. . . except that all three of those films open in the Baltimore-area market today, and I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about one of them for a few weeks. I saw Hyde Park on Hudson at Cinema Sundays on December 8 – 13 days ago! – typed up my notes afterwards, and will now try and make sense of that film at the end of this blog entry (I did not like it that much). I saw This Is 40 at a press screening this past Monday (and enjoyed it immensely), and just saw Jack Reacher (ridiculous!) at another press screening on Wednesday. I feel like I’m getting to know the Cinemark Egyptian really well (which is where I also saw The Hobbit, on December 10), since that’s where many of these press screenings are held.
And so it begins:
This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)
Judd Apatow’s 4th feature film – as director – is, overall, very funny and satisfying. A.O. Scott, among many others, has written about how the film might turn some people off because of the relative affluence of its main characters, whose “rich people” problems are sure to be the envy of some viewers. And yet, like Scott (and me), many may find Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, and Maude and Iris Apatow – not to mention Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Charlyne Yi, Chris O’Dowd and Lena Dunham – appealing enough to make the film work, in spite of its middle-aged bloat (it’s at least 30 minutes too long).
The film’s plot, such as it is, centers around a week in the lives of married couple Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann), bookended by their respective birthdays, in which they experience the lows and highs of many longterm relationships. They must manage their kids (one teen and one pre-teen), relationship issues, parent issues, business issues, and lots of money problems. Along the way, they sort of find time to re-affirm their love for each other. They mainly find time to make us laugh.
You may remember Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up: it was Debbie sister, Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, who got pregnant. In that film, we saw some intimations of (mild) problems in the marriage on the horizon, especially when Pete was found out to have been lying about business meetings so he could get some alone time in a movie theatre, or run off to play fantasy football with his buddies. But just as in the earlier film, whatever trouble here exists between Pete and Debbie gets worked out by the end, and there is great humor (and some pathos) in the writing that helps make the journey worthwhile.
I enjoyed the easy interplay between Rudd and Mann. In fact, Mann, whom I have not seen that often (and who is Apatow’s wife) is delightful. Even when her character is whiny, she has a light that shines from within and makes her a joy to behold. Rudd has always had a likable screen presence, and here he is as charming as he has ever been. Since Apatow makes both of them sometimes behave like jerks (to each other, to a kid, and especially to that kid’s mother, played by Melissa McCarthy), it helps that the actors are naturally pleasant. Apatow’s and Mann’s real-life daughters play Pete and Debbie’s children in the film, and they hold up their end quite nicely, as well. My two favorite performances, by far, though, were those of Albert Brooks (who plays Pete’s mooch of a father) and Megan Fox, who is cast perfectly as the (extremely) hot employee in Pete and Debbie’s clothing boutique. It’s nice to watch a film with such great depth in the supporting cast.
On a less positive note, I will say this, though. It often felt as if there were no arc to the performances from scene to scene, only within each scene, itself. At those times, the film felt more like a (very funny) sketch comedy then a fully realized story. Perhaps if Apatow were less successful and powerful and/or had a trusted editor who could talk back to him, some of the 30 minutes of fat could have been cut out, and this might have helped focus the story, and the performances of the actors.
The one performer whom I did not enjoy in the film was Melissa McCarthy. Which is too bad, since I am a fan. I’ve been watching (and loving) her since “Gilmore Girls.” Unfortunately, the success of Bridesmaids – in which she played a loud-mouthed swearing partier, and was nominated for an Oscar for it – has probably ruined her forever (for me). While I seemed to be in the minority in the theatre, I found her overlong scenes in this film a bore. They are a plot detour that the director seems to find very funny, but which I didn’t. Apatow even gives us an extended version of her scenes over the end credits, in which she gets to swear some more. Yippee! I tuned out after a while, but once her character was gone, the film regained its vigor.
If you’re looking for a fun time this weekend, and especially if you’re over 40 and/or have kids, I can heartily recommend this movie, flaws and all.
Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012)
Jack Reacher is actually 50. Well, the actor who plays him is, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess it by looking at him. Success has been kind to Tom Cruise’s face and body. There’s some slight fleshiness around the nose (inevitable – he is 50, after all), and some slight crow’s feet around the eyes. Otherwise, Cruise looks like he’s in better shape than Paul Rudd in This is 40. Especially with his shirt off, as Rosamund Pike, who plays opposite him, indicates with a forced quiver. “He’s hot,” her performance tells us. Or rather, “The director wanted me to make it look like he’s hot, so I’ll shake my head and do my best, but don’t blame me if you think I’m doing a terrible job here.”
Tom Cruise, in spite of his off-screen weirdness, has always been an actor whose on-screen presence I have enjoyed. And he’s a good-looking guy. But there is something very off-putting about the way his character is introduced through the longing glances of a variety of women, young and old, with whom he interacts. Right from the start of the film, you realize that Jack Reacher, a film brought to us by Tom Cruise-the-producer, is a vanity project for Tom Cruise-the-actor.
