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Entries in ed helms (5)

Thursday
May232013

The Hangover Part III

Years from now, when people discuss the best comedies of this generation, I fully expect 2009’s “The Hangover” to feature prominently in their conversation. Although it certainly had its detractors, it was widely found to be quite funny, a consensus made by both the movie going public and the critic community. Its sequel, which can more appropriately be called a remake, was less successful in terms of quality because comedy requires the element of surprise to work and surprises were few and far between due to recycled jokes and plot lines. This week’s “The Hangover Part III” abandons the narrative structure of the previous films and successfully sets itself apart. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only things it’s successful at doing.

This time, the boys don’t have anything crazy planned. They have moved past the events from the previous two movies and are content with their lives, that is except for Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who tries to fill his emptiness with things like the purchasing of a giraffe, which he promptly and accidentally decapitates soon after. His wild life has led Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to stage an intervention. This convinces Alan to enter rehab to get his life under control, but on the way, a drug kingpin named Marshall (John Goodman) rams them off the road. It turns out Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen over $20 million in gold from him. Mr. Chow’s whereabouts are unknown since his escape from a prison near Bangkok, so he figures the Wolfpack may be able to find him. He takes Doug hostage and gives the trio three days to get his money back. Otherwise, Doug is dead.

The most common criticism that “The Hangover Part II” received was that it followed too closely to its predecessor. It’s a fair complaint, but it’s also understandable. Director Todd Phillips had something special with the first movie, a comedy that fired on all cylinders, provided plenty of laughs, had likable characters and a story with an intriguing mystery at its core. To want to recreate that magic a second time is perfectly reasonable, even if it did ultimately fail. But “The Hangover Part III” is another beast altogether. It does nothing but coast by on the franchise name and star power of its leads. It has no material to sustain a full length movie, only the thinnest of paper thin plots to move it along and jokes that oftentimes can hardly be considered such.

The jokes this time come at a far less frequent pace (and legitimate laughs even less so). Large chunks of the movie go by with nary a joke in sight, the only humorous moments coming from Galifianakis’ goofy demeanor and not from a witty script. This comes as no surprise since Galifianakis is the only one even trying, the others merely coasting by for the paycheck, clearly uninterested in what’s going on, but it’s a futile attempt. Galifianakis’ character was always written as the dimwitted one, the one that spoke before thinking, but his simplemindedness from the previous movies has now devolved into outright cruelty. Few would argue that the characters were walking examples of morality in the other movies, but much of their meanness came from name calling and harsh jokes among themselves, a normal occurrence between male friends. Here, the characters spill glasses on purpose for the house maid to clean up, verbally abuse old ladies in motorized wheelchairs and talk poorly to their mothers, to the point where Alan even wishes his mother dead.

Cruelty does not equate to comedy, a revelation made clear by recent debacles like “Bachelorette” and “Project X,” yet that’s nearly all “The Hangover Part III” has to offer. What little actual jokes it does have are unfunny or rehashes of other familiar jokes, like the model building joke from “Zoolander.” Its locations—prisons, funerals and interventions, just to name a few—simply aren’t ripe for comedy and very few movies with similar settings pull it off (the 2007 British film “Death at a Funeral” being a standout exception).

Although I’m sure many will prefer this narratively new film over the rehash that was “Part II,” this is nevertheless far worse. At least “Part II” tried. It was a lazy attempt, but it had a desire to be funny. This has no comedic flow or energy and laughs are scarce. What’s worse, the focus on Alan and Mr. Chow relegates both Stu and Phil to sidekicks who are given little to do. “The Hangover Part III” is a comedic abomination and, as a third entry to one of the funniest movies in recent memory, a colossal disappointment.

The Hangover Part III receives 1/5

Friday
Mar162012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In one way or another, all movies are about destiny. The journey a character takes from a film’s opening moments all the way to its conclusion can easily be defined as such, yet critics and filmgoers still criticize those films for their contrivances and happenstances. Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with a quote, directly telling the audience that the film they’re about to see is about fate, which will give certain critics a reason to look past the film’s contrived situations, but expressly stated or not, contrivances are contrivances and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is full of them.

