Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is a slapdash comedy that?s too toothless to be satire and too dumb to be witty. Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of banished cavemen who stroll through various episodes from the Old Testament, like Cain and Abel and a circumcision-crazed Abraham, before settling in for a wild time at Sodom. This uninspired riff on the Bible rarely lands any laughs. The comedic aim of the film is extremely low; the scatological humor consists of farting peasants, bestiality, eating poop, urinating on your face, genital mutilation, and lots and lots of pedophilic jokes thanks to a grotesque, lispy Oliver Platt. Year One (of what exactly?) is a big step back for co-writer/director Harold Ramis and a general waste of everyone’s time and talent. Black and Cera do have an interesting and playful ying-yang chemistry but they have so little to do given the rambling, episodic nature of the plot. The characters make anachronistic pop culture references or talk in self-aware circles, the celebrity cameos do little, and the jokes lack any lasting momentum. Somewhere Ramis wants to make statements about religion and faith but the flick is too timid to do anything, so the movie limps to a finish with its lame “be your own chosen one” message. This is a prehistoric comedy with rocks in its head.
Nate’s Grade: C-
When you’re a teenager, sometimes there is nothing more important in life than music. Generally one of the most prominent means for a teenager to outwardly define his or her emerging personality is by music. Coming of age and maturing musical tastes seem to go hand in hand. I may date myself here but I can recall my own personal blossoming thanks to the likes of Green Day, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Offspring (you couldn’t go anywhere in 1995 without hearing “Self Esteem”). Nick and Norah’s romantic interlude begins over common musical tastes and move from there. Having a person “get” you seems to be linked with having a person “get” your music. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is an inviting and mostly successful teen comedy that “gets” it.
Nick (Michael Cera) is nursing the common teen ailment of a broken heart. He’s one part of a queer core punk band and just happens to be the only heterosexual band member. Nick has been sending mix CDs to his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), but she’s been tossing them in the trash. Norah (Kat Dennings) has been fishing those mix CDs and falling in love with her unknown musical soul mate. Norah’s best pal Caroline (Ari Graynor) has informed her that her favorite indie band, Where’s Fluffy?, is playing a secret late-night show in New York City. The slew of characters, Norah and Caroline and Tris and her new boyfriend, attend a nightclub where Nick’s band performs. Awkward. Norah poses as Nick’s new girlfriend and the two take off together to drive a very drunk Caroline home. It is here that they begin an unforgettable odyssey filled with gross toilets, drag queens, Norah’s ex-boyfriend (Jay Baruchel), jaunts to recording studios, and many stops along the way to try and find Where’s Fluffy?
Nick and Norah isn’t anything altogether remarkable but its charm comes in how, well, unremarkable it comes across. I do not mean this as faint praise or a backhanded compliment. The majority of teen-oriented films have the habit of slotting characters into rigid archetypes. Earlier this year, the documentary American Teen was released and barely made a blip. The director of this documentary condensed an entire high school year into a feature-length film, but she framed her characters as entrenched stereotypes patterned after movies (movies began the stereotype, now is life merely following its lead?). The marketing even had its main “characters” recreate the Breakfast Club poster with the requisite Jock, Geek, Princess, etc. It’s so easy to paint in broad, well-established strokes when it comes to teenage characters and a high school setting. So it’s genuinely entertaining and encouraging to see Nick and Norah where the characters just are people. Granted the gay characters are a bit too cutesy by half, though they never become swishy stereotypes and the slutty manipulative ex-girlfriend character is a pretty familiar and clichéd antagonist. But the real charm of the movie is seeing characters that cannot be painted in broad strokes, characters that do not hide who they are, and characters that refuse to be typecast. Just watching Nick and Norah interact, I felt like I was watching two friends instead of high school archetypes having the same tired class warfare. Making the characters reasonably realistic and unremarkable is a breath of fresh air.
