People often celebrate independent films as an oasis of creativity in comparison to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that populate Hollywood. However, indie film can have just as many formulaic, half-baked, cookie-cutter films that waste your time. Case in point, the indie comedy Adult World, a movie that feels out of time and place.
Amy (Emma Roberts) is a recent college graduate who has big dreams of being a poet. Her idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), even lives in town, giving her ample stalking opportunities. But Amy only seems to get rejection slip after rejection slip in the mail. Her parents cannot afford to bankroll her lifestyle, and so Amy sets off on her own, shacking in with a transvestite, and gaining a job at Adult World, a small mom-and-pop porn store. Amy holds onto hope that she can become a great poet with Rat’s mentoring.
The movie feels overly quaint, like its premise, and much of the character interplay, came from a script from 1996 that was lost until now. The entire enterprise feels painfully dated in scope, humor, and its sense of peculiarity. I don’t even know why the filmmakers decided to set the movie in modern times. The excuses they devise for why a mom-and-pop porn store exists in the world of 4G wi-fi Internet never come close to working. Yes, we still have the traditional brick-and-mortar porn stores to this day, but those have a wealth of selection. This is like a tiny store with a few walls of movie titles, movies that people rent and return. Remember those, video rental stores? Again, dated. The very existence of the porn store disrupts the credibility of the film; not to suggest it would be perfect without this one plot element. There’s such a dated sense of titillation having a desperate woman land a job at a porn store. Oh no, she’s out of her element! The problem with the porn store is that they never do anything with it. There are perhaps four jokes directly related to the fact that it is an adult novelty store, but beyond that it would have been the same if they just sold toasters (note to self: look into potential market for adult novelty toasters). At no point does it prod our heroine along her journey or really have any larger impact besides the place where she meets her eventual love interest. The mom and pop that own the store are never seen again after their introduction, meaning the film even abandons one of the easier comedic scenarios of the elderly, folksy pornographer.
The entire storyline of a would-be poet slumming it at a porn store, learning some hard lessons, and finally finding her footing, well the whole thing just feels so much like a byproduct of 1990s filmmaking, when the broader commercial impact of indie film was being explored. The middle-class suburban girl being pushed out of her comfort zone by a band of quirky misfits in a fringe setting, well it just feels so dated. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this kind of story setup will flounder. Under the right care, even dated material can succeed, but Adult World coasts on the supposed outrageousness of its premise and characters. The trouble is that these people are more of less indie film cartoon characters with no real depth to them. Amy is mostly a brat but we never seem to go beyond the surface of her oversized ego and sense of certainty in her talent. Her relationship with the self-loathing Rat is meant to open herself up the harsh realities of the world, the rude awakening of every post-grad. Except he’s really just a jerk that treats her like garbage and eventually humiliates her. At no point do you get the impression that either character is really having much of an impact upon the other, beside general annoyance or frustration. Then there’s the character of Rubia, a transvestite Amy meets on the bus and within ONE DAY Amy asks if she can move in with this total stranger. Again, the idea of the kindly transvestite who becomes the heroine’s roommate, doesn’t that feel so dated too, so desperate to be edgy? Rubia is also ill defined and one-note. I’m surprised the filmmakers had the restraint to not give Rubia a tragic back-story.
With all that said, the movie is never as funny or as interesting or as edgy as it seems to believe it is. I may have laughed once or twice for the entire movie. I certainly wasn’t attached to the characters by any means. There’s a segment where Amy and Rubia discover Rat driving through town, so they hop on a bike and pedal after him. It’s played out like it’s supposed to be this stroke of comedy, complete with backbiting comments from Rubia, but it’s never funny and it just continues to play out, never altering to possibly become funny. Here’s something that is funny: after Amy’s parents tell her they cannot afford to pay for her poetry submissions, she runs away from home. The funny part isn’t her decision-making or the act of running away itself. The real funny part is that we don’t see or hear from Amy’s parents again for over an hour. Did her mother and father not care that their only child has disappeared? Are they secretly relieved? Amy doesn’t even refer to her parents, so we’re left wondering if there may be a missing person’s report floating around somewhere. It’s details like this, and the lack of taking advantage of the comic possibilities of the porn store setting, that showcase just how terribly Adult World goes about developing its shoddy story.
