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Column Fri Dec 25 2015
The Hateful Eight
For more than a few raving cinephiles, watching a Quentin Tarnatino film is a bit like going on a scavenger hunt through the filmmaker's personal movie library. It's a history lesson where the students (i.e. the audience) must teach themselves enough about a certain type of film history to catch all of the references. The danger of watching any movie this way is that some may get so excited about identifying the references that they mistake this sense of accomplishment for the film actually being good.
Fortunately for us, Tarantino cares more about creating richly drawn and downright freaky characters just a little bit more than he does trying to play guessing games. He's also become something of a master at crafting stories that not only make it damn near impossible to predict the ending, but the journey itself is an intricately woven garment made of stitching that never quite goes in a straight line and is just as much of a mystery.
The Hateful Eight, Tarantino's eighth feature, is a true and proper Western (Django Unchained is arguably more of a Southern), set in Wyoming a short number of years after the end of the Civil War. The timeframe is vague, but it's clear that those members of the titular eight who served during the battle between the North and South still harbor old grudges and bear old wounds — physical and otherwise. The details of the vast landscape are obscured by deep, blinding snow. As the film opens, we see a stagecoach racing across the screen, toward the town of Red Rock where one of the coach's passengers, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is being delivered to the local law to be tried and hanged by her neck, courtesy of the other passenger, bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell). The two are handcuffed together, presumably until death they do part.
The coach, driven by the purposeful O.B. Jackson (James Parks and not officially one of the Eight), is just barely staying ahead of a nasty blizzard that will likely force it to stop before Red Rock. Making this all the more likely are two unplanned stops the carriage makes to pick up stranded bystanders on the road. The first is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black former union soldier (still in uniform), who is also a bounty hunter, with three dead bodies stacked up (each worth a pretty penny) and a horse, dead from exhaustion; the other stranger is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), about as nasty a southern cracker as there ever was, who says he's the new sheriff of Red Rock, and that unless they take him, Ruth will have no one to turn Daisy in to and get paid.
Tarantino's writing is so carefully paced and his reveals so perfectly timed that he could have made a 90-minute film about these four people in a stage coach, and that would have been a hell of an experience. Just enough of each one of their lives is revealed that we get a sense of both their shared and dissimilar histories. Mannix is the son of a known scoundrel and was a member of a notorious gang of killers during the war, while Warren was a legend and is said by many to have been a personal pen pal of President Lincoln himself (he carries one of the many letters from Lincoln to prove it).
On the other side of the coach are the shackled captor and captive, with Daisy being one of the nastiest, most racist pieces of work you'll see in a movie this year. For a film with only one prominent black character in it, a certain racial slur gets tossed around rather freely and frequently by all. It's a Tarantino film, so this isn't exactly a surprise. Leigh is like a wild animal, cursing, lying, thrashing and occasionally taking a punch with the best of them.
The film expands its scope upon the arrival at Minnie's Haberdashery, at which we are introduced to the other half of our Eight — three wayward travelers, including Tim Roth's Oswaldo Mobray, a British-born hangman by trade, who just happens to be headed Red Rock as well; Michael Madsen as cowboy Joe Gage, headed to see his ailing mother near the town, who also seems to be penning his life story to kill the time; and Bruce Dern as General Sandy Smithers, a southern officer known for killing black soldiers rather than taking them captive during the war — a fact Warren is all too familiar with. Rounding out the eight is Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican whom the absent Minnie left in charge of the cabin/general store. Not long after their arrival, Ruth makes it clear to Warren that he's certain one or more of these men is not who he claims to be and that likely there is a plot afoot to spring Daisy from her chains. He's not wrong.
Despite a great deal of talking, double dealing, shocking reveals, and a tremendous amount of blood, the rest of the film is a surprisingly faithful remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, right down the presence of Kurt Russell, a lot of snow, and a wonderfully retro-sounding new score by Ennio Morricone (Tarantino also uses a section of Morricone's music from The Thing in this film, as if to acknowledge the homage). More specifically, the writer-director recreates Carpenter's feeling of dread, claustrophobia and paranoia from that film, as Russell attempts to figure out who among them is genuine and who are harmful. Each character is asked to reveal their personal story and what brought them to Minnie's, and Ruth judges their believability accordingly
If he'd set his mind to it, Tarantino could have staged this tale as a theater piece, since most of the film takes place in one of two settings. But if he'd done that, audiences would have missed out on The Hateful Eight's most prized asset — its presentation in Ultra Panavision 70mm. There's no reason to miss this impossibly rare opportunity to see the film projected this way, as wide and breathtaking as it gets, courtesy of Tarantino and Scorsese favorite, cinematographer Robert Richardson, who captures the expansive, desolate Wyoming terrain with such detail, you feel you can dive headfirst into the endless snow. It's almost humorous that so much of the film takes place in cramped quarters (either in the coach or the cabin), yet somehow the Panavision still does its job — in this case, you can practically fit the entire room in the frame, so there's a great deal to look at and pay close attention to. Set aside the better part of three-and-a-half hours for the full-length roadshow version of the movie, which includes introductory music, an intermission, and three hours of movie.
