Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Runaways

Director: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawkat

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

You can accuse The Runaways of many things but subtlety shouldn't be among them. Not when its opening image is of menstrual blood dripping to the ground. It doesn't pull punches in its depiction of the first major all-girl rock band or shy away from casting controversially to provoke a reaction. But it does condense, occasionally going through the obligatory beats of a standard by-the-numbers rock bio when the project could have used more ambition. But in its favor, the music is great, many sequences are well directed and there's a surprisingly sensational performance marking the maturation of a major actress who proves herself more talented than anyone could have suspected.

While the film somewhat solidifies typical misgivings about biopics and highlights the problems faced when bringing a really compelling true life story to the screen. Watching, you wouldn't have a clue that The Runaways had members other than Cherie Curie and Joan Jett or were incredibly talented musicians. Listening to the music, you would. Despite focusing on my preferred genre of music and being set in probably my favorite time period, I still can't shake the nagging feeling that we're being given the cliff notes version of a larger story and that the band deserved more. But that's not to say it still doesn't have its thrills.

Picking up in 1975, eccentric record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) seemingly by chance assembles the band on the fly, seeing dollar signs and jailbait in pairing aspiring musician Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) with the 15-year-old Cherie Currie, who has no singing experience outside of lip-syncing David Bowie at her school talent show (in one of the film's best scenes). They're joined by drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton) and Robin (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat), a fictionalized version of their real-life bassist, Jackie Fox. The film wisely centers around Currie and Jett, with a primary emphasis on Currie's Behind The Music-like descent into the drug addiction that eventually broke up the band and ended her career. She's gone on to work a chain saw artist and write Neon Angel: Memoir of a Runaway, the autobiography on which this film is based, while Jett and Ford survived the implosion, using it as a stepping stone to hugely successful music careers of their own.

It was unquestionably the right call focusing on the two big names, but had I not listed the other band members it would be impossible to tell from the film that they existed at all, especially Shawkat's "Robin" who I don't remember even appearing, much less having a single line of dialogue. Aside from one angry outburst (in a scene that recalls the t-shirt argument in Almost Famous, but with a magazine), Ford is invisible as well. That's less excusable considering Lita Ford is hardly a minor figure in music and you have the benefit of an actress as good as Taylor-Compton playing her. Only Maeve's Sandy gets what could be considered minimal screen time at best, but still no defining role or personality. In a way, the big meltdown scene plays ironically since this film is just as guilty of ignoring the rest of the band as the media and the public was. If it disappoints as biopic or a look into the disintegration of a band, that's made up for with its success as a coming-of-age story.

I kept waiting for the scope of the film to catch up with the power and intensity of Fanning's performance but that just wasn't meant to be, and in retrospect, would almost be impossible. Not only considering physical resemblances, on paper you couldn't make two better casting choices for Currie and Jett than Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, but it's Fanning who delivers, carrying the entire film. Supposedly years before she was even old enough for the role, Fanning was always Currie's top choice to play her and now really clear why. Anyone who watched her as a child star is in for a shock as she turns a rock cliche into a devastating performance of brutal honesty and pathetic desperation. Besides transforming from a timid, waif unable to sing a note in key into an enigmatic powerhouse commanding the stage in a corset, she makes Cherie's fall off the deep believable by not completely losing touch with the innocent little girl we're familiar with her playing. Even by the end of the film you still see her, but through a sad, empty shell.

Less successful is Stewart as Jett, as I never really got past the fact that this just felt like Stewart being Stewart, but with a mullet, attempting an impersonation rather than embodying the persona. Onstage she conveys Jett's swagger as a performer but in the scenes off of it she often falls back on certain annoying "Stewartisms" like mumbling and hanging her head. At points she even looks physically uncomfortable in the part, particularly a later scene where she comes off as an 80's Jett impersonator at a costume party. It's a disappointment since I was looking forward to her potentially re-proving herself as the talented dramatic actress we saw in Into The Wild and Adventureland after selling her soul for Twilight paychecks. This effort won't do it, but in her defense she had the pressure of tackling one of the most famous rock figures of all-time in Jett whereas Fanning could more easily benefit from creating the perception she's building a character from the ground up with the lesser known Currie. Compounding Stewart's problem is that she's starring in a movie about celebrity while currently being overexposed as one herself. It's possible her performance just needs time to be looked on more favorably, but Fanning is so impressively poised in the more pivotal role she's able to easily cover for her. As the only main male figure in the cast, Michael Shannon adds maniacal Kim Fowley to his repertoire of scary creeps and after seeing photos of the real person it's amazing just how much he physically resembles him. Sure, he's a cartoon, but weren't all record producers larger-than-life cartoons back then? I wouldn't argue with anyone more interested in seeing a spin-off biopic focused on his character.

