A sweet and heartfelt true story to friendship that also doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of illness and the elongating circle of grief. Our Friend is based on the life of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) whose life is thrown into turmoil after his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They rely upon their devoted friend, Dane (Jason Segel), for help during the months and years after the diagnosis. The movie jumps around in time, for minimal effect, but does a fine job of laying out the three central characters and their core relationship of love and compassion. Dane is scoffed at by Matt’s friends as a loser who hasn’t gotten his life together, and Dane even contemplates some drastic personal decisions, but he finds a purpose and definition with his servitude, even as it impacts his own outside relationships. I was expecting more attention to the titular “friend” of the title, and it is a slight detriment, but the dramatic core of this movie is solid. The topic of terminal illness can easily veer into soapy, maudlin territory, but the movie is on firm grounding early during a scene where Matt and Nicole discuss how to tell their two young girls that mommy isn’t getting better. Her angry outbursts later and final moments are also unvarnished yet still in character. The acting is quite good overall and there are plenty of one-scene players that leave a favorable and empathetic impression, like Gwendoline Christie and Cherry Jones. The non-linear jumps feel like an attempt to create more meaning than a simple story about friendship will afford and an invitation to sift out connections and parallels. It’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily break away from your expectations as a cancer weepie. You know what you’re headed for. Our Friend is an enjoyable and heartfelt drama with better-than-average performances and overly disjointed editing. If you’re in for a decent tearjerker, give it a try.
Nate’s Grade: B
In the five years since 2007’s comedy smash, Knocked Up, writer/director Judd Apatow has ascended to heights in Hollywood that few ever achieve. And while his disappointing 2009 film Funny People may have been an example of the man flying too close to the sun (let’s mix metaphors, why not?), he’s had a stable career guiding mostly hit comedies to big numbers, particularly last year’s Bridesmaids. For Apatow’s next directing effort, he picks up a handful of supporting characters from Knocked Up and gives them their own spotlight. This is 40 is Apatow’s “sort-of sequel.” It may seem familiar in tone and style to his previous efforts, but there’s one big difference between this film and Apatow’s previous works. This movie never feels like it goes anywhere. Even Funny People went somewhere even if I disliked it.
Five years after the events of Knocked Up, Peter (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are struggling to keep their household afloat and sane. Their daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, (played by Apatow’s real daughters, Maude and Iris), are constantly fighting, Debbie’s worried one of her employees is stealing from her business, and Pete’s trying to save his record company without alerting his family to his panic. Pete has put all his efforts into promoting a new album from 1970s rocker Graham Parker, but really he’s fighting a losing battle against mainstream taste. Pete has also been secretly loaning out money to his no-good father (Albert Brooks), while Debbie has been trying to reconnect with her distant biological father (John Lithgow). Weirdly enough, both fathers have started secondary families and have broods of young children. As Debbie and Pete both approach the big 4-0, both of them make resolutions to better themselves, renew their family bonding, and reignite the spark in their romance. Of course, after two kids and several years of marriage tallied, it’s easier said than done.
The Apatow films have always had their own loping rhythm to them, an easygoing quality that isn’t as directed by plot as character. So when I say that This is 40 feels rather aimless, I want readers to recognize that this goes beyond the normal loosely plotted Apatow affairs. Usually his movies have defined events to direct the overall trajectory of the plot; a baby on the way, losing one’s virginity, etc. I’m hard pressed to say what exactly is the direction of This is 40. It’s about the ups and downs of a married couple, but there isn’t necessarily any definable conflict. They’re sort of in a malaise and internalizing their unhappiness, but the movie is the sum total of many small conflicts that never seem to congeal. As a result, the movie feels like it’s often coasting, going beat-for-beat until something new takes it on a mild diversion. It’s a movie of diversions without a unifying path. Sure the couple becomes, presumably, stronger by the end of the film, but I can’t say what’s taken place to explain this progression. The movie plays out like a series of loosely connected scenes. I enjoyed myself, and found the movie often amusing, but I kept wondering what it was amounting to. It was never enough of a niggling concern to stop from being entertaining, but when it was done, I thought to myself that I just watched Apatow’s friends hang out for two hours and call it a movie.
There’s also the issue of indicating this is a sequel to Knocked Up or at least exists within the same universe. There’s very little continuity between the two films other than Pete and Debbie’s family. Jason Segel (The Muppets) and Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart) make reappearances playing characters with the same names, but they don’t seem like the same characters (though the gyno doc is the same – hooray). My major sticking point is the complete absence of the stars of Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl). Now I wasn’t expecting a drawn out cameo from these two, especially after Heigl publicly badmouthed Apatow and the movie that made her a star. I did expect some passing reference, even something as small as, “Ben and Alison are looking at schools for their daughter.” I just wanted something to feel satisfied. Where this becomes a problem is that I’m fairly certain that Ben and Alison would be attending several of these major social events for their family members. They make a big deal about Pete’s 40th birthday party, so why wouldn’t Ben and Alison be there? And with her litany of marital woes, wouldn’t Debbie seek out, you know, her sister to talk with, the same sister she hung out with all the time in Knocked Up? Apatow might as well have just given everyone a new name if this was as sequel-y as This is 40 was daring to go.
Part of my lukewarm reception to the film is likely my lack of empathy with the problems of the main characters. Good storytelling should allow anyone to be able to empathize with characters dissimilar to themselves. I found many of the problems in This is 40 to be the stuff of rich fantasy. Pete is worried his record company, that he started, might not make it. He’s also been secretly giving his mooch of a father $80,000 (!) over the years. Maybe these people could stand to cut back and live within their means. Their house is huge, downright opulent, and it seems like Pete has wasted plenty of money on needless expenditures, which his own employees eventually point out at work. Did they need a big 40th birthday bash? Do their kids need every expensive gadget? When they take a vacation, does it need to be in a lavish hotel along the beach? I found too many of these complaints to be whiny and indulgent. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious relationship problems that are given thoughtful attention. This is 40 is arguably Apatow’s most mature and reflective film yet, though that might be faint praise to some. I would rather the movie spent more time focusing on the relatable concerns of a relationship crumbling rather than the stress of possibly having to move from a super-rich house to a merely somewhat rich house.
