(2009) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro, Jane Lynch, Michael Keaton, Carol Burnett, Craig Robinson, Kirk Fox, Fred Armisen, Bobby Coleman, Catherine Reitman, Andrew Daly, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Vicky Jenson
Graduating from college, especially these days, is like stepping through a door, only to find you’re thirty stories up with no floor beneath you. Like many of us, you either learn to fly or you splatter all over the sidewalk.
Ryden Malby (Bledel) has it all figured out. Get into the college of her choice? Check. Graduate with honors? Check again. Get a dream job at a ritzy L.A. publishing house? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh! That goes to her longtime nemesis Jessica Bard (Reitman).
Her carefully laid-out life derailed, she is forced to move back home with her Do It Yourselfer dad (Keaton), her long-suffering mom (Lynch) and her weird younger brother Hunter (Coleman) who dreams of soapbox derby glory while licking the heads of his elementary school friends. That kid’s got issues.
Also in the mix is Grandma (Burnett) who is picking out her tricked-out coffin and is generally rabid. There’s also nice guy Adam (Gilford) who is a friend who might possibly like some benefits although Ryden has her eye on the hot Brazilian neighbor (Santoro) who directs infomercials and is in this movie basically so he can take his shirt off.
Unable to land a suitable job, she eventually goes to work for her dad at his mall luggage emporium. He dreams of supplementing his income with a mail order belt buckle business. However, things begin to go south. Dad squashes the next door neighbor’s cat. The belt buckles he’s selling turn out to be stolen. Nice guy Adam, fed up with waiting on Ryden decides to go the law school route and heads to New York. Ryden’s carefully ordered world is unraveling and college never prepared her for it.
Director Jenson has previously done animated films like Shrek and Shark’s Tail. This is her first foray into live-action and it meets with middling results. The movie seems curiously static and lifeless in some places and the comedy seems forced which looks to be more a function of the writing than the direction. In fact, there are places that I wonder if there weren’t too many hands involved in the script i.e. studio execs trying to make this more palatable to a Disney Channel audience.
Bledel, who got notoriety in “The Gilmore Girls,” is a plucky heroine who hasn’t yet shown she can carry a feature film on her own. You would think she would have gotten the chance here, but oddly enough Jenson chose to put equal emphasis on a number of the subplots. It’s a shame; I would have preferred to see a little more focus on Ryden here but I imagine the temptation is when you have actors like Keaton, Burnett and Lynch to use them as much as possible.
They don’t disappoint. Keaton has the manic energy and offbeat timing that made him great in movies like Beetlejuice and Night Shift with a bit of the sitcom dad thrown in. He can dispense words of wisdom one moment then preside over a comic pet funeral the next. He doesn’t get the kinds of leading roles he once did but he still has it. It’s odd to see Lynch as the least quirky person in a movie, but here you have it. She has carved out a particular character niche for herself and she does it without peer. This is one of her more restrained roles yet, and it isn’t a career highlight.
When one sees Burnett playing the grandmother here, the first thing that comes to mind is “Now she’s reduced to this?” She is one of the great comediennes of her generation, certainly the equal of Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore. You would think the eccentric grandma would be beneath her, but then again that kind of role has served Betty White well.
Gilford, who is one of the fine young actors in “Friday Night Lights”, is given a thankless role that isn’t given a whole lot of depth. Nonetheless, he does a pretty good job making something out of nothing. However, the chemistry that should exist between him and Bledel isn’t really there, and that doesn’t help the movie any.
That’s an awful lot of criticism, but those who have stolen a peak at my rating might be surprised at how high it is. That is because the movie has a good heart at its core. Yes, the individual components are maybe not what they can be, but when you take the movie as a whole you walk away with a warm feeling. The family dynamic worked nicely and in the end they aren’t dysfunctional at all, which is somewhat refreshing in an era when families are depicted in comedies as real horror shows that might send a real-life family counselor screaming into the night, arms waving wildly overhead in a grim parody of Macauley Culkin circa Home Alone.
Needless to say, that doesn’t happen here. While I think the subject matter might have been explored better in a different way, there is at least something here that is pleasant entertainment, if nothing more and it is the nothing more that tends to set critic’s teeth on edge. If your standards aren’t particularly high, you can have a good time with this movie, and that’s really the way to approach it – just sit back, enjoy and don’t try to rewrite it too much in your head. That’s where disappointment is born.
WHY RENT THIS: While uneven, at the core the movie has a good heart despite the clichés. Keaton and Burnett are worth seeing in good movies or bad.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a pastiche, sometimes of things that are cliché and bland. For some reason the movie doesn’t focus enough on its main character.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few choice curse words and some sexual situations, but nothing your average teenager wouldn’t be comfortable with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Alexis Bledel role was originally supposed to go to Amanda Byrnes, but she had to pull out of the project due to other commitments.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of quiz-type games entitled “What Not to Wear” and “Find Your Match! The Best Job for You.” There is also a featurette on interviewing tips, generally skewed towards young women, as well as Gilford and Bledel giving career advice.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing that the movie was a flop.
FINAL RATING: 6/10