Friday, March 30, 2012

Wide Angle: The Canon Conundrum

Occasionally I will take a break from reviewing movies to complain about something else: this is "Wide Angle"

Ever since reading Kristen Thompson's piece earlier this month on the "Citizen Kane assumption," I've been thinking a lot about the mythical ideal of a cinematic canon - the list of films that been's cultivated into a not-so-secret garden of greatness, a well of exclusivity ironically defined by the mandatory inclusion of certain titles. Given the constant mutations of popularity and taste over 115-plus years of film history, our continued insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach is decidedly odd. We recognize this, but are loath to admit it, creating a scenario where our tortured critical psyche seeks validation by repackaging our notions of the "best" lines of dialogue in three-hour TV specials and countless webpage slideshows. But it's instructive to take a step back and realize what we are really doing with these endless inventories - it's become less about examining what makes a film the "best" than setting up the same tired arguments.

That's largely because it seems like the main function of a film canon is not celebrating greatness, but identifying and re-affirming consensus. That goes double for the Oscars. By winning the Academy Award for Best Picture this past February, The Artist entered what is perhaps the most widely-recognized artistic canon in the world, whether we like it or not. (Consider this post a very belated Oscars postmortem.) The fact that much of this year's Oscar narrative revolved around how underwhelming the nominees were - a common complaint, year after year - again revealed the disparity between the our expectations of a Best Picture's worthiness and what this choice actually represents.

Let us abduct you into our world of whimsical nostalgia

The Artist's canonical authority is derived from a quality that a great many past winners have also possessed: electability. As much as they are about popularity, everyone admits that the Oscars are also a contest of political will and consensus-building. So it only makes sense that we often discuss them in political terms. It's not coincidental that studios launch "campaigns" to raise a film's profile within the electorate and turn their nominees into front-runners. (If you extend the analogy to include a kind of Oscars Electoral College, the directors are the progressive upper Midwest and the actors are the solidly sentimental Sunbelt.)

Thompson echoes this sentiment in her post, comparing John Ford's How Green Was My Valley to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane to illustrate how even film critics - a group that should feel the least unencumbered in expressing its sincere opinion - are guided by the search for consensus. Though How Green won the big prize at the 1941 Academy Awards, it is Kane that has endured as a staple of lists of the greatest films ever made, to the point that Ford's classic suffers from an inverted halo effect. Entertainment Weekly had the gumption to include How Green on a list of "most overrated" Oscar winners, mostly because it had the temerity to be released in the same year as Kane.

Man, I really wish I was watching Citizen Kane instead

Frankly, I have no patience for the kind of ex post facto exercise that EW indulges in here. (How is it possible for the winner of a democratic vote to be "overrated?") Any fair and balanced reckoning of Kane should note that its ubiquitous presence on best-of lists is as perfunctory a narrative as a nakedly "sentimental" film temporarily distracting Academy voters from recognizing the great artistic triumph right under their noses. But we forget that the Academy's decision is made by a relatively minuscule group of people, with a scant few months to locate the films in their proper historical and artistic context. With time, it's become clear that Kane and How Green are each great films in their own right. It's slightly insane that we invest so much in an either-or proposition. Why can't our canon make room for both?

Well, we love the speculation, we love the competition, and we love the fact that, though capable of producing idiosyncratic results, the output of our collective critical machinery is usually as predictable as the process of nominating a presidential candidate. The contenders on the margins are initially exciting, but suffer under greater scrutiny. We end up with a winner that represents a collective compromise and best resembles a "classical" form. It's a process designed to vet our fiercest and messiest passions, for better or worse, and preserve our prudence for posterity.

Charles Foster Kane and all the publications that have declared his biopic the best film of all time

Given that the walls of good taste can be torn down as quickly as they are built up, consensus isn't a terrible foundation to build a canon on. Maybe the self-curating film buff plowing through his or her Netflix queue doesn't care a whit about the year's best middlebrow dramas, but for a great many people an Academy Award is a film's ticket to a cinematic Shangri-La. And despite several choices that may appear subpar or uninspired, even the stuffiest of snobs has to admit you could construct a formidable Film Appreciation 101 syllabus from the Academy's selections. Casablanca. The Godfather. All Quiet on the Western Front. Annie Hall. The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, neither they nor we should sweat what's not on that list, especially when the vast majority of the public is excluded from its assembly. Rather, we should focus on the canons that include us as decision makers. The Library of Congress's National Film Registry is unique in this regard. Anybody can make a nomination for the list of up to 25 films that are added to the Registry every year. The main criteria for inclusion are that a film must be at least 10 years old and should be "historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant." Thus, we have a comprehensive, continuously expanding list where James Cameron can rub shoulders with John Cassavetes, and Mrs. Doubtfire is as viable a candidate for inclusion as Mulholland Dr.

And isn't this the best example of what a canon can be - inclusive, diverse, and personal? Not a hierarchy, but a level playing field? It all boils down to a simple choice: we can decide on a film canon that easily anticipates the old arguments, or we can endeavor to create our own.

Monday, March 26, 2012

John Carter (2012)

John Carter
Dir. Andrew Stanton

3 out of 5

The exploits of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' other famous action hero are exhaustively realized in John Carter, a cinematic swashbuckler swollen by a planet-sized mythology and a production budget to match. Taylor Kitsch portrays the titular outcast, a Confederate veteran who gets his ass to Mars via a portal hidden in the remote American southwest. He quickly discovers that shaking the surly bonds of Earth's gravity has greatly increased his strength and leaping ability. The natives of Mars ("Barsoom" in their parlance) are highly intrigued by this reverse Superman, particularly the Tharks, a race of towering green aliens with four arms and a pair of tusks protruding menacingly from their jowls. Their sanctuary temporarily shields Kitsch from the ongoing civil war between the two factions of "red" Martians - a group of warlike nomads and a society of civilized technocrats - who all resemble humanoids with an extreme affinity for henna tattoos.

Backstories are piled upon backstories. Kitsch is reluctant to engage in another conflict, as the last one he was in destroyed his home and his family. But he's amenable to the protestations of a princess (Lynn Collins) on the losing side: a cruel warlord (Dominic West) has acquired a weapon of immense power from a wayward sorcerer (Mark Strong), and she's been told the only way to secure peace is for her to marry the murdering brute. Her instinct for self-preservation has her searching for a game-changing weapon of her own, and Kitsch just might fit the bill.

There's a lot going on in John Carter that will impress fans of visually stunning blockbusters. The film's propulsive action is very much in the spirit of old pulp serials like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and, of course, Superman. It uses a clever framing conceit - imagining "Edgar Rice Burroughs" (Daryl Sabara) as a relative of Carter who uncovers a diary of his fantastic tales - to use as a springboard for a series of terrific adventures. Yet Collins and Kitsch disrupt this momentum by backtracking endlessly across Mars, searching for morsels of plot information. Rarely does the movie build up enough steam before it has to stop and recount another portion of the Barsoom mythos. The film's tendency to over-explain is frustrating, considering that neither the characters nor the basic conflicts are terribly complex. There's just too many of them.

The source material alone is enough for John Carter to provide an upgrade on Disney's previous attempt to create a PG-13 franchise, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But it also bears a certain similarity to its disappointing predecessor, with an uninspired cast going through the motions, already resigned to being upstaged by the movie's lavish special effects. I can't say that I blame them. (The best performances probably belong to Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church as motion-captured Tharks.) But it's also accurate to say that the casting lacks imagination, wasting solid supporting actors like West and Ciarán Hinds in two-dimensional roles. I'll admit there's nothing drastically wrong with a movie like this being thin in the character department. Still, I felt a little embarrassed for Kitsch - a feverishly adored, laid-back Adonis - as he struggled to pull off dialogue full of silly sounding sci-fi jargon. He just does enough to get the job done, which is more or less all that can be said about the film itself

Friday, March 23, 2012

Detachment (2012)

Dir. Tony Kaye

3 out of 5

"That bag doesn't have any feelings that you can hurt," shrugs Mr. Barthes (Adrien Brody) when an angry pupil hurls it across his classroom, then adds pointedly, "And neither do I." Thus the inspirational teacher archetype is turned on its ear in
Detachment, a film about a substitute in a hellish New York public high school with a solitary personal rule: caring is creepy. Unlike fellow faculty members who either try to confront the madness with a pretense of authority or willingly participate in its absurdity, Brody is merely a blank slate. He freely absorbs the physical and psychological torment of his students but doesn't seem too interested in discipline. He doesn't even require that they attend class. For Brody, mentoring is an unemotional pursuit, less of a calling than a penance. His ethical code is more like an unfortunate predisposition than a moral philosophy: by the middle of the film he's a one-man social services bureau, sheltering a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) while tending to his grandfather (Louis Zorich), an invalid in the advanced stages of dementia.