And yet the movie is routinely funny and charming, thanks to the Apatow standards of cast camaraderie, character, and the mixture of raunch with sweetness. I like these characters and so I enjoy spending time with them, and even if I feel like we’re not going anywhere fast, I don’t mind that much. I’ll gladly spend two plus hours with these funny people and their mid-life crises comic follies, at least once. The characters are well drawn and played by capable comic players that can do their Apatow jazz deal, finding peculiar riffs to work and squeeze out mirth. I thought a discussion over the appeal of being a widower and the fantasy of a spouse’s untimely demise to be quite funny as well as a topic generally unspoken (“This is the mother of your children we’re talking about. You want her to go peacefully.”). Rudd (Wanderlust) and Mann (The Change-Up) are terrific together and entirely convincing as a longstanding couple, people who know the ins and outs of one another. It’s fascinating just to watch the nuts and bolts of a relationship that is still a battle; it also helps when you like both participants and find that they each have valid points. Though I cannot fathom how hiding impending financial doom is a smart move.
Apatow does a fine job of making sure the dramatic parts do not overweigh the film, usually settling things with a nicely punctuated joke or pop-culture critique (oddly enough, TV’s LOST becomes a major reoccurring gag, though you expect a bit more of a comedic payoff when they get to the controversial finale). I’m not sure that many people are going to know who Graham Parker is, but here he is folks. There are a lot of Apatow players peopled throughout, like Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (TV’s Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), making fine work with minimal screen time. You’ll recognize other familiar faces as well. Occasionally the jokes feel like they go on too long, catching the downward slope of an overstayed improv riff, but I was laughing throughout and enjoyed the unpredictable nature scene to scene. You’ll likely predict the outcomes for certain storylines and conflicts, since Apatow is a sucker for the squishy ending, but you’ll feel like it got there on its own relative terms. It’s not exactly a happy ending but it’s a less unhappy ending.
There are plenty of supporting actors that shine in this movie, though I feel that I need to single out the great Albert Brooks (Drive). He plays such a passive-aggressive, manipulative, mooch of a father, but he does it in a way that almost wins you over, how straightforward he is with his bad behavior. When Pete tells him he cannot loan any more money, Brooks blithely, almost cheerily, theorizes that murdering some of his recent kids can solve this problem. He marches out, gets a hose, and asks the kids to volunteer who wants to be murdered. It’s scenes like this that manage to be funny but also cutting to a dramatic truth that the film hovers around, occasionally hitting the bullseye. Megan Fox (Transformers) is also enjoyable as a, what else, vivacious employee men are falling all over themselves for. And even Apatow’s own kids give rather strong performances, now playing actual characters rather than scene-stealers. Maude, the oldest, has a lot of dramatic scenes as the teenager daughter coming to grips with hormones and her crazy parents. The Apatow clan might just get some outside work after people see dad’s movie.
While I doubt Apatow has made any sort of definitive statement on what it means to approach four decades worth of life (and poop jokes), This is 40 is a perceptive and enjoyable movie even if it feels like a collection of scenes. Good thing I like these characters and enjoy spending time with them, otherwise I might find this whole film to be a bit aimless and self-indulgent. Seriously, how many scenes are there going to be of people singing along to music? This is 40 has enough going for it, be it comedy or some insightful dramatic moments, though it keeps an audience a bit removed due to the unrelatable nature of their posh problems. If there’s a This is 50 in the works, next time get me some more Rogen time. I’d rather watch him deal with raising a teenage girl in the age of social media. You don’t have to know anything about Knocked Up to follow along with This is 40, but then again, if you haven’t seen Knocked Up, just go watch that movie instead. Trust me.
Nate’s Grade: B
Relationships are serious business. In most Judd Apatow productions, they’re funny business. With The Five-Year Engagement, there’s romance to be found in surprising places, but the omnipresent feeling is one of dread. All those advertisements highlighting the comedy will start to melt away, and what you are left with is a funny, if bittersweet, anti-romantic comedy, more uncomfortable with hard-hitting truths than congenial laughs. My theater even had a few walkouts.
Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are happily in love. He’s a sous chef in a trendy San Francisco restaurant and she’s eager to gain a graduate fellowship at UC-Berkley in psychology. She doesn’t get accepted to Berkley, but the University of Michigan offers her a spot. Tom and Violet agree to put their wedding on hold and move to Michigan so that she can take advantage of an amazing opportunity. Michigan is not to Tom’s liking, especially since he can’t find a fulfilling job and settles with making sandwiches at a campus sub shop. It’s all just temporary, he keeps reminding himself. Then Violet’s two years gets extended, and Michigan isn’t just a temporary pit stop, it’s possibly home. Tom’s disappointment spirals, and he and Violet begin to drift apart, he resenting her for giving up his own dream to support hers. She begins getting emotionally attached to her Psychology professor, Dr. Childs (Rhys Ifans), in ways that straddle the mentor-student boundaries. Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Alex (Chris Pratt), Tom’s best man and coworker, at the couple’s engagement party. They get married, have kids, and Tom and Violet are still stalling. This is the story of two people who deserve their happily ever after except life keeps putting obstacles in their path to the altar.
You will be unprepared for how sobering The Five-Year Engagement can be. Some of these arguments between Tom and Violet cut right to the bone with an exacting level of painful authenticity. The level of uncomfortable intimacy can make the movie feel grueling. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some Apatow version of a John Cassavettes flick. There’s still plenty of comedy but the film is much more of a drama than any previous Apatow production. Part of the squirm factor comes in the very nature of the premise. The Five-Year Engagement picks up where most rom-coms end, with our happy couple together at last. We know these two are meant for one another; however, the majority of the screenplay involves watching two likeable, funny, loving people drift emotionally apart. Eventually they get back together in the end in a mad rush to staunch the gloom prevailing over the movie. It’s a hard act to watch people drift apart, losing the connections that once bound them together, and witnessing the glow of romance fade into complacency and resentment. Again, this is all handled in ways that find humor in uncomfortable places (like Tom, hopped up on painkillers, apologizing for smiling during sad news), but it can still be uncomfortable, and I don’t know if the ending, while happy, will justify the journey for many audience members.
