The ‘90s are back with a vengeance but some parts of the apparently beloved decade belong back in that beloved decade. Case and point: the classic ‘90s magical family movie. Disney’s latest The Odd Life of Timothy Green plays heavily on the visual and musical cues that we children of the ‘90s may recognize from films like The Santa Claus and even Hocus Pocus. The problem is that the film opens that door without fully walking through it.
The Jennifer-Garner starrer rests in a nebulous place between wacky contemporary comedy and a nostalgic throwback. But it can’t be both. Centered on the unfortunate reproductively-challenged couple Jim and Cindy Green (a perfectly adequate Joel Edgerton and Garner) the film follows the duo as they give up on having kids and spend a night with a bottle of wine writing down their won’t-be child’s perfect characteristics with a good old pencil and paper (pay attention now because that pencil part is pretty important). They bury the papers in a box in Cindy’s perfectly-kept garden and while they sleep the box sprouts into a little boy - their little boy only with a few leaves on his legs since he grew out of the ground after all. This part of the story combined with the film’s obvious affinity for the good old days as evidenced by the Greens’ home town and its dependence on a classic pencil factory lends itself to that nostalgic feeling.
It’s a few gratuitous and tonally dissonant moments that throw us back out of our reveries and into an uncomfortable space. Both Cindy and Jim have what should be comically horrible bosses played by Diane Wiest and Ron Livingston respectively. But between Weist’s mind-bogglingly goofy scene in which little Timothy paints her scraggly chin-hair and all and Livingston’s many off-colour moments - including one in which he instructs Jim to fire half the factory staff before lifting an over-sized “THE BOSS” mug to his face - are rather jarring in a film that is largely wistful.
But it’s not totally Odd Life’s fault. Modern audiences demand these sorts of gags in their light-hearted movies. The problem is that it’s up to the filmmakers to give us what we need not what we want. Odd Life’s story is largely melancholy throughout as Timothy’s fate is betrayed in the first two minutes of the film. While some levity is necessary the moments of light need only to come from the film’s main light source: the wonderful little boy at the center of the story.
Ultimately Timothy’s sweetness and Garner’s incomparable ability to create a lovable albeit neurotic mother save the film and allow for an emotionally satisfying end to the family tale. There are just far too many bumps along the way.
The man-child: a staple character for modern comedy and notoriously known for being played one-note. They get the laugh they get out.
But turning the lovable goofball or zoned-out knucklehead into something more is no easy task—which makes Paul Rudd's work in Our Idiot Brother that much more impressive. Rudd's Earth-friendly farmer Ned (the closest thing to a new Lebowski we've seen since the original) finds himself down on his luck after being entrapped by a police officer looking for pot. After a stint in jail he abandons his rural hippie commune for the big city to take shelter with his three sisters. Unfortunately for Ned his three siblings Liz (Emily Mortimer) Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) are as equally displaced and confused from the ebb and flow of life—albeit with severely different perspectives of the world.
Liz struggles to put her kid in private school and keep her marriage to documentary filmmaker/scumbag Dylan (Steve Coogan) intact. Miranda claws her way to the top of Vanity Fair's editorial staff and shuns her flirtatious neighbor (Adam Scott). Natalie stresses over her commitment issues with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones) leaving little time or patience for Ned's bumbling antics. Sound like a lot of plot? While the manic lives of Ned's sisters click symbolically with his journey to get back on his feet it makes for one sporadic narrative.
Like a series of vignettes Our Idiot Brother never gels but when director Jesse Peretz finds a moment of unadulterated Nedisms to throw up on screen the movie hits big. Whether it's Ned teaching his nephew how to fight accidentally romancing his sister's interview subject or infiltrating his ex-girlfriend's house to steal his dog Willie Nelson the movie relies heavily on Ned's antics and its smart to do so. But thin throughlines for its supporting don't hold a candle to Rudd doing his thing.
And its a testament to Rudd's versatility—the man has done everything from Shakespeare and raunchy Judd Apatow comedies after all—that makes the movie watchable. Rudd gives dimensionality to his nincompoop character allowing darker emotions to creep in when necessary. There's a point in the film when Ned gives up fighting for his type-A sisters' affection and it's some of the best material Rudd's ever delivered. But like one of Ned's lit joints Our Idiot Brother can quickly fizzle out leading to plodding plot twists and sentimental conclusions. Mortimer Banks and Deschanel are great actresses—here they drift through their scenes and come out in the end changed. Because they have to.
Our Idiot Brother tries to take the Apatow model to the indie scene and comes through with so-so results. Only Rudd's able to find something to latch on to to build upon to warm up to. In an unexpected twist it's the man-child who seems the most grown up.
Who’s fine? No one really but we all knew that right? Where does politeness stop and uncomfortable truth begin and what are the considerations we make before burdening someone with the unvarnished truth? Everybody’s Fine ponders these things in a somber and intelligent way that belies its generic holiday movie poster.
Robert De Niro plays Frank an aging widower who spends his lonely days keeping his empty nest tidy and its surrounding foliage immaculate in the way the retired tend to do. He feels intensely the absence of his four grown-up children since the recent death of his wife and when they all back out of a planned holiday gathering at the family home he decides to pack up his bag and travel across the country to see each one as a surprise. As he goes from home to home he begins to realize some uncomfortable truths about the relationship he has with them and even worse that there’s a bigger secret they’re all hiding.
