Misery Loves Comedy

Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
NEXT: The Water Diviner


Labor Day

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.



NEXT: Pulp Fiction

New Releases for the Week of January 31, 2014


(Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James van der Beek, Tobey Maguire, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges. Directed by Jason Reitman

A chance meeting in a small town store brings Frank Chambers into the lives of 13-year-old Henry Wheeler and his mom. After Henry’s dad left, Henry’s mom has become reclusive, shaking uncontrollably and withdrawing gradually from the world. With good reason apparently – Frank is an escaped convict, in prison for a particularly heinous murder. All is not what it seems and soon Frank and Henry’s mom are creating a world of their own, although reality has a habit of intruding on these sorts of things.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality)

Bride for Rent

(Star Cinema) Kim Chiu, Xian Lim. In order to get his inheritance, a young heir is required to be married. Sadly, he is not but that’s not going to stop him from getting what’s his. He hires a woman to impersonate his bride, and at first the plan is working perfectly. Unfortunately, he didn’t count on actually falling in love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

The Saratov Approach

(Saratov) Corbin Allred, Maclain Nelson, Nikita Bogolyubov, Bart Johnson. In 1998, two Mormon missionaries working in Russia were kidnapped and held for ransom from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The movie opened in Utah last October and was such a hit that a nationwide release was set up.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence)

That Awkward Moment

(Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots. When one of a trio of bro-friends suffers a devastating breakup, both of his boys agree not to date until he’s ready. Of course, that’s easier said than done as that’s about the moment Ms. Right walks into all three of their lives.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout)

Young Adult

Young Adult

Mavis prepares for battle.

(2011) Black Comedy (Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolf, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Mary Beth Hurt, Kate Nowlin, Jenny Dare Paulin, Rebecca Hart, Louisa Krause, Elizabeth Ward Land, John Forest. Directed by Jason Reitman


We are all of us a product of our upbringing, for better or for worse. We are shaped in ways that aren’t just shaped by our parents and our homes but also our peers, our schools, our experiences. The people we are can be traced in a direct line to the people we used to be in high school, sometimes for the better but not always. Sometimes we’re exactly the same.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a writer of young adult fiction. To be more accurate, she’s a ghost writer of young adult fiction. She has taken over an immensely popular series of books set in an exclusive prep school and has presided over a successful run which is now coming to an end. In fact, she’s in the midst of writing the final book in the series.

Mavis lives in the big city – Minneapolis, not New York – but originally hails from a small town in Minnesota called Mercury. She fled the small town environs the first chance she got and she has no real desire to return – in fact, she hasn’t been home in years.

However all that changes when she gets a notice that her ex in Mercury – Buddy Slade (Wilson) – has just become a daddy. He has married Beth (Reaser), a classmate of theirs while Mavis has been married and divorced and now goes on a series of dates that end up in unfulfilling sex after a fair amount of liquid courage has been consumed. She gets it in her head that Buddy is trapped in a marriage that is sapping his soul and that she needs to go to Mercury and rescue him.

With her poor neglected dog in tow, she drives to the despised Mercury. While there she runs into Matt Freehauf (Oswalt) whose locker used to adjoin hers. She doesn’t really remember him until he brings out that he was the victim of a hate crime – a group of jocks who believed he was gay brutally beat him, shattering his leg and mangling his penis. It was big news…up until the moment the media found out that he wasn’t gay and so they lost interest. Apparently nobody cared that a short fat kid got the crap kicked out of him.

Matt and Mavis seem to be kindred spirits in  a way; although Mavis treats Matt like a toad, she respects that he tells her what he thinks and doesn’t kiss butt. For his part he figures out he has no shot with her anyway so he can afford to be direct.

He pleads with her that Buddy is happily married and in love with being a dad but Mavis is having none of it. She blows into town with all the finesse of cancer and inspiring twice the joy at her arrival. Most of the townspeople look a bit askance at her; she was the beautiful girl who left for the big city and made good – why the hell would she come back and ruin everything? But come back she does and ruin everything she tries to do.