At a certain explosive moment in The Hateful Eight, the film's timeline jumps back to earlier in the day (the entire film takes place in less than 24 hours) to the couple of hours before the stagecoach arrived at Minnie's, and before long, most of the film's big secrets are revealed in what appears to be an entirely different film set at the same cabin. We meet Minnie (Dana Gourrier), as well as some of her employees, including one played by Zoe Bell (best known for her work as Uma Thuman's stunt double in the Kill Bill films, as well as for riding the hood of a car in Death Proof). We also meet a character played by Channing Tatum, and the less known about him, the better.
During the bloody final act of The Hateful Eight, enemies become allies, partners consider jumping ship on each other, and hell is unleashed in the close quarters of the haberdashery. We may have come to expect this from Tarantino at this point, but it's also exactly what we need in movies right now. No lives are beyond ending, no sacred-cow actor is too legendary to Tarantino that he/she can't be murdered (special recognition must go out to Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, whose blood-and-guts make-up work is so grotesquely splashy, their names come immediately after Tarantino's in the end credits). The director refuses to sit back and adhere to conventional storytelling, and modern filmmaking is all the better for it.
It's no accident that the only character who never lies holds a special place in the final moments of The Hateful Eight. This is no morality tale, and you may not like that it's this particular person who reaches this pinnacle, but you can take some comfort in the fact that the story's most honest creation will likely be the person to retell the tale down the line. Tarantino has birthed a down-and-dirty, snow-blasted, leathery tall tale, and he's presenting it in a way that hides nothing and gives audiences a screen size finally large enough to hold one of his wonderfully realized stories. It's a perfect storm for movie lovers, Tarantino admirers, and those who appreciate a bit of spectacle with their gun play.
The Hateful Eight is opening Christmas Day at select theaters around Chicago, but the only place worth seeing it is the Music Box Theater (it will open in a couple other Chicago-area theaters shortly thereafter), where it will be presented Ultra Panavision 70mm on a new 40-foot screen (double the size of the theater's previous 70mm presentations) specially installed for this film. The Music Box is also installing a new 7.1 channel sound system for the occasion. In other words, this is the Chicago theater where you want to see this movie.
A feature film that examines the very serious issue of the long-term dangers of repeated head trauma in sports (especially football) seems like it's long overdue, even though the condition has only really been in the public eye for less than 15 years. When high-profile former players suffering from extreme brain dysfunction started killing themselves in relatively large number by shooting themselves in the heart so that their brains might be used for research purposes, the National Football League had an impossible time keeping the research quiet about the condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) ...not that it didn't try.
According to the new film Concussion, Pittsburgh-based, Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played with a dignified strength by Will Smith) accidentally discovered the condition in football players (decades-old studies existed about CTE in boxers) when former Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse) died, raving about hearing voices, having paralyzing headaches and experiencing delusions. Omalu is established early on as a coroner who takes an nontraditional approach to autopsies — he talks to the corpse, as if coaxing the cause of death from it rather than simply tearing into the body for answers. Expecting to find the damaged brain of a crazy person in Webster, the doctor finds nothing noticeable to the naked eye, and he orders a more detailed brain analysis that reveals what would eventually be called CTE.
Omalu's pronouncement of his findings and declaration that Webster died from playing football sends minor shockwaves through both the Pittsburgh sports world and the NFL, causing both to act defensively and attempt to discredit the highly educated pathologist. As strange is it sounds, Omalu's research is sound enough that he doesn't have much trouble convincing any medical professional not working for the NFL that CTE is a real threat. His boss (Albert Brooks) and noted medical researcher and Alzheimer's expert Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan) are among early converts to his findings.
Unexpectedly, also in his corner is the Steelers' former team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who saw symptoms of this condition when he worked for the team, and he tells Omalu about research conducted by the NFL to examine the effects of concussions on players — shockingly, the league (officially) found no connections to any long-term medical issues.
