Corporate Animals


There is no “I” in team but there IS meat…

(2019) Comedy (Screen Media) Demi Moore, Jessica Williams, Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Karan Soni, Martha Kelly, Dan Bakkedahl, Calum Worthy, Jennifer Kim, Nasim Pedrad, Frank Bond, Wendy Meredith, Britney Spears, Courtney Cunningham, Chris Harding, David Phyfer, Richard Beal, Tobiah Powell, LynNita Ellis.  Directed by Patrick Brice

 

There is something inherently funny about corporate life. From the platitudes that are meant to inspire to the team-building exercises that are more an exercise in wasting time to the gorilla in a velvet suit venality of corporate politics, it’s a wonder that the subject hasn’t been mined more often for the comedy gold that is clearly there. Maybe it just hits a bit too close to home for most of us.

Lucy (Moore) is the high-strung platitude-spewing CEO of a company that makes edible cutlery. The corporate culture is supposed to be diverse and inclusive but below the surface of civility there is an awful lot of discontent. Perfect time for a team-building session, right? Of course, right.

Brandon (Helms) is their guide as he attempts to get the group to move a stone sphere that is clearly too heavy for the group to budge until the intern Aidan (Worthy) is injured, but that’s just the warm-up. The main event is spelunking in some deep caves in New Mexico. When the group comes to a fork, Lucy insists that they take the more difficult “advanced” route despite everyone else – including Brandon – trying to dissuade her.

At first, it looks like Lucy might have been on to something when the group reaches the majestic Cathedral Cavern but what little triumph the group can muster is quickly quashed when an earthquake buries them in the cavern and kills one of their number. Bummer.

Finding a way out doesn’t seem to be much of a priority for Lucy who is confident that there will be a rescue party finding them shortly; after all, she had left an itinerary with the ranger’s office and as soon as they’re listed as overdue the cavalry will be coming. When it soon becomes obvious that they are going to be trapped for more than a few hours, it becomes clear that the problem of survival is going to start with the fact they have no food and no water.

This is very much a dark comedy with elements of parody meant to take on the aforementioned subjects of office politics and corporate culture. Brice, who previously helmed the much better comedy The Overnight works off of a script by Sam Bain which is too scattershot for its own good. There are too many subplots, including the rivalry between Jess (Williams) and Freddie (Soni) who were both promised a big promotion by Lucy, Lucy’s sexual harassment of Freddie and the fact that Lucy’s incompetence has left the company nearly bankrupt, a fact her workers are ignorant of.

Lucy is definitely the centerpoint here and the movie could have used an actress with a deft comic touch. Demi Moore is a lot of things, but she has never been known for her comic timing. She ends up coming off as vile and venal, self-absorbed and arrogant who believes herself to be superior in all ways to those who actually do the work that keeps the company going. One has to wonder if Moore was cast because she had a similar role in the drama Disclosure which was also a far better movie than this one. One imagines that Ms. Moore cashed the check as quickly as she could and moved on to something a bit more challenging.

Someone who does have a deft comic touch is Jessica Williams who is note-perfect as the long-suffering assistant Jess who is far more competent than anyone else in the workplace. Anyone who has seen her in the Netflix film The Incredible Jessica James knows what Williams is capable of and the career path in front of her is bright and shiny indeed. I look forward to seeing her in more movies.

By necessity the movie is dimly lit over long stretches and while the cavern set is pretty decent, it also looks like a set. While apparently some of the film was lensed in the famed Frankfurt Caverns of Kentucky, the rocks look like papier machė. The movie would have benefitted from a little more focus and fewer subplots. The critics have pretty much savaged the film so don’t expect there to be much of an audience for it but adventurous readers who are interested can take a chance on it when it hits home video in a few months.

REASONS TO SEE: Jessica Williams is absolutely stellar.
REASONS TO AVOID: This has been done better elsewhere.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug and sex references, a bit of violence and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharon Stone was originally cast as Lucy but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. Demi Moore stepped into the role instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews: Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Severance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium