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Column Fri May 13 2011
I don't think any number of great reviews you might read for Bridesmaids can prepare you for just how strong a film it is. Now you notice, I don't say how funny the film is; I'm saying how strong. That's intentional. The movie is without a doubt funnier than anything I've seen in quite some time (it's from the R-rated House of Apatow, so that's not surprising), but the reason Bridesmaids works goes far beyond the laughs. And you figure that out almost right out of the gate.
The second scene in the movie is between stars Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo) and SNL alum Maya Rudolph, playing lifelong friends Annie and Lillian. The pair do nothing more than have one of the funniest conversations I've ever heard between two people on film, and nothing about the moment feels scripted or forced. In every sense of the word, these are two old friends playing off each other about relationships, the future and life's little disappointments. There are actually many scenes like this in Bridesmaids, moments that actually bother to give us two or three minutes of time where the emphasis isn't about moving the plot forward. Instead, the filmmakers want us to learn something about the characters, get a peek inside their minds and hearts, and actually care about what happens to them. There are no villains here, and despite all of the silliness that transpires, this is a movie whose characters and situations you truly care about.
This emphasis on heartfelt material comes as no surprise, since the director of Bridesmaids is Paul Feig, the co-creator (along with Judd Apatow) of "Freaks and Geeks," as well as episodes of such shows as "Arrested Development," "Mad Men," "30 Rock," "Bored To Death," "Nurse Jackie" and "The Office," including the recent farewell to Michael Scott episode. His film work is less inspired (I Am David, Unaccompanied Minors), but all is forgiven thanks to Bridesmaids, the story of a friendship that may or may not survive the pressures of a planning a wedding. Anyone who slings around the dopey phrase "chick flick" anywhere near this movie is a government-certified idiot. This film exists in the raunch-filled world that Apatow and his band of merry (mostly) men helped create and grow.
The first of many big surprises about this film is how layered the major characters are, especially Wiig's Annie, a great chef but failed owner of the Milwaukee dessert emporium Cake Baby. Broke, in a dead-end job at a jewelry store, and living with a creepy British brother-and-sister team, this attractive woman can't even get her dating life in order as she accepts the role of Fuck Buddy #3 to the handsome sleaziest man in the world (Jon Hamm).
Annie is genuinely happy when Lillian gets engaged, but when she feels like her friend's new world threaten their kinship, her already well-established insecurities increase exponentially. Embodying this new world is Lillian's new close friend Helen (the great Rose Byrne from Get Him To the Greek and the recent Insidious), the wife of Lillian's future husband's boss. Helen is the picture of perfection, not just because she's beautiful but also because she confident, social, rich, and a great party planner. I said before there are no villains, which is true. But that doesn't stop Annie from perceiving Helen as one.
At Lillian's engagement party, we meet the rest of the bridal party, each of whom gets her own moment to shine and be as hilarious as they can. And while Wendi McLendon-Covey ("Reno 911!") and Ellie Kemper ("The Office") are both very capable comic actresses, they pale in comparison is the sheer power of Melissa ("Gilmore Girls," "Mike & Molly") McCarthy's Megan, the sister of the groom, who explodes all over this movie like cannon fire. The more we learn about Megan — her desires, her preferred perversions — the more we love her. I could watch an entire film about Megan and beg for two sequels, she's that entertaining, and she throws some much-needed audacity into the mix.
I've seen Bridesmaids twice now, and it wasn't until the second viewing that I truly appreciated just what Kristen Wiig was bringing to the mix besides a solid script. Her performance is nuanced. As much as I've always found her funny on SNL, it wasn't until her sweet yet tough performance in Whip It that I really recognized her abilities as an actor. With Bridesmaids, there are times when your heart goes out to Annie, but at about the halfway point in the film, you start to realize that so many of her failures are her own doing, and the fact that she can't pull it together long enough to make sure her best friend has a great wedding experience might actually make you angry at her.
This shift occurs at about the same time she meets the film's other secret weapon, Irish actor Chris O'Dowd as the charming Wisconsin State Trooper Officer Rhodes (why an Irishman is a Wisconsin cop is never explained, thank goodness), who pulls over Annie for a busted tail light and ends up falling for her. Naturally, a great guy clearly bent on treating her well does not sit well with Annie. Let me throw out one more name to entice you to go see Bridesmaids: the late Jill Clayburgh, who, in her final filmed performance, plays Annie's mother, a woman who goes to AA meetings just to feed her latest culinary concoctions to the poor unfortunates who attend. When Clayburgh relays one alcoholic's story involving "blow-jobbing," my heart shed a little tear at losing such a talented and funny woman.
Bridesmaids is one of those films that is so categorically all-around great that anyone who doesn't enjoy it must have something broken inside, and I want no part of you. Most of the Apatow-produced or -directed films have the common quality of making sure the heart, head and funny bone are all thoroughly satisfied by the time the movie is done, and Bridesmaids is among the best of the bunch. It's one of the best films about female friends I've seen in ages, and I love that no one was afraid to let us see Annie in full mental collapse before building her back up. If you really only check out mainstream films week to week, forget that fake-3D-ified Priest (which did not screen for critics) and see Bridesmaids twice.
Where to begin with this one? If you simply focus on the story of Hesher, that keeps things simple but completely misses what makes this movie so damn singular and enjoyable. This is not as much a film about plot as it is about action and behavior, in particular, the very bad behavior of a man named Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; not sure if Hesher is his first or last or made-up name), who prefers violence and other forms of destruction to conversation and feelings. He is a man driven by instinct and impulse, fueled by drugs and alcohol.
Hesher crosses paths with a young boy named TJ (Devin Brochu), whose mother has recently died in a car crash, resulting in his father (a bearded Rainn Wilson) sinking into a deep depression and forcing the two to live with TJ's sweet grandmother (Piper Laurie). When TJ accidentally leads the cops to Hesher's hideout, Hesher doesn't react well. In fact, he shows up at grandma's house and simply moves in, with little resistance from this emotionally paralyzed family. Besides the fact that Gordon-Levitt has simply never played a character like Hesher before, the thrill in watching him here is seeing the subtle moments of change and clarity dawn on him as a result of letting this family get under his skin. It isn't a complete transformation; there's no way I would have bought that. But he allows actual human emotions to factor into his day-to-day routine, or what passes for one.
TJ is being hounded by a school bully, and while Hesher is reluctant to help, TJ receives some compassion and assistance from grocery store clerk Nicole (Natalie Portman), whose life in the dumps is running a close second to her new young friend. With her oversized glasses and little or no makeup, Portman looks remarkably plain, which is completely suitable for Nicole, who is not meant to be a great beauty. But Portman's transformation is more than physical. Nicole fidgets, stammers a bit, and her body language is that of someone who has essentially given up. It's a quiet, but remarkable bit of supporting acting.
First-time feature director Spencer Susser (who wrote the film with Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod) keeps Hesher looking bleak, slightly washed out but also highly kinetic. It's a little tough to place the time period, but my guess is that's intentional — it feels like early '80s, but it really doesn't matter. The cumulative effect of Hesher entering this troubled family is an awakening. He tells stories that people think are metaphors for their present circumstances, but they don't make any damn sense... or do that. When he relays a tale of a snake and mouse to Grandmom, she asks, "Is TJ the mouse?" His reply: "I don't know." Another story he tells about losing a nut makes slightly more sense.
I firmly believe Hesher is a film that will haunt for days or weeks after you see it, even if you don't end up liking it. It's a work whose meaning is elusive, but its purpose is clear. It tells us that sometimes to get out of a deeply rooted slump, you need a bit of anarchy tossed into your world like a hand grenade. Sure, Hesher is a badass movie, but it's also a surprisingly thought-provoking effort well worth your attention. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with Hesher director and co-writer Spencer Susser, go to Ain't It Cool News.
While I'm certainly on board with many of my peers on how special and well done a film director Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is, I will refrain from doing cartwheels over just how excellent a film it truly is. I have no qualms with the feel of absolute authenticity that comes from this tale of three families on the Oregon Trail circa 1845 traveling over the Cascade Mountains, possibly lost as their guide, Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), leads them into the unknown. There's a type of elegance in the way these three couples — Michelle Williams and Will Patton as the Tetherows; Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano as the Gatelys; and Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff as the Whites, with their son Jimmy — trek fearlessly across open terrain, as short on hope as they are water.
The women wear full-length, heavy dresses with head pieces that all but cover their faces. There are large chunks of this movie where we never see the faces of the women. Combined with the desolate landscape, Meek's Cutoff might as well have been filmed on another planet, populated by strange faceless creatures doing the chores of the day. And yes, it seems abundantly clear that the plight of these lost travelers blindly following their aimless guide into almost certain doom is a metaphor for the times we live(d) in and the way we follow our leaders. If anything, the metaphor is about as subtle as smoke signals on a clear blue day.
Speaking of which, at one point during the journey, the travelers begin to notice a figure on the horizon, whom Meek eventually captures and reveals to be a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who does not speak English. They can only guess why has been watching them for days, whether he knows where water is located, or whether he's a danger to them. The overtly racist Meek wants to skin the poor guy alive, while others want to keep him alive as a hopefully more reliable guide. Paranoia and mob mentality are pitted against common sense.
