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Men, Women, and Children (2014)

MV5BMTAwMzc2OTgwOTZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg2ODA4NjIx._V1_SX640_SY720_Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.

The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. men-women-and-childrenThat core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.

It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.

I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion). thumbnail_19264-1

To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.

The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.

At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)

This lumpy, amiable shaggy dog story from the Duplass brothers is another earnest, warm-hearted comedy that marries their signature family dysfunction, mumblecore quirk to a larger, more mainstream setting. The Jeff (Jason Segel) in question is a 30-year-old slacker, who indeed lives at home, and awaits signs from the universe to guide his decision-making. Incidentally, his favorite movie we learn in a monologue set on a commode, is Signs. His older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish twit and embarks on a quest, with Jeff, to discover if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. The boys mother (Susan Sarandon) also has a nice storyline where an anonymous admirer is sending her flirty instant messages at work. Watching her face light up as she processes being wanted, it’s a thing of beauty. The characters are all flawed, and for some they may be too annoying to sit through. The film has been accused of being aimless, but I was engaged with its plot, which kept ping-ponging from one cause to another effect scenario. The movie is really more a drama with some comedic asides, mainly due to Jeff’s stoner zen and Pat’s aggressive dickishness. Greer has an outstanding moment where she lets her character’s deep reservoir of unhappiness come out in a blinding moment of honesty, and it rang true to my ears. In fact, the entire movie feels true enough. And then it appears destiny reveals its master plan with an ending that makes your heart warm all over, championing Jeff’s mantra of optimism and interconnectedness. The simple, good-natured, sweet little movie is worth checking out.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Descendants (2011)

We’re so used to seeing George Clooney as a smooth operator, a guy who coasts on his suave charm and chiseled-from-granite good looks. But in The Descendants, Clooney is more vulnerable than he’s ever been, trying to keep his family together, and as the film plays out we realize just how mighty a task this goal is. His character is ill equipped to take the lead of his family, especially a family of growing girls he is consistently confused with. His journey is much more than just becoming a better father. That lesson would be far too pat for director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It’s been a good while since Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, but in that time away he has shaped another outstanding human comedy that manages to squeeze in more emotion than most Hollywood movies could ever hope for.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-described “backup parent” who has been thrust into the lead role. His wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a traumatic head injury from a Jet Ski accident. The doctors say that she has no hope of waking up and she will die in a matter of days. Matt must break the news to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The headstrong Alexandra clashes with her faltering father, finally revealing the reason why she blew up at mom months ago. She found out that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is reeling and searching for answers from friends, family, and his two daughters.

Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. With The Descendants, the sunny setting of Hawaii is just an exotic backdrop for some wonderful, and wonderfully relatable, family drama. It’s hardly the worry-free paradise. Uncovering his wife’s secrets has lead Matt to reassess the woman he loved. The movie completely upends the standard deathbed goodbye trope. Instead of characters openly bawling about the loss of a saintly soul taken far too soon, we have characters dealing with real conflicted emotions, particularly anger, directed at the indisposed and unfaithful mother. Every character is approaching grief differently, and every character is trying to make sense of their feelings before Elizabeth’s inevitable passing. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) is harsh with accusations at the ready, blaming Elizabeth’s tragedy on Matt’s shortcomings as a husband. His pain is raw but al too recognizable. Matt and Alexandra are plotting how much info to reveal to young Scottie, trying not to ruin her image of her mother, a tremendous challenge with no easy answer.

This is the stuff of grand drama, and Payne doesn’t skimp on the heart-tugging moments. The Descendants is also a great comedy, naturally finding humor drawn from the situation and characters. The advertising has made The Descendants appear like a broad family comedy, with Clooney flapping around in his noisy flip-flops. This is not the case. The comedy doesn’t feel insensitive or too macabre, instead it adds another enlightening level to these people and their pain. We try and make sense of our world, to cope with our struggles and failures, with comedy, and so too does Matt and his family. You’ll probably be surprised how often you laugh and then in the next moment feel a lump in your throat. The character of Sid (Nick Krause) starts off as a questionable plot tagalong, a doofus for some easy laughs. His reaction to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is the movie’s one point of questionable validity. As the film progresses, this laid-back guy is revealed to have more layers, just like the rest of the clan. The second half of the film becomes something of a minor key detective story as Matt and Alexandra search for the elusive “other man.” As Alexandra eggs him on, the two bond over this manhunt and Matt becomes bolder, more confident, and clear-headed about the hard decisions that are necessary for his new life. The emotional rewards of the film are nourishing. Watching Matt and his daughters sit on the couch watching a movie together (March of the Penguins no less. Draw your own connections about parental turmoil), you’ll feel satisfied that this broken family has begin to heal itself.

The Descendants takes an interesting turn when we learn more about the other man’s background. Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle) is actually respectable as Brain Speer, the real estate titan having the aforementioned affair with Elizabeth. Matt’s confrontation is subdued, sidestepping righteous grandstanding for a better attempt to seek understanding. Instead of lecturing Brian, he wants to know more about what his wife was after that Matt could not offer. Sure he’s still angry and doesn’t let the guy off easy. Complicating matters is the fact that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two children. Matt is trying to find answers without willfully harming Brain’s family. Greer (Love Happens) has an outstanding sequence where she feels beholden to forgive rather than hate, a note of grace that feels rather profound.

Clooney at one point says he’s just trying to keep his head above water, and you can see why. The man shows a great deal of range as his character confronts his grief. There is no “right” way when it comes to grieving, something deeply personal. Matt’s dilemma is given an unlikely situational twist, but the feelings of betrayal and confusion are all too believable. Matt is looking for answers when the person who holds them all lies sleeping. As he develops a lager picture of his wife and her unhappiness, Clooney expertly flashes through a multitude of thoughts. While arguably not as textured as his performance in Up in the Air, Clooney is in fine form, showcasing a deeper sense of loss and anxiety. Matt is trying to find his footing while his world radically adjusts, and nothing has adjusted more than his feelings toward his wife. Clooney doesn’t have any Big Moments of Great Emotion, though lashing out at his comatose wife comes close, but the man’s nuanced portrayal of a life in flux is the stuff that award ceremonies were made for.

Woodley is a remarkable discovery, more than holding her own with Clooney. She is excellent in her portrayal of an aggressive, mouthy, rebellious teenager. It’s all the more astonishing because Woodley’s long-running TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is one of the worst shows still running on television. The show is so inartful, the dialogue is so tin-eared, and the acting is wooden like the actors have been imprisoned. Where has this actress been the whole time? Woodley’s performance is so alive with genuine feeling, stripping away any reservations of the too typical bratty teen role. She’s much more than a troubled teen sent off to boarding school. Her every inflection, hesitation, motion feels completely natural for her character, and when Woodley gets her big dramatic scenes she is a force to witness. Upon the sudden news that her mother will die soon, she plunges underwater in the family pool and screams as loud as she can, tears squeezing out of those sorrowful eyes. For goodness’ sake, this girl cries underwater. An Oscar nomination is assured for the 20-year-old young actress. Maybe she can quit her crummy TV show after the wave of good press and fawning praise that await her.

The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family overcoming adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism. This holiday season, be a good movie citizen and spread the word of The Descendants.

Nate’s Grade: A

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

Director Edward Zwick has spent the last two decades making mass-friendly action films with designed to teach us all some valuable lesson, like Blood Diamond and Glory. But the idealistic filmmaker began his career with realistic relationship dramas like About Last Night and the seminal TV show thirtysomething. There wasn’t an explosion to be had, unless you count the emotional ennui of middleclass white people. Love and Other Drugs is adapted from the biography of a Viagra salesman, which seems like a strange jumping off point for a romantic drama. Watch out for those unexpected side effects.

It’s 1996, and Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a smooth-talking, suave pharmaceutical rep for the medical giant Pfizer. He’s been dispatched to the Ohio River valley area with a mission to push his drug samples on doctors and raise his quotas. While posing as an intern, he meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a coffee shop beauty in stage one of Parkinson’s (don’t attack me, they reveal this spoiler before you even see Hathaway’s face). She spurs his advances but he persists, and the two agree to a strictly sexual relationship. Because of her illness, Maggie is wary of getting attached to people. She sees Jamie as a shallow, well-muscled lunkhead who won’t want anything else but a slew of orgasms from a pretty girl. And Jamie is content, until, of course, he falls in love. Maggie feels she’s sparing her lover the pains that will accompany her Parkinson’s. The two struggle with her illness, the toll it takes on their relationship, and the possible future they will have together… in between lots of sex.

