21 Jump Street: The year of Channing Tatum continues. I suppose Jonah Hill is having a decent twelve months, too, with the Oscar nomination and likely-big box office for this tongue-in-cheek 80s-TV remake. But Hill has been giving funny performances since Superbad, around the same time Channing Tatum was appearing in the wretchedly dull first Step Up movie (and only did a cameo in its far superior sequel). But Tatum’s really laboring to turn it around this year: two Soderbergh movies; a non-Nicholas Sparks romance where he gets to spout off about Radiohead of all things; a comedy with Hill where maybe he can expand on the surprising comic skill he showed as a highlight of the otherwise forgettable The Dilemma; and a G.I. Joe movie that (a.) looks cooler than the first one and (b.) looks like it may actually star other actors entirely. I guess the latter would be more of a Step Up 2 move, but what’s done is done, and Tatum’s exit from two different early-career franchises miraculously seems less likely to backfire and result in Vin Diesel-style crawlback. The directors of this goof on the 80s cop show made the very funny Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs cartoon, which makes up for one of the credited screenwriters also working on the recent what-screenwriter hit Project X.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home: The Duplass Brothers started making no-budget mumblecore comedies like The Puffy Chair (a charming movie that, a fit of perversity, saves its laugh-out-loud funniest scene for the deleted material on the DVD); now they’re bringing their handheld cameras and probably unnecessary mini-zooms to the comedy elite. Cyrus featured Jonah Hill’s first semi-serious performance and a return to indie sad-sackery for part-time comedian John C. Reilly, and now a second semi-mainstream feature, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, takes an Apatowian premise—Jason Segel plays a slacker living with his mom (Susan Sarandon) and trying to bond with his flailing brother (Ed Helms)—and, presumably, gives it a flaky-stoner reality in place of the patented Apatow riffs (realistic in their own way, but not the kind of improv the Duplass boys favor). I confess I’ve grown a little tired of the Helms tensely needy clueless dork routine; maybe his Office promotion hurt in that regard. But perhaps the Duplass brothers can rehumanize that schtick a little without pushing the pathos button too hard.
Casa de mi Padre: Just last weekend, Eddie Murphy appeared in the new-ish movie A Thousand Words, and the sad laments concerning Murphy’s squandered potential began anew. But if Murphy seems mired in post-stardom complacency (and, per a recent Rolling Stone interview, pretty unapologetic about it), the gradual decline of overall Star Power since Murphy’s heyday seems to have had a pleasing effect on the next generation of comedy stars. Actually, Will Ferrell is only six years younger than Murphy; the latter just started on SNL when he was only twenty, while Ferrell was nearly thirty when he began his seven-year run. But while Murphy follows the same general comedy superstar model as both his predecessors (like Chevy Chase) and followers (like In Living Color‘s Jim Carrey)—avoid character parts; do broad comedies that are all about you; don’t bother hiring other funny people unless you really have to—Ferrell has gone about his movie comedy career more like Ben Stiller. Stiller, like Ferrell, didn’t find his biggest successes until later in life, which may account for how neither of them feel that doing cameos, bit parts, or bizarre career tangents are beneath them.
Stiller, for all of his comic bona fides (Arrested Development guest shots, walk-ons in movies like Anchorman), has his hands in a couple of ultra-hacky franchises; Ferrell has taken the Stiller approach further by making a franchise of sorts out of his most pure and fruitful comedic collaboration: the anarchic, often satirical broad comedies he makes with Adam McKay. He may be the only leading comedian in this country whose biggest hits are also many of his best movies: his movies with McKay, along with the charming Elf and the amusing Blades of Glory. That’s not to say his filmography is all killer, no filler. But Ferrell seems to have lost interest in finding his own Night at the Museum, and his paycheckiest gigs tend to be funnier and weirder than the worst of Murphy, Carrey, Stiller, or Adam Sandler: I’ll go to bat for his remakes of Bewitched and Land of the Lost, and even his kiddie soccer comedy Kicking and Screaming has the decency to play like eighty-five minutes of Ferrell improv.
So while many of his comedian peers save small movies for their occasional grabs at dramatic and/or indie cred (and to be fair, the more serious-minded films of Carrey and Sandler tend to be pretty interesting, sometimes great), Ferrell puts that adventurous spirit into his comedy, too. He’ll gladly, for example, go off and make a Spanish-language film designed as a deadpan spoof of telenovelas. Ferrell has said in interviews that he hoped that a big studio would pick up Casa de mi Padre—that one hasn’t speaks to that aforementioned star-market deflation—but his involvement obviously wasn’t contingent on that kind of distribution. As such, it’s opening in limited-ish release this weekend, and probably won’t make much money. I can’t claim to know what goes on in Ferrell’s head, but if I had to guess I’d say he doesn’t much care. Casa de mi Padre faces competition this week from post-Ferrell comic actors who may not have as strong track record but do seem more poised to avoid the Murphy route: Segel and Helms hook up with the Duplass Brothers, while Jonah Hill conceives his own material and hires a bunch of funny sketch people like Ellie Kemper and Rob Riggle to back him up.
Seeking Justice: Then there’s Nicolas Cage, who certainly doesn’t consider movies beneath his superstar dignity, but proceeds with a less productive anyone-else-need-me-for-a-crap-thriller gameplan. In doing some research for my ongoing Cageology studies, I noticed something I should’ve picked up on ages ago: almost everything Cage has done in the past two years has been shot in or around Louisiana, where he has owned at least two mansions—at least one of which he has never lived in, so I’m not sure where he’s been holing up while working on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Drive Angry, Trespass, Season of the Witch re-shoots, Seeking Justice, and the upcoming Stolen. All Louisiana productions! Did Bad Lieutenant simply inspire him to stick around? Or did he only do that movie because Herzog agreed to come to him?
Stranger still, the only post-Lieutenant movie that really carries the spirit of that movie in any way is the foreign-shot Ghost Rider 2, so it’s not like he’s on a hot-streak even by wackadoodle standards. Puzzling over Cage’s New Orleans trawling holds more interest than actually watching Seeking Justice, a pretty routine (if slickly directed, by thriller pro Roger Donaldson) cross between a vigilante movie and a conspiracy movie. The NOLA locations add a smidge of grit, but other than the cheerfully ridiculous sight of Cage in a mardi-gras mask, dancing with onscreen wife January Jones, it seems, like so many other recent Cage movies, an arrangement of convenience, not passion.