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We’re the Millers (2013)

were-the-millers-posterI finally caught one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, and while fitfully entertaining, mostly in its second half, I have to wonder what made this film the hit it was, despite lack of clear comedy competition. The setup involves four people (Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter) posing as a model nuclear family to smuggle drugs into the United States. You’d think the difficulty would be getting back into this country, but no, it’s all about keeping their cover, especially when a vacationing DEA agent (Nick Offerman) pals around. The flimsy setup gets much better in the second half as the false family dynamics and roles are skewered, particularly an educational kissing session between siblings and mother. I can also see the markings of why audiences gravitated to this otherwise so-so comedy. It offers each member to contribute meaningfully, it gives each a lesson and a triumph, and they form a likable bond. So while the joke payoffs may whiff, there’s a character payoff to pick up the slack. Plus there’s an Aniston stripping sequence to showcase the fitness of the forty-something actress. The jokes settle for easy vulgarity a bit too often but every now and then the film surprises. Sudeikis is slyly enjoyable channeling a young smarmy smartass Chevy Chase, and Offerman is hilarious, enough to make you wish the movie followed his family. We’re the Millers reminds me of the 90s works of the Farrelly Brothers, a mixture of gross-out gags, slapstick, uninspired villains, and a dash of sentiment. We’re the Millers is an acceptable comedy, not a great one, but after its quarter billion dollar box-office riches, get ready to meet the Millers all over again.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Just Go With It (2011)

Loosely based off the 1969 film Cactus Flower, the title of the latest Adam Sandler comedy feels like a transparent plea from the screenwriters and Sandler. He plays a womanizing plastic surgeon that has bedded many women under the false pretenses of being married to horrible women. Now he’s in a dilly of a pickle because he has to convince the new hottie in his life (Brooklyn Decker, former swimsuit model, clearly chosen for her acting “talents”) that he is getting a divorce from his fake wife, played by his assistant (Jennifer Aniston). Her real-life kids become Sandler’s fake kids, and the whole lot goes along for a Hawaiian vacation. At various points characters will talk about how confusing the lies are becoming. I wish. Just Go with It doesn’t have the ambition to embrace its farcical premise, instead settling on rom-com gooeyness even though most of the characters are lying jerks. Sandler’s been tricking women into sleeping with him for decades, but we’re supposed to view him as a good guy? What’s the point of throwing in Nicole Kidman, of all people, as Aniston’s college nemesis if the film doesn’t do anything with the different pretenses? Things don’t get too complicated because the characters really only assume one identity and one story, blunting escalating comic mishap. While Sandler and Aniston have a surprisingly natural chemistry together, and some of the jokes are decent in conception, Just Go With It is a wearisome rom-com weighed down with false sentiment and kicks to the groin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Horrible Bosses (2011)

The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Bounty Hunter (2010)

When a woman runs out of a trunk and is chased down by a man who then tackles her and drags her back to said trunk, how would you react? Horror, right? This scenario is the opening minute of The Bounty Hunter, an abhorrent romantic comedy that fails in every regard. The opening scene is supposed to be funny because it’s two stars and we learn, via onscreen text, that the guy and gal are formerly married. Somehow this knowledge makes the scene… funny? Because in real life no spurned ex-spouses inflict punishment on their former halves. This disastrous and bizarre opening clued me in that The Bounty Hunter was going to be one hell of a slog to sit through. It made me want to put a bounty on the filmmakers who made this mess possible.

Milo (Gerard Butler) is an ex-cop who currently pays the bills as a bounty hunter. Nicole (Jennifer Aniston) is an investigative reporter looking into a series of suicides that might not be what they seem. She’s also due in court for hitting a police horse with her car (the reveal of her actual crime is intended to be a payoff; you?re welcome for having it spoiled). Nicole gets too close to a crime conspiracy that has connections inside the New York City police force, so goons chase her down to kill her. Naturally, she misses her court date and becomes a wanted fugitive, which brings her ex back into the picture. Milo is elated that he gets to drag his ex-wife to jail and get paid for doing so. Along the way, the couple improbably rekindles their old romance while being chased by hordes of goons with guns.

