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.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.