Clowns Against Humanity

Game Night

by Hope Madden

Nobody does dry, self-deprecating humor as well as Jason Bateman. He’s such a natural as the put-upon husband/brother at the center of the Game Night tension, he becomes the action/comedy’s effortless center of gravity.

And the way this story orbits, circles back, veers around and comes back again, gravity is important.

Bateman plays Max who, with his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), hosts a weekly game night at his house. But Max’s super cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) wants to host this week, and Max’s creepy neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, creepy perfection) wants to come. Well, things are spinning out of control, aren’t they?

A tight script by Mark Perez gives a game cast (see what I did there?) plenty of opportunity to riff on each other and nerd up the place. The chemistry onscreen, particularly between couples—each of which is given the chance to create believable unions—elevates the hijinks.

McAdams steals scenes with comic charm, reminding us again of her spot-on timing and ability to generate plausible relationship backstory with anybody. Meanwhile, funny bits from Sharon Horgan and Lamorne Morris, in particular, keep the larger Game Night ensemble from letting the storyline lag.

The easy humor spilling from this cast pulls the film away from absurd comedy and turns it into something more comfortable. Because, even though there may or may not (or may?) have been a kidnapping and they may or may not (or may?) be making things worse, they have actually trained for this moment for years.

Because what is it that will help these couples live through the bizarre and twisted mess their game night has become?

Teamwork.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) keep the action low key. This allows the entire effort to indulge in the “so this is happening right now, then? Ok, let’s deal with that” kind of humor that is so characteristically Bateman. The comedy is upbeat and fun (though sometimes surprisingly violent) and true to the characters and their relationships.

It’s consistently fun and ultimately forgettable. Like a game night.

Not So Secret Santa

Office Christmas Party

by George Wolf

They say bad things happen when the copier goes down.

When it’s fully operational at the Office Christmas Party …well, those aren’t TPS reports.

Clay (T.J. Miller) is the Chicago branch manager at a big tech company who wants to throw a Christmas party like his Dad did back in the days when employees “got drunk before noon.” Trouble is, since Dad died Clay’s sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is CEO and she wants to fill Clay’s stocking with budget cuts.

In fact, Carol might close the entire Chicago operation down unless Clay, Chief Tech Officer Josh (Jason Bateman) and IT wiz Tracey (Olivia Munn) can find a way to land the multi-million dollar account of Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). Their standard pitch to Davis is less than persuasive, so what’s left to do but impress him with office camaraderie at an epic holiday bash?

Despite warnings from an HR head (Kate McKinnon) who wants a non-denominational mixer and hangs up “think of your family” signs, the staff naughty list starts getting crowded.

The premise (from the guys behind The Hangover) seems a perfect fit for this talent-laden ensemble. It might fit too well, as even the steady amount of laughs the film lands feels a tad disappointing.

I mean, if you need a wisecracking nice guy, a mean-spirited boss with sarcastic bite, and a Tommy Boy for today, Bateman, Aniston and Miller should be on speed dial.

Plus there’s a break room full of winning side characters. From Karan Soni’s guy-with-an-imaginary-girlfriend to Rob Corddry’s embittered lifer to Jillian Bell’s curiously polite pimp and beyond, entertaining impressions are mined from limited screen time by people clearly trained to do just that. And McKinnon? There may not be a better scene-stealer around, and you’re afraid to look away for fear of missing even the subtlest of gags.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and their team of writers manage some passing nods to cutthroat corporate culture and political correctness, but thankfully don’t try to overthink things. Just let these ponies run. And though I’m guessing there was plenty of inspired improvisation (stay for the in-credits gag reel), even their best peaks can’t hide some valleys in the script.

But hey, it’s the holidays, be of good cheer and ride out them out for the payoffs. Office Christmas Party supplies them, even if, like that end of the year bonus, you were hoping for a little more.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Fangs for the Memories

The Family Fang

by Hope Madden

Don’t you love Jason Bateman? And if not, why not?

