Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Go Lucky

The pop culture wizards at the Onion AV Club have coined a term for a ubiquitous film character they call the "manic pixie dream girl." She is an irrepressible, carefree dervish of energy and vitality who invariably blows into the life of a dull stick-in-the-mud and awakens him to life's possiblilites. Examples included Natalie Portman in Garden State, Jennifer Aniston in Along Came Polly and Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. To a one they are beautiful, "wacky" in a wholesome and totally non-psychotic way, and are defined completely by their need to provide life lessons for the protagonist.

The character Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Mike Leigh's new film Happy Go Lucky could potentially serve as the Platonic ideal of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's a relentlessly upbeat kindergarten teacher who has a compulsive need to emotionally engage with every person she meets. The wisp of a plot also calls to mind other films about grumpy men and the two dimensional quirk-factories who love them. Poppy takes driving lessons from a pathologically surly instructor played by Eddie Marsan who goes from loathing her constant chatter and unfailing pep to falling in love with her. What distinguishes Happy Go Lucky from the films of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl variety, and what makes it an ingenious critique of the genre is the fact that Hawkins doesn't blow into Marsan's life. Hawkins is the main character, and the audience is introduced to her bitter driving teacher at the same time that she is. This is a crucial shit that takes a shopworn premise into unexpected, rich new directions.

Hawkins' Sally is not a walking, talking device for the spiritual enrichment of a man. She's a walking, talking person, whose commitment to maintaining a cheerful attitude and reaching out to the people she meets are character traits that grow out of her personality organically. The film is composed largely of a series of interactions between Hawkins' sunny disposition and a parade of bitter, closed-off, wounded, or flat out insane people who are alternately befuddled, amused, enchanted and enraged by her. The reactions that Hawkins' provokes are another aspect of the film that challenges viewer expectations. No one is magically cured of their unhappiness by being around Hawkins. They interact with her the way that people tend to interact with strangers whose behavior confounds social norms, or whose outlook challenges their preconceived notions. These failures to connect serve to isolate Hawkins for the audience as a unique person, and to place her actions and mindset in the a existential context. She doesn't laugh and dance and smile at strangers to make the world a better place. She does it because it makes her life livable.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quantum of Solace

In the B.C. (Before Craig) era, James Bond films were cinematic bon-bons. Lightweight, sugar-laden confections without context or consequence. Beautiful women were wooed, gadgets were deployed, bad guys were dispatched with a quip, with the audience safe in the knowledge that the next Bond movie down the pike would have an entirely new set of villains and sexpots and Bond, with a bemused smile on his face, would be there to kick butt, none the worse for wear. The Daniel Craig reboot that began with 2006's Casino Royale and continues with Quantum of Solace brings something new to the Bond franchise: an overriding plot and character arc that stretches from film to film. Quantum picks up within an hour of the end of Casino, with Daniel Craig's Bond seeking vengeance for the death of his love, Vesper Lynd, due to the machinations of an shadowy global conspiracy. This ambitious approach has it's advantages: in two films, Daniel Craig's James Bond has made more of an impression as a multi-dimensional character than Roger Moore's did in seven. The danger of a trilogy, which the Craig Bond films are revealing themselves to be, is that the middle film is usually the weakest.

For all of its slam-bang action, exotic locales and Bond angst, Quantum of Solace is finally unsatisfying, as it sets up an epic confrontation between Bond and a worldwide criminal organization that must be left for the next movie to be dealt with. One hopes that two movies worth of vague suggestions about the nefarious QUANTUM group will eventually pay off, but in Quantum of Solace, all that the audience can look forward to is a plot that is simultaneously overstuffed and thin. There are plenty of globe-trotting action sequences, including a car chase on winding Italian mountain roads, a boat chase in Haiti and an inexplicable showdown in an empty, hydrogen-powered hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, but because Bond's enemy is so ill-defined, the stakes are unclear, which makes it hard to invest too heavily in the outcome. It doesn't help that director Marc Forster stages the action with a marked lack of invention, the only exception being a poetic shootout at an opera house that still manages to evoke unwelcome memories of The Godfather Part 3.

Quantum tries to compensate for the lack of a compelling enemy or satisfying plot by focusing on James Bonds' struggle to come to terms with the death of Vesper. Daniel Craig is all coiled intensity and glowering rage, with most of the trademark Bond wit strangled by grief. Bond takes out all this pain on the world, one broken-necked goon at a time. In this film, Bond is absolutely no fun, but his emotional journey is not particularly interesting, either. Like the action scenes, it rings the same familiar tones of a host of other action films. Nothing about the character connects to the rich legacy of "James Bond." This includes the ostensible "Bond girl," Olga Kurylenko, who is far too obsessed with her own personal losses and revenge plans to pay Bond much romantic attention.

After the arc-ridiculousness and nancing-about of Pierce Brosnan, it was clear that the Bond films needed a revamp. Daniel Craig has made a capable, indeed bad-ass Bond, and brings a needed gravity and physical presence to the role. Two movies into his tenure, however, a disturbing trend has emerged. The ambitious plan to deepen the character of James Bond by giving him emotional baggage has, in Quantum of Solace, served to render Bond somewhat generic. The man punching his way across five time zones in this movie could be any number of wronged and broken vengeance-junkies to have graced cinema screens in the past few decades. At some points, he brings to mind the Punisher in a tuxedo instead of Kevlar. "Depth" is thought to be an objectively good thing for a film character to have, but James Bond is somewhat defined by his shallowness, his ironic detachment, his sang froid. Making him into a standard-issue revenge seeker drains him of that electrifying coolness that has made Bond such an indelible figure in popular culture. This grief-stricken James Bond knows how to brood like no other, but he's no longer a guy you'd want to have a vodka martini with. Dude would just bum you out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Role Models

When deciding on whether to shell out hard-earned (or easily-earned, for that matter) cash to see Role Models, ask yourself one question: do you find the idea of children swearing at adults or vice versa to be inherently hilarious? If the answer is yes, you'll definitely love this movie. If the answer is still might end up liking this movie. I am not usually one to bust a gut over foul-mouthed youngsters (I hate that "Landlord" video), but the way that Bobb'e J. Thompson, who plays Ronnie in Role Models, curses is endlessly chuckle-worthy. He doesn't swear with the cutesy adorable wink that says to the audience I'm a ten-year-old and I'm swearing! Isn't that outrageous? Ronnie swears with total commitment, which is really funny. In that way, Thompson's performance is like Role Models as a whole. It takes a shopworn premise and executes it with memorable verve.

