Too Hip for the Room


Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

(2015) Drama (The Dreaming Tree) Kelly Monteith, Anthony Russell, Robert Dubac, Caroline Alexander, Jake Krickhan, Kip Addota, Franklyn Ajaye, Jay Brothers, Devin Dugan, Seamus O’Brien, Sam Kwasman, Isaiah Ervin, Donny Conn, Waylynn Pitts, Eugene Lebowitz, Nathan Hurd, Gregg Binkley, Evelyn Wu, Bridget McCarty, Briana Feehan. Directed by Oktay Oktabasi and Kelly Monteith

We make our beds in life through the choices we make. We choose a career that takes us away from our family and tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the family, only to discover that we’ve been away  so much we no longer have a family. Or we chase a dream so hard that it becomes an obsession, causing us to burn through family and friends along the way.

Jake Dietz (Monteith)  is a stand-up comedian who is on the downslide of his career; once a young Turk in the standup circuit and being considered for network sitcoms, he is reduced to taking rubber chicken corporate gigs in places like Moline, Illinois. He is struggling to make ends meet even though he drives a Mercedes, a remnant of better times.

Jake is divorced from Trish (Alexander) and together they have a son Patrick (Krickhan) who is autistic with the potential to be high-functioning except that his social skills are lacking. Patrick has a thing for fellow student Briana (Feehan) but doesn’t know how to approach her, which frustrates him. Jake wants to help but he’s also not exactly sure.

The school’s president, Dr. Hertzog (Brothers) is offering up a special program which seems perfectly suited for Jake, but the price is very high – fifteen grand to be exact. Wanting to give the best to his son, Jake starts looking in less desirable places for gigs, starting with his friend and a former standup himself, Stuart (Dubac) who has become an agent. In fact, Stuart got mutual friend Buzz (Dugan) a network sitcom that at one time Jake had been considered for until he turned it down because he thought it would be demeaning. Instead, it turned out to be a hit for Buzz and angry, Jake left Stuart’s agency and brought his best friend Art (Russell) with him.

But there is some hope. Stuart got Jake a small role on a TV show and another ex-comic friend, Danny (Conn) may have a slot on a corporate gig that would pay Jake the money he needs for the program. But despite another rage-fueled encounter with Stuart which may have derailed some of Jake’s hopes, something more promising lands in his lap after a really good gig that Jake does after a cancellation forces a local club owner to turn to Jake for help. However, taking that hope which might lead to Jake’s dreams finally being fulfilled would mean giving up the sure thing that would pay for his son’s treatment. What will Jake choose?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Monteith’s since he was a young Turk on the standup circuit. In the intervening years he’s had a good deal of success, mostly in Britain (and yes, I’ve seen some of his BBC work in various outlets on the Internet and cable) but never quite made it to household name which I always thought was criminal; this is a very funny man and even though some might consider his style “old school” (which he comments upon in the movie) some of his standup sets here show that he hasn’t lost his touch.

There are also some of his fellow stand-ups of the late 80s and 90s like Addota and Ajaye who make brief appearances here which just reminds me that even funny young stand-ups become funny old stand-ups. Aging catches up with us all, even those who make us laugh. It’s still nice to see some comics I haven’t seen in more than a decade doing what they do best. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a comedy nostalgia tour. Hey if New Wave bands can do it, why not stand-up comics?

Nostalgia aside, this feels a lot like it’s close to Monteith’s heart. The film doesn’t really focus on Patrick’s autism other than as an expense for Jake that he can’t afford, although the bond between Jake and his son is shown to be difficult but nonetheless strong. From my experience of families with autistic children, the relationship looks authentic and the movie gets points for that.

I liked the portrayal of the comedian’s life here; you watch them commiserating together, see the professional jealousies and regrets plainly and see them as people who have more of their career behind them than in front of them; Monteith as Jake puts it best when he says “I remember when too hip for the room wasn’t ironic” when describing his status among new hip comedians.

Monteith makes a compelling lead. He has a soft spot for family and friends but at times sacrifices either or both in pursuit of his dream of sitcom stardom. It isn’t always pretty and there are times when Jake is really not very likable, but at the end of the day he has a good heart that sometimes gets subverted by his baser instincts. Even when Jake isn’t likable, you still end up rooting for him and that’s crucial for a film like this to work.

