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.
Easy A a teen sex comedy with no actual sex aims rather conspicuously to plumb the best bits of Diablo Cody and Alexander Payne in its upside-down self-consciously campy take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In the role of its high-school Hester Prynne is Emma Stone the sly husky heroine of last year’s surprise hit Zombieland. Tested by a film that is far less clever than its director Will Gluck or screenwriter Bert Royal would have us believe (and they desperately want us to believe) she passes with flying colors delivering a performance that should elevate her into the upper echelon of actresses possessing brains and beauty in equal measure.
Stone plays Olive the kind of quick-witted hyper-literate teen that our educational system produces in ever-diminishing numbers. (If it ever produced them to begin with.) More knowing and sophisticated than others her age she is nonetheless not immune to the pressure of peers and the dread of being labeled a loser. Under duress by a prying friend (Aly Michalka) to dish the details of her birthday weekend a rather mundane affair mainly spent jumping on her bed to the tune of Natasha Bedingfield’s pop monstrosity “Pocket Full of Sunshine ” she feels compelled to embellish a bit and concocts an entirely fictional account of losing her virginity (dubbed the “V-Card” by Royal trying too hard) to a boy from a junior college across town.
Word of Olive’s deflowering spreads with startling speed aided by the incessant rumor-mongering of a catty Evangelical eavesdropper (Amanda Bynes). Suddenly branded a tramp on account of a seemingly harmless little lie Olive opts to embrace her newly tarnished reputation and put it to good use. In a viciously stratified social environment where even the most awkward acne-plagued pariah can earn respect and even admiration from members of the upper castes for having gone All the Way Olive anoints herself the Mother Theresa of (fake) sluts bestowing her blessing upon downtrodden gents in need of a reputation boost. And she resolves to look the part too traipsing around in scandalous bustiers and affixing the letter “A” to her chest.
There are limits to Easy A’s Scarlet Letter conceit overly Glee-ful tone forced repartee and pop-culture references (John Hughes is invoked so many times he should get a producer credit). Which is why director Gluck must be grateful to have found Stone who handles the verbal calisthenics of Royal’s script with charm and verve and a certain effortless appeal that keeps us engaged even as the film wallows in contrived irony and heavy-handedness. Keep your eye on her.
Attractive college co-ed Casey (Odette Yustman) finds herself the target of the diabolical Dybbuk a spirit which has bided its time since her birth to make its nefarious presence known. Is it perhaps a manifestation of her twin brother who died in the womb all those years ago? Since dear old Dad (James Remar) is away on business -- seemingly for the entire length of the movie -- concerned Casey seeks answers from Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) a survivor of the Holocaust who may hold the key to Casey’s past. Needless to say those to whom Casey confides her fears often find themselves in danger of being offed in gruesome fashion. (Misery may love company but the Dybbuk doesn’t.) In a last-ditch effort to rid herself of the evil spirit Casey turns to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) who finally agrees to perform an exorcism after he too sees the signs. Aside from acting terrified (and looking good doing it) Yustman (Cloverfield) is totally at the mercy of the story which shows little mercy when it comes to providing any concrete (or even shaky) answers to the questions it raises. She’s attractive but there’s not much else to the character. As Casey’s respective boyfriend and best friend Cam Gigandet (Twilight) and Meagan Good (Saw V) are merely functionaries offering the typical mixture of skepticism and support before learning for themselves -- too late of course! -- that maybe Casey’s suspicions have validity. Adding a (misplaced?) touch of class to the proceedings are Oldman who doesn’t embarrass himself and Alexander who isn’t so fortunate. It’s also a wonder why Carla Gugino seen occasionally in flashback as Casey’s deceased mother even bothered. It’s a nothing role which might explain why the actress has no billing other than in the end credits. There’s no question that writer/director David S. Goyer has a deep love and appreciation for horror and science-fiction given his previous credits which include the scripts for Dark City Blade and The Dark Knight but as a director his work (which includes Blade: Trinity and last year’s The Invisible) leaves much to be desired. There are some good ideas here and some individual scenes are reasonably effective but the parts don’t add up to a satisfactory whole. The Unborn suffers from a botched delivery.