Then there’s the overall sludgy look of the film itself. Filmed on location in Syracuse, New York during a wintry period, it’s as if director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) wanted to communicate the misery of his characters with a visual style that made you feel their pain. This is one of the crummier looking wide releases I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is just dreary but without any strong sense of visual composition. I know this was a low-budget effort but Coffey and his team do such little work to hide the limitations; the set dressing is pathetically bare when it comes to locations, like the porn store. Every shot, every scene just reminds you further that Adult World just didn’t have the money, or the right people for the money. Coffey’s other sin is his mishandling of his actors. Roberts (We’re the Millers) and Cusack (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) are two very capable actors but they seem abandoned here. Cusack is just a misanthrope who treats every moment with annoyance, and it gets tiresome. Roberts is all over the place, needing a gentle tug to help bring her histrionic character back to a suitable reality.
I cannot think of any reason a person should take useful time out of their day to watch Adult World. The film isn’t funny. The characters are bothersome and lacking depth. The essential premise, the hook of the movie, is incidental and inconsequential. There is just a general malaise about the film, a lack of development that saps the characters and the story. Oh sure, things occasionally happen, or characters will magically reveal insights, but it’s always in the most hasty, inorganic fashion. Even the title is so on-the-nose to be annoying absent further examination. By the end of the movie, I think we’re left with Amy realizing that she might not be as talented as she thought, but hey, at least she has an arty boyfriend now. If this is a late blooming coming-of-age tale (a la Frances Ha) it misses all the necessary elements that push our heroine to grow. Instead, we’re saddled with a crummy looking movie with poorly developed characters, a nascent sense of comedy, and a plot that feels quaintly dated at every turn. If this is what growing up looks like, take it from me and skip Adult World.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.
From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.
I’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.
The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.
While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.
This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.
Then you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.
Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.
Nate’s Grade: C
When “The Raven” was released in 1845, it was a literary sensation. I can’t say that the 2012 movie of the same name will be met with anywhere near the devoted fanfare. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) has become embroiled in a deadly criminal investigation. The famous author is penniless, drunk, and depressed, but what else is new? What is new is that some Poe admirer has been stalking Baltimore and killing people in grisly styles fashioned after Poe’s macabre stories and poems. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) recognizes the connection to Poe and enlists the author to aid in capturing the murderer. Poe’s upper-class love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), is captured by the unknown madman and buried alive. Poe must race against time to stop a killer, rescue the girl, and write a new horror-themed story to be published via the killer’s demands.
The Raven feels like an ill fit from the start. What is the point of featuring an American literary icon when all you’re going to do is plop the man into a pretty rote police procedural/serial killer thriller? The deadly flaw of The Raven isn’t its concept; it’s that the finished product didn’t embrace the particulars of its literary mash-up enough. Is it really a good use of Poe to just have him tag along on a police investigation? I wanted this premise to crackle with a devious slyness, a cleverness of genre and concept that the movie seems incapable of producing. You’re taking America’s singular literary voice of the Gothic and macabre and putting him into a game with a deranged fan. That’s a great start. I’m interested in that movie. But there needs to be some follow-through. This should be a battle of wits, an opportunity for Poe to backslide into the murky chasm of his own creations, bearing some pinning of guilt at having birthed a mad killer with the power of his words and imagination. This should be a psychological descent into hell for a man already famously tortured. Instead, the movie just becomes another rote serial killer movie but somebody typed in the name “Poe.” The various corpses, inspired by Poe’s works, just end up being gory, easily telegraphed deposits for clues. We don’t see these people in peril, terrified by the fiendish ye olde Saw-like death traps. We don’t even understand the process of the killer. The movie just ends up becoming one long, tiresome chase from dead body to next dead body, with Poe literary association haphazardly ladled in to tie stuff together. After a while, it feels like somebody took a thoroughly uninspiring serial killer script and just transported it into mid 19th century America. It’s nice to know that some clichés are timeless.