Concussion attempts to establish itself as a thriller of sorts, but other than a few vaguely threatening phone calls to the doctor's house and a free-floating sense of paranoia by the doctor and his new wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw from last year's Belle and Beyond the Lights), there's nothing really to substantiate the amped-up sense that they are in any real danger, beyond the doctor having his reputation attacked by medical professionals working for or hired by the NFL. Writer-director Peter Landesman (Parkland) also wrote last year's grossly overlooked Kill the Messenger, which did a far better job at capturing that feeling that someone is out to get you — probably because, in that film, someone was.
Some of the supporting players in Concussion are quite nicely drawn, including Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who calls for a special committee on players' health and then soundly rejects any idea that brain injuries result from repeated blows to the head. I also liked the rather brutal portrayal of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has a great role in the recent release Trumbo, as well), who went from player to management and was forced to ignore the concerns of fellow former players about their symptoms.
I'm always up for a good David vs. Goliath story, but Concussion is missing something vital, something that fills us with a sense of good and proper outrage. I've heard stories about the distributor being concerned about placing the full blame of how bad this epidemic became on the NFL, but that's exactly what this movie should do to give us a focal point for our frustration and anger. The movie takes its medical science and public health messages seriously (bludgeoning us with them at times), but it couches them in this story of corporate intrigue and public demand for an even more violent level of football, including in games played by kids (a scene in which Omalu pulls his car over to watch a high school football game seems a little bit too on the nose).
Based on Jeanne Marie Laskas's GQ article "Game Brain," Concussion is a closer call than you might think, but it still ends up feel like artificial drama and preachy dialogue built up around an incredibly serious subject. Throw in a troubled pregnancy for Prema, and you've got yourself a based-on-a-true-story movie that feels like selective and false memories, which is a shame because I'm guessing something closer to the truth would still be far more interesting, informative and human.
The men and women in David O. Russell's films are often damaged goods from way back. They all have their reasons for having major personality defects, but there's no getting around the fact that most of us would have a hard time dealing with them in the real world. But Joy Mangano (a real-life and highly successful inventor/entrepreneur), the subject of Russell's latest work Joy, doesn't quite fall into that category. Her greatest shortcoming is her family, but to be fair, their appallingly bad advice and unconditional lack of support of and confidence in her (crossing into outright betrayal, at times) is what likely drove her to succeed. Joy (played with just the right levels of exasperation and charm by Jennifer Lawrence) is someone we might call "too good" — too forgiving, too ready to give those who would allow her to fall flat on her face a second or third chance, and it makes her absolutely frustrating and fascinating all at once.
Ironically, one of the most supportive people of her dreams and goals to better herself is her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). More than once, they make the observation that they are far better at being friends than they were at being husband and wife, which is handy when Joy needs him to help out with their three young kids while she deals with the mess that is her life. Joy shares a home with Tony (who lives in the basement), their kids, her mother Carrie (who almost never leaves her bed and is addicted to soap operas, played by an almost unrecognizable Virginia Madsen), and loving grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), so it's no surprise that their Long Island home feels claustrophobic. Things are not made better when her freeloading father Rudy (Lawrence's Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle co-star Robert De Niro) shows up and must share the basement with Tony. Bonus points: the two men hate each other.
In flashbacks, we learn that, since Joy was a child, she was always coming up with inventions, one of which was a fluorescent flea collar that also kept dogs from choking on their leash. She swears that Hartz stole the idea, and her interest in inventing waned. But one night when she is mopping up a broken glass, she cuts her hands trying to wring out the mop and comes up with the idea of a mop offering hand-free wringing that also is infinitely more absorbent and has a cotton-made head you can throw in the washing machine, making it the only mop anyone would ever have to buy. As difficult as it is to believe, Joy will make you care about the fate of this Miracle Mop and its creator more than just about any other character or inanimate object you'll see in any movie this year.
The film tracks the slow and painful process of getting a prototype of the mop made, securing a patent, getting financing for the business, finding a small assembly plant to mass produce them affordably, and figuring out exactly how and where to market and sell them. None of these steps comes easy to Joy, and her family fights and contradicts her every step of the way, including her envious sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), whose belief that she has better ideas than Joy makes her think it's okay to sabotage Joy's business. One of the most horrible creatures in the film is Rudy's new girlfriend, played by Isabella Rossellini, a rich widow who puts in a the seed money for Joy's business, but insists on hiring a lawyer to take care of her patent, who in turn screws them up and puts Joy is a position where she might lose everything.
There are more than a few moments where you truly wish Joy would abandon her family wholesale, take her kids and go hide out until these jackals disappear, but she's not built that way and somehow has the strength to use their derision to fuel her drive and keep her eye on the prize. And apparently, the prize is QVC, which is where Joy found her early success, in the cable channel's early days. As good as the first part of Joy is, the scene in which she enters the QVC studios and gets her first crack at selling the Miracle Mop is the dramatic turning point in the film. She (and we) can see the prize, and the fact that it still seems so close but so out of reach will make your head spin.
She's given a tour of the QVC studios by an executive for the company (played with just the right blend of soothing guru and sleazy corporate goon by another frequent Lawrence co-star, Bradley Cooper), and he makes big promises about exposure and sales. (Keep an eye out for a wonderful cameo by early QVC celebrity salesperson Joan Rivers, played by her daughter Melissa.) After the mop makes a botched first appearance on the channel (hosted by a "professional" host who never bothered to test the product first), Joy convinces QVC to allow her to host her own segment, and the resulting segment nearly brought me to tears when it was over, for so many reasons — the first of which is that it's one of the few times where something goes right for Joy. It's the emotional highlight of Joy, and I love when a film manages to surprise me so completely and unexpectedly.
Sadly for Joy, this victory is fleeting, and the remainder of the film involves more fighting on her part for what is right and what is hers, both against her family and outside forces that threaten the production and ownership of the Miracle Mop. Even in victory, she isn't allowed complete peace or piece of mind. There are a few final moments in Joy that are set closer to the present day (most of the film is set ind the early 1990s), and it's clear that the lessons she learned about being allies in business have isolated her and made her less trusting. At the same time, she's protective of others who come to her with great ideas to make certain they have their patents and designs in order, so no one can steal from them.
Russell never allows any of his characters to have it easy in any of his works; let's face it, they would be fairly dull films if he did. His screenplay (from a story idea credited to him and Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumolo) is said to be partly fiction, maybe more so than the typical biopic. But the one thing I'm convinced of is that Lawrence captures the everywoman quality that Mangano brought to a network whose on-screen faces were empty-headed celebrities, spokesmodels, and camera-ready hosts (sorry, Joan). Joy was also the type of person who might leave a particularly nasty family exchange, go fire off a couple rounds at a nearby shooting range to blow off some steam, and get right back to the task at hand. Welcome to America, folks.
Russell and Lawrence are a remarkable team who seem to bring out the best in each other, without ever getting overly sentimental or ridiculous (even the portrayals of Joy's extended Italian-American family are mild). I've seen Joy described as a "comedy," which may be a way of conveying that the folks using that word don't think it's possible that the subject could be at the center of anything but. But this film is both a family drama and a character study of people we rarely get to see on the big screen, and that might be its greatest accomplishment of all.
There's a scene in the new Todd Haynes's film Carol that we actually get to see twice — once to open the movie and once very close to the end. It's a scene of two women in a quiet restaurant, eventually interrupted by a friend of one of the younger of two, who has no idea what exactly he's interrupting, but he's on his way to a party and wants his friend to join him, which she does. The first time we see the sequence, we're scrambling in our heads to figure out what we're seeing. Both women look anxious (as in, full of anxiety), and this is clearly a big moment for both of them. I was even fairly certain that there was a shift in the dynamic of their relationship happening before our eyes, but it's not exactly how that shift is materializing. It isn't until we see the scene again, in its proper context, that we understand just how drastic the transition of power between them is. It seems like a simple choice in the editing, but the result is powerfully dramatic and emotionally riveting.
The setting of Carol is 1950s New York City, as we meet 20-something department-store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who is dating Richard (Jake Lacy of Obvious Child) but seems somewhat hesitant to get serious enough to marry him — a source of constant frustration for the young man. Her indecision could easily be chalked up to her youth and wanting a different life than the one marrying this man would oblige her to. Then one day at work, Therese meets an elegant older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett), who seems right out of a women's magazine filled with idealized images of the perfect big-city wife, combining a camera-ready style and fashion sense with a near-royal persona. Therese is instantly drawn to Carol (although she probably isn't aware why at this point), and Carol damn well knows it, conveniently leaving behind a glove at the the girl's counter, giving her an excuse to deliver it to her home shortly after their first meeting.