I was shocked how much I found myself relating to the plight of the characters in The Five-Year Engagement, so much so that I simultaneously felt an extra level of engagement and discomfort. I will spare you the gory details, as I am a gentleman first and foremost, but relationships that just fizzle out rather than ending in some abrupt manner (infidelity, commitment issues, lack of availability, etc.) are not any more enviable. I related to the general sense of malaise that can plague a long-term relationship, the feeling of being forever a plus-one in your spouse’s circles, the resentment over the demands of a job or school, the small cracks that mask a lot of pain, the kind that is suffused with rationalization that to assert what you feel is to be selfish and inconsiderate, the loss of intimacy, physical and emotional, the guilt of being unhappy or making someone unhappy, and the sad realization that maybe love just wasn’t enough. What happens when nice people who are good for each other are just dealt rotten circumstances? Phew. I feel like I’m turning this into a therapy session. Let’s talk about something inappropriate in the next paragraph.
The biggest reason for sticking it out, both for Tom and Violet and the audience, is that Segel and Blunt have terrific chemistry together. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is a big endearing lug of a man, and putting his career on hold to support his fiancé gives him an extra surplus of sympathy as we watch him spiral into despair and then resentment. He’s a funny, likeable guy, and we know he and Violet are meant for one another and we want them to get together, even as this looks less likely to come true after the circumstances that push them away. Granted, you must swallow the hard-to-believe reality that Tom couldn’t find a decent job in Ann Arbor, a college town that has to have some fine dining along the outskirts of town if not in the city. Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) makes me fall in love with her yet again with a performance. Just like in 2011’s Bureau, she creates a charming, vibrant, luminescent portrayal of a person in love, so much so that I am envious of the man of her affections (her pantomime of “Circus Solei sex” made me feel all warm and fuzzy in multiple places). Violet has her own share of flaws but that just made her more relatable. I enjoy the way Segel, as a screenwriter (he co-wrote the movie with his regular collaborator, director Nicholas Stoller), is charitable with his characterization. He’s not afraid to make himself look mean and hurtful and wrong. He’s not afraid to make the girlfriends in his movies, even the ones who are about to dump him, justifiable in their decision-making. This is not a case of good guys and bad guys; it’s much more like life where everyone can draw good reasons, and the consequences just suck. Out of all of the Apatow films, Segel has done the best job of making his characters feel most like actual people than broad comedic types.
Luckily, the movie has its funny, peculiar little moments to make the drama bearable. I appreciate the little touches of comedy, which percolate through the heaviness. The wide supporting cast is peopled with the usual blend of oddballs and loudmouths. Pratt and Brie provide an ongoing foil as the couple who didn’t seem right for one another, made initial impulsive decisions, but have stuck it out and are happy; instead of waiting for the right time they embrace the mantra that there is no perfect time in life but the present. Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) is great as a smart-aleck who grows into a responsible father. Brie adopts a British accent and becomes even more adorable, as all fans of Community would know. She’s quite funny as Violet’s sister and has a standout sequence where she and Violet have a very adult conversation in front of children so they disguise their voices as Cookie Monster and Elmo. The juxtaposition is a hoot and yet also a nice moment to add characterization. I also enjoyed seeing Chris Parnell (TV’s 30 Rock) as a sad sack faculty spouse stay-at-home father who clears his misery with kitting. There are some gory comedic set pieces around arrows being shot into legs and toes getting amputated, but the movie’s best comedy comes in the small moments, from Tom ‘s patchy “I’ve stopped caring” facial hair, to a self-described “pickle nerd” played by Brian Posehn, to the percentages of every undergrad named “Ashley” or “Zack,” to Tom’s hopelessly overmatched chase with Professor Childs, to a running gag about grandparents dying before Tom and Violet wed.
I would like to take this time and observe that the University of Michigan, as well as its tenured professor, is responsible for the disruption of happiness between a young couple in love. How many other couples have you destroyed, U of M? When will your taste for suffering ever be quenched? And no, I’m not just saying this because I’m a diehard Ohio State Buckeyes fan, as well as a grad student. My point being: Michigan wants to kill Tom, Violet, and every person you hold dear (In short: Go Bucks).
You’d think with a title like The Five-Year Engagement they wouldn’t want to overstay their welcome, but like most Apatow productions, the film runs a bit on the long side. About 20 minutes into the movie, I felt the need to go to the bathroom. I rationalized staying put. Then about 90 minutes in, that urge became overwhelming but I reasoned the movie had to be over soon. And I kept telling myself that… for another 30 minutes. Then I just ran out and did my business, feeling the elation of relief. At over two hours, the movie feels excessive. Because of the drift away structure, the movie feels especially long in the second act, where we get hurtful scene after hurtful scene, and where Tom and Violet go their separate ways and start dating new people (the fact that Violet dates her smarmy professor feels realistic and yet also like a gut-punch to Tom). Some of the colorful characters that typical people Apatow productions feel more forced than usual, especially Violet’s collection of fellow psych grads played by the likes of Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Office). They don’t seem well grafted to the story. The happy ending, while welcomed, also feels unlikely given the proceeding drama, and its brash adherence to rom-com conventions is a tad disappointing.
Watching the dissolution of a relationship is something of a hard sell to mainstream audiences, though Vince Vaughn was able to get audiences to see his anti-romantic comedy, 2006’s The Break-Up, which admittedly had bigger names and a lighter touch on the material. The Five-Year Engagement has its share of comedy but it’s pretty sublimated to the heavy drama of watching two people in love fall out of love and battle resentment, self-destruction, and apathy. Segel and Blunt are so good together we’re willing to give them a wider berth to stretch their wings, sow their oats, and eventually find one another again, falling back in love after a flurry of obstacles, realizing that finding and connecting with your right person is an ongoing process and not some prize to be awarded. I found myself connecting with the movie in several ways, so much so that it made me fee dour for the rest of the evening (you may feel differently). The movie gets so many subtle things right about how relationships can sour, and yet it still manages to overstay its welcome and fill its roly-poly narrative with annoying characters. At least the movie has helped me discover my perfect woman: Alison Brie with a British accent. However, Emily Blunt will also do in a pinch.
