It’s a pre-summer clearinghouse this weekend, with half a dozen major motion pictures clearing the deck for The Avengers next weekend (and/or trying to establish a foothold before the summer waves roll throughout May and beyond). As it happens, this dumping-ground strategy makes the weekend look far more appealing than, say, May 18th, when we get Battleship and What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
The Five-Year Engagement: The first five or six years of Judd Apatow-produced comedies, often starring and/or written by his stable of Freaks and Geeks performers, were largely coming-of-age stories set in different age brackets, from the actual teenagers of Superbad to the slacker twentysomethings in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to the genuinely middle-aged 40-Year-Old Virgin. Rather than moving up to immature fiftysomethings or back down to Freaks and Geeks territory, Apatow makes a lateral play into semi-maturity with The Five-Year Engagement via his reliable house team of Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. Though we get momentary flashbacks to their meet-cute, we join Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) already in love, both with stable jobs—he’s a cook and she’s an academic—and completely lacking the commitment issues that would prevent them from getting engaged. They’re sweet and relaxed, and not in that what-day-is-it manner of the proto-slackers of Knocked Up—though not so unconventional as to truly alienate the audience members looking to go awwww at key moments (Tom’s ruby/non-diamond engagement ring for Violet still must be lined with tiny antique diamonds, as if to reassure the awwww crowd that he’s not some kind of anti-diamond monster). In fact, the Knocked Up situation seems to play out offscreen in the lives of two supporting characters less together than Tom or Violet.
Where, then, is their rom-com-flict? To its credit, Five-Year Engagement isn’t really about wedding-planning mishaps. It makes some gestures in this direction, but the drawn-out engagement has more to do with actual life stuff; Violet gets turned down for a position in Berkeley, near their home, but has an opportunity in Michigan, where Tom dutifully accompanies her, giving up his chef job to work at a sandwich shop. Yes, this is a romantic comedy, of sorts, about how living in Michigan kinda sucks! It’s there that Tom and Violet acquire the classic Apatow cast of supporting buddies: he gets his oddball sandwich shop boss (Brian Posehn) and another faculty husband (Chris Parnell), while she gets a multi-racial cast of fellow postdocs (Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Randall Park) led by a smooth Welshman (Rhys Ifans). They’re all quite funny, as are NBC Thursday refugees Alison Brie (Violet’s sister) and Chris Pratt (Tom’s best friend).
The comic structure, as ever with a Stoller film, is on the episodic side—he hasn’t nailed Apatow’s facility in converting real-life rambling into a satisfying structure, though he’s getting better—and the Michigan-centric action necessarily but unfortunately strands the characters from Brie and Pratt, two of the strongest players in a stocked arsenal. This, and generally restrained dialogue riffing, keeps the focus on Tom and Violet; not a bad tactic, and they’re an easy couple to root for. Segel sands down some of his neurotic neediness, but he’s touching as the easygoing dude whose easygoingness is repeatedly tested (and eventually warped into survivalist mode, complete with mountain-man beard and crossbow), and Blunt—warm, dry, lightly slapsticky—is turning into one of the easiest, most charming romantic partners on screen.
Five-Year Engagement takes a few easy turns toward the end, and the Stoller/Segel team doesn’t seem entirely sure as to whether they’re endorsing no-fuss lifesharing (stop trying to wait for the perfect wedding if you love each other!) or flat-out heteronormative settling (find someone to marry and do it fast!). But they also show admirable disinterest in rehashing the youthful goofiness of Sarah Marshall. It’s nice to see an Apatow production that’s less about growing up and more about growing old.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits: I’ve always been more of a Pixar fan than a hardcore Aardmaniac, but while I do confess to fidgeting a little during the Wallace and Gromit movie (along with the four-to-six-year-olds who filled the theater), I have a lot of affection for their computer-animated efforts Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, even when they go a bit more manic, presumably to please those fussy ADDled kids (and possibly dumb Americans like me). The Pirates! Band of Misfits strikes, to my eyes, a just-about perfect balance between the pacing of their CG movies and the daffy Britishness of their most acclaimed work.
