely unfunny, save for a bit where Sarah Silverman describes her lady parts.
This is also the first Apatow comedy where it feels like twenty percent of what I saw promised from TV spots, trailers, making-of specials (there was a good one on Comedy Central to check), the advertising unit if you will, was not in the movie. This gave me the distinct impression that even at a lengthy 150 minutes that Funny People feels misshapen, that there are swaths of material on the cutting room floor that would have assisted the narrative and sad amount of underwritten supporting characters. I’m not saying Funny People would necessarily be a better movie at three hours length, but it would at least feel more fully formed and satisfying.
The main problem with the film, outside of the reverse plot structure, is that everything just goes slack during the uneven second half. George and Ira spend about an hour of the movie with Laura and her family, and it feels like one long uncomfortable detour. Part of the squirmy feeling is intentional, as the audience is supposed to be in Ira’s shoes and see George’s homewrecking as the bad decision train wreck it is. But I also felt uncomfortable because George kept extending his stay day after day and I was getting impatient. I wanted these characters to head back to L.A. and deal more with the Ira/George relationship. During this second half, Ira becomes a background figure that is good for nervous reaction shots. This stalls all the character work that had been done up to this point and Ira goes to pause mode for an hour. This second half section isn’t particularly funny, it isn’t romantic, and it gives little insights into the past between George and Laura. She has established a nice living for herself, with two cute kids and a hunky husband who seems to be a good father when he’s around. In fact, despite the movie’s insistence that Clarke is a cheater (thus ensuring the movie law that it is then acceptable to cheat on him), I found myself liking the hyperactive and sensitive lout. Every plot movement in this second half feels wrong, some of it intentional, but it makes Funny People feel like it has been hijacked and taken hostage. Where did the movie I was kinda liking go? What happened here? This hour feels like a separate movie and one that Funny People would have benefited from simply being dropped entirely.
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Mad Men in anticipation of its third season, but this movie also disappoints by failing to delve into the creative process of comedians. Despite its running time and subject matter, there isn’t that much standup witnessed. Usually the movie will display about one line or one bit and then cut back to the characters offstage again. We don’t get to see the evolution of comedy or the professionals talking shop about what makes a good joke. There isn’t even much collaboration, so we don’t get to see multiple minds banging out jokes together. There’s a comedian named Randy (Aziz Ansari) who is popular with audiences because he’s loud and spastic, and all the other comedians hate him, but then the movie doesn’t return to this. Go back to this topic. I want to hear more about the divisions within the comedy world, the people that feel like they are more pure or textured in their funny compared to the people that play to the crowd and lap up the easy yuks. Ira’s character work is mostly explored through his changing standup persona, where he seems to gain more confidence and a voice. But there’s this whole other storyline where Ira is a “joke thief” and takes other people’s material and repackages it as his own. This is an interesting story and provides conflict and glimpses into the character of Ira as an insecure and ethically challenged opportunist in a competitive field. It makes him a more dynamic character. I saw more of this storyline in the making-of special for Funny People, and sadly it is only hinted at in the final product. The other comedy players, like Ira’s roommates and his quasi-love interest (Aubrey Plaza), are barely explored as people and professionals.
Apatow comedies are notable for being character-based, but Funny People doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing characters that you want to be around. I found little reason to care. I found most of the characters to not be engaging; some were unlikable but most were simply flat. George Simmons is supposed to be a selfish man, though there’s something inherently selfish about being famous in Hollywood. Comedy itself is inherently selfish, where individuals guard their observations and exploit personal stories for the endorphin highs of audience approval. Is successful comedy linked to selling out? Funny People occasionally visits the dark recesses that comedians utilize for material, like self-lacerating humiliation and family trauma that gets aired out as a means of therapy. Simmons is a selfish and lonely guy and the point of the whole movie is that even after a near-death experience, he’s still selfish and lonely. He’s said he’s changed but has he really? That seems to be the movie’s cosmic joke. This is clearly a personal movie for Apatow, which might explain why it has less resonance for an audience that isn’t as steeped in the history of comedy or the rigors of fame. I just don’t have the same point of interest.
Sandler revealed his acting talent in 2002’s beguiling Punch-Drunk Love, and in Funny People he plays a completely different character than his other adolescent roles. He doesn’t pander to be likable at any point, and he’s generally standoffish from beginning to end. He hasn’t done a lewd, crude movie in over ten years, and this return to raunch rekindles the Sandler I remember listening to constantly in the mid 1990s. This role isn’t as taxing for him as an actor, nor is he given too many chances to reveal deeper layers to George Simmons. I think this is by design from Apatow. Rogen is less his charming self and during the second half of the movie he pretty much shifts his eyes and makes pained faces. He feels at ease in the stand-up sequences, probably because Rogen performed stand-up comedy when he was 13. Mann gets her biggest acting role in years and cries enough, but it made me realize that she works best as an actress that can steal scenes rather than an actress who has scenes built around her. I think Bana (Star Trek) actually comes off the best. He showcases an exuberance for comedy not seen before, and when his character gets emotional it still manages to be funny and believable.
In the end, Funny People just isn’t that funny. There aren’t any particularly clever comedic setups, the characters don’t get many chances to be humorous even as comedians, and the movie just goes slack during its uncomfortable and uneven second half. The Hollywood satire lacks bite, and the best bits are saved for the scathingly unhip and formulaic “Yo, Teach!” sitcom of Schwartzman’s. Apatow is more interested in purging a personal tale onto the screen rather than fashioning a relatable mainstream comedy. I feel that the salutations that Funny People is “more challenging” and “serious” are unwarranted. This is certainly a different movie but is it any more serious than navigating the uncertainty and awkwardness of an unplanned pregnancy or beginning sexuality at middle age? I don’t think so. Beyond this, the movie doesn’t establish its plot well and spends far too much time in side diversions, failing to round out characters and ignoring intriguing premises and storylines. Even the camaraderie, usually a hallmark of Apatow productions, feels lost as the characters have much more friction. On a personal note, I saw this movie while I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. On our car ride back to our beach house, my wife and I got into a car accident. We were both physically fine but her little Ford Focus was totaled. I will now forever associate Funny People with a car accident. If that isn’t enough of an on-the-nose metaphor, while we waited along the hot road for police and tow trucks, I thought to myself, “I just wish the movie was worth this.” It wasn’t.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’m starting to think Wes Anderson may become his own worst enemy. The man seems trapped in his precious, idiosyncratic style that revolves around intricate, dollhouse-style production design, slow-motion and simple pan shots, clever-to-smug characters, family dysfunction that coalesces somewhat by the end, and a soundtrack full of hip, retro songs. I like Wes Anderson; I loved his first three films, was rather lukewarm on 2004’s Life Aquatic, but The Darjeeling Limited is pretty much a bland rehash of the same. Instead of a father reconnecting with his long-forgotten son it’s three brothers reconnecting in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s abandonment. The humor is fairly subdued and while the movie is brief it seems to run out of gas early on and get repetitive. I think Anderson is more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets. I didn’t feel a blip of emotion for any of the character, all of who have some lasting fear of women ever since their mother ran out to become a nun. There’s kind of an unsettling misogynistic vibe in the movie against women, which is an unfortunate surprise. There’s a spiritual quest that some may relate to but I found it superficial at best, intended to gloss over the plot holes and character miscues. I wish Anderson well, but his next venture behind the camera might work better if he threw out his fraying filmmaker playbook.
Nate’s Grade: C+
From its opening 80s New Wave soundtrack, you know Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a period piece like none other. The famous daughter of Francis Ford Coppola has long been planning a movie around the famous queen that lost her head during the French Revolution. She premiered it at the Cannes film festival where it was booed by the homeland critics. This cast a shadow of doubt over Coppola’s dreamy pop confection of a biopic. Maybe the French don’t like having one of their most iconic historical individuals turned into a bouncing, troubled teenager. Too bad because this is the most interesting and, later, the most frustrating accomplishment Coppola achieves.
Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a young Austrian girl married away by her family with the hopes of strengthening an alliance between France and Austria. She’s intended to wed Louie August (Jason Schwatzman, Coppola’s cousin), a rather goofy young man more comfortable with hunting than women. Their marriage is arranged by Louis XV (Rip Torn) with the intent on keeping the family line with a male heir. Trouble is, Marie’s husband is more interested in locks than her in a nightie. She’s warned in letters by her family at home, and by a caring ambassador (Steve Coogan), that her only leverage is a child. Without a child her marriage could be annulled. Life at the Versailles palace is a vortex of gossip and attention, and the idea that the queen cannot interest the king is most stressing.
Marie Antoinette is a feast for the eyes, and that’s saying nothing about Dunst. The costumes are gorgeous, the multitudes of food look delectable, and the sets are the real deal, filmed at the actual Versailles palace for that extra oomph. I’d let them eat cake too if I got the stuff she had. Expect Marie Antoinette to at least get several Oscar nominations for its lavish technical merits; it very well might win too. There’s a really neat sequence that informs the audience through a series of family portraits about a death in the family.
Anyone looking for a strict biography on the famous queen will be left scratching their head. Coppola has thrown historical accuracy to the wind and produced a movie less about plot and character and more about an impression. She really nails the insular palace life, from its ridiculous and rigid traditions to the importance placed on blind formality. There’s a very amusing scene where Marie has to be dressed by handlers, and her clothes must keep getting swapped to the current highest-ranking person in the room. Coppola also smoothly handles this extravagant, opulent world from the point of view of her young teenage girl, betrothed by the age of 14. The world of royals and Versailles was one of constant gossip where everyone’s eyes were glued to the new girl. In many ways, Coppola’s world mirrors high school existence, just with far better clothes. When Marie is ignored yet again by her clammy husband, she goes on a wild shopping spree with fabulous shoes and fabrics in bright, sticky colors. She stays up late with a close circle of friends to watch the sun rise over the palace. Coppola firmly reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl and perhaps was still fighting to be one. The movie is good at stripping away the context of history and showing us the awkward lives of two kids selected to be leaders of their country. Better yet, the film is good at exploring what it?s like for teenagers to have the world at their fingertips and have no clue what to do with it. Besides shoe shopping, that is. The film is an excellent mosaic that reiterates the breezy sensation of being young and trapped in the world that never seemed big enough.
But, alas, the trouble with establishing an impression is that we get the idea pretty quickly, and yet the movie keeps going on and on without anything else to interest us. You can watch Marie lay in the field, host a tea party in her garden, marvel at sumptuous food, try on different clothes, play with her puppies, and, hell, the woman even sings an opera in one moment. I don’t know if Coppola intended to establish the tedium of life in Versailles but the audience will definitely start to feel suffocated by it. At least she never steers into a Terrence Mallick danger zone (the man would have sat in a forest with a camera in his lap and called the results a “movie”). That’s the issue with the movie. Like her 2003 Oscar-winner Lost in Translation, Coppola is more interested in mood and silence than character and plot. This approach worked splendidly in the sparely beautiful and moving Translation, but it cannot fully save this film. After a while it just all gets too repetitious and feels slight, like Lizzie McGuire’s Fabulous Versailles Vacation.
The figure of Marie Antoinette is too big to just be dressed up and put in a room. Coppola doesn’t seem to care about the politics or historical anxieties of the time. That’s a shame since France was going through one of the most amazing turnarounds in all of history. There’s no social commentary and the last quarter of the film seems to go off track. When the peasant mob does appear at the very end it feels like a misplaced subplot instead of a world-changing event. Likewise, the affair Marie Antoinette embarks on feels all too shrift and meaningless, like a high school crush of the week (might she doodle his name on her diamond-encrusted notebook?). Marie Antoinette is an interesting, ambitious period drama trying to be a youthful fantasy turned nightmare. It just doesn’t have enough going on to justify a prolonged experience.
Dunst is an actress I’ve been really hot and cold with. Sometimes she dazzles me but more often she bores me. As the title monarch, Dunst totally comes across like a vibrant teen girl still feeling out the world. She seems impetuous, sensual, and naive, all hallmarks of a growing girl that just so happens to be the queen of France. She does a lot of communication with her face. Sometimes she comes across like a silly, vapid little girl playing dress-up, but then that seems within the scope of Coppola’s aim.
Schwartzman’s portrayal makes the king look like an aloof adolescent, but he make me laugh very easily at his pained awkwardness. Judy Davis is a hoot as the palace’s liaison of policy and manners, tsk-tsk-ing whenever etiquette is broken. The rest of the cast mostly have moments but it’s surprising to me that I’d see Marianne Faithfull, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon (!), and Asia Argento in a period piece movie. Like I said, Marie Antoinette is a costume drama like none other.
Much was made about the anachronistic soundtrack of 1980s tunes set amongst the pomp and circumstance of 18th century France. I like it because it works in engineering the breezy, bubbly youthful impression Coppola wants. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal because the music is not incorporated into the story unlike 2001’s tandem Moulin Rouge and A Knight’s Tale. It provides some of the more fun moments in the movie, though at times the lyrics become all too transparent; “I Want Candy” during a spending spree, “Fools Rush In” when Marie goes to her affair, The Strokes screaming “I want to be forgotten,” as Marie runs off.
Coppola’s luscious period piece feels more like a dreamscape in a daze. Her focus relies less on linear storytelling and character than on creating an impression of youthful decadence and emptiness. Marie Antoinette manages to simultaneously be fluffy and vague. After a while it all just gets repetitious and a bit dull watching scene after scene of Marie being indulged and bored. Perhaps some of that boredom will translate over to the audience. Coppola reminds us that Marie Antoinette was still a teenage girl beneath her powdered wig and bustle, but after two hours you might wish Coppola had more on her agenda.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit like a crack addict (my apologies to Chris Rock). His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.
Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.
There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.
When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of very funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.
As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?
It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.
Nate’s Grade: C+