Archive for the Comedy Category

“Away We Go” Keeps it Real

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by ericstraus

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, mainly because I find them neither romantic nor funny.  They are usually formulaic Hollywood drivel, full of clichés and unfunny pratfalls.  The formula, in case you don’t know, is as follows:  boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, conflict arises, boy and girl break up, conflict is resolved, boy and girl live happily ever after.  Boooooring.  But the film “Away We Go” blasts the tired romantic comedy formula into the stratosphere; it’s a wonderfully refreshing film, as it actually succeeds in being both funny and romantic.

The movie tells the story of Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski (The Office, Leatherheads) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live, Idiocracy) respectively.  The film opens with the couple discovering they are pregnant, during a very funny and sexual moment.  Burt and Verona are very down-to-earth, unmarried, living in very modest conditions.  The rest of the film follows them from their home in Connecticut and continues as they travel across the country, visiting friends and relatives while they try and find the best place to settle down to raise their child.  Along the way they are exposed to the many different styles of parenting and family dynamics, and in the end they find the perfect place to start the next phase of their lives.

The minor characters, while certainly exaggerated for effect, represent a good slice of the variety of parents and families nationwide.  Verona’s parents died when she was in college, a subject she doesn’t like to discuss.  Burt’s parents decide they’re moving to Belgium a month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do.  Family friend Lily, played by Alison Janney, belittles her children sarcastically, completely ignorant of the ill effect it has on them.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays LN Fisher-Herrin, a new-age lactation nurse.  Her over-protection and intellectualism is played with tremendous comedic effect.  Friends Tom and Munch (yes, Munch) have four adopted children because Munch has continual miscarriages, and despite the joy she feels from the kids she has, her depression at not being able to have her own is obvious.

The main reason this film succeeds is the writing.  Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida co-authored the script, and it is fantastic.  The comedic parts are truly funny – there is a recurring gag where Burt, after learning that the baby’s heart rate is slightly low, keeps trying to get it racing faster in creative ways.  The dialogue that comes out of Burt’s mom, played by the magnificent Catherine O’ Hara, is hysterical, as is the darkly funny yet disturbing rants spewed by their friend Lily.  The romantic, sensitive dialogue, which usually seems so forced and corny, is written very naturally and organically.  We completely believe that Burt and Verona are in love because what they say to each other is honest and real.  The film doesn’t rely on emotional music to tell us what the characters are feeling – the dialogue is 100% believable.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) paints a colorful backdrop for the various locales visited by our main characters, from Connecticut to Phoenix, from Wisconsin to Miami – although most of the film was actually shot in Connecticut, Mendes’ use of props and colors convince us that a Miami backyard is really in Miami and not the Northeast. 

Verona eventually confronts her past, and while the final scene is a bit predictable, it’s been such a fun journey that it doesn’t matter.  The film is very atypical of romantic comedies, which is perfect for someone like me who is not a fan of the genre.

Final Grade for Away We Go:  B+

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The Truth and Lies of “The Informant!”

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags , , , , on April 26, 2010 by ericstraus

In this age of corporate irresponsibility and greed, we tend to view “whistleblowers,” the ones who expose the executives for their wrongdoings, as heroes.  20 years ago, however, the attitude was not quite the same.  This discrepancy is depicted in the Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!” in which we sympathize at first with a corporate whistleblower until we learn more about his motives and his personality.

Matt Damon stars in this true story about Mark Whitacre, a bio-engineer working on an advisory level for a leading manufacturer of corn-based products like high-fructose corn syrup and lysine.  Whitacre, fearing for his job security after sluggish performance numbers, decides to contact the FBI and disclose that his company is involved in an international price-fixing conspiracy.  Agent Brian Shepard, played by Scott Bakula, heads the case and does all he can to help Whitacre – in return, Whitacre must secretly record his meetings with his superiors and competitors to provide proof of the conspiracy.  But as the film goes on, we begin to see holes in Whitacre’s accounts of things – the FBI and even his own wife begin to question his motives and his truthfulness.  By the end, despite Whitacre’s achievement in exposing the conspiracy, his own illegal activities land him in prison and his lies permeate his professional and personal lives.

