The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Hello, My Name is Doris


Sally Field has double vision.

Sally Field has double vision.

(2015) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Isabella Acres, Kyle Mooney, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Caroline Aaron, Tyne Daly, Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Wisocky, Amy Okuda, Don Stark, Nnamdi Asomugha, Anna Akana, Rich Sommer, Emilie Germain. Directed by Michael Showalter

There are a lot of reasons that people fall in love. Sometimes it’s a chemistry thing. Sometimes it’s a sexual thing. Sometimes it’s a shared interests thing. And sometimes, it’s a desperation thing.

Doris Miller (Field) has just buried her mother, whom she has spent much of her adult life taking care of. Doris is a bit eccentric; she dresses like a bag lady being played by the love child of Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher and kind of walks her own path. Her brother (Root) and sister-in-law (McLendon-Covey) urge her to sell the house, which they have ulterior motives for, but she’s not inclined to do so. Doris has lived here all her life and sees no reason to find a new place to live, even though her commute from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan is grueling.

At the firm where she works in the accounting department, she gets on an elevator soon after the funeral with the handsome new art director, John Fremont (Greenfield) – not the general who left his mark on California maps. And wouldn’t you know it, she develops a huge crush on the much younger man.

Doris hasn’t exactly had a whole lot of romantic experience, most of her free time revolving around the care of her mother. So she approaches her best friend Roz (Daly) who steers her to her 13-year-old granddaughter (Acres) who helps Doris set up a fake Facebook account so she can keep tabs on her new beau. Of course, she ends up creating havoc in his life, especially when she gets jealous of his new girlfriend Brooklyn (Behrs). But that isn’t all that’s changing; some of John’s hipster friends are discovering that the quirky Doris is the new kind of cool. She even poses for an album cover; but are her new friends driving Doris away from her old friends? And are her new friends more bent on hanging out with the new flavor of the week rather than genuinely interested in her?

There are a few not-so-subtle undertones here, mainly in how we look at the aged. Field is no spring chicken but she carries herself with a great deal of charm and comes off as so likable that even when she’s engaging in creepy stalker behavior you still end up liking her. But in a lot of ways, her character is kind of a cliché eccentric old woman who is so out there that she fits in with the hip millennial crowd. I found that it was a little bit condescending in that Doris has to dress like a mannequin found in a Mad Max movie and literally throw herself at a younger man to get him to be interested in her. There are plenty of young men who are into older women out there; why does an actress the caliber of Sally Field have to debase herself in order to have a relationship between a younger man and an older woman seem viable?

There are plenty of cliches of the indie variety from the New York location (albeit a lot of it takes place outside of hipster heaven Manhattan and hipster other heaven Brooklyn) to the soundtrack to the pretentions of the mainly artistic people portrayed here. There are a few things that kind of break the mold – the dialogue, for example, is clever but not overly so to the point that it doesn’t sound like real people talking, a very major indie sin.

The film also has something positive that’s a mite rare these days – a delightful ending. Yes, the movie actually ends in a way that is both satisfying and organic. I wish a lot more movies gave the kind of thought to their ending the filmmakers here obviously did with theirs. You think for a moment the movie is going one way and then – it doesn’t. Kudos to the writers for that.

There is definitely a good deal of entertainment value here. Field clearly still is at the top of her game and I hope that with some good roles starting to appear for women in her age range that we’ll see more of her on the big screen in the coming years. I only wish the movie hadn’t treated the romance between the older woman and the younger man as something ridiculous; certainly they wouldn’t have if the relationship had been between a 60-something guy and a 20-something woman. As a society, we seem to be okay with one and not with the other. There’s a good documentary in the exploration of that double standard somewhere.

REASONS TO GO: Field is still intensely likable. A very satisfying ending.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit condescending and cliché. I think the May-December romance should have not been a source of ridicule.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to merit an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Chasing Mavericks

The Other Woman (2014)


Leslie Mann knows how to binge.

Leslie Mann knows how to binge.

