Skip to content

Jason Bateman’s Arrested Development

unnamed

Jason Bateman was a late bloomer as a movie star. After a brief shot at the big screen during his TV teen-idol days—he tried and failed to follow in Michael J. Fox’s furry footsteps with 1987’s tragically titled Teen Wolf Too—he mostly toiled in short-lived sitcoms like Chicago Sons and George & Leo. Yet he seemed to take a lesson from the latter’s co-star, Bob Newhart, and developed a dry, deadpan style that perfectly suited him to the  role of Michael Bluth, reluctant scion of a once-wealthy clan in Arrested Development. Though it ran only three seasons (initially—let’s forget the Netflix revival), it established him as a viable comic leading man.

He captured a certain quality of a man suffering from an early mid-life crisis in 2007’s Juno, but ever since then, Bateman seems to have been suffering from his own case of arrested development, giving essentially the same performance over and over again in disposable yet financially successful comedies like Couples RetreatHorrible Bosses and Identity Thief. He made his directorial debut last year with Bad Words, playing a guy with a real case of arrested development—he competes against kids in spelling bees. And now Bateman has truly bottomed out with The Longest Week.

What’s that, you say? You haven’t heard of The Longest Week? Maybe that’s because after quietly opening on a few screens last weekend, it’s currently playing in only one theater in the United States, at Minnesota’s Mall of America, no less. It’s a token, contractual theatrical release to coincide with its VOD launch. But don’t waste your money ordering it on-demand: It’s the worst film I’ve seen all year.

Writer-director Peter Glanz expands on his short film A Relationship in Four Days, stretching it out to seven (although the 86-minute movie feels even longer than that) and casting Bateman as Conrad Valmont—only one of the film’s many pretentious literary references—the nearly 40-year-old son of a wealthy family (where have I heard that before?) who’s suddenly cut off from his allowance after his parents are whimsically shipwrecked on a desert island and decide to divorce.

Does it sound like an idea that might’ve been found in Wes Anderson’s wastepaper basket? The Longest Week plays like the worst film Wes Anderson never made crossed with the worst film Woody Allen never made. To wit: It features an old-timey jazz score, the presence of Woody’s old pal Tony Roberts (as a character cutesily named “Barry the Therapist” although he refers to himself as an “analyst”—who uses that term anymore?), and pretentious literary-ish narration by Larry Pine, a veteran of both Anderson’s (The Royal Tennenbaums) and Allen’s (Melinda and Melinda) films.

Bateman falls for a Jane Austen-loving, piano-playing fashion model (the wildly miscast Olivia Wilde), who happens to be the love interest of his best friend (Billy Crudup, who couldn’t look more bored). The film is so self-indulgent and self-referential that it seems to be commenting on its own crappiness constantly. “I find it completely, overwhelmingly tedious and unnerving,” Crudup says of bachelorhood, but it could just as easily apply to the film, as could a remark spoken by a philistine played by Jenny Slate about a play: “I felt like it was sort of pretentious.How am I supposed to care about a group of overprivileged affluent types who go gallivanting around without any sort of a moral compass? I couldn’t get into it.”

As insufferable as the screenplay is, the cast—and particularly Bateman’s smugly you’re-gonna-love-me-no-matter-how-obnoxious-I-am performance makes it even more skin-crawlingly awful. Luckily, he only has to wait a few days to attempt to redeem himself as yet another son of a dysfunctional family in the dramedy This Is Where I Leave You. If Bateman can’t win me over again alongside the likable likes of Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver and Rose Byrne, this may be where I leave him… or at least his movies.

“The Drop”: A Soprano’s Final High Note

the-drop-poster-600x450

James Gandolfini should’ve earned a posthumous best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his disarmingly wry performance as a lovable schlump in Nicole Holofcener’s delightful Enough Already, but perhaps his work was a bit too subtle. Now the Academy has an opportunity to make up for its oversight by nominating Gandolfini for his heartbreaking final role, as a fading wiseguy in The Drop.

Gandolfini is magnificent as Cousin Marv, a Brooklyn bar owner who’s been muscled out of his business by Chechen mobsters and who’s determined to get revenge by ripping off some of the money that gets funneled through his watering hole. Marv could be a post-onion rings Tony Soprano, assuming he lived (which David Chase will thankfully never tell us) and lost his power. There’s a haunting moment in The Drop when Gandolfini’s Marv says, “We’re fucking dead already—we’re just stlll walking around,” which takes on an even eerier power in light of his tragic passing.

That’s just one of many brutally poetic moments in the script, adapted by Dennis Lehane from his short story “Animal Rescue.” Lehane, of course, is the criminal mastermind behind such previously adapted-for-the-screen novels Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, and he also wrote for The Wire. And this script is every bit as good as those gems.

Tom Hardy matches Gandolfini scene for brilliant scene as Bob Saginowski, the seemingly simple-minded bartender cousin of Marv who adopts an abused puppy and winds up getting romantically involved with its psychotic former owner’s girlfriend (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who’s much better-used in an English-speaking role here than she was in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus). Hardy is a true vocal and physical chameleon; there are almost no traits shared between Bob and the title character he played in Locke, a Welsh construction exec whose life comes collapsing down around him during a series of car-phone conversations. I recently interviewed Hardy about Locke for the SAG Foundation and found him to be charmingly unguarded, and I eagerly await his upcoming roles as Elton John, Mad Max and the identical-twin British gangsters the Kray brothers. (Now, that’s range!)

The Drop was solidly directed by Michaël R. Roskam, a Belgian who earned a best foreign film Oscar nomination for his debut feature, 2011’s Bullhead. That title could easily apply to Hardy’s or Gandolfini’s character in The Drop as well, and while Animal Rescue is also a great title, I can understand why they changed it for the movie. By any name, The Drop sadly marks Gandolfini’s ultimate career peak.

Saturday Night Live Vets: But Seriously, Folks…

the-skeleton-twins-poster

“Dying is easy,” intones Peter O’Toole’s Shakespearean drunk Alan Swann after he’s booked to do a live variety show from New York in My Favorite Year. “Comedy is hard.” Maybe that’s why so many veterans of another live variety show from New York—Saturday Night Live—have tried their hands at drama. The latest, Bill Hader, co-stars in a pair of serious movies opening on the same day, September 12: The Skeleton Twins (opposite fellow SNL alum Kristen Wiig) and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. One week later, former  “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey tries a dark brand of dramedy as one of five siblings sitting shiva for their dead father in This Is Where I Leave You. But they’re far from the first ex-30 Rock-ers to try to make us cry, instead of just weep with laughter. Let’s look back at the track record.

BILL MURRAY He was the first, and best, SNL-er to play it straight-faced, but he had to agree to do Ghostbusters before Columbia Pictures would allow him to do his first drama, 1984’s The Razor’s Edge. His performance as a World War I veteran who goes on a spiritual journey got cut to shreds by critics, and the film was a box-office flop. But Murray didn’t give up. He earned better reviews as a mobster opposite Robert De Niro in 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory, then found a director perfectly in tune with his seriocomic style in Wes Anderson. Murray should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for his sardonic turn as a wealthy, manic-depressive Vietnam vet in Rushmore and went on to work with him again several more times. He finally did snag an Oscar nod as an alienated movie star in Lost in Translation and has given award-worthy performances since in roles as varied as an undertaker who agrees to bury Robert Duvall in Get Low and FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson. Word is he may finally win a statuette for his upcoming turn as a misanthropic war veteran in St. Vincent. If so, it will be long overdue, and one can only hope he will give Oscar a noogie.

DAN AYKROYD The first SNL-er to actually earn an Oscar nomination was Murray’s fellow Ghostbuster, for his wry work as Jessica Tandy’s flustered son, Boolie, in Driving Miss Daisy. He followed it up with straightforward roles as silent-film mogul Mack Sennett in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, a Victorian gentleman in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth and a World War II captain in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. And he gave his most fully realized performances in years as showbiz managers in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candleabra and the new James Brown movie Get On Up. Elwood Blues would be proud.

JIM BELUSHI Jim—or James, as he’s sometimes billed when he wants to be taken seriously—has proven to be a much more skilled dramatic actor than he has ever been a comedian (and that’s According to Bruce). He made a promising big-screen debut as a criminal in Michael Mann’s Thief, held his own alongside James Woods as drugged-out journalists in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, and stole Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer as a chrome-domed man of letters. Had he lived, big brother John Belushi could’ve been an even more amazing dramatic actor—just watch his eerie performance as an elderly version of himself in the haunting SNL short “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” when he literally dances on his castmates’ graves.

john03

EDDIE MURPHY We may never know how great of a dramatic actor the dazzlingly talented Eddie can be, since he’s frustratingly refused to build on his powerful performance as soulman James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls (maybe because he lost the best supporting actor Oscar race that year to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin). He’s long been rumored to star in a film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, but now he’s aged out of the son role and into the father, which Denzel Washington won a Tony for playing on Broadway (as did James Earl Jones before him), so it seems doubtful now that will ever happen. Guess we’ll just have to settle for his unintentionally laughless vehicles like Norbit and A Thousand Words.

WILL FERRELL and WILL FORTE These soundalike cast members (and former faux George W. Bushes) have migrated from dumbbell comedies like Anchorman and MacGruber to semi-serious films like Stranger Than Fiction and Nebraska. So far, dramatic acting seems more to be Forte’s, um, forte, than Ferrell’s. In addition to his award-caliber work supporting Bruce Dern as his befuddled son in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, he was also touching as an American doctor who falls in love with an Irishwoman in Run & Jump and an adulterer who’s carrying a torch for a kidnapping victim (Jennifer Aniston) in the new Elmore Leonard dramedy Life of Crime. Ferrell, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to liven up glum dramas like Winter Passing and Everything Must Go. Perhaps he needs to come up with a new career strategery.

Of course, other SNL sketch artists have taken stabs at drama, from two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. to Damages Emmy winner Martin Short and even Jane Curtin, who adds deadpan comic relief as the coroner on CBS’ Unforgettable. And let us not forget Mike Myers’ impressively groovy gig as discotheque co-owner Steve Rubell in 54 or Chevy Chase’s guest shot as a drunken, anti-Semitic movie star (whose name could’ve rhymed with Shmel Shmibson) on Law & Order. For once, he was not Chevy Chase. Now that’s acting.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Popcorn!

identical_ver2

As Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said of home schooling, “It’s not just for scary religious people anymore.” The same could now be said of so-called “faith-based films,” a cinematic sub-genre once populated only by the scary religious likes of Kirk Cameron (star of the 2000 direct-to-video rapture tale Left Behind) and now populated by the Academy Award-winning likes of Nicolas Cage (star of the upcoming big-screen rapture tale Left Behind). Okay, so Nic Cage is scary, too, but not for religious reasons.

Two of the most profitable films of the last year, the not-so-subtly titled God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real, fall squarely in the faith-based camp, the latter starring a onetime Academy Award nominee (Greg Kinnear). Two-time Oscar winner Russell Crowe’s Biblical epic Noah was marketed to pious audiences and surpassed $100 million domestically, and now two more morality plays, When the Game Stands Tall and The Identical, have flooded cineplexes in the waning days of summer.

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing that either of these movies is religiously oriented. The God angle is played down in the promos, which make them look more like a secularly inspirational sports drama and a rock ‘n’ roll faux biopic. Still, there are clues to the films’ true messages: When the Game Stands Tall stars Jim Caviezel, who embodied the title role in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which kicked off this spiritual box-office revival, and the upper-case “H” in The Identical‘s tagline, “If He is in your dreams, nothing can stop them,” signals there’s a higher power at work.

Despite its awkward title and muddled trailer, The Identical takes off from an intriguing premise. What if Elvis Presley—or, as he’s called here, Drexel Hemsley (played by real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne)—had an identical-twin brother, Ryan, from whom he was separated at birth? (In real life, Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse, was stillborn.) And what if that sibling were raised by a tent-revival preacher  (Ray Liotta, for once playing a good fella instead of a GoodFella, and as far as he can get from his unholy role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) and his submissive wife (Ashley Judd)? And what if that pastor’s kid felt torn between his dad’s desire for him to spread the Word of the Lord and the burning (in hellfire?) love he feels for Drexel and his music. That’s right—it’s the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll vs. the King of Kings!

Yes, The Identical frequently gets preachy—we’re told that “in obedience with the Scriptures,” Ryan and Drexel’s dirt-poor parents “went forth and multiplied” during the Depression. The movie goes out of its way to welcome Jews into its kingdom of Heaven: The boys’ mom is a Chosen One, and there’s even a bizarre mention of Israel’s “modern miracle” victory in 1967’s Six Day War. Ryan’s body-shop boss (Joe Pantoliano, veteran of another old-time rock ‘n’ roll drama La Bamba) is also a card-carrying mensch who uses the word “farklempt,” which apparently was not created by Mike Myers’ Linda Richman. Who knew?

