Monday, January 19, 2009

Appaloosa, My Best Friend's Girl

Appaloosa (**1/2 out of ****)
(Director: Ed Harris, Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, Running Time: 118 min, Rating: R)

Ed Harris directs and stars in this methodical, lumbering character study. If you’ve ever wanted to see a movie focus squarely on two characters with a complete void of personality then this one’s for you. I love the Western as a genre and was thrilled to witness its resurrection last year with 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but with the comeback of any genre there are bound to be setbacks. This is the first. It doesn’t necessarily feel inauthentic and Harris has a good understanding of the material, but the movie spins its wheels and as a result comes off feeling more like a Lonesome Dove mini-series than a feature-length film. Still, you can tell it was made with a lot of respect and appreciation and he deserves praise for trying.

Harris is lawman Virgil Cole, who along with his longtime Deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), must defend the lawless town of Appaloosa from murderous Rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). The arrival of comely widower Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is complicated for Virgil, as he must wrestle with the foreign concept of “feelings” when she slowly emerges as the town whore. To both the film’s benefit and detriment the story doesn’t go in the direction you’d expect. Allison doesn’t exactly drive a wedge between Virgil and Everett in the way you’d think and the situation involving Braggs doesn’t have your standard resolution. The issues with Braggs are infinitely more interesting and better handled than the sub-plot with Zellweger’s Ally, which at times feels more like a needless distraction.

Harris tackles the grizzled Eastwood badass lawman type role (think High Plains Drifter) well, but while he’s a gifted actor, he’s also a draining one to watch for 2 hours for obvious reasons. Not surprisingly, Mortensen gives the film’s best performance and even though he’s relegated to the background until the final 40 minutes he still makes a strong impression. The chemistry between him and Harris is a highlight despite the fact neither character is particularly exciting. Irons wages war with his accent. The casting of Zellweger seems slightly off, but that could be more because we’re not accustomed to seeing the depiction of a traditional Western woman on screen, faults and all. To her credit, she dives into the role head first, dirtying herself up (literally and figuratively).

Appaloosa can’t help but suffer from the release of two 4-star Westerns last year. There really isn’t enough here to sustain a film that’s appropriate in scope for the genre, despite Harris’ firm direction. Visually, it isn’t that interesting either as cinematographer Dean Semler won’t be mistaken for the next Roger Deakins any day soon, as impossible as that standard is to live up to. The film doesn’t work but in the very least it’s a noble near miss. Plus, you can’t go wrong with some Tom Petty over the closing credits.

My Best Friend's Girl (**1/2 out of ****)
(Director: Howard Deutch, Starring: Dane Cook, Kate Hudson, Jason Biggs, Alec Baldwin, Running Time: 101 min., Rating: Unrated)

We’re getting to the point where Kate Hudson should start reimbursing audiences for the money they’ve wasted on her films. But as much as I’ve disapproved of her career direction this past decade and the fact that it’s never a good sign when the actors somehow give a bad performance in the movie's poster, this isn’t one of the year’s worst films like you’ve heard. Not even close.

I’m guessing most critics went extra hard on it because it starred Hudson and Dane Cook. And who could blame them? Both have amassed an astonishing track record of awfulness in just a few years. But fair is fair and there’s nothing about My Best Friend’s Girl that sets it so far below other bad romantic comedies that it should land on anyone’s worst of the year list. At times I even forgot I was supposed to hate it. Its worst offenses are problems balancing tone and an illogical, overreaching third act, which would really put it at about the same level as Knocked Up. If nothing else, it just further demonstrates how difficult it is to make mix raunchiness and romance onscreen effectively. That Judd Apatow has proven to be the only filmmaker close to capable of doing it and even he’s missed a few times proves just how tough it is. But at least this does it slightly better (or less worse) than Cook’s last crude rom-com disaster Good Luck Chuck.

Similar to Chuck this film has a gimmicky premise in which “emotional terrorist” Tank Turner (Cook) is hired by guys to take out their ex-girlfriends and give them the date from hell. The idea being that he’s such a disgusting, perverted, self-centered pig that they’ll run back into their waiting arms, appreciating what they had. The opening minutes of the film surprisingly aren’t bad in setting this up. When Tank’s best friend Dustin (Jason Biggs) starts smothering his new girlfriend and co-worker Alexis (Hudson) she justifiably wants out. More accurately, she just wants to be “friends.” His solution? Hire Tank to traumatize her. It doesn’t work. He’s met his match, as Alexis could care less what a jerk he is. The last thing she wants is another relationship anyway. Then everything gets expectedly messy when Tank starts having genuine feelings for her, threatening his friendship with Dustin. And of course we get to hear The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” a couple of times (but you knew that).

The chief problem with the film is that it’s just too mean and nasty, uncomfortably co-existing with the sweet romantic comedy elements that are struggling to come out. Director Howard Deutch just can’t make up his mind what he wants to do and Cook isn’t helping matters. He plays the obnoxious jerk perfectly (perhaps too well) but when he has to display even just a shade of likability he runs into problems. His performance is grating, but most of the time it’s supposed to be. He's better off in supporting roles and this is a definite step-down from his surprisingly solid work in Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life. As for Hudson, she at least shows up to work this time with her game face on and actually does share chemistry with Cook. That chemistry, however, is the repulsive kind in a movie like this. She's also about as likable as Cook, which creates a problem . Biggs still has great comic timing, even if Deutch unwisely directs him to give off a creepy, stalkerish vibe.

There is a smattering of laughs (like when Tank takes an unsuspecting date to a offensively themed pizza restaurant) but most of them from the supporting players. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as Tank’s father, a “women’s studies” professor who takes that title way too literally while Lizzy Caplan impresses as usual in another thankless roommate/best friend role. In just her few scenes she suggests how much better the film could have been if she were given the lead instead of Hudson. Had either taken on a larger role it could have been enough to take this to the next level. Diora Baird also has a small part and a little of her always goes a long way in my book.

The film completely flies off the rails and loses its head in the final act, rushing and forcing a conclusion that isn’t necessary and getting there in the most ass-backwards way possible. It does have one great moment though. A Dane Cook slow-mo entrance set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” For just a brief moment Deutch accomplishes the impossible in making Cook briefly seem cool, suggesting the movie we could have had. That ends quickly. My Best Friend’s Girl is bad but it’s not THAT BAD. Still, it doesn’t say much for Hudson or Cook lately when two and a half stars is considered a major accomplishment.


JD said...

OK, so it was ok to be underwhelmed by Appaloosa. I liked Viggo in it, but I was not blown away by it at all. I thought something was wrong with me.

The Dane Cook film... I didn't bother.

Excellent reviews!!

thebonebreaker said...

While I have not seen My Best Friend's Girl, I will agree with you on Appaloosa!

Nice reviews Jeremy!