(2014) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Don Johnson, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Kenneth Maharaj, Alyshia Ochse, Victor Cruz, Madison McKinley, David Thornton, Olivia Culpo, John “B.J.” Bryant, Chelsea Turnbo, Brooke Stacy Mills, Raushanah Simmons, Cheryl Horne, Nancy De Mayo. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Infidelity is one of the most notorious deal-killers in any marriage. For many, it is the most unpardonable of marital crimes ranking just below physical abuse. While it isn’t the most common cause of divorce, it is right up there. Different people react to infidelity in different ways . Some are forgive and forgive sorts. For others, it’s not about getting mad so much as getting even.

Carly Whitten (Diaz) may well just have it all. Beautiful, smart, successful, she’s a lawyer at a high-power New York corporate law firm. She has a gorgeous apartment. Most importantly, she has a male model-handsome Mark King (Coster-Waldau), her new boyfriend who dotes on her and gives her the most amazing sex ever. He’s willing to meet her irascible dad (Johnson) and as she tells her self-centered assistant Lydia (Minaj), she’s cleared all her other guy friends off the bench. He may well be the One.

Then when he has to break his date to meet her dad because of some plumbing catastrophe at his Connecticut home, Carly is pissed off. Taking her dad’s advice to go and see him in Connecticut, she dresses up like a hooker plumber. The woman who answers the door however, is not Mark’s housekeeper; she’s his wife Kate (Mann).

Hurt and humiliated that she didn’t pick up on the clues that her shining knight was already taken, Carly wants nothing at all to do with Mark. In a strange twist however, Kate befriends Carly. Kate has been isolated and marginalized. She literally has nobody to talk to; all her friends are Mark’s friends she wails, and “they’ll blab!” Carly is at first repulsed but grows strangely drawn to the fragile and clingy Kate. Eventually they become friends, although never without the occasional brawl.

They soon discover that Mark has been a very bad boy. Not only is he cheating on them with Amber (Upton), a beautiful but none-too-bright model sort but he’s been skimming money from his firm. He’s also put Kate in the position to take the fall if he’s ever discovered. The three women decide to team p to teach Mark a lesson he’ll never forget and when you put brains (Carly the lawyer), bitch (Kate the wife) and boobs (Amber the…hey, my eyes are up here!) together, there isn’t a man alive who can withstand the combination.

On the plus side, I’m pleased to see a movie in which the female leads are formidable, strong and confident for the most part. On the negative side, there is a lot of stereotyping going on here; the strong women are vindictive and bitchy, the man a serial cheater and liar. The ladies feed poor Mark enough laxative to make him crap his pants, lace his protein shake with female hormones so intensely that he starts growing man boobs and put hair removal cream into his shampoo until he begins losing hair. It’s almost enough to make one feel sorry for the guy who definitely doesn’t deserve any sympathy.

In fact, the pants pooping incident is only one of two major fecal gags in the film. Now, I like a good poop joke as much as the next person but I think considering the subject matter it’s a bit disrespectful to the ladies who are doing their best to make this an adult comedy. Stuff like that doesn’t really go along with the theme of smart women taking their revenge against a douchebag who deserves it.

Diaz has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, equally at home in heartrending dramas (My Sister’s Keeper, Gangs of New York) or in comedies both dark and light (Bad Teacher, There’s Something About Mary). Here she plays smart, sexy and a little bit hard-edged but then Diaz has never been the softest, most feminine actress out there. She often uses her attractiveness as a weapon, a means of saying “See this? You can’t have it!” in a very subtle way. I’ve never warmed to her as much as admired her and her work here leads me to believe that she’s only going to get better as she moves into a new phase of life and career.

It’s not a revelation but Leslie Mann steals the movie for my money. Long known more for being a supporting player and Judd Apatow’s wife, she’s always shown a great deal of talent in the too-brief glimpses we get of her onscreen. Here she finally shows that she is absolutely capable of being one of the top comic actresses in Hollywood, adept at both physical humor and delivering zingers. She also shows a very appealing vulnerability as she allows Carly (and the audience) to see just how deep the wounds cut.

Unfortunately, the humor is a bit uneven. The movie is bipolar when it comes to comedy – when they get it right, they nail it but when they miss it’s crickets bad. And while I complain about some of the really venal things the women do, I have to admit I did laugh so in that regard mission accomplished. I did feel bad about laughing though and still I have to point out that I think the world is ready for a movie in which female leads don’t have to resort to scatological jokes and ultra-bitchiness to prove they’re strong.

