Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies

Paul


Paul

Paul still hasn't gotten the concept of the Finger perfected just yet.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Universal) Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen (voice), Kirsten Wiig, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, Jeffrey Tambor, John Carroll Lynch, Jane Lynch, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Blythe Danner, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons. Directed by Greg Mottola

There is a truism about being careful what you wish for. This is particularly true if you’re a science fiction geek on a road trip to America and are driving past Area 51.

That’s what British sci-fi geeks Graeme Willie (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are doing. They start off at San Diego’s legendary Comic Con (and for those who haven’t been there, it is heaven on earth for the fanboy contingent, a bucket list kind of event) where they meet noted sci-fi author and cult figure Adam Shadowchild (Tambor) who pooh-poohs Clive’s aspirations of being a writer and Graeme’s abilities as an artist. Then it’s into a rented RV and off to see America!

A not-particularly-comfortable encounter with a couple of rednecks (Koechner, Plemons) and a kindly diner waitress (J. Lynch) sends the Brits at warp speed down the Alien Highway where they are overtaken by a sedan which crashes in front of their eyes. When they investigate the wreck to make sure the driver’s okay, they discover to their shock that the driver is an illegal alien – and I’m not talking the sort that George Lopez jokes about. No, this is a little green man, who goes by the name of Paul (Rogen), named after the dog who he landed on with his spacecraft in the opening of the film. Clive promptly faints.

Paul begs Graeme for help, knowing he is being chased by one of those mysterious government agents – Agent Zoil (Bateman) to be exact. Paul needs to get to a particular location so that he can meet up with a rescue ship that will take him home. Graeme being a kindly sort agrees.

What ensues is a road trip odyssey that takes the boys to an American backwater of UFO myth and legend, running into ambitious but ignorant agents (Hader, Lo Truglio), a shoot first, ask questions later Bible-carryin’ shotgun-totin’ Fundamentalist (J.C. Lynch) and his naïve but misguided daughter (Wiig) whose belief system is thrown into disarray by the presence of Paul. When she realizes that all her previously held notions is wrong, she starts cursing up a storm and gets right to drinking, drugging and fornicating. My kind of girl.

Mottola has previously directed comedy gems Superbad and Adventureland. This continues his winning streak, giving us a comedy that is solidly funny throughout, dropping in-jokes about science fiction films and fandom in general like mustard on a hot dog. While some of those insider asides are subtle enough to keep fanboys smug and arrogant, the majority are obvious enough that any moviegoer who has seen at least a few sci-fi movies will get the majority of them.

Pegg and Frost, who established their reputation in such films as Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, are perhaps the best comic duo working today. Their easy rapport helps give Paul its heart and charm, making the two sci-fi geekoids believable without poking fun at the species with undue cruelty which fanboy films often do.

There are loads of cameos and terrific supporting actors here, including Bergen as the grown up version of a girl whose life is forever altered by the crash landing of a space vehicle, and Weaver as the brass-balled head of a mysterious covert government agency. Both Lynches  – Jane and John Carroll – inhabit their roles nicely, with Jane moving a little outside her normal persona as a heart of gold diner waitress with a soft spot for geeks, and John Carroll, nearly unrecognizable as the hellbent pursuer of the geeks who kidnapped his daughter.

As said daughter, Wiig has a role that could easily have been played over-the-top and for parody (and in the hands of a lesser actress – and director – probably would have) but instead, she delivers a subtle and nuanced performance as a woman whose universe is completely shaken up; if she’s a little batty at first it’s completely understandable and so she becomes a sympathetic figure rather than a ridiculous one.

Rogen has gotten some heat from critics for his performance as Paul, which is essentially a motion capture alien who sounds like Seth Rogen. Rogen’s shtick is a little jarring at times, but in defense of the guy you have to remember that Paul has been stuck on this planet for more than 40 years, plenty of time to acclimatize. I thought Rogen gave the movie plenty of character and while whether he has been over-exposed is a matter of opinion, I think he does a fine job here.

Fanboys are going to love the movie a lot more than the average moviegoer and quite frankly, Pegg and Frost have yet to produce much more than a cult following here in the States, nor is Paul likely to generate one. Still, there’s enough here to make it worth your while to check out, particularly if you have a great deal of love for science fiction and its mad, devoted followers. Sci-fi geeks, this is your movie and these are your people!

REASONS TO GO: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Lots of sci-fi nerd in-jokes. Pegg and Frost one of the premiere comedy teams working today.

REASONS TO STAY: Hit and miss on some of the humor. May be too fanboy-centric to appeal to a wider audience.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is plenty foul, particularly in Ruth’s case. There is also some drug use and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Carroll Lynch who plays Moses Buggs is only ten years older than Kirsten Wiig, who plays his daughter.

HOME OR THEATER: I think the movie theater experience is indicated here.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Babel