Listen Up Philip


Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

(2014) Dramedy (Tribeca) Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Jess Wexler, Eric Bogosian (voice), Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Yusem Bulos, Maite Alina, Daniel London, Samantha Jacober, Lee Wilkof, Joanne Tucker, Steven Boyer, Teddy Bergman, Rachel Oyama, Babs Olusanmokun. Directed by Alex Ross Perry

Being a writer isn’t as easy as sitting before a word processor and typing away. It involves research and introspection. There are those who find some writers insufferable self-centered boors. There are those who also believe that all writers are insufferable self-centered boors. The reason for that is that some writers give the rest of the ink-stained wretch community a bad name.

Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is on the eve of the publication of his second novel. He has a beautiful girlfriend, photographer Ashley Kane (Moss) and a certain amount of acclaim in the literary community. You would think all of this would make him content; a career on the rise and all the things in place for a brilliant future.

The truth is that Philip Lewis Friedman is an utter prick. The only thing that matters to him is the acknowledgement that he is better than most people, that those who didn’t believe in his eventual success were fools beyond measure and traitors not just to him but society at large. At the very least those people were uncouth boobs.

But he meets his idol, best-selling author Ike Zimmerman (Pryce) who had a great run in the 70s and 80s but has written infrequently since then. He does have at least one genuine classic to his name and while he’s notoriously reclusive, he sees something in Philip’s writing that reminds him of himself. And so Philip goes up to Ike’s upstate New York “country retreat” leaving Ashley to hold the bag. A couple of weeks turns into the summer and then Philip takes a job teaching creative writing at a local college, a job arranged by Ike. A summer turns into a year.

Into Philip’s life comes Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Ritter) as well as a somewhat scheming faculty member at the same college Philip is working at, Yvette (de La Baume) and Holly Kane (Wexler), a student with a heavy crush on Philip. And yet, he views all his relationships by what they can do for him and his career. He can’t stop thinking about Ashley who is moving on. And the mentorship of Ike is turning into a friendship. Can Philip get his act together and be a well-adjusted writer or is he doomed to be an arsehole the rest of his life?

I know there are some critics who found this movie amazing. I can’t help but wonder if they got a different print than the one I saw. I have rarely seen a movie directed so badly. Generally, I’m pretty forgiving about directors who make poor choices in the name of trying something different but there are so many shots that are mis-framed, poorly focused and look for all the world like a home movie. It’s entirely possible that this was the effect that Perry was going for; if so, it doesn’t enhance the movie at all and ends up being annoying and detrimental to the audience’s focus. Of course, some directors may not want audiences being engrossed by their movie. I just wouldn’t want to see their films.

There is narration provided throughout, some of it droll. Bogosian who doesn’t appear onscreen gives that narration a bit more gravitas than it deserves. Which reminds me about the dialogue; it’s the sort of dialogue that people who distrust academics and intellectuals believe that they actually talk this way. I’ve known plenty of both sorts of people; trust me, nobody talks like this and if they do, academics and intellectuals will be right in line with the others making fun of them.

Some of the best parts of the movie are those that concentrate on Ashley. Moss is a pretty decent actress and you can tell she’s really trying to make it work, but at the end of the day her best efforts go for naught; her character is absent from most of the last third and her absence is keenly felt. Schwartzman is talented and has a delivery that could make droll comedy work, but his talents are utterly wasted here. He succeeds only in making us not want to spend another second with Philip, and yet we do. It’s a train wreck of a character.

Usually with indie films I am a little bit more forgiving and maybe it was because I saw it on the heels of watching the really miserable Inherent Vice but I found myself unable to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here. So many of the issues were just basic Filmmaking 101 stuff or Screenwriting 101 stuff that I sat through much of the film incredulous that supposed professionals made this. I kept looking for the YouTube logo in the corner.

I wish the very best for Alex Ross Perry, I really do. I hope his next film appeals to me much more than this one did, truly. But I honestly cannot in good conscience recommend that any reader who places any confidence in my opinion go see this. Watching this was an ordeal, and there are plenty of unpleasant ways to spend an hour and a half as it is that life throws at us whether we want to spend them that way or not to purposely plunk down money to go into a movie theater and be checking your watch every ten minutes and wonder when the ordeal is going to end.

REASONS TO GO: Bogosian’s narration is fun. Moss gives a game try.
REASONS TO STAY: Inept direction. Not funny enough to be a comedy and not deep enough to be a drama. Boring in long patches. Pretentious throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ike Zimmerman character is loosely based on author Philip Roth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robot & Frank
FINAL RATING: 3/19
NEXT: Fur

The Informant!


The Informant!

All superspy Matt Damon needs is a shoe phone and the cone of silence.

