whatever works

The knee jerk reaction to any of the marketing for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is to assume that Allen cast Larry David in the lead role as a mildly updated proxy for Allen himself. But putting aside the obvious bald, neurotic Jewy-ness of both men, the connection proves tenuous. Allen’s lead characters tend to be neurotic, self deprecating wiseacres. In Whatever Works, David is a neurotic, self-aggrandizing wiseacre. Huge difference.

There’s an inherent contradiction in David’s character. Boris (yep, that’s really his name) is an award winning academic who fancies himself above all of the so-called “microbes” who inhabit his daily life. Yet he’s obsessive compulsive, suicidal, and uncomfortable in his own skin. His mantra, culled from life experience, is “whatever works.” As in, any way you can be happy in this life, make it happen. It’s a completely trite sentiment from the mouth of a character who’s otherwise incredibly pessimistic and self removed from society. Shockingly, in the hands of David, a non-actor, Boris almost works. It makes sense that Allen himself wouldn’t be right for the part, but Boris is still very much a product of Allen’s brain. He knows how to make a character like this tick, and it’s enough to make Whatever Works totally bearable.

But Allen is perfectly adept at writing overeducated New Yorkers of a certain age. That’s not a problem. Allen just doesn’t understand anyone else.

The rest of the principal characters in Whatever Works are southerners, each introduced to big scary New York at different points in the film. First, Evan Rachel Wood, a 21-year-old runaway, who clings to David as some kind of intellectual god, put on earth to correct her weirdly wholesome red state upbringing. David and Wood eventually marry, though Allen mercifully presents their relationship as only mildly affectionate and practically sexless. Later, we meet Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., Wood’s separated parents, who each find some kind of ridiculous redemption through the magic of Manhattan and David’s perversely strong sphere of influence.

Wood, Begley, and Clarkson all come off as disingenuous Southern gothic pastiche. Wood’s character is further burdened with the curse of being young, an object for Allen’s fetishization and mockery, but without any depth, her motivations whimsical but wholly unnatural.

If not for the fact that the old man still has a knack for glib one liners, Whatever Works wouldn’t work at all. There’s still a little bit of humor let in the tank, and it’s enough to make you long for the Allen of old. But that guy won’t be back. You see, Boris’s motto is double sided. Allen used to be a great comedic mind, and now he just settles for whatever works. (Told you fuckers I went to headline writing school; I also took a seminar on hack closing lines.)

Film: Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr.

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; standard projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 45%

Next up: Bruno

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

Advertisements

ice age 3

See that picture up there? That’s one of the reasons Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is terrible. That little fucker is some kind of enjoyment-killing tree sloth fucking thing that leads the Ice Age gang through some mystery cave where dinosaurs are still alive, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. You see, science had led us to believe that dinosaurs were eradicated by an ice age. Presumably the same ice age that Ray Romano’s wooly mammoth and Denis Leary’s sabre-toothed tiger have been living in for three fucking movies now.

Anyway, that little prick’s name is Buck, and he’s voiced by Simon Pegg, who most of the time is hilarious. Except when he plays Buck. Buck is some kind of unholy cross between Ralph Brown and Crocodile Dundee. With an eye patch, so you know he’s hardcore. Buck is the worst.

The pre-existing characters aren’t much better. Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a phone-in job of the highest order. Romano, who sounds bored in his natural timbre, is near comatose here. Queen Latifah can’t emote properly. John Leguizamo should have hung it up once he made all that Super Mario bank. And Leary’s seems to always sleepwalk through his more family-friendly projects.

And despite the obvious historical fuck off involved in the introduction of dinosaurs, the real problem with their inclusion is that it squanders everything the Ice Age franchise had going for it. The original Ice Age, which is actually a fine family picture, was captivating not because it had particularly appealing characters or a plot, but because it inhabited a desolate, solid-white universe, in a transitional period in global history. Very little of what appears in Ice Age had been imagined in quite the same way before. It was novel, occasionally funny, and the sequel The Meltdown piggybacked nicely off its success.

For a third installment, shaking up the formula may have been a pretty good idea in principle, but in execution it removes any goodwill one might have had toward the franchise. Especially since all the jokes are stale rehashings of what we’ve heard before. And the use of digital 3D accomplishes only a cosmetic improvement on a visual landscape that’s less inspired (and less fully imagined) than what the producers of Ice Age captured the first time around.