The two are instantly drawn to each other, and soon we find out that Carol and her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) are on the verge of divorce, partly because Carol seem to prefer the company of women lately, including her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), a similarly aged woman who seem more open about her companions than anyone else in the movie. The way people talk around what they're actually talking about in Carol is remarkable, and Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of Patricia (The Talented Mr. Ripley) Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt does a beautiful job of capturing the specific language used at time to discuss the unspeakable. The way to deal with a problem in this era, apparently, was to never mention it.
The pacing of Carol and the way in which Haynes slowly reveals how desperate the title character's life has become as a result of wanting to leave her husband is the key to its dramatic success. There's a sense that she is throwing herself into this new would-be affair with Therese to escape, and eventually the two just pack up their bags and drive out of the city headed west (including an overnight stay at the Drake Hotel in Chicago). Along the way, Therese meets a handsome young man named Tommy (Cory Michael Smith, in a very different role than he plays as the future Riddler on "Gotham"), and we begin to suspect that Therese is still questioning the degrees of her sexual preferences. But that storyline takes a decidedly unexpected turn.
Nothing about Carol — from the acting to the costumes to the makeup decision — is an accident. Director Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, HBO's Mildred Pierce) has practically color coded the film to give us cues about the nature and inner feelings of the characters, and it's a stellar manipulation that's easy to give into. Therese wears boxy, uncomfortable layers of clothes — something of a precursor to the beatnik look — while Carol is more about a flowing elegance that is really about playing a part. Even the film stock in Carol conveys a tone. The very first thing I noticed when I saw the movie was the hint of grain in the print that made the film feel lived in, classic, while still allowing the warm colors to pop. I've seen recent films shot in 35mm and never noticed grain in the finished movie, so I wasn't surprised to learn that Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman went with Super 16 stock.
The trip is clearly an escape, and a particularly poignant and beautifully shot love scene seals the deal that this is not strictly friendly cross-country drive. But it doesn't take long for reality to come crashing in on this new love, and before long Carol is forced to drag herself back to New York and her husband to face the very real possibility of completely losing custody of her children. Harge is so determined to retain the sanctity of the family that he doesn't care that his wife is a lesbian, as long as she puts on the appearance of being his devoted wife. Chandler's performance isn't being talked about much, but he's a fantastic blend of desperate and angry, which combines to make him strangely sympathetic.
In films like Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Haynes has often centered on female characters who discover a hidden strength after a major, life-changing event, and Carol slips easily into that category. Mara's Therese is a young woman still figuring herself out, but fairly certain she's about to enter unchartered territory in her relatively sheltered life to date. But Blanchett is the truly transcendent performer here, as the title might suggest. She somehow manages to be as complete and fully drawn a characters as I've seen in a film all year, yet maintain a mysterious, impenetrable quality that leaves us wanting to know more about her. She pulls us into Carol's heart and mind, but leaves portions of herself only to herself. In all likelihood, you'll fall deeply in love with her as well. Considering Blanchett has literally never been bad in a film, she might top everything she's ever done with this role.
Carol is about as perfect a movie as you're likely to see this year. The temptation is to say there isn't an agenda with the film, but the mere fact that Haynes has decided to tell this story now means something. The attitudes toward the central relationship make the film feel even more dated than it already is. As much as period clothing, cars, and music might inform us of the year a story takes place in a period film, the prejudices that prevail really do the heavy lifting and tell us exactly when we are with this story. It's as melancholy as it is hopeful; it's a magnificently lush visual piece that never lets us forget what's at stake for these two women. I can't wait to see this one again. Carol opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with CAROL director Todd Haynes, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Arguably one of the most important books about film in the last 100 years is François Truffaut's 1967 long-form interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which the master and hero to many in the French New Wave at the time goes film by film with the French upstart in such a way that, at times, it feels like you're listening in a private conversation between two kindred spirits of great filmmaking and storytelling. It's a rare film interview book that is both inspirational and educational. Director Ken Jones (who has previously made the terrific docs Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and A Letter to Elia about Elia Kazan) has made a documentary by the same name that not only goes through the process that resulted in the book, but the impact the book has had on generations of future filmmakers who read it at critical times in their lives.
