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Joker (2019)

There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.

There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.

This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.

The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.

Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.

Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.

I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.

Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

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War Dogs (2016)

wrdgs_tsr_1sht_vert_2764x4096_dom_masterAs I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hangover Part III (2013)

245649id1i_HO3_Final_Rated_27x40_1Sheet.inddI was no huge fan of the first Hangover movie and I cited its 2011 sequel, a carbon copy of the original, as one of the worst films of the year. The supposed final chapter ditches the blackout formula, which on its face seems like a step in the right direction, but now we have a Hangover movie with no titular hangover and at heart this is a movie for no one, even hardcore Hangover fans. I became quite cognizant how little I was laughing, not just because the jokes were badly misfiring, which they were, but also because there were so few jokes. You’d be hard-pressed to label this a comedy. It’s really more of an action thriller. What humor does arise is usually mean-spirited, curdled, or just off-putting, particular the reoccurring theme of animal cruelty (maybe opening your film with a decapitated giraffe is not the best idea). The other major hurdle is that annoying supporting characters played by Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis are elevated to co-leads. Both of these characters are best when reacting to others rather than being the main actors in the story. This movie is so abysmal as a comedy that you start to think director Todd Phillips should try his hand at a straight action thriller; the guy has a strong eye for visual composition. The actors all look extremely bored. Could Justin Bartha, the character who always gets sidelined, just get murdered and they have to hide his body? Oh no, I think I just came up with The Hangover 4. I apologize already.

Nate’s Grade: D

Project X (2012)

We’ve all had the fantasy of throwing an awesome party, a revelry of youthful exuberance, and cutting loose. The house party is a teenaged rite of passage. Project X is produced by Todd Phillips, the director behind The Hangover as the advertising would like to burn into your associative memory. You’d expect some wacky comedy and boorish behavior from boys living out their wildest fantasies. I felt a deep sadness watching the events of Project X. I won’t bemoan it as evidence of the decline of Western civilization but it’s certainly not helping matters.

Thomas (Thomas Mann) is a gawky, awkward, nice kid who’s celebrating his 17th birthday. His upper middle-class parents are going away for the weekend and trusting their only child with care of the home. Naturally, Thomas’ best friends, Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), take this opportunity to stage a party. They invite all the popular girls at school, spread word via radio and Craigslist, and hundreds descend on Thomas’s family grounds with the intent of partying harder than Andrew W.K. Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), long a friend of Thomas, is crushing on the guy and he doesn’t realize it. His attentions are on Alexis (Alexis Knapp), the school’s unattainable Hot Girl. As Costa clarifies, this party is meant to be a game-changer for their social lives. They’re supposed to reach for the stars tonight, which means groping strangers and puking in the bushes. Aim high, boys.

This did not have to be a found footage movie, and Project X would have been better if stripped of this tedious gimmick. By making this a found footage movie, it roots the quickly escalating madness in a reality that cannot sustain it. The film’s credibility goes out the window without a thought. A wild party that rages out of control is a believable setup, but when you toss in so many out-of-nowhere outlandish elements, including an angry midget, a crazed drug dealer armed with a flame thrower, a high-story zipline (who put that there?), and the groundswell of a consequences-free riot, you strain all sense of believability. I also found it unrealistic how blasé people reacted to the presence of a camera in certain situations. I think people at a school might not want to be recorded for who knows what purpose. But easily the scene that stands out is a locker room with a bunch of guys in various states of undress. Seriously, not one character, not even a minor character, raises any issue with someone casually recording a place where men are undressing. I’ll grant the exhibitionist antics of the party (the courts of our land have ruled that flashing is not considered an “invasion of privacy”). Then there are also the lighting changes at Thomas’ house. All of a sudden certain rooms have very distinct, stylish blues and greens for lighting. Where did that come from? Did someone find a colorful bulb? These are the dumb questions that arise under the belabored pretenses of a found footage movie. There’s no reason this movie shouldn’t have ditched the found footage gimmick and simply played it straight.