His enviable comic timing guarantees his own success in any film, no matter how weak or how strong the material, but films like The Gift and State of Play clarify his underappreciated ability with dramatic roles.

Bateman’s directorial debut in 2013, Bad Words, showcased his capability at the helm, as well – muscles he flexes once more in his darkly comic take on novelist Kevin Wilson’s tale of eccentric, artistic familial dysfunction, The Family Fang.

Bateman plays Baxter Fang. Baxter and his sister Annie (Nicole Kidman) – or Child A and Child B, as their folks call them – were raised by a duo of performance artists. The present-day Mr. and Mrs. Fang are gamely played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett, with Kathryn Hahn and Jason Butler Harner filling in for flashbacks.

The adult siblings are struggling artists all their own – she a semi-working actor, he an author two years behind schedule on his third novel. It would appear that being the object and subject of their parents’ art throughout childhood has had an adverse effect on the pair as adults.

If you’re worried that you cannot sit through another indie film about the sins of the parents visited on their self-indulgent and/or damaged offspring, fear not.

Adapting Wilson’s text for the screen, David Lindsay-Abaire prunes and pares to offer a wise but tender rendering of the family pathos. But credit Bateman for ably maneuvering tonal shifts with a beautifully understated approach that keeps the film from ever veering into quirkiness or maudlin bitterness.

His cast (himself included) certainly never let him down. Both Plunkett and Hahn offer heartbreaking nuance as they animate the conflicted loyalty of mother/wife/artist Camille Fang. They join a full slate of admirable supporting performances.

Meanwhile Kidman and Bateman create a sweetly believable set of siblings, giving the relationship a lived in and hard won familiarity that feels both refreshing and familiar.

Big surprise, Christopher Walken is the shiniest gem in this treasure chest. At turns jocular and hostile, his narcissistic artist/father is delivered with both authenticity and panache.

A murder mystery of sorts, The Family Fang surprises and engrosses without ever feeling like the sleight of hand that made the Fangs famous.

Occasionally heartbreaking, often curious, cleverly structured and thoughtfully executed, this impressive sophomore directorial effort from Bateman keeps you guessing – at how things will work out for the Fangs, and at what may be next for this impressive filmmaker.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Beware of Ex-Classmates Bearing Fish

The Gift

by Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Best First Features of 2014 Countdown

One of the most interesting themes you find when searching back over the best films of 2014 is the brilliance of films with one word titles (Birdman, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Boyhood, Rosewater – it’s a long list!). Another is the remarkable quality of feature directorial debuts. Many of the year’s most powerful, intriguing films came from first time filmmakers, though several of these are industry veterans. Here is a look at the most impressive feature directorial debuts of 2014.

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s been writing films – many of them mediocre at best – since 1992’s Freejack. It appears he saved his best script for his debut as a director. Nightcrawler is aided immeasurably by the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, but Gilroy’s dark, creepy approach to unseemly but enormously relevant material proves his mettle behind the camera.

Rosewater

An industry veteran with a connection to the source material, Jon Stewart made his directorial debut this year with the tale of a journalist jailed in Iran partly because of an interview he did with The Daily Show. The story behind Rosewater is fascinating, and Stewart’s direction proves thoughtful, insightful and inventive.

The Babadook

Aussie Jennifer Kent’s spooky tale opens this week, offering perhaps the creepiest effort of the year. A cautionary tale about parenting, the movie introduces a filmmaker who grounds fantasy in an unnerving level of naturalism, who can draw deeply human performances, and who knows what scares you.

Dear White People

Justin Simien makes the leap from shorts to features with one of the smartest films of the year. Dear White People tackles racial issues with confidence and a mix of sarcasm, outrage, hilarity and disgust. Simien never abandons comedy for preaching, but there is not an issue he isn’t willing to spotlight, however uncomfortable. It’s an insightful, biting comedy too few people saw this year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature is also the first Iranian vampire film, so extra points there. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child

Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with Obvious Child. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Bad Words

We’re willing to give anything a shot if Jason Bateman is involved. Sure, it doesn’t always pay off, but his directorial debut Bad Words is as wry, dry and funny as you’d expect. No one has comic timing like Bateman, and it leads to a quickly paced, lean and hilariously mean effort.