The true pleasure of Love and Other Drugs is watching Hathaway and Gyllenhaal together onscreen. The Brokeback Mountain buddies have tremendous chemistry that makes their give-and-take exciting and pleasing. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal may be the best onscreen couple I’ve seen since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Chemistry is such an indelible component for romance and yet it is so elusive to capture. So when a cinematic couple really create some serious sparks, it’s a memorable exchange. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are a terrific team but also the rare screen couple that raises the performance of their partner. You are easily convinced that these two enjoy the company of one another; they’re so confident with each other even as they’re tumbling around naked. Hathaway has grown into an actress of surprising range, making keen use of her animated Disney heroine features. She has a knack for playing defiant, spunky women that have an alluring fragility, and that also describes her Maggie (how does a coffee shop give Hathaway the health insurance she needs for Parkinson’s meds?). Gyllenhaal has always had his boyish charm, but he seems catapulted to new charisma heights with Love and Other Drugs. He’s exploding with energy and comes across bursting with life onscreen. He starts as a suave Lothario drunk on his own charms but, as movie journeys dictate, he morphs into a committed, mature man. The roles are pretty standard (slick selfish salesman, sad girl with illness) but the duo bring extra vitality and heat that makes Love and Other Drugs compulsively watchable in its finer moments.

It’s refreshing to witness a major Hollywood movie that treats human sexuality without the standard artifices of Hollywood. Love and Other Drugs is not coy when it comes to physical lovemaking. This isn’t a blockheaded movie where the woman goes through the entire night of passion while wearing a bra the entire time (the epitome of PG-13 sex). This isn’t a movie where after a healthy bout of sex the couple feels the need to cover up their goods as they lay beside one another. Like after a vigorous sexual experience now the lovers suddenly become bashful at their own state of nakedness (get the fig leaves – stat!). So it’s refreshing to watch a film deal with sexuality without giving undue attention to how “risqué” everything is. The nudity is European-style casual, and while the film manages to be quite sexy, the nudity and sex scenes do not play as shameless titillation. The sex and copious nudity is just another part of the storytelling. Of course it also happens to be a prominent and highly marketable storytelling aspect. It’s not like Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are homely actors. Watching beautiful people writhe together on screen and nonchalantly walk around without a stitch on has always been a sure-fire way to sell tickets. Love and Other Drugs utilizes all that skin to lure boys into a traditional romantic drama. It’s to Zwick’s writing and directing credits, and the natural chemistry of his two high-wattage stars, that the parade of flesh doesn’t feel like naked, prurient exploitation. It’s not exactly an edgy film by any means but it’s assuredly adult in its portrayal of sexuality. Or at least it thinks it is. The sex isn’t really a topic to be explored with nuance and clarity; it’s more something to keep the actors busy.

Ultimately, the tonal inconsistency is what hampers the momentum of Love and Other Drugs. It’s hard to build narrative momentum when the film just seems to be starting over time and again. Zwick bounces around different tones, sometimes wildly from scene to scene. At heart it’s a weepie romance, the sick girl and her paramour coming to terms with their doomed love. But then the movie also wants to be an energetic, smart-alecky comedy, then there are all sorts of crude gags (hope you like boner jokes), and then the film also wants to be a satire on high-powered pharmaceutical companies and their sleazy influence romancing doctors. And then in between all that is the weepie drama stuff as Maggie has to deal with the (movie) realities of her illness. Here’s an example of the tonal whiplash that did the movie no favors: Jamie stumbles in on his disgusting younger brother (see below) masturbating to a sex tape of Jamie and Maggie, of his own brother and his brother’s girlfriend. The scene is played for broad comic laughs and ends with Jamie beating his brother off screen with that very sex tape. If people needed another reason not to make sex tapes, here it is: Josh Gad might one day view them and pleasure himself. You don’t want that, trust me. But then the very next scene involves Maggie working on her art and unable to control her Parkinson’s symptoms, namely finger tremors. We watch as Maggie diligently and patiently tries to open a bottle of pills, the childproof locked top confounding her stubborn fingers, only to eventually find that the bottle is empty and her symptoms will only increase. The fact that these scenes coexist right next to one another makes their differences all the more jarring. Love and Other Drugs tries to jostle diverse genres but the different tones never coalesce. As a result, you feel violently ripped from one movie to another.

Let me give due attention to just how revolting the character of Jamie’s younger brother is. Josh is a cancer on the movie. He doesn’t make a scene better but rather drags it down to a lower level. He’s slovenly, boorish, coarse, and routinely unfunny. You can practically feel his sweaty fingerprints pawing at the movie for attention. This character is abominable and repulsive. He inserts himself into Jamie’s home and offers no dramatic value. His purpose seems to be solely as a cheap go-to plot device whenever Zwick feels he needs a random profane joke. Gad (The Rocker, 21) is a comic that I have enjoyed in other contexts, but he’s got the wrong energy and feel here, succumbing to the angry desperation of his character. Josh serves no worthwhile purpose and just becomes a pathetic distraction for a movie that already doesn’t seem to have full focus on what matters. He’s supposed to be an annoying presence but this annoying? You probably won’t find a more unnecessary and loathsome fictional character in a movie all year.