First off, The Bounty Hunter is one of the more unpleasant, tone-deaf comedies I’ve seen in years. It assumes if two people, with obviously zero chemistry, will bicker long enough in shrill voices, eventually comedy will emerge. This is the comedic equivalent of the faulty scientific theory of Spontaneous Generation. The comedy just isn’t coming. I never laughed once during the entire painful 115 minutes. I failed to crack even a smile. I sat dumbfounded, looking back and forth between the screen and my wife’s reaction, to gauge if I was truly missing something, mainly the “comedy” part. These people are unlikable and not once do you ever believe that they are capable of even expressing a realistic human emotion. These are people that shouldn’t even exist in a crummy romantic comedy. These are the background players in a crummy romantic comedy, given starring roles and proving with every exhalation why they should have remained Angry Dinner Couple #2. Milo is a jackass who’s full of himself and Nicole is whiny and annoying and they both have massive egos. Butler and Aniston have various acting abilities, though both seem to be in rapid decline, but their hammy acting is trying to overcompensate for the film’s numerous shortcomings. They’re playing broadly, but now they’re just broad, unlikable idiots rather than unlikable idiots. The only way anybody could like these characters is imagining that they’re completely different people.

The premise itself routinely destroys any plausible sense of believability. Milo chases down his ex-wife in scene after scene, taunting her, spitefully laughing at her misfortune, harassing and threatening her. At NO POINT WHATSOEVER in the entire movie does a single person look at this ongoing relationship and cry foul. Nobody calls the police, nobody intervenes, nobody notices what explicitly looks like a woman being stalked and kidnapped by a creep. At no point does Milo flash a badge to at least provide some context or explain his actions, so scene after scene looks like a blatant kidnapping with the female captive kicking and screaming. There is nothing wacky or amusing in watching a world of apathetic rom-com extras ignoring what is obviously somebody in trouble. The fact that Milo can get away with this behavior in a gala of public venues only makes the movie, and every living being within it, infinitely dumber.

The very nature of the comedy oddly results in plenty of cruel slapstick. Nicole has an officemate, Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), who is smitten with her after a drunken bout of making out. He follows her to Atlantic City and eventually gets hijacked by the goons after Milo. There are several astonishing scenes that just involve the goons torturing Stewart. They hit him in the leg with a golf club, they inject a horse tranquilizer into his neck, and all of this is somehow supposed to be funny. It’s really just mean and rather distasteful. The fact that The Bounty Hunter thinks that this situation is a comedy goldmine speaks volumes to me. Watching a dweeby character repeatedly get injured is not funny on its face, and it’s even less funny when the film just lets it keep happening without comment. Stewart doesn’t deserve his pain and neither does the unfortunate audience watching this garbage.

Director Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold) and screenwriter Sarah Thorp (Twisted) wouldn’t know comedy if it chained them to a car door. Tennant’s idea of comedy is to stretch the comedy, play things as big and as long as possible. There are plenty of moments that have a rather slipshod comedic setup (oh look, they’re chasing a guy on a golf course in a golf cart! This has to end well right?), and then the movie just keeps going and going, long after what was designed to be funny crashed, burned, and had its ashes scattered at sea. His visual style also leans on bright pastel colors that heighten the cartoonish atmosphere. The comic set-ups are along the lines of? Milo chains Nicole to bed. She crawls over him to reach for gun. Sexual dialogue about a “gun.” Milo chases a guy on stilts. Stilts! How could you resist that? And then at one point Nicole tries to make a break for it in a rickshaw. I’m already not laughing. And then the movie wants to be an action caper and lo does it fail miserably at this as well. Nicole is being chased by a bevy of goons because she knows too much. Milo is also being chased by his own bevy of goons that want to collect on his gambling debts. Then there’s a mutual friend/cop who may be dirty or might not be, but it’s just way too many extraneous characters chasing after the likes of Milo and Nicole.

Thorp lacks an ear for dialogue. She seems to have some basic grasp on the ingredients of funny, but she can’t make them come together and work. Every line alternates between being clumsy, obvious, or clumsily obvious. We’re supposed to be amused by Milo and Nicole’s banter. It’s grating, like you’re stuck in someone else’s miserable family vacation. There’s a moment in the end where Milo has distracted the bad guys and come to save his ex-wife, and then instead of bolting they sit and glumly talk about the failed state of their relationship. Could that not have waited until you were safe? The tone is decidedly uneven and the second half of the film feels like an eternity. The comedy completely gets smothered in the last half because now the movie wants to be taken seriously and we’re supposed to care about the characters getting back together, as if their reconciliation was ever in doubt. Thorp’s screenplay feels like a pastiche of 1000 different movies. There isn’t an original thought anywhere inside this movie. Even worse, there isn’t anything funny. This is the kind of movie that you say, “Well, it had its moments,” except The Bounty Hunter doesn’t even have those “moments.”

