When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.
I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.
The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.
The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.
I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.
A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.
Nate’s Grade: B
Surprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In the five years since 2007’s comedy smash, Knocked Up, writer/director Judd Apatow has ascended to heights in Hollywood that few ever achieve. And while his disappointing 2009 film Funny People may have been an example of the man flying too close to the sun (let’s mix metaphors, why not?), he’s had a stable career guiding mostly hit comedies to big numbers, particularly last year’s Bridesmaids. For Apatow’s next directing effort, he picks up a handful of supporting characters from Knocked Up and gives them their own spotlight. This is 40 is Apatow’s “sort-of sequel.” It may seem familiar in tone and style to his previous efforts, but there’s one big difference between this film and Apatow’s previous works. This movie never feels like it goes anywhere. Even Funny People went somewhere even if I disliked it.
Five years after the events of Knocked Up, Peter (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are struggling to keep their household afloat and sane. Their daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, (played by Apatow’s real daughters, Maude and Iris), are constantly fighting, Debbie’s worried one of her employees is stealing from her business, and Pete’s trying to save his record company without alerting his family to his panic. Pete has put all his efforts into promoting a new album from 1970s rocker Graham Parker, but really he’s fighting a losing battle against mainstream taste. Pete has also been secretly loaning out money to his no-good father (Albert Brooks), while Debbie has been trying to reconnect with her distant biological father (John Lithgow). Weirdly enough, both fathers have started secondary families and have broods of young children. As Debbie and Pete both approach the big 4-0, both of them make resolutions to better themselves, renew their family bonding, and reignite the spark in their romance. Of course, after two kids and several years of marriage tallied, it’s easier said than done.
The Apatow films have always had their own loping rhythm to them, an easygoing quality that isn’t as directed by plot as character. So when I say that This is 40 feels rather aimless, I want readers to recognize that this goes beyond the normal loosely plotted Apatow affairs. Usually his movies have defined events to direct the overall trajectory of the plot; a baby on the way, losing one’s virginity, etc. I’m hard pressed to say what exactly is the direction of This is 40. It’s about the ups and downs of a married couple, but there isn’t necessarily any definable conflict. They’re sort of in a malaise and internalizing their unhappiness, but the movie is the sum total of many small conflicts that never seem to congeal. As a result, the movie feels like it’s often coasting, going beat-for-beat until something new takes it on a mild diversion. It’s a movie of diversions without a unifying path. Sure the couple becomes, presumably, stronger by the end of the film, but I can’t say what’s taken place to explain this progression. The movie plays out like a series of loosely connected scenes. I enjoyed myself, and found the movie often amusing, but I kept wondering what it was amounting to. It was never enough of a niggling concern to stop from being entertaining, but when it was done, I thought to myself that I just watched Apatow’s friends hang out for two hours and call it a movie.
There’s also the issue of indicating this is a sequel to Knocked Up or at least exists within the same universe. There’s very little continuity between the two films other than Pete and Debbie’s family. Jason Segel (The Muppets) and Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart) make reappearances playing characters with the same names, but they don’t seem like the same characters (though the gyno doc is the same – hooray). My major sticking point is the complete absence of the stars of Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl). Now I wasn’t expecting a drawn out cameo from these two, especially after Heigl publicly badmouthed Apatow and the movie that made her a star. I did expect some passing reference, even something as small as, “Ben and Alison are looking at schools for their daughter.” I just wanted something to feel satisfied. Where this becomes a problem is that I’m fairly certain that Ben and Alison would be attending several of these major social events for their family members. They make a big deal about Pete’s 40th birthday party, so why wouldn’t Ben and Alison be there? And with her litany of marital woes, wouldn’t Debbie seek out, you know, her sister to talk with, the same sister she hung out with all the time in Knocked Up? Apatow might as well have just given everyone a new name if this was as sequel-y as This is 40 was daring to go.