First time writer/director Floria Sigismondi has a history in music videos which should have made her the ideal candidate to direct this, and in a way, she is. The band as a unit is ignored but their music isn't. Sigmundi's sense for time and place stands out with the set design and costumes, as well as distorted visuals and a color palette that gets progressively grimier and darker as the story progresses to its conclusion. The concert scenes are the among strongest and both Stewart and Fanning do a better than passable job recreating the vocals, which is no easy task. These sequences and the soundtrack would make those unfamiliar with The Runaways' music check them out, which should always be the primary goal in a movie that's supposed to be all about the music. That the film can even be mentioned favorably in relation to something like Almost Famous (which take place during the same period and covers similar musical territory) is a victory in itself. The one complaint always leveled against that picture was that it took an R-rated subject matter and made it PG-13. That approach wouldn't fly here. This is what these girls did, this was how old they were and there's no getting around the dirty details. Sigmundi doesn't gloss over them, giving us the uncomfortable feeling we're witnessing something we shouldn't without crossing the line into needless exploitation.

This is a really close call for me as the film seems better now than when I was actually watching it, which could just speak for my enthusiasm for the subject and desire to see more than just a slice of what should have been an epic rock bio. Though it's Fanning's performance pushing the material over the top, the riskiest decision made is presenting the band just as lucky as they were good. There was a little of both for sure, but it's mostly the former that shines through here, making The Runaways work better as a cautionary coming-of-age tale than a biographical account. And more proof that sometimes it pays just being at the right place at the right time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Zach Galifianakis, Jutin Long, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Youth in Revolt is one of those movies that plays by its own rules, even seeming to make some up as it goes along. If someone asked to fully explain the plot I'm not sure I could since at about the midway point it totally flies off the rails without looking back. It almost seems constructed with the primary purpose of further infuriating anyone who already can't stand Michael Cera. They could have just gone ahead and titled it, The Further Adventures of Michael Cera and that would have given audiences just as good an idea of what to expect. But here's the thing with him: Yes, he does play the same geeky, awkward part over and over again and I was ready to completely write him off after starring in junk like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Year One, but when he's actually given sharp, witty material, I'm quickly willing to forgive. Shows you how far three years of Arrested Development goes. Maybe for the first time here, we're at least given a glimmer of hope that Cera might be playing this card as a career strategy rather than because of his potential limitations as an actor. It's a good sign, even if his biggest detractors will overlook that and be put off by this oddball film which features not only a strong performance from him, but an unconventional leading lady and some hilarious turns from well-known supporting players. It's messy and not for everyone, but it delivers the laughs.

Cera is 16-year-old Nick Twisp, a virginal outcast who hates his awesome last name, spins Frank Sinatra records and enjoys Fellini films. He lives in a dysfunctional household in Oakland with his emotionally fragile mother (Jean Smart) and her slimy live-in boyfriend, Jerry (Zack Galafianakis), who finds his life threatened by a group of sailors whom he owes money. He takes the family and escapes to a trailer park in Clearwater, where Nick meets the girl of his dreams in Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a beautiful, offbeat intellectual who just might be the only female who comes close to understanding him, or at least if she doesn't, is putting on a pretty good show. His competition is Trent Preston (Jonathan Bradford Wright), her poetry writing, star jock boyfriend, who spends most of the film as an unseen legend. When it's time to leave and Nick is faced with the harsh reality of never seeing her again, he creates an mustachioed, cigarette smoking bad boy alter-ego named Francois Dillinger in an effort to get himself kicked out of the house so he can move in with his biological father, George (Steve Buscemi) and closer to Sheeni.

"Awkward" is the only word that could accurately describe nearly every interaction, line of dialogue and event that occurs in this picture. The dialogue has this stilted, deadpan quality to it that the actors seem to have all perfected with varying degrees of nonchalance. It's the kind of dialogue that can get under your skin really quickly if you're not a fan of that kind of humor and you'll probably know within the first few minutes where you stand on it. Anyone's tolerance for Cera is likely to be another big determining factor since he's in every scene and playing a dual role, even if his arrogant alter ego doesn't get as much screen time as the trailers and commercials hinted at (to the point that you'd think it would be a film about multiple personality disorder). It's really just a variation on the geek gets the girl, only we're not sure if Sheeni's even remotely interested or just taking him for a ride thanks to Doubleday's performance, which is what makes the story click. The unknown steals the film from under Cera with her charm, even occasionally upstaging her co-star in the sarcasm department. She's worth keeping an eye on.

In his scenes as Nick's alter-ego, Francois, Cera is finally pushed a little bit out of his comfort zone with a character different from the sensitive nerds that have become his specialty and responds to the challenge. It's hardly a major test of his skills as a dramatic actor, but it's enough to show that he's capable of playing unlikable if necessary. Most of the big laughs come from everyone else though. Justin Long as Sheeni's stoned-out brother. M. Emmett Walsh and Mary Kay Place as her religiously fanatic parents. Fred Willard as a kooky neighbor. The best is Ray Liotta as Officer Wescott, basically playing a variation on his psychotic cop from last year's Observe and Report, which is welcome since he's really good at it and works as the perfect foil for Nick. When we finally meet the infamous antagonist Trent Preston, it's to the film's credit that he fulfills every negative expectation we have of him in hilarious ways. The movie goes crazy in the third act when Nick goes on a road trip to a French boarding school, but as shameful as it is to admit, I was laughing through most of it. Cheap laughs for sure, but you can't tell me it isn't funny seeing Cera set an entire town ablaze.

The film is based on the 1993 cult novel, Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, by C.D. Payne and it does come off like something that's intended more for the page than screen. Director Miguel Arteta nicely finds ways around that by employing quirky gimmicks like cartoon fantasy sequences and claymation in an attempt to visually capture the novel's eccentricities. Having not read the novel I can't say if it does, but his choices fit the screenplay, taking us into the mind of the protagonist(s). Despite being based on a teenage coming-of-age novel and containing all the elements of that genre, the black humor seems more sophisticated than you'd typically expect from a movie about teens. This could be a welcome case of a risky adaptation that dares to turn off the very audience you'd figure it's aimed at. I can't imagine this being any less stranger than the novel or dumbed down in any way, which is a relief, even if the story is as familiar as Michael Cera. Youth in Revolt can almost be seen as his warm-up for the upcoming, highly anticipated Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which may or may not be Cera's send-off for the character type he's spent his brief career mastering. Until then I'll just keep complaining has to try something new and end up enjoying his usual act anyway.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Third Season)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, C.S. Lee, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, James Remar, Desmond Harrington, Jimmy Smits
Original Airdate: 2008

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If the third season of Dexter had a subtitle it would be, I Love You, Man, as the show spends the majority of its time focusing on a bromance. Taking an approach that's starting to become popular among serialized dramas, a guest star literally takes over the season and though the actor in the role gives a performance that warrants such attention, the writing isn't quite there to support it. Of the Dexter's three seasons, this one's by far the weakest (or let's just say the least best) and for the first time the previously flawless series starts to show some chinks in its armor. There are definitely some issues with it, almost as if the writers decided to take an extended lunch break and let the actors make up for many of the creative lapses in judgment.

A huge risk is taken in allowing a new character full access into Dexter's twisted world and exposing his "secret," deviating from the template of the previous two seasons and making this feel like a completely different show. This does make for some compelling viewing but unfortunately also insures the season can end only ONE WAY, robbing the series of much needed suspense. In stark contrast to season 2 where I was on pins and needles wondering what would happen next, this time I didn't once believe Dexter would meet any kind of physical harm or his crimes were ever in danger of being exposed to his friends and family. Also not helping is the promotion of certain supporting characters to more prominent roles that are sloppily developed, specifically two jokes for authority figures. It's tough rationalizing that they'd be in charge of any investigation, even this weaker season-long case that seems lifted from CSI:Miami. But while this is clearly a steep decline in quality from the previous seasons, viewed in context it's still probably better than most of what's on TV these days. It just entertains more as a buddy sitcom than the gripping drama we've been spoiled with.