And the stupid squirrel that fights over the acorn with the lady squirrel to the tune of “You’ll Never Find”? I’ve seen that sequence so many times on TV, in trailers, and in the actual film, I never want to listen to Lou Rawls again.

And that’s the real damn shame.

Film: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Director: Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier (yep, it took two directors to fuck this up just right)
Stars: Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital 3D
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: My Sister’s Keeper (part two of a Theater Hopping Double Feature ©!)

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

the proposal.jpg

In which I hurl a series of ad hominem attacks at Sandra Bullock, and attempt halfheartedly to describe the sack of baby vomit that is her new feature film, The Proposal:

  1. Sandra Bullock has a face that looks like a muppet’s, if only muppet faces were made of leather. This face acts as the first point of removal, keeping the audience at a distance in Bullock’s ridiculously formulaic new romantic comedy, The Proposal.
  2. Sandra Bullock has undergone so much bad plastic surgery that, in her later years, it will virtually be assured that she will play Joan Rivers in a schlocky Oxygen channel biopic. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, it is completely unbelievable that male lead Ryan Reynolds would ever have any sexual desire toward her. When he refers to Bullock as “beautiful,” it is the film’s single comedic moment.
  3. Sandra Bullock, in previous projects, has been out-acted by such cinematic titans as Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, and Dennis Miller; the public is immune to her professional failures because of the hypnotic effect of her muppet face. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, she is far outshined by Betty White, who is far past the point of not giving half a fuck about whatever movie role she happens to get.
  4. Sandra Bullock is a total bitch to work with. In Bullock’s latest cinematic toss-off, The Proposal, the best actor they could get to play Bullock’s father-in-law to be was Craig T. Nelson, who has clearly gone crazy, and needs any work he can get. (See this video.)
  5. Sandra Bullock is a bestiality fetishist. In Bullock’s new feature film, The Proposal, she has intercourse with various Alaskan wildlife species, including a harrowing scene in which she fucks an elk.

Ok, so I made one of those up, but it may not be the one you think. (Unless you’re a member of Sandra Bullock’s legal team, in which case I retract each of the above statements, agree that The Proposal was the finest movie of the year, and direct each of my five readers to go see it post haste, and at my own expense.)

Film: The Proposal
Director: Anne Fletcher
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Oscar Nunez

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, moderate crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 46%

Next up: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (part of a Theater Hopping Double Feature ©!)

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

year one

Well, it’s official. I’ve come down with a serious case of the Michael Cera fatigue. Perhaps I was later to the party than everyone else, but I’m here now and it feels just fine.

You see, I had pretty high hopes for Year One, a “prehistoric” comedy starring Cera and Jack Black, another actor I’d still been hanging on to even though everyone else seems to have passed him by. Director Harold Ramis frames his film as a buddy comedy and a travelogue sprawling from a society of hunter-gatherers through a timeline-irrelevant book of Genesis.

In doing so, Ramis misses a number of opportunities to pin down a workable comic framework. For all its comparisons to Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part I, Year One really has very little in common. Ramis’s tone is not quite as silly as Brooks’s; while Year One is fairly screwball (Cera at one point pisses on his own face, as an example), one doesn’t get a sense that the comedy is really carefree. On the flipside, Year One also lacks any kind of depth. Ramis is swimming in a far out to sea here, and finds neither ship nor shore. Should he aim for some kind of postmodern buddy laugher, and let Black and Cera play to the setting, or should he ditch all agenda and go for the Brooks style non sequiturs? If he’d chosen either option, he would have had something better than what turned up on screen. Instead, he has a schizophrenic “comedy” with no jokes to speak of.

It’s not all Ramis’s fault, of course. There’s also the fact that the two leads don’t deliver any more than anyone would have expected from them, and for a pair of actors with histories of being completely non-versatile, the writing is on the wall. If Year One is any indication, both Cera and Black are about to see the bad side of Hollywood Darwinism.