The film has elements of being a dark comedy and a mystery thriller; Damon, nominated for a Golden Globe for his work, is quite good at convincing everyone, including us, of things that turn out to be false.  It is refreshing to see him looking very different than his usual Jason Bourne action hero role (he had to pack on a few pounds for the part).  The movie certainly holds your attention for the duration, but it’s not nearly as entertaining by the end as when it starts off.  Whitacre is the focus of the film, and we are in the same boat as his bosses, his wife and the FBI as we learn more details about the cover-up without really knowing the truth.  Whitacre’s self-absorption is made obvious many times throughout as we hear his inner dialogue while he tunes out the various people speaking to him.  And that is where the film succeeds – at first we see Whitacre as a savior, a guy finally doing the right thing despite the public backlash against him once it’s made known about his whistle-blowing.  But as his selfish motives become more apparent, we feel betrayed and less sympathetic to his cause. 

Overall it’s a fairly entertaining account of Whitacre’s story and an interesting view of him both as the real Whitacre and as a movie character.

Final Grade for The Informant!: B-

“Up in the Air” Flies High

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2010 by ericstraus

There is a particularly romantic quality about always being on the go, about traveling constantly from one place to another, meeting new people on each airplane and in each hotel.  “Up In the Air” contrasts the romance of this kind of lifestyle with the conventional idea of romance – finding that special someone who you can create a life with…in one location.  It’s a film with a good deal of humor as well as some thought-provoking drama, set in the very relevant era of massive company layoffs.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man with the horrible job of being a corporate thug.  Hired by other companies to terminate their employees, he goes from city to city, conducting face-to-face firings while attempting to spin it as a chance for these poor souls to be re-born, to follow their dreams…to convince them that being laid off is a good thing.  But Bingham has been doing this for so long that he has his speech memorized, he knows how to react no matter what the employee says – he recognizes that people aren’t going to like him, but he seems to genuinely care that they leave with at least a slight amount of optimism in their hearts.

Because of his job, Bingham’s lifestyle is one of going from airport to airport, his “Admiral’s Club” card in hand.  He travels in business class, gets the express registration at hotels – he travels extremely efficiently, and does his job the same way.

During one evening in a nameless hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman named Alex, played by Vera Farminga (The Departed).  They trade war stories as Bingham learns that she travels nearly as extensively as he does, and they end up in bed together.  It seems that this is not unusual for either of them, as they part ways the next morning but not after checking their schedules to see when they can meet up again.

Bingham’s career is threatened when a young upstart, Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick (New Moon), introduces a new method to their company’s madness.  She proposes terminating employees via a remote video chat, rather than face-to-face, thereby slashing travel budgets and company expenses across the board.  Bingham passionately rejects this proposal, claiming what he does must be done in person and that Keener can’t possibly understand without being on the road herself.  Bingham’s boss Craig, played by Jason Bateman, agrees and instructs Bingham to take Keener with him on his next trip.

Throughout the adventure, Bingham and Alex occasionally meet up, and Keener gets a true education on what it means to lay someone off.  In the end, Bingham’s ideas about love, family and commitment are tested and change through the special relationships that develop between he and Alex, Natalie and even his own family.

There is great dialogue between Bingham and Keener – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted a marvelous screenplay, nominated for an Oscar, that is clever, funny and touching – though the touching parts could also be called “cheesy.”  Bingham is a man completely opposed to the idea of settling down; he does motivational speaking gigs where he imparts his ideas against carrying lots of emotional weight around with you, be it from family, friends or lovers.  His lack of understanding about these things is hilariously illustrated through his task of toting around a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancée; he was asked to take photos of the couple in the various locations that his travels afforded him, an assignment that he loathes and cannot comprehend, for reasons deeper than the obvious.  His job therefore suits him perfectly – he never gets to know anyone longer than a day, if that, and he can do his job more effectively because he can’t connect to the people he’s firing.  But Alex and Natalie throw everything out of whack, leading him to rethink what it truly important to him.