Not all the elements in Nick and Norah entertain; some feel like they’ve been surgically attached from different movies. The entire subplot involving the sloppy drunk escapades of Caroline seems extraneous at best, providing an unnecessary plot point that keeps Nick and Norah together for the night. It provides some laughs due to Graynor’s highly amusing drunken performance, but the subplot also pushes the movie into outlandish gross-out humor, like when Caroline vomits into a toilet, drops her gum in the same toilet, and then decides to foolishly go after the gum. The same piece of chewing gum has its own fantastic journey. The coupling between Nick and Norah is also given a weird and somewhat unseemly addition. Clearly these two kids “like like” each other and the wild night presents different coupling obstacles before these fun kids eventually decide to make a move. In one scene Norah is taunted by Tris about never having had an orgasm. So then the movie makes it a point that when nick and Norah do hook up that we are presented with Norah earning her first O-face (the whole climactic sequence is done off camera and only with audio). Orgasmic proof was not needed to convince the audience that Norah has finally found a worthy guy. The fact that they’re high school-aged students brings an unsettling, seedy element into an otherwise wholesome film. It wasn’t needed.
The plot of Nick and Norah has a few bumps along the way because the emphasis is on the groovy and genial atmosphere. Watching the movie is somewhat akin to attending a party with some cool people. You leave the theater with your spirits lifted a tad, a smile on your face, and some fond memories for the time being. I’m not saying that Nick and Norah is comparable to the best teen comedies of all time but it manages to spin a little magic. I couldn’t help feel wistful as I watched the teen characters romp through the late night music scene of New York City, a character all its own. The movie manages to capture the exciting essence of being young and alive in an authentic way.
The two leads are deeply enjoyable. Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is a great find and comes across as a natural teenager. She’s not precocious or glib, but she seems grounded, unassuming, and yet intelligent in a way that doesn’t pass as hyper-literate. Dennings gives a spunky performance that is tinged with awkwardness and heartache, as she explores the scary yet exhilarating prospect of romance. She’s also got a bashful beauty to her, like the girl next door that would never admit that she could be attractive. She’s got lips like red licorice and classic features that could work in old Hollywood. Dennings gives every scene a boost of heart and the movie shines brightest every minute she’s onscreen. Cera (Juno, Superbad) seems to have patented his nervous stammer that he’s previously showcased. I wonder what Cera’s acting range actually is because he seems to be playing different variations on the same character. However, I have written before that Cera is the living master of comic understatement and the well-timed pause, and he proves it again. He mopes a bit too much through the movie but Cera manages to make him empathetic and not pathetic. The two of them have a sweet chemistry and it’s easy to yearn for their coupling.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist exists in a world that doesn’t exactly resemble our own but seems like a swell place to visit. The movie almost contains a certain innocence to its teenage shenanigans. Dennings and Cera make for engaging leads and an adorable couple onscreen. Not all of the parts come together as well as Nick and Norah do, but the movie’s overall vibe is authentic and low-key, apt to provoke cheerful smiles more than laughs.
Nate’s Grade: B
Juno is a hysterical teen comedy with equal parts sweetness and sour. The idea of an underage pregnancy certainly presents a lot of conflicts and seriousness but the film avoids direct messages on the big topics thanks to large doses of levity and some hard-earned wisdom. With this serving as a companion piece to Knocked Up, I suppose Hollywood is convinced there’s something inherently funny about unplanned pregnancy. Remember that, suddenly expectant fathers and mothers.
16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) drinks her “weight in Sunny D” to take pregnancy test after test, but each pee-dipped stick gives the same result: Juno is going to become a mommy. The father is Paulie Bleaker (Michael Cera), a fellow high school student who has a fondness for jogging shorts and orange Tic-Tacs. Juno’s father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney) lament that they wish their daughter would have told them she was expelled or into hard drugs instead of being pregnant. Still, they are supportive and Juno decides to give away her bun in the oven to a childless couple, Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner).
Juno doesn’t patronize or dismiss the gravity of what is indeed happening (a life is being brought into this world); Juno says she is trying to come to grips with issues “way beyond my maturity level.” There are moments that reveal real sadness and regret for some of these characters, and moments of palpable doubt about what it means to officially grow up and assume responsibility for another. Juno also refrains from easy high school stereotypes and coarse humor. Juno is an intelligent comedy that doesn’t make light of its circumstances even if the sarcasm is off the charts. It’s this winning combination of wicked wit and heart that makes [I]Juno[/I] destined to be a crowd-pleaser.
