The Happytime Murders asks one question on repeat: is something inherently funny just because a puppet does it? As I feared from the marketing, this is strictly a one-joke movie, and that joke being the entire concept of puppets behaving badly.
In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children’s sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.
For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you’re watching The Happytime Murders, you’re quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, “Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren’t they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it’s a joke about balls.” An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.
Let’s tackle one scene emblematic of the film’s best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow’s udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It’s a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it’s one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It’s front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because… puppets?
Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they’re seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don’t even present humor. It’s more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It’s a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You’ll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than “puppet does non-puppet stuff.”
McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we’ve gotten to know but there’s not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she’s still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There’s not even a joke related to this fact. It’s another example of the film’s deficiency of creativity.
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.
On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.
Life of the Party: C-
Breaking In: D+
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.
Nate’s Grade: B+
To refer to the bawdy new comedy Bridesmaids as a “female Hangover” seems disingenuous and a facile comparison cooked up in some marketing laboratory. This is nothing like The Hangover, a conceptual comedy that, can we all agree, was a funny movie but not the funniest movie of all time? Bridesmaids is a byproduct of the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and that’s what it feels like. This is no mere concept comedy built around a madcap premise. This is a magnificent character-based comedy that lets the women finally be in on the joke rather than the butt of it. Bridesmaids proves that the ladies can do everything their gender counterparts can do and better.
Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay) is a woman down in the dumps. She lost her bakery due to the crummy economy, she lives with a pair of cretin roommates, and she’s a sleazy creep’s (Jon Hamm, wonderfully douchey) number three choice whenever he needs some casual sex. Her lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has just gotten engaged and asked Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Annie is threatened by Helen (Rose Byrne), a rich socialite who has grown close to Lillian in Annie’s absence. Helen is also apart of the bridal party and is always at the ready with a classy alternative when Annie stumbles. Annie gets pulled over by state patrol Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) who takes pity on her but warns her to get her taillights fixed. She continues to meet Rhodes at different spots and the two seem to be circling something romantic. Annie’s life seems to be unraveling just as Lillian’s is coming together.
Apatow himself has been accused of making overly guy-centric comedies about rude adolescent man-children (I wouldn’t agree fully with that statement), and people have been rightfully asking when do the girls get a chance? When will the ladies be able to be something other than “love interest” or “device that triggers male character’s metamorphosis into maturity” (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, even from a clear male POV, was rather charitable and empathetic with its feminine characterizations). Well here it is, folks. Bridesmaids let’s the ladies are just as rude, crude, crass, and sexual as the men in the comedy universe. Bridesmaids is a terrific gross-out adult comedy told from a distinct feminine point of view. They can be just as crude as the dudes. But what really sets it apart is that it’s even more so a story about the dynamics of female friendship and the pain of growing apart due to the circumstances of life. Much like the joyous male camaraderie as one of the hallmarks of an Apatow film, we get to witness an entirely female dynamic that feels authentic. These women, their troubles, their friendships, all feel real and deeply felt. Even the supporting characters get a chance to be fleshed out with added dimension rarely seen in mainstream comedies, like Becca (Elli Kemper) and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) confiding in each other about their disappointments with married sex. In other movies these ladies would just be “Bridesmaid #3” or “One-note Bridesmaid,” and while Becca and Rita could both be designated as types, they transcend classification when the script allows them to become rounded out as people. Another hallmark of an Apatow production, this is a true ensemble work.
You really do care for these people because of how relatable they are. I’ve never been the operator of a uterus, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to greatly relate to the anxieties of the female characters on screen. I know how significant female friendships are, and that is the central focus of the movie. You buy the relationship between Lillian and Annie, the comfort level they have with one another, the importance, the history, and you feel the pains of Annie’s plight. You feel like the entire bridal party could actually be a group of friends instead of a collection of wacky caricatures. These feel like real people, and people you want to see experience good times. Even the treatment of Helen feels thoughtful. She’s not this shrewish antagonist, but a trophy wife trying to impress the one person she could call a friend in her own life. For Helen, her friendship with Lillian means the world to her. She comes across as another real person, albeit a fabulously looking one. Annie’s romance with Officer Rhodes is indelibly cute and the duo has a warm, charming interaction. You pull for their union. Their relationship spawns a very funny sequence where Annie tries an assortment of illegal driving activities to get his attention. A romantic subplot is expected but that doesn’t mean it has to feel like rote, and in Bridesmaids the romance feels just as authentic and charming as the female friendships.
