Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Love You, Man Defines "Bromance" Genre

It's official. The "bromance" has now become a Hollywood genre. And I Love You, Man is the poster movie for this new cinematic chimera.

What is a bromance? If one watches this first feature movie by TV director John Hamburg, the bromance is essentially a dating movie where the female object of desire is played by another straight man, rather than a woman. Other than that, it follows the usual dating comedy format: man discovers himself lonely, decides to go into the wild and crazy dating (bro-meeting) scene, is about to give up when he stumbles across the woman (or in this case, bro) of his dreams: who turns out to be his temperamental opposite and and must be convinced of the main character's sincere intentions (and true love).

It's perfect casting then that the bro-hunting romantic in this movie is played by Paul Rudd, who seems to be making a career of this role as the feminized straight man. Meanwhile, Jason Segel plays Rudd's real-man opposite, and object of male-bonding desire. I really do think Rudd has a potentially great comedic career in the making, but he just hasn't been consistent: witness the recent Role Models, in which he delivers lines with half-hearted irony. Here, he's much more the Rudd we enjoy, and actually carries the film well and with the goofy likability that he originally pulled off in his first big film, Clueless. The movie opens with Rudd's character, Peter Klaven, proposing to his fiance, Zoeey. Zooey immediately notifies her girl posse of the good news, but Peter, it seems has no male friends to bond with: he's always been a lady's man. And so, with Zooey's blessing, Peter goes out on the hunt to find his best man, who turns out to be chick-magnet and roustabout Sydney Fife.

The rest of the plot follows predictably, but with great good humor and the kind of comedic banter that Rudd and company perfected in 40 Year Old Virgin. This is Rudd at the top of his charming, self-effacing game, and Fife's sloppy, semi-employed, Rush-loving doppelganger provides just the right foil for him to bounce off of. There's also a few lovely sidesteps and misunderstandings on the dating scene, guided with workmanlike matter-of-factness by "Saturday Night Live"'s Andy Samberg, who plays Peter's gay (and apparently better adjusted) brother.

There is one major disappointment in the ending - which in the usual dating genre requires that the characters learn from each other by working into their personalities the characteristics of their opposite. In Peter's case, that would mean becoming a bit more ballsy, like Fife, while Fife learns to be more sensitive. Neither character has that realization, so the ending lacks the character arch that would make it more satisfying. However, one suspects that the enjoyment of a movie like this is more in the light-hearted interchanges than in satisfying the formula.

This is light-hearted pre-summer fluff, all right. But it's good natured and the characters are entertaining and likable. There's a running gag with the way Peter signs off his phone conversations that at first seems like accidental improv and eventually finds its way into becoming an important comedic element in the plot. This is the same technique that 40-Year-Old Virgin pioneered, and it seems now that that movie has spawned quite a few stylistic spin offs. This movie isn't quite as inspired as its predecessor, but for a team of newcomers led by a leading man with something of a hit-and-miss record, it does pretty well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

State of Play Provides Internet-Age Newspaper Thriller

Everyone in State of Play, the new Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck thriller, is appropriately stressed about their job. Cal McAffrey (Crowe), veteran newspaperman and reporter, is stressed that his job might be replaced by younger and sexier blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who is stressed that her fluff-friendly internet coverage won't get the respect deserved from senior editor Cameron Lynne (played with wonderful courseness by Helen Mirren), who is stressed that her paper is quickly losing the revenue it needs to continue doing real journalism as the civic watchdog investigating politicians like Ben Affleck's Stephen Collins, who is, one must say, most supremely stressed since the untimely and suspicious death of his illicit girlfriend. And oh, by the way, did I mention that McCaffrey and Collins also happen to be old college roommates and best friends, who share more than just a late night remembrance or two? So this question of which relationship is more important - their friendship, or the reporter/politician relationship - makes all of them even more stressed.

And all that would be quite enough if they weren't also hunting - or at times being hunted by - a mysterious murderous marksman who might be behind the slaying of Collins girlfriend, and perhaps an even larger conspiracy as well.

Mix newspapermen, bloggers, politics, and conspiracies, and you've got me hooked, so I thoroughly enjoyed this movie despite its letdown ending and ragged sloppiness along the way. Crowe and Affleck bring the kind of intensity that makes you forget their lesser work and enjoy the heated game of cat and mouse between two heavy-weight stars.

But perhaps what I enjoyed most about State of Play are the self-conscious quotations to another great newspaper/conspiracy movie, All the President's Men. There's the strategic use of the Watergate Hotel. There's an appropriately tense encounter in a parking garage. There's even a Woodward and Bernstein type money shot at the end of the movie. The only thing this film is missing that All the President's Men has going for it is a really well-thought-out conspiracy.

The conspiracy we do get is certainly timely (dealing as it does with private military contractors - one cannot help but compare to this season's 24), though it doesn't get to deliver the goods with as much deliciousness as one would hope. Still, what makes up for this is the interplay between Crowe's Woodward and McAdam's Bernstein along the way, as they hunt down the clues that start to bring all the lose threads together. Meanwhile, Mirren does her masterful interpretation of the Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee gruff and cynical editor, and the trio make a rather entertaining bunch. Affleck's sweaty politician isn't bad either.

So while the ending might not stack up to the rest of the movie, and Crowe's schleppy "ace reporter" attire and beer gut get to be a bit of a distraction after a while, there are plenty of scenes here to keep you holding tightly to the seat while you wait to see what's behind the next door, or give you that satisfying "ah-ha" when they drop the next clue. And while we probably won't see this movie at the Academies next year, this is definitely the kind of Saturday night thriller that you won't regret hiring a babysitter for and planning the night around.

It also has a pretty good message. If it does one thing well, this movie reminds us why our Democracy depends upon real newspapers, not just bloggers. That's a message even a blogger like me can get behind.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pineapple Express: A Rogan/Apatow Apetizer That Goes Well with The Munchies

I was on Twitter the other day having a debate on what exactly a “stoner” movie was. Is it a movie about stoners, or a movie you enjoy while stoned?

Pineapple Express – yet another Judd Apatow vehicle for Seth Rogan and Company (this time directed by David Gordan Green) – seems to be one of the few movies that qualifies either way, and one of the only movies I can think of that glorifies pot smoking and high-school hijinks in the same comedy.

One of the principals of an Apatow/Rogan outing, it seems, is to take an otherwise countercultural and outrĂ© youthful affair – virginity, pot smoking, teen pregnancy, pornography – add the kind of self-deprecating Jewish-inflected lead character once perfected by Albert Brooks – and turn it into a teen comedy starring a loveable schlep who tweaks convention while finding true love after all.

In Pineapple, Dale Denton, our lovable schlep played by Seth Rogan, gets in some nasty trouble with the local drug kingpin when he witnesses a murder while smoking the extremely rare Pineapple Express doobie. He stupidly dumps the incriminating doobie, thus setting up the one-and-one-half-hour chase cum buddy-bonding comedy engaged in by him and his dealer (played with charming good humor by James Franco).

Clearly, Apatow realized that the true love in Pineapple was between the two lead male characters: stoned rustabout Dale Denton and lonely drug dealer Saul Silver, and so this is also an I love You, Man, bromance that gets about as close to Logo TV territory as one can go without actually getting pornographic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – or that the characters do anything more than tweak the bromance convention in high-comedy style – but really, guys, with the number of corn holing references tallied up in this flick, one has to wonder.

Fortunately, Pineapple Express is populated by the usual cast of excellent Apatow supporting comedians, including Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, and an especially good Ed Begly Jr. – all of whom add the necessary hilarity that keeps this barely plotted affair humming along. The film works a little bit like a clown jalopy – if we look too closely to the messages about pot smoking, violence, and underage dating, it all might seem a bit frightening – but happily, things fall apart and blow up at the necessary intervals to keep us pleasantly distracted.

All of which is to say, the movie is a bit incomprehensible, mildly disturbing, and passably enjoyable – and probably all the more so if you happened to be, like the main characters, extremely stoned.

In Synecdoche New York, Art Stands In For Life

There’s a famous technique in postmodern literature referred to colloquially as “The Quaker Oats Box” effect. If you’ve looked at the original picture on such a box you may already understand the reference: in this picture, there’re a couple of kids pouring cereal out of a Quaker Oats Box. In order to make the effect complete, on the box in the picture is the same picture we’re looking at: two kids pouring oats out of another, smaller Quaker Oats Box. And if you look closely enough, yes, yet again, another picture appears on that tiny box of two more kids pouring out oats from yet another, even tinier box that one presumes has a picture…and so on and so on, ad infinitum.

For the artist, this reference refers to the “story inside a story, inside a story,” technique, and such is the technique at the heart of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a convoluted yet intriguing tale of an artist who contemplates his own life in such self-referential detail.

Fortunately, this isn’t the only technique Kaufman employs: he also wishes to create the effect of life speeding by, and so the story of the life of the film’s main character begins to pick up a dream-like momentum as the story progresses: time passes faster, smaller details drop away, major life events take on symbolic significance. All much as it is in life, itself, which is what makes Kaufman’s film so engrossing, and perhaps his best effort to date.

Caden Cotard, played by the always amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman, is our artist: a playwright whose wife and daughter leave him just as he is achieving his first real creative and critical success. The pain of separation, combined with the freedom delivered by a government grant, allows Caden to begin his greatest and most comprehensive work: a play large as life about life itself. For such a theme, Caden needs to rent out an entire warehouse, in which he constructs a replica of his own life, hiring actors to play the people who populate his real existence (including Tom Noonan as actor Sammy Barnathan playing Caden with brilliant understatement). Naturally, as those actors act out the trajectory of Caden’s life, they come to a point where they must create their own masterwork – a box inside the box – and hire their own actors to portray the artist, and so on, and so on, all while Caden continues to direct the entire affair (or, perhaps, be directed by it), to the point where we know not, any more, where one level of reality ends and another begins.

Kaufman is no stranger to postmodern indulgences in his work. He took the movie world by storm with his quirky and odd Being John Malkovich, in which he explored celebrity as a kind of purchased identity that one might try on for a while, much as a puppet master would try on the identity of a new puppet (or an artist his character). The story was odd but amusing, and put Kaufmann on the map. His next works – Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind similarly explored postmodern conflations of reality, between books and real life and real life and memory, in each case…but those works lacked the freshness and audacity of Malkovich and seemed to deliver little fresh insight from the artificial techniques.

Now, with Synecdoche, Kaufman has entered a new territory. The work now lacks all conventional cinematic entertainment – the characters are difficult and self-involved, yet neither famous (as in Malkovich) nor zany (as in his other films) and thus, this new piece has found little popular audience (it’s no coincidence, really, that Caden’s wife, played by the always entertaining Catherine Keener, is named Adele “Lack”). And yet, for the first time, Kaufmann’s rather juvenile sense of postmodernism (and the self-reflections of artistic creation that many high-school writing class students love to indulge in) have finally matured. Here, Kaufman is finally taking on the larger themes of life, love, loss, and death that is typically at the heart of great postmodernist literature.

It’s hard to know how much of this is due to Hoffman’s assistance, for the actor knows what Kaufmann is going for and brings unprecedented depth of feeling to the role of a Kaufman protagonist. As his life progresses and his work takes on new levels of self-referential complexity, the cadence of Caden begins to propel along with poetic harmony, and Caden learns about himself in ways that no other Kaufmann character has. Unlike previous stories, Caden enters relationships, has complex feelings for women, and finds his fictional counterpart executing different turns and thus different outcomes that illuminate the decisions that each has made. The counterpoint between Caden’s huge, all-encompassing warehouse of art and his Adele’s tiny, postage-stamp-sized miniatures is particularly exquisite, and underscores how each artist’s pursuit of truth is not only different, but at times can be completely in opposition. As Caden’s play nears its final act, just like Shakespeare or any artist working at the top of his game, Caden begins to truly innovate, and as his “unconventional casting” takes over the story, we start to see how life and art are both circumscribed by the limits of time and human frailty.

This is not the only artist couple we’ve seen in Kaufman’s work, or the only contemplation of the artist’s life, and there is definitely an academic dryness to the life of two artists whose fights over artistic technique stand in for couple-things as wide ranging as child-rearing and love. But this time such insularity is used in service of Kaufman’s theme, for Synecdoche is ultimately about the value of an artist’s life, and whether any artist’s attempt at creation and understanding can assuage the ultimate reality of age, loss, and death.

Synecdoche is a very good, not great, work. The first act drags, there are flaws in how Kaufmann approaches his technique, and he doesn’t always manage the pacing with reality or the explanations with the audience as well as he might. But there are wonderful moments: the symbolism of a house on fire, a tattooed child, or a street map of Caden’s living play, all used to marvelous effect. Behind it all, we finally see what Kaufman has likely imagined himself to have all along: the talent of a great artist. With it Kaufman finally enters territory once explored by filmmakers like Kubrick, Kurosowa, and Tarkofsky.

This film deserves more attention than it’s gotten, and finally establishes Kaufman a director who deserves to be watched closely, as someone who has the potential to enter the pantheon of the world’s great film artists.