The first half of the movie really flies (no pun intended) – there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and entertaining dialogue.  The second half takes on a more serious tone, and drags down the film’s pace and energy.  But the acting is superb – Clooney, Kendrick and Farminga all received Oscar nominations for their roles, and deservedly so.  Kendrick is especially charming as the eager corporate suck-up, trying her best to keep a strong face while her inner emotions begin to overwhelm her.  Clooney is in fine form as well, deadpanning one-liners and then transitioning to someone who never had any emotions to hide, trying to hide them.

“Up in the Air” was also nominated for Best Director for Jason Reitman, as well as Best Picture.  Reitman did a marvelous job of putting us in Ryan Bingham’s world, experiencing the different-but-the-same airports and hotels.  There’s also a terrific shot of Clooney and Farminga standing in line at a non-chain hotel in Wisconsin, waiting to check in.  They are both used to the express check-in lines at the big chains, and when Clooney sees an employee not helping anyone, he asks if she can help them – her reply is that her line is only for their “special club members,” much to Bingham’s ironic disappointment.

If the Oscar Best Picture field had not been widened from 5 to 10 this past year, I’m not sure if this film would have garnered a nomination – but for the most part it’s an enjoyable ride around the country with very likeable characters, smart writing and a good story.

Final Grade for Up in the Air: B+

All Smiles in “Zombieland”

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags , , , , , , , on April 5, 2010 by ericstraus

It’s rare to find horror films with likeable characters; you usually end up rooting for the demons/zombies/serial killer/giant lizard to kill everyone because they’re so annoying.  Plus most of those films are hard to take seriously in the first place, filmmakers included.  One film in recent memory that created both likeable characters and a serious look at the genre was 2003’s “28 Days Later,” which to me is a masterpiece of the zombie film genre.  2009’s “Zombieland” is the most enjoyable zombie flick to come out since “28 Days Later,” and while it is far from a serious, dramatic view of a zombie-infested world, the characters are very likeable, the story moves along well, the zombie deaths are creative and plentiful, and at a quick 88 minutes, it’s a fun romp through the comedy/horror genre.

The opening credits let us know this won’t be a run-of-the-mill horror film, with its extreme slow-motion shots of terrified citizens being pursued by deranged, carnivorous cretins.  “Zombieland” is narrated by and stars the relatively unknown Jesse Eisenberg, who does a great job playing the naïve, nice-guy role (akin to Michael Cera in “Juno”).  He explains to us that Mad Cow disease has ravaged the planet, turning all infected people into raging, bloodthirsty zombie-like creatures (they’re not technically zombies because they aren’t “undead,” just very very ill).  He knows he is among a very scant number of survivors, and he has created his own set of rules to live by, literally.  He decides to journey to Columbus, Ohio to see if any of his family is still alive, but we can tell he is already resigned to the fact that they’re all gone; he just needs something to look ahead to.  Along the way he runs into a spitfire dubbed “Tallahassee” (the only names the survivors have are the cities where they’re from), played by Woody Harrelson.  At first it seems that Tallahassee is going to be one of those cookie-cutter no-B.S. kick-ass warriors typical of the genre, but Harrelson brings wealth of humor and sensitivity to the role; the interactions between “Columbus” and Tallahassee are well done and fun to watch.

The journey continues, and they come across two young ladies (known as “Wichita” and “Little Rock”), who dupe our male heroes into giving up their guns and vehicle.  Wichita, played by Emma Stone (Superbad, House Bunny) and Little Rock, played by Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) have bonded together and trust no one.  We learn that they are trying to get to an amusement park in California; as Wichita says, Little Rock had to “grow up too fast,” and the park would be a great way to feel young again. Plus they heard it was zombie-free (you can imagine how that turns out).

Our four protagonists run into each other again, and this time they decide to stick together for survival’s sake.  They make it to California and decide to hole up at Bill Murray’s house (they get a map of the stars’ homes and Harrelson insists they go to Murray’s house).  The ensuing scene is fraught with hilarity, as we learn Murray is not dead or infected.  During the layover in Murray’s spacious mansion, a romance begins to develop between Columbus and Wichita, and we learn about each of the group’s pasts before the epidemic.  These mildly dramatic scenes are not corny or irrelevant; we get just enough info to care about the characters and hope they survive.

