Friday, August 31, 2012

Kumaré (2012)

Kumaré (2012)
Dir. Vikram Gandhi

3 out of 5

Human spirituality is a tricky topic, one that a lot of movies – even nonfiction ones – have difficulty addressing without some measure of smirking irony or pronounced disillusionment before acknowledging that, hey, maybe we can learn something after all. In the documentary Kumaré, filmmaker Vikram Gandhi doesn’t just adhere to this formula – he embraces it without compunction. Turning his lifelong skepticism of spiritual leaders into an elaborate prank on the inner-peace industry, Gandhi grows out his beard and adopts his mother’s thick Indian accent to pose as the guru Sri Kumaré. He decamps in Arizona with two comely assistants and quickly amasses a small cadre of followers who believe he is the genuine article. Yet as Gandhi learns more about the types of people who seek spiritual guidance, he struggles to understand what exactly he aims to prove by revealing his deception.

Gandhi’s confused sense of purpose is both the film’s redeeming factor and its biggest flaw. His mission to expose the opportunists and phonies within the spiritual community doesn’t preclude him from some cheap jokes at the expense of the gullible, like teaching yoga poses one step away from air guitar and scribbling phallic-looking symbols on his devotees’ foreheads. In an unsurprising development, Gandhi has serious doubts about his enterprise as real, well-meaning people start to believe his seductive fortune-cookie wisdom. Kumaré gradually morphs into a personal crisis of ethics, and Gandhi largely cuts the crap – even reopening his investigation of unscrupulous gurus – as he takes a moment to discern what people find so appealing about his beatific presence.

What seems to surprise Gandhi most is the way that Kumaré’s followers trust him as a sounding board for their burdens. He attracts his share of blithe spirits, but his serious students include former drug addicts, frustrated parents, and people under all kinds of incredible and unique stresses (one woman turns to Kumaré to escape the pressures of her job: defending death row inmates). Portraying a figure of moral authority, Gandhi realizes he has to walk the walk, which means respecting that old religious saw about not judging others too harshly.

Still, Kumaré almost backs into its message of self-reliance. Gandhi tries hard to make everyone the butt of the joke – himself included – but the indiscriminate nature of his charade makes amusement turn into pity rather quickly. At least his heart is in the right place. Though Gandhi begins the film with a preconceived notion of religious doctrine as an imposed set of arbitrary rules, his experience as Kumaré deepens his understanding of the desire for spiritual leadership. Ultimately, Kumaré doesn’t try to convince viewers that all self-styled gurus are bunk – just that we ought to be more honest with ourselves before we accept someone else’s truths.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Killer Joe (2012)

Killer Joe (2012)
Dir. William Friedkin

4 out of 5

A down and dirty redneck opera, William Friedkin's Killer Joe is pure cinematic sin, the kind of film where every frame is dripping with bad intent. An adaptation of Tracy Letts' first stage play, Killer Joe finds Friedkin at his pulpiest while chronicling the misadventures of a young Texan drug dealer, Chris (Emilie Hirsch), and his lame-brained scheme to collect a big insurance payoff by hiring the titular hitman to kill his mother. Claiming that the windfall will be enough to secure the future of Dottie (Juno Temple), his virginal kid sister, Chris is able to convince his shrewish stepmom (Gina Gershon) and his half-witted father (Thomas Haden Church) to go along with the plan. But when the family can't front the money for the job, "Killer" Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) - who also happens to be a police officer - demands they retain his services by giving him personal time with Dottie.

Killer Joe is a tightly-plotted showcase for each member of its small, talented cast, but none is more impressive than McConaughey. Whereas he ably executed slimy self-parody earlier this summer in Magic Mike, he emerges here as a real monster, albeit one devoted to putting on unsettling gentlemanly airs. Resplendent in a black hat and leather gloves that scream "crooked cop," Joe has a mightily perverted sense of decorum. Even in the throes of extreme lust or apoplectic rage, he demands a display of traditional family values, his inherent brutishness eternally at odds with a salubrious facade that cherishes the inviolate wholesomeness of the family dinner table (at least until a viscerally disturbing - and perhaps excessive - sequence involving a leg of fried chicken). McConaughey's slippery charm pays dividends as he eventually does violate whatever shred of innocence is still left in this conniving clan of would-be outlaws.

