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Like a Boss (2020)

There’s little else as energy-zapping as a comedy fumbling for its funny, and that summarizes the disappointing Like a Boss, which is far from being boss-like. Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as best friends who own a makeup company together and Salma Hayek is the rich CEO who wants to buy their company and drive them apart. That’s about the story because the movie feels like it was one of those imrpov-heavy vehicles designed for the likes of a Melissa McCarthy where the scenes are barely sketched in with the assumption that the performers will discover something funny in the moment on the day of filming. Except this never happened. Like a Boss constantly feels straining, groping, struggling for any comedy from scene to scene. There isn’t one interesting comic dynamic or a set piece that felt really smartly set up and developed. There aren’t even that many set pieces outside a sequence where the ladies eat ghost peppers and cannot handle the heat. There’s one part where they destroy a drone and have to hide it. Nothing comes from this. There’s one part where the ladies are smoking a joint and it falls into a baby’s crib, and you’re waiting for the escalation, but that’s it. Nothing of consequence happens. Mostly the movie is so desperately grasping for whatever it can find to be funny, and every actor feels like they’re in a different movie. I started mentally checking out halfway through. I chuckled a few times but my dispirited sighs outnumbered them. I like Haddish. I like Byrne. I like Hayek. I like director Miguel Arteta (an unexpected Beatriz at Dinner reunion). I like that this is an R-rated comedy aimed at empowering women. The problem is it still needs to be funny. The best friends forever say how much they love one another but they’re also explaining all of their problems and solutions in exposition-heavy vomit sessions to assist the audience (“I know you’ve always have trust issues because of your mothers, and…”). For the scary boss antagonist, Hayek’s character is weirdly impotent and too easily foiled, including being upstaged at her own company’s launch party and deciding to do nothing to stop her usurpation. Like a Boss is a limp and flailing comedy that just made me sad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Billed as a Trump-era satire, and given the fact that the premise involves a middle-aged, working class Mexican immigrant going head-to-head with a rich, bilious, selfish real estate tycoon who proudly skirts the law, you’d be expecting fireworks. That’s quite a culture clash and writer Mike White (School of Rock) serves up the making of a delicious and squirm-inducing evening as the titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a holistic massage therapist, is marooned at the house of a rich client (Connie Britton). They’re hosting a very famous, very influential business tycoon (John Lithgow), and his demeanor and perspective couldn’t be more opposite from Beatriz. As the night wears on, and the wine is consumed, Beatriz confronts these privileged and oblivious people. The most frustrating part about Beatriz at Dinner is that all the pieces are there for a terrific movie but White’s script goes slack in the second half. The film never really escalates the drama and you keep waiting for more confrontations. I think perhaps I wanted the stage play version of this story, a dialogue-driven debate between two combative characters buoyed by a sense of righteous indignation. Hayek is quite good and reminds you what kind of actress she has at her disposal. Her wounded expressions say volumes. The other problem is that this 85-minute movie ends on a note of baffling nihilism that left me cold. It’s like White threw up his hands and declared that as long as there are powerful men in the world like Trump, with an oversized influence the common man cannot compete with, then why bother trying to heal the world and make it a better place? It’s an abrupt ending and one that doesn’t feel in keeping with the character. I wish someone would take this story and adapt it for the stage and give it the treatment it deserved before White sacrificed all for his fatalistic message about the futility of trying in the Trump era.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cedar Rapids (2011)

When people think about the temptations and sundry thrills of the Big City, most people are probably thinking of a sin-stained location like Las Vegas. Most people would not confuse Vegas with Cedar Rapids, and yet the Iowa city of note is the setting for a sweet and sometimes dirty, but still sweet, comedy of big-city adventures. To a guy from a town without a stoplight, Cedar Rapids is like New York City. It all depends on your perspective.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. The town is small but the little insurance agency that could has won the coveted Two Diamond Award four years running at the annual insurance convention held in Cedar Rapids. Tim’s life is in a holding pattern. He wants to do big things but can’t find the oomph to get there. He’s involved in a romantic tryst with his (one-time) seventh grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). Tim’s chance to make a name for himself comes when he’s selected to represent his company at the annual convention. He has to impress the right people to take home another Two Diamond Award. Never having been on a plane before, he leaves small-town Brown Valley for big-city Cedar Rapids. At the convention site, Tim rooms with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the more unsophisticated Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The group meets up with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), and together they work on helping Tim loosen up. Over the course of the weekend, bonds will be made, principles will be tested, and tom foolery of the first order will be had.

