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Column Fri Jul 08 2011

Horrible Bosses, A Better Life & Zookeeper

Horrible Bosses

There's no denying that this has been a good summer for original R-rated comedies. (I use the caveat "original" to eliminate The Hangover, Part II from the discussion.) Bridesmaids set the bar early, Bad Teacher is unexpectedly strong thanks to a throwing-caution-to-the-wind performance by Cameron Diaz, and the upcoming 30 Minutes or Less, well, let's just say it fits right in with my thesis. And this week, we have the another strong entry, Horrible Bosses, about three slightly dopey friends who decide that each of their bosses needs to die, so they decide to get one of the other guys to do it.

In a perhaps not so surprising revelation, the plot of Horrible Bosses isn't really the point, but even if it were, it actually holds up as remarkably well as it navigates through twists and turns that border on sophisticated. Jason Bateman's Nick is, I suppose, our entry point into this story. He works his ass off, putting in double-digit-hour days and most weekends, trying to please the man in charge, Harken (Kevin Spacey), a power-trip enthusiast who hints that all of Nick's hard work will lead to a management position. I think anyone who has seen Spacey's legendary turn in Swimming With Sharks will recognize the template for Harken, but I didn't mind that he was tapping into some familiar territory.

Kurt (SNL's Jason Sudeikis, most recently of Hall Pass) actually has a great boss (Donald Sutherland), who promptly dies, leaving the company to his corrupt pig of a son Bobby (an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell), who is intent on destroying the company. Nick and Kurt have a tougher time seeing the troubles of their dental assistant friend Dale (Charlie Day, from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and who showed great friend chemistry with Sudeikis in last year's under-appreciated Going the Distance), whose sexy boss (Jennifer Aniston) is coming on strong between and during teeth cleanings. This wouldn't be such a terrible thing if Dale wasn't recently engaged.

After a night of drunken discussion, the fellas decide to go to the bad part of town and hire a killer. Instead what they get is a "murder consultant" in an ex-con (a nice supporting turn by Jamie Foxx), who advises them on doing the work themselves, but in a manner that leaves no connective tissue between the employee and the employer's murder.

With the exception of his abysmal Four Christmases, Seth Gordon is a solid director of comedy, including the documentary The King of Kong (yes, a doc can be a comedy), as well as episodes of "Parks and Recreation," "Community," "The Office," and "Modern Family." But Horrible Bosses elevates him on the comedy landscape. Once the murder "plan" is in place, the story (from screenwriters Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan M. Goldstei) actually gets slightly complex, and Gordon does a nice job pacing the action, while ramping up the anticipation as the dirty deeds prepare to get done.

With Bateman, Sudeikis and Day (and let's throw Spacey in there too) essentially playing versions of characters we've seen them do before, the real standouts are Farrell and Aniston, both of whom dive into their vulgar behaviors with wild abandon. I should caution fans of Aniston's romantic comedies (I believe there are three of you out there) that your heads will explode at the language coming out of her mouth in Horrible Bosses. As for Farrell, sporting a sexy combover and shameless polyester wardrobe, his genius cannot be understated. I love when he takes risks like this, and I love it more when he tackles humor, in such films as In Bruges (and, I suspect, the upcoming Fright Night remake).

I don't want to give away any of the fun turns of the back half of Horrible Bosses, but there is death, some folks go to jail, and almost nothing in the gang's scheme goes as planned. The film gets dark and goes to some evil places, and each time it did, I loved it a little bit more. Story or no story, the three leads work so well together that I really hope they find a way to do another movie, either as these or different characters (like it's going to make a difference). The banter between Sudeikis and Day is especially worth repeating. In just the last couple of days, I've read some criticism of Horrible Bosses that say it's not as strong as Bridesmaids. To that I respond, "No shit." Why are those two films even being compared? That doesn't make Horrible Bosses any less funny. Consider it a strong runner-up in the comedy category this summer, and go check it out.

A Better Life

I've seen a small handful of performances so far this year that I think are award worthy if awards season hit a the mid-year point. But watching the great Mexican actor Demián Bichir inhabit the character Carlos in A Better Life made me realize that if this man isn't nominated for several dozen awards at year's end, I might actually get angry. A Better Life doesn't necessarily tell us a story we haven't seen before, but it's told in such a way that it opens our eyes to certain truths about human behavior and the dignity that is so often sacrificed in the name of trying to improve one's station in life. It's as emotionally stirring a film as you're likely to see this year, and if you aren't weeping openly by the end of the film, you've lived your entire life without a soul.

Carlos is an East L.A. gardener and single father who has been living illegally in American for probably a couple decades. His teen son Luis (Jose Julian) is a good kid who is friendly with some of the local gang kids, but has resisted the gang lifestyle so far, even though he's dating the sister of one of the more prominent leaders in the neighborhood. It's clear Luis does not want to follow in his father's footsteps, and that seems okay with Carlos. When Carlos' boss announces he's leaving the states to return to Mexico a fairly wealthy man, he offers to sell Carlos the truck for money that Carlos clearly doesn't have. But after borrowing a substantial sum from his saintly sister, Carlos does manage to acquire the van, tools and clients. With the prospect of being his own boss and making a lot more money, Carlos actually sees a time in his near future where he and his son can movie out of the terrible neighborhood to somewhere away from the daily dangers and struggles they endure.

For those of you who have never seen Bichir work before (he played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che and the "Mayor of Tijuana" in Showtime's "Weeds"), you're in for something quite extraordinary as he downplays his classically handsome looks to play a man who is desperate to blend in. I remember reading a description of the butler character Anthony Hopkins played in Remains of the Day, and it said that when an ideal butler walks in the room, the room should feel more empty. That's how Carlos lives his life, as a member of the invisible people of Los Angeles, living in the United States illegally but so vital to the city's day-to-day functioning. Director Chris Weitz (About A Boy; New Moon), working from a screenplay by Eric Eason (from a story by Roger L. Simon) perfectly captures not only Carlos' grueling day-to-day life but also the way that living like something less than an accepted member of society chips away at one's soul bit by bit.

At about the halfway point, Carlos takes on an employee from a group of day laborers standing outside a home improvement store. But while Carlos is showing his new employee how to climb a palm tree to trim it, his pick-up truck with all his tools his stolen, and the rest of the film involves Carlos and Luis following clues in search of the vehicle. And it's in this part of the journey that we get a tour of some of Los Angeles' more unique neighborhoods and citizens, almost as if this is a different but equally great movie.

I don't want to spoil the film's final act, but within its brief time-span, it embodies the often-devastating sacrifice that is associated with this kind of living. It leads to an emotional climax that is little more than a conversation between Carlos and Luis in which Carlos explains, perhaps for the first time, to this son why he was living to allow his identity and spirit to be subjugated for so long. And it's a monologue that will floor you and haunt you for a long time after seeing it.

As much as I love the big movies that come out this time of year, I'm a proponent of looking beyond special effects, car chases, and other worlds during the summer months. When people tell me they're frustrated with the lack of quality films coming out of Hollywood, I point to films like A Better Life as an example of a movie that is as captivating as it is informative (with a dash of powerful emotional punch). The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Go. See. It.

Zookeeper

Short review: Piece of shit. If you're thinking about seeing this movie, kill yourself. That would be way more entertaining that this movie. Be strong and stay away.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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