But even excepting Cera, Black, and Ramis’s failings, there likely wouldn’t be much to salvage in Year One. The problems seem systematic; it’s all premise and no planning, no execution. David Cross is misused, Paul Rudd is near-absent, a subplot involving Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Abraham and Isaac) is unnecessary, Oliver Platt’s character is a disgusting grotesque. Even the sound effects in this movie are shitty.

It’s a shame when you make Land of the Lost look good by comparison.

Film: Year One
Director: Harold Ramis
Stars: Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Olivia Wilde, June Raphael, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 2
Rotten Tomatoes average: 18%

Next up: The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

imagine that

There was an Onion headline a few weeks ago that read, “New film only stars one Eddie Murphy.” Imagine That is that film, and it certainly benefits from the lone Eddie arrangement.

When I saw the wretched Meet Dave last summer, I poured a lot of shit all over the grave of the “funny Eddie Murphy.” That guy’s been gone for a long time, and anything I may have had to say about his new family friendly (and hacky) persona was like throwing a pebble into the Grand Canyon. And I’m sure dude could give a flying fuck as long as those Klumps residual checks keep piling in.

The thing is, and judging by box office receipts I’m not alone here, I don’t know how to quit this guy. Even in Meet Dave, which, it bears repeating, is a terrible, terrible movie, there’s still a little glimmer in Murphy’s eye of what used to be. It’s like some kind of sad clown shit; he’s almost got it in him, he just can’t bring himself to try.

Which brings me to Imagine That, which, solo Eddie notwithstanding, fits nicely into Murphy’s family comedy paradigm. Except it’s sweet, it never panders to its audience, and, dare I say, it’s actually a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Of course, Murphy still has a tendency to put an extra coat of shtick on all his jokes, and an extra coat of schmaltz on everything else (just like I use way too many Yiddish words for a gentile). But Imagine That is not meant to be high art, so a lot of this can be forgiven. Murphy for the first time in a long time plays the perfect tone for his target audience. The plot arc is pretty obvious, and Murphy fills in the blanks nicely.

Ah, to the plot. Murphy is a well-to-do stock trader who has never had much of a relationship with his young daughter. When he realizes the daughter’s security blanket empowers her to tell the future, Murphy uses it to make high value trades, bond with his daughter, and compete for a promotion against a shammy Native American mystic played by a hysterically deadpan Thomas Haden Church. But Murphy’s greed (oh no!) threatens to tear apart his newfound daddy-daughter relationship.

If this sounds at all like the plot of classic Simpsons episode “Lisa the Greek,” it is. And I already said that in a Twitter post when I saw the preview. And copycat fuck Scott Tobias said it in his A.V. Club review weeks later. I hate it when my pet theories are mirrored by people who actually have readers. Just so we’re square, Tobias, I was first.

But that’s…ok. I’m not looking to Imagine That for originality. Frankly, I’m just glad it didn’t have talking animals, or fat suits, or poop jokes in it. When you remove those obvious entertainment barriers, it’s much easier to see a film for what it is. I came out of the theater feeling better than I did when I went in. That’s saying something. If Eddie is working his way up to being funny again, this is a step in the right direction.

Film: Imagine That
Director: Karey Kirkpatrick
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, Martin Sheen

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 6
Rotten Tomatoes average: 43%

Next up: Year One

>> New film only stars one Eddie Murphy [The Onion]
>> Imagine That [A.V. Club]

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

land of the lost

Land of the Lost, despite a bankable star and some heavy-duty marketing, failed to make any money. It also wasn’t very good. Does this mean we’re done finally done with these comedic adaptations of classic TV shows?

Probably not, but the spectacular failure of the Will Ferrell’s latest star vehicle (which compares unfavorably to last year’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, both in substance and tone) should be a wake up call to someone. It’s easy enough to recycle story ideas, but isn’t it all for naught if you can’t even turn the easy profit?

Brad Silberling (City of Angels, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) is, as you can tell from those credits, an unusual choice to direct a comedy, even one as effects laden as this one. And he gets very little out of comedic stalwarts Will Ferrell and Danny McBride in Land of the Lost. The film is not devoid of laughs, of course, as Ferrell can tease out a joke with pure charisma. What Silberling doesn’t do is ask for anything extra out of his actors, and he doesn’t receive anything either; he’s focused too heavily on a not-so-great story, which is probably not an audience’s chief interest.

Especially since Land of the Lost deviates so strongly from Sid and Marty Krofft’s original series. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a paleontologist disgraced after a Today Show interview brands him a crackpot; in the series, Marshall is a forest ranger. Will (McBride) and Holly (Anna Friel), Marshall’s children in the original, are a deadbeat gift shop owner and a sycophantic graduate student, respectively. Friel develops into Ferrell’s unlikely love interest.

When Ferrell’s time travel device (the tachyon amplifier, nerds) thrusts the triad into a mystical world filled with strange creatures and cultural residue from the contemporary age, the fun (whatever fun there is) is on. That’s when you start to wonder where the money (reportedly $100 million) went. The sets look cheap, and the creatures are fairly unsophisticated. The reptilian sleestaks even look like the sleestaks from the series. That’s a lot of money tossed away on rubber suits.

There’s always a question in these adaptations with where to draw the line between updating the original and paying homage to it. Land of the Lost looks to have it both ways, trying to look like the original, only bigger. There’s enough bloat on this film to detract from what could have been a half-decent comedy.

Silberling and crew lost focus, lost their humor, and, it appears, lost a lot of money.

Film: Land of the Lost
Director: Brad Silberling
Stars: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride, Jorma Taccone, Matt Lauer

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 4
Rotten Tomatoes average: 28%

Next up: Imagine That

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

the brothers bloom

While Up is a visually stunning film, and pretty much technically flawless, The Brothers Bloom is my favorite film of the year so far. I say this in the interest of not burying the lede.

Bloom adds a healthy dose of Wes Anderson quirk to the decades-old caper genre. So the fact that I loved Rian Johnson’s latest film isn’t entirely unexpected. I am, however, shocked by how Bloom has managed to sail underneath the critical and commercial radar.

For while Bloom borrows a bit of Wes Anderson’s flair, it’s a far more accessible (and far better) picture than either Anderson’s The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. There’s a fair bit of slapstick, and a plot that doesn’t tip its hand until the very end. Maybe I’m deluded, but I see The Brothers Bloom as a sure-fire adventure comedy hit, and had it been marketed differently, it could have been.

As it stands, it was a bit of a shock that Bloom showed up at my local cineplex at all, and it did so about three weeks later than other markets, part of a scattershot release schedule that’s typical for films that a studio doesn’t quite know what to do with.

As for the film itself, the shining star is unquestionably Rachel Weisz as a hermitic heiress who plays the mark for the titular confidence tricksters (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo). When Ruffalo convinces his timid brother to target Weisz for one last score, the plan goes along swimmingly until Brody commits the cardinal sin of falling for the mark.

Weisz’s character Penelope is earnest for adventure and Brody unwittingly lures her out of her shell. Weisz nails the role, casting Penelope as an unflinchingly wide-eyed optimist willing to roll with any obstacles. There is an unexpected amount of versatility here from Weisz, and I can’t think of a role of hers that I’ve enjoyed even a tenth as much.

Ruffalo and Brody bring some nice chemistry as brothers, Ruffalo as the mastermind (and his tricks as scripted by Johnson are truly works of art), and Brody as the loyal but self-loathing partner, always seeking escape, but unwilling to leave his brother alone.

Johnson takes full advantage of his actors’ talents, and revels in photographing the settings his globetrotting characters bring him to, hiding all kinds of detail (and, often, subtle jokes) deep within the shot. He also makes great use of Robbie Coltrane and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikucki (Babel) in limited roles.

Bloom would be the perfect hit summer comedy for a country that didn’t love Sandra Bullock so fucking much.

Film: The Brothers Bloom
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Maximillian Schell, Robbie Coltrane

Viewing situation: Weekend evening, small crowd; standard projection
My grade (out of 10): 10
Rotten Tomatoes average: 63%

Next up: Angels and Demons

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

the hangover

I loved The Hangover. With reservations.

Todd Phillips’s (Old School, Starsky and Hutch) latest film came out of nowhere to be one of the most anticipated comedies of the year, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. While the concept of a wild bachelor party night in Las Vegas seems a little Very Bad Things-y (ok, so it’s exactly the same concept as Very Bad Things, or the perpetual late night HBO Kal Penn flick Bachelor Party Vegas, for that matter), The Hangover makes up for it with an endless barrage of hilarious set pieces, and very little in the way of an actual plot.