After narrowly avoiding being uncovered as the "Bay Harbor Butcher" last season, Miami's Metro's blood splatter expert and part-time serial killer Dexter Morgan (Hall) is caught in another mess this time after accidentally killing an innocent man while hunting down a drug dealer. Even worse, this innocent victim just so happens to be the younger brother of hotshot Assistant D.A. Miguel Prado (guest star Jimmy Smits). In trying to gain Miguel's trust and keep any suspicion off himself, Dexter does too good a job, unintentionally making himself a new best friend and killing partner. Initially reluctant, Dex starts to warm to the idea of letting him see his "dark side" and Miguel soon becomes fully immersed in his brutal world. Of course, the major problem is the hot-headed, selfish Miguel doesn't play by the same rules, has no idea how to cover his tracks and is merely using murder as a means to clean up his grudges. It's a given Miguel will start to go into business for himself and possibly drag Dexter down with him. A predictable collision course is set from the very first episode of this season, which places heavy emphasis on the necessity of the "code" passed to Dexter from his father, Harry (James Remar). This doesn't register at all for Miguel, a control freak who's just primarily interested in eliminating people he doesn't like, whether they actually killed anyone or not.

The fun in this main story arc comes from seeing the relationship between the two develop and weigh on Dexter's conscience, making him question his purpose. In almost a comic way Miguel comes off as that annoying friend you're not sure if you want to get rid of, and if you are, you still don't know how you'd do it. Except Dexter usually doesn't have any problems with that last part. The storyline works but it isn't suspenseful in the least because we know where it has to go and even the exact path it'll take to get there. Smits is fantastic in the role but you almost get the impression it was all for nothing right from the start, almost like his character was merely an entertaining placeholder to keep us occupied until the fourth season. Miguel being written as such a goof likely hurt Smits Emmy chances as well because despite the dramatic firepower he brings, you almost can't help but laugh at the character's actions. There were many points during the season where I actually caught myself chuckling out loud and that couldn't have been the intention, at least all the time.

The "Skinner" case Miami Metro is investigating that ties to the murder of Miguel's brother isn't all that intriguing mainly because Dexter isn't as personally connected to it as he was the Butcher case last season, which makes sense considering that case DIRECTLY FOCUSED ON HIM with his entire life hanging in the balance. To make up for this they've concocted a myriad of sub-plots for supporting characters and some of them are really silly, walking a thin line between drama and soap opera. Lt. Maria La Guerta (Lauren Velez) is front and center this season, once again making overly emotional decisions based on personal feelings that would get any law enforcement official anywhere fired from their jobs in a heartbeat. Along for the ride is Angel Batista (David Zayas), now inexplicably promoted to Sergeant after last being seen turning in his badge due to rape charges. He's given a ridiculous storyline involving prostitution that's truly the low point of the whole season.

Velez and Zayas are strong actors and technically earned the increased face time they received but the writers saddle their characters with so much baggage and personal issues that they're just not credible as leads of a criminal investigation. As a result, Dexter is never in danger of being found out. It's a good thing for characters to have insecurities and vulnerabilities but give them too many and they start to become a joke. You really feel the absence of Keith Carradine's Agent Lundy, an investigator at Dexter's intellectual level who pushed him further than anyone had last season and was much more believable as the lead of a major investigation. That he's set to return in the fourth season is very good news and couldn't come sooner.

Dexter's sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) also comes off weaker (and whiny) this go around and the possibility of her being promoted to detective seems truly horrifying given the number of laws she's broken and how often her temper gets in the way. Her romantic entanglement with an informant feels tacked on by the writers rather than earned and is a far cry from the more interesting relationship she was involved in last season, when Carpenter was coming off her best work in the role. The addition of Desmond Harrington to the cast as Deb's new partner, Joey Quinn is a good one that creates a fresh dynamic, even if his subplot and back story is dropped as quickly as it's brought up. But no one has it worse than Julie Benz as Rita, who's reduced to basically just picking out wedding dresses. Unlike last season when they were both being ripped apart by Dexter's double life, there's no real conflict between them and I'm starting to think Rita may have run her course as a character. With her marrying Dexter and a baby on the way I'm just not sure what else can be done with her at this point that we haven't seen already.

