Is the fall movie season upon us yet? Sort of. It certainly seems as if the tone of the films being released has moved from the silliness of summer to the (slightly) more somber and rueful mood of early autumn. But we’re still a bit of a distance away from the (possible) Oscar-bait films to come – which include (maybe) Birdman, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Into the Woods, The Judge, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and Unbroken – as well as the sure-to-be box-office behemoths The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Instead, what we get this weekend are two occasionally entertaining works of middling inspiration that wax mediocre in their ambitions. Neither is worth much ink (or, in this case, pixels), so I will be brief, saving my energy for future reviews of (hopefully) better movies.
This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, 2014)
The last film I saw by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) was The Internship, and This Is Where I Leave You shares many traits with that former effort. Both feature moments of successful comedy, yet both are mired in a morass of false sentiment and under-developed characters (particularly the women). It’s not uniformly terrible – indeed, how could a film featuring such likable performers as Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development“) and Tina Fey (“30 Rock“) be all bad? – but nor is it particularly interesting. It’s just . . . there . . . right where the screenwriters left it.
Bateman is one of four siblings – the others being Fey, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards“) and Adam Driver (“Girls“) – who are brought home by the death of their father: their mother, Jane Fonda (who needs no listing of a token credit here, I hope), claims that the father’s dying wish was for the whole family to sit Shiva (even though he and everyone else was/are de facto atheists). Leaving aside the fact that none of these folks look like they belong in the same gene pool (and The Wire has a funny article about how only one of the actors in the film is actually Jewish), the premise has promise, since forcing the members of a dysfunctional family (and there is much “dys” here) to spend time in a small space could lead to some funny results. Alas, with overbearing music blaring in almost every scene, and treacle punctuating the laughs, the overall effect is that of a generic sitcom (of particular note, since almost all of the players come from far more unique television series). You’ll chuckle, no question, but also wonder why such good actors as Rose Byrne (“Damages“), Timothy Oliphant (“Deadwood“) and Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) are wasted in nondescript parts. See it if you must.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank, 2014)
Women are again neglected (by way of underdevelopment) – abused and tortured, actually – in A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from the book of the same title by Lawrence Block. This new Liam Neeson-on-a-tear movie from writer-turned-director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has the virtue of at least being a tad original, story-wise, and despite the truly horrific and disgusting nature of the crimes on display, it (mostly) kept me from looking at my watch for its duration (then again, I may be serial killer). Still, it is a gruesome thing, filled with silly plot contrivances of its own, and at times barely competent. Nevertheless, Neeson (hard at work already on the next Taken sequel) is always watchable, and though his attempts at a New York accent are funnier than almost anything in This Is Where I Leave You, his grim avenger makes for (somewhat) compelling cinema.
Why, however, is a drug dealer reading Nabokov in one scene? Is it meant to signify a depth of character that the screenplay refuses to supply? What, you say? It’s just a book, in one shot? Well, yeah, but details matter, and if you’re a good director, you make them count. After all, the young homeless kid, TJ (Astro, seen this past summer in Earth to Echo in a similarly pitched role), befriended by Neeson in the New York Public Library one day, is constantly dropping literary and cultural references to prove his own self-worth, so somebody, somewhere, had to think about Nabokov. Or not. And that’s the problem.
So what do we get? A sordid story about two crazies who kidnap women (usually the wives of drug dealers) and then chop them up after collecting ransom. While we are spared many of the gruesome bloody visuals, we get just enough to turn stomachs unaccustomed to such grotesquerie. And while the movie is ultimately not on the side of the psychopaths, the director is one of these people who so clearly wants to have his cake and eat it, too: killing and dismembering women is bad, but wouldn’t you like just a taste?
See it for Neeson, or go rent The Lego Movie and enjoy his turn as Good Cop/Bad Cop, instead.
[NOTE: In my original posting today, I left out the fact that the book on which the movie is based is part of a long-running series of "Matthew Scudder" novels by Block. To be honest, I didn't care enough about the movie to mention such details. However, David Edelstein cares, and his review - with which I mostly disagree - fills in the blanks in mine.]