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.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.