Jeff (Jason Segel) still lives at home with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). He’s 30 years old and nobody understands him. One day, he gets a call from a wrong number looking for a man named Kevin. Jeff sees this as a sign to look for someone named Kevin because, who knows, that person might just need his help. On a trip to the supermarket that same day, he spots on a man wearing a basketball jersey with the name “Kevin” etched on its back, so he follows him only to be robbed, beaten up and wandering the street where a whole mess of contrived situations lead him to what he thought he was looking for.

If I went through every single one of those aforementioned contrivances in an attempt to defend my stance on the film, I’d be giving away the entire story beat by beat because they continue on, quite literally, until the very last scene where characters who hadn’t seen each other the entire film just happen to intersect at a crucial point in time, so instead let me just give a few early examples. After taking a beating from the kid wearing the basketball jersey, Jeff takes a stroll down the road, the very same one that his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), just happens to be having lunch on (and only spots him because he leaves his table to take a conveniently timed call from his mother). Pat offers to give Jeff a ride home, but after some reckless driving, he slams into a tree, only for the two to spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), across the street at a gas station with another man (both of whom are oblivious to the fact that a sports car at top speed just slammed loudly and violently into a tree).

Jeff and Pat then decide to tail Linda and the mystery man, but eventually lose track of them, so they part ways after an argument. Pat hails a cab and out of all the streets in the entire city it could have driven down, it drives down the one with a Hampton Inn on it and where Linda’s car is parked. Meanwhile, Jeff has hitched a ride on a snack food truck because the company name just so happened to have the name “Kevin” in it. Guess where the truck’s next delivery is? You guessed it. The Hampton Inn. What happens after this point is too story sensitive to discuss due to potential spoilers, but you can be sure moments like those previously mentioned continue to occur, bringing about what can only be described as a mega-contrivance.

Frankly, it’s tiring. This movie is either too stupid to realize the opening quote doesn’t negate its contrivances or it’s so smart it realizes putting that quote there will fool people into thinking it’s something more than what it is. If it’s the latter, it’s a clever ruse, but something tells me the Duplass brothers, the directors behind this and other so called mumblecore films Cyrus and Baghead, aren’t smart enough to pull such a sham, given that they still haven’t even realized how to operate a camera. Like their previous films, Jeff, Who Lives at Home still looks (perhaps intentionally) like an amateur home video, complete with poor framing, little headroom (if any) and misplaced zooms both in and out.

An uninteresting side story involving Sharon’s secret admirer co-worker is just another drop in the fail bucket when stacked up alongside the film’s bigger problems, but it’s not all terrible. A few of the jokes are laugh out loud funny and the lead is quite likable. He’s a bit of a slouch and spends more time smoking weed than looking for jobs, but he genuinely cares about people, as evidenced by a number of scenes, including one where he helps an old lady cross the street. Segel’s sympathetic portrayal of a character that could have easily come off as little more than a loser carries Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but without strong supporting content to aid him, it’s still difficult to care.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home receives 1.5/5

Friday
Mar022012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from recent movies like Cars 2 and this week’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, it’s that creating an environmentally friendly message is very hard to do without coming off as preachy. If Cars 2 shoved its message down your throat, The Lorax beats you over the head with it. While there’s certainly something to be said about industrialization and its negative effects on the environment, The Lorax fails to bring it forth with resonance.

The film follows a young kid named Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) who lives in the town of Thneed-Ville. In his town, no living trees exist and to survive, air must be bought from business mogul and mayor, Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle). Ted has a crush on a pretty girl named Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) who longs to get away from the artificiality of their town’s blow-up plants and see a real tree. Perhaps naively, Ted figures the only way he’ll get Audrey to reciprocate his feelings is to find one, so he ventures outside of his town, which has been closed off from the rest of the world. Out there, he finds nothing but environmental destruction and eventually runs into a man called the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) who recounts his introduction to the guardian of the land, the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), and how his invention began the destruction of what used to be a lively paradise.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax has good intentions, as most kids movies do. It tries to entertain the young ones in the audience with songs and colorful visuals while also, in its own goofy way, opening their eyes to the beauty of nature and the dangers of deforestation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and while I certainly don’t feel adamant enough about it to tell you not to take your child to see it, The Lorax over-emotionalizes its message to an intense degree. In an early scene, for example, after the Once-ler cuts down his first tree, the animals of the forest place symbolic mourning rocks around the tree and hold hands while slow, somber music begins to bellow from the speakers. Though it still would have been too much later in the film, it would have fit more appropriately after the full destruction of the forest. Its placement at such an early stage and after one tree is cut down is more comical than it is sad.

When not shamefully overstating the loss of a tree or laying on thick the destruction of a whole forest, The Lorax tries to be funny, but most of its humor consists of something or someone running into or hitting something or someone else. If you counted the number of times something like this happened to a character, be they human or animal, it would easily reach double digits by the halfway point, perhaps even sooner (much sooner) than that. Here is a movie that aims to tackle a real world problem, albeit in an emotionally over-the-top way, but then dumbs down everything surrounding the problem, essentially making a mockery of it. In simpler terms, the film’s message is too heavy while its humor is too light and those two extremes simply don’t work well together.

What really hurts the film, more than its stupid humor and overwrought themes, is its surprising lack of imagination, especially considering the name attached to it. For example, in the forest that is eventually destroyed, exactly three species of animals exist: geese, bears and fish. That’s it. All the wonderful creativity from other Dr. Seuss stories is missing here. The movie’s world isn’t vividly realized, the forest’s inhabitants are bland and the story, which consists mainly of flashback and little present day conflict, isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just an extremely bland one, which is sometimes worse. Some talent went into its making, for sure, but that same talent was put to better use in 2010’s Despicable Me. There’s no reason why that film should be more inventive than this (because, after all, who’s more inventive than Dr. Seuss?), but it lacks in all fields and its message, despite being the entire point of the movie, is misplaced. There’s nothing inappropriate about The Lorax, so if your child wants to see it, there’s no reason not to go. Just be prepared to sit through what it is rather than what it could (and should) be.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax receives 1.5/5

Tuesday
May242011

The Hangover Part II

There’s nothing wrong with a sequel sticking to its predecessor’s formula. Besides, if the first movie was popular, then it had to have done something correctly. Still, sequels should take the foundation of the original and build upon it, making it better. You have to be careful, though, because there’s a fine line between doing that and simply rehashing. To say a movie is “a rehash” is a movie critic cliché, but never has the word been more appropriate than with The Hangover Part II. Years from now, when critics are bashing a worthless sequel that does nothing but replay out the events of the original again, they’ll refer to this movie and justifiably so. So I guess the question is should you see it? You already have.

In the original film, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up with memory loss, unable to recall the night before. In the sequel, Phil, Stu and Alan wake up with memory loss, unable to recall the night before. Only this time, Stu is the one getting married, not Doug (Justin Bartha). Oh, and they’re in Thailand. Totally different.

The Hangover Part II, quite literally, is The Hangover repackaged in a different area and with a few new faces. It begins like the first movie, with Phil explaining that they won’t be able to make it back for the wedding, and then it proceeds forward with the guys trying to find clues as to the whereabouts of their lost friend, this time a guy named Teddy (Mason Lee). It follows the exact same path as the original film, straight down to the comedic situations the trio finds itself in, only with slight differences. When they wake up, they find a monkey in the room rather than a tiger. Stu now has a face tattoo rather a missing tooth. When they think they’ve found the missing person, it turns out to be someone else. It even goes so far as to recite at least half a dozen jokes from the original film verbatim. If it’s possible for a franchise sequel to inadvertently remake the original, The Hangover Part II has done it.

Considering that this movie has almost the exact same runtime as the first, I’m considering conducting an experiment to see if they match up. The two films are so similar I wouldn’t be surprised if they both hit the same narrative beats at the same time. Still, this beyond lazy approach to storytelling would be okay if the film produced constant laughs, but it doesn’t. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some good jokes; they were just funnier the first time I heard them two years ago. Because of its recurring, well, everything, The Hangover Part II comes off like a smug prank, one that is aiming to see just how much money it can steal from movie going patrons by showing the same thing.

There is nearly nothing in this vapid slapdash of a film worth noting. Its screenplay, when not a copy and paste job, fails even on the most basic levels. In their first adventure, the clues to Doug’s whereabouts came from clever writing that gave them just enough information to keep them moving forward. Here they come from arbitrary means. After arriving at a Buddhist monastery with nowhere left to go, I kid you not, Alan meditates, has a vision and discovers their next destination. It was like the writers couldn’t figure out how to credibly move the guys from place to place, so they deemed it unnecessary and simply forgot about it.

It’s rare to see such a large drop in quality from film to film in a franchise. While some are certainly better than others, a sequel that fails to live up to the excellent original is usually still pretty good, but that certainly isn’t the case this time. The Hangover made my best of the year list back in 2009, but its sequel is dangerously close to becoming one of this year’s worst.

The Hangover Part II receives 1.5/5

Friday
Feb112011

Cedar Rapids

Every year there are terrific screenplays that go unproduced. While garbage like Season of the Witch invades theaters, true talent gets overlooked. In an attempt to rectify this situation, a list was created, dubbed the Black List, that contains a record of the most popular overlooked screenplays. The newest Ed Helms indie comedy, Cedar Rapids, was on that list. Well, something must have gone wrong from script to screen because “average” is the best compliment it can be given. If this is one of the shining examples of original screenplays coming out of Hollywood, we’re in for a bumpy few years.

Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman for BrownStar Insurance. His company has been the recipient of the Two Diamond Award, a prestigious award showing clout within the insurance industry, for many years running. They are expected to win this year as well, but when the star of the company, the man who had won the previous years and was going to do so again, accidentally kills himself from autoerotic asphyxiation, the sure-to-win presentation he was going to give at the local insurance convention is passed off to Tim. But what seems like a simple task becomes a lot more difficult when he meets Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a loud, foul mouthed party animal, and Joan (Anne Heche), a sexy salesman who begins to put the moves on Tim.

Cedar Rapids does nothing you wouldn’t expect it to do. It’s simple, short (clocking in at under 90 minutes) and missing a personality. It attempts to have some heart, but ultimately fails. And its two biggest stars step into roles they’ve been running through for years now. Ed Helms basically plays the same clueless simpleton he’s been playing as Andy in The Office since 2006 and Reilly is the crazy eccentric who swears like a sailor like his character in, well, pretty much every movie he’s ever been in. The good news is that the two are so good at what they do that, though exhausting, they are fun to watch and keep this movie flowing even when it looks like it’s going to tumble off the edge.

Their years of practice in similar roles pays off, but that doesn’t always save the clumsy hit-or-miss humor. Indie comedies, for some reason, tend to be drawn toward unconventional humor, perhaps in an attempt to stand out from the pack. Cedar Rapids, though downplayed in comparison, is much the same. The jokes are quirky, weird and terribly inconsistent. It tries to capture that same type of awkward humor that television shows like Modern Family and the aforementioned The Office do so well, but instead of being funny, it sometimes comes off as simply uncomfortable.

Despite its short runtime, Cedar Rapids becomes an endurance test to sit through because it begins to recycle old jokes and clichés from numerous other films. How many times must we see a non-drug user use drugs before we realize that it just doesn’t work anymore? It isn’t funny. It’s overdone. Let’s move on.

But in the end, regardless of any quibbles I may have, the fact of the matter is that I laughed enough for a recommendation. You can pick apart comedies as much as you want, but if you’re laughing, even the most poorly constructed films become something worth seeing. Cedar Rapids is not a poorly constructed film per se, but it’s certainly nothing special either. It’s worth seeing once, but a year from now, you’ll forget it ever existed.

Cedar Rapids receives 3/5