Four films open in Baltimore today that each, in its own way and to varying degrees, deals with themes of duplicity. In order of descending preference, here they are.
The Wedding Ringer (Jeremy Garelick, 2015)
This is not a good film, by any objective standards. It is crass, offensive, derivative (starting with its title), scripted with only a bare minimum of coherence (if even that), and written to celebrate the worst of male behavior. However, it is also ridiculously fun, and despite my good intentions, I found myself swept up in the comedy. I had a terrific time, as did the preview audience with whom I saw it. Most of the reason for the movie’s success lies with funny man Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man Too) and his perfect chemistry with co-star Josh Gad (Jobs), as well as with the awesomely quirky supporting cast, which includes Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (Penny on “The Big Bang Theory“), Olivia Thirby (Dredd), Jorge Garcia (Hurley on “Lost“) and especially such mostly previously unknown-to-me (and maybe to you, as well) actors such as Affion Crockett (Baggage Claim), Dan Gill (“Bad Sports“), Aaron Takahashi (Awesome Asian Bad Guys) and Alan Ritchson (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Not to be outdone in weirdness, Cloris Leachman (yes, that Cloris Leachman) is around to be set on fire. What more could you ask for?
The plot, such as it is, revolves around successful lawyer (whom we never see work) Doug (Gad) who, a week before his wedding to out-of-his-league Penny (Cuoco-Sweeting), still has neither best man nor groomsmen. You see, he has no friends. None. Fortunately, there’s Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who makes a living offering his services as a best-man-for-hire. Doug poses a special challenge, since he requires a “golden tuxedo” (Jimmy’s business term for a full suite of fake friends), but since Doug’s willing to pay the big bucks, Jimmy signs on. And so the fun begins, as Jimmy (redubbed “Bic Mitchum,” the name Doug had provided to his fiancée in a moment of panic), along with the friends and actors he hires to impersonate groomsmen, sets out to create a lifetime of memories before the big day.
It’s a crazy premise, which steals liberally from movies like The Hangover and every recent bromance, and it never makes any sense. How could Doug have the money for this folly – earned, presumably, because he is good at what he does – yet not have the social skills to have made even one friend in his life? How has Jimmy never been discovered as a fraud in all his years in business? These are legitimate questions, yet somehow they stopped bothering me as I gave myself over to the joie de vivre of the movie. Hopefully you will, too.
Paddington (Paul King, 2014)
In so many ways, this is actually a much better film than The Wedding Ringer, and yet, in spite of enjoying myself thoroughly during the screening, I cannot quite sign on to as throaty an endorsement as I gave to the previous movie. My reservations are quite specific, and may not bother other people (though I wish they would). Namely, I find it inexcusable, in 2015, even if adapting a book written in 1958, when cultural attitudes were different, that one should continually – especially if one belongs to a former colonial power like Great Britain – use the phrase “darkest Peru” over and over again, without irony, to describe the country of origin of the titular main character. And secondly – and again in 2015 – to make a movie set in London an extremely ethnically diverse city, where the only people who are not white and English are the members of a calypso band that appears occasionally as both soundtrack and Greek chorus is, to my mind, worse than inexcusable. But hey, other than that, the movie is charming.
It’s also, however, a bit derivative, as it opens with a cute historical scratched-print black & white documentary movie of the exploits of the (white, British) explorer who first discovers the intelligent bears of “darkest Peru,” recalling the equally charming opener of Pixar’s 2009 Up. Once that intro established, we find ourselves in the jungle, years later and now in color, where those same bears – a childless male and female, who live with a young nephew – have learned to speak English (and enjoy marmalade) thanks to books and other items left behind by the aforementioned explorer. They live an idyllic (and beautifully designed) existence in a lovely tree house where they can make marmalade to their heart’s content, and where their nephew (soon to be renamed Paddington) runs free and joyful. Soon, however, disaster strikes, the idyll is shattered, and the young nephew takes off for England, where, the explorer had told his aunt and uncle, the bears would always be welcome.
