It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.
This is really the story of five individuals forever changed by a freak bombardment of cosmic rays while on a routine space mission. On the good guy side we have leader Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) the super-intelligent and highly elastic Mr. Fantastic; his former flame Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) also a scientist as The Invisible Woman; her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) a hotrod pilot straight out of a Mountain Dew commercial as the Human Torch capable of transforming himself into a walking and flying ball of fire; and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) whose transformation into the nearly inhuman rock creature The Thing makes him the tragic figure of the group. On the bad guy side is Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) the sneering industrialist and scientist who bankrolls their mission and becomes the evil and aptly named Dr. Doom. Once this dysfunctional family figures out its powers--in a pile up on a New York City bridge for which they are largely responsible for in the first place--all that's left is one showdown with their cloaked and iron masked villain who has very little objectives besides killing off his business partners and exacting some revenge on the Fantastic Four. Despite the ingenious idea of portraying these costumed characters as celebrities first and heroes second the clumsy story fails to connect. It's a concept that should have worked especially with today's tabloid and paparazzi obsessions. But like the rest of the movie that idea fails to take flight. In other words other than defending themselves the quartet doesn't really have anything fantastic to do at all. Hmmm. Maybe comic-book movies are getting more realistic.
It's difficult and unfair to pin so much disappointment in a movie on its performers. Good actors often bear the brunt of a poorly made movie. In this case the actors aren't bad--they're just miscast. Gruffudd as their reluctant leader has neither the angst nor the gravity of the real Mr. Fantastic. Instead he's a charming fop. Alba is indeed beautiful but suffers from bimbo scientist syndrome which she must have caught from former Bond-girl Denise Richards who played a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough just as convincingly. Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon channeling Kevin Spacey is decent but is given very little to do. Only Chiklis and Evans shine here. Although they deserve every bit of credit they are the only characters the writers--and there were many--cared enough about giving them full-fledged personas. Chiklis captures the morose quality of the Ben Grimm even under a full-body suit which works better than photos suggest. It's more of a departure from his TV role as a tough cop in FX's The Shield than you might expect. And Evans (Cellular) gets all of the best lines in the movie especially when he insists that everyone should enjoy their powers instead of fighting them. Of course it helps if you can become a human firebomb and still look really good.
While not on the iconic level of Batman and Spider-Man the members of the Fantastic Four are integral to comics history. They're the first superheroes created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby and from the moment of their debut in 1961 they not only created Marvel Comics they were also already different from the ones that followed. The characters called each other by their first names and harbored no secret identities. They fought and bickered like any family. Now we have the big-screen version--and unfortunately although faithful to the intent and style of the comics the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Fantastic Four apparently languished for a decade in development so there is an unmistakable rushed feeling to everything. Not only does the film skimp on showing their trip to and from space but it also seems to have cleared out every other person except for the main characters who spend all their time talking only to each other. Other than the occasional small cheering New York City crowd or a brief appearance by Ben Grimm's blind love interest (Kerry Washington) where is everyone? And by opting for realism over sheer whimsy director Tim Story (Barbershop) seems to have fallen for another silver screen superheroes trap--the more realistic we try to make them the more unrealistic they become. It may have been best to leave Fantastic Four to the world of animation. In fact the best version of a family of superheroes--Brad Bird's The Incredibles--beat this movie into theaters by nearly a year.