It should be noted, however, that outside of McConaughey's honey-tongued monologues Killer Joe is crazy bananas. It's an uninhibited blast of black comedy that revels in the basest aspects of human behavior. What little sympathy these souls merit is generated completely by their stupidity, and their increasingly dangerous caper serves no other point than to get them all in deeper trouble. Yet Friedkin, the director of '70s classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist, pulls this off without condescending to his characters or the audience. Joe is the only one on the outside looking in, but he brings plenty of his own baggage to the situation and cannot escape the kind of moral judgement he applies to his employers. If Killer Joe brushes up against class commentary, it's entirely coincidental. Instead, Letts and Friedkin take some of the most exploitative material imaginable and spin it into a shamelessly fascinating exhibition of a twisted family with an equally twisted and inescapable fate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Campaign (2012)

The Campaign
Dir. Jay Roach

3.5 out of 5

“There’s a lot of fight in this dog,” asserts Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis), one of the dim-witted candidates for a North Carolina congressional seat in the light political satire The Campaign. The same could be applied to the movie itself, a decidedly silly but nonetheless pointed strike at the increasingly hypocritical perfidy of American political campaigns. When Democratic incumbent Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) commits a spectacular gaffe by accidentally leaving an explicit phone message at the home of some pious constituents, the rich industrialists Glen and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) see an opportunity to bankroll a more pliant candidate who will go along with their scheme to build Chinese factories in the U.S. Enter Huggins, an effeminate pug enthusiast and local history booster who’s led to believe that he will be serving the best interests of his beloved hometown. He’s an easy target for Brady’s bullying until the Motches supply a ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) who ratchets up the mud-slinging to ever more absurd levels.

Director Jay Roach is navigating familiar waters here. After making a name for himself with raunch like the Austin Powers series, Roach has spent the last several years telling stories taken from the broadsides of the American political arena. His HBO television movies Recount and Game Change highlighted real-life events in the 2000 Florida election crisis and the 2008 Republican presidential bid, respectively, but The Campaign is the first time Roach has fully explored the comedic possibilities of political theater. His direction allows Ferrell and Galifianikis to revel in their characters’ outsized egos and petty vendettas without losing the audience’s sympathy. Meanwhile, a solid script by sitcom alums Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy provides the film a contemporary resonance with concerns about big money’s influence on the political process.

While the actual satire of The Campaign is too broad and obvious to pose any real threat to the status quo (the Motches are an inelegant, China-baiting parody of actual billionaire activists the Koch brothers), the movie’s more sophomoric gags are well-executed by its two big stars and a round of talented supporting players including Jason Sudekis and a very funny McDermott. Ferrell’s horndog hybrid of Bill Clinton and John Edwards is something to behold, but it’s Galifianakis who benefits the most from Roach’s apt direction, breaking free from the confines of his space cadet persona as much as is possible for him to create a sad-sack populist hero in Huggins. The Campaign doesn’t aim to rewrite the rules of political discourse, but it’s a surprisingly biting commentary on how much buffoonery the public will tolerate if it’s presented within the appropriate packaging.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Robot and Frank (2012)

Robot and Frank (2012)
Dir. Jake Schreier

3.5 out of 5

Aging is one of life’s trickier alchemies, and it’s trickier still in the youth-obsessed film industry. Movies are moments frozen in time, but when you start to string those moments into a career arc, a sense of mortality starts to sink in. Ingénues become doting mothers. Action heroes become grizzled mentors. And actors past the retirement age find themselves filling a comedic or sentimental niche that’s often a narrow outlet for their talents. With that in mind, it’s hard not to think of the bittersweet indie sci-fi film Robot and Frank, which features late-blooming stage veteran Frank Langella in one of the juiciest roles of his career, as a commentary on ageism hidden within the trappings of a buddy flick.

In the near future, retired cat burglar Frank (Langella) is settling into his twilight years in rural New York after spending about a quarter of his life in prison. But he’s unwilling to leave the criminal life behind, despite showing the early signs of dementia—the movie opens with Frank breaking into a home that he eventually realizes as his own. When Frank’s son (James Marsden) drops by on one of his weekly check-ins, he brings along a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) that is programmed to improve Frank’s well-being. Though initially resistant to the idea of having a mechanical caretaker, Frank warms to the robot by teaching it how to pick locks and break into secure buildings. Before long, the pair is planning and executing robberies on a scale that attracts the attention of the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto).

The film’s strength lies in the clever ways it communicates its deeper themes within the confines of a conventional indie dramedy. Director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher Ford skillfully explore Frank’s fears of obsolescence by pitting him against a smarmy nonprofit consultant (Jeremy Strong) who takes over the local library and aims to “re-imagine the library experience” by removing all of its print resources. His sniveling, condescending attitude toward Frank services the movie’s larger point about the lack of multidimensional roles for older actors. But Frank is far from a quaint prop. He’s a rich, complex character with a strong arc as he and the robot develop an almost familial bond. Frank’s monologues to the robot about the triumphs and regrets of his past are moving examples of the kismet between these two creatures with fragile memories.

Beyond that solid central relationship, however, Robot and Frank is rather slight. Frank’s Luddite daughter (Liv Tyler) drops in about halfway through the film to create an unnecessary hurdle, shutting off the robot and insisting on taking care of the old man herself. All it really does is delay the film’s central setpiece, a beautifully-constructed jewelry heist that plays like a mini-Ocean’s Eleven. The antagonists at the other end of the spectrum are drawn in similarly broad strokes, and the third act devolves into cartoonish, credulity-stretching mayhem that upsets the balance of the film’s fun-yet-contemplative tone. But none of this takes much away from Langella’s stunning performance (plus the tandem performance of Sarsgaard and Rachael Ma as the woman in the robot suit) and the film’s heartwarming notion that some things just can’t be replaced by a newer model.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Compliance (2012)

Dir. Craig Zobel

2 out of 5

In the early 1960s, the infamous Milgram experiment tested the limits of obedience by having individuals administer (fake) electric shocks to an actor posing as a fellow test subject. The scientist in charge assured them that the punishments were crucial to the experiment’s success, and chided people who expressed reservations, even as the other test subject pretended to be in immense pain. It was hypothesized that all but a small percentage would listen to their conscience and demand that the experiment be stopped. In reality, a majority of people were willing to administer the highest level of electric shock – more than enough to kill a human being – simply because somebody told them they should.

Craig Zobel’s slickly evasive Compliance explores this impulse to obey authority with a story based on true events. The middle-aged, matronly Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages a fast-food restaurant, spending her days wrangling unmotivated teenage employees like Becky (Dreama Walker). A man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (The Innkeepers Pat Healy) calls the restaurant to investigate an alleged theft, and asks Sandra to keep an eye on Becky until an officer can arrive. Despite his increasingly insistent and unorthodox demands, Sandra and her staff trust that they are doing the right thing by helping Daniels. But they are immediate marks for the caller, who flatters and cajoles Sandra (and bullies a shell-shocked Becky) until somehow the girl is locked in a storeroom, strip-searched, and placed under the watch of various male guards, including Sandra’s nervous fiancé Van (Bill Camp).

This would all be very incredulous if it didn’t so closely resemble the real-life incident that inspired Zobel’s screenplay. However, veracity doesn’t necessarily translate into profundity. In the difficult-to-watch humiliation of Becky, Zobel tries hard to make Compliance more than a miserable chronicle of human stupidity. The film highlights the subtle differences in the way Daniels handles those who have clearly never been in trouble with the law and those more likely to fear repercussion. But the plotting owes as much to basic ignorance as it does to mysterious psychological urges. It’s also hard to give Zobel the benefit of the doubt when he stacks the deck against Sandra early (it’s the dinnertime rush, she’s running low on supplies after a freezer mishap, and she’s expecting a “secret shopper” from corporate) until it’s a credulity-straining Worst Day Ever.