This is a remake of a 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene the follow-up to director Giuseppe Tornatore’s triumphant Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso. The American interpretation is written and directed by Kirk Jones who previously showed a knack for arty yet accessible films with Waking Ned Devine which like Everybody’s Fine manages to successfully navigate that oh-so-thin line between saccharine sentimentality and genuine emotional resonance. Unlike Devine Everybody’s Fine has no comedic spoonful of sugar to make the discomfort of an all-too-real family dynamic go down.
De Niro’s portrayal of Frank comes almost as a relief. After a lifetime of loud and brusque characters he settles into the retiree part like a comfortable old pair of slippers. Frank is easily as conflicted as any other person De Niro has played but in a much quieter way -- a dad sorta way. De Niro so entirely and naturally becomes Frank that it’s hard not to project your own feelings toward your father onto him. And I suppose that is the point.
Frank’s children are played by Kate Beckinsale Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore who are given just enough development to explain their estrangement from their father -- but that’s all the roles require. They’re loosely defined enough for the audience to hopefully identify with at least one of them but only in the service of laying familial guilt at our own feet. It’s De Niro's eyes the audience sees through; it’s his movie and he owns it.
Everything eventually leads to that question of whether or not to trouble the ones we love with our bad news. Everybody’s Fine is relatively taciturn with its conclusions but offers an important suggestion to consider the matter more closely in the audience’s own lives. And isn’t that what good art should do? This may not be the most uplifting film one could see this holiday season but it is one of the more thoughtful ones. Between the simple effectiveness of De Niro’s performance the lovely cinematography of Henry Braham (it is sort of a road-trip movie) and the interesting questions it raises Everybody’s Fine is a terrific choice for those who want something more in-depth from their Xmas viewing than tinsel and tired sentimentality.
There is something more than a feast of love being force-fed to us in this movie; it’s closer to all-you-can-eat buffet o’ syrup but that is admittedly not an inviting title. Either way the entangled melodrama in Feast of Love is too much to digest. The movie centers on several love stories or perhaps more specifically the Oregon coffeehouse that serves as the de facto hub of said stories. The café’s owner Bradley (Greg Kinnear) is responsible for most of the tales since women leave him left and right. In fact the movie opens with Bradley’s wife (Selma Blair) ditching him for a woman. Then there’s Harry (Morgan Freeman) the Yoda of love who advises Harry—and everybody else—in the school of relationships. Finally there’s Oscar (Toby Hemingway) a young barista in the café whose lust for his new coworker (Alexa Davalos) goes requited. The carousel continues with Bradley’s misfires Harry’s philosophizing about them and Oscar’s blossoming relationship until the movie exploits our lack of attention to detail at the end. That’s when the big “intersecting” storyline is meant to swoop in and leave us in awe over the many splendors of love or the Feast thereof. It says something when even a classic Morgan Freeman performance can’t bring Feast of Love a smidge closer to realism. In other words he can’t be blamed for headlining an untenable movie. Feast greatly simplifies what a longtime vet like Freeman—or his screen wife Jane Alexander—understands and the rest of the cast doesn’t: less is more. He refuses to buy into the melodrama under which this movie wants to operate and that refusal is what makes his relationship the only palpable one. Elsewhere a “more is less” mode of thinking seems to take over. Kinnear further pigeonholing himself as the embodiment of blissful ignorance (i.e. Little Miss Sunshine The Matador) can score laughs with ease but can’t evoke anything subtler especially pity. Meanwhile Radha Mitchell (Melinda and Melinda) as Bradley’s second wife (following a barely there Selma Blair) displays some promise before her role spirals out of control and into Overacting 101 which she passes with flying colors. But nobody exaggerates like the cast’s youngest members Hemingway (The Covenant) and Davalos (The Chronicles of Riddick). Of course the screenplay is responsible to a certain extent for their hamming it up but simply put their couple seems much more Shakespearean than contemporary American. Case in point: When Davalos deadpans “I think my intensity scares guys off ” it can’t be anything but eye-roll worthy. By now it’s hard to fathom that Feast of Love director Robert Benton is the Robert Benton of Bonnie and Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer fame. His movies have been on an extremely steep decline ever since those landmark achievements and his latest brings that decline one step closer to a crash landing. Feast is not unlike many romantic comedies in its inability to replicate real life—only...it’s supposed to be a dramedy! But while the humor aspect is there and connects drama to Benton and writer Allison Burnett (Resurrecting the Champ)—who adapted Charles Baxter’s undoubtedly more entertaining book—seems to mean nudity aplenty and/or soap-opera dialogue peppered with F-bombs. It’s as though the director in sculpting his characters has never met a real-life couple because two of the three couples are caricatures with Freeman and Alexander narrowly saving theirs from being so. That might’ve worked if the movie were a romantic comedy in earnest and didn’t try to wax poetic with a tidy wrap-up ending. But it’s all so unrealistic almost supernatural in its conclusion that Feast is the sort of movie that arouses the love cynic in you not the believer.