You may read that as something less than a high compliment, but let me go on record as saying that, in many cases, plot is the enemy of comedy. I call this the “second half of Stripes paradox.” The first 45 minutes of Stripes is all brilliant setup, creating the kinds of down and out characters who would join the military late in life just to get a leg up; in the final 45, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis go on a mission, and I reach for the remote. This syndrome has befallen many of my lifetimes’s near-great comedies, from Caddyshack to Super Troopers to Phillips’s own Old School.

The Hangover is aided by its conceit that its three principal characters (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, whose mentally unhinged drug addict and possible pederast is the film’s breakout character) can’t remember anything that happened the drunken (and, as it turns out, roofied), evening prior. When the main characters can’t remember what happened, it’s an easy way of acknowledging that nothing that happened really mattered. We can now breeze along for an agenda-free 95 minutes.

Of course, a loosely interconnected chain of ridiculous events, however cleverly arranged, still wouldn’t work without a great cast to sell it. Cooper plays a feature-length version of his dickhead Wedding Crashers character, which suits him fine as the ringleader of this operation. Galifianakis is brilliant, and a third lead role in the number one movie in America should rightfully raise his profile. And Helms’ character is the heart and soul of the film, the only character with a narrative arc (as much as one can exist under these confines), and he handles it with aplomb.

I hate to find fault with a movie that had me consistently laughing for the better part of an afternoon, but a few things do trouble me about it. The first is Ken Jeong, a member of Judd Apatow’s troupe, who plays a dismal and kind of unfunny Asian stereotype here. This is at least the second film in as many years (Pineapple Express) where Jeong has played such a role, and judging by this viral clip from the upcoming Funny People, not the last. Jeong has shined in Knocked Up and other films, and he’s better than this. While the character was likely written as a stereotype, it’s likely Jeong had a part in the character’s creation, and he should probably knock it off, or at least learn to say no. This isn’t quite Mickey Rooney territory, but it’s close.

More than that, though, I’m bothered by the way films like The Hangover deal with women. It’s not that The Hangover disparages women outright. Heather Graham’s character is perfectly fine, and Sasha Barrese’s waiting bride is almost inconsequential. But Rachael Harris (as Helms’s domineering girlfriend), is drawn as the kind of monstrous bitch that justifies a man stepping away for some bro-ing down (isn’t that what dudes call it now?). We’re supposed to hate Harris, and want Helms to ditch her (which he eventually does), but it’s disconcerting that the strongest female in the film is also its most wretched character. For The Hangover and many other recent comedies, women are set up as enemies of fun. It’s a pretty disturbing trend that gets under your skin the more you see it. And yet I keep overlooking it.

Funny excuses a lot.

Film: The Hangover
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Mike Epps, Jeffrey Tambor, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Rachael Harris, Sasha Barrese

Viewing situation: Weekday afternoon, packed house of stoner college students; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 8
Rotten Tomatoes average: 78%

Next up: Drag Me to Hell

>>> Funny People Clip: Sayonara Davey [YouTube]

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

dance flick

An interesting bit of trivia about Dance Flick from the Wikipedia: “This is the first parody film from various writers of the first Scary Movie to use the word ‘Flick,’ rather than ‘Movie.’” Wow, so it’s obviously totally different than other genre parodies, like Date Movie or Epic Movie.

Well, not exactly. Though it’s target, the relatively small genre of dance films, is a bit more specific than those other “Movie” movies, which are known for throwing any pop cultural detritus at the wall to see if it sticks. With sometime Wayans compatriots Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer making similar movies at an alarming clip (Meet the Spartans, etc.), there’s been almost no stone unturned when it comes to showing you something you’ve seen before, but more so. It’s the “Hey, I recognize that!” school of comedy. And it’s not going anywhere.

Dance Flick (whose name on the theater marquee made it look like “Dance Fuck,” which, truth be told, is a great idea for a movie), unlike most other Wayans/Seltzer/Friedberg conceptions, actually has a way of mining the sublime from the ridiculous, though only occasionally. The film telegraphs its style in its opening sequence, an absurd back street dance battle where moves include pissing on a rival’s face, and performing a spin with such force that it drives the dancer’s head into his own ass. Laughter was, truthfully, uncontained. I guess you had to be there.

Dance Flick attempts to have a plot, centering on a musical high school where a young street dancer (played by Damon Wayans, Jr., the spitting image of his dad), a disgraced ballet dancer, and the chubby girl from Hairspray, among others, band together against a rival dance squad, building to a climactic dance battle at “The Streets,” some kind of makeshift dancing arena. In between there are a handful of musical numbers, including “Gay,” where the gay basketball player comes out, to the tune of “Fame.” It was not at all insulting.

But considering its predecessors, Dance Flick could have been worse.  I can say with near certainty that there won’t be another movie this summer where Amy Sedaris performs a human beatbox routine with her vagina. There’s something to be said for originality.

Film: Dance Flick
Director: Damien Dante Wayans
Stars: Shoshana Bush, Damon Wayans Jr., Chelsea Makela, Brennan Hilliard, Amy Sedaris, Chris Elliott, David Alan Grier, Essence Atkins

Viewing situation: Weekday afternoon, me, two teenagers and their baby; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 4
Rotten Tomatoes average: 27%

Next up: The Hangover

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

night at the museum: battle of the smithsonian

Because I don’t want to dwell on things I hate (which is odd for someone who watches shitty movies constantly), I’ll refrain from revealing too many plot details of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the sequel no one asked for, but everybody went to see anyway. I’d instead like to take this opportunity to meditate on why funny people so often do unfunny things.

The obvious answer is that it’s mercenary, that you gotta work the blockbuster so you can afford to do the prestige picture. But there’s only a certain degree of truth to this, especially when you consider that NatM:BotS (as I’ll call it) is pretty much loaded with talent from top to bottom, with a few exceptions (which I shan’t hesitate to note).

First and most importantly, NatM:BotS was, like its predecessor, scripted by the writing team of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, who you may know as performers and writers on both The State and Reno 911, among other actually funny projects. One would assume that even with the imperative to make a broad crowd pleaser, these two would find a way to work in at least a few laughs into a 90 minute film (spoiler: they don’t).

Then there’s the talented cast, which I’ll run down with awesome bullet points:

  • Ben Stiller, the protagonist, former museum security guard-cum-inventor-cum-imposter museum security guard (it’s a long story). Stiller, I swear, used to be funny. He can still pull it out every now and then. So why the schlock? Dude must be rich as Nazis by now.
  • Owen Wilson, reprising his role as tiny Jed the cowboy. Wilson was one of the only characters who provided any laughs in the original, but the act is even staler here. Like Stiller, Wilson has done his share of these types of films, so it’s not a particular surprise that he shows up again here.
  • Christopher Guest, who tends to fare poorly in films that don’t allow him improvisation. Lennon and Garant’s lousy script seems to be air tight, and Guest, by consequence, is wooden.
  • Steve Coogan, who, in tandem with Wilson, was good for some laughs in the original, seems like he’s slumming in most of his American film work. Or rather, he thinks he’s slumming, and it shows.
  • Ricky Gervais, one of the finest comedic minds to emerge in the last decade, gets almost nothing to do here. Which is perhaps for the best.
  • Bill Hader, who’s never failed to amuse me in a film performance. Oh, until now.
  • Amy Adams’s version of Amelia Earhart is, like every character she plays, fucking adorable. She’s the reason this movie is as highly rated as it is. (Note: I have not rated this movie highly.)

Of course, there are untalented people in NatM:BotS too, and their appearances are highly excusable:

  • Hank Azaria. Yeah, I know, he’s on The Simpsons and everything. Voice talent ≠ acting talent.
  • Rapping cherub statues. Have never been good in anything.
  • Robin Williams. Totally belongs in this one.

Well I don’t think I’ve answered the question, but this was much more fun for me than writing about the movie. Or seeing it. Thanks for playing.

Film: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Director: Shawn Levy
Stars: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Bill Hader

Viewing situation: Weekday afternoon, medium crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 2
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: Dance Flick

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.