Lots of attempted laughs this weekend; remember when this used to be one of the biggest weekends of the summer? It’s when they always used to put out Batman movies. I guess Batman & Robin felt kind a curse or something, because June has been largely given over to comedies and quasi-counterprogramming in recent years. If anything, June now functions as blockbuster season for the mini-majors: Moon, Away We Go, The Hurt Locker, a new Woody Allen… you know, the kind of movies that would be major releases if people over 25 were considered to be more than two quadrants’ worth of the population.
Year One: What interests me about this latest Judd Apatow production is exactly what seems to be turning off some audiences: that it looks like an openly silly semi-historical revue. A story about a pair of mismatched hunter-gatherers (Michael Cera and Jack Black) wandering through Biblicalish times sounds like something Mel Brooks or Monty Python or early-period Woody Allen would (or did) tackle, and while I’m not assuming that Year One will be the Love and Death or Life and Brian of its day, I am saying there’s a very good chance it will be better than History of the World Part I. Also, while we’re talking comedy, can we stop the carping about Michal Cera always doing the same thing? Have you ever seen a comedian before? They assume comic personas, and they play variations for most of their career. This isn’t something that hacky comedians do and really brilliant comedians avoid. It’s what everyone does, from Charlie Chaplin to Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen to Bill Murray to Ben Stiller to Will Ferrell. In fact, this arguably extends far beyond just comedians to encompass most movie stars and many character actors, but it’s especially fine when a comic actor does it. That’s not to say that no comedian’s schtick can ever become stale, overexposed, or misused. But let’s stop pretending that this has to do with needing range. The list of truly chameleonic comedians would be about six names long, and most of them would be Peter Sellers in different beards. I haven’t seen this movie but I can tell you that Michael Cera will be meek and self-effacing, and that it will probably be hilarious, and if it’s not, it won’t be because he needs to start swapping roles with Jables.
The Proposal: If you want a heavy-handed dose of rom alongside your equally trudging com, early reviews on this Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds have been, actually, passable. This probably seems weird to any readers who have seen the trailer (which has played in front of approximately one thousand movies per month for the past six months), though thinking about it a little more, I guess it’s not too hard to believe that this turned out better than the likes of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past or He’s Just Not That Into You. Way to lower the bar for Sandra Bullock, rom-com stars of tomorrow! It’s depressing, though, to consider how this screwbally premise — mean boss (Bullock) forces hassled underling (Reynolds) to marry her in order to solve a far-fetched green card issue (she’s Canadian!) — could probably be a zippy romantic farce if anyone made those anymore. I have a hard time believing the Anne Fletcher of 27 Dresses has that in her; even the extras in that movie were poorly directed.
Whatever Works: Retro comedy enthusiasts too crotchety to be enticed by Year One may show interest in an actual new Woody Allen joint, which confirms the aughts as his doodling-around decade as he produces smaller variations on previously explored pet themes and styles. Of course, you could argue that Woody has always revisited pet themes and styles, but take another look at his underrated and varied nineties output: a searing relationship comedy-drama (Husbands and Wives); a period farce (Bullets Over Broadway); a delightful musical (Everyone Says I Love You); a caustic revue that brings to mind his prose work (Deconstructing Harry); and a mockumentary (Sweet and Lowdown), among other endeavors. This decade, his work has been more like 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery: (mostly) enjoyable, (usually) minor, bordering on trifling. There are some broad-comedy throwbacks, the best of which are Scoop and Small Time Crooks; some dark dramas in the vein of Crimes and Misdemeanors (Match Point; Cassandra’s Dream); one attempt at mixing the two (Melinda and Melinda); and the thin romantic lark Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In an odd way, Whatever Works most resembles 2003’s Anything Else in that it feels not just like a discarded old Woody script (which it was, at one point), but an early draft of several other Woody movies, with its especially irritable protagonist (Deconstructing Harry), fourth-wall-breaking (Annie Hall), and older gentleman courting a gal many years his junior (almost any of them but let’s say Manhattan). Comedy nerds will be excited to see Larry David giving voice to a Woody screenplay, and David does, indeed, bring extra verve to the role, parading around a dingy apartment in a half-zipped jacket and shorts, unkempt and unruly in a way that Woody himself might not have thrown himself into, and Evan Rachel Wood, as a ditzy-not-dumb blonde, enacts the time-honored Woody Allen leading lady tradition of getting just as many laughs with fewer one-liners and punchlines. Problem is, the movie more or less stops with their entertaining characters; the rest of the story is propped up by thin, uninspired supporting parts. It’s fitfully funny and goes down easy, but Allen’s script seems to be wrapping itself up before it even gets going. As Mark says so succinctly in his review, it’s the work of a guy with dinner plans.