Metaphysical proof that faith-based films have gone mainstream can be found in the casting of Seth Green—yes, Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer!—as a drummer who backs up Ryan as he becomes a superstar Drexel impersonator. If an actor with as much hip cred as Green (Robot Chicken, Austin Powers) can do a religious flick, anything is possible. Hell, Kirk Cameron might even save Christmas…

saving-christmas-poster-e1409797265655

Matthew Weiner, Where Are You?

are_you_here

Tonight, Matthew Weiner will be on top of the TV world at the Emmys, where his AMC drama Mad Men will be gunning for its fourth Best Drama award. Ok, so it probably won’t win, but still, he’ll get a much warmer welcome by the TV Academy than he did at the movies this weekend: Are You Here, the first film he wrote and directed, was quietly dumped into a handful of theaters and released simultaneously on VOD. Oh, and it earned a whopping 8 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What went wrong? More like, what didn’t go wrong? Weiner seems to be continuing to follow in the footsteps—or in this case, missteps—of his mentor, The Sopranos‘ David Chase, who followed up his groundbreaking TV drama with an underwhelming movie debut, Not Fade Away (which did fade away, and quickly, at the box office). Are You Here isn’t just missing a question mark at the end of its title. It’s missing a plot, two-dimensional characters, a well-chosen cast, a consistent tone, and just about everything else.

Owen Wilson and Zach Gailfianakis star as Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis. No, they don’t play themselves, they just play the same characters they always play: Wilson’s a peevish narcissist and Galifianakis is a mentally unstable man-child. They take a road trip together—because we haven’t seen enough Galifianakis road-trip movies after three Hangovers and Due Date—when Zach’s dad dies and leaves him a large portion of his estate. That leads to a squabble with Zach’s snotty sister, played by Amy Poehler, who at least is doing something different than what we usually see out of her. Unfortunately, what she’s doing isn’t interesting, or funny, or anything.

Is this supposed to be a comedy? It’s not amusing. A drama? It’s impossible to take seriously. A rom-com? Maybe. Both Galifianakis and Wilson sleep with Zach’s young stepmom, played by the bland Laura Ramsey, aka Joy from Mad Men‘s “Jet Set” episode. She’s only one of several nubile actresses who appear nude, including Law & Order alum Alana de la Garza, who’s wasted as the anchorwoman at the Annapolis, Maryland, TV station where Wilson’s Steve Dallas is the weatherman. Unfortunately, Galifianakis also bares all, and I’m not just talking about shaving his trademark beard.

Weiner also recruits a few Sopranos alums, like Paul “Father Phil” Schulze as the TV station’s news director, and Peter “Dr. Melfi’s shrink” Bogdanovich as a judge who rules in the family’s inheritance case. But even a priest and a shrink couldn’t save this misguided script. The film’s tagline, allegedly about friendship, is “There’s nothing in it for anybody.” Which pretty much describes the movie as well. In other words: Matthew Weiner, don’t quit your day job… Oops, too late!

Whatever Happened to Bruce Willis?

sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-for-screenshot-bruce-willis-2

I don’t want to say I wished Bruce Willis ill after I had a contentious interview with him last year. After all, the guy did semi-apologize. But I do find it karmically apt that Willis had not one, but two movies, bomb at the box office this weekend: the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For only earned roughly 10% of its $60-$70 million budget back, and the B-movie The Prince was released simultaneously in theaters (where it apparently made so little money it didn’t even report grosses) and on VOD.

To be fair, Willis isn’t the star of either movie. He has only a few scenes in the new Sin City, since his character, Detective John Hartigan, was killed off in the 2005 original. He returns to haunt Jessica Alba’s stripper, Nancy, and Powers Boothe’s big bad guy, Rourke (not to be confused with Mickey Rourke, who once again steals the movie as Marv, Nancy’s disfigured protector). It’s somehow fitting that Willis plays a ghost, because he seems like a shadow of his former self. But why did Willis’ Looper costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt sign on for a small, thankless role as Rourke’s (the character’s, not the actor’s) doomed gambler son?