Compliance rides the line between exploitation and provocation, and seems to be drawing a comparison between our own voyeuristic attraction to a terrible event and Daniels’ fantasies of control (it doesn’t help that Walker is clad in nothing but an apron for two-thirds of the film). Healy excels as a true scumbag, overcoming the glib tone of the scenes that slowly reveal the truth about Daniels. Dowd and Walker also deserve credit for their endurance during the film’s punishing final 30 minutes. Dramatizing a traumatic event can work if it’s done with a clear, honest intention, but too often it seems like Zobel’s performing his own Milgram experiment, thinking about the cleverest way to deliver bigger and bigger shocks without betraying their emptiness.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Dir. Tony Gilroy

2.5 out of 5

The Bourne Legacy is an aptly titled film. It's a massive hedge bet that's quick to announce its own creative misgivings by selling itself to audiences with a character who doesn't even appear in the film, not to mention placing its new super-spy Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) in an adventure that runs concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum. While interesting in theory - Bourne's exposure of Treadstone, the covert ops program that turned him into a judo-chopping automaton, inspires groupthink that leads to the liquidation of a similar outfit - it's distracting and deflating in practice. Instead of spicing up the film, the sporadic callbacks to events from Ultimatum float like vaguely recognizable chunks in the bland broth of a conventional spy thriller. It's more than a bit unfair to the cast and crew's attempt to create something new within the idiom of post-9/11 government paranoia.

The irony is that The Bourne Legacy is at its best when it willfully ignores the pretense of being a Bourne film. Taking over a series about punching, running, and punching people while running, director Tony Gilroy (who has written or co-written every Bourne movie, including Legacy) chooses to focus on the franchise's toy-soldier mythology. The film's complex exposition is slowly spooned out via a jittery CIA clandestine operations chief (Edward Norton) who observes Bourne going rogue and fears retribution from one of his own scientifically-enhanced charges. His attempts to terminate the program sends Cross searching for a supply of "chems," the government-issued drugs that keep his body and mind performing at peak capacity. His plan for survival hinges on the sole survivor of a brutal laboratory massacre, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doe-eyed scientist whom Cross rescues from a hit squad in a nifty home invasion sequence. The pair then travels to a Philippine drug factory to permanently infect Cross with a viral concoction that simulates the effects of the "chems" and will prevent him from turning back into a regular 'ol stupid.

Gilroy's ponderously quiet approach to material typically paced like a runaway freight train pays off in certain areas, even if the film as a whole takes too long to unravel. Legacy says goodbye to the queasy-cam of Paul Greengrass and gives its protagonist some extra breathing room with a lengthy training prologue in Alaska. The dearth of fight scenes might also upset some series purists, but a good result of this is more screen time for Weisz. Traumatized but trying to remain tough, she contributes real emotional heft to a film that otherwise relies on repetitious CIA-speak and Renner's leaden presence. Unfortunately, Gilroy backloads the film with an interminable motorcycle chase/fight against a cyborg-like villain (Louis Ozawa Changchien) who is invented completely for the benefit of the big climatic action sequence. It's a welcome visceral thrill, but it can't compensate for Legacy's wholly misleading agenda; it is more about extending a brand than telling a story. Norton's character sums it all up in a flashback with a war-weary Cross, remarking that their clandestine work is "morally indefensible and absolutely necessary." So too, I suppose, is The Bourne Legacy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jump Cuts: John Cusack Edition

The populist summer blockbuster season is a time for making new kings (and queens), and one of the oft-repeated storylines in 2012 is the hot streak of Channing Tatum, who's been busy giving off a "Top of the world, ma!" vibe with his performance in the stripper-makes-good tale Magic Mike and causing Paramount to claim that rumors of his death in the suddenly-delayed G.I. Joe sequel were greatly exaggerated. But newly-anointed stars walk a tricky tightrope, even when their momentum appears unstoppable. Who's to say that Tatum won't seem overexposed by the time the retooled Joe is finally released next March? Magic Mike supposedly closed the books on his de-clothed past, but his performance had the virtuosic quality of a magnum opus. It's still unclear how long can he convincingly play in-over-his-head without confirming the stereotypical assumption that he's just a slab of beef.

Of course, every movie star tries to sell a persona, and audience expectations can discourage stars from leaving their comfort zones. But what if the audience struggles to separate the star from the persona? Well, that's how an '80s heartthrob winds up fighting the Mayan calendar and starring in movies co-produced by 50 Cent.

Let me be clear: I'm a fan of John Cusack. I like the sarcastic bent he brings to stories of romantic angst. He's delivered award-worthy performances as a lovesick teen on the verge of adulthood in Say Anything... and a lovesick thirtysomething on the verge of middle age in High Fidelity. He's cultivated a lovable smugness in subversive comedies like Better Off Dead and Grosse Pointe Blank, and he's stood out as a quirky presence in ensemble films like Eight Men Out and Con Air. And he has some intriguing projects in the pipeline like The Paperboy, Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious. It's unfair that his fame has consistently outstripped his popularity, particularly amongst his industry peers - despite appearing in a steady stream of films since the age of 15, Cusack has yet to be nominated for an Oscar or a SAG Award. Squint and you might see a bias against Cusack's perceived lack of range, but that strikes me as an odd conclusion given his diverse filmography.

A year after charming the class valedictorian in Say Anything..., Cusack took a swerve into much darker territory with The Grifters (1990), based on the 1963 pulp noir by novelist Jim Thompson. Cusack reportedly read the book as a teen and immediately tried to option the material with himself as the conflicted son of a con artist (Anjelica Huston) sliding down the same dubious career path. It's easy to see why the project took a while to develop. Though it contains elements of black comedy, The Grifters is a relentlessly bleak film incorporating torture, murder, suggestions of incest, and copious Annette Bening nudity. While Cusack has the charisma of a con man, he lacks the gravitas to pull off the hard-boiled dialogue, much of it borrowed word-for-word from Thompson's book. His nonchalant approach to the role doesn't pay off until the film's climax, as his cool expression cannot conceal the extreme heartbreak and disillusionment from the inevitable collision between his grifting girlfriend (Bening) and his two-timing mother. Despite its tonal confusion, The Grifters showed Cusack's willingness to stretch himself and sowed the seeds of future collaboration with the film's director, Steven Frears, who would re-team with the actor a decade later for High Fidelity.

It's interesting to note that Cusack's most memorable performances appear in films where the screenwriter (or writer-director) maintains a strong authorial presence. That list includes Cameron Crowe, Nick Hornby, and Charlie Kaufman, whose Being John Malkovich (1999) takes the actor's lovelorn puppy-dog persona and spins it into a sweaty mess of dumpy desperation. As unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz , Cusack goes all-out with a stringy ponytail and scruffy goatee combo that makes him look like one of Rasputin's relatives. His eagerness to abuse others in his unrequited pursuit of co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) is both pitiable and slimy, and includes taking over the thoughts and actions of actor John Malkovich via a magic portal into the esteemed thespian's mind. It's weird to say that Malkovich steals the movie considering his name's in the damn title, but it's true. The deconstruction of Cusack's image definitely owes something to Malkovich's own fine-tuned impersonation once Craig takes up permanent residence in Malkovich's body and exploits his celebrity to validate puppetry as a fine art. But credit Cusack for keeping the film's absurd conceit grounded in his character's overreaching hubris. Even as Craig becomes totally irredeemable - at one point his locks his wife Lotte (an equally un recognizable Cameron Diaz) in a monkey cage - there's still a whiff of tragedy in his story.