Zwick can’t keep tired clichés from clipping how high the film can fly. The film’s message about family over business feels trite no matter how much nudity tries to obfuscate it. The Parkinson’s angle is too easily transformed into melodrama. The film takes a trip to a Parkinson’s meeting in Chicago with real-life people suffering through different stages of the debilitating disorder. It draws a poor comparison with Maggie’s tremors, which start to seem like a lightweight Hollywood example of illness (like when a character coughs onscreen and it somehow communicates a quickly metastasized cancer). Even after shirking Hollywood conventions the movie manages to end in that tried-and-true fashion where the man has to chase after the woman to give the Big Speech about how he truly feels. The Pfizer storyline that follows the launch of impotence-crushing super drug Viagra feels like the first draft of a different screenplay or the last remnants of a different story that’s been hollowed out. It’s fairly superficial and meant to serve merely as the male lead’s occupation that he has to reconsider when love’s on the line. The side stories and side characters feel like distractions. Oliver Platt is a fine actor to have in your movie, just make sure he has something to do other than drive Gyllenhaal around. Also, the movie follows the lead from the cancelled TV show Cold Case in that every scene from the past has to be accompanied by some generic hit of the day, like a simplistic scrapbook of the times.

Love and Other Drugs feels tragically overextended and if only Zwick had only been more judicious this could have been a really solid film. There are three or four different films at play here. The tone never settles down, bouncing from broad comedy to weepie Lifetime-related drama. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway work wonders together with and without clothes. Their performances make the film stronger, and they make you wish that the movie had more going on for it than spirited rolls in the hay. You even wish there was more to the sex than simply large amounts of it. Zwick will always wear his liberal idealism on his sleeve and slip a message into his films, but this time the message is completely eaten alive. If anybody walks away from Love and Other Drugs with a blinding passion for prescription drug reform, then they must have been watching a different movie. The one I watched was amusing in spurts and had nudity.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

I maintain that no story has been redone, recycled, re-purposed, and parodied more so than Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ tale of redemption aided by supernatural ghosts and time travel has appeared in everything from Muppets to the Odd Couple. Statistically, the odds are good that right now as you read this very sentence television is airing some adaptation of this story right now. I suppose it was only a matter of time before Dickens got reduced to a romantic comedy setup. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a charmless and mostly empty movie that makes you pine for the comparative masterpiece of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey, playing himself for the thousandth time) is a hunky fashion photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and, boy, is he in-demand. Everyone wants his photo services and every woman wants to rip his clothes off. Connor is a notorious womanizer and he travels to the country to attend his younger brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) wedding. Connor is intent on dissuading his brother on the prospect of marriage, which Conner dubs archaic and he feels love is “comfort food for the uneducated and lonely.” It just so happens that Connor’s ex-girlfriend from way back, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), is the maid of honor at the wedding. She hasn’t seen her dubious ex for some time, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make his move. Jenny and Connor were childhood pals, but an early bout of heartbreak led Connor to become the disciple of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), a boozy playboy who taught the kid everything he knew about bedding the babes. During Connor’s stay, the ghost of Uncle Wayne informs him that three spirits will visit to showcase Connor’s checkered past, present, and dodgy future, Dicken’s-style.

The movie is wholly unbelievable even for a contrived romantic comedy. The central romance between Connor and Jenny rests on the silly notion that after ten years apart, a lifelong selfish jerk can sweep his former girlfriend off her feet during a single crazy weekend. Connor’s redemptive arc is lackluster at best, and the movie just mimes the steps it feels that it needs to take to turn its lead insensitive jerk character into a sensitive jerk character. It doesn’t work. I refuse to believe for one second that a pretty, smart, confidant doctor such as Jenny would allow herself to get so completely suckered in by Connor’s “Baby I’ve changed” speech. It’s insulting and degrading. The compressed timeline reflects poorly on Jenny’s decision-making. The expedited timeline makes every human action seem far-fetched. There’s a scene where Connor opens a champagne bottle in the kitchen. The cork flies out and knocks one of the legs loose on the multi-tiered wedding cake. The cake is about to slip over when Connor slides in to stabilize it. Instead of redistributing the weight via the available legs, he tries reaching for the out of reach champagne bottle with his foot (the size of the bottle and the cake leg are not even close). A more believable situation would involve Connor trying to reach the fallen cake leg, not a champagne bottle, but alas. To make this example even worse, the filmmakers set up the disaster of a fallen wedding cake and then amazingly fail to show the goods. We only see the smashed aftermath. This is a comedy fundamental: set-up food disaster, let audience witness ensuing food-related disaster.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past also doesn’t have one redeeming or marginally realistic female character. I would expect, given Garner’s star power and the natural importance of being the romantic lead, that Jenny would come across as a reasonable woman or someone worth fighting over. Sorry, Jenny is a powerfully underwritten character and Garner is left without much work other than serving as a reservoir of reaction shots. Seriously, that’s her main purpose in this movie; she is a cutaway image. Sandra (Lacey Chabert) is a shrieking high-maintenance shrew of a bride. The other female roles are largely one-note misogynistic fantasies (thanks male screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). The trio of bridesmaids is gossipy chatterboxes and eager to get laid. Connor’s introduction to his future mother-in-law (Anne Archer) involves him casually groping her breasts, much to her prosaic approval. Connor has an irresistible way with the ladies, which makes everything without a Y chromosome want to sleep with the man. A young famous pop singer watches Connor dump three women simultaneously on an Internet conference call, insult them, and then she still strips off her clothes to bed the cad. She even states, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” and continues along. I’m just as confused what power Connor holds over the fairer sex because to me he’s just a twit.

Here’s a telling example about how obvious this movie is written from an unenlightened male perspective: the central relationship dilemma is that Connor is afraid of cuddling. In the past, Jenny asked him to stay and cuddle but that was the breaking point, so he bolted. All of these women somehow manage to fall head over heels in love for a guy who willingly goes through women likes changes of underwear. It makes all the women comes across as emotionally needy, insecure, vapid bubbleheads who will sacrifice everything, including self-respect and dignity, to get a taste of McConaughey’s back sweat. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is not a flattering movie for either sex.

The tone of this movie never finds an authentic and satisfying balance. Being a half-hearted tale of redemption during the period of a weekend, the movie crams in plenty of gooey sentimental claptrap. You’ll listen to characters talk about the true meaning of friendship, tear up over family memories, and then someone will make an inappropriate sex joke. There is a high level of semi-racy sex jokes that populate the world, appearing at odd moments, destroying any assembling emotions. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past will pretend like it’s building to something that actually matters and then it will throw it all away for a cheap sex gag — har har. There’s a moment where Douglas is illustrating how much ire Connor has wrought with visual metaphors. It begins to rain and he says that the downpour is made up of all the tears shed from ex-girlfriends and flings. Then it starts raining ripped pieces of confetti, and this we are told is all the tissues used. And then comes all the used condoms, and we watch Connor try and take cover before the aerial assault of used (and presumably “filled”) contraceptives annihilates him. It’s kind of gross and tonally disjointed from the rest of the sappy, happy PG-13 storyline.

The movie is at its most amusing when it’s riffing on the expectations of following the Christmas Carol model. Connor is quite aware of the tried-and-true formula, so his comments along the way provide the movie’s only genuine laughs outside of Douglas. Really, Douglas’ character is the most entertaining character, and I kept wishing that the film would follow him even after death. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch the life of a ghost involved in a Christmas Carol scenario? I imagine it would be a bit like a play rehearsal. I would enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the scenario. I want to see ghostly foremen plot out unique scenarios for a list of real-life Scrooge cases, I want to see the ghost tryouts, I want to see the mechanics involved in the spiritual setup for this whole process. I enjoyed watching Uncle Wayne hit on his fellow spirits. But I suppose that approach would be too literary and break away from the cozy confines of the stillborn romantic comedy genre. And to prove that it is indeed a romantic comedy by the numbers, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past even includes the last minute dash to stop the romantic party from leaving via some method of transportation.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past manages to squander every opportunity it has to be a better movie. The central idea could have worked but the execution is exceedingly lazy, charmless, and degrading to women in particular. The comic scenarios miss out on better laughs, and some of the better laughs are obvious and just around the corner, but the film routinely falls back on being a sexual farce. The characters don’t feel remotely like people and Connor is a terrible lead character with unfunny dialogue that reduces women to disposable pleasures. His transformation is contrived even for a romantic comedy. I’m not saying a cad character could not make for an entertaining lead here. Clearly Douglas is the best character, and his sleazy 1970s swinging sexpot has a fun Bob Evans vibe. Every moment he’s onscreen the movie comes alive in a new way, and Douglas is an actor that knows how to make lecherous appealing and appalling at the same time, like what Michael Caine pulled off in Alfie. This movie pales in comparison. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been visited by the most important spirit of them all – the Spirit of Screenplay Rewrites.