The movie never feels like it works properly, and the potential of its premise is completely unrealized. The murder mystery isn’t really ever given suitable footing to be a mystery, except in that tried-and-true “who’s going to be the bad guy” reveal. There aren’t really any clues left behind. So when characters suddenly come up with epiphanies on their murder investigation, you wish they would at least show their work. For a movie written by screenwriters with names like Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, The Raven certainly isn’t smart. The Poe stories feel tacked on in an arbitrary fashion instead of being interwoven into foundational elements of the story. Who cares how the characters die if their deaths have no impact on Poe or anyone else? The “how” of the equation becomes inconsequential. The title poem doesn’t even bear any weight on the story. The love interest/damsel in distress character is so bland and underwritten, that it’s hard to really feel Poe’s gnawing sense of urgency. Sidling the gloomy Gus Poe with a puppy-dog love story seems like a poor misunderstanding of the man and his demons. To top it off, the girl isn’t even his cousin (surely the oddest criticism of mine thrown at a movie)!
The movie doesn’t really ever become a convincing thriller either. The pulpier elements are ignored or downplayed, played with stodgy seriousness for a movie this ridiculous (Saw-style death traps in 1849?). Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), who after this and 2009’s Ninja Assassin is starting to look like a one-hit wonder, badly misplays the action elements. The dingy cinematography is unnaturally dark, making it exceedingly difficult to understand certain sequences and giving the audience yet another reason to lose interest. The impressive production design is totally mitigated when there’s not enough light to even see it. I understand given the nature of the story that we’d be dealing with lot of shadows and darkness, but this is just one poor looking movie. The only way you’d feel excitement from this movie is if in a fit of amnesia you forgot what you were watching and suddenly thought it might be a different, better movie, only to be disappointed ten minutes later when that sinking feeling reemerges and you realize, no, I am still watching The Raven.
I love me some John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine), but this guy is just the wrong fit for the movie. His sensibilities never really gel with the character, so Poe’s sense of melancholy comes across as more haughty boredom. He is not the right fit for the material. Eve (She’s Out of my League) has got nothing to do but look pretty and scream occasionally. The worst crime of all is utterly wasting one of my favorite contemporary character actors, the phenomenally great Brendan Gleeson (The Guard). He plays the uptight father of Poe’s love interest, which means he gets to pop onscreen and glare at Poe while looking worried. It’s a criminal waste of this man’s considerable talents.
I think the best part of The Raven is actually it’s mostly unseen killer. It’s not because the guy is particularly clever or interesting or even remotely memorable (when they reveal who it is, make sure to pay attention to the constant reiteration of who he is, because if you’re like me, you plum forgot). The reason this guy is good is because of his impetus. He’s ultimately terrorizing Poe so that he can force the author to create more stories. Call it an extreme case of motivation. I can see our studious killer justifying his bad behavior, claiming to give the world new gifts of literary brilliance that we can all share, stories that will last the test of time. Isn’t that worth a few dead bodies, he’d argue. Ultimately, this rationale becomes more egotistical, about flattering the killer and his devious appetites, which is a shame. I’d prefer if the bad guy were more devoted to the cause of helping to shape the Canon of transcendental literature. I almost wish that the movie were told from this skewed perspective. I could have dealt with an entire catalogue of famous authors being victimized under the auspices of producing great literature. What if this one sick person is responsible for wresting the great works of the 19th century out of the authors’ minds and onto the page? I think we all owe this terrible individual a debt of gratitude.