Congratulations Project X, for it was you who cemented the death knell of my youth. I don’t have anything against party movies (Superbad is great, Can’t Hardly Wait ain’t bad either) and I don’t shrink from the presence of ribald, juvenile, inappropriate and/or illegal underage activity. Dazed and Confused is one of my favorite films of all time and that movie is nothing but kids getting drunk and stoned. But lo, Project X was the first party movie I’ve watched where my sympathies lay not with the party animals but with the annoyed neighbors and parents. Maybe it’s a sign of getting older; maybe it’s just the culmination of my upstairs neighbors playing heavy-bass electronica music at all hours of the night when I have to work in the morning. Or maybe it’s just a clear indication that this movie fails on any level to make me care about these moronic, annoying, unbearable characters. So when these twits are off celebrating the wanton hedonism unleashed in their backyard, I thought of the neighbor with a baby who just wants his kid to sleep. Is that an unreasonable request? The man isn’t presented as some incensed, dangerous madman, and what does he get for daring to question the noise level of this party? The man gets tazed. That’s what you get for expecting anyone to possibly be moderately considerate about their actions affecting others (I sense a God Bless America-style rant approaching). I just found this whole thoughtless, empty exercise to be exploitative, mean-spirited, and exhausting. Am I that old or is this movie simply that bad?

You want to know how flimsy the plot is for this monstrosity? You could have written the entire thing on a napkin. Why bother with characters or story? This movie is seriously like someone took the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video for “1979” (possibly the best cruising song) and expanded it to feature length. Even at barely 80 minutes, this is one creaky movie that struggles to pad out its running time. The party mostly consists of two-second shots of people jumping around, girls shaking their asses, people smashing things, people vomiting, and the occasional boob flash to remind you how similar in tone the film is to the sleazy Girls Gone Wild series. That’s at least half the movie, if I’m being generous. What did I just describe? A music video! A music video is composed of, often, nonsensical images that serve little purpose other than to stimulate. There are plenty of segments that are nothing but pounding music and people dancing. If you buy the soundtrack (and why wouldn’t you since it’ll be ringing in your ears for days) and do some pseudo-inebriated dance movies, you’ve basically recreated the plot in your own living room. Project X is a music video writ large, not just in its style but in its single-minded execution to do nothing but string a series of rapid imagery. Good Lord, if this stuff made the final film what was left on the cutting room floor?

Project X also has the ignoble distinction of making me loathe a character not just in his very introduction but also in the very opening SECOND of the film. The first second I got of Costa told me everything I needed to know. His smarmy, irritating, faux “gangsta” machismo persona was enough. I knew this guy was going to be a douchebag. One second in, Project X, and you’ve already dug yourself a pretty significant hole. The Costa character is unfunny from beginning to end. There is not a single joke, a single one-liner, a single reaction of his that made me laugh. He is an insufferable character and a transparent combination of Superbad’s McLovin’ and Jonah Hill’s character. I hated every wretched second his face was onscreen. The other two friends didn’t make me want to punch my TV, which was the only positive thing I could say about either of them. Thomas is your typical mild-mannered, awkward teen (read: the Michael Cera role) who gets to cut loose and grow a spine of sorts. He has no personality and I couldn’t work up the effort to root for him. I can’t really say anything about JB because he adds absolutely nothing to the movie. He has no personality as well, other than his girth and desire to bed some ladies. It’s like the movie forgets he even exists. I know I did.

I know that making a feminist diatribe against this movie is a waste of time but indulge me for a moment, dear reader. I understand that this entire enterprise is untamed male fantasy and wish fulfillment. I don’t have a problem with this notion, on the surface. But why do all the women of this fantasy have to be reduced to, in Costa’s words, “drunk bitches” and “hos”? The women of this universe, which is supposed to be our own remember, are merely walking toys ready to be exploited for male entertainment. We don’t get characters; we get attractive women in great states of inebriation and exhibitionism. It’s ridiculous the amount of older, attractive women who would be enticed by… a high school party? Don’t these people have college parties they’d rather be attending? At one point JB identifies one of the girls at the party as a woman who posed for Playboy, because that’s all women are good for in this movie. Why would Alexis agree to bed Thomas just because it’s his birthday? We see no connection, and he’s certainly not a wealth of charisma. It doesn’t matter. Women are to be ogled. They are decorative furnishings.

Then there’s the aggravating romance between Thomas and his best girl friend, Kirby. First off, if this is the quality you get with girl-next-door types then I am moving to that neighborhood. This woman is a bonafide hottie, so when the guys make dismissive comments that Kiby is just one of the guys, I question what criteria these men have for female beauty. Any of these guys would be lucky to ever interest a woman of this stature. And then there’s the fact that she so easily forgives Thomas after he makes an ass of himself and tries to hook up with another girl hours after sleeping with Kirby. It’s like the movie advertising that you, American teenage males, can have it all and with a minimum of humility and empathy.

