Breaking the Pattern

Breaking Fast

by Rachel Willis

Most rom-coms, or rom-dramedies, follow a very specific pattern. You already know when each plot point will happen: the meet, the first date, the montage of falling in love, etc.

Writer/director Mike Mosallam’s first feature, Breaking Fast, follows this predictable model to the letter.

So, what makes Breaking Fast different? Mainly, the characters.

Mo (Haaz Sleiman) is a gay Muslim living in West Hollywood. His best friend, Sam (Amin El Gamal) is eager to see Mo get back into a relationship after his last ended when Mo’s closeted boyfriend broke up with him to marry a woman.

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy). From here, you know the plot, but Mosallam weaves into the narrative elements with which you might not be familiar. Mo is adamant that his faith is not incompatible with his sexuality. And as he gets to know Kal, the two grow close as Kal breaks fast with Mo nearly every night during Ramadan.

Most of the gay men we meet in the film, including Sam, have turned their backs on any form of religion due to the harassment they have experienced in the name of faith. But Mo’s experience has been one of love and acceptance, and his devotion to his faith is a large part of the film.

Awkward dialogue makes for some tedious moments. Part of the problem is that Mosallam wants to paint us a new picture of Islam, one that is full of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, that lands on the screen feeling more like a lesson than an integrated narrative layer.

This isn’t the first movie to try to educate its audience, but the clumsiness of the execution weakens the film.

There are also some uncomfortable moments between Kal and Mo, and not the kind of uncomfortable that comes across as cute. These scenes are not awkward enough to leave you rooting for a couple, but embarrassing to the point of being hard to watch.

But then, there are the sweet moments between the two, and you do find yourself pulling for them as they weather the difficulties of a new relationship.

Too bad Breaking Fast never finds the right balance between what it is and what it wants to teach you.

Full ‘O Shenanigans

Wild Mountain Thyme

by Hope Madden

“Welcome to Ireland! My name is Tony Reilly and I’m dead.”

So begins Wild Mountain Thyme, a romantic comedy so cartoonishly Irish you’ll expect the Lucky Charm leprechaun to drop by for a Guinness.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley can be very good, especially when he’s working from his own plays. Shanley won an Oscar for penning Moonstruck, and drew a nomination when he adapted his stage play Doubt for the screen.

He also directed the latter, a film that soared thanks to a quartet of nearly perfect performances (Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams—each the most exquisite piece of casting imaginable).

Though considerably lighter, Shanley’s latest boasts an impressive cast as well. Not Doubt impressive, but what is?

Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan anchor the film as two unreasonably attractive and weirdly single neighbors in rural County Mayo. Rosemary and Anthony have known each other all their lives, and even though many (including Anthony’s father Tony, played by Christopher Walken) have given up on the union, Rosemary will have her beloved Anthony one day.

Let’s stop a sec on Walken. He’s a great actor, a beloved icon, a cool dude. What he is not is Irish. Does that really matter—Walken’s accent isn’t exactly American, right? It’s just, well, Walken.

The point is that Shanley couldn’t be less interested in authentic Irishness. Wild Mountain Thyme’s authenticity rivals that of Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Oh the whimsy! The blarney! The third act reveal that outshines any act of nonsense you are likely to find on screen this year. How much Jameson’s did Shanley down before committing this to film?

It’s beautiful, don’t misunderstand. The verdant farms as well as the cast (Jon Hamm joins Blunt and Dornan as the Yank looking for an Irish farm and an Irish lass). It’s just so Irish-Spring-ad ridiculous.

It’s nice, though. Its belabored whimsy kind of clubs you into a stupor by around the third or fourth rainstorm (what, no rainbow?!). The story meanders. The symbolism serves only to further confuse things. The magic Shanley weaves can’t transcend the film’s lunacy long enough to give Wild Mountain Thyme the fairy tale quality it desperately wants.

Still, Blunt and Dornan are engaging and you have to give the film credit for sheer shamrock audacity.

Show Me Your Junk

The Broken Hearts Gallery

by George Wolf

I have no problem at all with scary movies, I love them. But I gotta be honest, I can’t think of many things more frightening than the prospect of dating in today’s social climate.

