In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
In a blanketed statement Luke Greenfield’s Something Borrowed attempts to explore lifelong friendships and the circumstances responsible for their ends. It’s billed as a romantic comedy which would be true if one choreographed dance to Salt N Pepa’s “Push It” and one instance where someone breaks their nose during a game of backgammon were the genre’s qualifiers. But deeper than that lies a message along the lines of “never defer to others ” or even one that’s more like “never give other people the opportunity to take what’s yours because they will.” However those morals get so completely muddled along the way that ultimately the film is downgraded to a chronicle of two best friends in love with the same man.
The film is told from the point of view of Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) who’s described as a successful lawyer at a top law firm (so “top ” in fact it’s never named). She is single mostly keeps to herself and is preoccupied with other people’s happiness but is lucky enough to have a very good friend in Darcy (Kate Hudson) who never misses a chance to talk about herself or steal the attention of an entire party by showing up in a pink boa. We learn Rachel and Darcy's friendship spans decades through a slide show that Darcy puts together for Rachel’s “surprise” 30th birthday party and during Darcy's toast to her best friend she talks about how excited she is to marry Dex (Colin Egglesfield) and how thankful she is to Rachel for introducing the two of them. However the truth is Rachel didn’t introduce them – what really happened was Darcy crashed Rachel and Dex’s date that was in honor of all the hard work they did together to prepare for a law school test. Rachel is saddened by the combination of turning 30 and listening to Darcy's excitement over her upcoming marriage to a man she doesn't deserve and after seeing the birthday girl's pout Dex suggests the fellow lawyers go get another drink together. Rachel casually admits to Dex that she’s had a crush on him since law school (which he claims to have never known) and during a shared cab ride to their separate apartments Dex kisses Rachel because it turns out he has had feelings for her all this time too. Thus begins the affair between Dex and Rachel even though Dex’s wedding to Darcy is only weeks away. Eventually Dex and Rachel both realize they love each other and Dex has to make a decision as to which woman is right for him.
Because the story is told from Rachel The Downtrodden's POV the filmmakers attempted to make Darcy the villain as she’s the opposite of Rachel and is someone who gets everything she wants without having to put forth any effort. In actuality Darcy is pretty easy to despise because she always talks about how she’s good-looking and the only obligations she has are towards partying and making incessant demands to Rachel about her wedding to a man she only halfheartedly loves. I suspect Greenfield decided to highlight the tremendous differences between Darcy and Rachel so as to emphasize the fervor and resilience of their bond (which would in turn make the affair between Rachel and Dex a bigger and more dangerous conflict). But it ends up being a disservice to the overall project because the characters themselves are so fundamentally flawed. The notion that one woman would WILLINGLY endure such bullying from someone who’s supposed to be her best friend is terribly unrealistic and so because the movie virtually revolves around this dysfunctional friendship between these two women means everything is painful to watch. There’s even a point where Rachel’s character becomes as unlikeable as Darcy in the way her utter obedience to Darcy makes her weak-minded a terrible heroine and essentially not worthy of our respect either. And what kind of a romantic comedy has us trying to figure out which woman we hate the most? (Exactly.)
John Krasinski saves the movie from being intolerable. He plays Ethan Rachel’s other best friend and (unlike Darcy) he genuinely cares about Rachel’s well-being. Rachel confides in him and he offers her advice and encouragement and Ethan does not like Darcy at all because he sees the way she treats Rachel and the way Rachel’s life halts every time Darcy has a demand. But his character is way more important than it appears to be because he’s the one who points out that both Rachel AND Darcy are flawed characters and he validates the audience’s disgust with both women. He does this by openly criticizing Darcy’s narcissism (which the audience notices within the first few minutes of the film) and also makes Rachel aware of how pathetic it is that she’s been at Darcy’s beck and call for 30 years. Ethan is arguably the only sane character in this movie and strategically he functions as its voice of reason. Even though Krasinski does not play a main character he’s so responsible for the humor that he is a true delight. Ginnifer Goodwin also does an excellent job playing the character who thinks she’s too ugly to ever get a handsome husband and Kate Hudson also deserves some recognition for embodying someone so self-righteous.
It's hard to criticize producers or a studio about what's wrong with a movie that was originally a book because neither the producers nor the studio are responsible for the story's fundamentals -- the author is. At the same time it’s impossible to hold an author responsible for how well his or her book was adapted into a film. That means both the filmmaker and the author must share credit for Something Borrowed but I have a feeling that in a few years neither party will want any.
Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.