Nate’s Grade: C-

27 Dresses (2008)

Katherine Hiegl is a likeable enough actress. She got her big break in 1994’s My Father the Hero, which had the exceptionally gross premise of having an adolescent’s father posing as her European lover to score the guy she’s really got her eyes on. The most memorable moment of the movie was a 15-year-old Heigl strutting around in a thong bathing suit. Her resume got better with a steady stream of network TV shows like Roswell and Grey’s Anatomy, and then she broke into another level of stardom thanks to the runaway success of [I]Knocked Up[/I] where she carried Seth Rogen’s baby. Then she told Vanity Fair that she felt Knocked Up was “sexist” and that the women were portrayed as shrews and that the men were fun-loving dudes (I must have seen a somewhat different movie). She’s entitled to her opinion, but what seems very odd is that Heigl’s follow-up to her breakout role is 27 Dresses, a romantic comedy about a woman who is a perennial bridesmaid and yearns for her own perfect wedding when her life will be complete.

Jane (Heigl) busies her time helping others to have heir ideal weddings. She has contributed to so many wedding ceremonies that she has amassed a closet full of 27 bridesmaid dresses that serve as trophies. Jane is in love with weddings. She is also harboring a crush on her boss (Edward Burns, wooden as always) that seems to be going nowhere. Jane’s younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes to visit and immediately hooks up with Jane’s boss/crush. Jane’s wisecracking best friend (Judy Greer) is quick with a quip and declares Tess to be some very negative terms. Poor plain Jane is also taken aback when she meets wedding columnist, Kevin (James Marsden), whose fawning words about weddings are like poetry for Jane. He turns out to be a cynical guy who feels weddings and marriages are “the last legal form of slavery.” When Tess gets engaged to the boss man, wedding responsibilities fall upon Jane and Kevin is right beside her, ready to trade barbs about romance and perhaps start one of his own.

27 Dresses hews pretty close to the familiar romantic comedy formula trappings. Opposites attract, bickering will lead to romance, and then true love will overcome all misunderstandings, that’s a given. Another given is the fact that we will get a montage of Heigl trying on all 27 titular dresses. 27 Dresses also includes the wisecracking best friend who has no purpose of her own but to comment on the troubles of our heroine with stark bluntness. Once again, this is the type of film where one character has some earlier, negative opinion or statement that resurfaces late to bite them in the ass after they have learned how flawed and shallow that original opinion was (otherwise known as the 11th hour misunderstanding). One party has a personal epiphany and runs to catch the other party leaving by some means of transportation (I’ve seen boats, taxis, motorcycles, barges, but usually they run to catch a plane). And then there’s the sing-a-long; oh what romantic comedy would be worth its salt if it didn’t include a group sing-a-long to some older tune that just united everyone in spontaneous song? 27 Dresses uses Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to rock out a beer bar. Really, “Benny and the Jets”? Rocking out a bar? And it’s not even a gay bar? Hmm. 27 Dresses is rather predictable from the first frame onward, but familiarity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for a strictly genre movie.

I’ve seen plenty of romantic comedies and I like to judge them fairly, so I use my patented cute-to-cringe count whereby I take stock of the number of times I smile, laugh, or find a moment, line of dialogue, or even choice of song that leaves a favorable impression. I then compare this figure with the number of times I want to roll my eyes, check my watch (if I had one), vomit, or any piece of dialogue or moment that feels so saccharine, so unbelievable even in the rom-com universe that I want to laugh derisively. The final tally for 27 Dresses was somewhere in the middle but I’ll admit it skewed closer to the positive “cute” side of the spectrum.

The acting overall really helps to make the most of the formulaic material. Heigl seems destined to thrive in the rom-com genre; she has an every girl appeal and seems apt making funny faces of seething indignation (take note of the amount of times she uses food in her mouth for comic effect). She seems like the heir apparent to Sandra Bullock movies. Her chemistry with Marsden is ripe and they bring out good thing in one another with their playful give-and-take. Marsden has a terrific smile (seriously, the man might have the best choppers in the industry) and is suitably dreamy but he also has an enjoyably droll delivery. Akerman plays a spoiled brat well, though she isn’t given the opportunities to flash her rather skillful comic skills that she displayed in The Heartbreak Kid remake. Greer is a top-notch scene-stealer and deserves her character deserves her own movie. She has the most fun role to play but Greer sinks her teeth into the character and delivers a juicy performance that feels slightly naughty, uncensored, and carefree.

The movie falters when it trips up in maintaining believability. There’s an extensive scene in a Goth bar/club where the costumed extras are acting like… costumed extras. It’s the least believable Goth club I have ever seen in a movie, not that I was expecting Hollywood fluff to pain an accurate picture. It’s just wall-to-wall stereotypes, but not only that, they’re distracting and lame and dated stereotypes. Then Jane marches outside to scream to the heavens an expletive-filled rant about her bad luck when, ut oh, right next door to the Goth club is an old couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. What? Grandma and grandpa Old People celebrating their marriage vows next door to a Goth club? This incongruous setting takes a long, long while to set up one very blah joke that could have functioned anywhere. Realistically, the joke is that Jane is swearing unbeknownst to others, so why even have it next to the world’s crummiest Goth club? If you’re going that route, why not have grandma and grandpa Old People dressed in tacky Goth apparel as well? This may become my most nit-picky criticism of all of 2008 but it really stuck in my craw.

A better example is how the film handles Jane’s bratty sister, Tess. For 90 minutes we bare witness to Tess being a thoughtless, self-absorbed, lying, horrible human specimen, and then the movie tries to change strides. In the very end, it wants us to open up and look at Tess’ life and realize that she doesn’t have it so awesome because she was fired and dumped. Oh my, that must be perfectly excusable then for her rampant inexcusable, me-first behavior. If 27 Dresses has an antagonist in its midst than Tess is that bridezilla. The movie plays her bitchiness for comedy but then wants an audience to forget every whine and betrayal because, woe is her life, Tess wants to be happy. Tess remains an unsympathetic twit from beginning to end, no matter how hard the movie and its soft piano score try to change your mind.

The fact that 27 Dresses thought it could throw in some contradictory evidence at the last minute to make an audience forgive Tess is very telling. It showcases that the film has a hard time grasping the realities of characterization; Kevin is cynical about weddings because he was stood up at his; Jane must focus on making others happy because she is afraid of focusing on her self; Ed Burns is a douche. That isn’t necessarily an indictment on the film per se, just my honest opinion. 27 Dresses spells everything out in bold statements that hit like anvils, like when Kevin’s news editor congratulates him on his front-age story ridiculing Jane: “Hey, you got what you wanted, right?” Gag. The movie is too lockstep with the genre’s clichés that it doesn’t push hard enough with its characters, so we get plenty of intermittently cute moments but cute moments that will be easily forgotten and stored away like one of Jane’s hideous bridesmaids gowns.

27 Dresses is more or less par for the course in a genre littered with sappy clichés and cookie-cutter characterizations, and yet the movie possesses enough charm to outdistance its lapses in believability. The acting ensemble help make the movie enjoyable in parts, especially the chemistry between Heigl and Marsden. 27 Dresses passes the time but you wish that Heigl, Marsden, and especially Greer would be teleported to a better movie. One free from bitchy younger sisters, bar sing-a-longs, giddy dress-up montages, and Ed Burns. Did I mention that his character is a douche?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker I generally admire. He makes highly enjoyable fables about love conquering all, grand romantic gestures, and finding your voice. His track record speaks for itself: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (I forgive him the slipshod remake of Vanilla Sky, though it did have great artistry and a bitchin’ soundtrack). Crowe is a writer that can zero in on character with the precision of a surgeon. He’s a man that can turn simple formula (boy meets girl) and spin mountains of gold. With these possibly unfair expectations, I saw Elizabethtown while visiting my fiancé in New Haven, Connecticut. We made a mad dash to the theater to be there on time, which involved me ordering tickets over my cell phone. I was eager to see what Crowe had in store but was vastly disappointed with what Elizabethtown had to teach me.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) opens the film by narrating the difference between a failure and a fiasco. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the corporate cross-hairs for the latter. Drew is responsible for designing a shoe whose recall will cost his company an astounding “billion with a B” dollars (some research of an earlier cut of the film says the shoe whistled while you ran). His boss (Alec Baldwin) takes Drew aside to allow him to comprehend the force of such a loss. Drew returns to his apartment fully prepared to engineer his own suicide machine, which naturally falls apart in a great comedic beat. Interrupting his plans to follow career suicide with personal suicide is a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer). Turns out Drew’s father has died on a trip visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew is sent on a mission from his mother (Susan Sarandon) to retrieve his father and impart the family’s wishes. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew gets his brain picked by Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a cheery flight attendant. While Drew is surrounded by his extended family and their down homsey charm and eccentricities, he seeks out some form of release and calls Claire. They talk for hours upon hours and form a fast friendship and stand on the cusp of maybe something special.

