Your Red Planet Weekend at the Movies

03/09/2012 12:20 PM |

This weeks literary adaptation
  • This week’s literary adaptation

Friends with Kids: The central conceit of Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids might sound like an absurd Heigl/Hudson-level gimmick: good friends Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), both pushing forty without a life’s great romance on the horizon, decide to conceive a child together, and raise it like friendly divorcees. Their paired-off friends (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm; Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) scoff while also serving as examples, to Julie and Jason, of the pitfalls a child brings to a potentially happy marriage. And as potentially ridiculous as the idea is, it contains an appealing seed of practicality—enough that you can see how the idea gets upgraded from hypothetical toss-around to actual life plan. Julie and Jason’s desire to stay in Manhattan, circumvent a bad first marriage, and generally treat a child as a lifestyle accessory to which they are entitled registers as authentically New York-y, or at least authentically Manhattanish (less authentically New York-y: tight shots of soundstage subway mock-ups—but hey, times are tough).

With her recessive, tremulous voice and Woody Allenish dinner-table dialogue, writer-director-star Westfeldt resembles a cross between Mia Farrow and Dianne Weist—a little strange considering her breakout feature, Kissing Jessica Stein (which she co-wrote but did not direct), cast her more directly as a Lady Woody type. Adam Scott does a more caddish version of his sardonic Adam Scott thing, and they render a convincing if sparks-free friendship. This actually makes them a fine, offbeat pair as the movie stays in experimental-family territory (their genuinely awkward conception sex scene is a highlight); less so, though, as it makes the slow course correction into wan and sincere rom-com. The movie even provides pleasant love interests for both characters (Edward Burns, Megan Fox; strange but true), only to reconfigure them as props before they develop further.

The thing is, Westfeldt could make (and has made) an endearing, semi-romantic comedy of urban manners; her dialogue isn’t as zingy as Woody Allen’s or as spiky as Nicole Holofcener’s, but it’s funny and frank. The supporting cast, ported over from Bridesmaids, provides a neat alternate-universe version of that movie’s relationships: what if Wiig somehow got jerky Hamm into a real relationship, and the nice cop fell in love with her best friend? Their group scenes strike an appealing (if sometimes also depressing) balance between affection and backbiting. But the movie has so little idea about what to do with its unconventional set-up that its second half feels protracted, like Westfeldt is stalling for time before giving in to formula. In the end, we’re treated to the odd spectacle of the Bridesmaids cast making a shoestring indie that is less raw or daring than its big-studio counterpart. All of the actors’ charm can’t stave off the antsiness now inherent to watching two friends slowly figure out that they’re in love with each other.

John Carter: Just a few months ago, animation genius Brad Bird made a fleet, kickass, cartoony but still recognizably human jump to live-action with his Mission: Impossible sequel. Now Andrew Stanton, another Pixar honcho with the directing credit on Wall-E and Finding Nemo, is taking a crack at the kind of live-action-ish project more often handed to animation vets: a partially animated fantasy picture (recall that Shrek‘s Andrew Adamson took care of those first two, quite crappy Narnia movies), only with a massive, allegedly out-of-control budget. I hate to make pre-release discussion of John Carter (which I haven’t seen) all about its potential $300 million spending boondoggle, but if it’s any consolation, people at Disney: that $300 million figure makes me deeply and perhaps perversely excited to check out this movie, making up the difference for chopping the exciting-sounding title John Carter of Mars into the boring-athlete-biopic-sounding John Carter. Not because more equals better, but because how often does anyone spend $300 million on pure sci-fi/fantasy pulp? It probably won’t happen again anytime soon, either, after a critical half-pile that seems at least partially budget-related, and I understand on both counts: $300 million is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a two and a half hour movie. But then, $50 million is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on an Eddie Murphy comedy about a magical tree that prevents him from speaking, and movies are kind of a ridiculous enterprise in general, so all of this gleeful armchair accounting is a little churlish.

A Thousand Words: Let me play Murphy’s Advocate for a moment: I don’t know that this movie looks that bad. I mean, yes, it looks bad in that way that it looks like it could’ve been made at any point in the past 15 years of Eddie Murphy’s career and at no point during its first 15, but at least it only looks deeply hacky as opposed to crass, misogynist, racist, and grotesque. I may have even chuckled once or twice the first time I saw the (mostly laughless) trailer. I totally would’ve gone to a screening, had Paramount decided to make them more available (not quite a cold opening; more of a late-winter chill).

Silent House: It wouldn’t be unfair to put Silent House to this simple test: would this minimalist horror picture remain compelling were it not arranged to occur in a single unbroken (and almost certainly fudged) take? My guess is that it would maintain its effective creepiness, especially if the camera stayed tight on Elizabeth Olsen’s terrified face, as the POV gimmick ensures here, with the creaks and thumps of a thought-to-be-abandoned family lake house always elusive, just off-screen. But a less virtuosic presentation might also better reveal that this is really just a creepy-house movie with (spoiler alert?) a twist(ed?) ending, a horror run-through with a would-be psychological tack-on. Then again, horror movies are so largely about technique that Silent House‘s stunt is more relief than gimmick. It just can’t force this well-made, often scary, yet oddly disposable chiller to add up to more than the sum of its freak-outs.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: I had never given much thought before about how to best deter me from seeing a romantic comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, both of whom I find deeply, almost disturbingly adorable in addition to physically attractive, but probably the answer is: include the words “salmon fishing” in the title. I know Ewan has already done his time in a fantasy world and Blunt has turned down a couple of high-profile superhero type gigs, but how fucking psyched would I be if these two were starring in John Carter instead of the supporting cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?

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