Part of my lukewarm reception to the film is likely my lack of empathy with the problems of the main characters. Good storytelling should allow anyone to be able to empathize with characters dissimilar to themselves. I found many of the problems in This is 40 to be the stuff of rich fantasy. Pete is worried his record company, that he started, might not make it. He’s also been secretly giving his mooch of a father $80,000 (!) over the years. Maybe these people could stand to cut back and live within their means. Their house is huge, downright opulent, and it seems like Pete has wasted plenty of money on needless expenditures, which his own employees eventually point out at work. Did they need a big 40th birthday bash? Do their kids need every expensive gadget? When they take a vacation, does it need to be in a lavish hotel along the beach? I found too many of these complaints to be whiny and indulgent. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious relationship problems that are given thoughtful attention. This is 40 is arguably Apatow’s most mature and reflective film yet, though that might be faint praise to some. I would rather the movie spent more time focusing on the relatable concerns of a relationship crumbling rather than the stress of possibly having to move from a super-rich house to a merely somewhat rich house.
And yet the movie is routinely funny and charming, thanks to the Apatow standards of cast camaraderie, character, and the mixture of raunch with sweetness. I like these characters and so I enjoy spending time with them, and even if I feel like we’re not going anywhere fast, I don’t mind that much. I’ll gladly spend two plus hours with these funny people and their mid-life crises comic follies, at least once. The characters are well drawn and played by capable comic players that can do their Apatow jazz deal, finding peculiar riffs to work and squeeze out mirth. I thought a discussion over the appeal of being a widower and the fantasy of a spouse’s untimely demise to be quite funny as well as a topic generally unspoken (“This is the mother of your children we’re talking about. You want her to go peacefully.”). Rudd (Wanderlust) and Mann (The Change-Up) are terrific together and entirely convincing as a longstanding couple, people who know the ins and outs of one another. It’s fascinating just to watch the nuts and bolts of a relationship that is still a battle; it also helps when you like both participants and find that they each have valid points. Though I cannot fathom how hiding impending financial doom is a smart move.
Apatow does a fine job of making sure the dramatic parts do not overweigh the film, usually settling things with a nicely punctuated joke or pop-culture critique (oddly enough, TV’s LOST becomes a major reoccurring gag, though you expect a bit more of a comedic payoff when they get to the controversial finale). I’m not sure that many people are going to know who Graham Parker is, but here he is folks. There are a lot of Apatow players peopled throughout, like Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (TV’s Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), making fine work with minimal screen time. You’ll recognize other familiar faces as well. Occasionally the jokes feel like they go on too long, catching the downward slope of an overstayed improv riff, but I was laughing throughout and enjoyed the unpredictable nature scene to scene. You’ll likely predict the outcomes for certain storylines and conflicts, since Apatow is a sucker for the squishy ending, but you’ll feel like it got there on its own relative terms. It’s not exactly a happy ending but it’s a less unhappy ending.
There are plenty of supporting actors that shine in this movie, though I feel that I need to single out the great Albert Brooks (Drive). He plays such a passive-aggressive, manipulative, mooch of a father, but he does it in a way that almost wins you over, how straightforward he is with his bad behavior. When Pete tells him he cannot loan any more money, Brooks blithely, almost cheerily, theorizes that murdering some of his recent kids can solve this problem. He marches out, gets a hose, and asks the kids to volunteer who wants to be murdered. It’s scenes like this that manage to be funny but also cutting to a dramatic truth that the film hovers around, occasionally hitting the bullseye. Megan Fox (Transformers) is also enjoyable as a, what else, vivacious employee men are falling all over themselves for. And even Apatow’s own kids give rather strong performances, now playing actual characters rather than scene-stealers. Maude, the oldest, has a lot of dramatic scenes as the teenager daughter coming to grips with hormones and her crazy parents. The Apatow clan might just get some outside work after people see dad’s movie.
