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Entries in Jason Segel (8)

Friday
Jun242011

Bad Teacher

The Office is one of the best shows on television. While it will be interesting to see how it fares without Steve Carell in the upcoming season, it has firmly cemented itself as one of this decade’s smartest, freshest, hippest comedies. Many things contribute to its success, not the least of which is its sharp writing. Though television shows have many writers, two of The Office’s most celebrated are Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who bring a certain youthfulness and fun to each episode they write. They’re so good on that show, one can’t help but wonder why their cinematic endeavors are so abysmal. Despite having the comedic talents of Jack Black and Michael Cera, 2009’s Year One managed to disgust and appall without ever actually entertaining and their newest film, Bad Teacher, follows suit. It’s cruel, heartless and unfunny. It’s a movie that disrespects itself, the audience and the art of filmmaking. It’s a cinematic shamble with a thin plot and even thinner characters. And yes, it’s one of the worst so far this year.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth, a gold digging teacher who has just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé. Upset that she just lost her money (but not so upset about losing the man), she begins to chase after substitute teacher Scott, played by Justin Timberlake, who is also blessed with riches. He’s the unassuming type, however, and doesn’t give into her come-ons. In her vanity, she decides a breast enhancement will fix her problems and will do anything she can to gather up the money she needs for the operation, though her admirer, P.E. teacher Russell, played by Jason Segel, insists she’s perfect the way she is.

Let’s just call that plot (though “plot” may not be the right word to describe a movie about a girl raising money for a boob job) what it really is: a vehicle for sweetheart Cameron Diaz to be as vulgar as possible. You’ll get to hear her say things that, and I’m confident about this, you’ve never heard her say before. She is clearly embracing the uncensored nature of her character and having fun with it. Unfortunately, shocking language does not always equate with comedy. Never has that been more apparent than in Bad Teacher.

The reason behind its comedic emptiness stems from the fact that Elizabeth is one of the most wretched, hateful characters to appear onscreen in quite some time. She treats her co-workers like scum and her students even worse. She shows up to class hung-over and drugged out, swindles her kids’ parents out of money and, fearful of having to face the consequences of her own selfish actions, sabotages another teacher who is rightfully suspicious of her and concerned about her students’ academic futures. I get that the premise of the film, as suggested by the title, is inherently mean-spirited, but it’s a premise without comedic value.

Some movies with such despicable characters have a narrative arc that leads to a late movie redemption. Bad Teacher provides the redemption, but forgets the arc. For its entire runtime, Elizabeth cares about nobody but herself before suddenly having a change of heart, realizing that perhaps money shouldn’t be her prime motivation in a relationship. This moment comes from nowhere and the scenes leading up to it do nothing to establish her actions, yet we’re supposed to find her likable. I don’t suspect many people will.

The most disheartening aspect of Bad Teacher is its wonderful list of supporting players, all of whom are given nearly nothing to do or interesting to say. Thomas Lennon from Reno 911!, Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family and Jerry Lambert from those great Playstation 3 commercials (which, coincidentally, pack more laughs in a short 30 seconds than this entire movie), show up to lend their considerable talents, but they’re all wasted. I suppose you could consider Bad Teacher a sad commentary on the state of our public education system, though you’d really have to be reaching to land on that conclusion (but I guess its defenders need something to argue). Regardless, the film remains vicious, poorly written, boring and, even at a concise 89 minutes, exhausted and drawn out.

Bad Teacher receives 1/5

Saturday
Dec252010

Gulliver's Travels

When you consider how abysmal this year’s children’s films were, movies that would otherwise be easy to scoff at begin to look pretty damn good in comparison. Maybe it’s because Furry Vengeance, Yogi Bear, Marmaduke and The Rock fluttering around in a pink tutu in Tooth Fairy all still haunt my dreams, but I found the latest kiddy flick, Gulliver’s Travels to be easily tolerable. It’s not good, but it’s not unwatchable either and in this state of children’s films, I’ll take whatever I can get.

A modern update of the classic tale by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels stars Jack Black as Gulliver. He works in the mail room at the New York Tribune where his days are spent covering the rounds and dropping off packages. Working as a reporter at the paper is the girl of his dreams, Darcy, played by Amanda Peet. In an effort to impress her, he mentions that he likes to write in his free time and. It’s a hobby of his that he never really pursued in the job world. When she hears this, she gives him a chance to prove himself and enthusiastically asks for a writing sample. The problem is he lied and has no idea where to begin, so he instead turns in a plagiarized article. Unaware of this and impressed by his work, she gives him an assignment, a little one that will get him started. It’s a fluff piece about the Bermuda Triangle, so he hops in a boat and sets off in that direction. But suddenly, he runs into a strange whirlpool that stretches into the sky. Next thing he knows, he’s in a kingdom called Lilliput, a giant in a world of tiny people.

