The ‘90s are back with a vengeance but some parts of the apparently beloved decade belong back in that beloved decade. Case and point: the classic ‘90s magical family movie. Disney’s latest The Odd Life of Timothy Green plays heavily on the visual and musical cues that we children of the ‘90s may recognize from films like The Santa Claus and even Hocus Pocus. The problem is that the film opens that door without fully walking through it.
The Jennifer-Garner starrer rests in a nebulous place between wacky contemporary comedy and a nostalgic throwback. But it can’t be both. Centered on the unfortunate reproductively-challenged couple Jim and Cindy Green (a perfectly adequate Joel Edgerton and Garner) the film follows the duo as they give up on having kids and spend a night with a bottle of wine writing down their won’t-be child’s perfect characteristics with a good old pencil and paper (pay attention now because that pencil part is pretty important). They bury the papers in a box in Cindy’s perfectly-kept garden and while they sleep the box sprouts into a little boy - their little boy only with a few leaves on his legs since he grew out of the ground after all. This part of the story combined with the film’s obvious affinity for the good old days as evidenced by the Greens’ home town and its dependence on a classic pencil factory lends itself to that nostalgic feeling.
It’s a few gratuitous and tonally dissonant moments that throw us back out of our reveries and into an uncomfortable space. Both Cindy and Jim have what should be comically horrible bosses played by Diane Wiest and Ron Livingston respectively. But between Weist’s mind-bogglingly goofy scene in which little Timothy paints her scraggly chin-hair and all and Livingston’s many off-colour moments - including one in which he instructs Jim to fire half the factory staff before lifting an over-sized “THE BOSS” mug to his face - are rather jarring in a film that is largely wistful.
But it’s not totally Odd Life’s fault. Modern audiences demand these sorts of gags in their light-hearted movies. The problem is that it’s up to the filmmakers to give us what we need not what we want. Odd Life’s story is largely melancholy throughout as Timothy’s fate is betrayed in the first two minutes of the film. While some levity is necessary the moments of light need only to come from the film’s main light source: the wonderful little boy at the center of the story.
Ultimately Timothy’s sweetness and Garner’s incomparable ability to create a lovable albeit neurotic mother save the film and allow for an emotionally satisfying end to the family tale. There are just far too many bumps along the way.
Don’t get me wrong--Gervais’ acerbic socially reclusive dentist Bertram Pincus isn’t really the catch of the century. On the contrary. He’d rather drink battery acid then have to speak to anyone directly including his attractive new neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni). But Bertram gets a severe attitude adjustment when he accidentally dies--for seven minutes--during a routine colonoscopy. When he comes back from the dead so to speak he can suddenly SEE the dead--ghosts with unfinished business who follow Bertram around and try to get him to help them. This includes Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants Bertram to break up the impending marriage of his widow the very same lovely Gwen. At first Bertram tries to very hard to ignore the request--until he gets a good look at Gwen and decides it might be worth it after all. Now Bertram just has to convince her he isn’t really the total twit he seems to be. Good luck with that. When Gervais won the Golden Globe in 2001for his achingly funny BBC series The Office most of us Yanks were like “Who is that?” Then he came up and gave one of the more hilarious acceptance speeches--and well a star was born. He certainly hasn’t disappointed since turning in another hit comedy show Extras for HBO--and now movies. Whether he’d admit it or not Gervais has leading man qualities in that very offbeat British way master of the miscommunication and half-finished sentences. And playing off veteran comic actors such as Kinnear and Leoni in Ghost Town only make Gervais look even better. Leoni is especially fetching in her breezy role as Gwen an Egyptologist who could be a total nerd if not for her charm and sense of humor. The chemistry with Gervais is odd at best but they make it work AND seem believable. There are a few scenes she does with Gervais where you just know it took a lot of takes because she couldn’t quit laughing. I know I certainly wouldn’t have been able to. Ghost Town’s head honcho David Koepp is definitely known more for his writing than directing having penned such scripts as Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull War of the Worlds and Spider-Man thus the reason Ghost Town shines as it does. The premise isn’t anything groundbreaking but the dialogue is spot-on. Co-writing with John Kamps Koepp manages to mix both screwball comedy with poignancy without it seeming too silly or too syrupy while the plot moves along at a nice pace. And Ghost Town has one of those feel-good endings (a rom-com must have) you don’t really expect to feel as good about as you do. Koepp’s other directorial efforts included Secret Window and Stir of Echoes but it seems romantic comedies are now and should always be his forte.
Anyone who thought Disturbia could be the name of a family bonding movie could get a false sense of security in the opening scene. Kale (Shia LaBeouf) has a sweet fishing trip with his supportive dad but an automobile accident on the way home costs Dad his life and turns Kale into a brooding moping mess. A fight with his teacher lands him under house arrest for the summer with nothing to do but watch the neighbors from his window. A pretty new girl (Sarah Roemer) provides good scenery but across the street something more disturbing is going on. Neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse) seems to have a lot in common with a serial killer recently on the news but the ankle bracelet limits Kale's investigation. The ankle bracelet creates a false illusion of mobility but crossing the barrier only makes things harder. This may all sound familiar but Disturbia gives a fresh take on voyeurism. You might not expect a thriller like Disturbia to showcase great performances but it is a great vehicle for Shia LaBeouf to show his talent. He plays every moment against the standard conventions. His sullen kid is totally sympathetic. He's not just looking for attention but really trying to cope with a great loss. You actually want him to hit the asshole teacher for presuming to know what's up. Then while home his love struck voyeur is not just some horny kid. He seems moved by the vision not just the body. Then lastly as an action hero LaBeouf is truly desperate not just trying to be a badass. The others fill more traditional roles. Morse does his now familiar bad guy thing and is far more interesting as the friendly neighbor than when he's just going bonkers. Aaron Yoo as Kale’s goofy sidekick tries too hard to be wacky and clueless. Roemer on the other hand is a self-assured sexpot though a little too wise to her seductive wiles. Carrie-Anne Moss does the tough-love mom thing well. In fact she really hasn't repeated herself in her whole career. But ultimately it’s LaBeouf's show. With the whole movie seen through his perspective he creates a well-rounded guide through the sometimes far-fetched adventure. Director DJ Caruso (Two for the Money) knows all the classic tricks of suspense to keep audiences jumping and comes up with a few new ones of his own. The pacing is breakneck. To begin with the auto accident is staged beautifully. It is a realistic portrayal of the dangers caused by speed demon SUVs yet never gratuitous in communicating the horrific tragedy. Having the villain show up under innocuous pretenses also keeps the audience on their toes. But the house arrest hook is the best device of all. It can be a barrier as Kale stretches the limits of his mobility. Or it can be the edge of safety as Kale struggles to signal for help. Of course modern technology to spy on the neighbors is also employed to full effect. The film's tight storytelling packs it all into 95 minutes with no down time. Fans of this genre won't be disappointed