While I doubt Apatow has made any sort of definitive statement on what it means to approach four decades worth of life (and poop jokes), This is 40 is a perceptive and enjoyable movie even if it feels like a collection of scenes. Good thing I like these characters and enjoy spending time with them, otherwise I might find this whole film to be a bit aimless and self-indulgent. Seriously, how many scenes are there going to be of people singing along to music? This is 40 has enough going for it, be it comedy or some insightful dramatic moments, though it keeps an audience a bit removed due to the unrelatable nature of their posh problems. If there’s a This is 50 in the works, next time get me some more Rogen time. I’d rather watch him deal with raising a teenage girl in the age of social media. You don’t have to know anything about Knocked Up to follow along with This is 40, but then again, if you haven’t seen Knocked Up, just go watch that movie instead. Trust me.
Nate’s Grade: B
The gorgeously animated stop-motion film ParaNorman is a terrific sight for the eyes. There’s a certain magic to stop-motion, the tangible nature of it all, the knowledge that these intricate worlds actually existed. Like Coraline, the previous film by the same animation house, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this handcrafted world. The animation is so fluid, so sprightly, and displays a rich artistic tone. The story, about a kid who can see ghosts, is noticeably less ambitious. The characters are a tad one-dimensional (bratty older sister, dimwitted jock, socially awkward chubby best friend, etc.) and the plot is fairly predictable, but what really elevates ParaNorman is its sense of humor. I was laughing heartily throughout the movie, not just a giggle or a chortle but good, solid laughs. ParaNorman has an irreverent sense of humor with some surprisingly adult-oriented gags (nothing to worry about parents). With these virtues, the movie becomes an entertaining horror comedy aimed at young teens and older adults. It’s a fun movie, short of a saggy second act, and the animation is aces.
Nate’s Grade: B
For once, I’d love somebody to construct a body-swap movie where the characters realize the tropes and clichés of the body-swap pictures, a parody of the genre. It’d be nice if the characters instantly accepted their situation and knew that they would each have to learn some form of a life-lesson before changing back, and they tried to falsely engineer these saccharine life-lessons. Then it would be fun if they rented all the body-swap movies to write down notes and pointers on how best to deal with their unusual situation. Then, and here’s the best part, both body-swap participants realize that they prefer their new situations. They reject turning back and simply enjoy the whims that come with their new existential home. They reject learning life-lessons and simply make the best of things. For a brief second, I thought The Change-Up might be that very movie but no such luck.
Dave (Jason Bateman) is a business-obsessed lawyer working his way to make partner in his firm. His wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and his three children, including twin babies, are neglected at home. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a struggling actor/womanizer who inexplicably is best friends with Dave. After a night at a bar, the fellas relieve themselves in a public fountain. The fountain lady statue obviously has taken offense and thus curses the both of them. The next morning, each awakes to discover they are in different bodies. The business guy has to act like a jerk! The jerk has to act like a business guy! And then there’s the matter of Jamie, who Dave/Mitch has strictly forbidden Mitch/Dave from sleeping with. Complicating matters further, the fountain has been moved by the Atlanta parks department and lost in bureaucratic limbo.
I knew I was in trouble by the first minute of the grossly unfunny Change-Up. Not only do we suffer a poop joke so early, we have to witness a baby firing a stream of fecal matter into Dave’s open mouth. That’s just a taste of the unpleasantness that follows. The movie plays like an exaggerated, sophomoric cartoon written by children. It seems to exist in the same broad universe of 2009’s abominable rom/com The Ugly Truth. What I wrote for that movie could easily apply to The Change-Up: “It’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy.” I’m not opposed to raunchy sex comedies. However, I am opposed to sex comedies that can’t figure out how to be funny without relying on easy gags. There’s a difference between gross-out humor and simply being gross, though I don’t believe this film knows what that difference is. So we’re treated to an over-the-hill porn star, some anal defilement, a voraciously sexual nine-months pregnant lady, even more poop jokes, and 90 minutes of penis discussion. There’s one actually interesting section where the guys debate the moral ambiguity of body-swap sex. Is it really cheating if Dave/Mitch is in somebody else’s body? What is Mitch/Dave to do if his wife wants to have relations? Sadly, this lone moment of interest is crushed to death by more penis jokes and then forgotten. Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Bateman (Horrible Bosses) try to stay above the fray, fighting the good fight, but even they succumb to the unfunny script and disjointed direction.
After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Mitch persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. He’s egotistical, mean-spirited, and constantly boorish to every person in Dave’s life. He’s cruel to the daughter, he tells Dave’s wife that she’s not attractive, and then there’s the babies whom he treats like a couple of rag dolls to toss around. At one point, Mitch/Dave is on the phone and the kids are left to get in trouble with the kitchen. We’re not talking about getting messy with food, we’re talking sticking their tiny hands in a spinning blender, throwing knives, and licking electrical outlets (it’s like the Roger Rabbit cartoon that opened that flick). Instead of getting off the phone immediately, he continues talking and casually tends to the troubled tots per potential disaster. He teaches Dave’s daughter “violence is always the answer.” Mitch is an unrepentant jerk, and even when Bateman plays Mitch he’s still irredeemable. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious guy just because his dad thinks low of him? I think low of him. I detest him. Therefore, when Mitch/Dave is having his Big Emotional Catharsis, it seems facile and hollow. We can generally find a point of likeability for uncouth characters, but not Mitch. As presented, this character has no introspection and few redeeming qualities, so why do I want to spend nearly two hours with this person? You’d think Dave would be the “nice guy” alternative, but he’s smarmy and neglectful too. Besides the “family man/pussy” and “playboy/prick” designations, the characters aren’t different enough to warrant a change of scenery.
The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples, which has always befuddled me why this is more acceptable (“I’ll let everyone see 95% of my breasts but if it comes to nipple that’s too far.”). The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower amongst you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. But why was any of this necessary? Wilde’s done nudity before in 2007’s Alpha Dog (go head and Google it, horndogs). Granted the actress has a much higher profile now but why must we go through this dastardly trickery? Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts (where is the media’s feminist outrage when it’s needed?). My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts, normally a point of internal celebration now a confusing mystery again?!
The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, nasty, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.
Nate’s Grade: D+
In two short years, Judd Apatow has become the king of comedy. He’s co-written and directed two bona fide hits that will go down as comedy classics (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), and produced gut-busters with heart, like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Apatow brand of comedy centers on characters and less on contrived set pieces. He’s built up enough comedy capital in Hollywood that he felt he could write and direct a project less ideally commercial, something tagged as being more personal and serious like in the James L. Brooks mold. Funny People is the mixed results. I applaud Apatow for trying to grow as an artist, but as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Funny People is a broken movie that isn’t funny enough to be fully redeemed.
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a famous comedy actor that has made several hit Hollywood comedies. He may live in a giant mansion but his life is extremely isolated and lonely. He has no real close friends and years ago he drove away the love of his life, Laura (Leslie Mann). He has no one to comfort him in his time of need. This prickly man has been informed that he has a terminal blood disease. Simmons decides to go back to his comedy roots, to stand-up, and it is there that he meets the young comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira has grown up with the comedy of George Simmons, so he is flabbergasted when the man himself asks Ira to write jokes for him. Ira’s roommates, fellow stand-up comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and crappy sitcom actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), can’t believe his dumb luck. Ira and Simmons build an unorthodox friendship, and Ira is the only person George has confided in about his disease and his fear of dying. And then something amazing happens. George Simmons gets better. He’s got a new lease on life and he aims his attentions on the girl that got away. Laura is married to Clarke (Eric Bana), a handsome Australian businessman, and she has two adorable kids (Apatow’s own girls), which makes it a very poor time to restart her romance with George.