Since the turn of the millennium, Cusack's ambiguously likable qualities have been smoothed out in films like Identity (2003), where the actor inhabits the reluctant-hero archetype that continues to pop up in his more recent projects. As a former cop-turned-limo driver, he joins 10 strangers stranded at a desert motel during a flash flood and watches as they are gradually picked off by an unseen murderer. Identity packs a lot into its short runtime, piling on the twists and tension in an inspired homage to the classic Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. The connection between the events at the motel and the frame story of a psychologist seeking a stay of execution for a serial killer is not as big of a surprise in a post-United States of Tara world, but it's all made worthwhile by a final revelation that is simultaneously corny and brilliant. Cusack's performance benefits from the fact that all the other characters are archetypes too, as well as the film's sly sense of humor. The actors are almost like interchangeable parts doing their bit to propel the story toward the next twist of fate.

There's self-aware, and then there's Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), a throwback to the type of kooky, ribald comedies that launched Cusack's career. Along with two friends (Craig Robinson and Rob Corrdry) and his nephew (Clark Duke), he's transported back to 1986 during an attempt to relive their wild teenage days at a run-down alpine resort. Despite a transparent premise/built-in excuse for recycling '80s jokes and clichés - "I hate this decade!" complains Cusack after his Jacuzzi-assisted time warp - the film gets a big boost from the immensely likable cast. And though there are plenty of dud scenes in the film's haphazard individual plotlines, its gets a lot of mileage from wonderfully executed running gags. Few of them, however, include Cusack, who's wasted as a generic Everyman made to repeat a bad breakup (in the movie's logic, each adult must re-enact one of their most embarrassing teenage experiences so as not to disrupt their future) with his high school flame. His director and frequent creative partner, Steve Pink, doesn't give him much to do but dryly arch his eyebrows at all the wacky shenanigans, and the script tries to wedge in a carpe diem lesson only to end with a standard wish fulfillment scenario. The whole cast gives it the old college try but, as strange as it sounds, Hot Tub Time Machine could stand to be even more shallow than it is.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Imposter (2012)

The Imposter (2012)
Dir. Bart Layton

4 out of 5

One evening in 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay left his home to play basketball in his San Antonio neighborhood and never returned. Three years later, a person claiming to be Nicholas turns up at a Spanish orphanage with disturbing tales of abduction, abuse, and sexual slavery. Despite having dark hair and brown eyes – and speaking English with an obvious French accent – he is identified by Nicholas’ sister as her missing blonde-haired, blue-eyed Texan brother and transported back to the United States. And that’s merely the first half-hour of The Imposter, an absorbing new documentary from Bart Layton that shows how two governments and one grieving family were hoodwinked by a master identity thief.

Combining the typical talking head interviews with actors re-enacting the events surrounding the Barclay case, The Imposter is an addictive experience akin to bingeing on a marathon of a cable documentary series. That’s no accident – Layton’s credits include producing and directing the low-budget guilty pleasure Locked Up Abroad, and he knows exactly how to provide information in small but satisfying-enough amounts to keep the audience hooked. While the re-enactments give The Imposter the air of a jazzed-up TV newsmagazine, these sequences play like vivid, self-contained dramas. Layton cuts back and forth between the accounts of Barclay’s family and their would-be son, with the discrepancies piling up as the boy’s miraculous return attracts the attention of national media and law enforcement. An investigation reveals that the person pretending to be Nicholas Barclay is in fact Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman known as “the Chameleon” and wanted by INTERPOL.

The film has yet another dark turn in store and it’s not necessarily the one we’ve been dreading. I should stop describing the plot here, though I will say that at a certain point the twists start to lose their effectiveness. The film rashly invites the audience to put their trust in a confirmed liar, and we are just as easily persuaded to believe anything, including Bourdin’s calculated contrition. That’s effective filmmaking. It’s also manipulative filmmaking, which is also apparent when Layton senses the need for levity and goes looking for local color. He finds it in Charlie Parker, a homespun private investigator who was the first to take his suspicions about “Nicholas” to the FBI, though Parker clearly did more harm than anyone by accepting Bourdin at face value during a revelatory pancake breakfast. The salty PI’s line readings are spectacular, but justifying his continued quixotic pursuit of the case with further attention is a mistake.

