‘Til the End

Our Friend

by George Wolf

We don’t tell the truth about dying.

Writer Matthew Teague came to that realization in 2012 when his wife Nicole died of cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind Matt, two daughters, and one very special best friend.

Five years later, Matt detailed their ordeal in an award-winning piece for Esquire magazine. Though it wasn’t Matt’s original intent, as the piece took shape it became clear his focus was Dane Faucheux, the friend who put his own life on hold to be there for Matt, Nicole and their girls.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby deliver Teague’s memoir to the screen with a tender focus on the daily details, and a stellar trio of leads delivering authentic, emotional performances.

Dakota Johnson has never been better as Nicole, bringing a heartbreaking sweetness to the journey into physical and mental decay before her character’s final breaths.

The quiet, committed stoicism that Matt fights to maintain is a natural vehicle for Casey Affleck, and he absorbs the role seamlessly. The Oscar-winning Affleck allows Matt’s hurt to register even in the lightly humorous moments, revealing a man caught between remaining strong and truly processing what the future will bring.

But much like in Teague’s original story, Dane is the soul of this film, thanks to Jason Segel’s warm and vulnerable performance. We see – even before Dane does – that his place in the Teague family has given his life the purpose he’s been craving. Segel never stoops to melodrama, and his scenes with the Teague girls (Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, both terrific) sparkle with the charm of a man who has found peace within this family.

A wonderful cameo by the always-welcome Cherry Jones as a hospice nurse only cements the effectiveness of this cast, and of Cowperthwaite’s dramatic instincts.

The drawback here is the non-linear structure in Ingelsby’s (The Way Back, Out of the Furnace) script. Though you can see how the shifting timelines might fit a magazine article, on screen they keeps us at a distance, and prevent the trio’s backstory from truly taking root. The chapters in these lives are not equally important, each builds on the other to strengthen the human bonds. Our connection suffers with the re-set of each new time stamp.

Is this a tear-jerker? For sure, but Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey) creates a mood that steers clear of sappy. That elusive truth of dying will always be uniquely intimate, and the way Cowperthwaite’s camera gently wanders away from characters and conversations provides a consistent reminder that the nature of grieving is that it’s often for the lives left behind.

Because this isn’t really a story about dying, it’s one about caring – caring about other people enough to care for them when it helps. As one family found out, there’s a true beauty in that, and Our Friend lets us glimpse it.

Modern Problems

Sex Tape

by Hope Madden

With two kids, a job and a blog to handle, Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) have almost forgotten what it’s like to spend some quality time alone, so they decide to over-correct that situation by making their own sex tape. You know, kind of spice things up, put some pizzazz back into their marriage.

As seems to be the case generally, the sex tape turns out to be a bad idea, and the next thing you know, they are trying to retrieve the footage before it goes viral.

Segel and regular writing collaborator Nicholas Stoller penned this ode to poor decision making with Kate Angelo (The Back-up Plan), and among them they can’t decide on a reasonable tone any more effectively than they can muster enough jokes to keep 98 minutes of comedy afloat.

Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) wants badly for the film to be simultaneously a  raunchy comedy and hip-but-earnest love story – an unusual combination so perfectly realized earlier this year with the Stoller-helmed Neighbors. But where Neighbors burst with inspired visuals, unexpected comedic chemistry, generous writing and frenetic humor, Sex Tape just sits there, flaccid.

The pace is leaden, the laughs scarce and scattered. The film’s prevailing, toothless humor leaves writers and actors alike falling back on foul language whenever they lack an actual punchline.

Though Segel and Diaz – both comedic talents – make an effort, they are forced to work too hard to create momentum. Their relationship – the love, the squabbles, the tension over the tape mix up – rings false, giving the comedy no grounding.

Potentially interesting characters pop up and vanish, though the diversion is sorely needed. Worse still, in the one supporting character with any screen time, reliably hilarious Rob Corddry is hamstrung in a best friend role allowed only a single, weakly recurring gag.

Rob Lowe flails, though valiantly, with an over-the-top character that never meshes with the film’s internal reality and feels like part of a set of tacked on bits from another film entirely.

A pretty big disappointment, given the talent in front of and behind the camera.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 





More Muppet, Less Man

 

Muppets Most Wanted

 

by MaddWolf

 

There are few casts of characters who have brought more sheer delight to audiences – regardless of age – than the Muppets. Sure, they’ve had their low points (good God, the Muppet Babies!), but on the whole, their variety show mayhem has offered nothing but fun.
The fuzzy ensemble returns this week for their 8th feature film, Muppets Most Wanted.

 

The new adventure picks up immediately after the finale of 2011’s The Muppets, when the group is approached by prospective road manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who wants them to launch a world tour.

Meanwhile, the diabolical Constantine, a dead-ringer for our beloved Kermie and widely known the world’s most dangerous frog, breaks out of a Russian gulag. Coincidence?

About 3/4 of the team that brought Kermit and Co. back after more than a decade of absence for The Muppets returns for the sequel. Producer/co-writer/star Jason Segel is noticeably absent, though, having made the upcoming Sex Tape instead (although that could have given the Muppet franchise an interesting wrinkle).

But director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and, perhaps importantly, songwriter Bret McKenzie return.

McKenzie (one half of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) delivers clever enough tunes such as “We’re Doing a Sequel”, “I’m Number One”, and “Interrogation Song,” but none come close to the charm of “Man or Muppet,” his Oscar-winner from the last film.

And though most of the flesh and blood crew that made The Muppets so warm, fun, irreverent and yet sweet return, the film is clearly missing something. Segel, we’re looking at you.

The important characters are all accounted for: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Dr. Teeth, Bunsen Honeydew and Beeker, Fozzie, Gonzo, Sam Eagle, etc, etc.

And, the requisite cameos pile up: Diddy, Chloe Moretz, Usher, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Tom Hiddleston, Zach Galafianakis, Saoirse Ronan, Celine Dion, Salma Hayak, Tony Bennett, Josh Groban – it’s a long list.

Though the film does many things right – starting with putting the spotlight back on the Muppets themselves – it can’t shake the feeling that this is more an assignment than a labor of love. The mistaken identity plot begins to drag, even with co-starring roles for Tina Fey as the Gulag warden and Ty Burrell as a bumbling inspector.

It’s fun enough, nostalgic enough, self-reverential enough, but never magical.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars