February 07, 2011 12:46pm EST
When a dramedy gets too sentimental it quickly becomes sappy but with the right balance – and the right actors – it can work well enough to entertain on multiple levels. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a perfect example of tonal equality; bittersweet in every sense of the word but outright hilarious when the comedy gets going. I thought the best qualities of his direction would carry over into his latest production the recent Sundance entry Cedar Rapids. While his influence as producer is identifiable (particularly in its score) director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) made a more conventional film than I expected to see.
Our story begins in Brown Valley Wisconsin where the dignified Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) works lives and loves his former 7th Grade teacher (a dull Sigourney Weaver). When the top dog at the insurance company he works for dies it’s up to him to represent at a do-or-die insurance convention in Cedar Rapids Iowa a bustling metropolis compared to the small town he’s never left. Once there he befriends a pair of agents (Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly) cavorts with another (Anne Heche) and parties with a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). When it comes down to business however he learns quickly that the insurance racket isn’t the noble industry he once thought it was.
Though it has some heart the film doesn’t hit the funny bone like its trailer teased. The biggest laughs don’t come organically; instead Reilly’s crass Dean Ziegler (the best part of the movie) spews them from every orifice he exposes. Most of the other jokes are flat including the bulk of Helms’. Lippe’s naivety is all too reminiscent of Andy Bernard his beloved character on The Office and though you’d think that would be a good thing it just feels stale. Heche gives the best performance of all portraying a melancholy working mother who’s both vulnerable and independent but her character doesn’t have much effect on the narrative. The most fun comes via a series of supporting roles and cameo’s from the likes of Thomas Lennon Stephen Root Rob Corddry Kurtwood Smith and Mike O’Malley but none of them have enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
Lack of humor aside the film suffers most from trying to tackle too many topics at once. Screenwriter Phil Johnston stuffs many themes into the 87-minute feature including the growth of the man-child (an indie cliché at this point) corporate corruption and separation of church and office but no single subject is developed enough to care about. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns and delivered an all-out comedy be it conventional or quirky Cedar Rapids would be easier to endure.
127 Hours the new film from Slumdog Millionaire’s Academy Award-winning writer-director duo Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle feels like it was made in the titular time frame. The movie is choppy and fast-paced like the adventures of its daredevil protagonist Aron Ralston who amputated his own arm after an accident in the cavernous regions of Moab Utah in 2003. This kinetic style of filmmaking (similar to how Slumdog was produced) succeeds in artistically recreating the horrific events of those five painful days but prevents the audience from developing an essential emotional connection with the character and renders the movie limp with more style than substance.
The story begins with Mr. Ralston’s (played adequately by James Franco) ritualistic preparation for intense outdoors activities. He ignores his mother’s phone call (and it’s clearly not the first time he’s done this) so he can begin his extreme expedition that much faster. This selfish attribute is true to the character and foreshadows his eventual arc but Boyle stumbles around with irrelevant narrative detours involving a pair of female thrill-seekers and a barely-seen sister and ex-girlfriend. These subplots are ultimately counter-productive and feel out-of-place.
Instead of providing the character’s backstory through a traditional prologue we learn about Ralston’s past through his own sleep/food/water-deprived hallucinations while he’s stuck beneath a boulder at the bottom of a canyon. In this grim ill-fated state the audience is supposed to feel remorseful and on a basic level of human compassion we do. However it’s difficult to sympathize with a character as arrogant and narcissistic as Ralston who admits that he’s brought this situation on himself.
In terms of craft Boyle is at the top of his game. Aron’s spiritual breakthrough is dramatized by surreal visual sequences that deliver the most moving imagery in the entire film. His use of sound effects particularly enhanced the harrowing experience as do the realistic prosthetics used to depict his bloody sacrifice.
Though the film has the tension and suspense that made similarly-themed survival tales like Castaway and Rescue Dawn moving it lacks an introduction that builds a bond between audience and character debilitating the effect of Aron’s eventual triumph. Many will rejoice when they see Ralston emerge from his mountainous prison a wiser and more appreciative man but there’s never much reason to root for him throughout the picture unless you’re simply hoping for a happy ending.
Within the whole sports genre we really haven’t seen a Ping-Pong movie before—especially one portayed in such a spectacularly goofy way. Former child Ping-Pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) who was unceremoniously defeated decades ago is now reduced to performing ball tricks on stage at a local bar. But Randy’s luck changes when FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him for a secret mission: to ferret out FBI’s Most Wanted arch-villain and Ping-Pong connoisseur Feng (Christopher Walken) the man who killed Randy’s father. But times have changed since Randy choked and Ping-Pong is now played in an unsanctioned underground and extreme kind of way. Randy has to get into shape with the spiritual guidance of a blind Ping-Pong master named Wong (James Hong) and his kickass niece Maggie (Maggie Q) in order to make it to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound to play in the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. Randy has his work cut out for him though if he’s going to wield his paddle and triumph over rampant wickedness. Who is this Dan Fogler guy and why haven’t we seen him before? Apparently he’s been on stage winning a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things. Now Hollywood is beckoning—and it looks like Fogler has the chops to stick it out. Sort of a cross between Jack Black and Meatloaf the actor totally makes Balls of Fury’s campiness work. He also has lots of help from his fellow players: Lopez is hilarious as the FBI agent who has been working a desk job but fancies himself a James Bond; veteran Asian actor Hong gets to use chopsticks in some interesting ways as the sage but cantankerous Wong; the hard-bodied Maggie Q (wonder what the "Q" stands for) who up to this point has only kicked butt in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III plays it light in Balls; and of course Mr. Walken as the evil Feng doing his own impression of any Bond villian you can think of while still being Christopher Walken. That man has WAY too much fun in this film. Also look for loads of cameos by recognizable folks. Director/co-writer Robert Ben Garant and his screenwriting partner actor Thomas Lennon (who plays Randy’s hysterical uber-Nazi Ping-Pong rival Karl Wolfschtagg) certainly have a peculiar sense of humor something they created while working on MTV’s The State’s sketch comedy back in the ‘90s and then cultivated on their Comedy Central show Reno: 911!. They’ve gone PG with writing credits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier but have gotten R-rated especially with the Reno 911: Miami big-screen effort. Balls of Fury falls somewhere in between (that would be PG-13)--a mixture of James Bond bad martial-arts films Matrix-like slow-mo effects and just about any sports movie starring Will Ferrell. In other words for as many tiny balls that get batted around in any number of silly ways if you buy into their particular brand of comedy (like me) Balls of Fury will keep you in stitches. Oh and if you're a Def Lepperd fan you'll also be pleased with the soundtrack.