April 27, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (04/27/08)

Lettergrade: B-ish

The critics really oversold the fuck out of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but that's not to say that they're doing it entirely without merit. Truth be told, it is a really funny movie, but I'm not convinced that praising the picture as highly as guys like Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips have been lately really does the film any favors. Seeing any movie is all about expectation, and I think one's enjoyment of a picture often has an inverse relationship to what you think you might be in for going in. I'll use an example from my own life: I was a on a long international flight when One Night At McCool's, a movie I had heard sucked five kinds of ass, was announced as the in-flight screening. Having finished the most recent Garfield graphic novel, and feeling reluctant to start a crossword puzzle or work on my memoirs, I decided to give it a watch and was pleasantly surprised when the comic stylings of Matt Dillon, Paul Riser, and Andrew Dice Clay united to produce a picture that was actually mildly funny. Of course, after 6 hours on a trans-Atlantic flight, pretty much any movie joke, no matter how feeble, would seem like a cool drink of water after a long desert hike, but I'm getting away from things here...

Had I seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a genuinely enjoyable movie, on the flight, I'm sure I'd be trumpeting its virtues with the same pants-shitting enthusiasm that Roeper has too. Be cautioned, however, that it is merely a good movie rather than an amazing one. The script was written by Jason Segal, who also plays the main dude. I primarily knew him as one of the leads on How I Met Your Mother, a refreshingly clever show that my wife watches, and although I thought he had great comic timing there, I was honestly surprised that to see that he's as multitalented as he seemingly is here.

The plot isn't all that ground-breaking or original... Segal plays a struggling musician who composes the bland underscore for a generic, bullshit police procedural show called Crime Scene: The Scene Of The Crime. He's dating the star of that show, played by Kristen Bell, the chick who played Veronica Mars, but she dumps him early in the movie for a world-famous rock musician who exudes coolness. After going through a lot of self-punishing rituals that guys tend to go through when they're dumped, he decides to go to Hawaii for a vacation, only to discover that Mars and her new guy are staying at the same resort. He can't afford to stay himself, but a cute hotel clerk (played by Family Guy's Mila Kunis, infinitely more beautiful than Mars in that her total body fat is well over 0.001%), basically lets him stay in the penthouse suite for free. General wackiness and self-flagellation ensue.

Although somewhat formulaic, many of the scenes feel like they're coming from a very personal place, and that's one of the main things that gives the movie a lot of charm. I will say, however, that the plot gets into sort of a meandering nebula in the mid section. You know a certain number of things are going to happen... Will Segal find a deep, meaningful relationship with the free spirited hotel clerk? Will Sarah Marshall come to realize that the showy, world-famous musician she traded up for is a philandering scum bag? The answers are pretty clear to these questions, but the movie, which clocks in at nearly 2 hours, takes its sweet-ass time getting to them.

Several times during the flick, I was reminded of the 1985 John Cusack classic Better Off Dead, one of the staples of my youth. In other ways, the picture feels like a smarter version of the early Adam Sandler movies of eld; before his budgets got huge and his scripts went into autopilot. Part of what made those early movies work is that they felt so cheap... it was like a bunch of friends came up with the idea while drinking one night, and part of joke is that they somehow got it made and into theaters. Like all those movies, this one has a real gee-whiz enthusiasm, too. You kinda get the impression that these guys feel like they might never get to make a movie again, so they're giving it everything they've got.

The movie was produced by Judd Apatow, who has produced pretty much every comedy that's been released in the last two years. The cast, as usual, includes various members of his stock company, including the omnipresent Paul Rudd, who plays a stoned surfer who works at the hotel. Also along for the ride are Jonah Hill and SNL's Bill Hader, who were both really funny in Superbad, but who feel a bit shoehorned in here. Segal, who himself appeared in Knocked Up and was a regular on Apatow's short-lived Undeclared series, probably couldn't have gotten the picture made without Apatow backing him, but I can't help but feel at the same time that the movie would be better off if it were free of the usual trappings of an Apatow production.