I guess the real question is whether any of this gratuitous debauchery is fun. The whole movie runs on the caffeinated, fist-pumping highs of unchecked male ego and fantasy, but it’s trying so hard to be the most epic party ever, and that’s the only ambition the film has. This is one sleazy and off-putting movie. Even some of its egregious faults could be partially forgiven if the movie was any funny. It just isn’t. It’s loud and profane and anarchic but without interesting, relatable, or even defined characters, and the plot is so feeble I could sum it up thusly: Nerds throw party. Shit happens. They get to be cool. In between those momentous plot points is a lot of incoherent imagery of people dancing, women being objectified (by the camera, the filmmakers, the audience), and pounding music. The plot is so simplistic, so plainly an afterthought, that the entire hedonistic festivity reeks of lazy exploitation. Congratulations, Project X, you’ve turned me into my parents. Now get the hell off my lawn and get a job and make better movies!

Nate’s Grade: D

The Hangover: Part II (2011)

When you’re responsible for the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, then you don’t want to tinker with a winning formula of a surprise hit. Naturally, with that kind of money, a sequel was inevitable. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date) is back and so is everybody and everything else. You’ll get a strong sense of déjà vu watched The Hangover: Part II. That’s on purpose. This calculated, rather soulless cash-grab sequel wants to recreate the organic experience of the first film. If you played The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II on simultaneous TVs, I would not be surprised if the same plot points happened at the exact same minute-marks. It might even be like a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz experience. I paid twice to see the same movie two years apart.

Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung). Our favorite wound-up dentist is apprehensive about any sort of bachelor party shenanigans after the events of two years ago in Las Vegas. His pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and the socially inept Alan (Zack Galifianakis) make the trek to attend the festivities. For Alan, it’s a reunion of the Wolfpack and an excuse finally to venture out of his parent’s home. Stu has some ground to make up with his bride-to-be’s father. Her father seethes about the prospect that his beautiful daughter is going to marry Stu, a man he compares to watered down rice. Lauren’s younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a pre-med student and concert cellist, is left to the Wolfpack’s care the night before the wedding. They’ll just have one drink on the beach. What’s the worst that could happen? Flash to the next morning. The guys awaken in a strange apartment. Teddy is missing and missing a finger as well. Stu, Phil, and Alan must once again retrace their steps and solve the mystery of their hard-partying antics before the wedding ceremony.

The Hangover: Part II is a carbon copy of the original. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check. Let me get into how stunningly indolent the screenwriting is (small spoilers to follow). Once again a person in their group goes missing before a wedding. Once again Stu has some self-inflicted wound to his face. Once again the guys have stolen someone else’s unorthodox pet. Once again they find themselves with a ward (baby in first film, Mr. Chow in second). Once again Stu has gotten involved with a prostitute. Once again Alan was secretly responsible for their drugging. Once again Justin Bartha gets left out of the escapades. Once again Mr. Chow shows his junk for shock value. Once again Mr. Chow jumps out of a locked container attacking the guys. Once again the guys have to return money to a gangster. Once again Stu plays a song of his own creation bemoaning their situation. Once again they have to race to the wedding minutes away. Once again we have a Mike Tyson cameo. Once again the guys find pictorial evidence of their debauchery and they play over the credits. Even directing touches like a time-lapse high-rise shot passing the time before they wake up is reused.

That’s what kills the movie is the lack of surprise. It throws the guys into a different setting, gets darker and meaner, but it’s rarely funny. I was surprised how many jokes left me in stony silence. Phillips and his screenwriters have gotten into the trouble of having to top themselves, so they rely on the “bigger is better” approach to match the outrageousness of the original. If Las Vegas is Sin City, then what would be even seedier? Bangkok, of course. Where would they go for a third film? What gets seedier than Bangkok (The Hangover 3 to be set in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s office). Yet the film curiously ignores much of what makes Bangkok the world’s preeminent hotspot in the sexual trades. The payoffs are darker and lack the bemusement of the original. Knowing some guy is missing a finger is not as whimsical as somebody missing a tooth. The movie has an unpleasant homophobia to it thanks to male genitalia being used to shock and horrify and humiliate. The horror of being involved with transsexual women made my theater audience groan with extra relish, like the presence of a penis or homosexual content makes everything automatically more disgusting to the common people, as if anything gay is the worst thing that could possible befall a man. Mr. Chang is an odious and fairly unfunny stereotype, and Jeong (Role Models, TV’s Community), so funny in just about every other role he’s ever had, is a braying, high-pitched annoyance. This go-round the jokes feel stale, the characters feel tired, and the payoffs seem too mean-spirited to be satisfying.

When you have a movie where the comedy is situation-based, then those situations better be funny because the characters are only serving as a means to an end. The premise allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. They can fulfill the hedonistic spectacle that will make people blush, and at the same time they can have button-uped, likable, relatively relatable nice characters that an audience will root for. If we watched these characters acting like irredeemable morons, then audience sympathy would wan. But having the guys investigate their previous dirty deeds, and react in horror, does not lessen audience sympathy. I enjoyed how the main trio played off each other in the first Hangover, and the central mystery was a solid glue to hold together a loose collection of mostly worthwhile gags. Just as the first film fell short of its potential, so too does the second movie. A monkey serves little purpose other than to get it to do things that seem outrageous just because it’s a monkey (it smokes, it mimes oral sex – hilarious!). But the second time around, the amusement of seeing Stu fly off the handle, or listen to Alan’s moony non-sequitors, doesn’t have the same draw. Galifianakis (Due Date) made the film watchable for me despite the fact that the screenplay makes his character a petulant and highly irritating character rather than a man-child doofus. And the women are once again relegated to the sidelines when it comes to being in on the comedy.

For The Hangover‘s legions of fans, more of the same will likely be exactly what was desired. But without the cheeky element of surprise, the comedy just seems like it’s hitting pre-ordained stops according to its formulaic cheat sheet. For the original Hangover I wrote: “Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? …But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date?” Well, The Hangover: Part II is the answer. If the first film was a comedy with an expiration date, then The Hangover: Part II is one comedy that’s gone rancid.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Due Date (2010)

Due Date feels less a wholesale rip-off of 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and more of a full-blown film inspired by the one sequence where Steve Martin unleashes a profane tirade at an airport clerk. It has two talented actors (Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifiankas) in situations that should come across as funny, but the movie only gets so many laughs. The road trip angle has been done to death but the mismatched pairing of Downey, acerbic anger, and Galifianakas, continued goofball man-child, should have compensated for any stale genre formula leftovers. I think Due Date, under the direction of Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School), really just doesn’t know what to do with all its misplaced mean-spirited rage. So we end up with kids getting punched, people being beaten by disabled veterans, multiple cars crashing in spectacular fashion, public masturbation with dogs, people enduring great injury, and somehow the characters bond through all the adversity, even though neither changes at all. The comedy setups are all fairly transparent and can only deliver medium-sized payoffs; when a man’s ashes are kept in a coffee can, you know it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. For better or worse, this is a two-man operation; the supporting actors are all wasted, particularly Downey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye) as Downey’s pregnant wife. She isn’t even given one funny thing to say or do the whole movie. Due Date is a comedy that will make you laugh sporadically but it should have performed better. It’s a mid-level comedy with medium-level payoffs that ultimately prove to be underwhelming given the upper-level talent involved.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover is the breakout hit of the summer. It’s a simple concept that’s fully executed by Old School director Todd Phillips, the biggest name in the movie is Mike Tyson, and the people are lapping it up. It’s going to become the first comedy to pass the $200 million mark since 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Is it that good? The studio was already planning a sequel before The Hangover was ever released.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married and thus must embark on that last passage of manhood — the bachelor party. Doug and his groomsmen are headed out to Las Vegas for a wild night. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a handsome science teacher ready to cut loose. Stu (Ed Helms) is a nerdy dentist completely at the command of his icy, domineering girlfriend (Rachael Harris). And then there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s prospective brother-in-law. Alan is clueless to the point that he asks a hotel clerk if Caesar’s Palace was at one point the emperor’s actual residence. He’s also desperate for some friends and he wants this Vegas trip to be unforgettable. Cut to the next morning and the boys awake to discover their hotel suite in shambles, a tiger in the bedroom, a crying baby on the floor, and Doug is nowhere. Phil, Stu, and Alan have to retrace their steps and fill in the holes of their collective memories.

