[NB: In this week’s round-up, Jesse Hassenger says some things about Away We Go — like that it's a good movie — with which your film editor emphatically does not agree. It’s nothing personal — Jesse and your film editor remain on good terms and are mutually respectful of each other’s divergent opinions, and Jim from The Office and especially Maya Rudolph are indeed very good in this movie. But, well… Hey, look, you can stream Grosse Pointe Blank on Netflix!]
Away We Go: I’m sure Away We Go will be pilloried for any number of reasons: Sam Mendes directed it; it has a gently strummed singer-songwriter soundtrack; John Krasinski’s beard; it’s about hipster-ish thirtysomethings, which seems to make certain hipster-ish twenty-and-thirtysomethings mad because they suspect that other, stupider hipster-ish twenty-and-thirtysomethings will fall for it, whatever “it” is. But despite some supporting caricatures and, yes, a little too much gentle strumming, this is a sweet-natured movie, funny and well worth seeing. Mendes surrounds Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, playing expectant parents, with veteran character actors of all ages: Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, Paul Schneider (brilliant casting as Krasinski’s brother). But no one steals the movie out from under its leads; Krasinski and Rudolph do lovely, affecting work, a quietly (mostly) functional complement to the operatic mismatching in Revolutionary Road, the previous Mendes picture. Despite the inevitable complaints about the carefully composed Mendes frames, this is a thinking person’s date movie. Or a date movie for people who have already been on a bunch of dates.
Land of the Lost: Likewise, I’m guessing this one is going to get killed by critics, because there’s something about Will Ferrell in high-concept junk that seems to make the press more irritable than Ben Stiller or Owen Wilson doing the same. But Ferrell has never made anything as unfunny as Along Came Polly or Drillbit Taylor (well, A Night at the Roxbury is awful, but that was pre-superstardom); if the worst we’re going to see from him is Kicking and Screaming (the non-Baumbach one) or Semi-Pro or Bewitched, I dunno, those movies are mostly watchable, if sloppy. Land of the Lost has the kind of slapdash storytelling that implies editing-room futzing — it’s got one of those padded half-assed prologues and plenty of narrative shortcuts along the way. But Ferrell and Danny McBride, while not exacting giving their all, lend it a certain offhand goofiness and the ability to make throwaway dialogue chuckle-worthy, if not exactly guffaw-inducing. The effects are neat in a stylish, nowhere near realistic sort of way, too. My question is how audiences will respond, because the movie isn’t nearly so kid-friendly as you’d expect from Land of the Lost; they actually jettison a lot of kid appeal without going full-on adult with the humor. I guess this is what people mean when they say most Hollywood movies are aimed at fourteen-year-old boys. But in this case, the teenager-mongering has kind of a cracked innocence.
The Hangover: I may sound like a traitor to my generation here, especially given my general Will Ferrell and comedy fandom, but I don’t like Old School, the legacy of which director Todd Phillips is obviously chasing with The Hangover. Sure, the earlier movie has some priceless bits, and both Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn are hilarious in it. But if you actually watch the whole thing instead of rolling a Ferrell/Vaughn highlight reel, you’ll see a sloppy, poorly developed piece of comedy. Even some of the semi-famous scenes, like Ferrell getting shot with that tranquilizer gun, move too quickly and provide little payoff. What happens in that scene, again? Ferrell observes a random tranq gun, gets shot with it accidentally exactly as you’d expect, and then… pretty much nothing, go to next scene, it’s never mentioned again. Or take the climactic moment, when the ragtag group of misfits is behind in the fraternity competition and their largest dude has to compete in gymnastics. The big payoff gag is: the large dude gets up, and does the routine really well (assisted by the visual effects department). This isn’t set up earlier, mind you, or explained in any way, nor do we get to see a large guy actually performing an amazing stunt; he just… is really good at gymnastics for one scene of cartoonish CG. I don’t really get why that’s supposed to be funny. Since Old School, Philips has directed Starsky & Hutch and School for Scoundrels, and he’s been tagged as slumping for his trouble. Scoundrels is indeed scattershot, and hamstrung by its employment of Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder doing their most predictable schticks possible one more damn time, but Starsky is actually a much funnier and a better-made movie than Old School, with a more affecting portrait of goofball male bonding to boot. What worries me about Hangover isn’t just its resemblance to Old School, or that it doesn’t have Vaughn or Ferrell to improvise their way out of a dopey script, or that we’re supposed to want to watch Bradley Cooper in a leading role, but that a regression-minded filmmaker like Phillips doesn’t need even more of an excuse to celebrate men being dicks. Phillips has always had a problem with letting women be funny in his movies; he mostly casts hot women and then makes the gag be that they’re totally hot and like, making out with each other. The Hangover will doubtless have a hectoring fiancée character whose central joke is how screechy and humorless she is. This is not what Philips need at this stage in his development. Also: I do like the structure of investigating a blacked-out night on the town, but I can’t give the filmmakers much credit for that, either, as it is essentially the plot of Dude, Where’s My Car? That said, this could be fun if it works — but the same is true of Dance Flick.
My Life in Ruins: Nia Vardalos wrote and starred in the indie megahit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then wrote and starred in the non-indie flop Connie and Carla. Her penance for an even keel is a weirdly specialized task out of myth: Star in a movie written by someone else, but still Greek-themed, but not a sequel to Wedding (no My Big Fat Greek Pregnant Stomach?), receiving neither a big push nor a slow-building limited release. Semi-fascinatingly, the replacement screenwriter in question is Mike Reiss, a longtime Simpsons writer-producer. Hey, that seems OK, except the director is Donald Petrie, the guy who did Just My Luck, Welcome to Mooseport, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Miss Congeniality, and Grumpy Old Men, among others, and whose lot in life is to be confused with Howard Deutch, who made My Best Friend’s Girl, The Whole Ten Yards, The Replacements, and Grumpier Old Men, among others (see?). I picture Petrie entering into a master-protégé relationship with the older Deutch, and Deutch schooling him in the fine art of soft-focusing on the mushy parts and never telling any of the actors to reign it in, ever. Anyway, Deutch or Petrie, I’ve already forgotten which, made this de facto Greek Wedding prequel about an American tour guide in Greece who tries to get her mojo back. Rachel Dratch is in it, too. I haven’t yet seen Dratch’s indirect-to-DVD comedy Spring Breakdown, but I’m going to tell you and go ahead and rent that if you have anything resembling the urge to see My Life in Ruins.
Downloading Nancy: I’ve seen this one too, and yikes. Maria Bello can be a wonderful actress, but this movie takes her willingness to bare soul and body and rakes it over broken glass, and then wants you to get totally emotionally devastated rather than bored and irritated. Between this and the cheap-looking Ruins, it’s a miserable weekend to be a fortysomething leading lady. I guess this is what people mean when they say most Hollywood movies are aimed at fourteen-year-old… hey!