Like Your Crazy Uncle Frank

Horrible Bosses 2

by George Wolf

After trying to kill your boss and getting away with it, the sensible career choice is clearly self employment. That’s the plan for the three bumbling schemers in Horrible Bosses 2, a film with scattershot hilarity that can’t quite match the success of the original.

Nick, Kurt and Dale (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, respectively) have a great new plan for business success and surprise, it’s legal! Their new “shower buddy” invention looks promising, so all the guys need now is a big investor, and their days of working for someone else will be history.

Things look good when business tycoon Bert Hansen (Christoph Waltz) puts in a big order, but when he pulls out and leaves the boys high and dry, their criminal minds take over. After an inspired brainstorming session, they decide to kidnap Hansen’s obnoxious son Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him ransom for a payback payday.

Hard to believe, but the plan goes quickly sideways, and to stay ahead of the law and out of the morgue, the boys turn to some old friends: Nick’s former boss (Kevin Spacey), Dale’s sexual harasser (Jennifer Aniston) and the trusted criminal adviser “MF” Jones (Jamie Foxx).

Most of the original writing team is back for the sequel, but their script is lighter on laughs and heavier on convention, relying on the cast to just squeeze out laughs whenever they can. With this cast, that’s a safer bet than most. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day are flat out funny, and their wonderful chemistry is anchored by flawless timing that is just a kick to watch.

The supporting trio of Foxx, Aniston and Spacey is nearly as good, and Pine blends in nicely with the stable of returning castmates. Only Waltz seems out of place, his usual greatness wasted in a very limited role.

You know that crazy uncle you still invite over for Thanksgiving because, even though he can be offensive and tedious, he’s still funny and likeable?

That’s Horrible Bosses 2.

Pass the peas (and stay for the credits).

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Save it for When You’re Sick

This Is Where I Leave You

by Christie Robb

You’ve probably seen it before: a broken man forced by circumstance to return to his family home and reconnect with the life he had before, somehow, it all went awry. But you probably haven’t seen it with such enormous fake tits.

This Is Where I Leave You is as familiar and unchallenging as a bowl of chicken soup. Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the book by Jonathan Tropper places the spotlight on Jason Bateman’s Judd, a sad-sack who actually sits down for a breath and watches while his boss bones his wife on their marital bed. While couch surfing and growing out his obligatory beard of depression, he receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has died. His last request: that the kids sit shiva together for a week.

The family gathers with attendant significant others and kidlets and are encouraged by their oversharing, breast-enhanced mom (Jane Fonda), to let it all hang out and really get into the grief.

Like the bowl of chicken soup, you know exactly what you are going to get when you start. Family brawls. Run-ins with old loves. Finding dad’s secret stash of weed… You can ease into a nap worry-free. You’ll be able to figure out what happened before you dig the sleep crusties out of your eye creases.

The ensemble cast works to provide a little spice to an otherwise bland dramedy. Adam Driver (Girls) is great as the black sheep baby of the family and steals every scene that he’s in with a manic, fresh delivery and moments of puppy dog eyed sincerity. His interactions with the rabbi (Ben Schwartz from Parks and Recreation) who cannot shake his childhood nickname, Boner, are particularly delightful.  But the talent mostly drowns in the soppy sentimentality and same-ness of it all.

I’m not saying the flick isn’t worth seeing. Just watch it at home nestled in a blanket, coughing out a lung  with a bottle of NyQuil at your side.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

 

This Queue Is Mean..and Funny!

The underappreciated and underseen comedy Bad Words gets a fresh chance at an audience, releasing today on DVD. In his directorial debut, Jason Bateman plays a terrible man but an excellent speller in a squeamishly hilarious film that won’t cater to predictability or common decency. Bateman’s direction – like his film – is lean and mean. Bad Words is not for the sensitive or easily offended, but for the rest of us, it’s a refreshing piece of nastiness.