If I'm guilty of making the problems seem slightly worse than they are it's only because the bar was set so high by the writers with the first two seaons that it was almost inevitable they wouldn't be able to maintain that kind of momentum. By recommending it I'm probably grading on a curve but the show never failed to keep me entertained and it features the best acting on television, specifically from Hall, who never lets you forget this show is about Dexter battling his dark impulses. To that end, the bromance between him and Miguel serves its purpose, even if the season as a whole lacks the suspense and cohesive focus present in the previous two.

On the bright side, this does seem like it's just a lull so I wouldn't be surprised if the series rebounds from it fairly quickly provided the writers fix some of the nagging issues with the supporting characters and center the action around another case that pushes Dexter over the edge personally. The arrival of John Lithgow as a guest star in Season 4 could be a return to that, as just on paper the idea of that actor as a serial killer seems like it should be a guaranteed success and hopefully breathe some new life into the series. In the meantime, Dexter's third season works as only an entertaining diversion.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Jay O. Sanders
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Edge of Darkness
, the embattled Mel Gibson's first starring vehicle in over six years, isn't the "revenge thriller" you may have assumed from its ads and trailers. This is both good and bad. Good in the sense that the story isn't just an excuse for senseless violence and is for the most part intelligently crafted. Bad in that the whole thing is dragged down in scenes of senseless expository dialogue that disappointingly take us exactly where we think it will. While better than expected, it's fatal flaw is in giving us the same old conspiracy story we've seen hundreds of times before when there were so many better options available.

This is one of those workmanlike movies you happen to catch on cable late at night and enjoy watching while it's on, then it ends and you realize you've essentially seen nothing and wasted your time. But for a movie that's too talky to be considered a thriller of any kind, it sure does have some impressive death scenes, including one shocker that caused me to literally jump in my seat. And it's difficult to go too hard on a movie that features Gibson screaming "Fasten your f*ckin' seatbelt!" at a crooked lawyer and informing us "Everything's illegal in Massachusetts." No matter how you may feel about Gibson as a person or celebrity, when the cameras start rolling, he unquestionably delivers. As a showcase for him the film's a success, but he would have benefited more if the story wasn't so ordinary.

The most frustrating aspect is how promising it starts. Boston police detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) picks up his visiting daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic) at the airport and upon returning home she's gunned down at his front doorstep with authorities logically suspecting he was the intended target. Soon it becomes clear that Emma was caught in the middle of one of those far-reaching corporate cover-ups by the security firm where she worked. Out of spite, I'm almost tempted to reveal exactly what that cover-up is since the script tips its hand way, way too early, but that's not even worth it since it would just be greeted with a big "THAT'S IT?" It's so run-of-the mill and predictable nearly anything would have been more satisfying. The worst part of it is the opening death scene is so well-handled and sets up a scenario that could have gone in a million different intriguing directions, yet writer William Monahan chose the safest route.

On the bright side, when the film unwisely commits to taking that road it does so intelligently and doesn't repeat the mistake of the similarly themed Death Sentence a few years. Unlike Kevin Bacon's character in that torture porn fiasco, Craven doesn't just take to the streets and start murdering two minutes after his daughter's killed, as trailers have hinted. He grieves while throwing himself full force into the case as someone in his situation more likely would. It's just too bad we know the details and outcome of this investigation before it even starts and it still does nothing to get us to care about what's happened to his daughter. Gibson, now entering his mid-fifties, is still believable as a bad-ass out for revenge and puts on a credible Boston accent, but he's undermined by too many scenes spent sulking around and mumbling at the bad guys.

The film would have been far better off crafting a huge mystery around Emma and what happened, not pulling the trigger on the reveal until the final act. Besides building suspense, this also would have helped in getting us to care about her. Instead we're given loads of information I felt like I knew already sandwiched in-between a couple of crazy Final Destination-style death scenes. They're entertaining, but given the more serious nature of the plot you'd be right in questioning whether that's appropriate for the type of cerebral, 70's style thriller this is trying to be. It can't have it both ways since the plot isn't compelling enough to drive the dialogue-heavy scenes and the action clashes with the tone. 2004's government conspiracy thriller Spartan is the rare film to pull that tricky mix off but Martin Campbell is no David Mamet and this script isn't nearly as layered.

There are some good performances that elevate the material slightly, namely from Danny Huston as the evil CEO of Northmoor, Jack Bennett. How do we know he's evil? He's played by Danny Huston. At least they picked the right actor. Professional heavy Ray Winstone plays a mysterious informant named Jedburgh, a role that originally went to Robert DeNiro before he walked off the set due to "creative differences" (a hilarious fact considering he's cashed checks for Meet The Fockers and Righteous Kill). It's Winstone's gain as he crafts an intriguing character out of basically nothing and gives us hope there could be more to the film than what lies on the surface. But there isn't and some of his talky scenes with Gibson are unbearable in length.

I did respect that after having sat through a story this pedestrian they at least bothered to give us a exciting ending that made sense. And that opening scene really is something else. As unpopular as this sounds, Gibson deserved better than this as an actor as his performance goes beyond what the script dictates he can bring. He has to do some heavy-lifting emotionally for a story that doesn't amount to much, though it's worth appreciating what the film was going for. Based on an acclaimed six-part 1985 British mini-series of the same name, it does feel like a project of that length was jammed into two hours worth of time, possibly with the more interesting aspects left out. Supposedly, the original had more of a sci-fi/mystical slant, which would have actually been welcome here. Anything other than the standard government conspiracy would have been welcome. A near-miss, Edge of Darkness is an interesting exception to Roger Ebert's famous rule, not working because of what it's about rather than how.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Director: Steve Pink
Starring: John Cusack, Rob Corddrey, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Chevy Chase, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan, Lyndsy Fonseca
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Glancing at its title, it would be easy to assume Hot Tub Time Machine is the kind of time travel comedy you've seen before and would have little interest in seeing again. That assumption would be wrong. While it does contain elements similar to previous time travel comedies, this carves its own niche and ends the R-rated comedy drought we've been having lately. What impressed me most about the film is how much it managed to jam in, using dirty humor to milk the most out of an already promising premise, fully exploiting the technology, fashions, music and the consequences of time travel to its maximum potential. Anyone who knows me could have guessed there was little chance I wouldn't love this given it combines my two favorite things in movies: Time travel and the 1980's (in that order). But even I was surprised just how much fun it was.

The whole film kind of plays like a messed-up tribute to Back to the Future in how it cribs the elements that made that picture so successful and effectively spoofs them. Sometimes it does it literally, as in the case of a memorable sub-plot involving one of the stars from that classic movie. It also takes a couple of comics capable of grating on the nerves when given poor material and makes them likable. And as for the film's star, this might as well be the most entertaining project he's been involved with since the decade this is set. The filmmakers could have easily rested on their laurels, coasting along on the strong premise to craft a one-joke movie so it's to their credit they were interested in making this hilarious AND smart. And sorry, but besides being one of the most satisfying R-rated comedies I've seen in a very long time, I'd also say it's superior to last year's more popular The Hangover.

Insurance salesman Adam (John Cusack) is nursing yet another break-up and barely putting up with his geeky nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) playing video games in his basement, when he gets the call to come to the aid of his former best friend, Lou (Rob Corddry), a past-his-prime alcoholic with anger issues in the hospital following a suicide attempt. Along with the unhappily married, former rapper Nick (Craig Robinson), the friends treat Lou to a return trip to the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort, where they shared their wildest times as youths. Unfortunately, it's now a run-down dump and, seemingly like them, time has passed it by. A crazy night of drinking in the hot tub leads to an electronic malfunction that blasts all four back to 1986 where they aren't given much input by the tub repairman (played awesomely by Chevy Case as his usual snarky self) how to get back or what to do while they're there. Occupying the bodies of their 80's counterparts, they've seen The Butterfly Effect enough times to realize they have to exactly re-trace the steps they made then or face really bad consequences. But the temptation to fiddle with the past is just too great and before long they're forced to just embrace the chaos and try to right the wrongs until they can get home.