Writer/blogger/former stripper Diablo Cody makes one hell of an impressive screenwriting debut. The dialogue is practically sparkling and revels in the hip, hyper-literate realm that used to dominate the teenage speech patterns of shows like Dawson’s Creek. Sure, it’s not terribly realistic when characters can spout pithy one-liners mixed in with heavy jargon and lots of cool speak, but what do I care when I’m cracking up with laughter so often. But Juno cannot easily be dismissed as glib because Cody throws in some incisive moments that display shades of vulnerability and tenderness with her wacky assortment of characters. Even the aloof oddballs have moments that deepen them from just being quirky for quirky’s sake. These people are more than just receptacles for Cody’s wonderful words; they may begin that way but through the course of 96 minutes they manage to transform into flesh-and-blood where we, the audience, feel their pain and celebrate their happiness. You may be surprised, as I was, to discover yourself holding back tears during the movie’s inevitable and tidy conclusion.
The heavily acoustic score banks on a lot of pleasant, leisurely strumming but it suits the film and the song selections are apt. The very end involves a long acoustic duet rendition of the Moody Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” and it may be one of the most disarmingly sweet, romantic moments of the year (the repeated lyric “I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else” is a perfect summary for two outsiders finding their match). In fact, it’s probably the most potentially romantic song ever to include the line “shook a little turd out of the bottom of your pants,” but then again I do profess ignorance when it comes to romantic odes that include defecation references. Somewhere there has to be a Barry White song that has to cover this.
Director Jason Reitman feels like a natural fit for this smart-allecky material. He lets the story take center-stage and, just as he proved with last year’s Thank You for Smoking, he can coax terrific performances from a strong body of actors. He keeps the pace chugging along and keeps form command of the many storylines and characters needing to be juggled. Juno is a comedy that says more about a character through a handful of smart, wry observations that cut to the bone, which is helpful considering the short running time means the film needs to do the most with its time.
Page should have been crowned a star immediately after her blistering performance as jail bait with claws in Hard Candy, but perhaps her top notch comedic turn in Juno will right this slip-up and give Page the opportunity to star in, at least, the same amount of movies as, oh, I don’t know, Amanda Bynes (Seriously, Hollywood, are you just throwing money at her?). Page is the perfect embodiment of the wiseacre teenager that thinks she knows more than anyone else. She recites the refined dialogue with such precision and ease, always knowing what segments to enunciate or de-emphasize to maintain a seamless comedic tone. Page brings great empathy to a know-it-all character and is the snarky spirit that makes Juno resonate.
The supporting cast around Page doesn’t let her down. Cera gives another fine performance of comic awkwardness befitting a teenager contemplating fatherhood. Simmons and Janney make a great pair of unflappable parents, particularly Janney who gives an ultrasound doc a memorable tongue-lashing for an off the cuff remark about Juno. Bateman works the same laid-back demeanor that he excelled at on TV’s Arrested Development. Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) makes a very funny cameo in the beginning.
Garner as an actress has been somewhat hamstrung by her roles, either focusing on her multitude of ass-kicking abilities or landing her leads in romantic comedies that don’t require more than dimples and twinkling eyes. In Juno she is driven by her desire to have a baby; she’s affluent, prim, and an easy joke thanks to her stick-in-the-mud seriousness. But then Juno and the audience get a glimpse about how important being a mother is to Vanessa, and Garner nails a rather touching scene where she directly speaks to the growing child inside Juno’s belly upon Juno’s request. She speaks softly to the baby, briefly mentioning how loved they will be, and then she marvels at feeling the baby move. In lesser hands this scene could have induced eye rolls but instead seems genuine and a turning point for how we see Vanessa.
If Juno does have a flaw it is a minor one. The film places its teen romance on the back burner for so long that when it resurfaces and positions itself front and center the storyline lacks credence and believability. The conclusion would have had more emotional weight had the filmmakers spent more time on the teen romance angle, but regardless I was still amused, entertained, and grateful for the ending that came.
Juno is a delightfully tart and hysterical comedy that is easily quote-able thanks to Cody’s quick-fire retorts and snappy dialogue. Page is destined for greatness and Reitman proves once more that he can handle anything thrown at him with deftly comic aplomb. This is an impressive and assured comedy that bristles with comic vitality and confidence. This holiday season, make sure to take a trip to Juno.
Nate’s Grade: A