It’s easy to wonder why such a blatant con job eluded so many people for months. (Bourdin’s appearance as Nicholas on a late-90s episode of Hard Copy features one of the least convincing “incognito” get-ups you can imagine.) But wouldn’t you be tempted to believe something so miraculous? Everyone in The Imposter is quick to jump to conclusions – save Bourdin, who says he always feared that Nicholas’ family was just a minute away from calling his bluff. That they didn’t raises many intriguing questions, and the film does an excellent job of presenting them without much editorializing. It asks whether we’d rather believe an obvious lie or accept an ugly truth. In a case like this, it’s not easy to tell which choice is more distasteful.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Celeste and Jessie Forever (2012)

Celeste and Jessie Forever (2012)
Dir. Lee Toland Krieger

3.5 out of 5

The winning dramedy Celeste and Jesse Forever puts a refreshing spin on romantic tropes by zigging when it should zag, and occasionally even running in reverse. Celeste (Rashida Jones), a successful media consultant for a boutique PR firm, and Jesse (Andy Samberg), an unemployed illustrator, are best friends in the midst of dissolving their ill-fated marriage. Their mutual friends are worried that their separation is little too amicable, and accuse them of using their buddy-buddy shenanigans to hide their mutual confusion about the new definition of their relationship. These concerns are validated when Jesse tumbles into bed with Celeste one wine-soaked evening and is not prepared for her cavalier response to their unexpected encounter. By the time Celeste realizes that she may have acted too callously in dismissing him, Jesse’s actions outside their relationship have added to the ripple effect of their sudden estrangement.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is enamored with misdirection, introducing the main characters as a de facto couple with garden-variety issues and a coterie of quippy sidekicks. At first it’s focused mostly on Samberg, a goofy man-child cast from the mold of the schlubby guy whose life gets back on track with the guidance and understanding of a much more ambitious woman. But when Jesse gets his long-awaited kick in the pants from a surprising source, it becomes wholly about Celeste’s struggle to see herself both as a caring friend and a failed partner. Jones, who co-wrote the script with fellow actor Will McCormack, is no stranger to playing nice but uncomplicated straight-woman characters on TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation and in films like I Love You Man. The emotionally complex Celeste feels born from the frustration of being typecast as an accessory to self-discovery, and Jones doesn’t fumble her opportunity to shed that image. The many layers of her character are peeled away in a sometimes cloying fashion but, to the movie’s credit, it offers an alternative to the sitcom-like tone of films that try to distill a woman’s personal struggles down to the lack of a suitable mate.

Though her divorce is the catalyst for the story, we get a broader picture of Celeste’s life beyond her romantic woes. The introduction of a dreamy new suitor (Chris Messina) is the film’s major sop to convention, the rare supporting character who sets his own agenda aside to take a proactive role in her self-actualization. Director Lee Toland Krieger is wise to let Jones and McCormack's script set the tone, which is more dramatic than you’d expect for a film stocked with able comedic actors, including a funny Elijah Wood as Celeste’s reserved boss (though Samberg’s character remains oddly petulant and seems to drift in and out of the story). At times it seems like Krieger is straining for laughs, particularly in a D.O.A. subplot involving the management of a Ke$ha-like pop star (Emma Roberts) with boy troubles of her own. Yet the movie confidently rests upon Jones’ empathetic soul-searching performance as she gradually emerges from the protective cocoon of her old life and its familiar habits. The transition from the definitive comfort of “we” to a more vulnerable “I” is bound to be a rocky one – Celeste and Jessie Forever captures it with as much grace and good humor as one can reasonably expect.