Oedipus SEX: The Boy Next Door Review (D+)

The Boy Next Door is not a very good erotic thriller. Which, if you’ve seen the trailer, shouldn’t surprise you – it is filled with dubious sexaaaay double entendres only a nineteen year old would find clever (“I love your mom’s cookies”), and hey wouldn’t you know it, that’s pretty much the movie.

The film isn’t even especially erotic, which you’d think would be a nice prerequisite if you’re an erotic thriller-maker. You want (click click hisssss) steam heat, but Ryan Guzman is a sculpted (heyo!) chunk of ice turning any rolling boil he finds into a tepid puddle. He steals the film out from under a perfectly adequate Jennifer Lopez with his unintentionally hilarious portrayal of Noah, the 19 year old man-boy who woos and then stalks and then attempts to rape and destroy Jennifer Lopez’s high school teacher without ever realizing that any of this behavior might be seen as even a little bit uncouth.

Guzman is playing that special brand of movie sociopath that understands social mores well enough to act not just humanely but superhumanely, the very model of a major-hunk, for weeks; but also understands social mores so poorly that he genuinely sees himself as the victim in any given circumstance – he can turn any slight into a reason to lash out violently at anyone (almost always a woman) around him, for extremely dubious physiological reasons. Noah is all charming puppy dog precociousness until things turn bad very fast, at which point he becomes bad, bad Leroy Brown, meaner than a junkyard dog. No middle ground.

Only one scene bridges the way-too-brief portion of the film that is meant to beerotic with the insanely dragged out majority of the film that is meant to bethrilling, showing hints of both Noah the swoony object of desire and Noah the sickening desirer-cum-stalker. That scene is charged with the orgasmic moan of Lopez’s Claire Peterson, and it is refreshingly concerned with the female’s needs, which is all too rare for sex scenes. Maybe that’s why she succumbs to the advances of the walking bicep that quotes Greek classics, but it’s much more interesting to see what the human bicep is saying in that scene to disarm Claire. “No judgments,” he coos. “No rules. Just us.”

Mmmmhmmmm… This pat little catchphrase proves to be false on many levels, which we could chalk up to Noah turning out to be a less than trustworthy sorta guy who says what he needs to say to get what he wants. But it also proves to be a lie the filmmakers tell just as much as it’s a lie their antagonist tells.

No judgments? The film can’t help but judge Claire harshly, implicitly stating that her actions would so undermine her in the eyes of any authority figure that she basically has to take this abuse until it stops or until she stops it. No rules? All the rules of the horror genre are in play here, with sex leading to danger, and with danger targeting the most promiscuous woman – the sassy best friend whose dating advice is “take off your wedding ring, give him head” has exactly the fate you would expect her to have. Just them? These two are carrying enough convoluted psychological baggage to fill a psychological cargo hold.

A lot of this comes down to director Rob Cohen – likely best known for directing the first Fast and Furious film (before that series became actually good), though he also produced the The Wiz, which is hilariously synopsized by a bully in this film – probably not being the exact right person to tackle the psychology of his intended protagonist, a cuckolded fortysomething wife looking for… what exactly? Satisfaction? Love? Revenge? The strength to move on? She seems to be leaning towards a reconciliation with her husband from the outset, maybe? It’s alarming how little interiority this film provides Claire, who is in practically every scene but who is always reacting to someone else’s (usually insane) actions… with one exception, a scene where Claire is set up as the willing cougar, the aging woman wearing a teddy with a slit that pretty much reaches her armpit and cartoonish stilettos. She looks questioningly at her visage in the mirror, clearly sexually and emotionally stymied by a cheating spouse, waiting longingly for a sexy white knight to ride up and save her. And she turns right, looks out the window and Noah is removing his boxers. Is that rippling mass of muscles she’s ogling in the house across the way her savior? She is peeping on him. He knows it. He likes it. (He will not handle it well when she turns back on the little adventure they start with this charged interaction.)

This is a knowing inversion of the cray cray stalker lady movies that dominated the late 80s and early 90s, where a frustrated man (you know, Michael Douglas) would step out on his wife with a total babe and, wouldn’t you know it, the babe would turn out to be a possessive psycho. Noah is a startlingly incompetent gender-swapped translation of this femme fatale archetype but there’s also an issue with Claire; at least during these scenes of forbidden lust, the camera spends way too much time ogling Jennifer Lopez in that teddy. Not that Guzman, who is introduced as a bulging muscle and shows off some bare buttocks, isn’t his own special brand of cheesecake (he’s a whole Cheesecake Factory), but the camera’s obsession with Lopez’s lithe figure undermines all the things the script is trying to tell us she’s feeling – that she wasn’t beautiful enough to keep her husband from straying, that she’s losing it. All those Michael Douglas films didn’t go out of their way to play up Douglas’s studliness or the definition of his abs – the point was for us to really feel his mid-life crisis, his own sense of inadequacy. Without Lopez and her treasured place at the center of the male gaze, it’s unlikely The Boy Next Door would have become the financial success it is, so it’s a trade-off. Lost in the trade for box office name recognition are essential pieces of storytelling logic.

How can we come to terms with all these disparate elements and emerge with a unifying theory for this mess of impulses that ended up becoming The Boy Next Door? Well, the film is always pointing us to the cipher we can use to break its code and dive deeper into its true meaning. And by pointing, I mean flailing and shouting at the top of its lungs hoping we’ll notice. The Boy Next Door may not be good, and it may not be erotic, but it wants us to know it is very well-read.

Let’s qualify: “well-read” implies some breadth. Y’know, the sort of far-reaching syllabus you might expect an AP Literature teacher like Claire to put together. Strangely though, like Claire’s semester-long seminar, The Boy Next Door appears to have started at the beginning – Homer and Sophocles – and stopped immediately, sighing while patting it’s belly and saying “Man, those appetizers filled me up, I couldn’t eat another bite.”