I do have to say that there are times when the humor seems a little bit forced and some of the situations seem a little bit contrived. It feels like a few shortcuts were taken in the writing and it does detract a little bit from the genuineness you get from the rest of the film and does lower the rating of the film a little bit because it is somewhat noticeable; for example, the sequence in which a distraught Patrick runs away and is later found beaten up is unnecessary to the plot other than to artificially insert tension; the point that it seems to make – the urgency of getting Patrick enrolled in that socialization program – had already been made well enough.

Also the directors other than the opening sequence in which they employ handhelds to put yourself in Jake’s shoes tend to have fairly static camera placement. I actually find that somewhat refreshing, although most movie buffs I know are likely to be fussy about such things. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a movie for movie buffs per se.

The ending is a little bit predictable in that most experienced moviegoers will see it coming, but like the rest of the movie it packs a ton of heart. While this isn’t the most technically perfect movie you’ll see ever, this is a movie that clearly means a lot to the people in it and behind the cameras for it. Sometimes that’s enough for a movie to get by on, and in this case it’s very true. I actually think I enjoy the movie more now that I’ve had a chance to think about it than I did when I was first watching it and that is actually a pretty good feeling.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting look at the life of a comedian. Feels like a passion project. Monteith is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points seem a little contrived. Ending is a little bit predictable. Staging may be too “old school” for hipper cinephiles.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some drug use and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monteith’s son Kyle and daughter Tierney cameo as passengers on the plane from Moline to Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny People
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Room

Weather Girl


One of these morning show hosts woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.

One of these morning show hosts woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.

(2009) Romantic Comedy (Secret Identity) Tricia O’Kelley, Patrick J. Adams, Ryan Devlin, Kaitlin Olson, Mark Harmon, Jane Lynch, Jon Cryer, Blair Underwood, Alex Kapp Horner, Marin Hinkle, Brandon Barrera, Brett Butler, David Giuntoli, Enrico Colantoni, Melinda McGraw, Timothy Dvorak, Omar Leyva, Danny Strong, Meredith Roberts Quill, Kit Pongetti. Directed by Blayne Weaver

There is some truth to the thought that in order sometimes to start over one must first hit rock bottom. The truth is that we are often too afraid to lose what we have to take a shot at what we might get, even if that is so much better than what we already have. Loss can be a great motivator.

Sylvia (O’Kelley) does the weather on a morning show in Seattle. Her boyfriend is Dale (Harmon), the handsome if empty-headed anchor. Sylvia is having a very bad day. She’s discovered that Dale is cheating on her with Jane (Hinkle), the likewise empty-headed co-anchor. Sylvia doesn’t handle this well. She has a meltdown on the air. Of course, she loses her job but the footage goes viral. Now she’s famous for all the wrong reasons.

Having to move out of Dale’s apartment with nowhere to go she ends up on the couch in her brother Walt’s (Devlin) smaller apartment. She also ends up meeting Byron (Adams), a hunky computer guy. At first she reacts to him with wariness but as she gets to know him she begins to feel much more comfortable with him than she ever was with Dale.

And that’s essentially it. If it sounds like a sitcom plot, well, it essentially is. The movie has the kind of mindless pleasantness that is inherent with the American network sitcom and many of the actors in it are sitcom vets. Like most sitcoms, the action is terribly contrived and easily predictable. The characters all come from the Sitcom Writers Handbook and while Sylvia is so whiny and unpleasant that you wish that she’d get hit by a meteor through the first half of the movie, she does improve to be nearly likable by the end and I must say that I admit that grudgingly.

O’Kelley, Adams and Devlin all make for nice eye candy depending on your own particular persuasion and Harmon, who tends to be cast in heroic roles, seems to enjoy the change of pace as the shallow douche of an ex and milks it for all its worth.

This is mildly entertaining stuff but in all fairness it isn’t anything different than you can’t already get on broadcast TV for nothing. I can’t in all fairness recommend this unless you’re obsessed with sitcoms and want to spend an hour and a half watching one.