 

 

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Jemison, Rusty Schwimmer, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Clancy Brown. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. However, capturing truth can be a lot like trying to grab a minnow with your bare hands; it has a tendency to slip through your fingers.

 

Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a young, rising executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company based in Decatur, Illinois who simply put, handle food and food additives. Chances are, something you ate today came from them. Whitacre is a trained biochemist who suspects that a new additive his team is working on that they haven’t gotten to work quite right is being sabotaged by Japanese corporate interests, who are working on a competing substance. The FBI is called in to investigate and although they find no evidence of espionage, Whitacre calls Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) aside.

 

It seems Whitacre has evidence that ADM has been engaged in price-fixing on a corn derivative called Lysine that is used in just about everything, from breakfast cereals to sodas. In doing this, ADM has defrauded consumers out of literally billions of dollars, and done it invisibly. Shepard and his partner, the stern and suspicious Bob Herndon (McHale) are incredulous but intrigued; if Whitacre is telling the truth, this could turn out to be one of the most important corporate crimes in history.

 

Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and get evidence of ADM executives agreeing to price-fixing with their competitors. In the meantime, Shepard begins to get uneasy as Whitacre begins to act erratically. That gets overshadowed as Whitacre gets the evidence they need, but more comes out than Whitacre bargained for.

 

This is a true story although it has been embellished for dramatic purposes. The essential facts, however, are the same. Soderbergh is at his best here, utilizing Damon’s voice-over narration as a mood-setter rather than a story-advancer. Marvin Hamlisch’s lounge lizard score sounds like it came straight out of a 60s spy movie, which is exactly the right metaphor for the movie. Whitacre fancies himself as James Bond, only twice as smart. He’s not quite as urbane or witty, unfortunately.

 

Damon was an inspired casting choice and he delivers a performance that will surely go down as one of the best of his career. He gained 30 pounds for the role, wears a toupee that is frankly embarrassing and a moustache that is pure 70s porn star, all the while fidgeting and lumbering about, perhaps the most feckless hero to come onscreen in decades.

 

He is supported by Lynskey as his long-suffering wife Ginger, who is mousy yet manipulative, but in her own curious way very supportive and loving. The two have lovely chemistry that makes the relationship realistic. Bakula, whose career has flourished in television sci-fi fare such as “Quantum Leap” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” plays his supporting role note perfectly. His performance is often overlooked because Damon’s is so good, but Bakula creates a character who is often confused by the behavior of his informant, but not only learns to appreciate his courage but becomes his biggest defender when things go south.

 

Mark Whitacre is definitely a product of the Midwest. He’s straight-forward, a little bit quirky and ultimately somewhat enigmatic. There’s no doubt he is an American hero, the highest-ranking executive to ever blow the whistle on an American company, but he is also an American tragedy. The twist in the movie’s final reel is heartbreaking but inevitable. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.

 

This is ostensibly a comedy but it’s certainly as dry as a cornfield in October. Not everyone will appreciate the dry wit that Soderbergh evinces here. Yes, this is a very cleverly written and insightful script, but I’ve noticed that some folks just don’t get humor that isn’t in their face and over-the-top. Still, I laughed as hard at this as I had any one of Judd Apatow’s comedies, which is saying something.

 

WHY RENT THIS: An intelligent, well-written script bolsters a career highlight performance by Damon.  

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The comedy is so dry that some may wind up scratching their heads with the definite feeling that they are somehow the butt of an even bigger joke.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language which may give some parents pause; frankly it’s probably no worse than most teens hear every day at school, so I wouldn’t have a problem letting older teens see this.

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Smothers Brothers appear in separate but equally memorable cameos.  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie broke even.

 

FINAL RATING: 7/10

 

TOMORROW: The Rocker

Stranger Than Fiction


Stranger Than Fiction

Will Farrell falls prey to one of the oldest gags in the book - the fake falling snowflake.

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Larry Newmann Jr., Andrew Rothenberg, Christian Stolte, Tony Hale, Denise Hughes.  Directed by Marc Forster

The implication of the title of this movie is Truth because, after all, that is what is proverbially stranger than fiction. Truth is a very subjective thing, even to filmmakers and perhaps especially so. Indeed, truth is what we make it.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) has no trouble separating truth from fiction. He is an IRS agent, a man used to dealing in facts and figures; everything else comes a distant second. Harold likes his life well-ordered, like the numbers he worships. He has created a world for himself that is quiet, calm and serene. He can walk to the bus stop confident in the knowledge that it will take 53 steps – no more, no less – every time. His life is predictable, and there is comfort in that.

You get the feeling that he is the kind of man that abhors chaos, and when something unusual comes into his life, he is not prepared for it. He begins to hear a voice, a pleasant, educated, well-mannered female voice with a proper British accent. Just the sort of voice most people enjoy listening to. The problem is, Harold is the only one who hears it. Even worse, the voice is narrating what is happening in his life, from counting brush strokes to analyzing how he’s feeling about things. While Harold doesn’t necessarily feel as if he’s being watched, the whole thing is rather creepy.

He goes to psychiatrists, hoping to find an answer but they don’t have one. He talks to government H.R. specialists, but they can’t help him either. He is in the middle of an audit with a spunky baker named Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal) whom he finds fascinating, but the narration distracts him. At last, when the narrator informs him that his death is imminent, Harold decides to visit a literary professor at the university, Dr. Jules Hibbert (Hoffman). At first skeptical, Hibbert at least has the courtesy to play along. He tells Harold that first, he needs to determine what kind of story he is in; a comedy or a tragedy. The impending death would indicate a tragic fate. Finally, as they are trying to narrow down who the author might be, Harold hears her voice coming from the television. To the professor’s chagrin, it’s Kay Eiffel (Thompson), one of Hibbert’s favorite authors.

For her part, Eiffel has been trying to write her latest book for a number of years without success. She is caught in the middle of a massive writer’s block, and her publishers, trying to help her get her creativity back in gear, send an assistant named Penny Escher (Latifah). At first, Eiffel isn’t very receptive; she’s the kind of woman who likes doing things in her own way. The problem, she tells Penny, is that she doesn’t know how to kill Harold Crick. She’s racking her brain trying to think of the perfect way to do Harold in.

Harold is becoming desperate. He doesn’t want to die, and now he has fallen in love with Ana and she has fallen in love with him. At long last, he finally has a life, but it’s about to be cut short. He has a confrontation with Eiffel, who is completely freaked out at the thought that her character is real. By this time, she has determined how to kill Harold, but now that she knows he’s real, she’s reluctant to do it. She gives Harold the manuscript to read, but he can’t bring himself to; he gives it to Hibbert, who proclaims it her greatest work and his death necessary to making it so. It’s the kind of work that could give people great insight into life and living, but is it worth killing Harold?

I was reminded very much of the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who is known for writing screenplays that are inventive and challenging with just a hint of the fantastic, and this one also delivers in all those departments. I don’t know if writer Zach Helm was consciously trying to emulate Kaufmann, or was using him more of a role model, but I found this to be a very tight, well-written comedy that challenges the viewer to take a different view of life.

It doesn’t hurt that Will Ferrell gives his best performance to date here. Harold Crick is much more well-rounded and emotionally complex than most of the other characters he’s played, from Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy to Buddy the Elf. Like comedians Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, Ferrell is stretching himself as an actor and making the next logical step from being a great comedian to being a multitalented star.

He gets plenty of support. Thompson turns a character who could be a cliché neurotic writer into a living, breathing author who has a certain amount of eccentricity, much of which has been brought out by the stress of trying to write a new bestseller. She is ably supported by Queen Latifah, who is very subdued and content to take a more supporting role here. She’s done well carrying movies of late (see Last Holiday) and you get a sense that she is happy to remain in the background and just contribute.

For my money, Dustin Hoffman has the most fun of anyone here. He clearly is enjoying himself throughout, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself with him. He adds lots of nice little touches – being barefoot in his office, taking a Sue Grafton novel to read at the pool, all of which help define his character a little more. Still, I might have enjoyed Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance the most. She is blossoming into a true lead actress, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see her in much more important roles soon.

Kudos must go to Britt Daniels for a terrific soundtrack. Daniels, the main man for Spoon, also collects several Spoon songs as well as some terrific alternative songs for the soundtrack. Rather than trying to find a group of well-known hits to pad soundtrack sales, Daniels instead gathers songs that fit the mood of the scene nicely, and while some of the bands are well-known in Indie Rock circles, most have little bang past that. No matter; it works real well.

The movie explores mortality and our relationship with it. Harold must cope with his own impending death, and he chooses to live rather than curl up and die. It’s a metaphor, I suppose, for how we all live our own lives, oblivious to the fact that it could be cut short at any moment. Reminders such as this to stop and smell the roses are always welcome, particularly when they are presented as imaginatively and with such great humor as this.

WHY RENT THIS: Farrell and Gyllenhaal make for appealing leads, and they are ably supported. The script is very Charlie Kaufmann-esque in a good way. Terrific soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gets a little way out there in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language, some sexuality and implied nudity, but nothing that older teens would consider unusual.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the film revolves around mathematics; street names refer to Euclidian geometry, while all of the characters’ last names are of mathematicians, engineers and artists known for art that is a reflection of mathematics. Even the bus line is named after a mathematician.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting feature on the making of the graphics that enhance the film so nicely.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Babylon A.D.