My friend Alex lamented recently that each Apatow picture is a little worse than the one that came before it. I don't know if I entirely agree with that, but I think they're certainly settling into a certain groove where you more or less have an idea of what to expect: Gross-out humor with a heart. It may be getting a little predictable, in that sense, but I still think they're a little more thoughtful and satisfying than, say, the seemingly endless stream of direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels, and more often than not, I'm glad that I took the time to watch them.

One last thing, I heard an awful lot about Segal's flacid penis before we saw the movie, and indeed it makes a cameo in several scenes. I don't really have anything meaningful to say about this, but if nothing else, I guess it shows Segal's dedication.

April 5, 2008

Leatherheads (04/05/08)

Lettergrade: D

Leatherheads, directed by and starring George Clooney, pays homage to the screwball comedy of yore while telling a faire-tale version of the formation of professional football in the 1920s. It doesn't really succeed on either count: It's a little dull and bloated to be entirely effective as a comedy, and the events on screen are so farcical that it is difficult to believe that anything that happens is based on any credible history whatsoever.

Indeed, Clooney's Dodge Connelly, an aging player who steals college football sensation Carter Rutherford (The Office's John Krazinski) away from Princeton in the interest of boosting pro football's popularity, is pretty much a work of fiction. I guess it is true that pro-football was a complete joke in the early part of the 20th century, but even a quasi-comedy about how the sport really did gain legitimacy and prominence might have been a little more engaging than this one, where everyone talks and behaves like characters from It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday (which is to say, about as authentic-feeling as Joan Rivers' face).

I hate to pile on the movie up front like this while skating right past its virtues, which are many, but I think its important to lay out all the shit that really drove me up a wall right out of the gate. On the plus side, the movie provided a good excuse for Randy Newman to write a lot of fun 20's style jazz for the soundtrack, and the sets and costumes look like they are constructed out of fine, quality materials. The movie also knows its film history, making numerous references to silent pictures of the 20s, most obviously two Harold Lloyd classics, Safety Last! and The Freshman, which I'm sure will be lost on all but the most astute of film nerds.

This is a weird feeling to describe, but going in I thought Leatherheads would be better than it is, and now that it's over, I look back and seem to think its a little better than it really was. It's one of those movies where the style kinda overwhelms everything else, including whatever sense of fun might have been in the script at its initial inception. A symptomatic example of this is that fact that the movie has a lot of potentially interesting side characters, but only a few of them ever really get fleshed out, therefore making their presence in the movie a frustrating reminder of missed opportunity.

Another weird thing is the messed up sense of pacing and timing. Consider the sequence early in the picture where Renee Zellweger, who again perfects her grown-up Lisa Simpson impersonation, is assigned to get the dirt on John Krasinski and deflate his war record a little. The scene is fine, in and of itself, but from it we go into a long sequence where Clooney's football team disbands and everyone goes their separate ways. Clooney himself grows a beard and sort of bottoms out before coming up with the idea of recruiting Krazinski, which he is able to do after a bit of skillful coaxing. When he goes to a hotel to meet with a prominent money-man, Zellweger finally shows up, and has some dialogue that indicates that only, like, three days have passed since we last saw her!

This is the third movie that Clooney has directed, following Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and 2005's Good Night And Good Luck, for which he got a best director nomination. All three films are highly stylized period pieces that I've found to be a bit tough to get through. I did admire Good Night on many levels, but I suspect that had more to do with what the movie was about more than the somewhat unappealing way in which it was made.

After the shit-heap that was 1997's Batman & Robin, Clooney decided that he had enough money to pretty much do as he pleased, and accordingly used his clout to get a lot of really good pictures through the system. I won't blame him for embarking on films that looked like they might have been good, but turned out not to be (Solaris, The Perfect Storm, The Good German, et al). I will, however, take issue with endeavors like the Ocean's 11 trilogy, not a single installment of which was comprehensible or seemed to be about anything other than making money.

Leatherheads, Clooney's first big financial failure in a while, clearly wasn't made with insane profits in mind, but I have to wonder that since it's a sports movie with very little athletic activity, and because it's a romantic comedy where the leads don't seem all that attracted to eachother, what, exactly, was the idea behind making it?