That's a lot to take in, and the audience is lucky to have Brody as a receptacle for all the punishment that director Tony Kaye (American History X) can dish out. There's also an attempt to create some formal distance in the film's flashy editing and its kitchen-sink approach to casting. The success of the latter is spotty at best. On the positive side of the ledger is James Caan's wisecracking disciplinarian, a veteran of the trenches who is just as crude and sarcastic as his charges. But the film's abundance of meandering subplots means that several fine actors get the short shrift. Consider Tim Blake Nelson, whose enigmatic sad sack is an Andy Samberg impression waiting to happen, and William Petersen, who is prominently billed in the credits but hardly says a word in the film. The supporting cast overcompensates for Brody's grim, understated performance with histrionics; the silver lining is that it's a pretty effective way to turn a reticent journeyman with a mysterious background into a de-facto hero.

Detachment is not just a film without any easy solutions - it's a film where solutions are barely even thought of. This sort of ambivalence is vital and unique and inevitably exhausting. The movie is at least consistent in demystifying the sacred sphere of education. Kaye is capable of creating some potent, if obvious, visual metaphors for the failure of the system, like a series of ransacked hallways and classrooms strewn with dead leaves and other refuse. But a prologue featuring real teachers discussing their own motivations and challenges hardly seems to fit, especially as it segues into a recurring set-up where Brody's character pontificates to an unseen documentary crew. The film's display of only the most terrible human behavior is also somewhat disingenuous, but it challenges us to disassociate from the tragedy occurring onscreen. Detachment is ultimately a flawed, fascinating paradox - a cautionary tale of isolation delivered with a heaping dose of alienation.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Casa de mi Padre (2012)
Dir. Matt Piedmont

3.5 out of 5

A novelty film if there ever was one, Casa de mi Padre features famed gringo Will Ferrell as the Spanish-speaking protagonist in something equivalent to a '70s-era telenovela. The simple-minded son of a struggling Mexican rancher, Ferrell pales in comparison to his financially successful brother (Diego Luna), returning to the homestead with his gorgeous bride-to-be (Genesis Rodriguez) in tow. It becomes apparent that Luna has foolishly aligned himself with a ruthless drug lord (Gael García Bernal) who nullifies their business arrangement and resolves to wipe out the brothers and their ranch. But Ferrell's guileless nature and florid poetry conceals his thirst for hot-blooded justice. Despite his gentle disposition, he wills himself to rise to the occasion as a lover and a fighter. The same could be said of the film, which re-creates a genre that exists largely in its own imagination - Mexploitation - in a lighthearted spoof of hastily assembled B-movies and a dig at nostalgic retreads that slap a retro patina over a generic action movie plot.

Casa de mi Padre makes a concerned effort to make sure that it looks as cheap as possible with numerous continuity errors, amateurish soundstage sets, and poorly-disguised mannequins serving as extras. The makeshift vibe extends to the script, which seizes on Ferrell's ability to speak decent conversational Spanish. The intentionally cheesy dialogue sets up a bare-bones melodrama, leaving plenty of time for the movie's effective sight gags, which lean heavily on the obvious incongruity of the lanky, blue-eyed Ferrell as a smoldering Mexican folk hero. Better still is Casa's send-up of outlaw machismo. Ferrell and his horseback-riding, campfire-singing companions discuss women like a group of inexperienced sixth graders, and Bernal's cosmopolitan villain has noted weaknesses for bejeweled cowboy boots and long Cruella de Vil-style cigarettes. (Ferrell's own subtle difficulties in rolling his smokes pay off in the movie's best running gag.)