 

Need more jocularity at the expense of children? Why not dust off that ol’ Yule Tide classic Bad Santa? Madman Terry Zwigoff directs the most irreverent, mean and hilarious holiday film of all time,thanks in large part to flawless performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Cloris Leachman, Tony Cox, John Ritter, and of course Brett Kelly as Thurman Murman (“That’s your name?”). This screenplay bends to no one, but the film is an absolute classic of wrong, wrong comedy.

Words With Enemies

 

Bad Words

 

by George Wolf

Is it amusing to watch a 40 year old man act like a total S.O.B. to everyone around him, frequently unleashing crude verbal assaults on kids and parents alike?

When that man is Jason Bateman..yes, yes it is.

Bateman not only stars, but makes his big screen directorial debut in Bad Words, and he delivers a darkly funny romp through the cutthroat world of spelling bees. Think Best in Show meets Bad Santa and you’ll be in the right-but-way-wrong neighborhood.

Smarmy Guy Trilby (Bateman) crashes the spelling regionals in his hometown of Columbus, informing the judges that through a loophole in the rules, he is eligible to compete. With no legal grounds to deny him, they relent and find out Guy is not only a great speller, but a nasty douchebag who will stop at nothing to humiliate his opponents.

Why would a grown man do such a thing?

Reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) reflects our curiosity, and she travels with Guy on his journey to the national finals, hoping to discover his motives and land a story.

The screenplay, a debut for Andrew Dodge, has apparently been floating around for years, scaring off potential filmmakers with its down and dirty edges. Bateman, who’s been elevating projects since his days as a child actor, proves a natural at fleshing it out.

As a comic actor, Bateman’s timing is always flawless, a trait which translates well to his direction. He keeps the story lean and mean, with a quick pace and plenty of funny moments that never feel forced. Best of all, the heartwarming life lessons are kept to a minimum.

If you guessed that Guy and reporter Jenny find love, while a cute young speller teaches Guy the meaning of friendship, no one could blame you. Bateman’s not following that tired formula, and bless him for that.

That’s not to say that Jenny and Guy don’t share some hilariously awkward moments, or that precocious spelling champ Chaitanya (young Rohan Chand in a charming performance) doesn’t want to be friends, but Bateman never lets any of it become overly saccharine. He sets his tone and, for the most part, sees it through.

If you don’t like nasty funny, stay far away from Bad Words.

But if you do, come sit next to me.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

A Tale of Two Sandys

 

 

By George Wolf

As far back as his childhood days in the 80s as Ricky Schroder’s wise-cracking friend Derek on Silver Spoons, Jason Bateman has displayed flawless comic timing. Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, has burst on the scene in the last few years, with 2011’s Bridesmaids firmly establishing her as a major comic talent.

Put them together in a road picture, and you’ve got comedy gold, right? Well….

Don’t get me wrong, Identity Thief does deliver some laughs, just not as many as these  two stars would suggest.

Bateman is Sandy Patterson, a financial manager in Denver who deflects constant comments about his first name (“it’s not feminine, it’s unisex!”) while wondering if his jump to a new job at a start-up firm is a good move for his growing family.

McCarthy is also Sandy Paterson, the illegal Florida version. That is, after she makes him her latest identity theft victim and starts racking up credit card bills and arrest records in his name.

As the real Sandy discovers why his life is unraveling, he hatches a plan to travel South and bring the veteran conwoman back to Colorado authorities so she can prove his innocence.

After some great moments of physical comedy as Bateman struggles to apprehend McCarthy, the film settles in as a cross between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Due Date.

Director Seth Gordon, fresh from the very funny Horrible Bosses (also with Bateman), does his best to bring the same breezy, ad-libbed approach to his latest, and that is a wise move. Writer Craig Mazin’s script, weak on its own, is rescued by the sheer talent of the two leads.  Even when the story makes the inevitable turn toward sentimentality, Bateman and McCarthy keep it from collapsing.

3 stars (out of 5)