I think the most disappointing aspect of Elizabethtown for me is how it doesn’t have enough depth to it. Crowe definitely wears his heart on his sleeve but has never been clumsy about it. Elizabethtown wants to be folksy and cute and impart great lessons about love, life, and death. You can’t reach that plateau when you have characters walking around stating their inner feelings all the time, like Drew and Claire do. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that explain any intended subtext. Crowe squanders his film’s potential by stuffing too many storylines into one pot, thus leaving very little attachment to any character. Elizabethtown has some entertaining details, chiefly Chuck and Cindy’s drunk-on-love wedding, but the film as a whole feels too loose and disconnected to hit any emotional highs. If you want a better movie about self-reawakening, rent Garden State. If you want a better movie about dealing with loss, rent Moonlight Mile.

This is Bloom’s first test of acting that doesn’t involve a faux British accent and some kind of heavy weaponry. The results are not promising. Bloom is a pin-up come to life like a female version of Weird Science, a living mannequin, possibly an alien with great skin, but he isn’t a real compelling actor. He has about two emotions in his repertoire. His whiny American-ized accent seems to be playing a game of tag. He’s not a bad actor per se; he just gets the job done without leaving any sort of impression. To paraphrase Claire, he’s a “substitute leading man.”

Dunst is chirpy, kooky and cute-as-a-button but is better in small doses. Her accent is much more convincing than Bloom’s. Sarandon deserves pity for being involved in Elizabethtown‘s most improbable, cringe-worthy moment. At her husband’s wake, she turns her time of reflection into a talent show with a stand-up routine and then a horrifying tap dance. Apparently this gesture wins over the extended family who has hated her for decades. Greer (The Village) is utterly wasted in a role that approximates a cameo. Without a doubt, the funniest and most memorable performance is delivered by Baldwin, who perfectly mixes menace and amusement. He takes Drew on a tour of some of the consequences of the loss of a billion dollars, including the inevitable closing of his Wildlife Watchdog group. “We could have saved the planet,” Baldwin says in the most comically dry fashion. Baldwin nails the balance between discomfort and bewilderment.

Elizabethtown wants to be another of Crowe’s smart, feel-good sentimental field trips, but it falls well short. I was dumbfounded to see how little the story progressed. It lays the groundwork for a menagerie of subplots and then, in a rush to finish, caps everyone off with some emotionally unearned payoff. To put it simply, Elizabethtown wants credit and refuses to show its work. The film is packed with characters and ideas before succumbing into an interminable travelogue of America in its closing act, but what cripples Crowe’s film about opening up to emotional growth is that the movie itself doesn’t showcase growth. We see the rough and tumble beginnings of everyone, we see the hugs-all-around end, but we don’t witness that most critical movement that takes the audience from Point A to Point B. The results are beguiling and quite frustrating. Take the subplot about Drew’s cousin, who can?t connect to his father either and wants to be friends to his own son, a shrill little terror, instead of a father. Like most of Elizabethtown‘s storylines, these subplots die of neglect until a half-hearted nod to wrap everything up. Father sees son perform and all is well. Son does little to discipline child but all is well. Elizabethtown is sadly awash in undeveloped storylines and characters and unjustified emotions, and when they’re unjustified we go from sentiment (warm and fuzzy) to schmaltz (eye-rolling and false). I truly thought Crowe would know better than this.

Crowe has always been the defacto master of marrying music to film. Does anyone ever remember people singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before its virtuoso appearance in 2000’s Almost Famous? Crowe has a nimble ear but his penchant for emotional catharsis set to song gets the better of him with Elizabethtown. There’s just way too many musical montages (10? 15?) covering the emotional ground caused by the script’s massive shortcomings. By the time a montage is followed by another montage, you may start growing an unhealthy ire for acoustic guitar. Because there are so many unproductive musical numbers and montages, especially when we hit the last formless act, Elizabethtown feels like Crowe is shooting the soundtrack instead of a story.

Elizabethtown is an under-cooked, unfocused travelogue set to music. Crowe intends his personal venture to belt one from the heart, but like most personal ventures the significance can rarely translate to a third party. It’s too personal a film to leave any lasting power, like a friend narrating his vacation slide show. Elizabethtown is gestating with plot lines that it can’t devote time to, even time to merely show the progression of relationships. The overload of musical montages makes the movie feels like the longest most somber music video ever. Bloom’s limited acting isn’t doing anyone any favors either. In the end, it all rings too phony and becomes too meandering to be entertaining. Elizabethtown is a journey the film won’t even let you ride along for. This movie isn’t an outright fiasco but given Crowe’s remarkable track record it can’t help but be anything but a failure.

Nate’s Grade: C

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