Currently director of programming of the New York Film Festival, Jones has been a longtime staple of the film community, has incredible access to a host of directors willing to speak at length about the significance of Hitchcock/Truffaut as a guide to style and the visual language of film. Interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Olivier Assayas, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Arnaud Desplechin, are all enlightening, especially since many of these folks are as known for their knowledge of film history as they are for being great directors. The biggest surprise for me was listening to David Fincher absolutely geek out about the book as a key component of his filmmaker soul. Fincher isn't even a fan of talking about his own work, so to see him talk at length and so passionately about anything is a real treat.
But the most compelling element of Hitchcock/Truffaut is going through the interview itself, with the help of the archival audio tapes and photos taken during the interview. One can't help but notice how loose and open Hitchcock becomes with Truffaut, revealing decisions and secrets that went into the making of some of his most beloved works. Jones opts to narrow his focus occasionally on a few choice works, like Vertigo and Psycho, as they were discussed during the original interview and with his esteemed panel of present-day experts.
It's easy to forget that Truffaut was only 30 years old when he did this interview, but by being a filmmaker as well (he was also a critic for a time), Hitchcock opens up to him in ways I don't think he would have in a more traditional promotional-style interview. Truffaut digs deep, and presents a frame-by-frame analysis of certain sequences. His eagerness to have all of his greatest questions answered is barely containable, and you can't fault him for it in the slightest.
The ultimate goal of the film, much like the book, is to remind us that there was a time when the word "auteur" was a good thing and not something to be feared in cinema. More importantly, Hitchcock/Truffaut works as a gentle but necessary reminder that Hitchcock was and remains an absolute master, despite also being a filmmaker who was commercially successful and a pop culture icon. His works stand the test of time and are a constant source of inspiration for many of the directors whose works I most look forward to seeing year after year. The film isn't necessarily seeking to be a standard-issue lecture on the techniques of Hitchcock (although that's certainly a part of it); it works best as a refresher on what a complete craftsman he was in every aspect of his movies. For film buffs, this doc is required viewing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
To read my exclusive interview with HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT director Kent Jones, go to Ain't It Cool News.
When I first heard about the British romantic-comedy Man Up, starring Lake Bell (fresh off her impressive writing-directing debut In a World...) and Simon Pegg, I was justifiably excited about the idea of these two funny folks combining their talents and perhaps turning the run-of-the-mill rom-com into something subversive and grown-up, while still being funny. I was surprised and concerned when the film didn't get a mainstream release in the United States, but that didn't stop me from being quite eager to check it out. And as I watched it unfold before my eyes, my heart sank little by little over the course of its under-90-minute length.
If you put a gun to my head, I suppose the biggest difference between Man Up and every other rom-com is that Bell's Nancy is actually slightly more mentally unstable than your typical character in one of these films. Not only does she hijack another woman's blind date with Jack (Pegg), but she invents fiction after fiction about her fake self to such a degree that the person she's pretending to be is far more interesting and enjoyable than the real her. Nancy is a perpetually alone 34-year-old woman whose family is putting constant pressure on her to find the right man, and she sees qualities in Jack that her family might like. Their date goes rather well, although her wacky lies are neither clever nor funny, and he's walking around with his signed divorce papers in his man purse, so good times!
If anyone (and I include writer Tess Morris or director Ben Palmer, a veteran of British TV) had bothered to dial back the attempts at humor just a touch or done anything to make these two characters act remotely like real people, the film might have amounted to something genuinely charming. Instead, Man Up is one long example of people trying too hard to be entertaining rather than honest and human. Everybody is so "on" here that it becomes exhausting. There's a supporting part played by the great British theater actor Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game, "Penny Dreadful") as a stalker-ish former school chum of Nancy's, whom she stumbles into on her date and threatens to blow her cover unless she performs a sex act on him. Classy, people, real classy. I don't think I've ever disliked a character played by this actor more, and the same goes for ones played by Olivia Willaims (as Jack's ex) and Ophelia Lovibond (as Jack's much younger intended blind date).
There are montages galore (set to pop songs, of course), lots of drinking, theories on relationships, sharing about how they thought love was supposed to work when they were younger, and of course, grand gestures made in front of large groups of strangers, which still passes for humor in certain circles apparently. I'll admit, I liked the idea of setting an actual unstable person at the center of one of these stories, and I thought that might be the film's twist. But, big shocker, Man Up doesn't commit to anything remotely that edgy, and by the end of the film, everything works out for everyone. The end. There's a lot of discussion about taking chances, being spontaneous and putting yourself out there, but this film does none of those things. It's limp as a source of laughs or emotions, and it reminds us why the rom-com is an endangered species on movie theaters right now. Until someone reinvents the formula, may it rest in piece. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.