And so our hero (voiced with perfect diction and oodles of charisma by Ben Whishaw – Q in Skyfall) finds himself adrift in London, but not for long. A returning family of vacationers – with the wonderful Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, on “Downton Abbey“) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) its patriarch and matriarch – finds the bear in Paddington Station, give him his new name, and take him home (ostensibly temporarily). Soon, thanks to the nefarious machinations (hence the “duplicity” that lets me include the film in this, granted, loosely themed grouping) of a mysterious villain played with great relish by a remarkably game Nicole Kidman (Stoker), both family and bear find themselves embroiled in a dangerous adventure. Will they survive? Well, it’s a kids’ movie. What do you expect?
Well choreographed and with remarkable CGI effects for the bears (Paddington’s fur, in particular, continued to amaze me, especially as it moved in the wind), the movie should be fun and exciting for most audiences. And if you don’t mind the (probably unconscious, but no less palatable) colonial attitudes of the filmmakers, then you’ll have an even better time than I did. Be sure to bring some marmalade for the little ones.
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
There’s nothing wrong with this movie that a better script wouldn’t solve. Written by Jason Hall (Paranoia), and based on the 2012 autobiographical book of the same title by Chris Kyle (with help from Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), American Sniper tells the story of the man dubbed “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” and is given especial poignancy by the fact that Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran in 2013. It’s a frequently gripping story that takes us into the trauma of war – and the addiction to killing – only to avoid dealing with the hard questions of how to recover from such trauma/addiction. Like lesser films about other kinds of addiction, which revel in the drinking and drugging, rather than the recovery – the over-hyped 2009 Crazy Heart comes to mind – American Sniper spends the bulk of its over two-hour length focused on the war, then covers Kyle’s return to humanity in a dissolve. I’ve always loved the 1983 movie Tender Mercies, which gets its drinking out of the way in the first ten minutes and then spends the rest of its 90 minutes on the difficult process of not drinking. That’s much more interesting then what we get here. The best recent war film that showed, with far greater moral complexity, what our soldiers have to deal with in Iraq, was The Hurt Locker. Though mostly well directed by veteran helmer Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), and with a very strong central performance from Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), this film all too often feels like Team America: World Police without the irony.
That’s not to say that the film fails on all counts. The action scenes are pretty spectacular – including a final battle in a dust storm – and Kyle’s transformation from gung-ho American patriot to troubled killer is powerfully realized by Cooper. To his wife – a mostly wasted Sienna Miller (The Girl) – Kyle is increasingly duplicitous, but mostly because he does not have the verbal tools to deal with his feelings. Instead, he signs up for tour of duty after tour of duty, returning to Iraq again and again to, in his eyes, save as many Americans as he can. The why of that relentless and unchallenged belief in the supremacy of American lives over Iraqi lives is never addressed, which is a shame, as it would have been a better movie had we understood what drives Kyle to kill. Then again, at the screening I attended, the audience applauded when Kyle killed an Arab sniper, so maybe certain segments of our population don’t want their belief in their own righteousness questioned, either. Eastwood made a far better film, in 1992 – the revisionist, Oscar-winning Western Unforgiven – which managed to have its exploitative audience-friendly violence and yet also explore the costs of such violence with great sensitivity and intelligence. American Sniper is not that film. It was just – somehow – nominated for a 2015 Best Picture Oscar, however, so perhaps it will seem as good as that previous work to some. I beg to differ.
Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
Blackhat is such a ridiculous, unbelievable, chaotic mess, filled with the kinds of extreme close-ups that director Michael Mann (The Insider) has used to better (and far less confusing) effect in other films, that I cannot recommend it to anyone other than Chris Hemsworth (Rush) fans (and even then . . .). Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a brilliant (and very hunky) hacker who is sprung from prison by the Department of Justice at the request of his former MIT roommate – now a rising star in China’s security apparatus – to help solve a mysterious spate of dangerous computer breaches at nuclear power plants and stock exchanges in Asia. If you can buy Hemsworth as a hacker – or buy the fact that a computer specialist would somehow have become a weapons and hand-to-hand combat specialist after a few years in jail – then you might enjoy the film. I could not. Filled with jittery cheap-looking video footage, the movie doesn’t even have the usual lush feel of some of Mann’s best work. Where’s the duplicity? In fooling us into thinking it might be good, trading on Mann’s reputation. Don’t be fooled. Stay away.