Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” – Painful and forgettable.

Poster for "Cop Out"

I have an abiding respect for Kevin Smith. Between college Q&As, prolific tweeting, and a hilarious podcast with his longtime producer and friend Scott Mosier, here is a man who wears his entire life on his sleeve. A man as likely to talk about his first sexual experience as the time he accidentally pooped in the shower. A man who constantly admits the breadth of his ignorance, never stops calling himself a fat bastard, and freely admits that his writing is terrible and that he has no directorial style. But despite his posturing, he has proven himself a reliably effective screenwriter and an occasionally brilliant director. He’s carved out a well-fitting niche of self-promotion through self-deprecation, and on those rare occasions when he isn’t funny, he’s nearly always endearing.

And then he goes and does something like this.

Cop Out (originally called A Couple of Dicks) is the story of Jimmy (Bruce Willis) and Paul (Tracy Morgan), a pair of no-nonsense cops who play by their own rules. Naturally, “their own rules” amount to a level of brutality and incompetence seldom seen outside of airport security, and they’re immediately suspended. And do they have to give up their badges and guns? Of course. And is Tracy Morgan still dressed up like a giant foam-rubber cell phone as the captain bawls them out? You betcha.

After their suspension, they keep right on acting as cops, trying to retrieve a priceless stolen baseball card from a ruthless drug kingpin, Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), who wants to take over the entire east coast drug trade by way of a magical USB thumbdrive. They join forces with Dave (Seann William Scott), an incompetent parkouring thief who spends nearly every moment verbally abusing them. Or repeating whatever they say. Oh, and there’s a kidnapped drug moll…or possibly a nun (Ana de la Reguera), whose sole language is “fuckin’ Spanish”. Nearly every one of her lines will call you out for the hijo de puta you are, and she serves almost no purpose in the film except as a comely MacGuffin.

Still from "Cop Out"

The first act is frankly painful to sit through… At several points, the characters stop just short of winking at the camera as they announce that all of their tactics and dialogue are stolen from better movies (“It’s called an homage!”). But even as Tracy Morgan gradually started to amuse me, Bruce Willis seemed completely unsure of what movie he was in. And before too long, his confusion spread to the audience, as the plot took one bizarre turn after another. Seann William Scott is amusing, but this character is nothing new for him, and it’s never entirely clear why these two cops would involve themselves with him. Guillermo Diaz is almost completely wasted in this film, losing most of the charm and dark humor he showed on Weeds in favor of playing a generic, humorless dick. And the less said about Rashida Jones’ vacuous subplot, the better.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the plot of this film because frankly, it doesn’t seem like writers Robb and Mark Cullen did either. The film strives to be a buddy cop flick in the tradition of Beverly Hills Cop, but ends up being something more akin to Showtime or Hollywood Homicide. And I can’t elaborate on that comparison any further, because like those films, Cop Out is almost completely forgettable.

It is only because I’ve liked Smith’s other films that I even feel like talking about this one. He didn’t write it himself, opting instead to work with the pair that wrote an abyssmal Showtime pilot called Manchild for Smith and several others (his subplot is just about the only funny part of it). The action direction is definitely something new for the filmmaker, but it’s nothing terribly complex, given the limited demands of this genre. Dave Klein’s cinematography is striking at times (this is the guy who shot Clerks?!), but the look of the film is wildly uneven, with some scenes seemingly taken out of completely different films.

The film inexplicably gets fun at around the second hour, but I certainly can’t call it good… At the end of the day, Cop Out seems little more than a bewildering evolution for its filmmaker. And like the Neanderthal before it, I can’t help but hope it will wander off into some corner of Eastern Europe to die.

Sorry, Kev. I hope you get writing again soon. If your next film really is as good as Chasing Amy, I’ll happily give this one a pass.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

Jerome Bixby’s “The Man From Earth” – A brilliant and audacious journey

Poster for "The Man From Earth"

Produced in 2007 from a screenplay finished on the writer’s deathbed, Jerome Bixby’s sci-fi opus The Man From Earth feels more like a play than a film. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) announces to his colleagues and friends that he’ll be moving on, but makes a surprise confession – he is immortal, and has lived for the past 14,000 years. The rest of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room, following the threads of the group’s conversation. And in a very theatrical touch, the assembled group of academics are perfectly suited to test his story. There’s Harry – a biologist (John Billingsley), Dan – an anthropologist (Tony Todd), Sandy – a historian (Annika Peterson), Art – an archaeologist (William Katt), and Edith (Ellen Crawford), a devout Christian with an unnamed specialty. As John’s story goes on, they are joined (quite expectedly) by Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), a psychologist.

I mention the character names, but these aren’t really characters anyway. They’re just filters through which the audience can analyze this man’s fantastical tale. There is even a student (Alexis Thorpe) present to ask a few simplistic questions so the professors can explain details that the group would already know. And even when the story strives for more dramatic and theatrical character moments (a confession of love, a surprise death threat, and so on), the situation never quite feels plausible, as these moments only serve to provoke new dimensions to John’s story.

But as I mention these character and narrative shortcomings, I must also say this – not a single one of them detracts from the film. David Lee Smith gives a remarkably subdued performance as John Oldman (one of many pun names he claims to have chosen over the years), the wise, humble, and pragmatic old soul. He reminded me somewhat of Doctor Who, but he feels far more authentic and human, because the film so excels at depicting the limitations of his purportedly vast knowledge and experience.

As they quiz him for every detail of the last 14,000 years, he points out that he doesn’t remember every detail any more than we can remember every moment of our childhoods. As he produces details of history, anthropology, and social and scientific advancement, they rightfully point out that he could have gleaned any of them from a textbook. But as one professor admits, it is no more possible for John to prove his story than it is for any of them to disprove it. And so the conversation goes on. He talks of love, friendship, life, and death – the one subject of which he has no more knowledge than anyone else. The film goes on to raise some startling religious themes, to the chagrin of Edith, the devout Christian… The ensuing theological discussion is easily the most provocative aspect of this film, and is quite well realized.

I don’t have much to say about the other performances, since there weren’t any other particularly strong characters. But even as a collection of variable filters for John’s conversation, the acting was solid overall. Todd, Crawford, and Riehle were superb, and Billingsley was enjoyable, albeit playing to familiar quirky territory. Annika Peterson does the best she can with some of the more contrived character moments, although her unlikely conversation with John about the nature of love is a surprisingly effective addition to the film. Katt and Thorpe don’t contribute much as skeptic and simpleton respectively, but I don’t really fault their performances, as they aren’t given much to do in the film (except make the audience wonder why a fifty-something doppelganger of James Cameron is permitted to date one of his students).

Jerome Bixby was a writer for the original “Star Trek” series, and it definitely shows here. The film’s end features Tony Todd announcing he’ll go home and “watch some ‘Star Trek’ for a little sanity”, and while it was a mildly self-indulgent reference, it does bring to mind a key difference between the two works. “Star Trek”, with its niche audience, was quite free to explore the big sci-fi ideas via alien allegory, since no one was too worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of the Tholian Empire. The Man From Earth takes on a far more daunting task – to deconstruct human history, values, and beliefs in a manner as shocking as it is insightful, and keep the audience adequately engaged to stop them squirming in their seats and fleeing the room. And it completely succeeds.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” – There’s really no upside to child murder

“In this man’s fantasy, she reacts to his sexual advances the way a consenting adult woman would, rather than the reality, which is a terrified little girl who wants no part of him. She’s crying, in pain, wants to go home. Quickly, he’s lost control of the situation…”

-John Douglas, FBI (ret.), Journey Into Darkness

David Slade’s 2005 film Hard Candy told the story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Ellen Page) turning the tables on her would-be sexual predator – drugging, restraining, and psychologically torturing him for the next 90 minutes. The film was a fascinating and disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller, but stopped far short of suspending disbelief. As I watched this adolescent girl exhibit all the sensibilities and ruthlessness of a jaded adult, a single line of thought kept ringing.

This has never happened. This could never happen.

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones takes a different tack. When Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a lively and innocent 14-year-old girl, is lured into the dungeon of middle-aged serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it ends exactly as it would in real life. The film doesn’t bury the lead er…delay…revealing this point, as it happens in the first twenty minutes of the film. After hours of waiting for their daughter to come home, Susie’s parents call the police – her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) waits at home as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) runs around town showing a picture to anyone who’ll look at it. Days later, they both listen in horror as a police detective informs them that they’ve found a piece of their daughter’s clothing.

“We also found blood. A substantial amount of blood.”

I’m belaboring this point a bit, but the sequence plays like every parent’s worst nightmare. I can’t overstate how horrifically the film depicts the preying upon and murder of a child, as well as its utterly destructive effect on the girl’s family. We don’t see the actual killing, but we see every moment leading up to it. When the crime occurs, Tucci and Ronan play the scene with startling realism, but I would stop short of calling their performances “good”. “Unsettling” is more like it. The scene is difficult to watch, and I’m still unsure whether it was prudent to include it. From that point on, the story follows two separate threads, depicting Susie finding her way through the In-Between (an arbitrary blend of Heaven and Purgatory) and her family’s struggle with grief following her death.

But while Susie’s story (in life) may end realistically, I was still reminded of Hard Candy – because like that film, the rest of The Lovely Bones plays very much like a fantasy. But this is not a fantasy of revenge, but rather of consolation for a grieving family – a literal rendition of “she went on to a better place.”

And is the In-Between a better place? It’s yet another elaborate CG world from Weta Digital, but I think a collection of pristinely rendered desktop backgrounds just isn’t enough to impress me anymore. We have the technology, and we’ve had it for a while now. This is certainly not the best we’ve seen from Weta, and while an oversaturated green valley or an endless icy plane with giant crystal bells may look pretty, none of it is going to blow me away at this point unless it also works thematically. And from a storytelling standpoint, the In-Between is almost a total failure.

When Susie arrives, she is greeted by another young girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to exist solely as the Exposition Fairy. She has all the personality and staying power of a Walmart greeter, and as she matter-of-factly lays out the rules of the In-Between – basically, a place to let go of your earthly life so you can move on to Heaven – it’s not entirely clear how her continued presence doesn’t violate these rules. Regardless, Susie spends most of her time playing around in the In-Between with Holly, and it occasionally takes a dark turn. Her experience there seems to depend on two things – how well she’s coping with being dead, and how well the people behind are getting along without her. Ronan gives a solid performance, but for most of the film, she is written as just another rendition of the “ghost with unfinished business“. Nonetheless, these worlds do occasionally collide in some interesting way.

In an early scene, Jack Salmon (Wahlberg) shows Susie how to make a ship in a bottle, placing it on a shelf in a room full of them. The dozens of ships suffer exactly the fate you’d expect, as Jack shows up shortly after his daughter’s death and proceeds to smash every single one of them. Back in the In-Between, as Susie walks along a rocky ocean beach, the waves pick up, and she looks on in horror as huge, lifesize versions of these ships sail in from the choppy ocean and shatter on the rocks. While the real-world scene is just a predictable bit of melodrama, its visual rendition in the In-Between is at least somewhat memorable.

The real-world story is about as close as the film comes to a passable narrative. It spans a couple of years, as Jack, Abigail, and the rest of the Salmon family deal with their daughter’s death, each in their own way. Lynn, Susie’s grandmother, comes and stays with the family, and is played quite ably by Susan Sarandon. Jack begins a half-cocked investigation, bombarding a well-meaning police detective (Michael Imperioli) with accusations against anyone and everyone around town for the most slight and arbitrary of reasons. This subplot could well have succeeded as a Columbo-style “howcatchem” detective story, but Jack is no detective, and his investigation is really just a series of random, baseless accusations. The tragic irony is that when he meets George Harvey, his daughter’s actual murderer, he accuses him of the crime based on evidence just as flimsy as with any of the others, and nearly gets himself arrested in the process.

Stanley Tucci is almost unrecognizable as Harvey (I’ll admit – I didn’t even realize it was him until I began this review), but for how cartoonishly the character is written, he might as well have been wearing a rubber mask. Tucci is a great actor who does the best he can, but he is utterly wasted here. And while the character’s fate is rather unexpected (and certainly only possible in an age before modern forensics), it’s tonally bizarre. What message can we extract from his final scene? What goes around…kinda comes around? There’s nothing sadder than a pedophile past his prime?

As I spoke with others about this film (reminding them that the protagonist is a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl), the most frequent question I received was this: “Do they catch the killer in the end?”

I must admit, this question never occurred to me. For my part, catching the killer may be satisfying and cathartic when the victim is an adult, but there’s really no upside to the death of a child. And whether or not this fictitious killer is caught doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as what message the film is promoting about the world at large. The most provocative thing about George Harvey is that he seems perfectly normal when he’s not murdering children. I sometimes wonder how many more films we’ll have to see that depict “seeming normal” as a sinister warning sign. While most people aren’t secret pedophiles or murderers, it’s remarkable how many parents will make the opposite assumption if they see a 40-year-old man with the audacity to speak to a child.

Regardless of its message, The Lovely Bones plays more like an ill-conceived therapeutic exercise than a film. The family’s story is tonally all over the place, but this erratic emotional curve mostly rang true for a family dealing with the death of a child (owing heavily to the performances of Wahlberg, Weisz, and Sarandon). But while I may have found their struggle realistic, I certainly took no pleasure in watching it.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

2009 Glennies Roundup

It’s that time again… 2009 is over, and it was a great year for cinema (if a bit less so for the box office). I’ve seen movies great and terrible this year, as well as some fantastic performances. A note on exclusions… As of this writing, I have not had a chance to see the following films. I don’t know if they would have made the top 10, but naturally they are ineligible:

  • Where the Wild Things Are (watched since)
  • An Education (watched since)
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox (watched since)
  • Precious
  • The Road
  • The Box (watched since)
  • A Serious Man (watched since)

Oh, and Hannah Montana: The Movie, of course.

I don’t have a statuette at the moment, so the symbol of the 2009 Glennies will be a blue Egyptian hippo.

2009 Glennie Awards

Egyptian Blue Hippo

Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best Actress
Best Actor
Top 10 Films of 2009