The Bounty Hunter is a colossal miscalculation on the part of everyone involved. It is neither funny nor romantic in any sense, it’s weirdly cruel and very casual about it, and the entire movie exists in some contrived, sketchy realm of reality that only exists in the furthest reaches of the rom-com universe. I find it funny (much funnier than anything in this movie) that Butler and Aniston were rumored to be dating after filming this movie. They have no screen chemistry whatsoever, though they can argue in annoying tones effectively. As the film neared its merciful end, I thought about calling somebody to round up those responsible for such an egregious waste of time and money. It’s not just that The Bounty Hunter is a bad movie; it’s a woefully clumsy and excruciating movie even considering the depths of romantic comedies. And if anybody sat through The Ugly Truth, or Over Her Dead Body, or anything with Freddie Prinze Jr. in it, then you know exactly how alarming that statement is.

Nate’s Grade: D

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

Based upon the best-selling nonfiction book, the movie follows the interconnected lives of a cadre of characters trying to get lucky in love. As with any ensemble piece, some storylines are better than others, notably Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO’s Big Love) as a naïve and hapless gal confused by the ever-changing rules and rituals of contemporary courtship. Her scenes with Justin Long, as her dating coach, are the movie’s high-point. The two actors have a light, charming chemistry and their scenes get at the heart of the male/female dating dysfunctionality without feeling trite. But in between, you get a lot of hackneyed yakking about the stereotypical differences between men and women, how dumb men are, how crazy women can be, etc. It’s all been covered to death by other romantic comedies to the point that it feels like common knowledge, which makes it tiring to sit through. Some of the drama feels overly manufactured, like Jennifer Aniston pushing to get married because she her little sister got engaged, there are characters that are just annoying people, like Kevin Connolly continuing to nip at the heels of Scarlett Johansson for some scraps, and Some of the material is weirdly dated, like Drew Barrymore talking about being “Myspace-ed” by a prospective date (Hello, it’s all Facebook all the time now). Naturally, it’s all rather predictable as well, however, this is not the fun date movie it may seem. It hits some rough dramatic patches, like the pains of infidelity, losing trust in a spouse, manipulating people, and occasionally there will be a moment that comes across as genuine and heartfelt, like when Ben Affleck wins over Aniston simply by being thoughtful and doing the dishes. It’s in these sporadic moments that He’s Just Not That Into You feels like it’s tapped something a little deeper and more meaningful than scraping the barrel of romantic comedy clichés.

Nate?s Grade: C+

Marley & Me (2008)

The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.

So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.

Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.

The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.

Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Break-Up (2006)

Real-life couples have a rocky track record when they star together. Sure, for every Mr. and Mrs. Smith there’s also a Proof of Life, Vanilla Sky, or, God help us, a Gigli. The trouble is that what captures the fancies of two actors rarely translates to the big screen. Was anyone more the wiser why Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got together on the set of Gigli? Now here comes The Break-Up, an anti-romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. They’ve been playing a coy game with the media about whether they’ve been dating since the movie wrapped a year ago. Audiences will have difficulty seeing whatever magic the two felt, because The Break-Up isn’t romantic in any sense of the word.

Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) meet cute at a Chicago Cubs game and begin a two-year relationship. Then one evening, after a terribly uncomfortable dinner between their folks, both decide to call off their romantic entanglement. Neither is willing to leave the condo they co-own, so each engages in a battle to convince the other to leave. Gary wardens off the living room as his space. Fine, Brooke invites her brother’s glee-club to perform in her area. He gets the pool table they had talked about waiting to purchase. She throws his clothes into the hall listening to Alanis Morissette. She invites dates over. He has a night of strip poker with actual strippers. At the same time, Brooke is questioning whether she can save their relationship and work things out.

Audiences expecting a cheeky romantic comedy will be soundly disappointed. The Universal marketing weasels have lied to you! After the 30-minute mark, The Break-Up doesn’t have much comedy, let alone romance. This is really more of a gutsy mainstream drama that prefers to exist in a world similar to ours where heartbreak and yearning are often unresolved. This is a respectably good, if flawed, relationship drama that doesn’t pull its punches. The Break-Up has a very Chasing Amy air to it; both films present atypical Hollywood relationships and both seem to sense a happy ending would just be insulting. Actually, in another similarity, both The Break-Up and Chasing Amy have their comedy completely dissolve by film’s end.