REASONS TO GO: Leslie Mann is a consummate performer. Some very funny moments. Strong female leads, a refreshing change.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets a little muddled. Perpetuates stereotypes. Not all the comedy succeeds. Too much poop humor.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and some foul language, along with mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film to be released internationally by 21st Century Fox, one of two companies formed by the split of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The new company continues to own 20th Century Fox film studios and the Fox Network, among other assets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The First Wives Club

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Final Member

Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT:

A Late Quartet


Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes perfect.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Wallace Shawn, Liraz Charhi, Madhur Jaffrey, Nina Lee, Megan McQuillan, Anne Sofie van Otter, Jasmine Hope Bloch. Directed by Yaron Zilberman

 

A string quartet is more than the sum of its parts. The members must learn to play not only with great discipline and technical expertise but must learn to anticipate the play of the other members. Only when they are thinking about one another can they truly harmonize beautifully.

The Fugue Quartet began life as a pioneering group of young musicians looking to push the boundaries of classical music and have largely done that. They approach their 25th anniversary with plans for another major tour spotlighting Beethoven’s Opus 131, one of the most difficult pieces for quartets due to the pacing and the length (seven movements instead of four). In fact, the instruments often start to go slightly out of tune by the seventh movement, forcing the musicians to compensate for each other.

But the well-oiled machine that is the Fugue is about to face their biggest crisis. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken), the heart and soul of the group, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and won’t be able to play for much longer. He determines the first concert of the 25th season will be his farewell.

The news hits the other member of the quartet hard, particularly Juliette Gelbart (Keener), the viola player who was literally raised by Peter and Miriam (van Otter), the opera-singing wife of Peter who had passed away the year previously. The news also sets in motion a number of events, starting with Juliette’s husband Robert (Hoffman), the quartet’s second violin who has chafed under the autocratic rule of first violinist Daniel Lerner (Ivanir), the technically perfect first violin who likes things the way they are – and is even trying to convince Peter to stay.

Peter’s mind is made up though and he has thoughts of his replacement (Lee) although he’ll have to pry her away from the leader of her trio (Shawn) who isn’t inclined to let her go. In the meantime Robert has announced that he no longer wants to play second violin exclusively; he wants to alternate in the first chair. Daniel is having none of it and to Robert’s dismay and frustration, Juliette supports Daniel and not him.

This leads to a particularly dumb move on Robert’s part which sets in motion events that will pull Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Poots) who is also a musician, and threaten to tear apart the quartet before they make it to the farewell concert.

First-time filmmaker Zilberman gets to work with an extraordinary cast and he makes the most of it; this might well be the most well-acted movie over all I’ve seen this year. Walken is on a role of really good performances and he continues it here. But it’s Hoffman who really impresses. This is one of his best roles in the past five years. At first you think Robert is being petulant and childish but as the movie progresses you realize that this is a man who has been second fiddle in every aspect of his life, not just in the quartet. It’s heartbreaking to watch him self-destruct.

Poots is a revelation. I’d thought her just a pretty face more or less but she has a scene with Keener in which long-percolating resentments between mother and daughter finally see the light of day and as such resentments often are it’s ugly and captivating.

The movie isn’t what you’d call fast paced; although the Beethoven piece is rousing and lively, the music that moves through the movie is the current of these musician’s lives. They live quiet, comfortable lives that are filled with the most beautiful music on earth. Heck, they’re responsible for making a lot of it so why not?

This is a movie about rhythms interrupted and so it might at times not sit well with those who like their movies to be more tranquil. It is also quite predictable (does anybody not see what Danny’s character does coming from nearly the beginning of the film?) and at times has that snooty pretentiousness that you only find in the fine arts.

I really liked this movie. It takes a look at the discipline that goes in to being a world class musician, and at how being part of a group – not just in rock and roll or even just in classical music but ANY group – requires the egos be put aside, that the focus is and always must be the good of the whole over the needs of the individual. It is not natural for human beings to think that way which makes it a minor miracle when they do.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of good performances both musically and from the actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places and pretentious in others.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some bad words scattered here and there and a few scenes of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one time Ethan Hawke was cast in the film but had to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are respectable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Footnote

STRING QUARTET LOVERS: The actors received rigorous training in how to properly play their instruments but the music you actually hear is from the world-renowned Brentano Quartet.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Mummy (1999)

Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy