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Entries in dramedy (5)

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5

Friday
Sep212012

Hello I Must Be Going

Hello I Must Be Going is so similar to this week’s other 35-dating-a-19-year-old dramedy, Liberal Arts, that it’s impossible not to notice or compare. Normally, when comparing two movies, one clearly outshines the other, yet Hello I Must Be Going is no better or worse, but it’s exactly as bland. Both films think they’re saying something more than they really are and despite all around solid performances, they fail to make an impact. If one must be chosen as superior, I suppose it would be Liberals Arts, if only because it’s funnier and a bit more heartfelt, but that in no way makes this movie bad. It would have been bad even without the comparison.

Amy (Melanie Lynskey), like so many mopey movie characters these days, is down on her luck. Her husband has just left her, shattering her happy existence, and she has moved back in with her parents, Stan (John Rubinstein) and Ruth (Blythe Danner). She’s been holed up in that house for months now and has had little interaction beyond her family. However, her lawyer father is hoping to nail a big client and is having him and his family over for dinner, so she is forced to doll up and put on a smile. That night, she meets Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), a 19 year old actor and son of the big client, and they instantly make a connection, sparking a secret, off-limits romance that, if discovered, could have serious repercussions for her future and her father’s business endeavors.

That’s the way the movie wants you to think about it at least. The reason the father wants to nail this client so badly is so he can retire, so the worst thing that could happen is that he’d have to wait a couple more years, though a late movie twist makes this reasoning moot anyway. As for Amy and Jeremy, they aren’t doing anything illegal or manipulative. They both clearly have feelings for each other—and as they say, love knows no age—so the consequences seem negligible at most. The stakes are never truly high, though they carry the guise of importance. This realization makes the movie feel aimless, unaware of where it wants to go and what it wants to say. It has the ingredients to make for interesting commentary, but, despite coming close to profundity a couple times, it mixes those ingredients into something most unsavory. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t find the words to create the meaning.

Similarly, the idea of having to be someone others want you to is forced into enough nooks and crannies of the film that the idea ends up becoming a self-parody. Jeremy, for instance, is pretending to be gay because his mother thinks he is. The why behind this decision is hardly explored, instead passed over by a quick throwaway line of dialogue, something about how it’s sometimes easier to be someone that others want you to be. Although not a bad theme, the character motivation doesn’t follow it through. Amy’s eventual maturation doesn’t come from support and understanding from those around her, or even from a realization that she deserves more than what life has given her, but from pressure from others to move on, to forget about the love of her life that dumped her and the second love of her life that is forbidden. She seems to move on by conforming to the ideas of others, not from her own desire to do so.

Hello I Must Be Going is a mess in search of a meaning. The performances are terrific and Lynskey, who is too often relegated to supporting roles, is finally given a chance to shine. She makes the most of it, even if her awards chances are slim, and she crafts a likable, sympathetic character whose charms manage to outweigh the whininess. But the movie as a whole is just there, trying really hard and not doing or saying much of anything. Even its contradicting title, one would assume, is meant to carry meaning, but it does little more than provide an easy zing for movie reviewers like myself. Frankly, it wasn’t long after saying hello that I was ready to get going.

Hello I Must Be Going receives 1.5/5

Friday
Aug312012

Sleepwalk with Me

It’s difficult not to think of FX’s “Louie” while watching Sleepwalk with Me. They don’t have much in common other than the fact that the main stars are real life comedians playing fictional versions of themselves, but it’s the novelty of seeing a stand-up comedian, who is most comfortable on a stage, act out a story and try to find meaning. Although certainly flawed, “Louie” does a pretty good job of that and manages to surprise with its smarts at every turn. Sleepwalk with Me isn’t quite up to its level. It’s a good movie, but at a mere 80 minutes (and that includes credits), it’s a little light on story and much of its desired meaning is lost.

The film stars Mike Birbiglia as Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring stand-up comic who spends more time bartending than he does telling jokes. He’s in a relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), whom he loves dearly, but nevertheless, he’s not ready to get married. The problem is she is. His sister’s impending marriage is only causing more eyes to turn his way with the hopes of him finally making the decision to settle down. These pressures cause his anxiety to spike and before he knows it, he’s sleepwalking to an extreme level, to the point where he could potentially harm himself or others.

Frankly, his whole sleepwalking predicament is beside the point. Aside from the obvious parallel between it and his drab existence, where the clichéd message of “look how some of us are sleepwalking through life” rears its ugly head, there isn’t much to it. It provides the occasional fit of laughter, like in an early scene where he starts kicking a laundry basket and yelling that there’s a jackal in his room, but for a device to be so central to the story, it’s surprisingly thin. With little writing experience other than his own stand-up routines, Birbiglia falls to the first-time-indie-writer problem. He thinks his movie is far more profound than it really is.

Even with this flaw, Birbiglia nevertheless manages to create likable characters that we care about, even if we don’t care about what they’re doing. Pandamiglio is your typical everyman. He’s relatable, but only because he’s common. He isn’t buff, successful or even particularly good looking, but neither is he scrawny, unsuccessful or ugly. He’s merely average, but he carries with him a passion most will be able to connect to and appreciate. Even his girlfriend, who is frustrated by his lack of commitment and becoming increasingly unhappy with their relationship, supports him in his comic endeavors, which are far more likely to fail than succeed. These are really interesting characters with complex personalities that are unfortunately coasting through a weak and inconsequential story.

Still, the movie does provide the occasional insight or emotional moment. One sequence in particular is simultaneously sweet and crushing as it flashes back to when Matt and Abby fell in love in the midst of a current relationship that is falling apart, but other transitions aren’t quite as seamless. Matt’s own metamorphosis from fledgling comedian to popular funnyman is rushed and unconvincing, as is his sudden attractiveness to the opposite sex, but I suppose at only 80 minutes, there isn’t much time for lollygagging. This short runtime also fails to allow enough time for Matt and Abby to be together (as Matt is out on the road for the majority of the movie), so what eventually happens to their relationship is both expected and narratively extraneous.

With so many structural problems and an ego that thinks it says more than it really does, Sleepwalk with Me is nothing more than a serviceable time waster. It succeeds (if only slightly) on a few decent laughs and the charm of its characters, but because it rarely gives them anything interesting to do, the film feels dull and lifeless. The final product from a stand-up comedian turned first time screenwriter and director could have been a lot worse, but Birbiglia will need to expand on his ideas next time if he hopes to succeed as something other than forgettable.

Sleepwalk with Me receives 3/5

Friday
Jun222012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The oft heard question “What would you do if you had [insert number here] days left to live?” is not a hard one for most people to answer. Most would spend it with their loved ones waiting for death to take hold of them. The surprisingly simplistic answer of such a difficult question, and the ease from which it comes, says a lot about humanity. Despite our obsession with materialistic things, most of us know what’s truly important in life. That’s the driving force behind the new apocalyptic dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Although hardly a revelatory study on human behavior, the film is nothing less than sincere, even when it’s a bit too jokey for its own good.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World wastes no time in setting up its grim story. As it begins, Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell) are sitting on the side of the road in their car as the radio gives them some bad news. A 70-mile wide asteroid is heading to Earth and all attempts to stop it have failed. Humankind has three weeks left to live. Linda then hops out of the car and runs away, leaving Dodge all alone. He then goes about the next week of his life lonely and depressed until he runs into his British neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who wishes for nothing more than to see her family. Unfortunately, they still live overseas and all planes have been grounded. Dodge knows someone who can help her out, however, and promises to reunite her with her family if she will accompany him as he searches for his long lost high school love, Olivia, before the world ends.

If Seeking a Friend for the End of the World had to be described in as concise a way as possible, it would be as a film with moments of profound beauty accompanied by an uneasy dose of emotion evaporating comedy. Its early moments are too farcical for its own good, laying a dishonest groundwork for a film that eventually reveals hidden layers of meaning as it goes on. With cameos by notable over-the-top comedians like Rob Corddry and Amy Schumer, the movie plays too much to its silly side while the characters face a grim and unavoidable situation. Despite an initial appreciation for these scenes, they don’t hold up upon reflection because what follows is a devastating, gut wrenching finale.

That in no way, of course, diminishes the impact of said finale. The ending is simultaneously terrifying and utterly beautiful. It manages to both make you smile and make you cry and the very last shot, which I dare not give away, will stick with you. It couldn’t have ended a better way. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be the most emotionally affecting movie to be released so far this year and that’s in spite of its larger deficiencies, like some awkward bonding scenes involving riots and a suicide assisted assassination.

Much of the credit can be given to Steve Carell, who once again proves his dramatic talent. His character is a very sad man, someone who waited his entire life for happiness to find him and now that he’s out of time, he recognizes he waited too long. Carell brilliantly realizes this man. He doesn’t whine over what could have been (and any mention of it is solely for expository purposes rather than a superficial attempt to win the audience’s affection); he just shows it on his face. Even when making a joke, even when he’s trying to feign happiness, his look gives him away. Sadness pervades him. Carell continues to impress in whatever role he’s in, be it comedy or drama, and though I doubt he’ll be recognized for it, he gives what is sure to be one of the best performances of the year.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, like so many movies, has tons of potential to be great, but squanders it. The fact that the ending of the movie still works as well as it does shows that with a little extra care, with some more reasonable early film decisions and a maybe a few cuts here and there, it could have been something special. But this is one of those rare movies you won’t look back on and remember disappointment. You won’t dwell on its problems. You’ll remember how the ending made you feel (and it’s bound to make you feel something) and the ensuing effect it had on you. While I can’t justifiably make the argument that the film is anything more than simply good, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits so many right notes that, in retrospect, its problems don’t seem so large at all.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jun152012

Your Sister's Sister

Your Sister’s Sister begins with a somber moment. One year after the death of a man named Tom, his friends and family have gotten together to remember him. Most talk about how special and kind he was, a person who was always willing to lend a helping hand, but his still grieving brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), remembers him differently. He remembers him as the little hellion he was when they were kids, before everybody else in the room met him. After ranting about how terrible he could be (not out of hate, but out of his disgust for people who claim to know so much about him, but really don’t), his best friend and Tom’s ex-girlfriend, Iris (Emily Blunt), tells him to take a load off and get away for a while. She tells him to go to her father’s cabin where he will be shut off from the world, but when he gets there, he finds her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has also retreated there to get away from a difficult situation.

This is where the movie takes a turn. It becomes more humorous and the two characters who have never met each other before begin to form a bond. After a long night of drinking, they end up having sex with each other. What’s clear in these early moments is that the characters are indeed facing central problems that motivate their actions, but the movie smartly never dwells on them. It never forces us to feel bad for either of them, instead allowing us to make up our own minds based on what they do and say, not how the screenplay wants us to feel.

A large portion of this could be because of its improvised nature, a staple of the recent so-called mumblecore film movement, but this isn’t like, say, Humpday, which consisted of 10 written pages with no dialogue. Your Sister’s Sister is a 70 page treatment that clearly has a narrative and emotional path in mind, yet it allows the actors to forge that path themselves. It’s the best blending of mumblecore with traditional filmmaking to date.

But while the characters are strongly defined through equal parts performance and writing, they’re stuck in a story that would feel like a gimmick in a romantic comedy. When Iris shows up the next morning after Jack and Hannah’s rendezvous, a number of things are learned, of which I’ll leave secret for fear of revealing spoilers. Although the events are handled more delicately than they would be in a more conventional rom-com, they are no less banal and inconsequential, the latter adjective used only because the film wraps up a hugely complex and precarious situation in an unbelievably tidy manner. The overly simplistic conclusion makes the conflicts feel minute in scale, despite their essentiality to the story.

Nevertheless, Your Sister’s Sister is a solid movie, featuring a trio of excellent performances and dynamic character relationships that ring true in every scene. Above anything else, the film is about sibling love and forgiveness, even when that sibling has done something unforgivable. For the most part, it succeeds both narratively and emotionally in what it sets out to do (despite a silly and heavy handed end speech), but Your Sister’s Sister never rises above that humdrum feeling its premise elicits.

Your Sister’s Sister receives 3.5/5