Strange Bedfellows

Irresistible

by George Wolf

Some of the best moments during Jon Stewart’s years on The Daily Show happened when his guest was some smug politician who had not done their homework.

Because Jon always did his, and the squirming politico would realize pretty quickly that Jon could throw some heaters. This funnyman was whip smart, too, and pretty handy with the b.s. detector.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Irresistible, Stewart’s second feature as writer/director, employs some purposeful, intelligent comedy as it sets about skewering today’s ridiculous political climate.

Daily Show vet Steve Carell is Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer. Stinging badly from the 2016 election, he’s inspired by a YouTube video of a former Marine hero dressing down the city council in tiny Deerlacken, WI.

Zimmer decides right then that Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) and his “redder kind of blue” appeal could be the centerpiece of a new nationwide project to expand the Democratic base. And it all begins with getting Hastings elected Mayor of Deerlacken.

This does not go unnoticed on the other side. Once GOP strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) and her crew come to town, the Mayor’s race in Deerlacken starts carrying some pretty high stakes – including one hilarious sexual side bet between the two opposing operatives.

After an impressively dramatic filmmaking debut with 2014’s Rosewater, Stewart returns to the satirical stomping grounds where he became a respected (and, to some, reviled ) voice that drove many worthwhile conversations.

Though the bite of this screenplay may be a bit softer, his narrative approach betrays a long game that trades the sharper knives for the chance at a wider reach. Because the cure for what’s infecting American politics is not going to spread through niche marketing.

Sure, you could call that a sellout, and for the first two acts of this movie you might be right. The “all politics is local” premise is certainly not new, nor are many of the talking points. But thanks to the two veteran leads, those points are just funnier.

Carell’s default manner is perfect for the quietly condescending Zimmer, an elitist who confuses nobility with blind ambition, and somehow thinks he has a shot with the Col’s much younger daughter (Mackenzie Davis).

The real treat, though, is seeing Byrne finally dig into another role worthy of her comedy pedigree. With the right material, Byrne is a comedic MVP, as she reminds anyone who’s forgotten that fact by making Brewster one hilarious, shameless, priceless piece of work.

Stewart may be known for his progressive leanings, but both the left and the right are in his sights here, along with unchecked political cash and obsessive pundits complicit in fostering the fear and shame game.

Easy targets? Sure. But if you don’t think Stewart’s smart enough to know that, than you never saw him blindside a back-slapping incumbent on late night TV.

Irresistible caters to your expectations just long enough to make you think you knew where it was going all along. The unassuming way the film upends those expectations might seem overly convenient, but it feels right, as if Stewart is practicing what he is taking care not to preach. And that’s just what might make it hard for mainstream America to resist.

Brace Yourself

Greener Grass

by George Wolf

Two married couples are paired off beside each other, everyone smooching their respective spouse. They all sport gleaming braces and garish pastel-on-steroids outfits, swapping emotionless saliva until a voice breaks the moment.

“Wait a second, wrong husbands!”

Welcome to the so-wrong world of Greener Grass, the feature length adaptation of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s award-winning short from 2015. DeBoer and Luebbe return as screenwriters and stars, plus this time add directing duties to ensure complete realization of the absurdist suburban hellscape they imagine.

Jill (DeBoer – so good in Thunder Road last year) and Lisa (Luebbe) are soccer mom besties whose sun-drenched days of gossip, golf carts and competition are thrown into upheaval when Jill gives Lisa her new baby, only to have the nerve to ask for the baby back when Jill’s young son Julian turns into a dog!

This is a late night sketch stretched to the point of no return, played with a desert-dry commitment by the game ensemble (which, appropriately enough, includes SNL’s Beck Bennett).

The end result is an over-the-top John Waters visual pastiche that’s constantly running headlong into a cheek defiantly dismissing its tongue as fake news. When DeBoer and Luebbe do bullseye their targets – with their vigil for a dead neighbor or a TV show called “Kids With Knives” – the laughs are uproarious, but the time between these winners can sometimes get lengthy.

For most people, the same joke five times is tiresome. But for some, that same joke fifteen times can become an absurd delight, and that is the space where this film plants roots that can only become deeper with time.

Because sometime in the near future, a parent will refer to their child’s teacher as “Miss Human,” and Greener Grass will have arrived. A smartly silly expose on the shallowest end of the suburban pool, this is a cult classic just waiting to happen.

Hooray for Hollywood?