So kudos to writer/director Natalie Krinsky for squeezing so much feel-goodiness out of the dating tribulations of twenty-something New Yorkers in The Broken Hearts Gallery.

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan), a gallery assistant, is smarting from a painful breakup. Her roommate besties Amanda (Molly Gordon from Booksmart, Good Boys, Life of the Party) and Nadine (Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo) are helping her cope.

First lesson in letting go: get rid of all that junk you’ve saved as souvenirs from past relationships!

But a chance meeting with Nick (Dacre Montgomery from Stranger Things), a budding hotel owner, spawns an idea. If Lucy will help get the hotel ready for opening day, Nick will give her space to open a gallery showcasing trinkets donated by lovers left behind.

Krinsky, a TV vet helming her first feature, leans on plenty of familiar rom-com tropes, but gives them all just the right amount of unabashed enthusiasm to feel more comfortable than cheesy.

The dance montages are numerous, the dialog less like real conversations and more like people waiting for their next turn to quip, and the ladies’ Big Apple cynicism as biting as a sugar-coated fantasy.

But Viswanathan (Blockers, Bad Education) is bursting with bubbly charm, Montgomery brings a welcome, dialed-down authenticity, and Krinsky is able to mine some contemporary laughs from recycled ideas (the actual Museum of Broken Relationships, When Harry Met Sally-styled interviews with the trinket owners).

The Broken Hearts Gallery is often as awkward and messy as it is breezy and spirited. You know where it’s going and it goes there, pushed buttons blazing.

And for 108 minutes, dating in this world seems like it isn’t that scary at all, and could maybe even be fun. Maybe.

Fa La La Land

The High Note

by George Wolf

Since rising to fame on Black-ish, Tracee Ellis Ross has apparently been biding her time, patiently waiting for the right vehicle to showcase her talents as a singer. It isn’t hard to understand the apprehension.

Oh, look, another TV star trying to sing. And this one just wants to ride her mother’s (Diana, FYI) iconic coattails!

Ross chooses wisely with the endearing The High Note, absolutely killing it as Grace Davis, a modern brand of pop diva.

Davis still basks in the glow of worldwide fame, but it’s been a minute since she scored a big hit. Grace’s longtime manager Jack (Ice Cube, with more proof of his maturation as an actor) wants her to ink a long-term residency in Vegas, but Grace isn’t sure she’s ready to be pushed onto the “greatest hits” circuit. And there’s a small but potentially mighty voice in Grace’s corner.

It belongs to her personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, flashing a winning mix of naïveté and ambition). She’s been lobbying for new Grace Davis music, which would carry some weight if everyone only knew how great a producer Maggie could be if they’d just give her the chance!

If this sounds like something for the Hallmark Channel, did I mention Maggie has stumbled across David (the impressive Kelvin Harrison, Jr., with his own vocal chops), a talented musician who could use an L.A. music producer and maybe even a girlfriend?

Sure, you can guess where most (but not all) of this goes, and in other hands it might have been a tone deaf stiff. But director Nisha Ganatra (the underseen gem Late Night) runs Flora Greeson’s debut screenplay through the filter of an endlessly charming cast to craft an extended mix of finger-snapping smiles.

Look beneath those layers of what may feel like fluff, and you’ll even find a sometimes awkward but still refreshing look at two women gracefully navigating the path to controlling their own destinies. Nice.

Don’t discount those finger snaps, either. In a music business movie the music should mean business, and the tunes in The High Note sound like something a producer might actually get excited about, especially when Ross lets it rip.

She makes Grace a determined diva that’s spoiled but still worth rooting for, infusing her big numbers with the expressive vocal power of an actor and a character who are both seizing their moment.

The first single from the soundtrack, Ross’s “Love Myself,” is already looking like a hit. The High Note sounds like one, too.

Ghost Writer

Yesterday

by George Wolf

Hey, baby boomers (yes, my hand is up), thanks for still buying CDs!

Now please enjoy the latest installment in your Musical Movie Memories Tour, Yesterday.

We’ve already jammed to Queen and Elton, Bruce is set for August, so how about remembering how much we love the Fab Four by envisioning a world where they never existed?

