Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
Anyone who’s been to the zoo has considered the possibility that once all the visitors and the zookeepers go home the animals come out from their enclosures and talk about the day. And so while Frank Coraci's Zookeeper is kind enough to show us what that fantasy looks like it isn’t kind enough to show us much else.
In Zookeeper Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes who’s so in love with his girlfriend Stephanie (played by Leslie Bibb) that he doesn’t realize she’s terrible until he proposes to her and she says no because she doesn't like his job. After the breakup Griffin focuses on his work and is totally aware of how he wishes he had someone in his life to care for him the way he cares for the wildlife at the Franklin Park Zoo. When the animals (being the astute creatures that they are) notice how badly their favorite zookeeper has been feeling since the demise of his relationship they decide to break their vow of silence to show their appreciation for him by sharing all the tips and tricks that have helped them all get mates. The imparting of this knowledge paves the way for Kevin James to regurgitate onto the audience all the talent for physical comedy he’s accumulated over the course of his acting career and it means Griffin spends the majority of the movie rubbing his back against a tree like a bear or peeing on a tree like a wolf because he thinks his ex-girlfriend will take him back if he asserted his dominance more.
One of the more skillful things the film does is give each of the animals their own personalities in a relatively short period of time and credit should be given to the actors who voiced them. Sylvester Stallone’s Joe the Lion was the leader of the group and his frequent lover’s quarrels with Janet the Lioness (voiced by Cher) will particularly resonate with parents. Adam Sandler’s Donald the monkey delivered some nice one-liners and unapologetically bragged about his opposable thumbs. Judd Apatow Maya Rudolph Jon Favreau and Faizon Love also provided worthy comedic contributions to the animal group but it was Nick Nolte’s role of Bernie the gorilla that particularly stood out. After an incident with an abusive zookeeper (strangely played by Donny Wahlberg) where Bernie gained the reputation of being dangerous he was extricated from his beautiful and open enclosure and dropped down into a cement pit to be punished over a misunderstanding. But even though Bernie was out of site and otherwise inaccessible to the zoo’s patrons Griffin didn’t forget about him and worked arduously to convince him that not every human is cruel by putting a yellow polo shirt on him and taking him to T.G.I. Fridays. Though completely random and almost irrelevant the sentiment was very close to nice.
But the movie's biggest problem isn’t the fact that its animals talk or that Griffin listens to them without realizing he’s trying to win back a human by acting like a wombat. It’s that because Griffin's first love Stephanie was a bad person filmmakers were burdened with concocting a new love figure for him (because like all protagonists he's supposed to rediscover his self-worth and self-respect after it has been misplaced). The director acknowledged this challenge by manufacturing Rosario Dawson’s character Kate the eagle expert/veterinarian. Kate’s close proximity to Griffin at the zoo and possession of a slinky black dress meant she became his accomplice when he tried to use the skills the animals taught him to win Stephanie back at his brother's wedding. Eventually it becomes clear that the audience is supposed to root for a union between Griffin and Kate but it's an almost impossible task because Griffin barely has any screen time with Kate and because of all the talking animals going on there is no room for a relationship when the film is already busting at the seams.
Theoretically Zookeeper sounds decent. And for the most part the scenes where the animals are coaxing Griffin are actually enjoyable. But the framework of the film makes the plot unnecessarily complicated…which means not only do audience members not get enough of what they wanted but they also get a whole bunch of other things they didn’t sign up for.
Based loosely on the 19th century Jules Verne novel 80 Days revolves around two unlikely heroes--the eccentric and reclusive inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) and his (French?) valet Passepartout (Jackie Chan). While Fogg's "wacky" inventions actually make a lot of sense to us modern-day folk including his insights on flight electricity (which he has rigged so that light illuminates with a whistle) and even Rollerblades to his turn-of-the-century contemporaries the scientist is a giant crackpot. Desperate to be taken seriously Fogg makes an outlandish bet with Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent) the head of the London's Royal Academy of Science that he can circumnavigate the globe in no more than 80 days. Impossible you say? Not to Fogg whose obsession with facts and schedules makes him the perfect candidate for such an adventure. With the ever-faithful Passepartout by his side--who has his own secret reasons for joining in on the fun--Fogg heads out on his frantic heart-pounding journey picking up a third traveler a beautiful French artist named Monique (Cécile de France) in the process. But of course the trip doesn't go exactly as scheduled and Fogg as well as Passepartout learn more than a few valuable life lessons along the way. How sweet. Got a toothache yet?
Jackie Chan knows precisely what works for him. Differing slightly from the 1956 adaptation this 80 Days is all about Passepartout as the story tapers itself to fit Chan's specialties. This means you get to marvel once again at his masterful martial arts skills as well as chuckle at his innate sense of physical comedy. As another perfect straight man to Chan's Chinese sensibilities and kung-fu shenanigans Coogan (24 Hour Party People) also does a nice turn as the befuddled and veddy British Fogg while the lovely de France as Monique breathes some fresh air into her ingénue role (and is much more substantial to the plot than the original's Shirley MacLaine who played an Indian princess). Broadbent is adequately sleazy as the pompous Lord Kelvin full of as much hot air as the balloon Fogg and company take a ride in. But 80 Days's extensive list of cameos is the most fun--from Owen and Luke Wilson as the bickering Wright brothers to Rob Schneider as a malodorous San Franciscan hobo to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Arabian prince (please tell me he made this before he became California's governor). Plus any movie in which Kathy Bates plays Queen Victoria British accent and all has got to be worth seeing .
Minus all the silly songs 80 Days is splashy family fare reminiscent of such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryand the original 1967 Doctor Dolittle (you know the one with a giant pink sea snail). Supported by glorious sets and costumes director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer) clearly loves the fanciful adventure of it all creating colorful transitions from one place to the next as Fogg Passepartout and Monique traverse across the globe. But there's always an inherent problem with films of this nature--they tend to be long-winded. The 1956 version of 80 Days which even with a stellar cast including David Niven and Cantinflas drags quite a bit. But with a feisty martial arts expert in the mix this updated 80 Days maintains its momentum for the most part only losing steam towards the end especially after the whole Passepartout subplot in which he has to return a priceless Buddha to his Chinese village is resolved. Suddenly the film becomes just about the race back to London and less about fighting off evil Chinese assassins. Honestly we don't care much about how an uptight British inventor can build a plane out of a boat that will get him back to his final destination in time so he can give a monologue about how his adventure afforded him to make new friends and fall in love. If it's a Jackie Chan movie it's the awesome fight sequences we want to see.