Claire first thinks of Noah as something more than that nice boy next door when he he tells her son Kevin that Homer’s his favorite and that Achilles is a badass (what?). He brings her a first edition of the Iliad as a gift (what??) and hacks her computer so he can walk into her semester-long seminar quoting Achilles the badass: “No man born coward or brave can shun his destiny.” (The class laughs as if he has said something funny rather than quoting a line from a book they haven’t read yet in a vaguely threatening way. What can you say? Kids, right?) When he sees that Claire’s husband has stayed the night, he partakes in the most intense Homer-reading session ever undertaken, furtively taking in passages while punching the air and having sexy-time flashbacks. And when he posts pictures of their tryst all over Claire’s classroom, guess what he writes on the board? “Once more, I must bring what is dark to light – Oedipus.”

Oh, has Noah been supplementing his love of the Iliad (which briefly looks into Oedipus) with some close readings of “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles? Because the filmmakers sure have! We come to find out that, when Noah’s father stepped out on his mother who subsequently killed himself, Noah murdered his father by tampering with the breaks on his car. Now Noah is bedding a woman who doubles for his departed mother – hurt by a cheating husband, taking care of a teenage son – and he’s molding that teenage son, Kevin, in his own likeness, turning him on his father and sending him into his own near-murderous rage complete with tampered breaks. The strange protective relationship Noah has with Kevin (he honest-to-goodness saves his life one time while everyone else stands around dumbfounded), just about the only humanizing aspect of Noah, veers so often into direct symbolic correlation (Kevin takes a girl to the dance and Noah ends up getting a blowjob from her that night) that you wonder if, at the end, the aged Mr. Sandborn will croak “What nephew, I never had a nephew?” and Noah will be revealed as some collective Oedipal psychosis of the Peterson family. Instead (unfortunately), Noah is all too real, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s even blinded by Kevin’s EpiPen. Oedipus as 21st century beefcake!

Can you see how a supposedly female-driven movie would be robbed of its female driver if the whole thing was an excuse to do a modernized, incest-less spin on fiction’s proto-damaged male protagonist? Lopez is the star, and Claire is in the cross-hairs, but the movie is driven by notions derived from famous (antiquated) texts and famous (antiquated) psychological principles that deal with the male psyche. Driven right off a cliff into crazytown. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the famous Buffy storyline where Angel becomes Angelus after Buffy and the cursed vampire consummate their love. The monster within unleashes hell in the halls of Sunnydale High, even brutally murdering a school employee. Except, on a plot level, the sudden transformation of David Boreanaz from protector to menace had a logical in-story magical explanation, and the allegorical implications (Buffy wrestling with giving up her virginity and the notion that once a boy gets it, he has what he came for) were some of the most nuanced explorations of a teenaged girl’s psyche there have ever been.

Angel was an ageless vampire caught in a subtextual horror parable and he still seemed more human than Noah Sandborn, who appears to have gotten in town and immediately identified his target, set up a stalker basement and a hidden camera in his house, and acted the role of the ideal suitor and surrogate son (did he actually love the same Classics as Claire, which would be an alarming coincidence, or did he find out she did and put together a reading list to suit her desires?), and, once he had struck this delicate balance, started slapping assistant principals, throwing around the c-word, and bashing in heads in public because he couldn’t get his way. The perfect criminal turns into a monologuing expression of the entitled male id. Some of this comes down to Guzman’s performance, which is bad (and suffers in comparison to film’s own supreme Oedipal figure, Norman Bates, who was portrayed by Anthony Perkins in one of the greatest feats of acting we’re ever likely to see); but a lot of it is right there in the script, leaving Guzman little room to do anything but smize and glower. This is the only boy in the world who read insanely violent and kooky Greek myths and thought they were self-help guides. He is a boogeyman sent from the Underworld to return the dysfunctional Peterson to normalcy; Claire will hapilly never look at another man but her husband, who won’t be insulting her cooking anytime soon. And their son will no longer want to bed his mother and kill his father. An EMT even tells them that everything will be okay now, all thanks to Noah, who is a grand misfire in the annals of screen villainy.

Faced with his all-over-the-map behavior, even minus the Oedipal undertones (overtones?), any number of people could have contacted the authorities: the boy whose head was pummeled, the assistant principal who was slapped and verbally dressed down, the woman who was trapped in a school bathroom and almost raped. Instead, Claire and her best friend – both brought low by Noah, who essentially has them both trapped in his web because he informs them they have both had sex with men, which, c’mon – conspire to break into Noah’s house to delete his secret blackmail files (as if he will have no recourse once he finds out what they’ve done) because, as Claire is told when she tries to explain that she is being violently harassed by a man who, yes she slept with, but who is now attempting to rape and blackmail her, “it’s not the way the rest of the world’s gonna see it.” Well, crap…

Claire does what any number of 45 year old men in a rut are encouraged to do by Hollywood movies – bed a younger woman – and she is automatically a harlot who must deal with what is coming to her. Maybe this is the way things are perceived in the real world, and the film wants to nod to that reality so it can move on to more scenes of Noah brutalizing woman. But do you see how a movie saying that’s the way things are – not so much resignedly as much as instructionally – without ever even broaching the seal and exploring Claire’s viable avenues before resorting to desperate self-defense might calcify all those notions? The Boy Next Door is a worth a laugh or two for how leaden its diologue is, especially whenever the Classics come up. It’s also worth every consternated glance it earns, which, depending on your tolerance for Sophocles interpretations, is equal to about how much you could fetch for an actual first edition of the Iliad.

My Week in Movies – January 29th

This week it’s all strange actors and strange movies, unfortunately no Doctor Strange.

Strange Magic
This was a strange movie. The trailers presented a story about an adventuring faerie named Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood). The movie presented a pop musical love story. As per usual, I have to say I was disappointed by this turn of events. I’m sure if I had been prepared for a musical, this movie would have rated higher. It’s an interesting love story and the music is amusing but I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Come on guys, stop with the false advertising. Everyone that left the theater with me commented on the music.

Watch it: If you’re interested in an early year musical.
Skip it: If you were hoping for an adventure tale with a strong female protagonist.

Mortdecai
For a while, Johnny Depp was king of the silver screen. Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter but that all seems so long ago. Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger and Transcendance. Mortdecai is a slight step up but honestly I’m not sure what to expect anymore. The supporting cast with Paul Bettany as Jock and Ewan McGregor as Inspector Martland was the only thing worth watching in this film. The plot was expectantly zany and used mostly to setup for punchlines. While funny, this film left plenty to be desired.

Watch it: If you want to see Paul Bettany shine. Or if you need your yearly fix of Johnny Depp, though you might want to wait for London Fields or Black Mass.
Skip it: If you’d rather not see Depp in another bad role.

Bear Necessity: Paddington Review (A)

As anyone who knows movies can (and will) tell you, January and February can be a pretty dire time to be a moviegoer. It’s an overstatement to be sure, because it’s not like all those late-2014 releases disappeared on New Years’ Eve (one of the best five movies of this decade, Selma, is playing near you right now, so you shouldn’t see anything from 2015, even this charmer we’re about to discuss, until you’ve seen Ava Duvernay’s masterpiece). And hey some Oscar nominated films have even been re-released just this week!

But this much is true; studios are not looking to provide their best product right now. If a film is coming out between January 1st and March 1st, there’s a good chance something is fishy. If it was pushed from an earlier release date into that window, you could place a safe double or nothing bet in Vegas that the whole enterprise is so fishy, ticket prices should be listed at Market Price. (And that Market Price should be low.)

There is good in this world however, and no month can simply be tossed aside out of hand. Because sometimes a movie gets released in mid-winter because, despite its quality, its studio just doesn’t know what to do with it (the twin triumphs of January 2012, The Grey and Chronicle, which were both dark and uncompromising and had to be sold as generic action thrillers to earn audiences, come to mind). And sometimes they’re released where they have the best fighting chance to slay unworthy competition (like last year’s February smash, The Lego Movie).

Such is our luck this week, because Paddington – despite being delayed (from 2014), recast (out: Colin Firth, in: Ben Whishaw), and shuffled off to the Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland that is January – is one of the best movies of its kind that you’re likely to see. All year. Any year.

You’ll hear a lot of hemming and hawing about how Paddington is good… enough to placate your children. Or good… because of our fondness for all things British-y. Those distinctions are in play, but really Paddington is good because it’s a great piece of filmmaking, firing on every cylinder. We all put aside our grown-up voices to fawn over how delightful and transporting The Lego Movie was last year. Long ago, we allowed Pixar to pass the bouncer that keeps kids’ stuff from grown-up stuff. So I’m here to tap the bouncer on the shoulder and whisper that Paddington is on the list.

Paddington, based on the world-famous series of children’s books by British author Michael Bond, follows a young bear who learned everything he knows about British culture from old vinyl records left by an old-school explorer. After disaster strikes Darkest Peru – where Paddington, with his aunt and uncle, had lived happily for decades – the little bear is stowed away on a steam ship bound for England by his aged Aunt, who soothingly tells the nervous youngling that once, in harsh times, British families had taken in children who were not their own and cared for them as if they were. Surely, the same will be true decades after the sun set on the harsh colonialism of the British Empire.

And the film’s twin journeys begin. One, the slow acceptance of the orphaned bear into the Brown household in spite of Mr. Brown’s reservations, is a lighthearted comedy of manners overflowing with details that charm, evoke, and transport. The other, which sees Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist work with the Brown’s insensitive neighbor (the newest Doctor, Peter Capaldi) to kidnap and “deal with” the unwanted newcomer, is fascinating on an allegorical level but uneven in execution.

Eventually, both these characters are folded pretty neatly into the plot (a third act reveal does wonders explaining why a bewigged taxidermist with the skillset of a demented James Bond has been chasing an innocent bear for days), but it’s instructive to note the ways in which the villain subplot fails to live up to the film around it. From the lecherous way that Capaldi’s character woos Kidman’s (the word “honeypot” is really having a moment right now), to the breakneck verbal pacing of Kidman’s delivery, to, most noticeably, the way her antics invite action spectacle in a gentle vignette-based film that needs none, this jaunt through the Natural History Museum feels like just that – something accidentally spliced in from the Ben Stiller Night at the Museum films, with their campy, oversized performances and zany plot machinations. You know, an anthropomorphized monkey peeing on a tiny cowboy Owen Wilson.

Some of this is the stuff we might have feared Paddington would be when we first glimpsed Paddington’s washroom misadventures in the film’s teaser. We saw a creepy CGI bear interacting with (and tearing apart) a non-CGI world, and, well, we think Scooby-Doo. We think Yogi Bear. We think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We think Smurfs. We don’t think pleasant thoughts.

We are a long way from the boom of non-animated children’s’ films of the 1990s (Matilda, where art thou?). As the Harry Potter films evolved past Chris Columbus’s (yes, that really is the director’s name) boarding school fantasia and into the darker realms of adolescence, the entire YA genre evolved with them, into the (admittedly rocking) teen-girl beats back a dystopia norm we have now. Empowering. But noticeably built for Young Adults, indicative of the overall Young Adult-ization of Childhood and Adulthood that you can see in any Barnes & Noble, where the YA section slithers its tendrils out every which way, consuming shelf space that would normally be dedicated to whimsical illustrated storybooks (like the Paddington books) and shelf space that would be dedicated to grown-up Science Fiction. It has left actual children to suffer through nothing but the the CGI-laden leftovers from past generations’ Saturday Morning Cartoon feasts.

Fortunately, Kidman’s subplot aside, Paddington is not that film. Spritely and innovative, this film is that rarest of rare birds – a non-animated film that you would feel comfortable taking a three-year old to see. Ticking along to the tune of a child’s sense of whimsy, it is always working to tell its story in the best and (this is very important) most visual manner possible. I can count only two things about the film that gave me pause – the aforementioned subplot, and a scene that mines the non-humor of a man unintentionally hitting on a man in a dress – but I can count at least fifteen moments of visual wit that made me sit up and take notice and that inspired me creatively. That’s a ratio I’ll get behind. Not for a children’s film but for any film.

From the crackling newsreel footage that opens the film, to the soaring shot (capped by a snowball right in our faces) that caps it, Paddington – which allows it’s camera to come totally unmoored from anything resembling mundanity – is a cinematographer’s/director’s showcase. It is a marvel to behold some of the motifs Erik Wilson and Paul King use to get across their ideas and themes: to introduce us to the particular quirks of the Brown family, the camera tracks up and down a cross-section of a dollhouse that resides in the attic Paddington calls home for much of the film. While it celebrates their individual quirks, it also highlights how boxed into their roles this family is – Father the worrier, Mother the unfulfilled romantic, Daughter the angsty teen, Son the disregarded dreamer. They are Every Family, Britain circa 2015.

Not that their house isn’t a delight despite its conformity. Of particular note is a painted tree that sprawls up the walls of their parlor, winding through a spiral staircase. That tree takes on a life of its own, shedding all its leaves when the tone of the film gets despairing, and swaying lushly when all is well. It’s one of my favorite visuals I’ve seen in a film I’ve reviewed. Similarly inspired: a list Paddington has of every M. Clyde in London is transposed in scrawled handwriting across the skyline, showing us in seconds how far-reaching and arduous the little bear’s quest is; the moment when Paddington, seeing the newsreel that opened the film, walks through the screen like it’s mist, allowing him to physically explore homesickness; the story of a Holocaust survivor, which plays out in miniature within one of the man’s model trains; my personal favorite, which sees quick cutaways to a gothic orphanage and Mr. Brown’s still-gothic denial of the word orphanage; and the entire conception of the Geographers’ Guild, a sprawling clockwork bureaucracy that has stricken all mention of Darkest Peru from its records.

Why? Because Malcolm Clyde failed to bring back any stuffed specimens of his wonderful discovery, a pair of advanced bears that could speak and use tools. In black-and-white flashback, we see the stuffy colonialists of the Guild turn their back on the ostracized explorer. In doing so, they turn their backs on seeing anything that is not British as something other than lesser than. Paddington hits this particular allegorical note quite a bit more than you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation. The filmmakers are wrestling with a lot subtextually; yeah, this may be a film about a cuddly bear finding solace in the warmth of a glowing mother figure (I actually want Sally Hawkins to get awards recognition for her role in this film; she is perfect), but it is also a film that is not so subtly about white middle class privilege, attitudes towards the homeless and immigrants, and multi-culturalism.

It’s working on two levels. On one level, Paddington’s adoption into the Brown household and the neighborhood’s embrace of him is pretty standard fare about accepting anyone for who they are and for the things that make them special. On another level, it’s all a rather pointed critique of risk-averse isolationism that weaponizes Bond’s original intentions with the Paddington books – he really was inspired by how England rallied around the cause and took in children of all stripes, and thought a lost bear from Darkest Peru could stand in for that sacrifice and camaraderie.

Tell me if you’ve heard this line: “Kids will enjoy it, and the adults supervising them will get enough out of the stuff that’s aimed at them.” This has been a way of recommending children’s films to parents for what seems like ages. A certain school of films took that to heart not as a symptom of a film well-made but as a goal in itself – to construct a film that would separate its content aimed at its actual audience and the stuff aimed at its “secret” audience (dated pop culture references and the like) like oil and vinegar left unshaken. Every once in a blessed while, someone shakes the vinaigrette, and we can meet as equals once more.

Yes, equals. For some reason, writing and directing for kids has become seen as lesser, but a surfeit of cartoons on TV that treat children and pre-teens as smarter than we might let on (your Avatars and your Adventure Times) have delighted adults not because they have gags aimed at their nostalgic pleasure centers but because they actually tap into the nostalgia for youth and infinite possibility. I have seldom laughed so hard at a film or been so impressed with the craft of the filmmaking as I have at films like last year’s triumph Ernest and Celestine, or at this year’s darling January surprise Paddington, a transporting comedy triumph that will throw a grown-up into fits of childlike giggles and just might make a child think about immigration reform.

My Week in Movies – January 22nd

This week, I introduce my readers to the word squick.

Blackhat

Well that was awkward. I’d like to think that, as I’ve started watching more movies, I haven’t lost my taste for big action spectacles, sci-fi fantasies and the occassional bad hacker movie. In spite of that, I must say, this bad hacker movie was truly awful. The plot had holes even I couldn’t ignore and the Michael Mann’s direction of Chris Hemsworth as blackhat hacker Nick Hathawy was worse than any plot hole. Squick1: that is the word I would use to describe just about every scene that involves Hemsworth and Tang Wei in the film’s ill-advised romantic subplot. Just as ill-advised; this movie was incredibly boring, and not even because they got those mundane things programmers do right. There really was no thrill. The action sequences were meh. The tension just never seemed to follow the path that it needed to to be satisying, and the music was irritating. I kept time checking, praying that my two plus hour punishment was over.

Watch it: If you desperately need to see Hemsworth shirtless for a minute (but, you know, you can watch a Thor movie instead), or if you want to see a programmer character actually use legit commands in a movie.
Skip it: Yeah. Just skip it. It’s not worth it.

Paddington
This went far better that the other two movies this year. Paddington is an adorable jaunt back to childhood, starring a bear most of the English-speaking world is familiar with. Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) voices the titular bear, providing a wonderful performance as a lonely optimist lost in a new world and looking for a home. Paddington is taken in by the Browns, a fraying middle class family, and his antics (and the accompanying music, a mix of a charming score and Peruvian rhythms) play great against the contrast of Hugh Bonneville’s Mr. Brown, a strict risk analyst. Paddington ultimatey finds his home with the Brown family, as I’m sure this movie will find a place in hearts of the populace as one of the better kids movies of 2015.

Watch it: If you’re looking for the best movie so far this year.
Skip it: If you don’t need a feel-good kids movie in your January.


  1. Cause immediate and thorough revulsion. 

The Wedding Ringer (C-)

I approached The Wedding Ringer needing two questions accounted for. I didn’t need it to be Hitch, which it seems very similar to, or better than Hitch. I just really needed it to adress these two things. If you’re not someone predisposed to giving any ol’ Kevin Hart comedy a free pass (those people exist, all the power to them, I sometimes envy their raucous laughter), these are pretty sensible questions:

“Really, this guy has NO male friends? None??”
“Why can’t he just tell his fiancee this? Is having the appearance of groomsmen really so important he would build his new marriage on a foundation of lies?”
Regarding the first question, I was disarmed almost immediately. Josh Gad, whose voice you’ll certainly recognize (both as a happy-go-lucky snowman and as a bumbling Mormon missionary) even if you’ve never seen his face before, completely sells Doug’s isolation as this soon-to-be-married schlub reaches out to distant acquaintance after distant acquaintance hoping to land a Best Man. The sequence of phone calls is deftly written, and belongs to a satire of the Wedding Industrial Complex that is sharp and biting. It belongs to a film that at least partially earns its mistaken identity farce.

You can see, as that last call ends and he is no closer to finding someone to stand behind him on the biggest day of his life, why this man might be desperate. Maybe (MAYBE!) even desperate enough to pay a man like Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) to pretend to be his Best Man, the made-up Bic Mitchum, so no one will see the man Doug sees in that heartbreaking moment – a lonely workaholic who is so detached from the other males in his life that one college roommate assumed he had died.

Touching and though-provoking stuff. And then, as he contemplates his lot in life, Doug falls through his glass table, and he pathetically cries for help through the opening credits. Needless to say, it’s overkill after the sequence of phone calls so deftly illustrated Doug’s isolation.

All this film’s potential energy – energy that lies coiled and mostly untapped – is evident in this opening salvo; and so is all it’s kinetic energy, its fondness for slapstick physical comedy that rarely adds anything to the film – to its themes, its plot, its portraits of broken characters – other than a nice excuse to have an R-Rating.

I won’t spend much time on these inane trips into some bad American Pie: The Naked Mile spinoff style comedy antics. They rob the movie of its vim and vigor at essential moments when it could be flexing other, more nuanced muscles. A sad-eyed dog gets lockjaw at an inconvenient time forcing a trip to the hospital AND a car chase! Complete with a bridge jump!

This misadventure comes straight out of a bachelor party bacchanal that’s all strobe lights and skimpily dressed females, though Doug’s delight at a bouncehouse is a nice touch.

Worst of all, an entire excruciating sequence is dedicated to the muddy touch football match between Doug’s hired groomsmen and his almost father-in-law’s squad of former NFL players. (Hey, Joe Namath!) The sequence contributes nothing to the film that other scenes haven’t shown already. It’s just an excuse to have giant men punch little men (a recurring comic theme in Kevin Hart movies), and then watch little man fight scrappily back. I’ll leave it at this when it comes to the hedonism on display; part of the reason the first Hangover was so brilliant (and it was) is that it understood that sketching the outlines of the most intense night ever after the fact would be much more fun than actually filming the most intense night ever. (And made the photographs that played during the end credits such a rewarding payoff.) We had more fun filling in the blanks. When Doug calls his bachelor party the most fun night he’s ever had, it’s easy to question the character since we actually saw it and it looked horrifying on so many levels.

Truth is, the whole film has this problem, on a smaller scale. While joke after joke thuds, the script, on a more thematic level, is a smartly constructed farce about how the fabled fairy tale wedding forces everyone involved to “play a part.” This checks out, character-by-character:

  • The hired helpers are obviously playing a role; they are being paid to do so. From the gay wedding planner who is playing up his prancing and lisping to fit his clients’ image of wedding planners post Father of the Bride (I can not emphasize how weirdly profound this little aside is), to the bachelor party stripper who feigns foreign naivete expecting it will satisfy men committing to one last night of debauchery who don’t want to be confronted by someone who seems complicit in their infidelity, to, of course, Jimmy and his crew of hired misfits, who spend as much time studying so they can pretend they went to law school or podiatry school as they would have done studying in actual law school or podiatry school. Locked in a room with index cards and maps, learning to pronounce “Patagonia,” they are as much a manufactured part of the Wedding Experience as the carefully constructed gourmet confection we see being built and shipped out on a tray during a thrilling tracking shot that takes us out of the opening credits. Even the DJ is playing his part, forcing everyone to shout what a good night it’s going to be as he plays that Wedding DJ standard, “I Gotta Feeling”
  • Then there’s the family. Doug, it is fairly clear from the outset, is playing out his half of a happy relationship mostly because Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting of Big Bang Theory fame) is beautiful and has taken an interest in him. Believing this to be his only genuine chance at a functioning relationship with an actual female, Doug has convinced himself of something that is not true; that he is in love. It is gradually revealed that Gretchen and her family are also “acting.” Her father barely conceals his disdain for Doug, and, as the plot progresses, his animosity eventually explodes into the aforementioned football scrimmage. Her sister is feigning delight at Gretchen’s upcoming nuptials, hiding a jaded Maid of Honor’s demeanor beneath a supporting facade. And, in a neat bit of symmetry, Jimmy accidentally gets Gretchen to reveal that she is using Doug as much as Doug is using her.
    This reveal is heartbreaking and extraordinarily well-written. Many passages of the movie, such as a poolside conversation where Jimmy and Doug start to divulge details about their histories (Doug is an army brat who moved a lot, for instance) pass in exactly this way – they are stunningly character-driven, relatable, and darkly comic because they are played completely straight and only serve to sharpen the movie’s already razor sharp take on weddings. It makes the passages with jokes all the more regrettable, because on the whole they are so poorly written. It almost feels like the first pass at the script outline was written by a master of farce like Mike Nichols, whose The Graduate and The Birdcage this film shares a great deal of DNA with. And then, he left a bunch of blanks where dialogue was supposed to go, and the joke writers wrote the first thing that came to mind and never bothered to change it before filming. Recurring gags like “You put the weed in the coconut” and “kitchen cabinets” seem so starved of any critical thought that you wonder if the writers themselves could have even thought them funny. The movie ends on a Lost reference delivered by Jorge Garica (Hurley on the show) that should have made my heart soar. The way it’s written, and the way it undercuts the film’s true ending, made me groan. It’s poor screenwriting. Period.

Still, Kevin Hart is Kevin Hart, and his gift for ad libbing can still turn his now-yearly January appointment with our eyeballs into an occasionally transcendent experience. Last year, it was Hart pretending to be a drug kingpin that made the insufferable Ride Along briefly sufferable.

While some Hart setpieces are ill-advised (Hart playing Jewish-ish at a Jewish funeral comes to mind), one extended sequence where his Jimmy and Gad’s Doug dive into their Bic Mitchum lie is immense fun. Upon finding out his Bic Mitchum role will be an army chaplain, Jimmy unleashes a George Carlin-like torrent of curse words he knows he won’t be able to use for a while. And their all night study-session is littered with delightful asides that actually seem to have been sketched out by a comedy writer who cares. However… Be warned Kevin Hart fans… if anything, The Wedding Ringer somehow underuses Hart’s comedic gifts.

Instead, the film shows Hart to be an occasionally deft dramatic performer. If anything, I sort of look forward to the film that will earn Hart a Best Supporting Actor nomination in about eight years. In Ride Along, Hart was all scrappy desire – an underdog looking for respect. But Hart is all swagger – its schtick, the man with more confidence than height – and it’s much more relaxing to see a film let him own that swagger from the outset. It’s much more interesting watching Hart start from a position of power (like the one he has here) and slowly step down from that privileged place, realizing that his business drive is compensating for the same friendlessness he tries to hide for his clients. The film is about the messy honesty that comes from maintaining true friendships, and watching Jimmy see something worthwhile in Doug – not lies about epic scuba diving trips, but the real, messed-up Doug – is heartening. In many ways, this film is much more emotionally vulnerable than the film it will be mostly compared to – Hitch, in which a dating coach helps an overweight loser land a supermodel. In that vulnerability, it’s a bit like the only completely honest character in The Wedding Ringer, a Best Man at a different wedding who tears up his speech and decides to speak from the heart, only to begin stammering and gagging, ultimately rembling about his dead brother. There’s pain when you get down to the truth.

But it’s also a bit overly cynical about all this, especially women’s role in it. It shoves the sheen of weddings and marriages in your face hoping to say something about all marriages and all weddings, but, because it so poorly adresses my second question, about the lying, it never really gets past the sham that this particular wedding is.

Still this raw, pulsing, exposed vein of vulnerability can’t help but raise the kind of probing questions that get straight at the viewer’s own views: “How am I at maintaining friendships?” “What would I do in Doug’s situation?” I have to give The Wedding Ringer credit; it turned the questions I had about the film coming in right back on myself. For my part, I find it much easier to make female friends, I’ll readily admit. (This actually make me skeptical of a whole lot of way-too-easy “Women are like this…” and “Men are like this…” stereotyping the film had going on.) I am also notoriously not good at maintaining contact long distance. I know who my groomsmen will be if I have my choice, but I can imagine a world in which someone might not. The notion of a traditional fairy tale wedding involves a whole of politicking – about evening out the bride’s side and the groom’s side, and seating, and catering, and oh my god so much other stuff.

But we live in a day and age where it is more and more possible to forego a lot of that pressure, a lot of it gender-based and extremely antiquated. Just yesterday, I confirmed that I will be a Maid of Honor (Man of Honor?) at a fairly casual beach wedding. Increasingly, friends around me seem just as happy to let their first act as a married couple (the wedding) not be a back-breaking experience that ruins the marriage before it starts. They take on what they can because it’s THEIR day, not society’s. The Wedding Ringer ignores this world, where there’s a level of wedding for everyone, and where the two parties involved actually discuss what level is best for them.

And that’s what truly breaks the Wedding Ringer as a film. If you can dismiss everything that happens after minute 10 as a plot contrivance, you must not be dealing with Grade-A stuff. And everything Doug does after deciding to lie to Gretchen and hire Best Man services is just that – high-concept contrivance. Upon being told about Doug;s issues, either she immediately accepts that this man she loves is struggling to find groomsmen for understandable reasons, or she does not and Doug knows all the sooner what he comes to find out. Doug is confronted with this early on by his wedding planner and wonders instead: what if telling her isn’t an option? At which point the wedding planner says well… I know this guy.

Wrong! Telling her is the only option. Because, and this is the truth, if you’re the groom, and you don’t feel like the person behind you, the person holding the ring, has your back, that’s chill. It’s all pomp and circumstance. But if you don’t feel like the person in FRONT of you has your back, the problem isn’t the Wedding, weather it’s manufactured or not; the problem was the Proposal.

My Week in Movies – January 15

This week, Liam Neeson returns for one last Taken.

Taken 3

In the latest (and possibly last) installment in the Taken series, director Olivier Megaton and producer Luc Besson break away from the kidnapping premise that’s been so integral to spurring Bryan Mills (Neeson) into action. Instead they go for broke by killing Lenny (Famke Jansen), Bryan’s awkwardly close ex-wife, which sends him on his rampage across Los Angeles. While Neeson performs admirably in a franchise that is clearly flagging, it’s Forest Whitaker as Inspector Dotzler who is the film’s true star. His performance is outstanding and I agree with my fellow Conquistador, Charles, that Dotzler is the best thing about this film. Whitaker aptly portrays an investigator I would gladly put my faith in if I were a suspect for a murder I did not commit. Mills, on the other hand, is mostly a single-minded rampaging lunatic. I understand his need for revenge, I’m just not sure it’s properly channeled by the character or sympathetically displayed by the director. I was mostly disappointed by everyone else in the movie. Maggie Grace’s Kim Mills gained some skills in the last movie and used them ever so briefly, but I wouldn’t mind a larger role for her in the future if they do decide to continue plugging movies into this franchise.

Watch it: If you’re a fan of Whitaker, or Neeson rampaging about.
Skip it: If you’re looking for multiple nuanced performances.

Tak3n Review (D)

The bagels were still warm, you see.

Forest Whitaker’s homicide detective is doing his fine little Hercule Poirot imitation. (Really, he’s sublime. We’ve found David Suchet’s replacement if he’s up for it.)

And, lo, because of those bagels – still fresh from the corner cafe where the suspect, Bryan Mills, picked them up before discovering his ex-wife slain in his bed – our brilliant detective, with his rubber band tic, and his beyond-next-level thinking, and his thoughtful demeanor… Dude’s already in on the readily apparent: this is a clear framing. Bryan Mills didn’t do this. Give him a day, maybe two, and he’ll clear Bryan of all charges and find the guy that did.

But that’s not how Bryan operates, because, y’know, it’s Liam Neeson in late-career-badass-mode and, heck, he’s already taken out half of the scummy Eastern European population in Eastern Europe. Why stop there? As an opening scene that doesn’t pay off for what feels like almost the entire movie makes clear, there are some completely unrelated scuzzy Eastern Europeans in Los Angeles who need some Neesons-ing.

What did these Russians thugs do to pull themselves into Bryan’s unrelenting orbit? That is almost entirely unclear, even after it is explained in detail by the accused and condemned, Malankov. A glowering, one-dimensional gangster who graduated summa cum laude from the Luc Besson School of Glowering, One-Dimensional Gangsters (Besson writes and produces, but hands direction to Olivier Megaton), Malankov seems to have little to no idea who the brusque, Irish killing-machine standing before him even is! It’s not that he didn’t kill Lenore, Bryan’s ex-wife (Famke, why they always do you like that in the third movie?!); it’s just that it was an ancillary component of a simple business deal got wrong. Malankov, with his menacing opening-scene, and his impenetrable fortress penthouse, is a goddamn Trojan Horse.

The movie math is all wrong here. John Wick soared to critical acclaim because the stakes were so clear: a puppy had died. That puppy had belonged to the most legendary assassin in all the land. All parties involved knew what was coming if a truce was impossible, and the film made clear that a truce was impossible. Action commenced.

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Similarly, the first Taken’s equation was straight-forward: Foreign Sex Traffickers + Kidnapped Daughter = Pissed-off Retired Super-Spy. The iconc scene that launched Taken into the annals of movie lore – the phone call where Bryan spoke directly to the men who had taken his daughter – is masterclass screenwriting. We know who our good guy is, we know who our bad guys are, we know what everyone wants, and we know that, in spite of impossible odds, Bryan “will find” the people who did this and “will kill” them. As long as the Taken film’s focused on the repercussions that emanated from Bryan’s single-minded quest to save his daughter before time ran out (and, yes time could run out), they at least had their formula right. No matter how icky it could get seeing Neeson off one anonymous Muslim face after another, at least the battle lines were clear. Simple movie alchemy.

Now, with this third film, this series has left the European saga, and anything resembling a sturdy foundation, behind it. At many points, people condescend to Bryan’s fathering skills, as if this man hadn’t single-handedly rescued his daughter from a veritable army. Daddy took out an entire family tree, guys; his resume is set.

The events of the first two films barely come up. Which seems more than a tad strange – it makes Taken 3 feel less like a sequel to those movies and more like some subpar thriller script that was out there, and, oh hey, let’s stuff the Mills family in there for old times sake. Taken 2 was it’s own special hell, but it mitigated that inevitable and weary Die Hard-ish question (How many times can this family get “taken”???) by building its plot around the revenge of the aggrieved. Here? In Taken 3? This is just some unrelated, nonsense, bad luck.

The root of Tak3n’s problem: Lenore’s current husband Stuart St. John, who is played by Dougray Scott here after being played by Xander Berkeley in the first film. (Apperently, going evil makes you younger.)