Nate’s Grade: B
This lumpy, amiable shaggy dog story from the Duplass brothers is another earnest, warm-hearted comedy that marries their signature family dysfunction, mumblecore quirk to a larger, more mainstream setting. The Jeff (Jason Segel) in question is a 30-year-old slacker, who indeed lives at home, and awaits signs from the universe to guide his decision-making. Incidentally, his favorite movie we learn in a monologue set on a commode, is Signs. His older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish twit and embarks on a quest, with Jeff, to discover if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. The boys mother (Susan Sarandon) also has a nice storyline where an anonymous admirer is sending her flirty instant messages at work. Watching her face light up as she processes being wanted, it’s a thing of beauty. The characters are all flawed, and for some they may be too annoying to sit through. The film has been accused of being aimless, but I was engaged with its plot, which kept ping-ponging from one cause to another effect scenario. The movie is really more a drama with some comedic asides, mainly due to Jeff’s stoner zen and Pat’s aggressive dickishness. Greer has an outstanding moment where she lets her character’s deep reservoir of unhappiness come out in a blinding moment of honesty, and it rang true to my ears. In fact, the entire movie feels true enough. And then it appears destiny reveals its master plan with an ending that makes your heart warm all over, championing Jeff’s mantra of optimism and interconnectedness. The simple, good-natured, sweet little movie is worth checking out.
Nate’s Grade: B
You’d hardly expect the duo behind the raunchy, R-rated comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be the saviors of the Muppets, the famous puppet crew that has been languishing since their last big screen outing, 1999’s underwhelming Muppets in Space. Actor Jason Segel took a meeting with Disney after the Jim Henson Company did some puppet work for Sarah Marshall. He just point-blank asked them what their plans were after acquiring the Muppets. They had nothing. Segel and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek) put together a script and, lo and behold, the two self-described Muppet enthusiasts were given the opportunity to bring new life to the classic creatures. The Muppets is just about everything a Muppet lover could ask for and will be sure to entertain a new, younger generation of fans with the Muppets core brand of silliness and sweetness.
Set in the town of Anywhere, Gary (Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are planning a trip to Los Angeles. She’s hoping that he’ll finally propose to her in the scenic city of angels. There’s one catch: Gary’s brother Walter is coming along too. Oh, and Walter is a Muppet. Walter is obsessed with the Muppets ever since he watched their TV show in the 1980s. The show was an escape for a kid who felt… different. Walter is anxious to visit the Muppet studios, but the studio is in disarray and the Muppets have all gone their separate ways. Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), what else but an evil oil barren, plans to buy the Muppet studio and tear it down. Walter, Gary, and Mary must seek out the Muppets to rescue the old studio, and the only way to raise enough money in time is to put on one more rendition of The Muppet Show.
The Muppets is a refreshingly retro and charming vehicle that reminds you of all those warm and fuzzy feelings you had for this crew. It’s unironic, innocent, sweet and wholesome in a way that doesn’t make you gag but self-aware and silly enough to continuously be clever. When a big song-and-dance number breaks out in the town of Anywhere, once the stars have left the townspeople collapse in exhaustion. The gang decides it’ll be quicker to “travel by map,” so we cut to a map and see a red line charting onward. Muppets will regularly break down the fourth wall, with Fozzie commenting on a sudden explosion, “Wow, I didn’t think we had that in the budget.” Tex Richman actually verbally articulates “maniacal laugh.” The group gathering is sped up when the character 80s Robot suggests streamlining the rest in a montage. It’s not the kind of jokes that will make your sides ache with laughter but it pins a smile to your face from beginning to end, although Chris Cooper’s out-of-nowhere rap number left me in stitches. The very question of whether the Muppets can fit into our snarky, over-caffeinated, self-indulgent culture is addressed. Segel and Stoller have found a way to reenergize the Muppets for a new generation while staying true to what makes them special. My friend Eric Muller said watching The Muppets was like “getting an oil change for your soul.” He couldn’t be more right.
Watching the movie, I’m awash in feelings of nostalgia for Jim Henson’s finest creations. Segel is an unabashed Muppets fan and the movie is a celebration of the TV show that inspired him; the TV show is lionized for its inspiration to children. Because of that heavy helping of nostalgia, Muppet fans will feel like their spirits have been lifted. Those who had a mild curiosity about the Muppets will probably just scratch their head and call the film pleasant. The movie’s goal is rather huge: to make the Muppets relevant again. However, the vehicle for this goal, the old puttin’ on a show routine (Mickey Rooney has a cameo!), can feel slight. Also, the Disney product placement can be a bit annoying at times. Really, thanks for reminding us once again about how poor Cars 2 was thanks to a billboard advertisement. The movie isn’t in the same league as Henson’s troika of Muppet movies from the 1970/80s, but Segel and Stoller’s efforts should be a delight for Muppet fans waiting for the triumphant return of their favorite characters. You may find yourself unconsciously singing along to “Rainbow Connection” at the close of the film.
One aspect that is never spoken openly about is the fact that Gary and Walter are brothers, a human and a Muppet. I was expecting some throwaway reference to Walter being adopted, or maybe there could even be a funny sit-down where Walter is given the devastating familial news. We see a montage of the two brothers growing up, and while Gary shoots up like a weed Walter remains at the same height through the years. Does this mean that Muppets attain maturity at a faster rate? That Muppets are fully formed at birth? The mysteries of the universe are left undisturbed.
