Jay Roach’s political comedy couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as the U.S. is beginning to suffer from the fatigue that comes with enduring the final months of the heated presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis give us exactly what we need: a good laugh.
The Campaign stars Ferrell as Conservative Senate shoe-in Cam Newton who gets himself in a bit of a campaigning pickle – if you can call a widely publicized sexual slip-up a pickle – and prompts the powers that be (an evil duo courtesy of the always fantastic John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to bring in a ringer: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Huggins is flanked by his two trusty pugs and spends his days giving empty trolley tours of his tiny North Carolina town – a naïve happy existence that flummoxes his former political operator of a father (Brian Cox). But once Marty’s appointed campaign manager gangster Tim (a ruthless and surprisingly hilarious Dylan McDermott) Pretty-Womans the grinning familial misfit into a standard cutthroat political candidate the messy misinformation-driven games begin.
Everything we’ve ever feared or discovered about our shiny politicians during campaign season is magnified for the sake of this 90-minute cathartic joke. Right as Romney and Obama are getting headlines for the underhanded loosely regulated practice that is the campaign commercial Ferrell and Galifianakis’ characters take the seemingly lawless practice to a wonderful hyperbolic place where having a mustache makes you a friend of Sadam Hussein and splicing quotes to blaspheme your opponent is kosher. Oh wait that last part is actually true.
This story from frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay along with Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell plays on the clichés of the campaign trail and dresses them up with baby-punching and butt-licking. Right out of the gate we’re treated to Ferrell cheating on his wife with a squealing harlot in a porta-potty. The writers have no mercy for the political world and coincidentally neither do most of us. And even as the film stretches the limits of our ability to stomach schlocky gross gags it’s not entirely uncalled for. In fact this over-the-top flick is practically an extension of the way many of us view the idea of campaigning in the U.S. – the key is abject cynicism.
Raunchy gags are the name of the game but The Campaign doesn’t shirk the necessary weight of its source material. Sure Ferrell’s requisite nude scene merits a few giggles but it’s the moments that are centered on speeches and strategy that really make the film. They’re rife with spot-on frustrated commentary about the emptiness of political speeches and promises and draped in the hilarious inflections of the films’ funnymen.
But beyond the parts that make us laugh hard enough to eke out a sideways tear The Campaign actually has something that most raunchy Ferrell comedies only purport deliver: a heart-warming gooey center. We can chalk this up to Galifianikis’ Marty who represents the political fantasy we try to believe in every election: the existence of a truly honest well-meaning politician. He’s the guy who runs on the platform that “Washington is a mess” and he actually believes he can clean it up. When Cam is running his mouth about loving America Marty is the one who actually offers up idealistic solutions. To some extent Marty is a character we’ve seen before but he’s this bright spot that keeps The Campaign from becoming a long-form rant.
In addition to Galifianakis’ lovable Marty we find gems in the form of McDermott – whose phantom-like presence throughout the film is always worth a laugh – and newcomer Katherine La Nasa as Rose Cam’s gut-wrenchingly opportunistic Barbie of a wife. Oddly enough a big name like Jason Sudeikis receives low-billing this time around and perhaps it’s because his role is a rather mild one for a man who’s solidified himself as the overgrown frat-boy du jour. Still it’s Galifianakis who carries the film and Farrell’s usual shtick that provides the platform for his character’s unavoidable goodness.
The Campaign is a surprising oddly adorable summer comedy combining the disgusting cringe-worthy visuals we’ve come to expect from a Will Ferrell flick with the brains we hope for any time we see the word “political” tied to a film.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on Noel Coward’s 1928 play and set in that period Easy Virtue is about John Whittaker a young Englishman who falls madly in love with a flamboyant American woman named Larita whom he immediately marries and brings home to meet his stuffy all-airs English family. What ensues is a battle of wits that turns to war between the visiting yank and her new mother-in-law who is determined to prove to her son that he has made an egregious mistake.
WHO’S IN IT?
Jessica Biel takes a flying thespic leap and holds her own in the middle of a sterling cast of fine British talent as Larita the feisty young wife of a naïve young man who has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and expects his stuffy upper-crust family to fall in line. Biel is a delight as this thoroughly modern miss and shows she can adapt to the witty rhythms of Noel Coward’s rapid-fire repartee with the best of ‘em. And the best of ‘em includes the wonderfully talented and woefully underrated Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as the doubting Mrs. Whittaker who doesn’t quite welcome the American intruder with open arms. Thomas’ performance is reminiscent of the haughty English societal roles she began her career with but she adds a dollop of vinegar to this one and appropriately glams down for full effect. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is at once smitten and perplexed as the impressionable new groom while the ever-reliable and appealing Colin Firth steals it all as his cynical and dour father the only other family member who sees the spark in Larita.
Shot entirely in some stunning stately mansions in the environs around Berkshire and Cambridgeshire Easy Virtue expertly captures the flavor of a sophisticated late-'20s British romp. The fresh and inspired casting of Biel in her first English foray should also find contemporary audiences responding. Although he occasionally opens things up a bit (including a very funny fox hunt) director Stephen Elliott wisely lets his cast take center stage with Coward’s constant zingers and spicy dialogue.
There’s nothing really new here that will make you go “Wow.” Though it’s all “been there seen that ” Easy Virtue is still done with verve and style. It’s a hoot for those who miss this kind of theatrical experience on the big screen.
When the others have retired to the patio Biel’s character accidentally sits on Mrs. Whittaker’s prized little pooch sadly squashing the poor little bugger to death. Her subsequent Lucy-esque attempts to cover up the crime are slapstick silly fun giving Biel the opportunity to display the kind of comic chops she didn’t get to show opposite Adam Sandler and Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. The widescreen cinematography is nice to look at but this little trifle will play just fine at your own estate.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
Anyone who knows anything about the real-life Jackie Kallen will probably find
Against the Ropes a significant deviation from her biography. In the film Kallen (Meg Ryan) is a boxing fanatic whose work as an executive assistant at the Cleveland Coliseum allows her to watch the bouts from her office and do the hang at a bar frequented by boxers promoters and local sports paparazzi. Her big break into the man's world of pro boxing comes when she has a run-in with promoter Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub) and he sells her a contract with a boxer for a dollar. That boxer turns out to be a crackhead has-been but while visiting his derelict tenement she discovers her ticket to the big time in Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) a street thug with the raw talent to become a champion. She enlists the help of veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S Dutton) and the rest of the story chronicles the team's meteoric rise to fame Kallen's Faustian over-reaching her lust for publicity and her ultimate professional downfall and resurrection.
As the movie version of Jackie Kallen Ryan dresses walks talks and verbally spars an awful lot like Julia Roberts did as Erin Brockovich and like her predecessor she tries to trade in her cherubic image for something a little well grittier. Picture lace-up bodices snakeskin leather minis suits with satin lapels cut down to there and other skintight skin-patterned accoutrements and you'll have a pretty good idea of what her character looks like. Add an indescribable yet undeniably lowbrow accent and you'll know what she sounds like too. But underneath it all this is still Meg Ryan cute as a button with those big blue eyes and the nose that wrinkles when she smiles. There are moments when Ryan seems to tap into her inner gnarly girl but they're few and far between; most of the time she comes off like a little kid playing dress-up which is kind of fun to watch for a while but eventually you want her mom to come and take her off your hands. Epps fares better although he's a bit duller as 'Lethal' Luther Kallen's star boxer and when the ever-charming Dutton who also directed has his few scenes in the spotlight he shines. Less impressive is a tight-lipped Shalhoub as LaRocca whose vendetta against Kallen culminates in a "curtain call" scene so forced and ridiculous it would have ruined the film had it not already been steadily progressing downhill from the start.
Producer Robert Cort says he and the other filmmakers never intended to make a "biographical" film; instead they tried to focus on Jackie's "astounding accomplishments in the man-eat-man world of boxing." For the record the real Jackie Kallen was first a professional journalist and later a businesswoman with her own public relations firm and she represented several athletes in that capacity before turning to managing her own boxers. No doubt that story sounded an awful lot like the female version of Jerry Maguire which is probably why it wasn't made. Instead the filmmakers try a different gambit: They tell Kallen's life story as if she were boxing's answer to Erin Brockovich--the ol' white-trash-gal-makes-good storyline. It's not especially original; it's not particularly compelling; but it may sell a few movie tickets although to whom is the burning question.
Against the Ropes would play great to Lifetime's mostly female audience if it weren't for all the blood and beating. (Director Dutton a former boxer himself has a lot of experience here although from a cinematic perspective this is no Ali where the slo-mo and close-ups of the boxers were poetry in motion.) And it'd do equally well on ESPN if it weren't for all the corny chick-flick tear-jerking stuff.