The premise is rather simple, small-town guy heads to the big city (well, bigger) and the culture shock that waits. But the film never looks down on Tim Lippe. While there is plenty of humor drawn from his naiveté, the movie doesn’t condescend or play up the small-town folks as rubes and squares. It’s funny to see Tim’s mild-mannered explosions of anger, mostly of the “horse pucky” variety of vulgarities, but the movie doesn’t say that the big-city folk are better than Tim. On the contrary, Tim is a principled and devoted insurance salesman, courteous to a fault. He could have stepped out of a Frank Capra movie from a bygone era (Mr. Lippe Goes to Town). Tim is sheltered, which provides some amusing fish out of water comedy, like when he initially is on alert because his roommate is African-American, a rarity in Brown Valley despite whatever the name may imply to some. Tim is a man out of time, but that can be small-town life in general. The Midwestern satire reminds me of the gentle yet knowing nudge of King of the Hill. Phil Johnston’s script sets up Tim’s dilemma as a crisis of conscience, the compromises we make in morality. Tim’s trip to the “big city” is the push the guy needs to get his life out of stasis. There’s something deeply satisfying in watching a character you care about triumph in the end, even if that triumph is a small victory befitting a small-town guy with a big heart.

The real fun of the movie, however, is watching the effect the group has not just on Tim but on each other. They teach Tim to cut loose and live a little, but this is still Cedar Rapids, so cutting loose goes as far as nighttime pool escapades and drunken sex. His flirtatious fling with Joan brings the guy out of his shell, and the two of them are genuinely cute together without going overboard. It’s a reserved romance that feels true to the nature of both of the characters. Dean is the loudmouth knucklehead notorious for his oafish shenanigans, but once he feels accepted he goes to war for his friends. He’s a buffoon but not stupid. And then Ronald, though less developed than the other three, provides a nice foil as a straight-laced businessman who keeps it together impressively. Together it’s a team of likeable characters that have grown closer together over the course of that weekend in Cedar Rapids, and you’ll feel the same. You feel like they’ve formed a family around the earnestness of Tim.

Helms (The Hangover) is a suitable candidate for a nice, regular, Midwestern guy. Helms has honed his awkward comedy chops after several seasons on TV’s The Office, and here he sticks to what he knows. Tim Lippe is another in a line of embryonic men. Helms settles into his usual nervous tics that fans will be familiar with. His sunny naiveté wins over the audience and provides for several laughs in contrast with the jaded “big city” folk. Reilly (Step Brothers) can overdo his character’s intentional obnoxiousness. He’s chartered a successful second career as a winsome nitwit, so like Helms, Reilly relies on notes gleaned from past performances. Whitlock Jr. is mostly straight man to the others. His comedic highpoint is an impromptu impersonation of a character from The Wire to get the group out of a dangerous jam (Whitlock Jr. himself played a state senator on The Wire). Other than that, he’s more contrast than character. Heche (TV’s Hung) is a real surprise. She underplays her character, tantalizing us with tidbits that leave us wanting more, much like Tim. The way she plays Joan, you feel the connection.

With all that said, Cedar Rapids still has its share of flaws. The naïve comedy can go so far before you start to question Tim’s senses, like his casual mistaking of a prostitute (Alia Shawkat, Whip It) for a fellow attendant. His relationship with his former seventh grade teacher is intentionally awkward, but the whole plotline presents an unseemly overtone that doesn’t fit. She’s made to be rather motherly, even when she’s rolling her eyes at her bedmate’s pie-eyed declarations of being “pre-engaged.” I think the motherly aspect makes the whole Oedipal mess even worse (Weaver just seems bored). Late into Act Three Tim goes on a drug-fueled bender that feels out of place for his character who, when first asked for a drink, requested a beer of the root kind. The character of Dean is given too many moments to just wander around and spout crude one-liners. It sometimes feels like the movie is resting while it lets Dean do his thing, and a little of this guy can go a long way.