The Other Side of the Wind

by Hope Madden

The Other Side of the Wind—how pretentious is that title? It’s supposed to be, of course, because it’s an Orson Welles film and he’s a genius. His latest, released more than 30 years after his death, explores his genius and the changing paradigm of the Seventies film industry.

Retrieved from hundreds of hours of footage filmed over 10 years, The Other Side of the Wind was meant to be a comeback or sorts from an idolized auteur whose funds were drying up in the face of a changing cinematic aesthetic.

It’s about an idolized auteur with dwindling funds who’s trying to launch a comeback in the face of a changing cinematic aesthetic.

Yes, Welles was meta before meta was even a thing.

Esteemed director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is to screen his new film at his 70th birthday party to an audience of cinefiles, sycophants, film critics, hangers-on, freaks and industry insiders.

The event becomes an ingenious satire of 70s moviemaking, and watching it more than 30 years after the fact gives the entire spectacle a time capsule appeal. It’s like a trainwreck you cannot turn away from.

Welles pokes fun at the pretentiousness of then-cutting edge filmmakers and their neurotic relationships with self-loathing, arrogance and idol worship—usually using directors from the period, acting as stand-ins for, well, themselves.

He doesn’t seem to have much respect for the films being made at the time, either. As Hannaford’s film unspools, one in-the-know viewer yells: “The reels are out of order!”

To which the projectionist replies, “Does it matter?”

Nope. It does not. Welles’s film-within-a-film is an unendurable, plotless hippie hallucination—a perfect parody of much of the arthouse output of the era. It’s as if Welles, by way of Hannaford, is asking: Is this what I have to do to get a movie made?

As well and as wildly as the movie-making satire plays, at the heart of this film is humiliation on exhibition. Hero worship is hollow, commerce is still king and a man who can’t pay can’t play.

The whole thing is just a big ball of Seventies.





Gaslight Anthem

A Simple Favor

by George Wolf

Stephanie is a suburban single mom who keeps an “oopsie” jar for swearing and volunteers for everything at her son’s elementary school.

Emily is passionately married, drops frequent f-bombs and has a painting of her vajayjay hanging in the living room.

But a play date for their sons leads to an unlikely friendship in A Simple Favor, a crazy fun mystery with plenty of surprises up its sassy sleeveless number.

The first may be seeing the director is Paul Feig, who made his name with blockbuster comedies such as Bridesmaids and Spy.

So, he’s doing dark thrillers, now? Nope, he’s doing a satirical comedy with strong women, nice diversity and a pretty sharp bite.

Perky Stephanie (Anna Kendrick – perfect) and glamorous Emily (Blake Lively – ditto) share martinis and secrets until Emily turns up missing. Steph provides case updates on her Mommy vlog (“cookies and origami” help to ease the strain!) while spending more and more time watching Emily’s son and “comforting” her husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians).

You’ll guess some of what comes next, but there’s plenty you won’t, unless you read Darcey Bell’s source novel. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) shapes it for the big screen as a Gone Girl for the gaslight age, where ridiculousness is a default setting, all information is equally true/false and irony is a security blanket never far out of reach.

There are plenty of black comedic laughs to be found here, as well as clever plot twists and knowing nods to the expectations that come with roles of “wife,” “mother,” “career woman” and “friend.”

The running time starts to feel bloated by the third act, and the film flirts with joining the mundane fray it had been so giddily rising above. But it rallies for the win with a satisfying finale of comeuppance and LOL updates on how some characters have moved on.

A Simple Favor is not what the trailer makes you think it is – which turns out to be the perfect setup for a film with plenty of head fakes that lead to a mischievous good time.





Feel the Burn

Sorry to Bother You

by Hope Madden

The stars are aligning for Boots Riley. The vocalist and songwriter for The Coup—the funkiest radical socialist band you’re likely to find—has managed to produce a wild and relevant satire of capitalism that might possibly find a mainstream audience.

And that’s not because he whitewashed his message.

Sorry to Bother You uses splashes of absurdity and surrealism to enliven the first act “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tale of a weary young man’s ascension through the ranks of telemarketing. It is a funny and pointed send-up of cubical hell that—unlike most office comedies—focuses quickly on a system that benefits very few while it exploits very many.

There is so much untidiness and depth to relationships, characterizations, comedy, horror, style, message and execution of this film that you could overlook Riley’s directorial approach. He expertly uses the havoc and excess, first lulling you into familiar territory before upending all expectations and taking you on one headtrip of an indictment of capitalism.

Led by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) and Tessa Thompson (star of Creed, Thor: Ragnarock and her own gleaming awesomeness), Sorry to Bother You finds an emotional center that sets the friction between community and individual on understandable ground.

Thompson offers bursts of energy that nicely offset Stanfield’s slower, more necessarily muddled performance as the “everyman” central character for a new generation.

And who better to embody everything a capitalist system convinces you is ideal than living Ken doll Armie Hammer? He is perfect—an actor who entirely comprehends his physical perfection and how loathsome it can be. He is a hoot.

Riley’s film could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.

Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight and number of comments.

Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. A tidy or in any way predictable conclusion would have been a far greater disaster, though. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about goddamn time?





Let’s Get Small

Downsizing

by George Wolf

Word is, writer/director Alexander Payne has had the Downsizing idea for years, apparently waiting for when a satire of endless greed and unapologetic self-interest would feel the most relevant.

Good timing, then.

Payne, working with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, returns to the political mindset he showcased so effectively in the classrooms of 1999’s Election. Here, their palette is a not-at-all distant future where science has come up with a solution for global sustainability: shrinkage!

By reducing people and communities to a ratio of 2.744 to 1, the potential for a guilt-free good life is off the charts! That sounds pretty great to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), and a hilariously obnoxious info-mercial (Lauren Dern and Neal Patrick Harris, killing it) seals the deal.

Of course, it isn’t long before human potential meets human nature, familiar class systems develop and, as Paul’s smarmy neighbor (Jason Sudeikis) points out, getting small becomes more about saving yourself than saving the planet.

For three quarters of the film, the satirical slings and arrows find frequent marks, and layers deepen when Paul starts hanging with a crazy new neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his cleaning lady (Hong Chau, in an award-worthy, film stealing performance).

Payne and Taylor aren’t as sure-footed when the satirical tone gives way to the absurd, or when a budding pretense makes the opening of a white man’s eyes feel a bit too heroic.

But while the scale of Downsizing is small, the film is thinking mighty big. The new world it envisions is engaging, with sharp comedy, unexpected turns and the keen observational structure to make it all impactful.





Halloween Countdown, Day 30

American Psycho (2000)

A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as Bateman’s smitten secretary or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost call out to them: Look behind you!

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane and yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Released with an NC-17 rating, the film floundered immediately but has grown a worthy cult status over the years. It’s not for the squeamish or the literal minded, but for those open to an impeccably crafted horror comedy and a little wholesome Eighties tunes, it is a gem.





Wet and Hot All Over Again

They Came Together

by Hope Madden

The non-threateningly attractive, amiable Paul Rudd is an easy guy to like. Maybe even to fall in love with…unless he’s a corporate drone working for the ultra-behemoth conglomerate that’s about to put your quirky, independent candy store out of business! Then he’s just a dreamy boy you could fall in love with but you won’t, damn it! You just won’t!

Director David Wain likes him, though. He likes him well enough to cast him as the lead in every single one of his films, including his latest, They Came Together.

For the provocatively titled newest effort, Wain collaborates with co-writer Michael Showalter, who helped him pen another Rudd vehicle, the cultish gem Wet Hot American Summer. Where that film lampooned summer camp films, the latest effort sends up New York City rom/coms.

Both films are endearingly silly, insightful, packed with genuine talent, and loaded with laughs. Rudd is joined this time around by reliably funny Amy Poehler as maybe the love of his life, if they can get past that candy store thing and a couple dozen other hurdles.

Wain is not just after the big, obvious genre clichés, either – though not one is safe. He’s equally adept at uncovering small, overlooked crutches of the romantic comedy and skewering those, as well. So what went so wrong?

Nothing feels fresh, for starters. So many films have poked fun at romantic comedy clichés that the satire is stale. The humor is broad when it needs to be, targeted at times, and often very funny, but utterly and immediately forgettable.

Just as problematic is that the 83 minute running time feels bloated. Jokes are repeated so incessantly that they lose potency, and Wain’s film has trouble mocking the tired and familiar without feeling a little spent itself. It plays like extended sketch comedy, some of which is spot-on, though too much of it is filler.

With laughs to be had, sight gags galore, priceless cameos, an enviable cast and a quick run time, it’s hardly the worst way to spend a little time in the air conditioning. You know, since Wet  Hot American Summer doesn’t stream on Netflix.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars