Tuesday, April 30, 2013

This is 40

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, Chris O' Dowd, Robert Smigel
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

First, the good news. Judd Apatow's This is 40 isn't afflicted with the same mean-spirited tone that plagued it's sort of prequel, Knocked Up. And despite featuring two of that movie's more annoying supporting players in more prominent roles, they actually resemble real human beings with legitimate problems this time around. It's also consistently funny with a healthy batting average of jokes hitting their mark. If there's a problem, it's in the allegation that few outside of Judd Apatow and his immediate family will be interested in watching these characters struggle with problems most non-Hollywood residents would probably kill to have. But that's not necessarily his fault. He's clearly writing from personal experience, as is his right, and at no point does he imply this well-off family's problems mirror everyone's. And while it's definitely a bit bloated at over 2 hours, at least it doesn't FEEL too long this time. And it is a gutsy move to make an essentially plotless dramedy consisting of a married couple and their kids fighting, whining, complaining about seemingly trivial issues. And have it work. And be funny. But he does it.

That there's hardly a conventional story to speak of is the film's biggest asset because it allows us to just sit back and observe what essentially amounts to a large-scale dramatic character study doubling as a comedy. Apatow's tried to enter James L. Brooks territory before, but has never fully committed to it quite like this. Rather than re-cap the plot, it's a better idea to just run down the problems of married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) who are both turning 40, despite her angrily insisting she's really turning "38." He owns a failing record label that only signs aging rock acts while her clothing boutique isn't exactly raking in the cash either, as she suspecting an employee (Megan Fox) of stealing. Their daughters, 13 year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8 year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow) are constantly at each others throats while Pete's frustration grows at having to financially support his father, Larry (Albert Brooks)and his new family. Debbie's relationship, or lack of one, with her estranged dad Oliver (John Lithgow) is even worse, as the two seem barely capable of communicating at all.

The big elephant in the room is that Pete and Debbie are living far beyond their means and it's now putting a huge strain on their marriage. But considering they seem to fight about everything, there are many points where you can't help but wonder how they even got married to begin with. She thinks he's an immature man-child while he can't figure why she's being such a nag. At least the script doesn't offer up any easy solutions and implies right up until the final scene that this is definitely going to take a lot of work. How two characters who were so annoying in just the few scenes they had in the still otherwise problematic Knocked Up could be so much more tolerable and realistic in their own feature film can be attributable to the fact that Apatow's actually forced to flesh them out this time.

As a scattered snapshot of these people's lives, it's very funny, especially when it comes to the nature of their arguments which span from Pete escaping for a half hour on the toilet with his iPad to Debbie insisting on seeking alternative treatments for their daughter's ear infection. But nothing tops the sub-plot involving Pete's struggling record label, in which the film actually makes somewhat of a profound and timely statement on the commercialization of music sure to be recognizable to anyone notoriously picky about their own tastes. As Pete's top act, Graham Parker deserves a lot of credit for being a good sport by playing himself as a washed-up rock relic who peaked years ago.

As far as Apatow casting his own wife and kids in starring roles, there's little to complain about. Leslie Mann's already proven herself talented enough to deserve her slot as co-lead and the girls are a good fit in their roles. That their casting would even be considered a controversy is perplexing when you consider the film is semi-autobiographical to begin with an directors often hire their own friends and family, usually with far worse results. But the big takeaway here just might be Maude Apatow, who displays comic timing that indicates career potential that could extend beyond this movie. She's also given the film's most bizarre sub-plot (which is really saying something) involving her obsession with Lost. As someone tired of hearing all the incessant whining about how disappointed they were by the finale for the past three years, I was just thrilled Apatow took the high road and chose not to go there, instead treating that event with the excitement it did and still does deserve. While Rudd's his usual likable self, it almost goes without saying that Apatow's self-professed comic idol Albert Brooks (in his first post-Drive role) and John Lithgow give the film's two best performances as the deadbeat dads. The latter is unusually cold and restrained, making every awkward scene he shares with Mann feel especially effective.

The sub-plot involving Megan Fox's character potentially stealing is far less successful, yet even more so when dealing with Debbie's envy over Desi's beauty and sex appeal. At the risk of veering into Rex Reed territory, all the work Fox had done to her suddenly unrecognizable face is distracting enough to invalidate the notion of any woman being believably jealous of her character. There's no dancing around the fact she's always been hired for her looks in a certain type of role, but now without that trump card to fall back on, her limitations as an actress are fully exposed. Luckily, Charlene Yi makes up for it with an enjoyably goofy performance as her co-worker. Melissa McCarthy's brief but impactful scenes as a crazed parent fit right in her wheelhouse while Jason Segel's personal trainer and Tim Bagley's gynecologist are really the only two crossover characters from Knocked Up, but are far funnier and better utilized this time around. Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd have tiny roles as Pete's friends and co-workers at the label, but make the most of what they're given. As impressive a cast as it is, it somehow avoids feeling overstuffed, with everyone serving as colorful wallpaper in Pete and Debbie's lives.

Whether intended or not, the film does a good job turning the microscope on a certain segment of the population that, regardless of income, is larger than we'd all like to admit: People who think their problems are the worst in the world. And when things get difficult, that could be everyone, considering how quickly we lose perspective. Though that may not have have been the intention, I was still was pleasantly surprised at the ease at which this went down and how few problems there were with it. Lacking an agenda and his usual awkward attempts at blending gross-out humor with unsettling emotional pathos, this could qualify as Apatow's most mature work yet, even if it's still probably far from his best. His biggest problem thus far has been that every project coming down the pike baring his name as producer, writer or director has felt too similar or the tone has been off. There's no such problem here, even if I still say it's criminal for any comedy to come close to approaching the two and a half hour mark. But at least it isn't time wasted. This is 40 is realistically messy, excelling most when making clever observations about the tiny details that make relationships both challenging and humorous.      

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Life of Pi

Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussein, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu
Running Time: 127 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Ang Lee's Life of Pi starts as one kind of story, only to end as an entirely different and more complex one. But it's everything that happens in between that'll generate the most discussion. Of 2012's end of the year releases, it's undoubtedly the one that leaves you with the most talk, think and maybe even argue about after the final credits roll. Both in terms of the technology and the story being told with it, which is of surprising substance. While I'm still generally very lukewarm on the use (and sometimes abuse) of CGI in movies today, there's no denying it's harnessed here in a way that works in tandem with the material to create an experience that can't easily be dismissed or forgotten. Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel has frequently showed up on those lists of popular books that have long been considered "unfilmable." And after watching it I can completely see why. This is really tricky material and it's a credit to Ang Lee that he's somehow able to make it sing on screen, juggling visual and thematic elements that would have sunk many other filmmakers.

When a novelist (Rafe Spall) is urged to interview a middle-aged Indian immigrant named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) he's told that the story he's about to tell is literally so amazing it will make him believe in God. Through flashbacks we see Pi's childhood growing up in Pondicherry, where his family owned a zoo. He was born Piscine Molitor, a name for which he was relentlessly teased at school ("Pissing") before eventually changing it to Pi, after the mathematical symbol. Raised Hindu, he shocks his mother (Tabu) and father (Adil Hussein) by announcing he's also converting Christianity and Islam, choosing to now follow all three religions because he "just wants to love God." When Pi turns 16 his father decides they're moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba and selling the zoo animals when they get there. This is a blow to Pi who has not only fallen in love with a local girl but has taken an interest in the animals, specifically a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. But while Pi and his family are aboard the Japanese freighter, a storm hits, and he's suddenly lost at sea with the dangerous animal as his only companion. And that's when the story really begins.

Without the benefit of seeing the film in 3D, the opening act is a little jarring to watch when Lee cuts back and forth between the present day framing device and the flashbacks to Pi's childhood. You can tell these scenes are playing with depth in a way that can't be fully appreciated watching at home in a two-dimensional format on a standard TV. There's also a generous amount of voiceover narration setting the story up, so without the 3D format acting as distraction, the prologue can sometimes feel as if we're listening to an audio book on film. These may seem like big complaints but they're actually quite minor when you consider all this takes up only about an eighth of the running time and the script expertly sets the stage for Pi's ordeal at sea. Much of what initially occurs may seem to be a head-scratcher in terms of how it relates to what's coming, and to some could even come off as quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo. But the film's greatest trick is how it disproves that initial skepticism with a straight-up survival story in the vain of Cast Away or Into The Wild, before again returning us to where we started with a final emotional punch to the gut.

From the trailers and rumblings about the novel, I was under the impression that, no matter how fanciful it seems, Pi would form a close friendship with the dangerous Richard Parker as he battles to survive. Instead, their relationship is depicted more as one of reluctant co-existence and mutual respect in which Pi must carefully consider every move he makes as not to be put in a position where he could be eaten by the tiger. With limited means of obtaining food, that's a concern David Magee's script wisely considers every step of the way no matter how tight the two become. There's always a distance there and Pi's journey is as much about overcoming his own fears as it is surviving. Of course, we really don't realize the full extent of that idea until the film's final lap. But in the meantime we're treated to some truly mind-blowing visuals and one of the best CGI animal creations to be put on screen in Richard Parker, who at no point looks and moves like anything other than a real, living, breathing tiger. If it's true that movie technology had to catch up so the book's events could be done justice, then clearly it has.

Claudio Miranda's cinematography won the Academy Award and it's undeniably beautiful. Does it look like anything resembling reality? Kind of, but not really. Should it even matter in this situation? That, I'm even less sure about. And of course there's no way of us knowing how much of the film's look was enhanced by computers in post-production. Should we care when the final result is this good? It's an interesting debate, but not one that makes or breaks this film. It's the story that does that and how well Lee uses this technology to tell it. Needless to say, it makes it. What isn't up for debate is newcomer Suraj Sharma's performance, a young man who hasn't acted in his life and now must do it against a green screen and a CGI tiger. He has to do everything and does so without you being able to notice any of it. The framing device is the weaker part of the picture but the great character actor Irrfan Khan quietly leaves it all up on the screen in his few crucial as his adult counterpart.

It's impossible to discuss the film without talking about the "big twist," which is probably a misleading way to  describe it. In an effort to talk about it without actually doing so, I'll just say that the development that occurs toward the end of the picture is a game-changer in every sense, causing you to re-think and re-feel everything that came before. It's hard to think of instance where one's reaction to a film depends entirely on who you are and what you bring or don't bring to it. When Pi tells the writer that his story "will make you believe in God" you can't help but think he's also talking to us. I'm not sure it does all that or is likely to convert anyone, but it comes closer than it has any right to in philosophically arguing for the existence and purpose of religion while still somehow not being overtly religious in any way. And that the movie doesn't pick a side or necessarily separate any one God or religion from another will probably upset some. What it instead seems to be arguing for is a belief in anything that helps give you the courage to get through. By the film's closing moments we're left with the possibility that something may not have happened when we were led to believe did. But it isn't manipulative. We can still believe it or we can choose not to. Life of Pi bravely splits the audience into two camps, letting us make of the events what we will. It's rare in a big budget film so dependent on modern technology to challenge us like that, encouraging us to carry on the discussion well after Pi's journey concludes.


Monday, April 15, 2013


Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 143 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

As far as 007 opening sequences go, they don't more thrilling than the one in Skyfall. So far, we've had 23 Bond installments. Let that sink in for a minute. It's a lot. But what's more remarkable is that we've still yet to see one that succeeds as something more than just a franchise entry and can stand on its own as an accomplishment in any genre. Too often the series is hamstrung by tradition as the producers are afraid to step out of the box and take genuine risks that might upset the core audience, but result in a superior finished product. Does anyone remember anything that happened in Quantum of Solace? Skyfall is the closest we've come to perfection and its opening minutes reflect that. It's less shocking in hindsight when you consider Bond can't just die but this entry completes a transformation that's been hinted at for half a century, but really started building since Daniel Craig put on the tux in Casino Royale. He's now a full-fledged, reality-based superhero. In other words, the character's basically evolved into Batman.

Much of the picture's first half plays as a classic Bond tribute, at least until director Sam Mendes pulls the rug out to deliver what might be the craziest entry since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. As a non-fan of the franchise, it was a much needed diversion, since the more often a Bond film veers from tradition, or at least puts an exciting spin on it, the better the result. Helping a great deal is that it's visually more impressive than any previous outing and features a villain that's genuinely terrifying and dangerous. But let's just call this what it really is: Bond as The Dark Night. Mendes has acknowledged the similarities, but what's surprising is just how much of Christopher Nolan's influence seems to be all over the picture, even lifting a specific plot point. There's no denying the strategy worked. It's the strongest entry in years, and the first in a while that doesn't feel behind the times.

After being left for dead in an enthralling pre-credit train sequence, James Bond (Craig) is back after a short seclusion, though certainly not better than ever. Wounded, weak, and even lacking his  usual confident swagger, M (Judi Dench) controversially decides to put him back on active duty despite not being even close to ready. His job is to retrieve the hard drive that slipped through his fingers earlier and contains the names of undercover agents placed in terrorist organizations.  Standing in his way is cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a creepy sociopath whose actual motives remain cloudy from the get-go, yet become painfully clearer as his twisted plan unfolds with brilliant precision. Despite help from M., MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris), nerdy, gadget-savvy Q (Ben Whishaw), M's Intelligence superior Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and possibly even Silva's mysterious mistress Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe), this marks one of the few times Bond seems legitimately outmatched by an adversary.

Since Craig took over the role, much fuss has been made about the franchise's detour into more serious territory, all but abandoning the series' cheekier aspects that have been so prevalent over the years.This badder, meaner Bond reached its self-serious peak with Quantum of Solace, which was so derivative and slickly packaged it became indistinguishable from your latest Bourne installment. It was also a real bore that featured a dour Craig performance, making me wonder whether a return to some cheesiness was in order. But if you watch most of those old Bond movies (particularly the Roger Moore entries), they are very much a product of their time, and not in a good way. Sam Mendes could be on paper the most accomplished director to tackle 007 and proves it here by getting serious right. There are some minor pacing problems in the early going, but the plot isn't a slog and supporting characters are actually fleshed out.

Mendes makes it feel like a contemporary action vehicle, but also a Bond movie willing to take risks while still maintaining loyalty to the Ian Fleming source. Perhaps borrowing from Nolan's recent portrayal of Commissioner Gordon, this is the first time Dench's M has been given anything more to do than stand behind a desk and act as a figurehead. She's not only showcased as an important piece of the puzzle here, but even promoted to a Bond sidekick of sorts. She also does some unlikable things and makes questionable decisions that causes Bond (and us) to rightfully doubt her judgment and consider whether she's exceeded her expiration date. But the bigger question might be whether 007 has exceeded his with Craig given the rare opportunity to play a weakened, vulnerable Bond, or at least the most vulnerable he's been since the concluding events of Casino Royale.

If these movies tend to only be as as good as their villain than Javier Bardem's bone-chilling work as Silva goes a long way. Strangely effeminate and almost flamboyantly wacked out, Silva's like no other Bond baddie we've recently seen, and comes complete with a backstory that's intricately fleshed out and surprisingly personal. There's a lot of juice behind his motives and Bardem takes full advantage, relishing the chance to play Silva as a bizarre cross  between Heath Ledger and Cesar Romero's Jokers and Anton Sigurh from No Country For Old Men. He'd walk away with the film, if not for the fact that, as lensed by the still Oscar-less Roger Deakins, it's the most visually pleasing Bond entry of all-time, with hardly a shot undeserving of being framed and hung in a gallery. This is especially true of a captivating Shangai assassination sequence and the film's finale, in which Silva physically lends even more credence to that theory that some men just want to see the world burn. Even if you detested everything else about the film, just the cinematography alone would still be reason enough to recommend this to anyone without hesitation.