It finds them back in stop-motion animation, crafting more sight gags than ever out of soft plasticine and dry English wit, adapting a series of comic novels by Gideon Defoe, also the screenwriter here. It’s about a batch of second-tier pirates conniving to get their Pirate Captain (voiced by a nigh-unrecognizable Hugh Grant; disguising his voice at all automatically makes this the least lazy Grant performance in a decade) the Pirate of the Year award, which somehow involves first conniving with a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) to win the Scientist of the Year award. The pirate/scientist contrasts provide some of the biggest laughs in a very funny movie that I have no idea if children will like. It’s slapsticky and fun to look at; it also makes a lot of verbal jokes and, if anything, feels like less of a Rube Goldberg action movie than Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit. But fans of sophisticated, stylish animation still a little bummed by last year’s crop of sequels and spinoffs from the Big Two will probably enjoy this nearly as much as the similarly old-timey Adventures of Tintin and the similarly goofy Rango.
Bernie: In Bernie, Jack Black reunites with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater, and while he does plenty of singing, it’s for a role unlike any others in Black’s filmography: a soft-spoken, endlessly polite, not-especially-ambigiously-but-quietly gay gentleman mortician from Carthage, Texas. Bernie Tiede—a real-life guy—is so beloved in Carthage, in fact, that when he gets involved in a shocking crime involving the widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the townsfolk (many playing themselves in documentary-style interviews) simply can’t believe it. That’s the central joke of Linklater’s odd, often fascinating cross between dark comedy, character study, and gentle mockumentary, and it’s a thin one, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of Black’s excellent performance (less so out of MacLaine, who has surprisingly little to do given the importance of her role). It’ll be seen by about as many people as the first weekend of School of Rock, but it marks a welcome return to eccentricity for both actor and director.
The Raven: The set-up for this movie where Edgar Allan Poe hunting down a psychopath using Poe story points in his Ye Olde Saw-style serial-killing brings to mind Andy Samberg’s “Get in the Cage!” bit on Weekend Update. In other words, I’m picturing Samberg-as-Cage watching the trailer and exclaiming: “HOW am I NOT in this MOVIE?” Alas, Cage’s Con Air costar John Cusack got to Poe first, lending the air of classiness lost when V for Vendetta director James McTeague also did Ninja Assassin (and let me tell you, as the L Magazine staffer most qualified to actually like Ninja Assassin: Ninja Assassin sucks).
Safe: Obviously The Stath and Lionsgate have a good thing going here, but it’s a little frustrating that none of his other Lionsgate action thrillers are as awesome as the Crank or Transporter movies (this is also true of the other EuropeCorp movies Luc Besson produces. Lockout, Colombiana, Taken, From Paris with Love all have one thing in common besides Besson: none of them are even as good as Transporter 3). A movie like Safe that finds Statham playing a hard-bitten loner protecting a little girl seems particularly well-suited to retrofitting into Transporter 4; instead, it’ll probably be all glum and gritty and pseudo-serious. On the plus side, the trailer does make it look like there’s a scene where like fifty guys all cock their guns in succession and then fire on Statham, who jumps out a window using a bad guy’s body as a cushion. I may use some willful naiveté to assume that is in fact the plot of this movie. Interestingly, Safe is written and directed by Boaz Yakin, whose Fresh I remember being pretty strong back in the 90s, but who also made Uptown Girls so I’m thinking maybe all bets are off. But hey, props to Stath for working with a writer-director not named Besson or Stallone.
Sound of My Voice: I was underwhelmed by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth last year; now Marling is back with the second half of her Sundance ’11 double feature, Sound of My Voice, swapping cowriter/director Cahill out for cowriter/director Zal Batmanglij (they’re both longtime collaborators of Marling’s, or at least as longtime as a 29-year-old can realistically have). If nothing else, the trailer that I’ve seen a thousand times at the Landmark Sunshine promises fewer claustrophobic digital-video handheld close-ups, which went a long way towards making that movie feel like an amateur exercise in grief-wallowing with an intriguing sci-fi overlay. This one looks closer in spirit to Martha Marcy May Marlene (though it may have a sci-fi overlay of its own; Marling’s cult leader claims to be from the year 2054). Fox Searchlight: your go-to studio for scrappy cult-based thrillers! By the way, if it turns out Brit Marling really is from the future and/or a parallel world, are we going to like her more or less?