I’m finding myself disliking The Raven the more thought I put into it, which, admittedly, my brain is actively fighting against. It does not want to spend more time processing this bore of a movie; a fun premise never fully realized, a conflict never truly developed, and characters that are the 19th century equivalent of the stock roles you’d find in any mechanical CSI/Law & Order TV episode. So in the interest of literary fairness, I’ve decided to channel the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe for the final word on The Raven:
And The Raven, never flowing, still is going, still is going,
On the pallid screen I silently stare at in unblinking bore,
And its plot is not that smart, missing heart and clues to start,
And it seems like the writers were tasked with an unfriendly chore,
The movie does not work; it’s dull and empty to its very core,
And so I lastly ask does this movie properly entertain?
Quoth The Raven – “nevermore.”
Nate’s Grade: C
Not nearly as clever as the brilliant title may suggest, Hot Tub Time Machine is a fairly silly yet sloppy comedic enterprise. The purposely moronic nature of it leads to some raunchy enjoyment, and the premise involving a time-traveling Jacuzzi allows for some fun comedic situations. The trouble is that the movie shadows our foursome of dudes (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke) too closely. The movie presents intriguing comedic setups but spends inordinate amounts of time dealing with the fractious falling out between the dudes. We spend more time talking about old friendships than we do the sheer possibilities brought about through time travel. The pacing has some turgid moments; it takes too long to reach the magic hot tub. There’s some good humor at first when the guys believe they must follow the exact path they tread before, lest the butterfly effect destroy the future. Then they decide to walk a different path, taking advantage of their knowledge of the future. The movie doesn’t fully take advantage of its own comedic possibilities and settles for lame payoffs, like an end credits sequence inserting Corddry into a Motley Crue video (it’s not funny). There are a few Farrelly Brother-level gross-out gags, but most of the comedy happens around these guys, not because of their characters. They themselves are not exasperatingly funny, so it’s disappointing when Hot Tub Time Machine flirts with fun comic scenarios (an outlandish bet on a sporting game, performing a modern song, the mystery of how the bellhop loses his arm, Duke making sure he will be conceived in the past) only to give up and spend more time with the guys hashing out their years-old squabbles. Enough with the personal growth and reflection. Get back to messing around with the space-time continuum.
Nate’s Grade: B-
What is the point of this movie? I think I get it, at least get what they were going for. The military industrial complex is bad and can mislead countries into needless conflict just for corporate profits at the expense of human life. Sure, got that, then what the hell is with the storyline of a Eurasian popstar (Hilary Duff) who has daddy issues? War Inc. is a farce but it doesn’t have much of string to connect it all. It’s all so scattershot, from lampooning politicians and corporations to squeezing in contrived romance and peculiar and almost nonsensical flashbacks with a fast-talking Ben Kingsley who sounds like he’s doing an impression of Foghorn Leghorn. This movie feels like a collection of discarded scenes that someone pasted together. The movie’s cynicism is almost repellent, and this is coming from a self-described cynic. It isn’t the cynicism that bothers me but it’s the lack of any bigger point. The satiric targets are all cheap and easy, which would be acceptable if the movie did more with the material. War Inc. is remarkably tone deaf when it comes to satire. The Duff sequences are superfluous and are begging to be scandalous, which then undercuts the movie’s potshots about exploiting teenagers for sex. The movie just utterly collapses from the inside out by the end. The most memorable and headline-grabbing moment of War Inc. is when Duff drops a scorpion down her shorts. Does that sound like an enviable creative highpoint?
Nate’s Grade: C-
This Iraq War drama means well but it comes across as manipulative and morally questionable. John Cusack stars as a former military man who just found out his wife, on active duty in Iraq, has been killed. The bulk of the film’s conflict deals with how Cusack will tell his two daughters that mommy is not coming home again. Instead of being upfront with his children, he takes them out of school and whisks them away on a family trip to an amusement park. His reasoning is that he wants to squeeze in a few more happy memories before the kids hear the news. To me, this is irresponsible and psychologically damaging; those kids will resent their father holding onto such important information while he encouraged his kids to shop in ignorance. The film is about 80 minutes of watching a guillotine hang over someone’s head, just waiting for the moment to hit. It can get rather uncomfortable. Somewhere in this misguided drama is a poignant look at the domestic cost of the Iraq War from the family’s perspective, a perspective yet to be fully articulated by the movies. Instead, Grace is Gone is a well-acted but contrived drama that favors delaying the pains of reality to the point of incredulity.