In Taken, that character bared the brunt of the gruff and emasculating line “Now’s not the time for dick measuring, Stuart!” NOW, apparently, is the time for dick measuring, as Stuart, who is a much seedier guy then had been previously let on, and Malankov, who is an old business partner, square off in one of the most confounding murder plots I’ve ever seen. Let’s see if we can parse this:

  • Malankov is owed money and threatens Stuart by killing Stuart’s accountant
  • Stuart and Malankov, in spite of this bad blood, concoct a scheme off-screen to kill Lenore for her $12 million insurance policy
  • They plan to frame Bryan to keep him in jail and out of their hair, presumably because he’s a scary dude
  • Stuart texts Lenore from Bryan’s phone while pretending to tell Bryan to back off
  • Malankov abducts Lenore at the faraway gas station Stuart drew her too, than leaves her body in Bryan’s apartment while he is out grabbing bagels after receiving a text from her phone
  • The police show up just as Bryan sees Lenore’s body (he is conveniently holding the murder weapon)

I guess it stands to reason that the first question to ask these two masterminds is: “Why involve the man who brought half of Europe to its knees? Like, at all?” This isn’t Amazing Amy seamlessly framing her doofus of a husband for her own murder in Gone Girl; this is the one guy in all of Los Angeles who is most unlikely to react rationally to being framed. Rather than frame him, I dunno, maybe make it look like a random mugging. Better yet, get them both while they’re eating bagels together! I don’t like doing the criminal thinking for criminals, but sometimes you just want to step through the screen and micro-manage a henchman for everyone’s sake.

Either way… Do anything possible to avoid angering Liam Freakin’ Neesons!

The other issue is that Taken 3 never makes it clear exactly how this plan came about; what I’ve drawn out above mostly comes from inferences that Malankov and Stuart had more open communication lines than they seem to have in the film. If they were in fact adversaries, then none of this makes any sense.

But these two jerks are not even the most nonsensical thing about Taken 3. We’ll save that honor for Bryan, who has so little faith in the criminal justice system, he would rather cause a deadly pileup on the interstate than be brought in for interrogation. (To be fair, the cops handle that situation just as poorly, using action movie logic in a high-speed hostage situation.) I won’t claim to be an expert on police procedure, but my impression is that Bryan would not have been immediately executed had he surrendered peacefully and calmly explained his whereabouts, maybe pointing officers in the direction of the smiling cafe worker who had just handed him bagels.

Yeah, the first Taken had it’s own stereotype-ribbing thread about Bryan’s mistrust for the French police and their ability to find his daughter, but it had one thing working in its favor – it didn’t go out of its way to make it look like the French officials were constantly on the verge of a breakthrough. If it had done that, Bryan would look less like an essential savior and more like a stubborn nuisance who wants to win a savior race.

Which brings us back to the warm bagels. As he puts a bow on the film, Whitaker’s Inspector Dotzler brags that he knew all along, knew from the minute he popped that bagel in his mouth and felt it’s fluffy heat. And this isn’t a surprise; the filmmakers constantly highlight the bagels as an indicator of Bryan’s innocence, lingering on Inspector Dotzler as tries to weigh their presence against the skittish behavior of a suspect-on-the-run. Dotzler is always ten steps ahead of everyone but Bryan, who is, like, ten-and-a-half steps ahead, and the only reason Dotzler doesn’t have a chance to conduct a rational interrogation of Bryan sooner is because every other cop has a severe case of convenient pig-headedness. Dotzler as played by Whitaker is brilliant, compassionate, intuitive, and, ultimately, very forgiving (he says he could have Bryan arrested for hacking a police cruiser, but there are about ten thousand other things he could arrest Bryan for). He is, in short, exactly the homicide detective we would want on a case like this. To a tee.

It’s fascinating to hang the plot of an action movie on suspicion that the police and the courts will not be able to competently suss out innocence, particularly directly in the wake of the unprecedented success of the Serial podcast, which saw a reporter analyze, across 12 episodes, the details of a case that was so poorly investigated when it happened that it’s almost impossible to tell, 15 years later, whether the guilty verdict that put Adnan Syed away was valid or not. With a simple casting change, Taken 3 could have very easily ridden that wave. But it does itself no favors by making Dotzler the embodiment of that meticulous cop that we all wish, as we listen to Serial, could have been working the beat in Baltimore in 1999.

Without that tonal issue, Taken 3 is merely a hollow film with editing so frenetic, every establishing shot is shown from three angles in quick, jumpy succession. It features some fun shootouts and a novel moment of spycraft every so often, but mostly, it’s a film with a pregnancy subplot that exists mostly as a means to martyr the dead Lenore, who had been rendered a Woman in a Refrigerator; with dead ends like Bryan retrieving a hair sample for no reason; and with – in those moments where it attempts to emulate something like real human interaction, before plot machinations kick in – music cues so obnoxious and overbearing, they seem like they must be covering up for bad acting, even when they are not. (Liam NEESONS is still Liam Neeson, the great actor, after all, as has been made clear in recent humanist meditations mismarketed as action films like The Grey and A Walk Among the Tombstones.)

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But with that tonal problem – with it’s insistence that Dotzler knew about those bagels all along – Taken 3 just makes it’s hero seem like a headstrong jerk. Maybe it’s time to consider that Mills, in the way he flaunts his “particular set of skills,” has always been a jerk. In playing its hand so poorly, Taken 3 – which features, in the wake of films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Railway Man, a scene of waterboarding that we’re supposed to… cheer?! – forces a necessary reconsideration of the first two films. All three Taken films (like Keifer Sutherland’s 24) have been plot machines meant to put us firmly in the corner of that War on Terror boogeyman, the one who’s mastered all the not-so-nice tactics we insist we as a culture are above. What does it say about us – about me – that it took Bryan rampaging around an American city coldcocking white guys to break the spell and really force the question of what’s being taken and who’s doing the taking?

Interstellar

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles blast off into space once more with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. There was a lot of science and a fair amount of fiction. How does this epic fit in with Nolan’s library of amazing films?