Thing is nothing much happens in Catch. Everyone is engaging enough but there’s a lack of oomph required to get us feeling all tingly about love. As the story goes Gray Wheeler (Jennifer Garner) is struggling after the sudden death of her fiancé Grady. His friends however take her under their wing and try to help her get over the loss. There’s lovable goof Sam (Kevin Smith) hyper-responsible Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and oddly enough the old childhood buddy Fritz (Tim Olyphant) a seemingly irresponsible playboy whom Gray never thought she could relate to. Until she shacks up with him—along with Sam and Dennis--in Grady’s house. Suddenly deep dark secrets about who she thought was the love of her life surface and Gray finds herself inexplicably drawn to Fritz. Aw let’s see if these two crazy kids can’t work it out. The expectations Garner will be as appealing in Catch and Release as she was in 13 Going on 30 are going to be dashed. As sad sack Gray grief doesn’t particularly suit the actress. Yes she successfully conveys the right emotions but she just looks so much better when she’s smiling and somewhat perky. Things do pick up however once Gray starts falling for Fritz played with effective sex appeal by Olyphant (Deadwood). The character actor who has played more than a few bad guys does a nice job as a romantic lead. And then there’s Kevin Smith obviously taking a break from directing (he’s also co-starring in the fourth Die Hard installment Live Free or Die Hard). Can you blame him? Clerks II or Jersey Girl didn’t do much for his directing resume to say the least. But as Sam he’s a charming and affable lug who gets most of the funny lines. As does Juliette Lewis as a woman from Grady’s past—although her ditzy shtick does grate at times. Writer/director Susannah Grant known for writing strong women stories (Erin Brockovich 28 Days) makes her directorial debut with Catch and Release--and is fairly competent at the task. Of course her skill is more evident in the written word but she seems to have an easygoing manner with her actors bringing out some genuine moments. And she does explain the title: It’s got to do with Grady’s fly fishing business and the practice of catching and releasing a fish which figuratively speaking also sums up Gray’s journey through the movie. Natch. But as mentioned before the film sort of just meanders along and is more realistic than what we really want from a good romantic movie. We want big fat tears great epic gnashing of teeth--and yes even a little lust—as our young lovers discover each other in a gloriously dramatic way. Lifetime TV movies should be the standard.
Pastor Becky Fischer holds a summer camp for kids at Devil's Lake in North Dakota. She's training Christian soldiers for God's Army and Jesus Camp follows three white home-schooled Missouri children--Levi (now 13) Rachael (now 10) and Tory (now 11)--through the camp from a year ago to where they are now in their indoctrination. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady present the religious brainwashing techniques in a slow deliberate manner as the evangelical Christian adults seem to transform the kids into Stepford-like children who spew the word of God for less than altruistic reasons. The children are shown being trained to bring Christ back to America and use their "Prophetic Gifts " of which they are told they all possess. There are also scenes of children blessing a cardboard figure of President Bush saying prayers for conservative Supreme Court justice nominees and 7-year-olds in painted faces dancing spiritual war dances believing prayer can fix their malfunctioning film projector. The filmmakers try in vain to remain objective but it's impossible. As a documentary the participants of Jesus Camp come across as realistic as they can even though they are aware of the camera at all times. Some of the scenes seem to play to the cameras in disturbing reality as the angelic faces are moved to tears by their religious fervor or turned into unworldly contortions as they speak in tongues. Levi wants to be a mega-church pastor speaking to congregations of thousands while Rachael wants to be a missionary in far-off places and is bent on recruiting her neighbor. Tory spreads her message through dance and attends anti-abortion rallies. Pastor Becky is also shown in revealing moments especially as she obsesses more about her appearance than Tammy Faye Baker would. Pastor Becky obviously allowed incredible access to the filmmakers for Jesus Camp and maybe she’ll be pleased with the way the film will get her word out. But Jesus Camp seems more suited for TV than the big screen. The ideas presented are not even remotely balanced. Well-made feature film documentaries don’t have to be unbiased but they should at least strive to address some opposite points of view. Air America radio host Mike Papantonio who is a Methodist gives the only contrary commentary about these camps but he's rather namby-pamby about it all. Those who may expect more answers from Jesus Camp--on what would make people like Pastor Betty take these kids and coach them into becoming religiously intolerant and rigid thinkers--could be sorely disappointed.