If there's a weak plot link, it's Marlohe's Bond girl, who serves little purpose other than to hop in the sack (or in this case, shower) with him, which given the all business nature of this installment seems particularly ill-fitting. If she's there to merely fill a quota, Naomie Harris proves to be the exact opposite as MI6 agent Eve and, without giving too much away, proves in her few impactful scenes to be worthy of sticking around. If she's more than a field agent, than Bond is finally shown in this installment to be something more than just number, complete with a personal history that's inventively woven into the screenplay. A bearded Albert Finney is Kinkade, the caretaker of Bond's childhood home and though he plays the role well, it's impossible not to imagine that it was tailor made for the retired ex-007 Sean Connery. But no conversation about Skyfall is complete without mentioning Adele's Oscar-winning title song, a classic throwback that earns her a spot in the Bond theme hall of fame alongside Shirley Bassey, Carly Simon, Paul McCartney and Duran Duran.   

The general consensus is that each time a new Bond entry is released, it's treated as a reboot, disregarding much of what came before in order to re-energize the franchise so it continues to stick around for the long haul. But this is the first entry in a while that really does feel like a full reboot, despite its heavy influence from another series of recent films. It's also features stronger plotting and a more distinctive visual style than Casino Royale, which garnered much of its praise because of a massive change in tone, the debut of a new actor in the role of 007 and one of the franchise's more compelling love interests. While it proved exceptional at re-introducing Bond to contemporary audiences, it's still really hard not to prefer Skyfall, which simply does more with what it has, inching closer to that seemingly impossible holy grail of a perfect James Bond movie. It definitely puts Craig back in the driver's seat but sometimes you have to wonder how much of this franchise's success depends on that. It always seems to be everything else that's changing around him.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Roger Ebert: A Tribute


"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."- Roger Ebert

When news broke Thursday that Roger Ebert had passed away it felt like a day we've all been dreading for some time had arrived and yet no amount of preparation could have possibly softened the blow. It's taken a while for it to sink in. Truthfully, it still hasn't and may never. It often feels strange writing about the deaths of public figures or celebrities as if we know them. Because we don't. But this time it sure feels like we did. Especially toward the end. And in all the appreciations written, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that he saved his best act for last, transcending his roots as a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and beloved TV personality to become a national treasure, as well as personal inspiration to even those who may not have followed his work. For those who did, it truly feels like a guidepost is now missing. A teacher is gone. But when I think about what Ebert meant to movie lovers like myself who grew up on his show and reviews, what jumps out first is his adaptability, as he managed to conquer the media arenas of print, television, and the internet at various points during his illustrious career. And that's just scratching the surface.

Following one-time rival, colleague, co-host, and close friend Gene Siskel's death in 1999, many in the media questioned the purpose of continuing a televised review show format. But not Ebert. He still forged ahead with At The Movies in its many incarnations, making sure the revolving door of hosts continued even through his health struggles.While no pairing could ever match the onscreen magic he shared with Gene, it's easy to believe he knew that but at the same time still recognized the greater importance of having a show on television where films could be intelligently analyzed and discussed rather than reduced to a mere sound bite. As a born newspaperman, it also would have been easy for him to reject blogging and Twitter while jumping on the bandwagon of so many blaming the internet for the supposed death of film criticism. But he knew the real deal. He knew it would mean everyone would be given an opportunity to write and have a voice and that film criticism could only grow stronger as a result. For him, "blogger" was never a dirty word. Roger Ebert's Journal, would house some of his best, most insightful writing on not only movies, but--to borrow his memoir's title-- Life Itself. More impressive still was how often he championed the work of others. For the past few years, hardly a day passed where he wasn't re-tweeting a piece he'd found, with more than a few being writers I followed and read. Nothing got by him. Besides it being the ultimate demonstration of generosity, it showed his curiosity about everything and everyone.The very real possibility existed that if you had a movie blog, or any blog for that matter, he could have easily been reading it. If that's not enough to get anyone to keep writing, I don't know what is.

Whether or not you agreed with his opinion on a movie was almost beside the point, but it sure did feel good when you did. When he liked or hated a movie you did or you noticed strengths or weaknesses he pointed out, you couldn't help but feel a little smarter. There may have been critics as skilled at scientifically dissecting a film piece by piece, but none of them could ever express it as well as Ebert, on television or on the page. What always struck me most about his print reviews were how breezy and effortlessly they read while still engaging you in them. He recreated the feeling of having a friend over for dinner to talk about the latest movie you both saw. Picking up Roger Ebert's Video Companion/Movie Yearbook every December literally became an annual ritual for me, to the point that it wouldn't feel like Christmas without it. And of course all the other books like The Great Movies, Your Movie Sucks and Questions For The Movie Answer Man. Of the lessons he imparted, two famous ones always stick out. For any aspiring movie critics he simply said to ask yourself: "Did I like the movie? Why or why not?"  It may seem simplistic yet to this day, whenever I feel blocked, asking it gets me out. Every time. His observation that it isn't "WHAT a movie's about, but HOW it's about it" flipped a switch in me that wouldn't allow me to just watch movies anymore, but actually appreciate them.

Picking a favorite Ebert review is close to impossible but I'll never forget exactly where I was and what I was doing when he and Gene reviewed a small film called Fargo on their show in early 1996, before anyone had heard of it. Seeing the two of them, who bickered famously on some of the biggest releases, so enthusiastically supporting a movie together that could have slipped through the cracks without their passionate support, was quite possibly the duo's finest moment. When they disagreed they were equally strong in different ways, but united in agreement they were unstoppable. And when they were finished I knew one thing: I had to see Fargo and share in the experience they talked about. Ebert's excitement for a new movie not only made you excited too, but often altered its fortunes. Dark City is still remembered today largely because of his support and ability to catch details so many other critics missed. His print reviews put smaller, independent films on the map while his own Ebertfest highlighting overlooked gems acknowledged that sometimes we miss greatness the first time around. It wasn't uncommon, sometimes years down the line, to read his reassessment of a film he previously bashed or graciously admit to initially missing certain details. He understood that our relationship with film, as with life, is a complicated one, constantly changing and always offering up new surprises along the way.

In his final post came the announcement that he planned to take a "Leave of Presence" because the cancer had returned, but accompanying it was the suggestion he wasn't even close to being done. He planned to scale back and review only the films he wanted to, instead shifting his focus on the continued expansion of his brand. Of course, his idea of a part-time schedule would still undoubtedly feel like a a full workload to just about anyone else. He sought help financing a new movie review show and, as difficult as it is to say, I still hope his wife Chaz moves ahead with it because what better way to honor his legacy and career than having his name again attached to a quality movie review program. It turns out his final review was of Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, which is fitting. An appropriate swan song as we'll continue to wonder with each new release what his opinion would have been or how his top ten would have looked at the end of each upcoming year. But as upsetting as all of this is, it's hard not to feel incredibly grateful for just how much he's left us. And as he neared the end, he still kept going and give us even more. The term "Leave of Presence" couldn't possibly be appropriate. As always, he knew how to find just the right words.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dennis Has a Podcast: Remembering Roger Ebert (with Jeremy The Critic)

Over the weekend I joined my good friend Dennis as a guest on Dennis Has a Podcast to share my thoughts on the recent passing of Roger Ebert. A written piece from me is forthcoming but this was about a fifteen minute discussion covering his legacy and influence.

Click here to listen.

And don't forget to check out other episodes of DHAP on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

"We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds." -Roger Ebert

Rest in Peace, Roger.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Director: Leslye Headland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer, Rebel Wilson, Adam Scott, Ann Dowd
Running Time: 87 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

That the dark comedy Bachelorette is a an uneven mess is both its greatest attribute and biggest flaw. If it wasn't this sloppy I'm not sure it would have been as compelling, but it definitely would have been a better film. So, call it a trade-off. Trailers and commercials sold it as another Bridesmaids but that this couldn't possibly have less in common with it is actually good news. And it doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve and most definitely doesn't aim to please. The characters are mean, cruel, selfish, and at times, disgusting, but at least they feel real as writer/director Leslye Headland sacrifices little to give audiences a brutally honest, unflinching portrayal of women behaving very badly. The problem is it's only occasionally funny, which is an issue for a comedy featuring somewhat detestable characters. I say "somewhat" because there is a double standard at play. If this were about men they'd just call it The Hangover but when women characters do stuff like this onscreen they're usually labeled "bitches." Unfortunately, the shoe occasionally fits here. Of the three leads, one's a promiscuous drug addict continuously reliving high school. The other is a vacuous airhead with no clue how to relate to other people. Only the third and thankfully most important character seems like a multi-dimensional human being whose occasional cruelty gives way to surprising amount of competence and empathy. After an awful start the movie finds its groove in the second half with one actress doing all the work to drag everything over the finish line. But by then the damage is already done.

In a clever, fast-paced opening, bad girl Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is informed over lunch by former high school classmate Becky (Rebel Wilson) that she's getting married. Regan quickly alerts Gina (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) that they'll all be attending the wedding of the girl they called "Pigface" in high school. The relationship between all the girls and Becky is never entirely clear (friends? enemies? frenemies?) but the plot hits the ground running immediately without looking back. They're all reunited  for the bachelorette party where a number of disasters ensue throughout the night involving drugs, alcohol, sex, jealousy, strip clubs and a ruined wedding dress. The presence of Gina's ex-boyfriend Clyde (Adam Scott) complicates matters, as does Joe (Kyle Bornheimer), a former classmate with a longtime crush on Katie, and the best man Trevor (James Marsden), who his sights set on Regan. It'll be up to her, the maid of honor, to hold it all together so Becky can make it to the alter in the midst of old grudges and past relationships bubbling to the surface.

A lot is juggled in the span of just under an hour and a half. As expected, some works and some doesn't, but it's never laugh-out-loud funny. It's more of a dark comedy revolving around insecurity, regret and failure amongst women in their early thirties set against the backdrop of one disastrously thrilling evening. Whereas the overlong Bridesmaids had the problem of shoehorning serious and overly sentimental elements into what's supposed to be a gross-out comedy, this contains plotlines that sometimes feel deadly serious and tries to milk them for laughs. Amazingly, this approach is occasionally more successful than you'd think thanks to a biting script and capable performers. At least until the third act, it rarely shies away from painting these characters as selfish and insensitive at best. Save for the bride-to-be they have very few redeeming qualities, which is actually kind of courageous to do for a female-driven comedy that probably would have been more successful as a drama.

All the storylines and half-developed sub-plots yield mixed results, without us ever really being invested in  them. The sub-plot involving Dunst and Marsden's characters doesn't really go anywhere, Fisher's irritating, constantly drunk Katie character torpedoes a mini-romance involving the nerdy Joe, and a heavy backstory with Caplan and Scott can't quite find the right tone to take hold like it should. But it does all feel realistic to a fault. I'll give it that. And we're again given the rare opportunity to see Adam Scott play kind of a jerk. He's surprisingly good at it, even if Caplan and Scott would probably top anyone's list of actors they'd least like to see tackle unlikable characters. But even in their unlikability, the former Party Down co-stars still come off fairly likable, which is no small feat considering the material they're handed. Rebel Wilson is unusually restrained as the optimistic moral center and it's a nice relief to discover that, aside from the whole "Pigface" thing, her character's never turned into a joke and is sincere. But the movie completely belongs to Kirsten Dunst, who's simply amazing. She totally takes over in the final act, juggling so many tones at once and just tearing through the material to the point that she almost redeems the film. Somehow bringing order to the chaos, she digs to provide some answers and explanations for Regan's terrible behavior that couldn't have been in the script. The many fans of Dunst and Caplan will probably be thrilled with what each does here, while Fisher, saddled with a thankless boozer part, can't help but seem like the third wheel.     

I'd still probably sooner watch Bachelorette again than the overpraised, but more cleanly executed Bridesmaids since this at least took risks and tried something different. Plus, it's only 87 minutes. If only every comedy were between 80 and 110 minutes. Especially in this case. Even just a few minutes more with these characters would have been too much. It's an easy, breezy watch that, despite a myriad of issues, hardly qualifies as a slog or complete waste of time. And any comedy  featuring Adam Scott badly singing The Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" could never be considered a total disaster. That Will Ferrell produced this isn't surprising, as it does kind of feel like a Funny or Die sketch that's longer, meaner and just not quite as funny. But it is interesting and thankfully seems made without any concern as to whether audiences will enjoy it, take away any message or like the characters. You have to respect that. If a comedy's going to fail, we should be so lucky that it fails with as much ambition as this one.