It’s a conceit so instantly charming director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) passed on the project, thinking it had already been done. He was convinced otherwise and jumped on board, bringing the script from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) to life with a breezy, unabashed fandom.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, easy to root for) is a struggling musician in Suffolk who’s ready to give up on the dream. His longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) protests, but Jack rides his bicycle off into the English night unsure of his future.

Fate intervenes with a brief worldwide blackout, which brings an accident, a hospital stay, and Jack waking up in a world without his two front teeth.

Or the Beatles.

That second one is pretty advantageous for Jack’s career, though the film is at its most likable early on, when Jack is trying to remember lyrics, getting nowhere on Google and chastising anyone who doesn’t instantly realize how life-changing “his” new songs are.

Of course, his protests only resonate because we’re still in the old world with him. It’s a credit to the simple genius of this premise that Yesterday can tell without showing and still pull us in. And surprise, it’s also a wonderfully organic way to strip down these songs we’ve heard for decades and remind us how truly great they are.

Jack’s star rises with a move to L.A, getting tutelage from Ed Sheehan (nicely self-deprecating as himself) and an apologetically shameless record label rep (perfectly slimy Kate McKinnon). It’s in America where Yesterday starts to drag a bit, wanting from the absence of spunky James and will-they-or-won’t-they rom that balances this com.

How that turns out, you can probably guess.

As for the musical fantasy, credit Curtis and Boyle for avoiding the easy cop out. Buy in and you’ll be rewarded with an entertaining take on life choices that’s fun to sing along with, occasionally slight but often downright fab.

We Can’t Quit You, Rom-Com!

Isn’t It Romantic

by George Wolf

Every time someone on your social media thread pokes fun at the latest Hallmark Christmas special, you can get some pretty good odds they set the DVR to record it.

Isn’t It Romantic is all about indulging those guilty pleasures, laughing with friends as we all point out the reasons we shouldn’t love something that we’re going to keep on loving anyway.

Romantic comedies, why can’t we quit you?

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a low-level architect at a NYC firm who chastises her co-worker Whitney (Betty Gilpin) about her love for predictable rom-coms like Notting Hill and 50 First Dates. As Whitney watches yet another one on company time, Natalie wags a finger and reminds us all of the romantic comedy playbook she’s soon to act out.

Fighting with a would-be purse snatcher, Natalie is knocked unconscious, only to awaken in a strange new world.

She’s glowing with full makeup in a lavish E.R., where sexy doctors are available at a moment’s notice and there’s voiceover narration for Natalie’s inner conflicts.

This can only mean one thing: Natalie’s living in a rom-com!

The screenwriting team has plenty of experience in the genre (How to Be Single, The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas), and rolls out the tropes with fun, familiar ease. Natalie is instantly pursued by the rich, handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth) while her friend-zoned buddy Josh (Adam DeVine) hooks up with supermodel/”yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) and best pal Whitney suddenly becomes an office nemesis.

Gay sidekick? Of course, honey! It’s neighbor Donny, who shows up at inexplicable moments and is brought to scene-stealing life by Brandon Scott Jones.

“How did you get here??”

“I just said ‘Gay Beetlejuice’ three times and here I am, Booch!”

Wilson, usually adept at scene-stealing herself, seems a bit uneasy in the lead, as her supporting actors all manage to make solid impressions while she struggles to find a confident tone.

Credit director Todd Strauss-Schulson for a finely whimsical pace, pop-up music montages that pop, and plenty of subtle backgrounds that reinforce the wink-winks (there’s a cute little cupcake store on every corner!)

While never hilarious, Isn’t It Romantic manages consistent charm and an effective running gag about keeping it all PG-13. Everybody knows you know how it ends and that’s the point, right? Here comes another musical number!

Hey, if you want rom-com critique with bite, revisit Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. If you’re fine pleading guilty to the pleasure, Isn’t It Romantic will be plenty enjoyable.