Excessive campiness allows Casa to recuse itself from insensitive jabs at Mexican culture, as it avoids the pitfalls of portraying the country as a stereotypical backwater of lawlessness and poverty. The film's version of Mexico is cartoonish, sure, but it's the result of deliberately bad filmmaking instead of a commentary on national values. It even has some satirical bite in Nick Offerman's corrupt DEA agent (an evil honky in the grand tradition of blaxpolitation cinema) as well as in dialogue that humorously pins the blame for the drug wars on Americans and their insatiable, irresponsible way of life. The film's one-joke premise inevitably suffers from diminishing returns and resorts to rote silliness when there's no clear resolution to a scene, but with its brief running time you can't really accuse it of overstaying its welcome. Casa de mi Padre never transcends the label of "self-aware curiosity," and it doesn't have to, not when it approaches something resembling an effortless, easygoing whimsy - an accomplishment that's impressive in any language.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012)

Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012)
Dir. Jay and Mark Duplass

2 out of 5

Jeff (Jason Segel) is the kind of guy who wholeheartedly believes in destiny. He spends the majority of the Duplass brothers'
Jeff, Who Lives At Home trying to convince friends, family, and strangers of the overwhelming power of fate, citing the 2002 M. Night Shyamalan film Signs as if it were a documentary on the subject. But what begins as the charming ramblings of a sweet, anxious slacker turns into a film so maddeningly contrived that the body of Shyamalan references eventually feels less like a punchline and more like a homage. Or to look at it a different way, it's a series of increasingly dubious coincidences masquerading as a complex cosmic farce, all occurring over the course of a single emotionally exhausting day.

The plot is thrown into motion when Segel interprets a cryptic phone call as a sign from the universe (it's actually a wrong number) and steps out into the world looking for an excuse to ignore the errand that his mother (Susan Sarandon) asked him to run. A bit later, Segel runs into his self-centered brother (Ed Helms) who has committed a cardinal sin of cinematic posturing: he has bought a fancy new sports car that he can't really afford. This tweaks his wife (Judy Greer), who happens to have chosen this day to conduct a rather indiscreet extramarital affair. The siblings spend half the movie effectively stalking her, with Helms returning Segel's insistent mellowness with red-faced exasperation. There's also some business with Sarandon trying to identify which of her co-workers is her secret admirer, a silly and inconsequential subplot that tosses in a sensational twist to make it seem worth the audience's attention.

Mumblecore icons Jay and Mark Duplass go to a lot of trouble making
Jeff seem like a fresh, freewheeling slice of life, but the film's meticulous plotting consistently destroys that illusion. They end up with a lot of lazy shorthand for the type of intimate dramedy that they were aiming for, including the shaky, indiscriminately-zooming camera and a milquetoast jazz score. Segel brings an unexpected physicality to a role that's essentially an assemblage of twee affectations, but he's powerless against the fatigue that arises as the filmmakers fabricate increasingly labored reasons to push these characters along their predictable arcs. Jeff, Who Lives At Home starts strongly and has the decency to end quickly (a brisk 82 minutes), but it's already lost once it thrusts Segel into a semi-messianic quest to free the squares from their shackles of self-reliance. Imagine what he could do with two days.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street (2012)
Dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

3.5 out of 5

A title and a loose premise are essentially all that connect the movie version of 21 Jump Street to its inspiration, the late-80s Fox TV series best remembered for introducing the world to Johnny Depp. In fact, it seems pretty unnecessary to establish any connection between a Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill action-comedy vehicle and a dated teen procedural that a large swath of the film's target audience probably hasn't seen. The good news is that 21 Jump Street is often a spot-on parody of itself - or perhaps the film it might have been without a devilishly funny script from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World scribe Michael Bacall - as well as any buddy-cop franchise of recent vintage and dubious credibility. Think Bad Boys or Rush Hour filtered through the sensibility of a smartass movie buff, drawing attention to every lapse in logic and every cliché embedded in the formula.

The film follows two young police officers - a dimwitted meathead (Tatum) and a doughy wallflower (Hill) - whose immaturity gets them reassigned to an undercover unit specializing in juvenile crimes. (Talk about failing upwards.) Posing as high school students, the duo infiltrates a drug ring peddling a synthetic orange wafer that propels its user through several stages of hallucination, exhaustion, and aggression. Tatum mixes up their fake identities on their first day undercover, a nifty little conceit that leads to Hill unexpectedly ingratiating himself with the popular clique to get closer to the main drug supplier, while Tatum sidles up to a geek squad that helps him with wiretaps and AP Chemistry homework. Hill's jailbait-y love interest (Brie Larson) also drives a wedge between the partners, who are constantly chewed out by their unrepentantly angry captain (Ice Cube) for working too slowly even as they deliver an action beat every 20 minutes or so.

