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Win Win (2011)

After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Imagine a world where people could only tell the truth. Sounds scarier than anything in horror movies today.

Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”

Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.

The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.

It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.

The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.

Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Grinch (2000)

Ron Howard brings to the screen a lively but languid and ultimately empty revision of Dr. Seuss’ magical tale of a green haired grouch with an ill temper for yule tidings. There’s plenty of noise and effects but none of the magic can be sustained.

The most difficult problem with making a feature film out of Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas is that it’s 20 minutes of source material. This then requires a lot of padding, and boy does Howard pad like none other. With the aid of the screenwriters of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (who I’ve now lost all respect for) they go into a psychoanalysis of why the Grinch acts how he does. As it seems with every serial killer movie the Grinch was tormented as a child for being a little green, hairy brussel sprout. What child wouldn’t make fun of a kid that was green? This distaste for the holidays turns the Grinch into a hermit who enjoys his days making prank phone calls down to the city of Who-ville and wallowing in despair. Cindy Lou-Who sees a nice but misunderstood person underneath all that fur and thus embarks on a quest to show the citizens of Who-ville that the Grinch isn’t so bad. Mixed results ensue.

Howard’s direction is very child-like but empty after an initial glow. One wonders what Tim Burton could have concocted with the same material. The art direction looks like a candy-coated Oz instead of the whimsical imagination of Dr. Seuss. The central message of The Grinch is that Christmas doesn’t come from a box or a store but the message is entirely hypocritical when you have a bazillion product deals for the film. The whole “lost view of Christmas” is a very lame moral anyway.

Jim Carrey, on the other hand, puts this movie on his green back and nearly saves it himself. But the immense weight overtakes him in the end. Carrey gives a flat-out slapstick comedic performance like none other. If you had any doubt in Carrey’s ability to contort himself for laughter all doubts will be quelled. While Carrey is marvelous as the central villain/hero (?) the majority of time is spent with the dog-nosed Whos. These people are lifeless and uninteresting. It’s a breath of relief every time we return back to Carrey. The Who’s are populated with a Martha Stewart like former crush of the Grinch’s (Christine Baranski), the mother who strives to be like Martha May-Who and has no other characterization (Molly Shannon), and the dowdy mayor of Who-ville (Jeffrey Tambor). No one can survive unclean.

Without Carrey this family film would be without merit. The writing throws a few bones toward the adult audience but relies too much on Carrey being goofy – which he is good at. Anthony Hopkins as a grandfatherly narrator works only in making you miss Boris Karloff even more. In short, watch the Chuck Jones special instead. This Christmas gift is a lump of coal disguised as candy.

Nate’s Grade: C

Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)

The directorial debut from Scream scribe Kevin Williamson is in a dire identity crisis no marketers would want to handle. Is it trying to be a teen drama? Is it trying to be a thriller? Is it trying to be a comedy? Whatever it’s trying to be it most certainly isn’t entertaining. Maybe they should’ve tried that first.

Williamson, the man who made self reflective pop-culture references a career and the puppeteer over Dawson’s Creek, takes a stab at directing his own movie he wrote embittered over an unpleasant English teacher of his long ago. The normal sharp writing and wit found in most of Williamson’s trademark slash-and-dash-and-instant-cash pictures are completely absent in this outing and we are replaced with dull cardboard characters, predictable plotting, and poor direction.

The movie is bubbling over to the brim with every high school cliche you can think of. The characters aren’t even people, or even grossly overdone cartoons, they’re basically cut-outs of real people. It’s like every person phoned in a performance and had cut-outs stand in their places. Let’s see there’s the good girl hero who’s falsely accused (Katie Holmes), the good girl’s rival who kisses up to teacher (Liz Stauber), the bad boy without a cause that the good girl hates but just can’t help herself to fall in love with later (Barry Watson), and the good girl’s best friend who serves for the purpose of comic foil (Marisa Coughlan). Have we got everything covered? Okay, greenlight it!

One of the pleasant things in Tingle is Helen Mirren’s wonderful over-the-top performance as the misanthropic title villain. She shows how she can out-act anyone that dares vie for her creed. Though for the latter part of the movie she’s mainly reduced to clawing and hissing.

This effort comes off as a juvenile fantasy to exact revenge upon all those in the educational system that have ever done wrong. Notice that this same idea was used in last winter’s The Faculty to much better results. Ultimately when it comes down to, Teaching Mrs. Tingle has a few funny parts, mostly revolving around The Exorcist in some way, and a lot of predictably dull parts. Williamson doesn’t have the visual prowess to keep a career as a director, and the entire horror world has moved on from the post-irony movement he himself forged. While I do think there is a place for this man’s talent, I hope he sticks behind a typewriter more than a camera. Now what did we learn class?

Nate’s Grade: C

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