Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Judd Apatow rules the comedy universe because he and his collaborators have mastered a simple formula: raunchy humor plus emotional heft. His characters like to trade barbs about gayness and masturbation and other chestnuts, but they also have textured relationships with each other and genuine emotional arcs. It's an approach that has produced some hilarious and heartfelt films (and Funny People, which is by no means a bad movie, but also by no means a comedy), and a couple of botch-jobs. One of those is the fitfully gut-busting Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and, now, Nick Stoller's spin-off of the very good Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek. It's not a coincidence that both of these failed efforts focus on drug addicted rock stars. The "Apatow touch" works by taking generally generic characters pursuing generally generic comedy plots (a virgin trying to get laid, a dude getting over a hard break-up), but taking those plots into unexpected directions. When your lead character is a drug-addled rock star dealing with his trademarked "nightmare descent into booze and pills," there really aren't any unexpected directions. Dewey Cox and, in this film, Russel Brand's Aldous Snow, are larger-than-life characters with VH1-ready problems; drug addiction, distant family members, and the essential emptiness of the hedonist rock god lifestyle. Not only are such travails difficult for your average filmgoer to relate to, they hit such obvious dramatic beats that nothing of interest can emerge.

Even worse, the Apatowian obsession with dramatic weight ends up derailing the comedic momentum of a movie that should move with a frantic energy. The plot summary suggests a comedy bullet train a'la After Hours mixed with the drug fueled antics of Cheech and Chong, but the hijinx are undercut at every turn by bathos-laden stabs at meaning. For a movie built on a ticking clock premise and fueled by the heroic intake of booze and hard drugs, Greek never hits the sort of delirious heights it should. There are a few moments that feel like they're about to tip the balance of the movie into outright madness, but they're never sustained enough, and at any rate are consistently undercut by rote and boring character development. Aldous Snow is funny as a rock 'n roll caricature, He's downright ponderous as a redemption-seeking Leif Garrett stand-in. All these words, and really all that needs to be said is that Sean "Diddy" Combs is definitely the funniest thing in this movie. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

The announcement that Robert Downey Jr. had been cast as Tony Stark signaled to all observers that the Iron Man franchise was going to be a different type of comic book movie. One that would privilege character and story over empty action sequences. The first Iron Man meet those expectations to the letter, foregrounding Tony Stark's rakish wit and inner turmoil while portioning out the actual Iron Man ass-kicking sparingly and spending little time developing a memorable villain. Iron Man 2 doubled down on all of these elements, spending even more time detailing Tony Stark's mood swings and less time on flying and punching and such.

This approach is initially effective: when Downey's Stark is milking his newfound superhero status and messing with stuffed shirt politicos, Iron Man 2 has the humor and ramshackle charm of a Judd Apatow movie. The charm starts wearing off, though, as director John Favreau and writer Justin Theroux crank up the Stark angst with each passing scene. First, it's shown that the palladium in Stark's arc-reactor heart implant is quickly poisoning his blood, then Defense Department goons start demanding Stark turn over the Iron Man technology, then the arrival of sexy young legal aid Scarlet Johansson complicates Stark's relationship with Pepper Potts, then, to top it all off, it turns out that Tony has a bunch of unresolved issues with his dead father, Howard (played from beyond the grave by Mad Men's John Slattery in the casting coup of the year). And all of this before rogue Russian physicist Mickey Rourke shows up in his own Iron Man suit to get revenge on the Stark family for long past crimes. None of these elements can get the screen time they need to really develop, and so they sort of drift by, unconnected to any greater narrative arc while Tony gets more erratic and sullen. This pattern continues until the inevitable moment when all the audience wants is for something to blow up already. Eventually, things do blow up, and when they do, it's pretty impressive; certainly an upgrade over the perfunctory climax of the first film, but as in the first film, the villain is so undeveloped that the stakes and impact of the conflict are muted.

Iron Man 2 wants to be a real movie, not just a comic book exercise, but the necessities of the comic book genre end up leaving most of the character interaction undercooked. Particularly, the interplay between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, which was the emotional engine of the first movie, feels muddled and scattershot here. Their interaction has a loose, improvisational feel, but that authenticity works against generating a coherent through line. It's of a piece with a film that feels garbled and shapeless throughout. There characters still have a vividness that is rare in the comic book genre, and that's due once again to dynamite casting. Downey is his usual charismatic and tortured self, Don Cheadle is a huge upgrade over Terence Howard, Sam Jackson's Nick Fury has an appropriately entertaining swagger, while Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell make the most out of their underwritten bad guy roles. The first Iron Man did a good job of mixing rock 'em sock 'em with effective character work. The sequel, like most blockbuster sequels, seeks to ratchet up every element from the first one that worked. When you're talking about CGI robots fighting, that's an easy enough task: just increase the numbers and firepower of said CGI robots. "More and bigger" is a strategy that just doesn't work when it comes to character and relationship arcs.