There’s nobody onscreen today that fits this role more than Jack Black. In all his kooky glory, he approaches the role with his trademark rock ‘n’ roll style and gives it all he’s got. He brings a certain vivacity to every movie he’s in. Sometimes, it doesn’t work (King Kong), but he’s never vexing. He has a personality that I find approachable and fun and it comes through full force in Gulliver’s Travels. His excitement bleeds through the screen and he manages to squeeze laughs out of some of the lamest jokes thanks to his excellent delivery.

The problem of the film is not in Black; it’s in pretty much everything else. It’s set in a new, undiscovered world that is devoid of whimsy or charm. Its tiny inhabitants, the most prominent of whom are played by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, are uninteresting and their problems are slight. It’s less than an hour and a half, but it still feels too long. It utilizes “barely there” 3D technology that does nothing to make the visuals pop. And those are only the most noticeable problems. Once Gulliver decides to put out a fire by urinating on it (despite there being a giant ocean nearby), you realize that the film has no greater aspirations than to make kids laugh with the barest and most immature tactics available.

As I sit here and struggle to come up with kind words to say about Gulliver’s Travels, I find it increasingly difficult. The nicest thing I can say about it is I didn’t hate it, which is due to no particular reason. It’s not like the screenplay is any good or the acting award worthy or the cinematography exquisite. Rather, it’s an alarmingly bland film by traditional film critiquing standards, but to compare this to The Godfather would be silly. One cannot expect excellence in a kid-targeted film starring Jack Black at his goofiest. If you can keep that notion floating in the back of your mind as you watch it, you might come to enjoy the zaniness in what may be the best “just for kids” movie to be released this year.

Gulliver’s Travels receives 2.5/5

Friday
Jul092010

Despicable Me

At this point, it almost seems unfair to compare every computer animated movie to Pixar. Who can compete? Outside of a select few DreamWorks Animation pictures, none have been good to the point where I thought Pixar may have some competition. So whose fault is it? The random assortment of animation studios for putting out less than stellar movies or Pixar for setting the bar so high nobody can reach it? I suppose it doesn’t matter, but after the debut of the recent Toy Story 3, one can’t help but look at Despicable Me with an exhausted chagrin.

The film follows Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), an evil mastermind who has not only stolen the Jumbotron from Times Square, but also the Statue of Liberty (the tiny one from Vegas). He considers himself the most evil of all in the land, but a young villain by the name of Vector (voiced by Jason Segel) has just stolen one of Egypt’s pyramids and replaced it with an inflatable version. The media is calling it the greatest heist ever pulled off. Gru, taking offense, decides to do one better. He plans to steal the moon. But to do so, he needs a shrink ray, the one that Vector has in his palace. After discovering Vector’s love for cookies, Gru adopts three little orphan girls named Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove) and Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher) who have the delicious edible resources necessary to distract him, allowing Gru to break in and snag the device. Little does he know he’s about to face some self discovery and may actually come to love the girls.

When people tell me animation is only for children, I become distraught. They clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. To counter, I point them in the direction of Wall-E, Up or even the Toy Story movies. Those films may be accessible to kids, but those who will get the most out of them are adults. They are about love and loss, identity, holding on to old memories and more. With that said, Despicable Me's messages, however admirable they may be, will only work for those who haven’t yet had the life experience to discover them on their own.

Still, as far as kid-oriented films go, this isn’t so bad. Compared to Planet 51 or the atrocious Furry Vengeance, Despicable Me comes off like a sparkling gem. It teaches kids the importance of family while also showing that it’s never too late to make things right. Children, as rotten as they can be, will watch as Gru finds the value in love, displacing his evil ways in the process, and they’ll take something from it.

It’s simpleminded to be sure, which is why it may not work for the adults in the audience who have already gained the knowledge that family is important, as evidenced by the fact that they’re most likely sitting in the theater watching it with their children. This thematic pandering to the young bleeds through its messages, however, and infiltrates the jokes, most of which go the easy route of making kids laugh, complete with farting, puking and the tired sight gag of a seemingly fragile granny suddenly break her stereotype.

I think children will enjoy Despicable Me. But where it succeeds in hitting its target audience, it fails at notarizing itself as anything more. To put it plainly, it lacks the visual artistry and emotional depth of a Pixar film. It’s hard to criticize a movie for wishing to appeal to kids and succeeding, considering how recent dreck like Marmaduke can’t even do that, but I’m not a child and can only speak for myself. While not a vapid waste of time, Despicable Me is like a fat kid running down the street. It probably won’t get far, but at least it’s trying.

Despicable Me receives 2.5/5

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