Funny People is the first Apatow-helmed film that feels sadly incomplete, even at two and a half hours. The movie is staggeringly sloppy when it comes to plot structure and character work. First off, when a character is informed that he has a terminal illness at minute three, it doesn’t have the impact that it would if the audience got to know and feel for that individual. In fact, the first half of this movie feels like, and this may get confusing, the second half of another movie. It centers on a selfish character coming to grips with his choices in life, mostly wrong, and beginning to reconnect with people once more, building a mentor friendship and finding the “one that got away.” But there are segments during this first half of Funny People where the impact just cannot be felt because the dramatic legwork has not been achieved. Watching Simmons’ estranged family berate him through tears doesn’t have much of an impact when they discover the news. Seeing George Simmons spend his potential last days jamming with Jack White and other musicians is cool, but it doesn’t come across as anything but another indication that the fake George Simmons is famous in this alternative Los Angeles. It doesn’t have setup, like Simmons talking about one of his life’s pleasures is strumming the guitar or playing before things got complicated. So it’s basically just another celebrity cameo snapshot. While I’m on the topic, the multitudes of celebrity cameos are strangely unfunny, save for a bit where Sarah Silverman describes her lady parts.
This is also the first Apatow comedy where it feels like twenty percent of what I saw promised from TV spots, trailers, making-of specials (there was a good one on Comedy Central to check), the advertising unit if you will, was not in the movie. This gave me the distinct impression that even at a lengthy 150 minutes that Funny People feels misshapen, that there are swaths of material on the cutting room floor that would have assisted the narrative and sad amount of underwritten supporting characters. I’m not saying Funny People would necessarily be a better movie at three hours length, but it would at least feel more fully formed and satisfying.
The main problem with the film, outside of the reverse plot structure, is that everything just goes slack during the uneven second half. George and Ira spend about an hour of the movie with Laura and her family, and it feels like one long uncomfortable detour. Part of the squirmy feeling is intentional, as the audience is supposed to be in Ira’s shoes and see George’s homewrecking as the bad decision train wreck it is. But I also felt uncomfortable because George kept extending his stay day after day and I was getting impatient. I wanted these characters to head back to L.A. and deal more with the Ira/George relationship. During this second half, Ira becomes a background figure that is good for nervous reaction shots. This stalls all the character work that had been done up to this point and Ira goes to pause mode for an hour. This second half section isn’t particularly funny, it isn’t romantic, and it gives little insights into the past between George and Laura. She has established a nice living for herself, with two cute kids and a hunky husband who seems to be a good father when he’s around. In fact, despite the movie’s insistence that Clarke is a cheater (thus ensuring the movie law that it is then acceptable to cheat on him), I found myself liking the hyperactive and sensitive lout. Every plot movement in this second half feels wrong, some of it intentional, but it makes Funny People feel like it has been hijacked and taken hostage. Where did the movie I was kinda liking go? What happened here? This hour feels like a separate movie and one that Funny People would have benefited from simply being dropped entirely.
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Mad Men in anticipation of its third season, but this movie also disappoints by failing to delve into the creative process of comedians. Despite its running time and subject matter, there isn’t that much standup witnessed. Usually the movie will display about one line or one bit and then cut back to the characters offstage again. We don’t get to see the evolution of comedy or the professionals talking shop about what makes a good joke. There isn’t even much collaboration, so we don’t get to see multiple minds banging out jokes together. There’s a comedian named Randy (Aziz Ansari) who is popular with audiences because he’s loud and spastic, and all the other comedians hate him, but then the movie doesn’t return to this. Go back to this topic. I want to hear more about the divisions within the comedy world, the people that feel like they are more pure or textured in their funny compared to the people that play to the crowd and lap up the easy yuks. Ira’s character work is mostly explored through his changing standup persona, where he seems to gain more confidence and a voice. But there’s this whole other storyline where Ira is a “joke thief” and takes other people’s material and repackages it as his own. This is an interesting story and provides conflict and glimpses into the character of Ira as an insecure and ethically challenged opportunist in a competitive field. It makes him a more dynamic character. I saw more of this storyline in the making-of special for Funny People, and sadly it is only hinted at in the final product. The other comedy players, like Ira’s roommates and his quasi-love interest (Aubrey Plaza), are barely explored as people and professionals.
Apatow comedies are notable for being character-based, but Funny People doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing characters that you want to be around. I found little reason to care. I found most of the characters to not be engaging; some were unlikable but most were simply flat. George Simmons is supposed to be a selfish man, though there’s something inherently selfish about being famous in Hollywood. Comedy itself is inherently selfish, where individuals guard their observations and exploit personal stories for the endorphin highs of audience approval. Is successful comedy linked to selling out? Funny People occasionally visits the dark recesses that comedians utilize for material, like self-lacerating humiliation and family trauma that gets aired out as a means of therapy. Simmons is a selfish and lonely guy and the point of the whole movie is that even after a near-death experience, he’s still selfish and lonely. He’s said he’s changed but has he really? That seems to be the movie’s cosmic joke. This is clearly a personal movie for Apatow, which might explain why it has less resonance for an audience that isn’t as steeped in the history of comedy or the rigors of fame. I just don’t have the same point of interest.
Sandler revealed his acting talent in 2002’s beguiling Punch-Drunk Love, and in Funny People he plays a completely different character than his other adolescent roles. He doesn’t pander to be likable at any point, and he’s generally standoffish from beginning to end. He hasn’t done a lewd, crude movie in over ten years, and this return to raunch rekindles the Sandler I remember listening to constantly in the mid 1990s. This role isn’t as taxing for him as an actor, nor is he given too many chances to reveal deeper layers to George Simmons. I think this is by design from Apatow. Rogen is less his charming self and during the second half of the movie he pretty much shifts his eyes and makes pained faces. He feels at ease in the stand-up sequences, probably because Rogen performed stand-up comedy when he was 13. Mann gets her biggest acting role in years and cries enough, but it made me realize that she works best as an actress that can steal scenes rather than an actress who has scenes built around her. I think Bana (Star Trek) actually comes off the best. He showcases an exuberance for comedy not seen before, and when his character gets emotional it still manages to be funny and believable.
In the end, Funny People just isn’t that funny. There aren’t any particularly clever comedic setups, the characters don’t get many chances to be humorous even as comedians, and the movie just goes slack during its uncomfortable and uneven second half. The Hollywood satire lacks bite, and the best bits are saved for the scathingly unhip and formulaic “Yo, Teach!” sitcom of Schwartzman’s. Apatow is more interested in purging a personal tale onto the screen rather than fashioning a relatable mainstream comedy. I feel that the salutations that Funny People is “more challenging” and “serious” are unwarranted. This is certainly a different movie but is it any more serious than navigating the uncertainty and awkwardness of an unplanned pregnancy or beginning sexuality at middle age? I don’t think so. Beyond this, the movie doesn’t establish its plot well and spends far too much time in side diversions, failing to round out characters and ignoring intriguing premises and storylines. Even the camaraderie, usually a hallmark of Apatow productions, feels lost as the characters have much more friction. On a personal note, I saw this movie while I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. On our car ride back to our beach house, my wife and I got into a car accident. We were both physically fine but her little Ford Focus was totaled. I will now forever associate Funny People with a car accident. If that isn’t enough of an on-the-nose metaphor, while we waited along the hot road for police and tow trucks, I thought to myself, “I just wish the movie was worth this.” It wasn’t.