Theron gives a terrific performance here. Mavis is distinctly unlikable and possibly even a little psychotic. She is self-obsessed to the point of mania and really doesn’t have a lot of empathy which you can read as “any.” Still, she manages to create a character that you can follow without liking, which is a neat trick that you can thank not only Theron but Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the latter two who previously teamed on Juno.

Her chemistry with Oswalt is surprising. They are perhaps the ultimate of odd couples, but they do have a bond – the misfit who has been literally battered by life and the prom queen whose life has passed her by and whom, she suspects, happiness has also passed her by. Matt is positive that happiness has passed him by and he fills his hours with creating his own mash-up action figures and distilling his own bourbon, a hobby that meets with Mavis’ approval.

The problem here is that it’s sold as something of a black comedy but the awkward moments outnumber the funny ones. I guess my comedic sense is a bit too stone age for modern comedy but just creating a painfully awkward moment isn’t really enough to get me chuckling. Theron does a great job as Mavis but there are times you really want to punch her in the face.

I like that the ending didn’t take the easy way out with a typical Hollywood comeuppance. I also like that the movie is intelligently written, which is a certain box office kiss of death. Still in all, I can recommend the movie not without reservations but nonetheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Theron and Oswalt do stellar work. Nifty ending that isn’t too cliché.

REASONS TO STAY: As comedies go, not really funny. Mavis is a bit too unlikable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mavis drives a Mini-Cooper in the movie. Theron also drove a Mini-Cooper in the movies once before, for The Italian Job.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d guess this works just as well at home as it does at the multiplex.


TOMORROW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham is home.

(Paramount) George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Zach Galifianakis, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Chris Lowell, Steve Eastin, Young MC. Directed by Jason Reitman

We all create our own cocoons. Some are membrane-thin and allow a great deal to pass through; others are like solid steel and will deflect anything and everything that comes our way.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) has an unenviable job. He works for a consulting firm based in Omaha, Nebraska that sends specialists to businesses all over the country for the purpose of informing employees of those businesses  that they’ve been fired. Think of them as the opposite of corporate headhunters; more like corporate axemen. Given the state of the economy, business is booming.

As a result Bingham spends a great deal of his time on the road, travelling from city to city. The nature of his job requires Bingham to be exposed to extreme emotional responses, ranging from anger to grief. He has isolated himself from this by building a thick shell around him, letting nobody and nothing in. He has become the ultimate road warrior; the things that annoy most of us about travel and air travel in particular bring Bingham comfort. He has piled up enough miles to have become a member of the most elite of frequent flier programs, allowing him to sail through check-in whereas most of us normal schlubs must wait in line.

Bingham also has a side business of his own; motivational speaking, or perhaps more accurately, anti-motivational speaking. Using the metaphor of a backpack, he espouses that the fewer possessions that one has and the fewer relationships that one is in, the better. Sort of like 21st century EST, in a way. While most of his speaking engagements have been in relatively small conferences or seminars, he is getting interest from much larger, more prestigious events.

The anonymity of faceless chain hotel rooms suits him, and he numbs himself further with drinks in hotel lounges. In one such he meets Alex Goran (Farmiga), a fellow road warrior from Chicago who is impressed by his collection of hotel loyalty program cards, but most of all by the Concierge Key, an American Airlines program offered only to the most valued customers. There is one plateau, however, that Bingham has yet to meet – the 10,000,000 mile club, only achieved by six travelers ever. More people have walked to the moon, Bingham tells her, than have received this honor.

Predictably, they wind up in bed but the casual nature of their relationship appeals to both of them and they make plans to meet again later. First however, Bingham must return home to Omaha for a meeting at the corporate headquarters where he receives a bit of a jolt – the company is looking at a software program that will allow them to video conference via computer and in short, terminate via the internet. Bingham’s boss Craig (Bateman) has taken the advice of a young hotshot named Natalie Keener (Kendrick) fresh out of college who has come up with the program.

As you might imagine, Bingham very much disagrees with this new direction and tells his boss so. Furthermore, he feels (quite rightly) that the inexperienced Natalie has no clue what the consultants actually do and what the job entails. Craig agrees and orders him to take Natalie with him on the road and show her the ropes. Bingham is reluctant but Craig is resolute – go on the road with Natalie or don’t go at all. Reluctantly, Bingham consents.