Nate’s Grade: C+
When in doubt for a sentimental story pair up a lonely man with a kid. It worked for Charlie Chaplin, Dustin Hoffman, and even Adam Sandler. There is something fundamentally appealing in an old school Hollywood way about seeing a grown man become kinder, gentler, and loving. Attaching children to slobs and jerks has been historically beneficial in the realm of cinema; they tend to think beyond themselves and become better people. In fact, doctors should take heed and start using children as medicinal services (“Feeling depressed? Raise this adorably precocious child for an indefinite period of time!”). Martian Child is the latest pre-programmed entry in this favorite Hollywood combination.
David (John Cusack) is a science fiction writer still in mourning for his dearly departed wife. He decides to stay true to a plan he and the dead misses had to adopt a child. Enter Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a kid who spends his time in a large box because he believes he’s from Mars. The adoption agency believes that a kid who thinks he’s a Martian would be ideal for a science fiction writer. David reflects that he was an outcast as a kid as well and he sees a side of himself in this spacey kid. David agrees to become a father but is placed on a trial basis because the film needs something to come to a head for Act Three. Dennis says his mission is to learn about “human beingness” but he has other quirks as well; he only eats Lucky Charms cereal, he takes lots of photos as documentation, and he steals items for further study. David learns that parenthood can, shocker, be hard.
Martian Child champions the tireless idea of the individual in a society of people that follow the herd. You’ll be beaten over the head with the movie’s rampant message of individuality and being true to yourself. David tries teaching his would-be alien tyke that there are benefits in being like everyone else and fitting in, but of course we in the audience know the only reason he would say something against his character’s nature is so that it can be repeated back to him in a time of decision-making. And sure enough, when David’s book editor chastises him for not “being what we want you to be” I felt like Martian Child had given me brain damage with the weight of its browbeating message. The problem, though, is that Dennis is not the center of the film and he’s treated as a gloriously fortuitous writing opportunity. Because of this kiddy K-Pax, David is able to shake off his writer’s block and turn in a story based upon his own experiences being a father to a being from another planet. The point of triumph doesn’t seem to be resolving Dennis’ fragile psyche as it does proving David’s book editor wrong, who we must see gingerly crying as she finishes reading the last page of the manuscript. Take that, heartless barons of mass media!
This would all be fine if Dennis was just different or defiantly eccentric, but Dennis has serious emotional problems and deep psychological issues that David is simply not equipped to handle as a novice parent. Dennis shares a lot of symptoms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a higher functioning level of autism. Watching his developmentally delayed social interaction, his total fascination with a specific topic, and his rigid routine, it seems clear that Dennis does have some form of autism, and autism is a whole lot more than being the fun weird kid that a Hollywood movie can glamorize as an outsider crushed by conformity. The whole setup feels inauthentic and potentially irresponsible.
Much of my displeasure comes back to my feelings about the character of Dennis. Personally I couldn’t stand the kid. Maybe my heart is too cold but I never could find myself getting attached to the pint-sized Martian. In fact, I found him increasingly annoying and his squeaky, horse voice to be like nails on a chalkboard by the end of the film. I was also put off by how the filmmakers seemingly turned little weird Dennis into a miniature version of Michael Jackson – pasty white face, ruby red ring of lips, sunglasses, and a parasol to hide from the oh so hazardous rays of the sun. He does show off some nice Martian dance moves, however, if we recall, Jackson also was adept at walking on the moon.
Martian Child is also hobbled by a reliance on cloying clichés. Dennis learns to play baseball. Dennis and David have a food fight but not before bonding over smashing a ridiculous number of home items to prove an earth-shattering point that material possessions don’t matter. Inspirational speeches will be recycled later during key points. David is of course a widower because that’s what single men need to be in romantic comedies in order to be acceptable romantic beings. I remember a slew of Disney animated films where most of the main characters had a parent dead or were orphaned, but now it seems that romantic comedies are following suit as well and working under the guideline that it’s better to be dead than divorced. The overt flirtation with his dead wife’s sister (Amanda Peet) seems awkwardly mishandled and needs further elaboration for any of it to sustain credibility. But the most mawkish moment has to be when Dennis is describing his Martian powers and informs us that Martians have the power to grant wishes, and that he will pass one Martian wish over to David to use at his discretion. You better believe that this is going to be referenced during a late third act hug while the music swells. Martian Child may pretend its different but it follows a very well trodden road all the way to the same happy, predictable destination.
I feel bad for Cusack. He deserves better than to headline such a maudlin misfire like Martian Child. This movie wants to aim squarely for the heart but it feels so phony. Watching Cusack interact with a kid is further proof that this man can do damn near anything but he needs some assistance and a sappy story, an annoying child, and a perplexing half-hearted romance aren’t helping. I felt more emotionally involved to the trailer for Cusack’s upcoming Grace is Gone that played before Martian Child than during any of the 108 minutes of this sentimentally cumbersome load. The film is competently made, however, it all comes back to it feeling overwhelmingly phony, being a manufactured tearjerker from the Hollywood factory line. Everything that follows feels like it’s coming from a formula playbook and there’s nothing new or interesting to offer. Perhaps I am jaded and heartless but Martian Child left me envious for the cold reaches of space.
Nate’s Grade: C
Imagine my surprise when I found out that a small crime novel I read years ago was getting the big Hollywood treatment. I read Scott Phillips’ The Ice Storm in one sitting back in 2003 during a plane trip from Ohio to San Diego. It was deliciously dark down to the very last page and I loved it, but then I am a sucker for a good crime story (check out Jason Starr’s Tough Luck and Hard Feelings if you are the same). The movie looked to be on the right track with names like John Cusack to star and Harold Ramis to direct. Ramis is responsible for starring, writing, or acting in or directing some of the most beloved comedies of the last 25 years including Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. That’s one illustrious comedic pedigree. So how could the movie go wrong?
It’s Christmas Eve and Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is a self-loathing attorney that works for some of the shadiest folks in Wichita, Kansas. One of those bad customers is mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) whom Charlie and his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just swindled over $2 million from. Unfortunately for them, Wichita is hit by an ice storm that makes the roads haphazard to travel. The two will wait until the morning thaw and then hit the road with their booty. Vic reassures Charlie to just, “act normal.” This means many ventures to some of Wichita’s finest strip clubs with alluring names like Sweet Cage and Tease-O-Rama. Charlie has a sweet spot for Renatta (Connie Nielsen), a bombshell and the operator of the Sweet Cage. He’ll also have to drive his plastered friend Phil (Oliver Platt) around, who is regretting having married Charlie’s cold ex-wife. Charlie would love to sail off into the sunset with Renatta by his side but first he’ll have to survive the night and a mob enforcer (Mike Starr) is already on his trail.
The Ice Harvest feels like an episodic collection of ideas, too many of which have too little significance. The titular ice storm seems all but forgotten, only serving as a cheap plot device to keep our characters bottled up in the city. It has no bearing elsewhere on the plot. The reoccurring “As Wichita falls” passage has no payoff. The nosy police officer plotline looks like it might be building to something important but then is quickly disposed of. The Christmas setting has little impact except for giving the strippers something to complain about. The Ice Harvest wants to benefit from the juxtaposition of Christmas cheer with all these tawdry, violent asides and it just seems small and shallow. The movie also shifts the story’s time from 1979 to modern day one suspects just for the cheap out of cell phones.
Credit goes to Cusack for making his character as likable as he is. His character is a mob lawyer, a deadbeat dad, an increasingly drunk driver, and a man with his nose in whole lot of sleazy ventures, and yet you still pull for him to somehow succeed. Cusack, forever youthful, seems overly numb to all the horror around him and downplays the danger to a negative degree. Charlie seems like he’s in the wrong movie. Thornton plays yet another hedonistic louse and is quite good though not at his Bad Santa apex. He seems the most at ease with the physical comedy. Nielsen plays your typical femme fatale with a Veronica Lake haircut and breezy voice, which should both be instant red flags for students of film noir. The two men that steal the show are Platt and Quaid. Platt gives a brilliant uninhibited performance as quite possibly the drunkest man in movie history. Quaid is an honest surprise as a menacing mobster ruing the day he chose a criminal enterprise in Kansas. He chomps scenery with a violent exasperation that truly seems larger than life. This is a bad guy to fear and Quaid makes the most of his very limited screen time.
Ramis is out of his league here. The man cannot competently direct tension or action. Ramis doesn’t let the audience build suspicion because he’d much rather have characters just point-blank say, “Don’t trust this person” instead. He doesn’t give us time to piece clues of betrayal together so instead characters just keep running forward until they get smacked in the face by something made obvious. Ramis’ mishandling of tone really sinks the movie. The Ice Harvest doesn’t know whether it wants to be a thriller of a dark comedy and therefore just really sputters at both. The comedic elements and the thriller elements butt heads; because of the comedy the character never feel in danger, and because of the thriller/noir elements the characters and their situations never really seem funny. The Ice Harvest turns into some kind of two-headed beast that snaps at itself. I think maybe Ramis was watching Blood Simple and taking notes and then he accidentally taped over it with a Charles in Charge marathon and was at a loss.
Part of this problem is that the screenwriters don’t fully commit to the nastiness. Phillips’ novel is unrelentingly dark, cynical, and unsentimental and doesn’t give a damn if you like its characters. The movie, on the other hand, wants to get its hands dirty but is more interested in playing it safe. The film seriously reminded me of last year’s Surviving Christmas, another movie that wanted to be sweet and nasty and wound up just being really bad. You can feel The Ice Harvest reeling back several times to set up Charlie as a likable lad in over his head, going so far as a slightly contrived yet predictable finale. At least Bad Santa had the gusto to approach a happy ending on its own crude, unsentimental terms. Ramis needs to stick to broad comedies and leave the bleak neo-noir humor to the Coen brothers.
There are some plot elements from the book that just don?t work with this half-hearted adaptation. (Spoilers to follow for paragraph) At the very end of the movie Charlie has left the city with all the money and stops along the road to help a stalled camper. In the book, the camper backs up over him and kills him, thus ending with the ringing endorsement that crime doesn’t pay. It made sense, especially for a book that was dark to the very end. In the movie, the camper backs up and knocks him to the ground but doesn’t run him over. Charlie dusts himself off and that’s that. The scene feels pointless without fulfilling the end of the book. It doesn’t provide any last-second tension. Charlie just hops back in his car, dear hung over Phil pops up, and the two are set for one most excellent adventure. Unearned and misplaced happy ending? No thank you.
The Ice Harvest is only a mere 88 minutes long and yet the film still feels padded and draggy. The drunken Oliver Platt-heavy middle is a generously paced muddle, and though it’s rather funny it’s also rather extraneous. The Ice Harvest is really a handful of great moments that don?t add up to a satisfying whole. The movie is really episodic and too many of those episodes have little bearing on the plot. Character betrayals are spelled out to us and Ramis seems to lose interest in his own film as it slides further and further into dangerous territory. The Ice Harvest can’t commit to whatever it wants to be and the audience is the one to suffer. Read the book instead. It’s only 224 pages.
Nate’s Grade: C
Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my then-girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.
Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?
Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clichés. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.
What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.
What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.
Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).
In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.
Nate’s Grade: C+