The music is cheerful and eminently hummable. Recent Muppet outings in the 1990s tried to keep the musical comedy formula going, but the result was some rather tin-eared musical numbers. I challenge anyone to be able to recite more than a few bars from Muppet Treasure Island (my favorite of the three), Muppet Christmas Carol, or Muppets from Space. To everyone’s good fortune, this newest Muppet incarnation has Bret McKenzie, one half of the daffy Flight of the Conchords, supervising the songs. You can instantly tell the musicianship has been raised considerably. The opening number “Sing a Happy Song” is a catchy and bouncy track, putting the audience in the right kind of upbeat mood. “Man or Muppet” is a ballad where Gary and Walter must confront their identity crises. It’s played completely straight, which makes the song even funnier as it builds into a crescendo of self-actualization: “If I’m a man that makes me a Muppet of a man.” There’s also a G-rated performance of Cee-Lo Green’s famous f-bomb kiss-off song, this time performed entirely by chickens. And the aforementioned rap by Chris Cooper is just astoundingly random, and not that bad either. The funny and cheerful music greatly adds to the overall enjoyment of the film.
Segel (I Love You, Man) is pretty much a big goofy human version of a Muppet. He’s a winning presence, much like Adams, who slides right back into her adorable Enchanted-flavored M.O. The two actors are a near perfect union of humans who capture the ineffable “Muppetness.” The multitude of celebrity cameos makes for some fun sightseeing (Jack Black has the most extended stay, not by choice). “Hobo Joe” might be my favorite of the cameos. But while the new characters are the initial focus, the emphasis on the film is rightly placed upon the classic Muppets. Kermit and Miss Piggy and the gang are back and the film’s entire plot is essentially their reunion. That means we get wonderful sequences rediscovering the Muppet team, like getting the gang together for a heist. These characters need one another; the bonds are undeniable. It’s actually touching when the Muppets speak candidly about how much they need one another. Fozzie has fallen on hard times especially. Kermit’s mournful song about losing touch with his old pals includes the line, “Was there more I could have said?/ Now they’re just pictures in my head.” While the film’s goal is to really just gather the Muppets back together, you’ll be glad that this goal is accomplished. You will be amazed how much you feel for felt.
The Muppets is a triumphant return to form and rekindles the fondness fans have felt for Jim Henson’s lovable creations. Thanks to Segel and Stoller, and the whimsical direction of Flight of the Conchords director James Bobin, the Muppets is a delightful, charming, and heartfelt family film that will give you a serious case of the warm fuzzies. The songs are catchy, the jokes are amusing, the pacing is swift, and the movie is fun from the start. As a Muppet fan, it left me with a smile pinned to my face the whole time. Like the big screen Simpsons movie, the universe of the Muppets is too big for 90 minutes, so naturally some favorites will be shortchanged when it comes to screen time. Since Disney paid half a billion dollars for the Muppets, I’d expect they plan on making use of the property. After this splendid relaunch, one can only hope that we won’t have to wait too long for the next Muppet movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The teaching profession sure is taking its share of beatings lately. After the critical documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, the loss of collective bargaining in several states, and the continual belief that teachers, despite having to take college courses and/or pass content tests routinely for license renewal, know nothing (full disclosure: I work in the teaching field), along comes the crude comedy, Bad Teacher. This is a comedy that wants a passing grade without showing its work.
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a figure that lives up to the promise of the film’s title. She drinks, smokes pot, sleeps, and all while in class. She looks down on her peers who actively attempt to be engaging to students, like the high-energy Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch). The school’s gym teacher (Jason Segel) keeps trying to chip away at Elizabeth’s surly, apathetic demeanor, but she continues to shoot him down. Elizabeth’s attention is focused squarely on the handsome substitute teacher, Mr. Delecorte (Justin Timberlake). Not only is he handsome, he’s from a wealthy family. The only thing standing in her gold digging way is Miss Squirrel, who also has an interest in courting the studly sub.
Let’s analyze the bounds of having an unlikable protagonist. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a generally disreputable lead character. An anti-hero usually has some interior good, or at least a relatable core. An anti-hero generally finds some small measure or redemption or change for the better, even if met through unorthodox means. An anti-hero doesn’t beg to be liked, but the trick is that the audience eventually does like this nontraditional lead. We do not have to agree with the values or behaviors of our lead. You do want to care and desire the character to reach some measure of happiness or whatever their goal is, perhaps an inkling of personal change. Examples include Bad Santa, Goodfellas, Jack Sparrow and Alex DeLarge, nearly every Clint Eastwood character, and take your pick from Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez’s oeuvre. A wholly unlikable protagonist is another concern. If you are so turned off by the protagonist you could not care less what befalls them. Whether they reach their goal, get away with their plot, or even risk life and limb, you do not care.
Bad Teacher suffers from having an unpleasant, obnoxious, selfish, greedy, churlish twit as its lead. Elizabeth is no dashing rogue, no charming cad, no subversive combatant against a corrupt system, nor is she is she a vulnerable individual lashing out to mask her pain or insecurity. All of those qualities would help make for a complicated but ultimately likeable hero or heroine. Instead, what Bad Teacher gives us is a woman that is so thoroughly unpleasant that you tune out early, severing all connection to a comedy. Bad move. Elizabeth’s one goal is to collect enough money through whatever means necessary to afford a boob job. And if she can bring other people down that annoy her, never mind if they are actually good people or teachers, then victory is all the sweeter. Bad Teacher‘s problem is that you don’t want Elizabeth to succeed, you want her to be punished. Elizabeth isn’t likable bad or truly nasty enough to be memorable. She’s the adult version of the popular girl that got away with everything. I never felt an ounce of pity for this person. There is no redemption for this woman, even if she starts treating a small handful of people mildly better. Acting 2% more like a human being does not qualify as progress. How did this woman get into teaching in the first place and for what purpose? There are a lot less strenuous ways to earn a paycheck.
I started feeling for Elizabeth’s rival, Miss Squirrel. Sure, she’s that hyperactive, goody-two-shoes, incredibly cheerful personality that can become grating in large doses, but she’s the only figure in the movie that displays a genuine interest in teaching. Everyone else just seems to be walking around. Elizabeth gets through months of teaching by showing inspirational teacher movies (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds – no School of Rock?) and sleeping off her hangovers at her desk. Miss Squirrel is a bit obsessive about her job but she cares, and in the film’s void of having a likeable center I gravitated to the spastic, alternative foil. I began rooting for Miss Squirrel to root out her rival’s lies, expose her bad/illegal behavior, and earn some vindication. It was she that I latched onto sympathetically. I rooted for the character that was served up for ridicule by the filmmakers. What does that say about the movie? It also helps that Punch (Dinner for Schmucks, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) gives the strongest comedic performance. In the realm of Bad Teacher, the good, competent, idealistic, passionate educators are the ones unjustly punished by film’s end.
