Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

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Darling Companion


Woman's best friend isn't necessarily a diamond.

Woman’s best friend isn’t necessarily a diamond.

(2012) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Lindsay Sloane, Jay Ali, Robert Bear, Casey, Paul Kiernan, Jericho Watson, Yolanda Wood, D.L. Walker, Dina Goldman, Ruben Barboza, Mark Robinette, Craig Miner, Anne Cullimore Decker, Aline Andrade. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Dog lovers are, if you’ll forgive me, a unique breed. Being one myself, I know whereof I speak. Da Queen will tell you that I’m borderline obsessive and if you pressed, she’d probably even admit that I left the rational border behind years ago. That’s okay. Guilty as charged. From time to time in movies I have to witness bad things happening to dogs. Da Queen will also tell you that there’s no surer way to turn this rational, logical critic into a slobbering mess than seeing harm come to a dog. It’s not just my dogs I love but all dogs.

I tell you this because I was a bit concerned when I heard what the premise for this movie was. When Beth (Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Moss) find an abandoned dog at the side of a Colorado highway, Beth immediately takes to her four-legged friend. Naming the dog Freeway, she adopts the critter when nobody steps in to claim it.

Her husband Joseph (Kline), a back surgeon who invests much more into his career than he does into his marriage although he is to his own mind completely devoted to his family, is a bit annoyed by the presence of the dog but when his wife insists, he capitulates grudgingly. What he doesn’t get is that he spends a lot of time away from the home while she raised her daughters. With Grace getting married at their Rocky Mountain vacation home in the fall, her nest will be officially empty. She needs something to fill it and a dog is an excellent choice.

Beth grows very fond of Freeway and the two are virtually inseparable but things get kind of crazy as the wedding approaches and of course Joseph is of little help. As Beth is helping Grace with the final details at the vacation house, Joseph – about as useful as a cell phone on top of Mt. Everest – is given the task of walking the dog. He does so, forgetting to put Freeway on a leash and so busy talking into his cell phone he barely notices when Freeway runs off after a deer.

When Joseph returns home sans dog, Beth is understandably distraught and unleashes her wrath on Joseph who doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s not like it’s a person,” he complains, “it’s just a dog” to which Beth retorts “Love is love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a dog.” She has a point but then again I am somewhat unreliable  when it comes to objectivity in this regard.

Of course, Joseph is in the literal dog house but he searches for the dog without success. Beth, frantic, enlists Joseph’s sister Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Jenkins) as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Duplass). Neither Joseph nor Bryan trust Russell whom they think has ulterior motives when it comes to Penny but Penny appears happy enough.

For Bryan’s part, he takes a shine to Carmen (Zurer), the housemaid who claims to have psychic powers who is certain that Freeway is still alive. This only furthers Beth’s determination and as the adults travel the beautiful countryside of the Rockies in the fall, they are forced to deal with each other one on one – for the first time in a very long time in some cases.

Some may recall Kasdan as the director of Silverado and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote this with his wife Meg so we do get both sides of the equation in most of the relationships without being overly committed to one point of view or the other. Kasdan has the wisdom to know that there are always more than one in any relationship and the case is generally that no one person is always right or always wrong.

However, you can never be wrong when you cast Kevin Kline and nobody knows that better than Kasdan who gave the actor his big break in The Big Chill. Kline is an everyman who can play just about any role and make it believable. He’s also so damn likable that even when he’s playing a character who is a bit of a dick we still end up relating to him which is quite the gift. I think that likability is why we so rarely see Kline in a villain’s role, although he can play those with aplomb as well (see A Fish Called Wanda).

His chemistry with Keaton is genuine and unforced. Keaton who sometimes can overdo the neurotic thing at least doesn’t make her character a complete ditz. She does have some legitimate grievances and while the way things work out is a bit contrived (but what Hollywood film is not?) the character itself isn’t. The acting in fact is terrific all around – the movie in fact suffers from an embarrassment of riches with so many great actors in the movie that you wish some of them got a little more screen time and you tend to leave that kind of film feeling a little cheated – and yet if they’d made the film longer it would have been too long. Catch-22 lives.

While the movie ends up using the dog as a uniting force and the search for him/her as a metaphor as our own search for love and acceptance, it gets to its destination after a few too many convenient coincidences. Other than that though this is a beautifully shot movie – you also can’t go wrong setting a movie in the Rockies in the autumn, although it is Utah subbing for Colorado here. It leaves one with the warm fuzzies which isn’t a bad thing and although a lot of critics grouse about it, this isn’t a dog movie in the same sense as Marley and Me nor is it a dog of a movie in the sense of a whole lot of forgettable exercises in cinema but it is a movie that might just stick with you like a loyal, loving dog and who doesn’t love that?

WHY RENT THIS: Because, you know, dogs. I’ll see Kline in anything, even when he plays a bit of a jerk.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many contrivances. Too many great actors, not enough time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual content as well as a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Kasdan’s first time in the director chair since 2003’s Dreamcatcher.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with footage of the New York premiere there’s also a featurette on the casting of the dog Freeway.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $793,815 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Red Baron

Enough Said


Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Michaela Watkins, Phillip Brock, Chris Smith, Jessica St. Clair, Lennie Loftin, Tavi Gevinson, Nick Williams, Ivy Strohmaier, Alina Adams, Amy Landecker, Natasha Sky Lipson, Eve Hewson, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

The way Hollywood tells it, the only people who fall in love are young and beautiful. They have the issues of young people, the problems that are part and parcel with just starting out in your life. I guess that actually makes some sense; after all when you’re young you’re supposed to be falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean that the middle aged and the elderly don’t fall in love as well. Into the former category belongs Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) who is an L.A. masseuse who is a divorced mother of one. She lugs her massage table up flights of stairs and dreads the day her daughter Ellen (Fairaway) leaves for college, all the way to New York. Her nest is looking empty indeed.

At a party she meets Albert (Gandolfini), also a single dad who is going through much the same thing she is. At first, he’s not the kind of guy she’d be attracted to normally. He is, as Gilbert Iglesias might put it, a bit fluffy. Still, he has a sweet personality and a good sense of humor. She agrees to go out on a date with him and it goes surprisingly well. Pretty soon they’re doing more than just going out.

At the same party Eva met Marianne (Keener), a poet who she contracted as a client initially. Marianne is in the same boat in many ways as Eva is; a college-age daughter getting ready to leave for the Parsons School of Design. Marianne, like Eva, is divorced but in Marianne’s case she doesn’t have very many pleasant things to say about her ex. He’s a slob, not very good at sex on those occasions Marianne would give in to his whining and give him some. He’s contentious, petulant and neurotic. It doesn’t take too long before Eva figures out that Marianne’s ex is her current beau. However, this is a golden opportunity to find out more about this guy from someone who knows everything there is to know about him so she keeps quiet about her new relationships to both Albert and Marianne. That’s never a good idea.

Holofcener has directed some pretty cool films up to now including Please Give, Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. She has a good sense of making her characters realistic and grounded. Sure Eva can be a little bit flighty and sure, Marianne is a bit of a bitch and absolutely Albert is a lazy disorganized slob (by his own admission) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting characters and more importantly – they aren’t defined by their personality quirks as so many other indie characters are. It’s nice to see so well-rounded personalities in a movie.

Louis-Dreyfus, familiar to most from her stint as Elaine on the legendary Seinfeld show, is still a beauty although it is tempered by her age now. Like many women on just either side of 50, there is a fragility to her body that she hasn’t taken the best care of over the years. She also is quick to smile and quick to frown – she doesn’t have the energy to hide her feelings.

Gandolfini in his last leading role (he played supporting roles in two more films that will see release in the coming months) reaffirms what a treasure he was as an actor. He is the center of the film in many ways – the victim of Eva’s mistrust and untruthfulness and it is he whose heart gets broken. While Albert’s weight excess is a central point of the film (he is relentless chided about it by both Marianne and Eva) for me it’s not THE central point.

There are a couple of subplots that seemed unnecessary – the movie really is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Albert and Eva. I also have to say it is one of those movie that Gene Siskel used to pull his hair over – those conflicts that could be easily resolved by a line of dialogue (“I think your ex is one of my friends”). Then again, I think it’s only human nature to want to find out as much as you can about the person you’re falling for so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that someone in that situation would see the situation as a golden opportunity rather than as a disaster in the making.

These are damaged human beings. They’ve given the heart to someone only to find it wasn’t the right someone. They’re both lonely and afraid and that’s pretty much how all of us go into relationships. I am fortunate in that I haven’t been divorced but I can imagine how much harder it would be to find love once you’ve been burned by it already.

REASONS TO GO: Gandolfini gives you the warm fuzzies. Really good cast allowed to be really good.  Well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: One of those situations that could easily be resolved with a sentence or two. Strays dangerously close to formula.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations, a bit of bad language, partial nudity and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toby Huss, who plays Eva’s ex, also played a man who dated Elaine (also played by Louis-Dreyfus) on the Seinfeld show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Year of the Dog

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Extra Man