Confronting the multiplex tree of holiday goodies, I hang some critical tinsel, if not very much good news:
How Do You Know
Reese Witherspoon is now a womanly 34. Paul Rudd is 41, Owen Wilson a boyish 42, and Jack Nicholson, 73, a roguish 50 when the famous grin blazes. But no matter the age or talent level, in How Do You Know they are all stuck trying to make slight, sophomoric material seem like adult comedy. They remain suspended in a zone of meet-cutes and options that have no emotional weight. The movie should be subdivided into sitcoms.
Reese is a snappy darling who dawdles between perpetual-bachelor Owen and sensitive financial-operator Paul. Jack, Paul’s rich dad, has placed him in legal jeopardy. Everyone speaks in sound bites (Jack: “Cynicism is sanity”), the streets are almost always wet even though we see no rain, and a baby is brought in like a huggy for the plot. It would be bold if Reese forsook the boyishly indecisive dudes and opted for rakish old Jack. But writer-director James L. Brooks lacks the nerve, seeking to repeat the popular success of his Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. Those hits were smart TV posed as entertaining movies. This one is a plasma-screen diversion and not terrible, though you may wish for a remote control.
I Love You, Phillip Morris
Never having answered the fabled bellcap’s call for Philip Morris cigarettes, I now add I Love You, Phillip Morris to my ashtray of rejections. Yes, we must Bogart (stub out) tireless Jim Carrey, whose Steven Russell swings from being a church-going spouse and daddy to a gay party stud in Miami and Houston. He is based on Steven Jay Russell, a notorious liar and escape artist who, between prison spells (he is now in deep lockup), enjoyed lusty love with fellow jailbird Phillip Morris. As Morris, Ewan McGregor is so sweetly available that he is virtually a candy box. The movie has no dramatic traction and is seldom amusing enough to be good comedy, even with Carrey injecting jolts of energy and a Dixie-Tex accent.
There is gamey sex on a boat called Hooked Up and prison episodes that seem uneasily desperate to become a Coen Brothers movie. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who were crass more cleverly with Bad Santa, achieve only a Jim Carrey Vehicle, a sub-species on the endangered genre list. Again Carrey “stretches,” attempting to restrain the goof gorilla that is his native muse. His Steve is like a comedy-club crazy yearning to star in Brokeback Mountain. No “spoiler” can spoil a movie that spoils itself, so I mention that this may be the first use of AIDS as a lavishly extended and implausible hoax. That only helps to cripple the weak laughs as they limp across the finish line.
In Burlesque, Cher seems entertainingly mummified, like an ancient Egyptian goddess of plastic surgery slumming in Los Angeles. In The Tourist, Angelina Jolie is sculptural in a more comatose way. As a British agent pursuing the thief of a thug’s secret millions, Jolie shows almost no emotion, though her cheekbones easily dominate the Venice displayed like postcards around her. Johnny Depp, his talent coasting in neutral, is a puzzled tourist smitten by Jolie. As the inane plot winds through canals and the worst boat chase ever, classy British actors (Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Steven Berkoff) pick up checks with their golden accents. Along with the clobbered audience, the loser is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. With this dull slab of plastic pulp, he sabotages the reputation for quality that he won with The Lives of Others.
All Good Things
My exposure to tabloid journalism is by the fast-flip method, in a checkout line. All Good Things is a ponderous flip-through about the Durst family. Big in New York real estate, they became a tabloidal nightmare. Here they are called the Marks family. Ryan Gosling is real-estate heir David Marks, a slender pod of enigma who in childhood was made to observe his mother’s suicide by his dad, Sanford (Frank Langella, an actor who resists “warmth” as if it came from hell).
Realtor Sanford pressures his son to give up a liberating new life in rustic Vermont with lovable wife Katie (Kirsten Dunst). David becomes the family’s bagman, dealing with sleazy Times Square tenants. This crunches him into despair, and his cash-loaded briefcase symbolizes the ticking bomb of his soul. Katie’s lovely smile fades into a fog of drink, cocaine, and heartbreak, and Dunst risks looking not very cute.
Director Andrew Jarecki, who documented a dysfunctional Jewish family in Capturing the Friedmans, captures the Marks family (only vaguely Jewish) in a glaze of atmospheric lighting, percussive music, and poorly plotted surprises. In this moody, slogging tease, good actors vanish (Langella, then Dunst) or appear to minor effect (Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, and Trini Alvarado, as beautiful as in Sweet Lorraine 23 years ago). Suicide, murder, wife abuse, pet abuse, addiction, abortion, blackmail, transvestitism (a wild card for sure) all stew in the pot and taste like leftovers.
Made in Dagenham
Under a bell of bouffant hair, Sally Hawkins squinches her lean face over narrow shoulders as the unlikely but likeable hero of Made in Dagenham. Her Rita O’Grady is married, maternal, and working class in one of the dull public “estates” facing a huge Ford plant in Dagenham, near London. Turning out 3000 cars a day, Ford acts as if the Yanks have colonized England, and in booming 1968 the company is hardly alone in paying women much less than men. The women who work on upholstery become fed up, and the roused Rita pops from shyness.
When she declares that the cause is “Equal pay or nothing,” it thunders almost like “All power to the Soviets!” But Rita is fish and chips, not borscht, and in her scrawny, halting way becomes a leader. Advised by her humane union rep (Bob Hoskins, quoting Churchill and yelling “Shut up!” in almost the same breath), Rita binds her coworkers into a flying wedge of militancy. This shakes up Dagenham, then Britain and Detroit. Hawkins has scaled down the jaunty pep she had in Happy Go Lucky but keeps the decency and salty sense. Rita doesn’t preen, even when the fiery minister of labor, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), gives her a summit meeting.
Director Nigel Cole and writer William Ivory opt for Norma Rae populism, but in a dated way they “feminize” the story and dilute its force. They pivot the work struggle on emotional relationships, including Rita’s resentful husband, her friend with a war-damaged spouse, a cute blonde who craves some glamour, and a chic executive’s wife (excellent Rosamund Pike) who roots for Rita. We agree, rather mechanically. Speeches and music forklift the story into place, as pat satisfaction rolls off a feel-good assembly line. (Opens December 25.)
The Legend of Pale Male
Aimless in Manhattan at 30, Frederic Lilien of Belgium looked into the sky above Central Park. He saw Pale Male, and thus found his mission: filming an elegant, red-tailed hawk nesting on the façade of a posh Fifth Avenue building. Lilien joined a growing band of fans and birders and for years kept vigil on the habits of the new, wild celebrity. The Legend of Pale Male is a little padded, complete with National Geographic images and some trite, solemn narration that verges on Jonathan Livingston Seagull. But the locations are terrific, the bird is splendid, and the fans are entertaining urbanites. This flighty charmer is almost as finely feathered as The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
Newly reviewed in this week’s capsules: Tron: Legacy.