 

 





An Unfortunate Movie Mixtape

Juliet, Naked

by Brandon Thomas

Movies that mix music and quirk tend to punch me right in the feels (is a 36-year-old allowed to say “feels”?). Once, Begin Again and Sing Street are a few examples of movies that gave my tear ducts a workout. The only feelings Juliet, Naked conjured in me were boredom, apathy and a dash of frustration.

Annie (Rose Bryne) is stuck in a rut. She lives in her sleepy hometown and works the same job her father did. Her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), is more interested in a long-disappeared musician than starting a family with her. When a CD demo for Duncan’s favorite musician, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), shows up at their home, Annie is the first to listen. Her negative reaction to the album, mixed with Duncan’s over-the-top positive one, sets off a chain of events that ends with Crowe himself visiting her in England.

I realized halfway through Juliet, Naked that director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) was trying to reinvent the classic rom-com. Instead, it’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster hybrid, as one part indie drama mixed with your classic rom-com clichés makes for strange bedfellows. It’s not to say that these tropes couldn’t exist together – they could – but it would need to be in the hands of a stronger filmmaker.

The cast fares a little bit better. Hawke and Byrne do what they can with a messy script, and they have an undeniable chemistry. The problem – again – lies in that it sometimes feels like the characters are moving between two different films. One moment, Hawke’s character is lamenting his shortcomings as a father, and the next he’s in a hospital bed surrounded by all of his ex-wives/lovers. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a network sitcom.

Byrne is the one saving grace. She’s always been able to lift the material she’s given and it’s no different here. There’s a sweetness to Annie that never feels naïve. She’s a competent, driven woman who just hasn’t allowed herself to go after what she wants in life.

There’s a behind-the-camera pedigree to Juliet, Naked that makes its shortcomings all the more disappointing. It’s based on the book by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), and produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Superbad, Pineapple Express). Apatow has especially shown himself to be adept at producing really funny, thoughtful comedies.

Had Juliet, Naked kept both feet firmly in one genre, I think the film would’ve had something nice to say. Instead, it’s a murky mess of what could have been.





Underwhelmed

Overboard

by Hope Madden

More than 30 years ago, Garry Marshall directed one of those Eighties films: good-heartedly hateful and contrived in that colorfully rom-com way, Overboard.

It is the ridiculous story of comeuppance wherein a small-town carpenter (Kurt Russell), cheated out of payment by a scantily clad, uppity billionaire (Goldie Hawn), concocts a plan to get the money he is due when she washes ashore with amnesia.

Flash forward several decades and director Rob Greenberg makes his feature debut after a lifetime of sitcoms, revisiting Leslie Dixon’s 1987 screenplay.

His update sees Kate (Anna Faris) as a single mom just trying to pass that damn nursing exam so she can quit her two jobs (pizza delivery, carpet cleaner) and offer a better life for her three daughters.

She’s sent to sop up the champagne spillage on a yacht, meets spoiled heir Leonardo (Eugenio Derbez), argues and ends up in far worse financial trouble than she’d been in a day before.

Now she’ll never get that nurse’s license!

When the billionaire washes up back in Elk Cove, Kate’s pizza place boss (Eva Longoria) figures the least he owes Kate is some some day labor (so she doesn’t have to replace that job he lost for her), and enough chores to give Kate the time to study.

Only until the exam—then we’ll tell him.

The premise is no fresher or more believable this time around, though they do update in a couple of interesting ways. Leonardo is a Mexican heir; the day laborers only speak Spanish and most of the pizza crew is bilingual Mexican American, so about fifty percent of the film is subtitled.

This is an interesting choice, since the point of both versions of Overboard is to point out the hideous gap in work ethic and morality you can find between the rich and poor. Choosing not to “Roseanne” that image of the American working poor was a solid decision. Not that it can help this movie.

This is simply not a premise that has the strength to stand the test of time. The original was a success on the charm and natural (and obviously abiding) charisma of its stars. Why was it successful? Goldie Hawn was a comic genius, Kurt Russell was gorgeous, and it was the Eighties. That is it.

The remake has none of those things going for it. Greenberg, updating Dixon’s script with Bob Fisher (Wedding Crashers), can’t write his way out of the contrivance. Though Faris is certainly a talent, she lacks the charisma to carry a film.

Perhaps most damaging is the utter absence of chemistry between the leads, making every inch toward romance feel unnatural and, honestly, almost creepy.





Me Be Pretty One Day

I Feel Pretty

by Hope Madden

Trainwreck, the 2015 big-screen break out for comic Amy Schumer (and LeBron James and John Cena) offered a wise about-face for the rom-com.

Written by Schumer, the film simultaneously embraced and subverted tradition by basically casting a female in the traditionally male role of eternal adolescent who accidentally finds love and, therefore, adulthood.

She returns to the romantic comedy with I Feel Pretty, film that is neither romantic nor comedic, unfortunately.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a perfectly attractive woman.

So there’s your first problem.

I will give writers/directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein credit for one thing. When Bennett hits her head at a spinning class and wakes up believing she’s traffic-stopping gorgeous, at least the film does not stoop to showing us the flawless physical image Renee sees in the mirror. Thanks for that.

So, it’s only after a traumatic brain injury that Amy Schumer can consider herself attractive.

Now she has all the confidence she needs to go after that receptionist gig at the big cosmetics firm. (Wait! A romantic comedy where a receptionist can afford a small but cool NYC apartment? Yes, that checks out.)

Things take a turn for the better whenever CEO Avery LeClair (Michelle Williams) appears onscreen. Her weirdly spot-on performance as the baby-voiced heiress is a riot—and the only unpredictable moments in the film belong to her.

Schumer does what she can with this superficial, blandly rote script. She has excellent chemistry with her co-stars (Busy Phillips, Aidy Bryant, Rory Scovel), regardless of their underwritten roles. But when you have a comic talent like Schumer on the bill and you still cannot think of anything funnier than seeing a pretty woman fall down, your writing is weak.

Let’s not even address the fact that all Renee wants in life is to work for a cosmetics company and maybe, if we all dream big enough, she might be the new face of a cosmetics line!

Jesus.

In summation, I Feel Pretty is Big meets Shallow Hal, if those films suggested that all Tom Hanks needed was confidence enough to believe he should be objectified, then all would be well.

Can Amy Schumer just write the next Amy Schumer movie? Please?





Jiggidy Jog

Home Again

by Hope Madden

Let’s say you love Nancy Meyers’s movies – you know, those fantasies like It’s Complicated or Something’s Gotta Give where late-middle-aged women land all the attention, sex, career opportunities and marital comeuppance they’ve always really deserved, only to realize that they had it all in them the whole time. Let’s say you love those, but you’d like them to skew maybe 15 – 20 years younger.

Boy howdy, is Home Again the movie for you.

Written and directed by Meyers’s daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, it spins a familiar, albeit younger, yarn.

Newly single, freshly 40, gorgeous, living in an unbelievable house and raising two precocious and adorable kids – man, does Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) have it rough.

One contrivance leads to another and suddenly three Hollywood dreamers in the form of gorgeous twentysomething dudes hoping to realize their moviemaking ambitions are living in her guest house.

Why not? I mean, except for the high potential for murder and/or child molestation, but this isn’t that kind of movie. This is the kind that would never happen.

What will happen when Alice’s  estranged husband (Michael Sheen) comes home unexpectedly?

Gasp – do you think he’ll finally see how special she is? Will she hear all those things she’s wanted to hear from him for years? Will it work, or will she slowly realize that she deserves better?

Hell, she deserves it all!

I will tell you who deserves better—besides the audience—Reese Witherspoon.

How great was she earlier this year in HBO’s Big Little Lies? Well, she’s not great here. She coasts along with awkward and/or appreciative faces. She does have some fun chemistry with the underused (but always welcome) Candice Bergen.

None, surprisingly, with the usually reliable Sheen and less than none with the trio of hotties (Nat Wolff, Pico Alexander and Jon Rudnitsky) taking up residence.

It doesn’t help that those actors are bland (Wolff) to middling (Alexander) to weak (Rudnitsky).

No problem appears to be especially troubling, no solution feels earned, no relationship looks authentic. Even Nancy Meyers’s most self-indulgent work had a hard earned charm about it.

What Home Again needed was a different Meyers. That or a scary clown.