Role Models is a strong bit of evidence that originality is not an essential ingredient to a successful film comedy. The plot is standard issue in every way. Two underachieving schlubs played by Paul Rudd get in trouble with the law and are forced into cour-ordered community service with a Big Brothers-type organization mentoring a couple of friendless outcasts. Rudd is paired with a Live Action Role Playing nerd played by McLovin himself, Christopher Minz-Plasse. Scott must contend with Bobb'e Thompson's hyperactive f-bomb machine. As you might have guessed, the guys bond with the kids, the kids bond with the adults, there is a third act complication, and by the end of the film, everyone has learned something about themselves. If you can't see every plot point coming a mile away, you've probably never seen a movie before. There's even the requisite double montage: an upbeat second act montage of the kids and adults getting closer, and a downbeat third act montage of sadness after the aforementioned complication. What makes Role Models special is that the third act montage features one of the most pants-wettingly funny sight gags in recent film memory.

For all the predictable plot mechanics, Role Models works because of the winning performances and chemistry of the actors. Paul Rudd subverts his usual shaggy charm by playing a bitter failure who projects his self-loathing through withering sarcasm and generalized misanthropy. All of which makes him a perfect foil for Sean William Scott, whose goofy affability is a perfect contrast with Rudd's seething resentment. The real comedy gold is watching them at work: they hawk a sickly green energy drink called Minotaur under the guise of conducting "anti-drunk" assemblies at high schools. No wonder Rudd loses it and crashes their goofy minotaur-shaped SUV into a statue. The dynamic between the leads and their "littles" is just as entertaining, making the by-the-numbers "getting to know you" sequences more fun than they have a right to be. Minz-Plasse's ernest, unironic enjoyment of medevial roleplaying games plays perfectly off of Rudd's ironic detachment, and one of the best parts of the film is watching Rudd's joylessness crumble in the face of unselfconscious fantasy play. Another highlight is the laid-back party boy Sean William Scott connecting with his hyperactive, pint-sized maniac over Kiss lyrics and the best way to subtly ogle the female boob. In a movie this dedicated to letting its characters breath and play off of each other to full comic effect, an original plot is not necessary. The predictable beats don't distract from the smooth transition from comic set-up to comic set-up. You don't want plot trickery, you just want to watch these people be funny.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Judd Apatow has made a mint over the past few years producing comedies that follow a consistent template; indifferently directed tales of delayed adolescent man-children groping their way towards maturity and love while spouting filthy one-liners along the way. If that formula seems familiar, it’s because Kevin Smith practically invented it. Yet, while his films have consistently existed as mildly profitable niche entertainments, Apatow has taken Smith’s dude-centric cult sensibility and turned it into a string of mainstream mega-hits.

This is not a great injustice. Apatow produced films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked-Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are light-years better than most of Kevin Smith’s work. Smith’s raunchy dialogue tends to be awkward, stiff and fake-sounding, his direction is slipshod and the emotional interaction between his characters is over determined and superficial. Apatow movies are upgrades across the board. The improv-heavy dialogue is naturalistic in a way that Kevin Smith and his penchant for baroque diatribes could never reproduce. There is a vastly greater attention paid to cinematography and shot composition. Most significantly, the characters are more vibrant and relatable. Apatow took the slacker-ethos and gleeful crudeness of Clerks and Mallrats and gave it heart and poignancy.

Credit Kevin Smith for lack of ego. Instead of raging against a comedy poacher who found a way to turn his cinematic jalopy into a hot rod, Smith has observed the myriad ways that Apatow has fine-tuned his model and incorporated those changes into his new film Zach and Miri Make a Porno. The result is Kevin Smith’s funniest, most heartfelt and technically adept film in a long time.

Smith’s smartest decision is borrowing Apatow leading man Seth Rogen and casting him in the role of Zach. Rogen’s bombastic delivery gives Smith’s dialogue an organic feel that it usually lacks. Smith also seems to have finally grasped the fact that film techniques and editing can enhance character development.

The story concerns two slackers: Zach and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, looking way too put-together to be working at a mall in Pittsburgh), attempting to get a hold on their mountain of unpaid bills by making a porn film featuring themselves and marketing it to their former high school classmates. In the process, these Platonic roommates discover depths of feeling for each other they’d never admitted to themselves before. None of the romantic twist rate as original or particularly interesting. Still, the relationship resonates thanks to vulnerable performances from the leads. Even in the absence of an innovative plot the usual Kevin Smith parade of Byzantine sexual references prove consistently funny, especially since there is a context for all the raunch.

The frustration of watching Zach and Miri comes from seeing a whole host of comedic premises go undeveloped due to Smith’s choice to focus intently on the evolving relationship of the leads. The mainstreaming of pornography and the rise of amateur porn on the internet are subjects ripe for exploration. Instead of delving into them, Smith treats the porn set-up as a flimsy pretext for unleashing weapons-grade filth and putting his protagonists on a path towards love.