Diaz (Knight and Day, The Green Hornet) can do the salty, spunky stuff in her sleep, and often in Bad Teacher she seems to be on autopilot, dispensing with the vulgarity without a true glint of madness or enjoyment. She just seems to be irritated by everyone, including the audience. Timberlake (The Social Network) is playing aloof but could have easily been replaced by any decent-looking comic actor. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) gives the film a much-needed jolt when he appears onscreen. Too bad his screen time amounts to about 10 minutes and ends in a rather trite fashion with his gym teacher miraculously taming the shrew. Several other comedic actors are wasted in one-bit parts including John Michael Higgins, Molly Shannon, Phyllis Smith (TV’s The Office), Matt Besser (TV’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade), David “Gruber” Allen (TV’s Freaks and Geeks), and Eric Stonestreet (Emmy-winner for Modern Family).
All of this would be marginally forgivable if the film were just funnier. The jokes are stuck in the same gear, mainly Elizabeth being rude or outrageous. It’s a recipe that gets repeated too often, only altering clarifying details. The school has a car wash and Elizabeth dresses provocatively, scrubbing dirty automobiles with a nubile and sudsy devotion not seen since 1980s heavy metal music videos, the heyday of car washing imagery (there sure were a lot of filthy cars in Reagan’s America). The men are agog. It’s the same joke on repeat. She drinks. She says something inappropriate at school. She gets high. People are agog. Bad Teacher is set up from a comedic front to be 100 minutes of reaction shots. It’s like director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) has to rely on a glut of reaction shots to sell the gags. Why are the kids so meaningless in the comedy? Surely you would think the screenwriters would want to have some students as main characters as well, if nothing else than as a gauge for their lead. Elizabeth does give some advice to a lovesick dorky kid, but her advice is more of a tough love. When Elizabeth discovers there’s a bonus for whoever’s class has the highest state testing scores, you’d think this would be a rally the troops moment. She actually starts teaching and utilizing her skills to get her class to learn, albeit for a personal financial incentive. You would assume then that this might be a changing point for the character, where she actually discovers that she may like teaching or that she does in fact have some aptitude for the profession. Nope. She just resorts to cheating and blackmailing the maker of the state test (Thomas Lennon). I would applaud this narrative pivot, avoiding the expected, if it led to a funnier series of jokes.
The teaching profession is ripe for an astute, mordant satire exploding the politics of the position. Bad Teacher is not that movie. It’s not even close to that movie. It is, however, a comedy that is weighed down by an abhorrent lead character. Diaz’s heroine is unlikable to the point that she turns you off from the whole movie. I suppose there’s a certain measure of bravery having a mainstream studio movie with such an unpleasant main character that doesn’t give a damn about redemption. In the end, watching an appalling egotist get theirs in the end can lead to some sliver of satisfaction, but when that same detestable character gets away with their dastardly deeds? You feel robbed. That’s Bad Teacher in a nutshell. It robs you of laughs, money, and time.
Nate’s Grade: C
A thoroughly genial comedy, I Love You, Man is an easily enjoyable flick that has fun upending romantic comedy tropes. The movie follows Peter (Paul Rudd) and his search for a “bromance,” a heterosexual male friendship that follows similar dating patterns seen in typical romantic comedies. Peter finds his match with Sydney (Jason Segel), a semi-sophisticated slob. Rudd has been a superb smartass in so many movies, which makes it all the more surprising at how incredible awkward he plays Peter. This man seems embarrassed with every breath he takes. It becomes moderately endearing to see him break out due to his male bonding with Sydney; the nice guy comes of age by becoming impolite and vulgar. The plot takes some predictable turns, like when Peter’s fiancé (Rashida Jones) is upset that her man wants to spend more time with his new pal than with her. Rudd is the most charming actor on the planet, which makes it somewhat wasteful to stick him as a straight man in a comedy. Segel takes great advantage of his character’s boorish behavior and is consistently funny. The supporting actors lift their underwritten roles, especially Jon Favreau as an altogether asshole. I Love You, Man banks on plenty of pleasant vibes and amusing performances. It may never be a gut-buster when it comes to laughs and it may not be fully lovable but it’s certainly easy to like.
Nate’s Grade: B
So much ink has been spilled on Jason Segel’s full-frontal nudity that you would think the public has never known that penises have appeared on film before. It seems that female nudity is used to titillate and male nudity is used for awkward laughs, and this is the case with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Segel stars in and wrote. His character Peter is humiliated by a breakup, even more so because the man is breaking down while in the buff. He even states at one point the naive belief that as long as he doesn’t put clothes on reality cannot hit. It’s funny and sad and he’s completely vulnerable, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall is much more than the story of one slightly doughy man and his penis. This is a story from producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) about heartache and mending and the struggle it takes to keep a relationship healthy. But it is also about a man and his penis.
Peter (Segel) is dating TV actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), star of the brilliantly reflexive title Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime. Peter provides the music for the TV show, which he laments is nothing more than “ominous tones.” Then one day she has some bad news. She’s breaking up with him (this is where Segel loses it, both emotionally and from a clothes perspective). Peter mopes and cries for days, goes out to clubs with his step-brother (Bill Hader), and tries to engage in meaningless sex but that too leads to crying and moping. Peter takes a vacation to Hawaii in order to forget his ex, but as chance would have it Sarah is already there with her new man, British rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Peter is stuck in the same hotel as his ex and her new lover. The hotel staff takes pity on Peter and they all seem to look out for him, setting him up in a $6,000 suite, involving him in hotel activities, and feeding him drinks. Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) works at the front desk and takes a special interest in Peter and his woes. She helps Peter get over Sarah and fin
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another hit from the Apatow brand. It features another leading man with an unorthodox physique and a healthy interest in geek culture. However, Peter doesn’t need to learn to be responsible, or outgoing, or to transition from boy to man. He’s actually fairly well adjusted and even has a job that suits his composing talents. His dilemma is heartbreak, a universal affliction if ever there was one. He’s a little frumpy and has a thing for puppets, but Peter is really a sweet guy who is working through the pain of a breakup. He was together with Sarah for over five years, so it feels strange when the characters keep harping on him to get over it in the span of a few weeks. He is awash in self-pity and wails so loudly that other guests complain about a woman crying in his room. He makes for a capable lead and his budding romance with Rachel allows him to heal. The romance is strongly felt and I was completely absorbed by wanting Peter and Rachel to have a happily ever after.
Segel is a charitable screenwriter. The could have easily become a vanity wish-fulfillment project, but instead he rounds out the main characters and builds a deep supporting cast that add delightful additions that enrich the narrative. I admire Segel’s decision making when it came to fleshing out his characters instead of writing them off as stock types. In an ordinary romantic comedy, the beautiful girl that dumps the lead is a bitch. It would have been extremely easy for Segel to demonize Sarah and keep her as an established antagonist, but instead he makes her feel real. She has real, solid reasons for her breakup with Peter, and she has several revealing moments that open her character up and humanize her. Aldous is another pristine example of Segel’s screenwriting skill. In an ordinary romantic comedy, the girl always dumps the nice guy for the douchebag, and Aldous starts in that territory. But a magical thing happens and as the film continues Aldous becomes very charming; he’s unpretentious and is the same transparent and genial man to everybody. He appreciates Peter’s music and gets him and Peter’s passions. Peter says at one point, “This would be so much easier if you weren’t so cool.” It would have been easy and even expected for Segel to cast both the ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend as evil cretins. Instead, he broadens and rounds out all the central characters to the point that they feel like real people and not just comedy types.
The movie is resolutely pleasant and amiable, lacking gut-busting laughs but offering plenty of cringe comedy. It’s not as outrageous as other Apatow comedies, or as good, but it is completely entertaining. There is one terrific sequence that stands out in my memory. It involves the two couples sitting at an awkward dinner. Then they comment on how awkward it is, then they comment on commenting how awkward it is. The dinner bathes in unease but then as it carries on you see the different tensions. Aldous and Peter hit it off discussing their dislike for a terrible horror script offered to Sarah that involved a killer cell phone (sounds like One Missed Call). They are genuinely bonding. Sarah hides her growing dissatisfaction with the decisions she’s made, but Rachel catches on. She kisses Peter long and hard and shoots Sarah a very knowing glance that all women know as “back off.” This dinner packs all of the different tensions of the movie into one well-written, expertly performed scene. The characters aren’t shouting their feelings point-blank but you can follow along to the conversations that are unsaid.
I love comedies that involve deep supporting casts, where a supporting player can enter at the right moment and deliver a perfect in-character addition. I was delighted at how wide Segel cast his net of characters and yet how well incorporated they are. There’s a newlywed couple (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer, Maria Thayler) that haven’t mastered the art of sexual intercourse. They’ve waited until marriage and know are wondering what all the fuss is about. Hearing McBrayer’s amped-up frustration is funny, but it’s even better when he solicits advice from Aldous on pleasing a woman. The tutorial between the two left me in stiches and made me like Aldous even more. I enjoyed spending time with all of these characters. Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd pop up in hilarious cameos. Rudd is a super stoned surf instructor and Hill is an obsessed Aldous Snow fan who creepily doesn’t abide touching boundaries. The supporting players never outstay their welcome and add great splashes of variety to the story.
Forgetting Sarah Marhsall continues the Apatow tradition of mixing raunch with sentimentality. There’s plenty of dirty humor but it’s the little touches that won me over. I loved the title of Sarah Marshall’s TV show, perfect references to movies like The Buena Vista Social Club, Rachel reflecting Peter’s romantic advances only to initiate the first kiss, the brilliant music video for Aldous Snow where he carries an earnest sign that reads, “Sodomize Intolerance,” the flashbacks to Peter and Sarah’s relationship, the helpful advice of Dwayne the bartender and his great knowledge of fish native to Hawaii, and a vocally competitive dual of sexual intercourse. This is a comedy that works because even they details have been looked after with care.
Segel easily conveys his character’s sweetness; the man can’t help but be sweet even in anger. Bell is given complexity with her role and nails bitchiness and tearful regret with the same skill she radiated on her defunct TV show, Veronica Mars. I never thought Kunis was capable of playing more than a shrill ditherhead thanks to her role on TV’s That 70s Show but she nicely handles the drama. She makes the romance more than believable but desirable. The actors all do a great job but it is Brand that steals every single scene he is in. His carefree demeanor and hysterical physical gyrations cast him early as one type of character, but his charisma rules the day and will win over audiences.
This is all familiar romantic ground covered by countless other movies. Boy loses girl, boy meets new girl, boy gets new girl, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall adds the Apatow touch. Another Freaks and Geeks alum writes another male-centric but hilarious comedy that deals with mature themes in untidy ways. The movie takes place in a world that resembles ours, where people are not cast in black and white, good or bad, victim and victimizer. Segel’s screenplay lets the audience empathize with a wealth of characters, and the humor is bittersweet but mostly on the sweet side. Any film that ends with a puppet musical about Dracula has to be seen as special.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Judd Apatow scores again. The man has a long history of creating memorable and heartwarming character-based comedy, and Knocked Up is another winner. This man creates thoroughly human and engaging stories that focus on our own foibles and triumphs. Apatow wrote and directed yet another poignant, clever, and uproarious comedy that has so much more below the surface and becomes universally appealing.
Alison (Katherine Heigl) is out on the town celebrating her promotion at the E! Entertainment Channel. She’s going to go from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It’s at this Los Angeles club where she meets Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a doughy Jewish slob of a man content to drift through life penniless and high. Their night of partying leads to a drunken one-night stand. Eight weeks later Alison is going through extreme nausea and can’t figure out what kind of flu bug she has, that is, until she remembers her one night out. She locates Ben and informs him that she is pregnant and, yes, he is the father. The two decide to try and make it work, forging a relationship as they plan on becoming parents. Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and their two kids are a potential glimpse into the future. Pete and Ben hit it off real well, to the point that Alison feels like her mate might not be the one for her even if his DNA is growing inside.
