Gangster Squad the new movie from genre-blending filmmaker Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has a tone problem. The scatterbrained approach to the vigilante tale is summed up in one particular sequence: the "Squad " cops given permission to take down the goons of Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) by any means possible bust a dope smuggling operation at an airport in Burbank. Instead of tailing the criminals making off with the drugs they engage them in a car chase full of gunfire explosions and hyper-stylized CG-assisted camera work. When they finally do capture Cohen's men the squad leader Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) interrogates them then shoots the cowering thugs in the back of the legs before rolling them down a hill. Within seconds the movie jumps from outlandish comic book roller coaster ride to gritty crime fiction exploring the moral complexity of defeating crime lords. The two mix onscreen like water and oil.
Fleischer packs it all into Gangster Squad and rarely does any of the material shine. Brolin works as the hard-nosed policeman dedicated to justice physically perfect with beady eyes and a square chin. But that's all his character has to offer with his squadron offering even less. Ryan Gosling appears as the whippersnapper cop on the verge of corruption expressing his doubts with the whiniest '40s accent ever to grace the screen. Anthony Mackie Michael Pena Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick fill out the group — after sleek Ocean's 11-style introductions — bringing identifiable traits that open the door for one or two oh-right-that's-why-you're-here moments throughout the film. They feel barely existent in Gangster Squad's zippy script convinced to work outside the law all too easily and following O'Mara into suicidal missions that likely have sounder alternatives. For O'Mara whatever takedown creates the biggest mess — be it the aforementioned chase or setting a Cohen-owned club aflame — is top priority.
The saving grace is Penn playing Cohen like a long lost castmember of Warren Beaty's Dick Tracy. Every moment he's on screen Penn is scarfing down scenery and spitting it in our faces going over the top and sticking to it. He loves money he loves women he loves fudge sundaes. Penn makes a choice one the movie desperately needs. Surprisingly Emma Stone can't keep up as his arm candy Grace Faraday who falls head over heels for Gosling because it's an old fashioned noir throwback and well you certainly can't have one without hammy dialogue and paper thin romance.
The nods to Hollywood's golden era upgraded with flashy costumes and special effects would work if Gangster Squad didn't insist on bringing reality into the picture. Too often the movie resorts to moments of shocking violence much of it intensified by the slow motion shots of a tommy gun. The violence is raw while the film surrounding it is cartoonish. The choice raises questions Gangster Squad never answers: is O'Mara in the right when he takes the law into his own hands? Ribisi's techie character — a WWII vet like O'Mara and someone deeply changed by his war experiences — asks these questions challenging his boss' choices. Briefly. O'Mara and the film brush off the debate any time it comes up making room for more slick scenes of action.
Muddled in some of the most heinous digital photography in recent memory (no exaggeration: half the movie is motion blur) Gangster Squad is an experiment in modernization gone wrong. As Brolin and Penn trudge their way with entertaining choices Fleischer's film goes rogue around them. In this case entertaining outside the law doesn't work.
Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
Zack (Dane Cook) is more than a box boy at Super Club—a not-so-thinly veiled version of Costco/Walmart style warehouse stores. He sort of lives there too with his secret lounge behind the stacks where he hangs with other Super Club outcasts (Andy Dick Harland Williams and Brian George) and trades damaged goods on the black market. Vince (Dax Shepard) is the Super Club’s superstar checker employee of the month 17 months in a row. Naturally Zack and Vince are mortal enemies and Zack takes Vince down several pegs with pranks such as writing obscene comments on his monthly award photo. But when Super Club transfers Amy (Jessica Simpson) from another store word gets around she has a thing for employees of the month. That’s all the motivation it takes for Zack to strive for box-stocking excellence. Once Vince realizes Zack is threatening his record he and his flunky Jorge (Efran Ramirez) conspire to keep him from achieving even minor success at mopping up spills or finding lost children. But as Zack starts to show Vince up he risks becoming a company man and losing touch with his friends. Can he get the girl and keep it real? Employee is suppose to be a vehicle for Cook’s relatable observational and sometimes smart-ass brand of humor. But either the script doesn’t do him justice or his persona doesn’t translate to fictional characters. His Zack seems like every other movie slacker only tamer (writing “I love anal” is as edgy as his PG-13 pranks get) and less sympathetic. Shepard is more endearing as the pathetically work-obsessed Vince. His attempts to be charming are so outrageously uncomfortable you almost wish Amy would hook up with him and teach him a few social skills. Simpson is totally adorable as the all-American love object with enough self-esteem to make her seem attainable. Naturally she also manages to squeeze her into some cleavage-producing dresses. The supporting cast however is all over the place. Ramirez shows he won’t be typecast as the same Latino character he played in Napoleon Dynamite by playing a guy with no personality at all. George satirizes a typical Indian clerk but is not nearly as effective as say The Simpsons’ Apu. Dick looks like he’s going through some sort of substance abuse withdrawal playing a cartoonish character with a cross-eyed condition while Williams just does the same monotone weirdo he always does. Silly comedies like this are hardly the type of movies directors use to express their range of cutting edge cinematic techniques. Usually if you just let the comedians run wild it works. First-time feature director Greg Coolidge doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. The guys getting hit in the crotch are framed properly and the reaction shots are cut in with proper timing. The problem is the material just isn’t funny. Coolidge had a hand in the script so he is somewhat to blame for not beefing the laughs up with more insightful digs at warehouse stores or office romances. Employee feels more like a B-movie you’d watch on cable late at night a vehicle for a standup comedian peppered with other TV show bit players who are ALL capable of so much more. For example Cook Williams and even Dick do great stand-up. Shepard could have stayed in character in real life situations as he proved on Punk’d or they could have found absurdity in everyday activities for Simpson. I mean how could they not have her handle some bulk Chicken of the Sea? Come on it’s right there! Employee of the Month instead just wastes everyone's time.