After starting what he thinks is just another day by methodically brushing his teeth the way he always does IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) gets a visit from an uninvited auditory guest--Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) the author of his life. Little does she know while writing a book about a character named Harold Crick that the real Harold can hear her narrations loud and clear; little does Harold know that her novels don't have happy endings--that is until he hears it in her narration which states that he is to die. Luckily she's in the midst of writer's block so he has some time to find out well how much time he has to live. He immediately consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) who instructs Harold to further pursue a relationship with an anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is currently auditing in order to learn more about the course the novel will take. The relationship flourishes and he’s happy for the first time in a long time but will art imitate--or end--his life? Ferrell seems to be mimicking the exact path of his direct comedic-superstar predecessor Jim Carrey even down to his first serious-ish role: Carrey’s first dramatic foray was the equally quasi-existential though much better Truman Show. Ferrell has no problem whatsoever making the transition--that’s just what abundant natural talent affords certain actors. But his crossover attempt should’ve been more subtle since audiences have come to expect at least one “streaking” scene per Ferrell film. As Ferrell’s heavily tattooed love interest the ubiquitous Gyllenhaal scores again. Fresh off roles as a stripper single mom (Sherrybaby) and a frantic pregnant 9/11 wife (World Trade Center) she proves that no matter her character’s physical appearance or mindset she can do no wrong. Ditto for Thompson who spends much of the film in pajamas and the throes of writer’s block--the "writer" prototype--much to the dismay of her publisher-appointed assistant played well by Queen Latifah. Rounding out the cast is Hoffman whose professor isn't totally unlike his answer provider in like-minded I Heart Huckabees. His character’s quirky humor is child’s play at this point for the veteran but a select few scenes between him and Ferrell are extremely satisfying. To liken Stranger Than Fiction to a Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Adaptation et al) script/movie is not totally without merit. Fiction captures the “vivid yet distant” essence that is common with Kaufman’s stories and subsequent movies. But whereas Kaufman doesn’t go out of his way to coddle audiences’ minds amidst his often obtuse movies writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster seem to have audience appreciation (read: box office) on the brain. Helm’s idea is nothing short of genius in a way that’s different from the oft-mentioned screenwriters he’s compared to but somewhere en route he and/or Forster (Finding Neverland) compromised the vision. Because what starts out as a complex intriguing movie turns stale quickly especially given the inexplicable ease with which it transitions from a metaphysical story into a straightforward one. And Forster's tendency in the movie to undercomplicate is just as detrimental as the opposite extreme. The dialogue also falls somewhat flat often neither funny nor off-kilter enough buoyed only slightly by superb cinematography set direction and indie music featuring Spoon (whose frontman Britt Daniel reworked some of their best songs for the movie)--but we’ve come to expect that trifecta from similar movies.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
December 11, 2003 1:48pm EST
Remember that movie about a high school geek who gets the most popular girl in school to be his girlfriend to boost his own image only to discover that fitting in isn't worth sacrificing his individuality? Or was that a Saved by the Bell episode? Love Don't Cost a Thing is the latest teen comedy to follow that formula to a fault: Alvin Johnson (Nick Cannon) is an outcast teen with no style and he's ready to do anything to shed his nerdy image. Even his father (Steve Harvey) an old-school ladies' man wishes the boy would get out and socialize more. So when the popular Paris Morgan (Christina Millian) wrecks her mother's Cadillac Escalade Alvin an amateur mechanic offers to fix the vehicle and pay for the parts if she will pretend to be his girlfriend for two weeks. A haircut and several Sean John warm-up suits later Alvin becomes "Al " an ultra-smooth guy who's "got all the 411s." Of course Paris starts to fall for Al who's too busy keeping up his "big pimpin'" facade to notice. But after alienating everyone close to him including his childhood friends stylin' Al learns a valuable lesson about being himself.
Cannon's performance in Love Don't Cost a Thing falls short of the impressive one he delivered in the musical drama Drumline--his first lead role in a feature film. Here it's impossible to sympathize with the 23-year-old Cannon's clownish character even when he is needlessly bullied by jocks. With his crazy uneven Afro and spastic walk even Molly Ringwald's goody-good character Samantha in Sixteen Candles might be tempted to point and laugh. But while the movie's hero doesn't score many points other characters do notably Al's gal pal Paris played by songwriter/actress Millian who has written songs for Ja Rule and appeared as a guest on several TV shows including Charmed and The Steve Harvey Show. She delivers a very sincere performance as the "frappuccino with hips " and although audiences should despise her character for prostituting her popularity and lying to just about everybody Millian manages to morph Paris into a likeable personality--and we can't help but go along for the ride. But mustachioed comic Harvey steals the show as Al's loveable father Clarence a man who still boogies to his 8-track collection and gives his son very valuable life advice including how to open a condom wrapper using only one hand.
Writer/director Troy Beyer's Love Don't Cost a Thing is so visually horrendous that it should have been called This Film Didn't Cost a Thing. Beyer who directed the dire 1998 comedy Let's Talk About Sex and penned the even worse 1997 B.A.P.S. doesn't much improve her track record in 2003. Her guidance here including sound light and action is so amateurish that the film seems unfinished. An outdoor party scene for example is so dark it's difficult to make out the characters on screen and in another scene inside the school the sound is so muffled the character's lines are barely audible. Beyer's screenplay adapted from the mind-numbingly bad 1987 comedy Can't Buy Me Love doesn't help matters either; most of the characters remain as shallow and label-obsessed as they were 15 years ago. And while there have been countless Hollywood films revolving around the same theme many have done so successfully including the aforementioned oldie Sixteen Candles and more recently The New Guy.