Despite its penchant for mocking audience expectations, 21 Jump Street adheres to the same buddy-cop principles that it so often ridicules. That kind of thing has been done before - Hot Fuzz comes to mind as a film that bests Jump Street in both scope and cleverness, as well as the appropriate escalation of tension. The movie's stakes are never established in a satisfying way, and the main villain, once revealed, is kind of underwhelming. But what the movie lacks in originality it makes up with winning comedic performances and sheer prankish charm. What's not to love about a film that features Channing Tatum delivering a deadpan poetic ode to potassium nitrate? 21 Jump Street feels familiar in a good way, a mildly subversive experience that engenders goodwill by inviting viewers to take it even less seriously than it takes itself.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Cat in Paris (2011)

A Cat in Paris
Dir. Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol

4 out of 5

Oscar prognosticators, as a group, are not easily surprised. So it meant something when a 2011 Best Animated Feature nomination for A Cat in Paris was touted by many as a left-field choice, beating out one or two rumored contenders. But to actually see the film is to realize that its nomination was a much-deserved validation of elegant filmmaking, regardless of subject matter or origin. A Cat in Paris is a moody, surprisingly mature cartoon noir that's skillfully crafted to play up its strengths as a comic caper and a thrilling mystery. Though it lasts little more than an hour, there's not a single moment that feels incomplete or rushed. All of its pure, exhilarating energy was harnessed by the pen and put right up there on the screen.

By day, Dino the cat is the loving companion of Zoe, a young Parisian girl who has refused to talk since her father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. By night, Dino is the accomplice of Nico (Bruno Salomone), the city's premier burglar, who travels via death-defying leaps across urban rooftops as naturally as others commute by Métro. The naturally inquisitive Zoe - whose mother Jeanne (Dominique Blanc) is also a cop, and haunted in her own way by her husband's murder - suspects that Dino is up to something after he shows up bearing an expensive bracelet. The following night, she follows Dino out her window and stumbles upon a group of dimwitted gangsters led by the psychotic Victor Costa, who chases Zoe through the city with Nico and Jeanne both in hot pursuit.

A Cat in Paris is a playful riff on gritty crime thrillers (a scene where Costa gives his henchmen nonsensical nicknames is a pointed homage to Reservoir Dogs), but there are times when the film takes the idea a little too far. There are lots of loud noises, but not the ones you expect in cartoons: realistic gunfire echoes across an inexplicably harsh Batman-like score. And Costa is a true madman, a character that will legitimately frighten adults as well as children. Even so, the overall tone is more suspenseful than scary, and the film's design references Doug Funnie as freely as Alfred Hitchcock. It is truly an inspired thing for an animated movie to lure audiences with the promise of an animal adventure and instead deliver an invigorating soft-boiled detective story. Don't let the title fool you - there is no judging this Cat by its stripes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Dir. David Gelb

4 out of 5

Jiro Ono, the octogenarian star of the charming documentary
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is known as the best sushi chef (shokunin) in Japan, if not the world. The Japanese government has designated him a "living national treasure." The famous Michelin restaurant guide rates his Sukiyabashi Jiro a perfect three stars - a remarkable achievement considering that it's a ten-seat sushi counter located in the basement of a Tokyo office building. People make reservations a year in advance and pay upwards of $400 for a 15-minute dining experience. Many of them say that they rush to eat their meal because they feel nervous, thunderstruck by Jiro's greatness. They should try being one of Jiro's sons.

Embedded within director David Gelb's examination of what it takes to operate an elite sushi restaurant is a low-key and classically Japanese drama of family and legacy. Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, is a great chef in his own right but, at 50 years old, still lives in the old man's shadow. Other
shokunin who studied under Jiro marvel at the trials he put them through in a ten-year training program. His son, they say, should be more than qualified after three decades of apprenticeship. Indeed, while Jiro philosophizes about work and reminisces candidly about his shortcomings as a father, the camera captures Yoshikazu handling many of the restaurant's day-to-day tasks: prepping equipment, buying fresh fish, managing the apprentice chefs. But work is too comforting a ritual for Jiro, who believes that there's always room for improvement. Jiro does not dream of retirement.

This is a film that proves obsession does not have to be a scary thing. Even though everyone - including Jiro - seems to know that his story is defined by an inevitable trajectory, Gelb finds ways to capture the moment with appropriate cinematic flourishes. Life inside the Sukiyabashi is regimented and difficult and endlessly fascinating. The film is less compelling when it leaves that world, but it never strays too far. Jiro is a wonderfully rich character, a workaholic for whom a satisfying result is the byproduct of a perfect design. "You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill," is an example of his practical wisdom. Here's another one: "Always doing what you are told doesn't mean you will succeed." Despite his celebrity status, Jiro knows there is no handbook, no official roadmap to becoming the world's greatest sushi chef. Ultimately,
Jiro makes a keen observation about leading a fulfilling life and creating great sushi - both are much more art than science.

Originally posted to Screen Invasion

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012)

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Dir. Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

2 out of 5

Overstuffed with meaningless stimuli,
The Lorax is the latest unnecessary embellishment of one of the all-time classics of children's literature. Danny DeVito voices the titular creature - a cross between Wilford Brimley and a misanthropic baby walrus - who descends from the sky to demand Christ-like adoration and protect nature's splendor with nothing but the weapon of shame. His sustainability lecture falls on the deaf ears of the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a young go-getter (today he might be called a "job creator") who chops down the first truffula tree to make a Thneed, a proto-Snuggie that becomes an accidental fashion sensation and sparks a demand that eventually strips the forest bare. This saga is told entirely in flashback to young Ted (Zac Efron), a preteen boy living in a town so polluted that everyone purchases clean air in bottles and all the foliage is made of inflatable plastic. He becomes determined to find the last living tree of the forest mostly to impress his older crush object, Audrey (Taylor Swift), but if he ends up doing the right thing and saving his hometown in the process, well, that's nice too.

The Lorax's lesson isn't all that complex, so to kill time the film invents an ineffectual villain for Efron, a bottled-air kingpin (Rob Riggle) who resembles a stouter Linda Hunt. Also padding the runtime are a bunch of cute animal antics and tiresome chase scenes that have little to do with the story at hand. A handful of the action sequences shift to a first person perspective for the benefit of the 3D audience. They carry all the excitement of watching someone's YouTube video of a theme park ride. Musical numbers are the film's saving grace, and Helms is the unlikely hero. (In an especially puzzling decision, Efron and Swift are exempt from singing.) His song detailing the rise and fall of his commercial enterprise is a surprisingly mature moment, full of a weary ambivalence toward capitalism and destined to inspire more introspection than another unimaginative DeVito harangue.

A major reason for Dr. Seuss' enduring popularity is his brevity - all of the really,
really important life lessons can be conveyed in 50 pages or less. It's not impossible for a movie to be as succinct as the good doctor's playful parables, but in many ways the material is simply too slight to form the backbone of a feature-length film. In the impulse to make The Lorax a bigger, better, and louder experience fit for the multiplex, all sense of scale is lost. That's how an elegant, touching story of responsibility and common sense becomes a clamorous delivery system for the emptiest of cinematic calories. Perhaps it's more of a problem with the marketplace than the movie. Earnestness is good for books and stuff, but there's a certain amount of whiz-bang hokum required to make people consent to a big screen sermon. You can decry the way it trivializes a message that doesn't necessarily have to be an environmental one - "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot..." is a mantra that fits just about any cause - but ultimately The Lorax is a misfire because the medium goes too far in dictating the message.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wanderlust (2012)

Dir. David Wain

3 out of 5

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are the world's most charming yuppies in Wanderlust, a tale of wannabe one-percenters who are forced to move from New York to Georgia when Rudd loses his job after a federal raid on his banking firm. Looking for a place to spend the night on their long road trip, the couple stumble upon a bed and breakfast that happens to be part of a hippie commune called Elysium. When Rudd finds living with his alpha-douche brother (Ken Marino) unbearable, he convinces Aniston to set aside her city-slicker misgivings and give the freewheeling, sage-scented lifestyle of Elysium a try. Rudd's enthusiasm quickly wanes when he discovers that turning on, tuning in, and dropping out means adopting a set of ideals he isn't completely thrilled about (the commune has some interesting views on bathroom privacy). However, he's most concerned about Elysium's de-facto leader (Justin Theroux), a pretentious Svengali with a thinly veiled agenda that revolves around seducing and bedding Aniston.

It's refreshing to see Rudd and Aniston tackle material that's worthy of their comedic talents for once, a welcome change from the many times we've seen them try to resuscitate a moribund premise with nothing but their considerable charm. Rudd is particularly energized by the reunion with his Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain. He plays his character as an interesting hybrid of straight man and nervous wreck - a tricky assignment as the film bets big on his natural likeability, even as he's constantly ridiculing America's Sweetheart for drinking the Elysium kool-aid. But his exasperation feels justified whenever Theroux is involved; Rudd can't even impress his new hippie friends with a Spin Doctors jam without the shirtless guitar hero butting in with interminable flamenco solos.

Strong lead performances aside, it's hard to shake the feeling that Wanderlust isn't as funny as it should be. The warmed-over plot crams in as many tired hippie clichés (nudists, free love, hallucinogens) as possible. Theroux is also more cartoon than character, a stereotypically shortsighted demagogue of the radical left who morphs from mild annoyance to full-on villain with no real explanation. Wain at least balances his class politics with Marino's equally heinous example of a brotastic Porta-Potty kingpin lording over his McMansion. That leaves Rudd and Aniston stranded in a squishy middle ground that isn't terribly different from the bland, unsatisfying normality in which they began the film. Wanderlust is at its best when it deviates from the plot-specific jokes and just lets the cast go for simple belly laughs (Rudd auditioning dirty talk in a bathroom mirror reaches the heights of his epic "slappin' da bass" tangent in I Love You, Man), providing an appropriately shaggy counterweight to the rest of the movie's disappointingly predictable hijinks.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012)

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
Dir. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim

4 out of 5

Picking right up where their eponymous sketch series Awesome Show, Great Job left off, alternative comedy duo Tim and Eric deliver a discursive and disturbingly hilarious satire of pop culture with Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. The two comedians, playing themselves, squander the outlandish budget given to them by the Schlaaang corporation for producing a three-minute Hollywood romance starring "Johnny Depp," running afoul of bloodthirsty CEO Tommy Schlaaang (a go-for-broke Robert Loggia), who demands that they pay back the immense sum. Lured by the promise of easy profits, Tim and Eric skip town to run a mall that turns out to be a dilapidated mess - strewn with garbage, infested with vagrants, and reliant on strange proprietors selling useless goods. The narrative is interspersed with Tim and Eric's signature parodies of commercials, training videos, and other ephemera from the VHS/public access era, fleshing out the details of the film's uniquely bizarre world.

Tim and Eric's comedic sensibility is based on slow-burning discomfort and short bursts of aggressive grotesquerie, so it's somewhat shocking that it translates at all to the big screen. After a touch-and-go first act that takes aim at the straw man of movie-biz phoniness, the comedians fall back on their onstage personae to create surprisingly compelling characters: Tim's the ambitious but mean one, a ruthless leader and manipulator, and Eric is the myopic optimist, the long-suffering, guileless Lewis to a fiendishly charismatic Martin. The Schlaaang issue becomes secondary to their casually hateful rivalry in romancing a sixty-something shop owner (Twink Caplan). But they're clearly better, and funnier, as a team. Their well-developed rapport forms the basis of the movie's occasional brilliance, like a scene where Tim cajoles a salesman's child to disown his biological father (simultaneously demoting the man to janitor) and become his adopted son while Eric blindly chimes in with his approval.

Despite the film's advertised celebrity cameos - including Will Ferrell, Zack Galifianakis, and John C. Reilly as a sickly transient with a heart of gold who cheerfully blurts out things like "I wasn't meant to live long!" - it was clearly made with hardcore Tim and Eric fans in mind, and little else. That's admirable in its own way, but means that Billion Dollar Movie is not for the uninitiated. It's also the most uncompromising and transgressive American comedy in quite some time, a twisted commentary on modern life that questions all the choices we make, from how we entertain ourselves to the ways we seek spiritual comfort. If anything, Tim and Eric is about the power of pure friendship - a rambling, visionary ode to the rarity of finding someone who's always on the same wavelength as you, sticking by your side no matter what inexplicably weird and repulsive obstacles life presents. (Diarrhea included.)