When Michel Gondry was hired to helm Columbia Pictures’ The Green Hornet I became immediately more enthusiastic about the project than I was before. Even after all the publicized production woes I was sure that his avant-garde aesthetic and bittersweet style of storytelling would put a fresh spin on the standard superhero flick. However sandwiched between the frat-house comedic sensibilities of Seth Rogen and the energetic guidance of explosion-savvy producer Neal Moritz there just wasn’t enough room for the artist to conjure his movie magic.
That’s why the film though not frustratingly formulaic feels incredibly manufactured: more a product of convenience for its stars and studio than a standalone piece of entertainment. Perhaps it’s just because superhero cinema is so commonplace today I’m beginning to feel jaded about movies like this but while watching the film I wondered whether or not Rogen and Co. consciously adhered to the tried-and-true checklist of the genre’s conventions. Tragic motives for fighting crime? Check. Maniacal villain? Check. Flipping SUV’s? Check? Predictable plot? Unfortunately check. Every element of the movie from jokes to pacing is easy to foresee but that doesn’t mean it’s not somewhat entertaining.
Rogen who co-wrote the picture with his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg will continue to amuse audiences with his every-man persona even when miscast as a billionaire playboy turned masked vigilante. The Green Hornet doesn’t sound like anything he has written before; the limitations of language in a broad blockbuster result in less laughs than the raunchy R-rated comedies he’s best known for but the delivery of the dialogue is his best weapon against tonal conformity. Still post-modern humor is abundant throughout the film with plenty of pop-culture references that are good for a grin or two.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Jay Chou. A hugely successful pop singer in his native Taiwan (as well as other Chinese-speaking regions of the world) his charisma transcends language barriers in the iconic role of Kato created by the legendary Bruce Lee. Though technically the sidekick Chou displays more depth than Rogen ever has and outshines his co-star in nearly every creative department. Christoph Waltz as the violent villain Chudnofsky doesn’t generate the electricity he did in his career-defining role in Inglourious Basterds but had significantly lower-brow material to work with. He goes through the motions with a smile on his face that suggests he’s not quite sure how (or why) he got into this picture in the first place. On the other hand I’m sure that Cameron Diaz knew exactly why she was hired to portray Britt Reid’s sexy secretary Lenore Case. Between her performances in 2010’s Knight and Day and this Ms. Diaz has hit a new career low. The only difference is that her character was central to the story in the Tom Cruise summer vehicle; here she’s nothing more than eye-candy.
As stated before if I’ve got one regret above all regarding The Green Hornet it’s that director Gondry wasn’t allowed to make the movie his own. His stamp is present in only a handful of sequences where visually inventive special effects serve the story and in many cases enhance it. He makes the most of the adequate 3D conversion in these select scenes (including a revelatory summation of the events that lead to the films climax and the closing credits both which are very cool) whereas in the rest of the picture it’s just unnecessary. I had hoped his involvement meant that the narrative was going down an unconventional path but in the end his contributions to the film amount to little more than rainbow sprinkles atop a very vanilla piece of cinema.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Constructed as an homage of sorts to the classic “opposites attract” screwball comedies of old The Ugly Truth stars Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up TV’s Grey's Anatomy) as Abby Richter an ambitious Type A news producer for the local morning talk show A.M. Sacramento. Abby’s uncompromising approach to news gathering is surpassed only by her uncompromising approach to dating; as a result she’s chronically single and her show’s ratings are in the toilet. So when her boss insists that she take on Mike Chadway the brash obnoxious host of a cable-access relationship-oriented talk show as a new correspondent Abby has little choice but to accept despite her misgivings about Mike’s unabashed chauvinism. Though ratings for A.M. Sacramento immediately spike with the addition of Mike Abby remains unconvinced as to the efficacy of his politically incorrect (read: misogynist) dating advice. Chastened by Abby’s continued skepticism Mike makes her a wager: If she applies his tools and doesn’t successfully turn around her moribund dating life he’ll quit the show. Abby agrees initiating a sexually charged battle of wits between the two strident adversaries.
WHO’S IN IT?
Facing off against Heigl is Gerard Butler the man who once roared “We are Sparta!” as the infinitely badass King Leonidas in the sword-and-sandals epic 300. Unfortunately Butler followed up the 2006 blockbuster with the weepy chick flick P.S. I Love You then the limp action fantasy Nim’s Island. And while he did manage to redeem himself as a cocky British gangster in Guy Ritchie’s comeback RocknRolla Butler takes a sad U-turn with The Ugly Truth falling to emasculating new lows in this insipid romantic comedy. Supporting castmembers include Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) John Michael Higgins (Yes Man Best in Show) Bree Turner (Just My Luck) and Eric Winter (Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay).
Butler and Heigl are both tremendously charming camera-friendly actors (no one has perfected the art of “sexily flustered” better than Heigl) and they do exhibit a fun lively chemistry at times during The Ugly Truth. Unfortunately they’re given precious little to work with and are forced to subsist on the few morsels of quality material the script provides.
Director Robert Luketic (21 Monster-in-Law Legally Blonde) has always been a strict adherent to the modern style-over-substance school of filmmaking and The Ugly Truth is suitably glossy and slick. But damned if it isn’t the most uninspired unfunny unsexy sitcom rip-off to grace theaters in recent memory. If Luketic devoted half as much time to punching up the script as he did to lovingly photographing boy toy Eric Winter he might actually have a decent movie on his hands.
Oy that’s a tough one. The closing credits would be too obvious a choice so let’s instead go with whichever scene immediately preceded the closing credits.
Heigl gets to show off her orgasm-faking skills during a scene in which she inadvertently turns on a pair of vibrating underpants (don’t ask me to explain) at a dinner with corporate execs. Interestingly enough it’s her least sexy moment in the film.
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.