Naturally, this is a comedy where sex is at its very inception. The humor is ribald and playfully profane. I believe one of the greatest compliments you can give a comedy is when you cannot single out a single set piece or moment as an instant standout. Knocked Up is packed with many wildly funny scenes but it also has killer one-liners from start to finish and sharp pop-culture references (Ben on an exercise bike: “Matthew Fox? From Lost? You know what’s interesting about that guy? Absolutely nothing.”). Ben credits the flick Munich for the ability to get Jews laid. Ben watches the 2003 version of Cheaper by the Dozen with horror, saying that 12 kids is no laughing matter. The roommates are plotting a flesh-friendly website that notes the time and location of celebrity nudity in films. This commercial venture plays right into the frat house lifestyle for this band of stoners that bet their friend not to shave his beard for a year for free rent.
Knocked Up is bawdy and hilarious, sure, but it’s also far more realistic and a lot more emotionally involving than any romantic comedy Hollywood has offered in years. Apatow seems to have mined his personal parental experiences for a lot of hard-earned truths. The film is most natural when it showcases the male perspective of prolonged adolescence and an unplanned pregnancy, but Knocked Up also has a mature and thoughtful view on marriage and feminism. We see the array of personal challenges a woman would go through but the movie still manage to slip in humor amidst the uncertainty. There’s a montage looking for the right gynecologist. The gauntlet of sexual positions is explored while pregnant, with Ben afraid that his child’s first impression will be daddy’s manhood constantly poking it. When Alison and Debbie go shopping for pregnancy tests we see them fill their cart with every kind of tests, and then test after test comes back positive. “Hey this one has a smiley face,” says Debbie, before realizing, “Oh, that’s not a good thing.” Debbie then tests the reliability of the tests herself and for a brief moment panics when she thinks she may be pregnant for a third time. She then calms down and says, sarcasm-free, “Whoa, that would have sucked.” The inclusion of Debbie and Pete offers a whole other relationship viewpoint, something that Alison and Ben can learn from. She’s paranoid and blunt, and he’s apathetic and passive-aggressive, and Alison is terrified that she and Ben are doomed to a similar fate. The insights into marriage and secrecy are realistic and give the film so much more meat to its bones. This isn’t just a movie about what to do with an unplanned pregnancy; it’s fully about male-female dynamics and what it takes to make a family work.
In the end, you really care about these characters because Knocked Up is a raunch-fest that has a sweet gooey center of sentiment. Ben is pushed into adulthood by this unexpected development and, as they say, puts away childish things after a lot of trial and error. There’s an undercurrent of emotional vexation under most of the comedy, like when Pete confesses that he doesn’t know if he can accept love, and Ben cannot pity this because he sees his love being rejected. Alison doesn’t quite have as big of an arc, but she never gets callously cast to the side and forgotten. She too has a lot of growing up to do very quickly, and when both characters welcome their newborn into this world it’s rather moving and exciting to experience it alongside them. Ben’s confesses to his child that not putting a condom on was the best decision he ever made. In any other movie this ending conversation might seem trite or hokey, but Apatow has paid so close attention to his characters that the emotional payoff is earned and rewarding.
Another hallmark of an Apatow production is how perfect the cast seems with one another. There’s a real camaraderie with the actors and it produces natural onscreen chemistry and amusing improvisation. Rogen and Rudd, teaming again after 40-Year Old Virgin, can riff off one another for a whole movie and I would gladly pay to watch. I loved when the two boys go to Vegas, take mushrooms, see Cirque Solei, and then freak out in their hotel room (“There are five different kinds of chairs in this room”). I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and I’m sure the crux of this moment was born from the freestyle exchange between the actors. Ben’s roommates have a believable kinship to them as a collection of amicable oddballs and stoners. Mann and Heigl also seem believable as sisters, much more so than would Anne Hathaway, who was originally cast as Alison but left due to creative differences (I guess the difference was she didn’t wish to be apart of a good movie). The Knocked Up cast work together like a truly wonderful team that appreciates the material and each other.
Rogen is destined for stardom after this movie. He can make anything funny with exceptional comic timing and line delivery that never feels forced. Hearing his unique giggle at the end of jokes, you can sense that this sweet and amiable guy would crack himself up and for good reason. Rogen was great in 40-Year Old Virgin and is even better in a bigger dose. Heigl gets to play more familiar notes, from stressing that work will discover her little bun in the oven to the expected birthing scream session. She has a good rapport with Rogen and brings a lot of warmth to her role. Rudd is so effortlessly charming and easy going. Mann plays a perfect bitch, but she also has a nice scene where she explodes at the realization that her days of youth are finally behind her. Special mention must go out to Kristen Wiig. She steals every scene she’s in as an E! Channel employee that makes plenty off-the-cuff passive insults against Alison during two staffer meetings.
I’ve read online that several leftist bloggers are angry and flabbergasted that Alison does not get an abortion. They argue Ben is a fat and unappealing slob, she’s an attractive career woman, and not having an abortion in this situation is, as one put it, “stupid.” Excuse me, but this may be the first mainstream comedy that actually discusses the prospects of an abortion (or as one character deems it, a “smashortion,” as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his roommate). I also take umbrage to anyone saying 1) choosing not to have an abortion is a bad decision, and 2) that these critics would be so daft to miss the point that if Alison had an abortion there would be NO MOVIE.
Knocked Up is a very funny and very wonderful sex comedy for adults, but it also happens to be an endearing and heartfelt romance. The cast is excellent, the comedy rarely misses a beat, and Apatow is a instant classic hitmaker. Just like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Apatow has explored a deeply personal topic for all the comedy and pathos he could wring from the material. Knocked Up is nothing short of a knockout. I hope you’re happy with your decision Anne Hathaway. I know I am.
Nate’s Grade: A