Eventually the cadre ends up at the amusement park and a final showdown with the throngs of the infected takes place.  The film does begin to lose some momentum by this point, but it’s been a fun ride.  There is a great scene inside a roadside souvenir shop where everyone lets loose and destroys everything; it begs the question that if you were among a handful of survivors of a worldwide apocalypse, what would you do?  Certainly consequence-free destruction might play a part.  The sets are great – abandoned cars along endless stretches of highway, the spooky amusement park straight out of Scooby-Doo, and a scene on Hollywood Boulevard, where, ironically, the confused and sick bodies of the infected souls don’t seem too out of place.

As I mentioned, there is a lot of humor, but “Zombieland” is not a spoof of genre – it’s a smart, funny and entertaining zombie film with good characters…and that’s a rarity.

Final Grade for Zombieland: B+

A Strange Gaze From “Men Who Stare”

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , on April 2, 2010 by ericstraus

In a year fraught with George Clooney movies – “Up in the Air, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (his voice) – I had wondered why the other film in which he starred, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seemed to garner so little notice.  The cast is rounded out by fellow 2010 Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor – not a slouch cast to say the least.  I think the reason for the lack of attention is due to story; it hops from being a quirky comedy to a serious commentary on modern warfare, and the transition is so unsubtle that we’re left confused as to what kind of film we are watching.

The film takes place in 2003, where we find McGregor’s journalist Bob Wilton looking for his big break in the news industry.  He journeys to Kuwait, hoping to find his way into Iraq for some serious war coverage, partly to satisfy his career ambitions, and partly to impress his soon-to-be ex-wife.  But he happens upon a much stranger and interesting story about the U.S. Army and their experiments with psychic energy.  He bumps into Lyn Cassady (Clooney), and learns about a secret unit started in the early 80’s by “new age” soldier Bill Django (Bridges); the unit functions as both hippie commune (Django makes them dance and use mind-altering substances) and finely tuned military company, as these gifted soldiers learn to use psychic powers to find lost people, and as the title suggests, stare at goats to make their hearts stop.  The Army sees the value in these “super soldiers” and has them carry out missions.  Cassady was the star pupil of that unit, and now while pretending to be retired, is still carrying out missions.  Larry Hooper (Spacey) doesn’t fully buy into the whole “new age” philosophy, and by 2003 he is running the psychic power unit his way, with Django reduced to pushing pencils.

The film is quite funny as we see the development of the secret unit (through Cassady’s flashbacks) – there is a terrific scene where Django convinces Cassady to break out of his shell and dance – and there are some good buddy-comedy moments between Clooney and McGregor as the plot unfolds.  But about 45 minutes into the film, it takes on a much more serious tone, commenting on the war in Iraq and war in general, and on the military industrial complex.  The film would have been much more effective if it stuck to one tone – either stay a quirky comedy all the way through, or be a more serious film from the beginning.

In the end, after a good number of laughs early on, we are not sure how to react; the film feels disjointed and is almost a waste of the cast’s talent, as they also switch gears from being comedic to dramatic, but again, not so subtly.

Final Grade for The Men Who Stare at Goats: C

Up Close and Personal With “Jennifer’s Body”

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags , , , on March 22, 2010 by ericstraus

Following her Oscar-winning screenplay for 2008’s “Juno,” writer Diablo Cody turned her pen to a horror/comedy film called “Jennifer’s Body,” starring Megan Fox (Transformers) and Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia!).  Like “Juno,” the film focuses on the teen angst of high school girls, only this time instead of tackling a realistic topic like teen pregnancy, Cody presents a story of satanic ritual, demonic possession and cannibalism.  And yes, it’s somewhat of a comedy.

Fox plays the title character Jennifer, and in a real stretch for her, she is the hottest girl on the planet and everyone, including herself, knows it.  Seyfried plays her best friend Needy, an appropriate name in relation to how her and Jennifer’s relationship works, and has always worked – they’ve been best friends since childhood.  Jennifer is the dominant shot-caller, and Needy is the plain-Jane support system when Jennifer needs her to be.  Jennifer is a stereotypical shallow, materialistic cheerleader who uses her looks and her body to get anything she wants – she sleeps with a cop in case she runs across any legal entanglements, she flashes her chest to get free (and illegal) drinks at a bar, etc.  Needy disapproves of course, but knows Jennifer will do what she wants.

Bad things start to happen when Jennifer decides she wants to bed the singer of a local emo-rock band, who they go to see at the aforementioned bar.  After a fire engulfs the place, Jennifer and Needy escape and find the band waiting outside.  They invite Jennifer to come with them in their van, and despite Needy’s pleading with her not to go, Jennifer goes.  She turns up later that night in Needy’s house, bloody and horrific, her teeth stained crimson.

We later learn, after several high school boys’ bodies turn up mutilated and dead, that Jennifer has been possessed by a demon through a ritual performed by the rock band.  This demon-summoning process would in turn procure the band fame and fortune.  What went wrong, apparently, was that they were supposed to sacrifice a virgin, which Jennifer obviously wasn’t, and so now the demon inhabits her body and must feed on human flesh.  The demon only presents itself when it’s hungry – until then, Jennifer looks and acts like her normal self.  But when it’s feeding time, she looks weak and vulnerable, until she feasts on another victim.

Eventually Needy has to choose between protecting her friend and protecting the innocent townsfolk.  So the film is a sort of commentary on true friendship, and on society’s obsession with physical appearance.  There are a few laughs, and the horror elements are actually filmed quite well by director Karyn Kusama.  Fox, while certainly well cast as the “hot chick,” is somewhat annoying to watch.  Her inflection and tone are the same with every line she delivers.  But as an evil seductress, she succeeds.  There are several slow-motion shots of her sauntering down the school hallway in sexy attire, showing her own self-confidence and ogle-inducing aura.

The film leaves many unanswered questions, like how did the rock band come across this satanic ritual?  Why did they assume that by performing it they’d get rich and famous?  Apparently it’s none of our business, and we don’t necessarily need to know.  The film is entertaining enough on its own; Seyfried does a really nice job convincing us that her inner conflict is real, and makes us root for her to finally do the right thing, to take control of her relationship with Jennifer.  In the end, Jennifer’s assumption that she can always take Needy for granted is what does her in.  The film is not as edgy as I think Cody would like us to think it is, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and there have been far worse teen horror/comedies in recent years.

Final Grade for Jennifer’s Body: B-

Pure Escapism Cures “The Hangover”

Posted in Comedy with tags , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by ericstraus

There’s nothing realistic about the zany trail of events befalling the characters in “The Hangover.”  The film’s makers know this and don’t bother to try and convince us otherwise, and that’s why the movie is successful in making us laugh for 100 minutes.  There’s also a refreshing lack of an attempt at character development, something that usually bogs down goofy comedies – we don’t have much background about the characters, and we don’t need it.  The jokes and ridiculous happenings stand on their own, and the result is a nice chuckle-fest.

Four friends head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party – Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom; Phil (Bradley Cooper), the best man and “playboy” type with an anti-marriage attitude (though he is married); Stu (Ed Helms), a somewhat nerdy guy stuck in a bad relationship; and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s future brother-in-law with questionable grooming skills and a penchant for mind-altering substances and hilarious non-sequiters.  They toast to what they expect will be a memorable evening, and then the film fast-forwards to the following morning.  Phil, Stu and Alan wake up in their hotel room to find the place completely trashed, a live tiger in the bathroom, a tooth missing from Stu’s mouth, and a small infant in the closet.  None of them have any memory of the night’s activities, nor do they have any idea of Doug’s whereabouts.  The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out what happened, and most importantly, how to find Doug so he can make it back in time for his wedding.

As they piece together the night’s events, we see how implausible they all are, from stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger, to Stu marrying a stripper, to discovering they stole a police car, to finding a naked, violent Asian man in the trunk of their own car.  It’s all quite absurd, but the writing is clever and silly and very funny.  The characters are all likeable enough to make us root for them, but certainly not in any deep, emotionally connected way, and that’s how this type of film should be – irreverent, sometimes gross, and completely preposterous.  It reminds me of probably the only other truly funny movie about a bachelor party, which would be, well, “Bachelor Party,” starring Tom Hanks.  Like “The Hangover,” the jokes are funny, the events insane, and the characters undeveloped.  They say laughter is the best medicine, so I recommend high doses of these films to cure your ills.

Final grade for The Hangover: B+