WHY RENT THIS: O’Kelley, Adams and Devlin make an attractive trio. Harmon does well as the smarmy TV host.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too contrived and predictable. O’Kelley’s character spends the first half of the movie whining and unlikable. Too many cliche characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s enough foul language to merit the film an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver is the voice of Peter Pan in Disney movies, television and in Disney theme parks around the world.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,779 on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Amazon (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Begin Again
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tell No One

Exporting Raymond


 

Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal on the mean streets of Moscow.

(2010) Documentary (Goldwyn) Philip Rosenthal, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Anna Frolovtseva, Boris Klyuev, Konstantine Naumochkin, Oleg Tabokov, Aleksandr Zhigalkin, Ray Romano, Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton. Directed by Philip Rosenthal

We grow up thinking that certain things are universal, that you can count on them no matter what part of the planet you’re standing in. However, you’d be surprised at how some of the basics differ from country to country.

Philip Rosenthal assumed that no matter where you went, family dynamics would be pretty much the same the world over. As the producer in charge of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’d used his own experiences as well as those of star Ray Romano to create a show that resonated with American audiences. While the show was never critically acclaimed (and in several of the reviews of this documentary I read some fairly snarky comments about the show) it still got high ratings mainly due to the likability of the stars and the universality of the situation – families can, after all, be pretty weird sometimes and the source for a lot of our own stories and smiles.

As the show was reaching its final episode, Sony (who distributed the series) was eager to export it to other countries (much in the way reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “American Idol” are exported), complete with local casts and crew – with Sony reaping the benefit. To this end they decided to use the Russian Federation as a test market and sent Rosenthal over there to talk with the Russian network and help set the show up there.

Before going, Rosenthal was nervous due to reports of high crime and the kidnapping for ransom of American businessmen; he was sold insurance in case of that very scenario occurring although he was later told that he “wasn’t worth the effort” which wasn’t meant in a mean way – he’s just not high enough on the food chain to make it worth the time and expense for the Russian mob to snatch him.

Once in Moscow, Rosenthal found the television industry to be much different than the American counterpart (although in some ways very much the same when it came to studio interference). He was constantly at odds with the director and in particular, the costumer (who thought that this middle class Russian family should be far more fashionable). Also the American sense of humor is a lot different than the Russian and jokes that brought rolling on the floor laughs from the Americans fell flat for the Russians, and vice versa. Acting styles were a lot different.

Rosenthal was constantly frustrated by the lack of willingness to bend by the Russians in terms of the concept of the show, the casting and other items. He has invested a great deal of his time and blood, sweat and tears into making the show successful. Can he make lightning strike twice?

This isn’t what you’d call a vital documentary. After all, your daily life isn’t going to be much affected if the Russian version of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is successful or not. I think Rosenthal wanted to make something on the cultural differences of the nation formerly known as The Evil Empire and the Good Guys.

Except this really doesn’t do the job. Rosenthal seems more inclined to take shots with cheap one liners at the expense of the various people he meets rather than to explore the nature of the differences between us. He does make an attempt to spend time with a Russian family but only manages to connect with them when he converses with his own technologically challenged parents on Skype.

This becomes little more than one man’s home movies about his vacation in Russia and to be honest, if I wanted a travelogue I’d look up Rick Steeves. There really are no attempts to really look with too much depth at the Russian culture other than to make fun of it. Still, if you liked the sitcom, you’ll probably like this as well. I just wish it had tried to get us to laugh with the Russians than at them. In the end, maybe if Rosenthal had been a little more willing to listen and a little less needing to do a comedy act he might have had a smoother time getting the show made.

WHY RENT THIS: The culture clash elements are the most interesting parts of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of a fluffy subject matter. Doesn’t really educate much and the humor can be a little mean.

FAMILY VALUES: One or two mildly rude words but really acceptable for all families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although originally titled “Everybody Loves Kostya,” the show eventually ran under the title “Voroniny,” after the central family’s surname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette comparing the American and Russian versions of the show. There is also a brief piece in which Rosenthal’s dad tells a joke.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87,277 on an unreported production budget; the movie may have made a profit but just broke even in more likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Baseball

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bernie