Nate’s Grade: C
My introduction to tween sensation Zac Efron came last fall. After hearing about the dominance of the High School Musical franchise I decided to finally watch the first made-for-Disney Channel film and see why exactly tween girls were screaming themselves hoarse. And after watching the musical I felt, well, how can I put this diplomatically? It sucked. Hard. First off, the plot only covered auditioning for a musical, not the actual show. What the heck is up with that? How does a movie musical climax around callbacks? Amidst the bland vanilla pop tunes, goofy hoofing, and painfully simplistic life lessons about class-consciousness, there was the overall dreadful acting by the cast. Efron wasn’t the worst actor of the lot but he seemed to go on autopilot, beaming dreamily and leaving his mouth agape long enough to stockpile flies for a long winter. I could not understand why young girls and the media were making such a fuss over Efron. I am clearly not in Efron’s core flock of fawning fans, but after catching his fairly nimble work in 17 Again I think perhaps this guy might be able to break out from the clutches of Disney and grow into his own, unlike Miss Miley Cyrus, who I believe has an ankle bracelet that will detonate if she travels further than 100 feet from the Disney execs. They don’t want another Hilary Duff getting away and sticking a scorpion down her shorts (see: War, Inc.).
Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) hates his life. He’s 37, just been passed over for a promotion at his job, is getting divorced from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his two teenage children (Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg) think dear old dad is a doofus. Apparently, everything was better 20 years ago, in 1989 when Mike was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who had his whole life ahead of him, until he walked out on a climactic game to tend to Scarlett, who just revealed that she was pregnant. Mike wishes he had one last shot to be 17 and have his whole life ahead of him again. Thanks to a magic janitor (I believe it’s really the magic hobo from The Polar Express, except now he’s gone through a work program and become a respectable community custodian), Mike transforms into the visage of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Mike seeks help from his childhood pal Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who poses as Mike’s father and enrolls him in the same high school his children attend. This leads to many awkward family encounters.
The body swap genre can be counted on for some decent fish-out-of-water laughs and some earned wisdom. Usually transporting young people into older bodies allows for more comedy because it leads to more socially awkward moments and the exaggerations of trying to be old before your time. 17 Again is consistently amusing enough and I was pleased that it found fun plot developments to explore from its body swap angle. So Mike is young once more but that doesn’t stop him from having, on the surface, inappropriate feelings for Scarlett. On top of that, teen Mike must beware the romantic advances of his own teenage daughter. Yes, the movie simultaneously explores robbing-the-cradle romance while dodging incestuous pratfalls al la Back to the Future. There is uncomfortable father-daughter sexual tension without getting too perverse. These two wrinkles nicely take advantage of the older person body swap premise and add some spice to an otherwise safe and sunny movie. Besides that, if you’ve seen any body swap movie from the past (and the 1980s were littered with body swap movies) then you’ll know exactly how everything will turn out with 17 Again. The movie is mostly silly, mostly the fun kind, but it doesn’t dip into being outrightly dumb. It’s derivative but it’s not fluff. I mean the essential premise revolves around a man regretting supporting his pregnant teen girlfriend/eventual wife. You won’t find that in the Hannah Montana Movie no matter how hard you try, perverts.
17 Again isn’t great art but it works as a showcase for its appealing star, the dewy-eyed, shaggy-coifed Efron. The filmmakers clearly know their target audience because Efron is shirtless and sweaty by minute one, displaying killer abs. By minute four, he’s dancing before his big basketball game (does this kid have a clause in his contract that he must play basketball in all his movies?). 17 Again asks little of Efron and he easily delivers on that mandate with a convincing performance that easily charms. He’s also adept at comic timing, particularly when he’s sparring with Lennon. Efron has a fabulous toothy grin and he’s a good-looking pup, but the jury’s still out on whether or not this kid can go the distance. He’s improved considerably since the first High School Musical launched his mug onto thousands of household products. He probably doesn’t have an Oscar in his future but he certainly will be headlining movies for years to come. He’s more movie star than actor, but let’s not mince words, the kid is a star (fun fact: Efron’s first acting credit is for an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly).
The supporting cast surrounding Efron greatly add to the film’s surprise enjoyment. The subplot involving adult dweeb Ned romancing the principal (Melora Hardin) is an amusing diversion that manages to make me like all of the characters more. Lennon (Reno 911!) steals every moment he’s onscreen and develops a kooky chemistry with Hardin (TV’s The Office). The more these two actors interacted the more I wanted the movie to ditch everyone else. Mann gets the thankless job as “upset wife” but brings a spark to the character without coming across as grating. Trachtenberg (Euro Trip, TV’s Gossip Girl) is actually 23 years old but her youthful looks seem to lock her into teenage girl roles. Look out for cameos by comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho. Perry must have enjoyed working for about a week and cashing his check. Also, Perry looks absolutely nothing like Efron and appears to be over a foot taller than his younger, more genetically blessed doppelganger.
I feel sympathy for the editor of 17 Again, because clearly script supervisor Steve Gehrke must have been asleep for the entire film shoot. There are continuity gaps galore in this movie. Now, normally I don’t care so much about mild continuity errors in a movie because that’s just part of moviemaking. So if a character sits up in bed and the sheets are a few inches lower, or in a different ruffled state, well who cares? But when errors compile wildly and become flagrant distractions, then the movie has a problem and the script supervisor, the person in charge of catching those errors in progress, failed miserably. When teen Mike eats a hamburger in the school cafeteria it goes from being in his hands, out of his hands, having a bite out of it, and then magically reformed. Even worse is a moment when teen Mike is nursing a battle wound and his wedding ring keeps changing hands. Why would anyone even bother switching hands for a ring to begin with? That sounds like an easily avoidable hassle. To be fair, there are several factual errors that are not Gehrke’s total fault, though I’m dumfounded why no one else caught these. In 1989, the coach yells at Mike to quite dancing and refers to him as “Vanilla Ice,” but Vanilla Ice didn’t release his debut album until 1990 (apparently the coach knows his underground white hip-hop). What’s even more puzzling is that this pop culture reference is destined to sail over the heads of Efron’s target tween audience. All of this is easily verifiable. I won’t even get into Mike referring to “hippogriffs” 10 years before Harry Potter was published.
17 Again is a pleasant enough confection that is undemanding and yields some laughs and enough heart. The movie manages to be more mature than expected thanks to some kinky-for-PG-13 sexual tension and yet the movie is a harmless good time at the movies. Efron carries the movie ably but he’s got a great supporting cast to help carry the comedy load. Body swap movies are all invariably the same, and truly 17 Again must have been born with the sentence, “It’s reverse-Big.” It’s playful and light and cheery and pretty much an adept project for its star. It’s a small step in the right direction for Efron, and perhaps his fan base will start including more than squealing teenager girls primed to swoon at a moment’s notice. Swooning: it’s not just for the youngsters any more.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is a case where a movie feels stuck between two different aims. The premise of a group of geeks hiring a bodyguard to protect them from high school bullies feels dramatically dated, like an idea that John Hughes could have cranked out over a weekend in the 1980s. Owen Wilson stars as a homeless Army vet that agrees to be the bodyguard but he intends to fleece the kids of their money. Eventually the film culminates in the geek trio violently fighting the bully, which is kind of a weird climax to a mainstream teen-centered film. The main bully is actually psychotically dangerous and the movie exists in a realm where every adult character is a cretin or a moron. Don’t even think about security in the school. The jokes aren’t as lively or clever as the movie would like to think, but special credit must be awarded for collecting a group of teen actors that look authentically geeky. Drillbit Taylor is a safe vehicle for Wilson because he’s played a variation of this zen-cool character in many movies. I’m honestly surprised that Seth Rogen is a co-writer and that Judd Apatow produced this flick. This is noticeable below their standards. This movie isn’t anything special and it’s tonally all over the place, but then it does have some funny situations, some amusing character interplay, and some dependable slapstick. Think of it as a sanitized PG version of Superbad combined with an 80s movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+