But don’t let my adoration with its character-work fool you into thinking this is some sort of “chick flick,” a divisive term tragically slapped onto anything female-centric or female-led. Just because there is rarely a Y chromosome on screen does not mean that this is some frilly, frothy sentimental fantasy replete with a “trying on clothes” montage and some sequence where the main characters break out into song in a bar. A wedding central to the plot should hopefully not be disqualifying for male audiences (men don’t get married too?). This is not a story about a crazed, jealous woman who wants to shiv another pretty lady in her pretty lady ribs because she stole her Maid of Honor duties. The cinema is littered with plenty of awful movies that revolve around women battling over petty squabbles. This is not that movie. It is not about who wields the title of Maid of Honor. It is a tale about your friends making new friends, entering new phases of their lives and possibly leaving you behind in the process. It’s about insecurity and holding onto those important people in your life, despite a gradual pulling apart. Relationships change over time, and it’s terrifying to have to adjust to the people closest to you taking lesser stations. It’s terrifying to feel like you’re being pushed out by new people. That sounds fairly universal to me, not some chick flick pabulum.
There were several spots where I laughed so hard I was crying; the film kept me in fits of laughter throughout. The fact that a great majority of the comedy is character-based and not situation-based makes the jokes richer and more satisfying. Even a hard-to-top gross-out sequence where the girls are trying on bridal dresses at a chic store and all start losing control over their bodies due to food poisoning is related to character. Annie took the bridal party to a cheap restaurant to save money, because she’s too proud to admit her own penniless nature and too stubborn to allow Helen to swoop in and claim another victory. So the women all get terrible bouts of food poisoning, which causes them to spew vomit and forces Megan to make one very unfortunate decision with a sink (“Don’t look at me!” she bellows). The movie doesn’t shy away from the gross-out goods but doesn’t overly rely upon them for surefire gags.
The film has several terrific comedic set pieces that connect back to the fractious relationship between Annie and Helen. The two get into a competition when it comes to party toasts. They must upstage the other, asserting who has the closest relationship with Lillian. Just when you think it’s done, one of them grabs the mic again and takes it to another level. Bridesmaids has several comic set pieces that carry on longer than you would expect for a comedy. Director Paul Feig (director of episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, and co-creator with Apatow of Freaks and Geeks) has the resolve to keep the situation alive, steadily building the comic momentum as situations get more and more out of hand, but pulling back before we reach farce levels. The movie goes one step further, convinced that the audience would be there to follow. The movie expertly lays out setups, finds satisfying payoffs, and ties up its storylines in worthwhile ways.
The dialogue is sharp and jokes work on a very fundamental level of context and defying expectation. Annie is terribly nervous to fly. She sits next to a passenger (Wiig’s co-screenwriter, Annie Mumolo) who is also deadly afraid of flying. “I had a dream last night. This plane went down,” she sys. “You were there.” That last part just turns an okay joke into a great joke. There’s a great visual gag where people keep assuming that the unkempt men standing behind Annie at a party is her husband or boyfriend. And then there’s a conversation between Annie and Officer Rhodes about being born for a profession. He encourages her to get back to baking, relating that if he were not a police officer he would still “patrol the streets and… shoot people.” These are just a few small examples I wanted to share that illustrate that, to its core, Bridesmaids is a funny story and knows the fundamentals of comedy.
Wiig has been a comic that I have found grating due to her ever-present dominance of Saturday Night Live. Her stable of wacky characters grew tiresome, but now she gets to play someone who has three dimensions. Annie is often as big an antagonist in the story as Helen. She can be self-destructive and stubborn and when she finally decides to stop being quiet is when people get hurt in her wake. You give her some latitude because, like many comedies, Annie begins as a put-upon character and has to regain her dignity and put her life together. Her life hasn’t turned out as she’s hoped, and how relatable is that? Wiig is a tremendous center for the film. Her rapid-fire eyes communicate so much nervousness and indecision, as well as her crinkly defensive smiles. But she’s also funny, tremendously funny as she loosens up and becomes more aggressive. The film is impeccably cast from top to bottom, another Apatow hallmark.
What Melissa McCarthy does in this movie is incredible. You’ve never seen a person steal a movie at this high degree of theft. McCarthy, best known from the TV show Gilmore Girls, is Megan, the sister of the groom and an unapologetically brash woman with limitless confidence. She’s built like a linebacker but, thankfully, no attention is made to the fact that McCarthy is an overweight woman. That’s not significant to her character, though it does provide for a nice character moment as she confides to Annie late about the horror of being fat in high school. It’s not funny because she’s overweight; she’s just a brash woman without a filter who happens to be overweight. The fact that nobody cracks a joke at her expense or even comments on her weight is refreshing, and a reminder that character is not confined to outward appearance. With all that said, McCarthy is flatly hilarious. There won’t be a scene that McCarthy doesn’t get in one solid belly laugh out of. She is consistently funny from scene to scene, but stays true to her character at the same time. I would love for Megan to have her own spin-off movie much like what Russell Brand earned after his scene-stealing work in Sarah Marshall.