Before I started having doubts, though, my first thoughts, as the opening credits rolled, were more along the lines of, “Wow! Great Cast! Richard Jenkins! Werner Herzog! Robert Duvall!” And then I thought, “Wait, Werner Herzog? The director? I love his movies. But can he act?” My momentary qualms were dispelled when I next saw that Caleb Deschanel was the cinematographer. “OK,” I muttered, “at least it will look good, even if he did shoot Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
After that the film began with a solid, taut opening which, though extremely disturbing post-Sandy Hook killings, is nevertheless pretty strong, in a narrative sense. It sets up the story very well. Still, I gasped, “A sniper movie in these troubled times! I wonder if this will turn the audience off?” I guess we’ll see post-weekend box office . . .
To summarize: this is the story of how a mysterious former military investigator (Jack Reacher), now a drifter (but still a lethal killer), tries to exonerate a former military sniper who has been framed for a mass killing. While this might seem like a plot spoiler, since we see the face of the man who actually does the initial killing, and then subsequently see the suspect, it becomes clear within the first 10 minutes that he has been framed. In the course of his investigation, Jack Reacher beats up lots of very bad men, kills just as many, and almost beds the main female character, played without a trace of wit or grace by the aforementioned Rosamund Pike. I had liked Pike in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, so I was disappointed to see how bad she can be without good direction. Whether it’s her fault or the fault of the writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, she is almost unwatchable here, particularly when she widens her eyes to indicate fear, or twitches her lips to indicate nervousness.
She’s not alone, however, since my hero Werner Herzog is also terrible. I’m not sure why he would agree to do this (the money), but in addition to his over-the-top hammy delivery of ridiculous dialogue, he has the misfortune to be playing a Russian, yet to sound like a German. I hate it when American directors do this! Not all foreign accents are alike. A German sounds like a German! A Frenchman sounds like a Frenchman! A Russian sounds like a Russian! This was one of the things that killed me in the otherwise terrific Eastern Promises, by David Cronenberg (a Canadian): you had a German (Armin Mueller-Stahl) playing the head of a Russian crime family, with a French actor (Vincent Cassel) playing his son. Help!
At times, though, the movie almost makes up for its status as a Tom Cruise vanity vehicle filled with mediocre actors by not taking itself too seriously. There are some funny self-mocking moments. Some. But then Rosamund Pike comes back on and those moments are ruined. The audience with which I saw the movie was having a great time . . . laughing at the film, not with it. It can be weird to hear laughter in a film as violent as this one (though I assume I will, as well, in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained), yet I heartily joined in.
So much of the dialogue is painful. I think my favorite bit is when Sandy, a young girl with a sad destiny, asks Cruise, “Who are you, Mister?” When I heard this, I froze time, ran back home, watched my entire DVD collection, and found that the last time people spoke like that was in films of the 1950s. I then went back to the theater, unfroze time, and watched on, incredulous. “Mister?” Seriously?
And yet, in spite of it all, the experience wasn’t as dreadful as it might have been. Those moments of self-mockery, plus some terrific car chases, actually made the evening not a total loss. In addition, even if you’re laughing at something, you’re still laughing.
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell, 2012)
This film opened with a series of beautiful focus racks through trees and leaves, revealing gently lit houses, frolicking Scottish Terriers, and a somewhat frumpy middle-aged woman played by Laura Linney. OK, I’m game. I like focus racks. Up to a point. But then they want on a bit too long, and I quickly began to wonder if the movie, itself, would lack focus. Or maybe that’s just now, in retrospect, that I draw that conclusion. Whatever the case, this overuse of shallow focus does stand as a metaphor for the failings of a film filled with some fine performances, nice costumes, and occasionally fine writing, yet completely lacking in clarity of purpose. It’s mushy.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by a man who made one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations, the 1995 Persuasion (as well as other films I like less, such as Notting Hill and Venus), is an exercise in what feels like unintentional frustration. It starts out telling one story – that of the romantic affair that a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Daisy (Linney), conducted with the President – veers off into another, more interesting one – the first ever state visit of a King and Queen of England to America – and then plunges into a twisted melodrama where we uncover even more secrets about FDR’s sexual peccadilloes. Any of the stories, alone, if treated with the proper respect (and focus), could have made for an engaging movie. The last plot thread, especially, though, really deserved more time and attention. If you want to make a movie about how FDR was a cad, make that movie by all means, but don’t throw it in as an afterthought.
I enjoyed Linney as Daisy, but then again, ever since You Can Count on Me, I have been a fan. I enjoyed much of the rest of the cast, including Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the King and Queen, Elizabeth Marvel as Missy, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor. I did not, however, find Bill Murray satisfying as our 32nd President. Perhaps because it was Bill Murray. He has demonstrated impressive range over the years while nevertheless playing various variants on the comedic persona he created in the 1970s, but he is not really an actor in the mold of a Daniel Day-Lewis, able to disappear inside a role. His personality – or our long familiarity with it – gets in the way. His scenes are quietly appealing – it is BIll Murray, after all, who is likable enough – yet not riveting. His FDR lacks the energy and drive that probably made all of these various sexual liaisons possible.
One aspect of the film that I did find very interesting, in light of how things have changed since then, is the respect that the press shows the President. There is an agreement between them and his staff to never take photographs of FDR in a way that highlights his polio. There is also a reticence to dig into the sordid details of his love life. For better or for worse, it was a time – according to this film – where we respected the office enough to allow the man who held it some privacy. A closer look at that subject would have made for a far more compelling movie.