Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
Along Came Polly has a place in a tiny niche of the romantic comedy genre that one might call "Poopy Love." You know these movies; they feature a nerdy guy usually played by Ben Stiller whose love interest witnesses him in the throes of some scatological or penile trauma yet falls in love with him anyway. The comedy throughout must be gross and whenever possible breast pee-pee or sphincter-related. The girl is usually a childhood friend (à la There's Something About Mary) who's grown up to be a beautiful if quirky creature--she'd have to be to fall in love with a guy who gets his wiener caught in his zipper on prom night discusses milking the cat at her parents' dinner table (à la Meet the Parents) or as in the case of Along Came Polly contracts a massive case of the squirts on their first date after eating spicy food with his fingers. But it's all in the spirit of fun as the love interest teaches the uptight guy to embrace life and there's much hilarity on the road to romance--as well as a fairly irrelevant subplot whose sole purpose is to show us what a great guy the hero is.
As Polly's leading man uptight newly wedded insurance risk assessor Reuben Feffer Stiller proves he's still the undisputed king of Poopy Love films by hamming it up to the hilt whether he's showing off his newly acquired salsa skills or making his misery and anger palpable--and physical--when his bride Lisa (played very straight by Debra Messing) has a fling on the first day of their honeymoon in St. Barts with French scuba instructor Claude (a very naked very toned very funny Hank Azaria). Crestfallen and bitter Reuben returns to the Big Apple alone and while at an art show with his best friend former child actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bumps into an old school chum the free-spirited Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston). The uproar begins in earnest with Hoffman on the scene--his egomaniacal former child star is a funny tub of pomposity and insecurity--and he and Stiller have nice comic chemistry together. That's more than can be said of Aniston who doesn't seem to want to get her hands dirty even though the script offers her the opportunity. She never really participates physically in the comedy the way Cameron Diaz did in Mary--she simply reacts to Stiller's antics. Her character's pet ferret gets more laughs.
Like Stiller Along Came Polly's director and screenwriter John Hamburg is no stranger to Poopy Love having written the outrageous script for Meet the Parents and the less clever though highly original Zoolander. The jokes in Polly seem limited in comparison with a high reliance on pooping farting "sharting" (when you fart and a little poo comes out) and of course the old took-a-dump-in-your-girlfriend's-bathroom-and-the-toilet-won't-flush gag. That doesn't mean the movie's not funny--it is. There's just not much here we haven't seen before.