Bridesmaids is a comedy and it is one hell of a comedy. It may no be the best movie under the ever-expanding Apatow banner, but it is easily the funniest film yet. Yes, I said it. Bridesmaids is funnier than Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Superbad, and all the rest. Wiig deserves to become a star and so does McCarthy. This movie left me sore from laughing and giddy with happiness. It’s funny, touching, and genuinely entertaining, and destined to become a modern classic worth revisiting. I foresee this becoming a word-of-mouth sensation this summer, particularly from appreciative female ticket-buyers who feel like they finally have a worthy, relatable, very funny comedy that they can call their own. It’s kind of like the old slogan for female deodorant: strong enough for a man, made for a woman. That may sound too flippant, so I’ll just put it like this: do yourself a favor and RSVP ASAP for the funniest film of 2011 and one destined to charm members of both genders.
Nate’s Grade: A
Far far worse than I was expecting, this is what happens when you expand a 30-second Saturday Night Live sketch to a full-blown movie. MacGruber, a one-joke parody of MacGyver, becomes a one-joke movie. It’s about an inept special agent who has to save the world from a criminal madman (Val Kilmer, why?). The flimsy plot would be acceptable if the movie had any sort of comedic momentum, but the jokes are sloppy and uninspired, often confusing naughtiness with humor. Just because something is brash or raunchy or shocking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny. Will Forte, as the title agent, tries too hard with material that doesn’t work hard enough. Villains with naughty sounding names? Sight gags a plenty? This movie makes the Austin Powers franchise look cutting edge. There isn’t enough focus for this to work as parody. MacGruber feels like what a bunch of 12-year-old boys would throw together if left unattended for a weekend with their parent’s credit card. The sketch was never meant to last over a minute by design, so you can expect what 87 more dreary minutes would produce.
Nate’s Grade: D
Adam Sandler keeps his friends from the unemployment line with this lowbrow, middle-aged themed, yet still entirely juvenile, comedy, Grown Ups. The movie is really a giant fetid waste of potential. It’s Sandler and his old Saturday Night Live buddies (David Spade, Rob Schneider, Chris Rock, and Kevin James obviously filling the Chris Farley spot) chumming it up and decrying the foibles of being 40. They don’t get the kids today, nostalgically reflect on their summer camp days, and try to recreate some of that old magic with a combined family get-together. Each man falls into a rigid type and will learn some half-hearted, disingenuous form of a life lesson by film’s end. The entire dimwitted plot is as stunted as the male characters. These guys just pal around and it’s termed a movie. The female characters are all one-note: figures of lust, saintly significant others who never get to be in on the joke, shrews, or Schneider’s older wife who is a constant butt of some mean-spirited jokes. The actors do have an amiable chemistry that allows the film to coast for some time before the whole affair just becomes wearisome. These guys have played these types for many many movies, and so everyone just operates on autopilot. The heavy slapstick momentarily distracts from the truth that Grown Ups is an unfunny, crass attempt by Sandler to get audiences to pay for his class reunion. The fact that this junk won the Best Comedy Award from the People’s Choice Awards illustrates the limitations of democracy.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Away We Go sort of came and went in the blink of an eye over the summer. Some critics dinged the indie production as being insufferable, hipster, smug, and unlikable. I agree that the plaintive guitar-strumming score grates, and the costumes have that trying-hard-not-to-be-hip coolness, which can be insufferable, but Away We Go is more than just faulty hipster packaging. There is a moving and entertaining drama inside here. The problem is, you have to sift through some of the junk to reach it.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties and about to have a baby. They aren’t exactly hipsters but they have been living a somewhat fringe existence; Verona even points out that they have a cardboard window. Their existence has been mostly ramshackle and now its about to change forever. Burt and Verona decide to journey across the country and reunite with family and old friends. They’re studying widely different family units across the country to discover not just what kind of parents they will be but what kind of family they will be.
Just by the fact that nobody dies at the end, this is a big departure for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). This low-key road trip comedy is quite different from the meticulous prestige pictures associated with the Mendes name. Away We Go is a scruffy, small, and disarming little picture that wants to say something. I was taken aback at how affecting I found moments of Away We Go, though it is only moments. Burt and Verona are not exactly the best equipped to start a family right now, which makes them anxious and nervous, and anxious about not being more nervous. They haven’t exactly matured much since graduated college years ago. But amidst their search for the definition of a “working family” they must accept the uncertainty of life. Burt and Verona have a comfortable interaction, from his upbeat sarcasm to her grounded realism. There’s a great running gag where Burt tries to raise the baby’s heart rate, so his goofy bouts of fake agitation will be immediately followed by a stethoscope and an adorable grin of satisfaction. They are a compatible couple and it is refreshing to see a movie couple that compliments each other in personality. They actually love each other, are good for one another, and are not beset with contrived conflicts. In fact, the movie ends up pretty much exactly where it began, only with a smattering more of wisdom. The lesson learned in Away We Go is that it doesn’t matter what the bumps in life may be, it’s all about who you have as your co-pilot.
Screenwriters and married partners, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, mix in small moments of weight and an overall tone of genial sweetness. The drama and the comedy are given equal share of the script, though the elements don?t mix that often. The funniest moment, by far, is when a little boy tells his mother exactly what he knows about babies (I won’t spoil the guffaw-inducing surprise). There are some quiet yet weighty moments of human observation here. There was a tender exchange between Verona and her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) that had me on the verge of tears. The sisters reminisce about their parents, long dead, and then Grace says that having this baby keeps their parents alive; the sisters can see parts of their mother in the baby’s face. Verona is giving back life to her dearly departed mother and keeping her parents’ legacy ongoing. This lovely thought struck me with such sudden force that I felt overcome with emotion. It could be dismissed as a common sense fact of genetic proliferation, but I had never thought of the birth of a child as a means of keeping the past alive and honored. To me, this is a simple yet wonderful and powerful statement. Another great moment is when Burt and Verona make lifelong promises to each other on a trampoline. Verona doesn’t want to marry, so the scene is the equivalent of the two lovebirds exchanging vows. It’s heartfelt and sincere and well within the bounds of the characters.
What?s frustrating to me is that the movie?s poignancy is undercut by its excisions with grotesque cartoon versions of bad parents. Burt and Verona visit different imperfect family units, but it isn’t until the end of the movie where we see anything resembling a semi-authentic brood. Alison Janney plays an obnoxiously loud parent who berates her children for laughs and accepts the brokenness of children; to her, she can’t fight against genetics and thus gives up parenting. On the flip side, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a narcissistic earth mother who still nurses her children and condemns the very idea of strollers (“I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away?”). In each case, the depicted family is a caricature and readily ridiculed for some easy and snide laughs. Even Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) are figures set to be mocked for their self-absorbed bourgeois values. In some ways, Away We Go started to remind me of that awful movie North, where a young Elijah Wood travels the globe in search of new parents. At each stop, Wood encounters broad caricatures of different family units. In Away We Go, half of the movie is spent palling around with repulsive idiots who overstay their welcome fast. What’s even more frustrating is that the script becomes locked into a pattern, meaning that we spend the same amount of time (10-15 minutes) with each family. This is not helpful when Burt and Verona finally reach the relatable families, in Montreal and Miami, then the movie shortchanges the palpable drama. In Miami, Burt’s brother has had his wife run out on her family, abandoning their daughter. We’ve finally reached interesting and complex character, each with an aching sadness just below the surface about the hardships of parenthood, and the movie has to keep on moving because we spent too much time with the crazies for easy laughs. You’re supposed to spend more time with the good stuff, not the bad.
The noisy, exaggerated supporting characters are balanced by the believably baffled Krasinki (TV’s The Office) and Rudolph (Idiocracy). He’s effortlessly charming and Rudolph plays her character with subdued texture, uneasily taking everything in for due consideration. Both actors are likable and we grow in empathy with them as they go from stop to stop. The couple is so charismatic that it makes the drama-free reality of functionality forgivable. The rest of the cast play their parts to the hilt, but special consideration should go out to Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!, Heavenly Creatures) who plays the mother of a large adopted clan of kids in Montreal. Her problem is that she cannot conceive and she’s endured five horrible miscarriages. Her slow and melancholy dance around a stripper’s pole is heartbreaking, and that?s something I thought I would never write in my life.
Despite some missteps, Away We Go is a sweet and affectionate little movie that fights against being overly twee and precious. It’s definitely not sentimental but at the same time it rejects cynicism and detached irony, embodied by the compatibility of a couple that truly love each other. At the same time, the movie can be annoying with its loud side characters that act as distractions. The best moments in Away We Go are the small ones centered on Burt and Verona. It’s those handful of small moments that pierce your heart. It’s strange but after writing this review, I realize that I like the good moments even more and the bad moments even less. It’s like Away We Go has become more entrenched in my mind. This is a sometimes promising, sometimes frustrating, drama that knows enough about life to not settle for easy answers. If only it didn’t settle for easy jokes with stupid characters.
Nate’s Grade: B+