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.
In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.
Out of Time certainly isn't going to win any screenplay awards with its formulaic premise. Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is the highly respected police chief of a small Florida key near Miami in one of those lazy seaside towns just itching for something exciting to happen. For Matt excitement comes in the form of the sexy Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan) his former high school sweetheart who is now stuck in an abusive marriage. Even though the affair they start is torrid Matt doesn't really love Ann Merai; he's still hung up on his estranged wife Alex (Eva Mendes) a Miami-Dade detective. But when Matt finds out Ann Merai is dying of cancer he stupidly decides to give her $80K confiscated in a drug bust so she can get treatment at a Swiss clinic. I did say stupid right? Almost as soon as the money leaves Matt's possession he finds himself neck-deep in hot water as Ann turns up burned to a crisp in an arson fire all the money gone and all the evidence pointing to our friendly police chief as the prime suspect. Egad! He's been framed! He's been taken! What ever will he do? True it sounds very much like every other film noir you've ever seen with chain-smoking gumshoes and femmes fatales. Luckily the tactics Matt uses to keep one step ahead of the investigators one of which is his beloved Alex keep the story somewhat interesting.
OK none of this would have even been remotely appealing if Out of Time didn't star Oscar winner Washington. The talented actor sells it to audiences hook line and sinker. Matt is the kind of guy ripe for the taking--he still pines for his wife who for reasons he doesn't understand leaves him but lets his libido do the talking when his hot ex shows up. Typical guy stuff. The things that help Matt move beyond this patterned male behavior however are his street smarts which Washington can play with his eyes closed. Once Matt finds himself in a prickly predicament he jumps into action and so does the movie. As the women Lathan (Brown Sugar) and Mendes (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) are capable actresses but Time doesn't do them especially Mendes any justice. She knows what it's like being Washington's girl having done so much more effectively in Training Day. Here there's not a lot for her to do besides trying to act like a tough authority figure. The only real standout next to Washington is John Billingsley (High Crimes) as the quirky medical examiner Chae who becomes Matt's only true ally. With Albert Einstein's hair and Homer Simpson's personal hygiene habits Billingsley infuses the film with a little comic relief.
Credit also goes to director Carl Franklin (One False Move for Out of Time's finer moments. Once the film kicks into high gear Franklin keeps the pace racing as Matt runs around on borrowed time searching for clues. The simple scene where Matt tries to keep Alex and the others from finding his cell phone number on Ann's telephone records is surprisingly edge-of-your-seat effective. Franklin also uses Florida's steamy lush surroundings to his advantage painting a sultry backdrop where the characters quite literally sweat it out. There is definitely something about Florida that adds a sexual quality to a film noir. Take for example one of the genre's classics the 1981 Body Heat which was filmed in South Florida. Yep sweat works. But unlike the tautly erotic Body Heat Out of Time ultimately isn't able to rise above the mediocre script despite the efforts put out by its star director and its fatale locale.
John Waters gives Hollywood the finger with this comedy about cinema purist Cecil B. DeMented and his band of guerrilla filmmakers who kidnap the industry's hottest leading lady Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) during the Baltimore premiere of her latest film a "life-affirming screwball comedy" called "Some Kind of Happiness." DeMented and the group live Rocky Horror-style in an abandoned warehouse with plans to save the public from bad movies while shooting their anarchist film. Honey is won over helping to cause terror at location shoots including an attack at a multiplex screening of "Patch Adams: The Director's Cut." (Hey these guys aren't all that bad!)
Griffith either can't get work or has a great sense of humor. Why else would she play this far-out send-up of a Hollywood glamour girl who is all glitz in public all bitch in private? Cheers to her for taking bold risks and coming out on top. Stephen Dorff is over the top as the title character (even for this film) but still scrapes up laughs with his maniacal rage. Ricki Lake takes a break from her daily TV sleaze getting back to what she does best. Other Waters regulars including Mink Stole and Patty Hearst also return.
Anyone not familiar with the director/screenwriter's work should be cautioned that navigating this Waters could be rough sailing. Some of his films ("Polyester " "Pink Flamingos") would make the cast of "American Pie" blush. His dialogue is stiff and strained and his actors look like they're stuck in an awkward high school play. That said "Cecil" is full of hilarious jabs like the showdown with fat lazy teamsters on the set of the senseless sequel "Gump Again."