From the second these guys first realize where they are and what's going on and are hilariously bombarded by images of ALF, Ronald Reagan and MTV I knew this movie was going to get this right. It wisely doesn't get too bogged down in the details of time travel and instead focuses on the insane weekend they had in '86, affectionately mocking everything about the decade while delivering as many dirty jokes and rapid-fire sight gags as possible at its expense. The script goes all out holding nothing back and when the characters do decide that it might be better to tinker with the past (and how they go about doing it) the action just keeps getting funnier. There's a sub-plot involving Back to the Future's Crispin Glover as a one-armed bellhop so hysterical I was on the edge of my seat waiting for his next appearance and anxiously awaiting how it would be resolved. In just this brief supporting role, the creepy Glover outright steals the movie from everyone, which is a tall feat when you factor in Chase's appearance and a cameo from a well disguised classic 80's villain in a hilariously disgusting scene involving sports gambling.

As in most time travel movies, in addition to commentating on whether culture progressed or regressed, each character has a wrong in their past they have to set right and when the movie needs to occasionally take a break from the gross-out humor to address that, it does so effectively without ever turning sappy or sacrificing the laughs. As the protagonist of sorts, I can't say this is Cusack's best comic performance or that the role couldn't have been filled by someone else, but I'm glad it wasn't because there is a certain nostalgia factor with him starring we wouldn't have with another actor. The whole experience is enhanced seeing him "come home" to the great 80's style comedy he would have starred in during that decade. He actually looks like he's having a good time and in the process is breaking the lengthy streak of questionable career choices he's made through the years. This represents the kind of fun film that used to be his calling card and given his producing credit on it you'd hope that maybe he's finally starting to realize that.

The Cusack resurgence extends to the love interest, April, a Spin magazine writer played by the delightful Lizzy Caplan in the type of part that usually goes to Zooey Deschanel. Dare I say she does it just as well? It's smallish (probably too small) but in just a few brief scenes she makes it feel indispensable, recalling classic Cusack love interests in Say Anything and High Fidelity. Corddrey and Robinson are used to the best of their vulgar, gross-out capabilities, while Duke should be the odd man out as the nerdier version of Michael Cera, if he wasn't so good at it. The fact he's playing the only character not yet alive when the events in the film take place is incorporated cleverly into the story, making the whole situation funnier and even more uncomfortably disgusting.

The year is still young (and weak), but back-handed compliment or not, this is the most enjoyable movie I've seen thus far. If there was ever a comedy aimed directly at me, it's this. It's almost hard to believe it's directed by Steve Pink, who a few years ago botched an almost equally promising premise with Accepted. That suffered from not going far enough with its idea, whereas this goes just the right distance. Obviously, the filmmakers are targeting a niche audience in that those who remember the 80's or came of age during it will find the most to appreciate in its humor.

That it was even released at a time where nearly every other movie plays it too safe and seems aimed at the 13 and under crowd is reason enough to celebrate. It's nice to see the criminally under-served audiences in their twenties and thirties catered to with a fun movie they can relate to, and as an added bonus, have it work this well. Some of the jokes are so fast and subtle even that group of viewers might have to do a double take to pick up on everything, making me think Hot Tub Time Machine is the rare comedy you can actually return to every once in a while.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When in Rome

Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Danny DeVito, Angelica Huston

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Whenever I see or hear the phrase, "When in Rome..." I always think of that joke in Anchorman. It's worth mentioning since the movie When in Rome contains only two gags about half as funny as that one. An insipid farce that can't decide whether it wants to be a fairy tale or a romantic comedy, it's also Kristen Bell's first full-fledged starring role, which should be good news. And while this material is clearly way beneath her, she could have done worse. What the film does successfully convey, or at least not hide completely, is that she's a uniquely charismatic actress with a "girl next door" quality who's capable of big things if given the opportunity.

While watching, I couldn't help but wonder what witty, sarcastic put-downs Veronica Mars would come up with if she were forced to sit through this. I've accepted that a role as rich and complex as that one comes along once in a blue moon but it still stings seeing her appear in mindless fluff. The film is only slightly worse than I expected and I expected it to be pretty awful, but the leads do have decent chemistry and it isn't hard to imagine a romantic comedy starring them that could have worked well. Instead, one mistake after another sinks it and the laughs are in short supply, mostly due to poor execution of a premise that wasn't incredibly promising to begin with.

Bell plays Beth, an ambitious, hard-working career woman unlucky in love, as if there's any other kind of heroine in movies these days. As curator for the Guggenheim, she has to land "THE BIG ACCOUNT" for her demanding boss, Celeste (Angelica Huston--why?)....or else. The timing couldn't be worse as she has to be at her younger sister Joan's wedding in Rome. That sister is played by Alexis Dziena, who after this, Fool's Gold and Nick Norah's Infinite Playlist, I'm convinced could be the most annoying supporting actress working today. Just her very presence may as well signal any film's journey to DVD within a month. At the wedding, Beth impulsively steals coins from a "fountain of love," belonging to smitten tourists aggressively pursuing (i.e. stalking) her upon her return to New York. There's Jon Heder as a street magician, Dax Shepard as a male model, Danny DeVito as a sausage impresario and Will Arnett as a struggling artist. But the only guy she's really interested in is Nick (Josh Duhamel), a former college football star and sports journalist she meets at the wedding. The big question is whether his feelings are real or he's also under the spell.

The fountain scene where the suitors are revealed is almost too clumsy to do justice in words, cutting between these goofy reaction shots from all the guys as they're put under the trance. It would have been much smarter to gradually introduce them throughout the film, but the writers think we can't figure out anything for ourselves so they instead come out swinging and clobber us over the head with the concept right away. More embarrassing though is that THEY DIDN'T CAST WILL ARNETT AS THE STREET MAGICIAN. Talk about not even trying. In addition to having Arnett reprise his Arrested Development role they should have just let Heder play Napoleon Dynamite (Pedro already makes an appearance anyway) and have Don Johnson, as Beth's dad, bust out the white suit and reprise his Miami Vice role. None of that could be any worse than what we get, which includes pointless cameos from the likes of Shaq and Lawrence Taylor (good timing there).

The movie contains two scenes that could qualify as mildly hilarious. The first involves the breaking of a vase at the wedding, which I laughed at during trailers and commercials, but plays even funnier when viewed in context. Another, involves Beth and Nick's date at a restaurant named "Blackout," where they dine in total darkness, complete with a hostess with night vision goggles. If only the rest of the film contained the ingenuity of those scenes. Of her stalkers, only "Sausage King" Al Russo entertains since it is humorous (and a little scary) seeing DeVito chase Kristen Bell down the street with a gift basket of sausage. Shepard's arrogant model is the worst, seemingly inspired by a Zoolander extra. The biggest surprise is Duhamel who was a lot better than I expected as the male lead, displaying a goofy charm that's right for the part and matches Bell nicely. He's as much a victim of the poor writing as she is.

Though Bell makes Beth believable as a driven museum curator, the idea of her as a dumped, lonely woman unlucky with men is preposterous, as is the notion they'd need a "spell" put on them to fall for her. That's why I wish screenwriters would come with a different kind of heroine for a change instead of continuously asking us to pity the rich, beautiful, ambitious career woman who "just can't find love." Doing this would also put an end to the clumsy workplace scenes we always seem to get in these romantic comedies, which are getting so ridiculous that "THE BIG ACCOUNT" is now indistinguishable from "THE BIG GAME" in sports movies. But what's most bizarre, and could have easily been a complete accident on the part of the filmmakers, the piece of art at the center of this "BIG ACCOUNT" actually justifies the hype surrounding it and you could easily picture it prominently hanging in a prestigious gallery. It's hilarious that they got nearly every important thing wrong in the movie, yet somehow managed to get that small detail right.

It's hard to chalk up any film with Bell as its lead as a complete loss since it's always a pleasure seeing her on screen. And as badly as the script misfires, at least this represents the kind of part she should be taking and plays to her strengths, unlike the bitchy supporting character she was saddled with in the slightly superior (but still really flawed) Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She should continue playing likable characters we can root for because that's her bread and butter, but she really needs to start making better choices in terms of how to do it. Big screen stardom for her won't come starring in projects written and directed by the visionary who made Grumpier Old Men and Ghost Rider. Expectations for date movies are understandably low since you're really just looking for a good time, but even by those meager standards, When in Rome still finds ways to disappoint.