The plot is relatively predictable and the ending is pretty pat. It works, but the actors and the characters were capable of more. The relationship between Tim and Joan also leaves something to be desired. There’s a great assembly of recognizable guests (Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike Birbiglia) that stop by but add little. Again, the potential for more feels missed. With a solid 80% of the movie taking place in a hotel, you can also start to feel a little cabin fever. And not that it matter much, but I’m disappointed that film with “Cedar Rapids” in its name was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Iowa did away with its in-state film tax credit).

The appeal of Cedar Rapids, the film, is much like the appeal of its central figure, Tim Lippe. It’s an unassuming, earnest charm, enjoying the company of likeable characters who we want to see succeed. I just wish the predictable plot had done more or trusted the actors’ capabilities. The core characters feel mostly authentic and easily recognizable, which makes the familiar, if at times bland, plot fairly forgivable. Helms and company are an easygoing bunch and you’ll be happy to tag along on their unspectacular hijinks in the “big city.” Cedar Rapids is the kind of low-key, charming little movies that often gets overlooked. It’s worth viewing for the pleasurable camaraderie of the core cast. Cedar Rapids, much like the city that bears its name, is worth a visit but does not require more commitment than that.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Good Girl (2002)

Jennifer Aniston, a Friends favorite, has been getting attention for her less than attractive turn in adultery with The Good Girl. However, the movie’s biggest flaw is Aniston herself. The Good Girl can try and make her look as disheveled as they can, and they can try and make her wear as much unflattering baggy clothing as possible, but in the end we’re still watching Mrs. Brad Pitt groan about the purgatory that is Middle America. An actress of better caliber could likely pull off the rub, but alas, Aniston is not quite that actress yet.

Aniston narrates the disenchantment as Justine with her dead-end job working at a Wal-Mart-esque chain store and her dead-end marriage to perennially stoned house painter Phil (John C. Reilly). She longs for an escape and a change of pace from a grind where there appears none. Then one day a new teenage co-worker named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into her life and seems to represent the danger and vitality Justine has felt missing in her life for so long. Her affections are at first stalled in apprehension, but soon Holden and Justine are ducking into motels and finding excuses to get busy in the stock room. But soon enough the honeymoon ends. Justine learns more distressing items about the emotionally dependent and unstable clerk, like his real name is Tom (“Tom is my slave name” he tells her). What once seemed exciting is now becoming more perilous to cover up.

The Good Girl then descends into blacker territory with some unexpected turns, but also some more unbelievable moments. When confronted by Phil’s best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) about her infidelity she is given a rather unpleasant ultimatum that she gives in too way too easily. The longer the affair and messy cover up continues the more audience loyalties shift toward the victim, Phil. He admits he isn’t the smartest man or the best husband, but his feelings are authentic for his wife. And the more the audience views him the more they see that he truly does love Justine.

And again, we have to come black to that road block of a lead. A more accomplished actress could pull off this bittersweet role with aplomb and believability. A better actress could have slowed down the audience shift in loyalty away from her unfaithful protagonist. The supporting cast of The Good Girl has a lot more bite to them. Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) now seems to be an expert in the disturbed youth. Reilly starts off as a loaf but transforms into a sympathetic character that has his own touching moments of unannounced affection to Justine. Nelson gives the film some of its funniest moments along with the lethally deadpanned Zooey Deschanel. The lone stereotype in the bunch is played by Mike White (who wrote the film) as an overly enthusiastic Christian do-gooder.

It’s a pity The Good Girl has its anchor around the neck of Aniston and willing to go as far as she will take it, because The Good Girl is indeed a good film with some wicked moments of comedy and a well-written story. It’s just that Aniston’s acting limitations gravitate what could have been a better film.

Nate’s Grade: B

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