Willis and JGL get upstaged by the more-often-naked-than-not Eva Green (as a femme fatale named Ava) but Ray Liotta (as a murderous adulterer), Christopher Lloyd (wittily cast as a doctor much madder than Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown) and SVU vet Chris Meloni (as a pervy cop). On the whole, A Dame to Kill For is much more enjoyable than its predecessor, as it doesn’t take itself so seriously and revels in its own trashiness. But its miserable box-office performance means it will probably just be another proverbial nail in the coffin of Willis’ career.

The Prince won’t do as much damage to Willis’ star status, because most people will never hear of it. It’s more of a vehicle for Jason “Why am I not a star yet?” Patric, cast as a former assassin who comes out of retirement to rescue his drug-addicted daughter. Willis enters more than half an hour into the 90-minute time-killer as a crime boss whose wife and daughter were accidentally blown to bits by Patric’s “Prince.” Even later in the movie, John Cusack (who’s long overdue for his own “Whatever Happened To…” column) appears as a former co-hort of Patric’s. Even later than that, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who co-starred with Willis in another direct-to-VOD clinker, 2011’s The Setup) turns up as a drug lord named The Pharmacy. But Willis is the big villain, and he gets to chew the scenery by doing the talking-killer routine while holding Patric’s daughter at gunpoint before he eats hot lead.

Willis seemed like he was on the verge of a comeback a few years ago with the acclaimed sleepers Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, but a string of dud sequels (A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, RED 2) and obscure potboilers (The Cold Light of Day, anyone?) have dragged him back into a morass of creative malaise. Somehow he avoided reprising his role in The Expendables 3, so at least he’s got that going for him. Or not against him.

And it doesn’t look like he’s going to pull out of his tailspin anytime soon: Rock the Casbah, which reunites him with Bandits‘ Barry Levinson (and we all know how that turned out) has been bumped until next year. The sci-fi drama Vice reunites him with The Prince director Brian A. Miller, who might be better suited to being a miller than a director. And Labor of Love reunites him with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable director M. Night Shyamalan, whose last six movies (Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and After Earth) have been much more laborious than lovable.

Oh well, at least Bruno’s got his music career to fall back on…

Robin Williams’ Haunting Swan Song

angriest_man_in_brooklyn_xlg

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn isn’t a great film. It isn’t even a very good one. But it is the last one of Robin Williams’ to be released before his death, and it contains more than a few chilling moments, seen in tragic retrospect.

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), the mercifully brief, 83-minute dark comedy opens with a flashback of Williams and Melissa Leo—who’d co-starred with him in a searing episode of Homicide: Life on the Street as well as playing First Lady Mamie Eisenhower opposite his Ike in Lee Daniels’ The Butler—from 1989. It’s an idyllic scene of a married couple with their kids in a park, and Williams’ first and only line is “I’m happy.”

Flash forward to 2014. Williams’ character, Henry Altmann, is stuck in traffic and listing in his head everything he hates. He gets into a fender bender with a cabbie, who tells him, “You’re dead!” Shaken, he goes to the E/R, where a depressed doctor (Mila Kunis, way over her head in this role, but since she was an exec producer of the film, who was going to stop her from casting herself?) discovers he has an aneurysm and angrily blurts out a premature diagnosis: He only has 90 minutes to live. Before bursting out of the hospital, Henry snarls, “Excuse me for dying!”

Henry decides he needs to go home and make love to his wife, from whom he’s been estranged ever since the death of one of their two sons. He discovers she’s been having an affair with an elderly neighbor (Bob Dishy), and after an argument, she screams, “I wish you would die!” His response: “Well, it’s your lucky f—ing day!”

After failing to reconcile with his surviving son (Hamish Linklater, who also co-starred with Williams in his ill-fated 2013-14 sitcom The Crazy Ones), who’d eschewed a law career to teach dance, Henry decides to throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge, pronouncing himself “irrevocably f—ed.” He jumps, but survives, and he explains in one of the film’s needlessly literary bits of narration, “When Henry Altmann fell from the bridge, time had slowed and it occurred to him that life didn’t have to be a burden, that life was short and fragile and unique and that each hour, each minute, each second could have something to offer, something beautiful and astounding.”

Kunis’ character rescues Williams and after he and his son share a sweet final dance, he checks into the hospital, where we’re told he lived for eight more days and mended fences with his family. Williams’ last, beyond-the-grave voiceover resonates eerily: “He was at peace, knowing he would live on in the hearts of those who loved him.”  One can only hope the same could be said of Robin Williams.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 185 other followers