The central mystery provides surprisingly intriguing glue for all the gags. The idea of Vegas-laden debauchery is practically a cliché of a cliché at this point, especially with how Vegas has been somewhat morphed into a family-friendly Disney Land theme park for adults compared to its mob origins. With that said, the movie hits all the regular Vegas bender exploits you would think it would, which includes, speedy marriage ceremonies, strippers, drugs, gambling. Several of the jokes themselves are somewhat on the cheap side; however, their laugh quotient is elevated by spontaneity and the comic abilities of the cast. The plot to The Hangover is cleverly constructed so that the audience is trying to figure out the latest clues just like the main characters. The movie trades heavily in raunch and crudeness, but this is a comedy that never gets too dark or too mean-spirited; there’s always a playful bemusement at the “What did we do last night?” revelations. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) are silly about their naughtiness. It doesn’t go to the limits of good taste like Peter Berg’s pitch-black bachelor party gone wrong comedy, Very Bad Things. That movie, which is a guilty pleasure heavy on the guilt, really looked at the hedonist philosophy about “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — including murdered hookers buried in the desert. The Hangover actually comes across like some absurdist film noir, and Phillips shoots the movie like it is a film noir. The cinematography even includes watching a car drive into the desert via the reflection of a man’s sunglasses. The movie looks like a serious film noir, a caper filmed in the rarely seen daylight of Vegas, which only makes everything that happens even funnier.

The Hangover is consistently funny once the boys get to Vegas. Beforehand it’s all setup, and generally setups are not that funny because they lay ground for the punchlines to come later. There are well-executed running gags and then there are also missed opportunities, like the baby and the surprise wedding. Certainly a newly discovered baby offers better gags than miming the little fella masturbating. The jokes themselves aren’t terribly sophisticated (hence: male nudity = laughs, taser to the balls = bigger laughs) and plot revelations, like how Stu lost his tooth, can be letdowns. The screenplay speeds through its comic setups too quickly, briskly running to the next and leaving little room to settle. A healthy dose of the adolescent humor is unmemorable from other crass-fests, but the setups allow the actors to bounce off each other for better jokes. The best laughs come from the threesome of dudes just ping-ponging back and forth in the moment. The end credits finally reveal what really happened that debased night, and the montage of pictures serves as a meaty, satisfying payoff to 90 minutes of sophomoric setup. It’s a terrific way to get the audience laughing all the way to the parking lot.

The humor is mostly situation based. The characters all fall under comedy archetypes (henpecked husband, loudmouth, socially inept doofus) but it’s the interaction and male camaraderie between the actors that made me smile the most. Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) is full of smarm but he comes across like a less manic, still self-absorbed and obnoxious version of his jerky character from Wedding Crashers. His main job is to center the other two actors. Galifianakis (The Comedians of Comedy) is the go-to source for the screenplay’s laughs and his role makes good use of his talents. He plays a buffoon without an ounce of self-awareness, which gives the character a touch of sweetness even as he bumbles in total social awkwardness. He plays the character straight and innocent, which makes his moony behavior more unnerving and yet acceptable at the same time. But for me, this is Helms’ movie. The supporting actor from TV’s The Office has honed comedic chops, which explains how he can find the perfect tone for an uptight, hopeless, delusional dentist to be sympathetic and not overly pathetic. He comes completely undone over the course of the film’s events and Helms bounces off the walls in hysterics.

Like other Phillips movies, specifically Old School, the women not only get shortchanged as comedy characters but they are presented in an unflattering light. Essentially, the women are either vicious, soul-sucking shrews or exploitative whores. It’s not exactly an enlightened atmosphere but then again The Hangover is a vulgar comedy set in Sin City. The nicest female character is portrayed by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as a breastfeeding prostitute (“I’m a stripper. Well, I’m an escort but stripping is a great way to meet the clients.”). I’m not asking for every comedy to be written from a feminist standpoint, but it’s disconcerting when the women in a comedy only get to be the jokes instead of being in on the jokes. The extremely flamboyant, overripe gay Asian mobster (Ken Jeong of Role Models) ensures that women aren’t alone in getting marginalized for giggles.

Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? I think perhaps Phillips has crafted a comedic version of The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 thriller that plucked Michael Douglas into a crazy “what the hell is going on?” trip down the rabbit hole. But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date? I think The Hangover will lose some of its appeal once the surprises are all out in the open, but I think the chemistry of the cast and some of the riffs on Vegas will still earn chuckles even on multiple viewings. This isn’t the instant classic that its rapid grosses and frothing word-of-mouth might have you believe, but The Hangover is an enjoyable guys-gone-wild trip down the empty road of Vegas hedonism.

Nate’s Grade: B

Starsky & Hutch (2004)

The big screen adaptation of yet another 1970s television show has about one joke in it – that the 70s were funny. So after scene after scene of people with funny hair, in funny clothes, and talking funny, Starsky and Hutch doesn’’t so much coast as it skids to a flat, lifeless halt. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are an amiable duo and Vince Vaughn makes a credible cocaine creep, but director Todd Phillips (Road Trip) is left to unsuccessfully hammer his film with sight gags. Scenes and jokes will stretch on much longer than their recommended shelf life. Will Ferrell makes a welcomed cameo to give the film its only moment of juice. Snoop is wasted. You may laugh at all this but the Beastie Boys did it better with their “Sabotage” video – and that was ten friggin’’ years ago.

Nate’’s Grade: C

Old School (2003)

There’’s something to be said for stupid comedies. Not necessarily the ones that are centered on large men getting hit in the head or crotch. Or films that climax with pie fights. Or any film where a wild animal plays some kind of pro sport. Or any film where Rob Schneider transforms into something and learns that life is indeed tough from a different perspective. As you can see, the stupid comedy has a very dubious history but when it succeeds at creating those hearty belly laughs, the kind where your face is sore afterwards from laughing so hard, few movies are as entertaining. Billy Madison is every bit as perfect in its humor as the more critically lauded comedies Rushmore and Raising Arizona. So then, is the crass college comedy Old School funny, stupid or both? It’’s safe to say its makers did their homework and admirable achieve an unrepentant uproarious stupid comedy.

Mitch (Luke Wilson) is a real estate numbers cruncher who catches an early flight home from a business retreat only to discover his girlfriend (Juliet Lewis) blindfolded and ready to engage in an orgy. Mitch moves into a house on a local campus with the help of his two friends, smooth talker Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and man-child Frank (Will Ferrell). The trio of thirty somethings comes up with the idea to start their own fraternity and relive their youth. Their rebellion from adulthood leads to wild parties, underage girls, KY Jelly wrestling, drunken streaking, birthday party tranquilizers, eulogies featuring White Snake songs and, of course, taking it to the man that just won’t let these kids have their fun.

Wilson is relegated to the role of the straight man, which means he pretty much gets to make faces at the antics of Ferrell and Vaughn. Wilson is the “nice guy” of the film, which in comedy terms means he’s the individual tortured by others. And in other terms, means he’s normally quite bland. Consider both checked with Wilson in Old School. Wilson is a very capable actor but he’’s more or less backdrop.

Ferrell is like instant comedy, just add water and he can make anything funnier. Much has been made of Kathy Bates strutting around in her 54-year-old birthday suit (which may have led to a Best Unsupported Actress nomination) but Ferrell equally jogs around jiggling his goods with glee. Ferrell is hysterical as the film’s biggest party animal. He takes everything to another level of comedy. Stick around during the end credits just to see him kick some woman’’s shopping cart. I’’m telling you this simple action is one of the funniest things in the movie.

Vaughn has made a career of playing fast-talking louts that would normally incite people with his caustic remarks if he weren’’t so damn charming. What happened to ole’ Vince and his oodles of sex appeal? Circa 1998 or so he was going to be Hollywood’s next leading man, especially after massive exposure from Spielberg’’s Lost World. Yes, starring in the very ill conceived remake of Psycho (now with masturbation at no extra charge!) was a bad career move but it shouldn’’t have been a killer. I mean, Anne Heche went on to other films after it and this was before she was communicating with aliens with her made up language. Hell, I’’m just kind of glad to see Vaughn in films again. His running gag with a bread maker is great.

The plot of Old School is really nothing more than a paper-thin device for the jokes to spring forth from. There are only stock characters in these kinds of films. There’s the nice girl (Ellen Pompeo) that will eventually get together with our protagonist in the end. There’’s her smug boyfriend played by the smug Craig Kilborn. Jeremy Piven is a stuffy dean trying to shut the boys down to settle old grudges with them.

The women of Old School are really left with nothing to do. Either they are there to have sex with the men or, when older, marry and control them. Lewis is the opposite of the good girl as the oversexed former flame of Wilson. Leah Remini has a very brief role as Vaughn’s wife who knows when to lead him by a chain. 24‘’s Elisha Cuthbert is a naughty schoolgirl that could get Wilson in trouble after one unexpected night. The ladies of this world are really tools for the guys, but what kind of feminist analysis is needed for a film that features Snoop Dog and not one, but two correspondents from The Daily Show?

Old School is from the director and co-writer of Road Trip, a crude yet very entertaining and lively comedy. Old School is kind of a big brother companion to Road Trip, and while not rising to the level of Animal House (as every college comedy wishes to be now) the film is indeed a pristine example of a gloriously stupid comedy aided by a very game cast. See it and be prepared to laugh a few pounds off.

Nate’s Grade: B

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