Natalie is woefully unprepared for the rigors of the road and the emotional fallout from the work. Bingham shows her the ropes and some of the tricks and efficiencies of travel; which lines to get into at the security check and that kind of thing. He also shows her how to turn around a bad interview around as he does in St. Louis with Bob (Simmons), a longtime employee. When Natalie’s by-the-book script fails, Bingham turns the situation around with a little well-placed information from Bob’s resume, urging the terminated employee to seize the opportunity to chase the dreams he gave up when he started working the job he’s being let go from. “This is a wake-up call,” he tells Bob and in a sense, he’s right.

Natalie and Bingham don’t get along well, but when her boyfriend dumps her via text message during a stopover when Alex is visiting Bingham, they begin to bond a little. Alex and Bingham, for their part, are finding themselves increasingly attracted to one another.

This further becomes cemented when Bingham goes to northern Wisconsin to attend his sister Julie’s (Lynskey) wedding to a wide-eyed dreamer named Jim (McBride) with Alex in tow as his “date”. The older sister Kara (Morton), who is having marital troubles of her own, notes that Bingham has had zero effect on the lives of the two sisters; he’s absent from their lives in a way that he is absent from his own. Still, everyone has to come off the road sometime and Bingham’s ideal lifestyle looks like it’s about to end.

There are some amusing moments but director Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) hasn’t made a comedy. It’s more of an observational piece, ostensibly on the cold corporate climate that grows more impersonal and dehumanizing by the day.

That makes Bingham the ultimate 21st century worker. His Omaha apartment is a reflection of the sterile, personality-challenged hotel rooms he is most comfortable in. There is nothing personal there, nothing to indicate that a human being lives there. It could easily be the room of a Comfort Inn, only less inviting and less clean.

Clooney fills the role beautifully. He is in many ways, perfect for it; the characters he plays tend to be, emotionally speaking, less accessible than other actors. He is personable enough that people will instinctively like him, but he is so shut off that one wonders if he’s got blood flowing through his veins or machine oil. In a world where most socializing is done remotely via the Internet, he fits in as a kind of ultimate expression of that; a person who may be there physically but not emotionally. As Clooney begins to realize what his life has become, his character panics, leading to some of the most satisfying scenes of the film.

Reitman is a savvy filmmaker and he divides his vignettes with overhead shots of anonymous cities with the name of the city in big graphics; we pass over Wichita, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee without getting a sense of the cities at all – like the characters in the movie, there is nothing to connect us to them other than those graphics. It’s a marvelous device and sets up the action of the movie nicely.

Kendrick does an outstanding job in the ingénue role; she is wide-eyed and innocent, vulnerable in many ways but with her own strength and spunk. This is a career-establishing performance and is being given serious Supporting Actress consideration for the Oscars. Farmiga has become a very dependable actress who has yet to really get that plum role that will define her career; this isn’t it either, but she is still memorable in her role.

The ending was a source of disagreement between Da Queen and I; she didn’t like it at all, whereas I understood it and thought it made organic sense. Some may find the message a bit of a downer, but I think it’s refreshingly realistic. In the end, not all of us are cut out for relationships but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. In any case, this is another solid film to add to Reitman’s impressive resume; it has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle of the Christmas release glut, but perhaps instead of making a fourth or fifth trek to see Avatar you might want to give this outstanding movie a try.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and Kendrick give terrific performances. Well-directed commentary on the impersonal nature of modern corporate culture and relationships

REASONS TO STAY: Clooney isn’t the most emotionally accessible of actors which makes it hard sometimes to empathize with his character.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sex and language concerns, but the concepts here might be a little much for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With the exception of Simmons and Galifianakis, every person that is fired in the movie is not an actor but a person laid off recently in reality. The filmmakers posted ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as makers of a documentary on the effects of the recession; those who answered the ad were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond either as they had or as they wished they had.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the movie takes place on airplanes, in hotel rooms or in conference rooms. The intimate feeling lends itself to home viewing.


TOMORROW: The Uninvited