As measured as the plot of Meek's Cutoff rolls along, it's never boring and there are even several moments of genuine tension, often involving the Native American and his fate. And as the water runs out, the terrain gets more rugged, and the mood turns darker, the film takes on a more desperate tone. But it also becomes clear that this story, from screenwriter Jon Raymond (who wrote Reichardt's two previous films and adapted the recent HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce), that this story belongs to the women, who, right or wrong, rise up in defiance against their husbands and Meek's weak guidance. This is a film of torn allegiances and an unstable sense of community and above all else survival. You're going to feel like you need a big glass of water after you see this. As always Reichardt drives home her point with quiet moments rather than big drama, and as always I can't wait to see what she has for us next. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Everything Must Go
I found this adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance" (adapted by first-time director Dan Rush) a real easy film to slip into, relax and feel comfortable with as the laid-back mood of the film washes over you. Although the film has many a laugh, it's actually about a man's life falling to pieces, and there are moments in this story that are downright tragic. But when you find out the man in question, Nick Halsey, is played by Will Ferrell, you have some idea of what you're getting yourself into. Still, Ferrell's comic-tragic take on the material may surprise some of his fan base, and that's always a good thing.
The film opens with Nick giving a presentation to the sales staff at his company. He's still a top earner for the company, but his drunken antic on a recent business trip to Denver force the company to let him go. Seems Nick has had a bit of a drinking problem, which seemed to be under control until Denver, which was his strike three. He comes home early from work to his suburban Arizona home to find the locks on his house changed and all of his worldly possessions scattered on the lawn. His wife (who remains unseen for the entire film) has left him. Rather than rent a van and move everything into storage, he decides to turn the front yard into his home, but when the cops show up (including his AA sponsor, played by Michael Peña), they give him only a few days to get off the lawn once and for all. Then Nick opts to hold a big yard sale and get rid of everything.
He enlists the help of a neighborhood kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and makes friends with his new across-the-street, pregnant neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall). He also never stops drinking beer, which makes him tired and cranky for most of the film. But during the course of preparing and holding the yard sale, he takes stock in what makes his life important and remembers the people who made him feel special. This leads to a sweet visit to an old high school acquaintance, played by Laura Dern.
When Everything Must Go stays small and sticks with the folks in Nick's immediate circle of new friends, it shines. When it goes for bigger, more outrageous laughs, it staggers a bit, such as a sequence involving the sexual behaviors of Nick's next-door neighbor (Stephen Root), and a plot twist involving his sponsor. I particularly enjoyed the layered relationship Nick has with Samantha. Since she's pregnant and essentially unpacking her home without the help of her husband — who is wrapping up things at work back where they come from — there is really no chance these two will fall for each other, but they kind of do in a non-romantic way. They have a great connection and chemistry, and I was drawn into every one of their conversations.
It's kind of a shame that Ferrell's fanbase that rightfully adores Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brother and The Other Guys probably won't touch Everything Must Go because Ferrell is reminding us that he can act as well as (or in addition to) make us laugh. He's genuinely terrific here as he makes us give a damn and care about this often unlikeable man. And without getting sappy, the film is not about a man at the end of his rope; rather, it's about the painful birth of a new chapter in his life. He's literally cleaning out the closet so he can start all over again. It's a remarkable little movie that I hope you all give a shot. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
The Double Hour
From a first-time feature filmmaker, Italy's Giuseppe Capotondi, comes the strange and twisted love story/mystery/caper film/psychological thriller The Double Hour, about Guido (Filippo Timi, who played Mussolini in the great Vincere), a retired police officer with a knack for surveillance, who falls in love with hotel chambermaid Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport). Although it seems unlikely these two would ever cross paths, they actually meet at a speed-dating event and seem to hit it off. He's a regular at these events, but he never seems to meet the right woman. With Sonia, however, something clicks. But just when things are starting to look up for the couple, they are attacked by masked men who clearly know that Guido is now a security guard, protecting something precious.
Sonia is severely injured by a gunshot that grazes her skull during the attack, and has wild visions that mix fantasy and reality as well as timelines in her life while she's unconscious. When she awakes, her concept of what is real and what is not seems altered. If any or all of this sounds confusing, welcome to my world. And the bad news is that when the drama of these events plays out — revealing betrayal, conspiracy, and huge scoops of heartbreak — the payoff isn't nearly as satisfying as it should be. Entire sections of the movie are rendered virtually useless by the conclusion and not in a way that feels like Capotondi was attempting to distract us intentionally. The leads both give great performances but are forced to act out some occasionally ridiculous plot twists.
I can't imagine in a million years that even viewers who are enjoying the film up until the final sequence are going to be satisfied by the way The Double Hour wraps up. I've seen some critics say that this movie is paying tribute to the Italian Giallo movement, but I don't think that's what's going on here. If anything, this is watered-down Giallo that employs some of the same visual tricks without any of the emotional payoff. I was with the film a great deal of the way, but then it started to slip away into a confusing and dissatisfying realm. I think this director (who is better known for his music videos and fashion photography) has an interesting style that might do well with another plot. This one doesn't cut it. The Double Hour opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.