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.
Eighteen-year-old Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin) has been for reasons too convoluted to go into left for dead. But his body’s still alive and his spirit – stuck in limbo – continues to interact with those around him desperately trying to communicate his existential plight before his body – hidden in a storm drain - expires. Being caught between life and death is probably a scary place but it’s likely more compelling than depicted here. The cause of Nick’s current dilemma is Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) a juvenile delinquent and classmate of Nick’s whose troubled upbringing turned her into such a teen terror. Nick must try and compel Annie to locate his body but it takes an inordinate amount of time to do it during which the story – and the film as a whole - falls apart. After awhile it’s difficult to work up much sympathy to say nothing of any interest for what happens to these characters. Chatwin (Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds) scores his first big-screen lead here and does about as well as can be expected under the circumstances which are fairly dire. With better material this might have been a decent showcase for his leading-man qualities. Better luck next time. Not nearly as fortunate is Levieva playing the prettiest leader of a high-school crime ring in recent memory. One minute she’s playing it tough and thrashing Nick within an inch of his life. The next she’s tearfully admonishing her little brother (Alex Ferris) not to make the same mistakes she made. It’s a terrible role and worse an inconsistent one. The biggest name in the cast Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Nick’s domineering mother. Like many of the roles in the film it’s strictly one-note. Still it’s nice having a pro like Harden on hand – even if the film goes out of its way to squander her talents. Only Callum Keith Rennie as the obligatory detective on the case manages to bring a little credibility to the proceedings. So naturally the film ignores him for long stretches. David S. Goyer is better known – and rightly so – for the films he’s written (Dark City Batman Begins and the Blade films) than the ones he’s directed (Blade: Trinity anyone?). But the true blame here falls on screenwriters Mick Davis and Christine Roum whose attempt to combine a supernatural storyline doused with teen angst fails miserably. At times The Invisible feels like leftovers from The Sixth Sense Ghost Jacob's Ladder The Butterfly Effect (yikes!) any number of Twilight Zone episodes and even Groundhog Day. The Invisible is based on a Swedish novel and a previous film but like the many Asian chillers that undergo an “Americanized” remake something has been lost in the translation – starting with credibility even on its own terms. So many movies undergo reshoots these days but rarely has an entire movie felt like a reshoot. The Invisible has that dubious distinction.
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?