The biggest flaw The Break-Up has is that we don?t generally care if Brooke and Gary get back together. The only good times of yesterday we see are via photographs that are shown during the opening credits. Beyond this brief photo collage, we?re basically starting at the end of their union. There’s a fair amount of gender stereotypes to go along with the characters and their behaviors (men are from Mars, women from Venus?), though it didn’t bother me as much as it would have in a typical romantic comedy. Brooke is a bit of a nag but an altogether good person who just goes about her reconciliation plans in the wrong manner (push him away to have him come back, make him jealous, the famous double-speak). Gary, on the other hand, is pretty much a jerk. The tagline for The Break-Up says, “Pick a side,” but the movie already picks for us. Gary is a lazy, egotistical, unappreciative, selfish jackass and you’re really puzzled why Brooke would keep trying to resuscitate their relationship. Again, part of this is because The Break-Up doesn’t ever show us a moment of these two crazy kids in love. We really have no interest in seeing these unhappy people be unhappy with each other for a longer period of time.

The Break-Up has a lot of intentionally pained awkwardness to it, partly because good portions of the movie is about voyeuristically watching an unhappy couple argue. The Break-Up‘s relatability, something nearly unheard of in the overly saccharine, simplistic world of romantic comedies, is a double-edged sword. Couples may wince and pass knowing looks, thinking, “We’ve had that fight. I too crossed the line like that. I too went about that the wrong way.” Audiences will see pieces of themselves onscreen, but do mainstream audiences really want to see pieces of themselves screaming at each other for a whole movie? I doubt it. I think displeased moviegoers are going to tell their friends to stay away in droves, unless they’re avid tabloid followers.

The Break-Up (2006)

Vaughn continues his motor mouth lout shtick, though it’s somewhat impressive that he willingly puts himself in such an unflattering light. He’s also a bit puffy in the movie. Aniston is an actress I haven’t been overly enthusiastic with, to say the least, but she’s a winning personality even if she’s replaceable. She seems to be in a frazzled rut. Despite whatever real-life passion the filming ignited, the leads have little chemistry together onscreen. This would be a bigger concern if the film was starting at the end of their relationship, though. The supporting cast of Vaughn’s friends and co-workers is rich with talent. A late scene between Vaughn and Favreau about hiring a hitman to take out Brooke’s supposed new beaux is solid gold. The wonderful John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development), as Brooke’s socially inept brother, provides the biggest laughs. And for those wondering what ever happened to Ralphie from A Christmas Story, here he is all growed up and emasculated by Joey Lauren Adams.

Director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) has a good feel for human comedy and interesting shot selections. He normally keeps his movies brisk and airy. The dialogue is above average and feels naturalistic. I am surprised that I have heard so little about Aniston’s brief nude scene. Then again, I don?t watch that recycled Entertainment Tonight TV vomit. It’s kind of neat to note that there was a 1998 movie itself called The Break Up; they just didn’t have the hyphen. Remember that hyphen in a few months when you’re at your local video store [Author’s note: R.I.P. video stores].

I give Vaughn and the filmmakers credit for trying something challenging and attempting to have a mainstream audience go along. The Break-Up is uncomfortable in how painfully awkward and relatable it is. Whether audiences want to flock to a movie about unhappy people who don’t belong together is a good question. This isn’t as nasty a comedy as The War of the Roses; no, this film is kind of stuck in a thematic middle ground of a gutsy, if flawed, relationship drama. Those expecting promises of comedy and romance might feel cheated. The Break-Up is like a real-life experience: it’s somewhat painful, somewhat expected, and perhaps better once it’s finally over.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Derailed (2005)

The Chicago train company featured in Derailed is regretting their involvement. It seems that this year a Metro train did in fact derail and a number of people died and scores more were injured. I suppose this would be akin to Enron being featured in a movie called Big Fat Lying Energy Thieves. Then again, maybe one of the company’s execs took a look at the script.

Charles (Clive Owen) is an ad ex who feels crushed by his life. His marriage is deteriorating, his adolescent daughter has a severe case of diabetes and is in need of a new kidney, and he’s been booted from a project at work. All he needs now is the film favorite car to drive in front of him and splash water. On a train ride to work, he’s helped by Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), a dark beauty Charles can’t seem to resist. They share pictures of their kids, accounts of their spouses, and their saliva with some open-mouthed kissing. Both are conflicted about following through with an affair, but finally decide to act. They get a room at a motel, roll around on the bed, but are interrupted by a French intruder named Laroce (Vincent Cassel). He robs them, beats Charles into submission, and rapes Lucinda. She doesn’t want to go the cops and just wants the nightmare to end. If her husband ever finds out about the almost-affair she’ll never see her kid again. Charles adjusts but is now getting threatening phone calls, asking for increasingly large sums of money or else his wife will know the truth.

This is your prototypical thriller that survives due to the stupidity of its characters. Only in your rote thriller would characters ever dare to go about their infidelity in a seedy motel, leave the door unlocked, and then after being beaten, robbed, and raped, not go to the police. Only in your by-the-book thriller would the assailant return to implausibly blackmail our leads for money under the threat of exposing their affair. Only in your standard thriller would a character actually say, “It’s all over now. We’re safe. Everything’s fine,” without a hint of irony. It’s like these people had never seen a movie before. The villains are not exempt either. They repeat their scam at the exact same locations in the exact same manner, meaning anyone with a decent memory could trip up this criminal masterwork. (Spoilers follow) Like the preposterous Flightplan, this elaborate scheme to make money hinges on some pretty big assumptions: 1) that Charles will never go to the police at any turn, even when the other option involves draining $100,000 out of his own kid’s kidney fund, and 2) that Charles would never drop by Lucinda’s work and talk to anyone who remotely knew her. I just thought of another one: 3) that Charles would never question why they’re only blackmailing him for money when Lucinda has a higher paying job and much more at stake to lose (end spoilers). Derailed is too true of a title when it comes to the movie’s process of logic. Then again, thrillers typically spit in the face of logic and this is no different.

Derailed would like to strike the same vein that Fatal Attraction hit so well; in fact, there’s a scene in the middle that’s a direct rip-off where Charles rushes home to find his wife chatting with his antagonist. The first half-hour of Derailed is well done and pretty interesting, but the film really goes off the tracks when the blackmail plot starts mounting ridiculous, implausible plot turns. This film would have been so much better as a straightforward drama than a dime-a-dozen thriller. As a drama we’d witness Charles wrestle with guilt, the decision of whether not to tell his wife, and the moral quandary of wondering if their attack was somehow justified as a punishment (no, rape is NEVER justified). It could be a really strong character study. Derailed goes the far more conventional route and brings in an outside force of antagonism and some foreseeable twists.

Clive Owen is wasted in a role that mostly requires that he get his ass handed to him. He’s a fantastic actor, a natural badass, and he just smolders with charisma, menace, and intensity. He was one of the highlights of a stellar cast in Sin City and was my top candidate for the new James Bond. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see him beaten and bullied for almost the entire duration of the movie. For crying out loud, even a cop bullies him into paying a hooker he had nothing to do with. It reminds me of 2002’s Enough where Jennifer Lopez was beaten and antagonized for so long that the audience was practically feasting for blood. This might explain Derailed‘s tacked-on epilogue. Owen still gives a credible performance even though his accent slips from time to time.

Despite what the marketing folks may have you believe, Jennifer Aniston is really a minor character in the film. I’m not that particularly taken with Aniston as an actress; I thought 2002’s The Good Girl could have been The Great Girl, or at least The Better Girl with a stronger lead. In Derailed you can tell she’s playing against type because her hair is darker. Aniston is effective at turns in Derailed, but really “at turns” is all she’s given to work with. This is Clive Owen’s movie.

Casell (Ocean’s Twelve) really relishes his creepy villain and can make your hair stand on edge. Xzibit pimps no rides but also does little to pimp his role, becoming nothing more than a gruff thug. Fellow rapper RZA (is it possible to spell that wrong?), in comparison, imbues Winston with a stronger personality than the meager role deserved. It’s also very convenient for a bourgeoisie white male to have a black mail room friend (with a criminal record, of course Hollywood) to fall back on when trouble strikes. Fans of TV’s Alias will recognize Owen’s wife played by Melissa George and instantly hate her. I should know, I watched Derailed with an Alias fan and she still hasn’t forgiven George for coming between Sydney and Vaughn.

It’s not that Derailed is particularly terrible, it’s just rather ordinary, predictable, and at turns lurid and trashy. Owen is wasted as a wimpy man with a guilty conscience that gets beaten and bullied for ¾ of a movie. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon at the movies and fans of the thriller genre should be relatively satisfied. Derailed isn’t a movie you’ll hate yourself in the morning over seeing, but then again it’s nothing too special. You could probably turn on TV right now and catch 3 or 4 thrillers with the same plot and similar twists. You could also watch Friends. Just go watch TV instead of seeing Derailed. Something’s got to be on. In a couple years it’ll be Derailed.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Good Girl (2002)

Jennifer Aniston, a Friends favorite, has been getting attention for her less than attractive turn in adultery with The Good Girl. However, the movie’s biggest flaw is Aniston herself. The Good Girl can try and make her look as disheveled as they can, and they can try and make her wear as much unflattering baggy clothing as possible, but in the end we’re still watching Mrs. Brad Pitt groan about the purgatory that is Middle America. An actress of better caliber could likely pull off the rub, but alas, Aniston is not quite that actress yet.

Aniston narrates the disenchantment as Justine with her dead-end job working at a Wal-Mart-esque chain store and her dead-end marriage to perennially stoned house painter Phil (John C. Reilly). She longs for an escape and a change of pace from a grind where there appears none. Then one day a new teenage co-worker named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into her life and seems to represent the danger and vitality Justine has felt missing in her life for so long. Her affections are at first stalled in apprehension, but soon Holden and Justine are ducking into motels and finding excuses to get busy in the stock room. But soon enough the honeymoon ends. Justine learns more distressing items about the emotionally dependent and unstable clerk, like his real name is Tom (“Tom is my slave name” he tells her). What once seemed exciting is now becoming more perilous to cover up.

The Good Girl then descends into blacker territory with some unexpected turns, but also some more unbelievable moments. When confronted by Phil’s best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) about her infidelity she is given a rather unpleasant ultimatum that she gives in too way too easily. The longer the affair and messy cover up continues the more audience loyalties shift toward the victim, Phil. He admits he isn’t the smartest man or the best husband, but his feelings are authentic for his wife. And the more the audience views him the more they see that he truly does love Justine.

And again, we have to come black to that road block of a lead. A more accomplished actress could pull off this bittersweet role with aplomb and believability. A better actress could have slowed down the audience shift in loyalty away from her unfaithful protagonist. The supporting cast of The Good Girl has a lot more bite to them. Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) now seems to be an expert in the disturbed youth. Reilly starts off as a loaf but transforms into a sympathetic character that has his own touching moments of unannounced affection to Justine. Nelson gives the film some of its funniest moments along with the lethally deadpanned Zooey Deschanel. The lone stereotype in the bunch is played by Mike White (who wrote the film) as an overly enthusiastic Christian do-gooder.

It’s a pity The Good Girl has its anchor around the neck of Aniston and willing to go as far as she will take it, because The Good Girl is indeed a good film with some wicked moments of comedy and a well-written story. It’s just that Aniston’s acting limitations gravitate what could have been a better film.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Iron Giant (1999)

There is a magic that animation has that a regular film can never capture. It can delve into our imaginations and conjure up emotions and laughter that regular celluloid can rarely get a firm grip on. So why has every animated film this decade fallen under a strict formula that bogs down the quality of the efforts? Now comes a movie like The Iron Giant, which restores faith in all that is good with cinema.

The Iron Giant is reminiscent of E.T., but has a distinct voice of its own. The main question might be, “Is it enjoyable for people other than kids who can’t touch the floor with their feet?” I can answer that question easily: Yes! Adults, teenagers and children will have just as much fun with this picture together. It is a movie for all ages and for all time.

The animation is strikingly brilliant and deserves an ovation of its own. Never have I seen voice-over-to-mouth animations done so fluidly. The sight of the giant itself is awe-inspiring, but never terrifying. The movie also perfectly captures the innocence, patriotism and Cold War hysteria that defined American living in the ’50s.

But the truly biggest thing The Iron Giant has to offer is magic and heart. The characters are all well-developed, and the audience is made to feel great attachment to each one. The script for the feature is right on, and never is a scene wasted. And the tale is very touching as it heads toward its climax. I don’t mind admitting my eyes were quite moist toward the end.

The Iron Giant breaks the common mold of animated flicks. There are no cuddly animals and slapstick sidekicks, no dopey forced love interests, no one-dimensional villain, and thank God, no Grammy wannabe songs breaking up the drama. The Iron Giant sends out a strong message and breaks free of a Disney-controlled industry. I dare say this is the greatest animated film of this entire decade, by far. I urge everyone to go out and experience some of the magic and warmth that is The Iron Giant. This is destined to become a classic, mark my words.

Nate’s Grade: A+

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