SIFF Roundup: “Healing”, “Night Moves” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for
Healing
Directed by Craig Monahan, written by Monahan and Alison Nisselle

As an American, I found two unfamiliar things at work in Healing. The first is the character of prison guard Matt Perry, played by Hugo Weaving. This is the first non-elven character I’ve seen Weaving play that could be called “nice,” and the first of any kind with his native Aussie accent. The second is an unfamiliar narrative – that of the “nice prison film”. The film takes place at an Aussie minimum security prison that’s also a working outback farm (although it’s unclear what, if anything, is grown or raised there). Not only is it low-security, but it’s apparently designed to prepare inmates for release and reintroduction into society. We learn that inmates must have had a spotless behavioral record for four years at harsher facilities to qualify, and that any missteps can get them sent right back. The Brown Mile, if you will.

But this film isn’t interested in the harsh realities of the Aussie prison system, such as they might be. Instead, it features a variety of inmates whose crimes range all the way up to manslaughter and murder, and the committed guards and social workers who are clearly interested in helping them adjust to their impending freedom. I haven’t even reached the on-the-nose metaphor of raptor rehabilitation that’s at the center of this film, and already, it seems like an incredibly rosy picture of prison life. But then, the only comparison I can make is to other prison films (and MSNBC exposés), which (at least in the US) seem committed to delivering an entertaining and lurid level of menace and violence. This picture of prison life as a torturous crucible which only prepares criminals for further criminality is the only version that seems credible, even if the only data I have to back it up is the occasional well-publicized abuse. Healing made me realize one inescapable truth – prison movies tend to be depressing. And there’s certainly room in cinema for an upbeat prison story, even if, as Red might say, prison is no fairy-tale world.

The film centers around Viktor Khadem (Don Hany), an Iranian man in prison for a murder 16 years prior. When Perry leads Viktor’s work detail out to the fenceline, they come across an injured wedge-tailed eagle that has become entangled in the barbed wire – apparently a common occurrence. When the local bird sanctuary is unable to help, Perry puts the inmates to work building a makeshift aviary, and assigns each of them a wounded bird to look after. Naturally, Viktor is assigned the eagle, whom he names Yasmine. Indeed, each of the inmates ends up being assigned a bird that is a remarkable match for their personality – the stoic and solitary Viktor gets the eagle, a more skittish inmate receives a shy owl, and so forth.

Still from

This all sounds very neat and tidy, and that’s because it is. I had to fight my cynicism at every step of the way initially, before it became clear that the film was aware that not all of these inmates can be “fixed” so neatly. One inmate is targeted for mistreatment by his fellow inmates because he was convicted of the accidental (drug-induced) killing of his own child – at least, we hear that’s what’s happening to him, even if we never see much of it onscreen. Another of the inmates, Warren (Anthony Hayes), is clearly running a jailhouse criminal enterprise of some sort. And he’s really the least believable part of the film. The guards are clearly aware of his malfeasance and do very little to stop it, leaving the character seemingly only present to provoke unwarranted conflict. Given how easily the character is dispensed with in the third act, he could easily have been cut from the film entirely. The resulting film would be just as progressive and slight, but wouldn’t spend nearly as much time on a narrative dead-end.

Hany’s performance is stellar as Viktor proceeds to rehabilitate Yasmine – a powerful raptor seemingly named after his late wife, who died while he was in prison. He also delivers some serviceable emotional moments as he attempts to salvage his relationship with his son, although these scenes feel a bit rushed relative to their intended weight. Weaving makes for a stern, but forgiving authority figure, dealing with similar issues of loss and regret to many of the inmates, even if his issues remain vague and take a backseat to those in his charge. Xavier Samuel and Mark Leonard Winter add some interesting depth to the supporting inmates, even if we know rather little about them. Every bit of praise I have for this film comes with strings attached, and when it comes down to it, this film does feel a bit like a progressive after-school special. It’s extremely slight, but it’s also just…very nice. The outback scenery and raptors look gorgeous, and the film dabbles in a few headier issues than its simple and optimistic premise would require.

At the end of the day, gaze upon the cloying image in the poster above, and accept that what you see is exactly what you get with this film. If you can bring yourself to be inspired by it, you’ll do fine.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10


Poster for
Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Night Moves – a film centering around an environmental extremist plot to blow up an Oregon dam – is a marvelous and understated thriller, so in the interests of preserving suspense, this review will be light on plot details. The film centers around a couple (who may or may not be romantically involved?), Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who team up with an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to assist with their explosive plot. Much of the suspense revolves Reichardt’s meticulous depiction of the actual process – how they plan to physically build a bomb and transport it to the site without getting caught. Gone are the days of Fight Club obfuscating bomb recipes in order to protect the public – this film could easily function as a how-to guide for crafting a compact fertilizer bomb, even if it makes it clear that the substances required are controlled for bulk purchase.

In fact, it is this detail that leads to one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Dena is sent into a farm and feed store, under the auspices of an unassuming local farm girl, to purchase what should rightfully be regarded as a suspicious quantity of ammonium nitrate. Dakota Fanning is unquestionably the MVP of this trio, portraying Dena as an idealistic rich girl who seems quite capable of the extreme actions she’s pursuing, but is ultimately just reveling in the process without really considering the consequences. And as the full scope and implications of the plan become clear during the course of the film, Fanning plays Dena’s gradual breakdown in a remarkably understated manner. Never overplaying it, but never underestimating the psychological toll that such a plan would take upon a person. Eisenberg and Sarsgaard are also strong, but we certainly end up knowing the least about them overall. The audience is forced to infer much of their character from their actions and reactions over the course of the film – always showing, but never telling.

Still - Dakota Fanning in

In his memoir, retired FBI profiler John Douglas once related a conversation he had about his work (classifying serial killers). He was asked if, knowing all that he knew about offenders and law enforcement, could he get away with murder? His answer, after a brief pause to consider all of the implications, was no. His “post-offense behavior” would certainly give him away. This is a tense film, and its tension continues even as the third act obfuscates any sense of where the plot might be headed. Some viewers might consider this third of the film to be a bit meandering, and while there were certainly moments where I felt this way, the film’s thought-provoking ending certainly justified its ambiguous diversions. It’s impossible to know exactly how you’ll behave following an act of criminality that is unprecedented in your life. And really, that’s what makes this final act interesting. The characters no longer have a plan. They’re just reacting to what they’ve become.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for "Fish & Cat"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Seattle International Film Festival to take on a trio of international selections. They start in 16th century feudal France, to watch Mads Mikkelsen lead a shockingly boring peasant uprising, then head over to Iran to watch some of the most technically and narratively innovative filmmaking they’ve seen this year, and finish up on the rooftops of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We keep the spoilers light in this episode, and at least one of these films – seemingly shot in a continuous two-hour take, is well worth seeking out (37:26).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk ratings:

  • Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas: 3/10
  • Fish & Cat: 9/10
  • Remote Control: 6/10

Show notes:

  • (00:00): Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
  • (11:46): Fish & Cat
  • (28:30): Remote Control
  • Due to the accelerated production schedule for our SIFF reviews and relative obscurity of these films, there is no music in tonight’s episode.
  • Apologies in advance for all name pronunciations. We think we did well with the French, okay with the Iranians, and terrible with the Mongolians. If anyone knows for sure, shoot us an email.
  • Read more about the awesome sport of kite fighting here.
  • The cinematographer behind Fish & Cat, Mahmoud Kalari, also shot the brilliant Iranian film A Separation, which we reviewed on the podcast, and highly recommend.
  • CORRECTION: We mentioned the party-rewind sequence from the 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction, but mistakenly referred to the character of Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) as a younger version of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) from American Psycho – the two characters are actually brothers. The sequence we mentioned is not available on YouTube, but the film also featured an innovative use of split-screen and motion-control rig technology – that sequence is available here.
  • We mentioned our upcoming SIFF screening of Alex of Venice, which is neither Italian nor French, but rather is an American film directed by and starring Chris Messina (alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character). This film is Messina’s directorial debut, and as far as we know, it takes place in the United States.

Listen above, or download: SIFF International Roundup (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #48 – “Blended” (dir. Frank Coraci)

Poster for

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a break from their SIFF coverage to revisit some old cinematic friends from their teenage years, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, who regroup for a zany family rom-com set in South Africa. Sure. Why not?

Several reasons, as it turns out (24:56).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode includes the track “Hasa Diga Eebowai“, from the original cast recording of “Book of Mormon: The Musical”, and “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King”.
  • We speculated about the security arrangements at Sun City, and apparently it does have armed guards (who engaged in a shootout with heavily armed casino robbers in 2010). I’m sure they’re at least as well-armed as Disneyland must be. A 2005 review in The Independent referred to Sun City as “South Africa-lite“, which was pretty much our assessment as well.
  • Correction: Sandler’s age as of this writing is 47, not 50.

Listen above, or download: Blended (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

Poster for "The Case Against 8"
The Case Against 8
Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White (documentary)

The Case Against 8 is a riveting chronicle of the court battle following the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which legally defined marriage as a one-man-one-woman institution in the state. The story spans nearly five years, starting from the November 2008 election, and ending with the 2013 Supreme Court double-whammy court decisions which invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act and effectively terminated Proposition 8. Just a warning for the approximately 46% of you who statistically might oppose same-sex marriage at this point…this film makes no pretense of “equal time for both sides”. It focuses entirely on the behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering of the opponents of Prop 8 (and supporters of marriage equality). So don’t go into this film expecting a fair and balanced hearing on whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. The film simply takes this point as a given, and chronicles the legal and constitutional battle that ensued.

First and foremost, The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural. Speaking as someone who has been mainlining episodes of The Good Wife for the past year or so, I was definitely the target audience for all of the judicial details. In order for this lawsuit to go forward, a number of things had to be executed perfectly. The right set of plaintiffs had to be recruited – two same-sex couples – one male-male, one female-female. Both submitted to being investigated to track down any dirt that might damage the lawsuit in the court of public opinion. And most interestingly, both couples submitted to becoming media personalities. The lawyers are equally fascinating – the unlikely team-up of conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, best known for being opposite sides of the 2000 Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore (a fact that the film points out in great detail), and the film provides a staggering degree of access behind-the-scenes as they prepare for their legal fight. I can’t overstate how much I came away admiring Olson and Boies both for the fight they took on, and for the legal and practical risk they took by allowing cameras behind the scenes during ongoing litigation. And for the public-facing aspect of the case, their clashing politics and personal friendship serve effectively to project the idea that same-sex marriage should not be a partisan issue.

Interlaced with the procedural details, this film is a deeply affecting personal drama. The two couples – Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier – are forced into the difficult position of having to defend the merits of their respective relationships in open court. Both couples – especially Perry and Stier – provide a staggering degree of access into their families and homes, which in the case of the latter couple, includes their four sons. The film highlights the staggering contrast between an ordinary family trying to live and provide for their children, and the dystopian nightmare of Perry and Stier receiving a government letter in the mail explaining that their 2004 marriage had been legally invalidated. As a fellow who has been married for nearly two years now, I found this moment deeply disturbing – and the couple’s courage and steadfastness in the face of such a societal betrayal was inspiring to say the least.

I try not to be overtly political when discussing film, but I expect my own politics on this issue should be fairly obvious by this point. When I got married in 2012, I shifted from being merely okay with same-sex marriage to being actively interested in making it happen. I phone-banked for the campaign for Washington’s Referendum 74 that same year, and was elated to see it pass. That’s the positive spin. Here’s the sad fact that precedes it – back in 2004, when Kristin and Sandy first married in San Francisco, I opposed their legal right to do so. Given the shift in public perspective on this issue over the past decade (which the film also highlights), I can’t imagine that my story is unique. But it also illustrates the value of a film like this in putting a public face on those who are still being denied their freedom to marry. And that’s the third great strength of The Case Against 8 – it is a stunningly effective treatise on the purpose and value of marriage. It is an affirmation of American family values. It is, I daresay, a bastion of conservative ideals in the 21st century. And that’s exactly what this issue needed.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

The Case Against 8 is being distributed by HBO Films. It will have a limited theatrical release on June 6th and premiere on HBO on June 23rd. 


Still from "Desert Cathedral"
Desert Cathedral
Written and directed by Travis Gutiérrez Senger

Desert Cathedral is a deeply sad film, owing not only to its subject matter, but to the choices that it makes between fantasy and reality. The film is based on the true story of a real estate developer who left behind his wife and child and disappeared into the Southwestern desert in 1992. Peter Collins (Lee Tergesen) makes his suicidal intentions clear by way of a trail of VHS-taped breadcrumbs recorded as he takes this impromptu roadtrip – he quits his job and drives off into the desert to find a suitable place to die.

The most obviously fantastical note is that of private investigator Durin Palouse (Chaske Spencer), hired by Collins’ wife Annah (Petra Wright) to track him down. This character caught me off-guard, first because I realized this is one of very few non-Caucasian hard-boiled detectives I’ve ever seen (a racial casting bias that hadn’t occurred to me until this film) – and second, because his voice is a near perfect ringer for the Southern drawl of Matthew McConaughey. Spencer gives a fine performance, but the character never quite feels like more than a construct. In the later acts of the film, we learn a few personal details about him, but due to his incognito role, it’s never quite clear which details are real and which are not. Spencer and Tergesen’s interactions are interesting, but they struck me as the most overtly fictitious parts of the film – frantic, retroactive attempts to rewrite history and pull Collins back from the brink of a terrible, sad, and ultimately selfish decision.

Tergesen’s own performance, however, is nicely layered. The film never attempts to ennoble Collins’ suicidal intentions, but neither does it shy away from them. At times, he seems right on the verge of giving the whole thing up and heading back home to rejoin his family and face his demons. He takes diversions to drink, drive, light off fireworks, take in a pretty desert vista, and, most tellingly, reveal (on video) a few more details of the problems that drove him to his decision. The result is a film that falls somewhere between mystery, tragedy, and travelogue, with a sufficiently interesting character at the center of it.

It turns out I’ve seen director Travis Gutiérrez Senger‘s prior short film, White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, which was a verité postmortem on a drug-dealing hip-hop DJ. Junebug and Collins aren’t perfect analogues, but they certainly both succeeded in making me sympathize with them more than I initially expected. The film’s soundtrack provides a nice mix of dour, atmospheric country and blues, as well as simple, mood-setting acoustic pieces – reminiscent of composer Nathan Johnson‘s understated work in Brick. Atop Senger’s mostly effective handling of the subject matter, the cinematography – with what appears to be central/eastern Washington State standing in for the California and Nevada deserts – is gorgeous.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10


Poster for "In Order of Disappearance"

 

In Order of Disappearance
Directed by Hans Petter Moland, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson

I’ll be brief, because there’s not a lot to say about this movie – if you want to see Stellan Skarsgård as Nils Dickman, a snowplow driver on a Norse-bound mafioso revenge-killing spree, this is the film for you. This film is darkly hilarious, brutal, and absolutely riddled with the cheapness of human life. The comparisons to Fargo (my second-to-least favorite Coen Bros film) are warranted. The lead villains are effective and memorable, including an eccentric vegan known as “The Count” (Pål Sverre Hagen), and an old-school Serbian just called Papa (Bruno Ganz). The Count is clearly the most dangerous wildcard of the bunch, while Papa, also out for revenge after a fashion, actually ends up striking some interesting parallels with Dickman himself. The bloody shootout at the film’s end is obligatory (and nothing special, heavy equipment notwithstanding), but this film was an entertaining ride nonetheless.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering – Dickman is a funny name in Norwegian too.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #47 – “The Double” (dir. Richard Ayoade) (SIFF)

Poster for "The Double"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel bring the first of many live dispatches from the 40th annual Seattle International Film Festival, starting with Richard Ayoade‘s new film, The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn. (15:10).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • It’s festival time! That means we’ll be seeing a lot of films and our SIFF dispatches will be recorded and posted quickly – which unfortunately means the audio quality will be just a bit less polished than usual.

Listen above, or download: The Double (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“How I Met Your Mother” – Skip List and Episode Guide

Still from "How I Met Your Mother"

Already watched the series? Check out our special HIMYM finale episode of the FilmWonk Podcast right here!

Six weeks ago today, the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother ended its run after nine seasons and 208 episodes. The tale of these five friends and their decade-spanning relationships (including several decades in the future!) spoke to us at FilmWonk sufficiently that we recorded a special TV edition podcast about it. On that episode, both Daniel and I came to two conclusions: First, this is one of the finest sitcoms on television. And second, like all sitcoms, it goes on for a bit too long.

To that end, we’ve cast our eyes toward the casual viewer who is interested in watching the series, but is intimidated by its length (self-five!). We’ve spent the last six weeks carefully rewatching the entire series and putting together a list of the episodes that, in our opinion, can be safely skipped without affecting the outcome of the series. The list and descriptions were primarily written by Glenn, with contribution by (and occasional vociferous argument with) co-host Daniel.


Criteria
Any episode that meets at least one of the following criteria is not considered skippable:

  • Does the episode directly advance the story or characters toward the series’ end in some way?
  • Does the episode introduce an amusing concept or running gag that will continue throughout the series?
  • If it doesn’t do either of the above, is it funny enough as a standalone episode that it’s worth watching anyway?

Spoiler Policy
This episode guide is intended to be read as you watch the show for the first time. The description for a skippable episode will generally spoil that specific episode, especially if there is some minor piece of information that you need to know for future viewing (major developments won’t generally be skipped). Additionally, an episode description presumes you are caught up to that point in the series. For example, an episode description in Season 6 might make reference to events that occurred in Season 5. And finally, some episodes are skipped because they contain themes or material that are addressed similarly (or in a better way) in a future episode. To that end, a description might mention the title of a future episode, but no specifics about future episodes.

Stick around at the end for a “Best of the Series” list, and concluding remarks.


Season 1: 

  • Pretty much 100% gold, but if you must, skip Episode 19, “Mary the Paralegal“.

Season 2:

  • “First Time in New York” (Episode 12) – Basically nothing is at stake in this episode, except the question of whether or not Lily played a little “just the tip” with her high school boyfriend Scooter. Spoiler alert: She did, and it doesn’t matter. The Empire State Building is used as a belabored metaphor for sex, and we meet Robin’s kid-sister Katie, who is basically never seen again.
  • “Monday Night Football” (Episode 14) – The gang struggles not to find out the results of the Superbowl before watching a DVR’d copy the next day. There’s some good stuff in this episode (Marshall being blackmailed by a 5-year-old was hilarious) but again – it’s hard to take the stakes too seriously.
  • “Lucky Penny” (Episode 15) – This episode reinforces the show’s persistent theme of every event in a person’s life being causally linked (and perhaps “destined”), but it belabors the point through cartoonish nonsense like Barney running a marathon with no training (and then becoming paralyzed on the subway). The end-result of this episode is maintenance of the status quo – Ted doesn’t interview in Chicago, and instead, he stays in New York to meet the Mother. Funny, but ultimately inconsequential – Ted’s court date notwithstanding.
  • “Moving Day” (Episode 18) – Ted and Robin are moving in together! Spoiler alert: They don’t. And I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief that a moving truck full of Ted’s stuff somehow translates to a portable fuckpad (complete with mood lighting and an assembled bed with linens) for Barney.
  • “Showdown” (Episode 20) – Barney’s fixation on Bob Barker being his father is one of the sillier things this show has ever done, and it hangs over way too much of this episode.

Season 3: 

  • “The Bracket” (Episode 14) – Don’t get me wrong; this episode is funny. But it’s almost better to pretend it’s not part of the show’s canon – that it’s merely a brainstorming session in the writers’ room about how to make Barney a cartoon villain for the women of NYC. During a heartfelt apology to one of his myriad conquests, he literally reminisces about engaging in human trafficking. I’m dark enough to laugh at such a joke, but I’d rather not believe it’s actually true for the character.
  • “Everything Must Go” (Episode 19) – With the exception of some delightful mockery of Ted and his dumbass red cowboy boots, absolutely nothing in this episode matters. Britney Spears is the single worst piece of stunt casting this show has ever done – and her subplot with Barney is an anchor that drags down an already middling episode. She is so uniformly terrible as Stella’s receptionist Abby that I actually considered adding “Ten Sessions” to this list, despite its other strong points.

Season 4:

  • “Little Minnesota” (Episode 11) – I initially gave this episode a pass for offering some nice character material with the rare one-on-one pairing of Marshall and Robin. But this duo gets revisited nicely in “Three Days of Snow” (Episode 13), so I daresay the mini-Minnesota and mini-Canada themed bars aren’t worth the Ted/Barney/Lily storyline, which features another one-off sibling who is never seen again. Ted’s kinda-wayward sister, Heather, whom Barney desperately wants to bang, ends up cosigning a lease on a New York apartment with Ted at the end of the episode. And, to rehash, is never seen again. So we can reasonably assume that she was murdered after not purchasing an adequate deadbolt as her big brother advised.
  • “The Stinsons” (Episode 15) – Barney has been running a long-con on his mother for the past…8 or 9 years? However old his fake-son Tyler is – and Tyler no-likey. It’s all terribly unfunny, and of course Ted messes it up by making out with the actress playing Barney’s fake-wife after bonding with their common love of high-brow theatre. There’s a lot of shallow crap happening in this episode that gets wrapped up by the end… Robin thinks her new job is going to suck, Lily hates her mother-in-law, etc. The only running joke that is introduced is that Barney always roots for the villain in classic movies, including Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) from The Karate Kid, who would go on to appear in Season 9.
  • “Sorry, Bro” (Episode 16) – The only bit from this episode that you have to know is that Ted has reentered a destructive relationship with his Cheaty McCheaterson college girlfriend Karen. It’s actually pretty funny watching Laura Prepon and Josh Radnor engage in a competitive douche-off in flashbacks (they’re both excellent at it), but strictly speaking, this episode doesn’t accomplish much with Karen that isn’t also present in “The Front Porch” (Episode 17), a much more consequential episode for the rest of the gang.
  • “Murtaugh” (Episode 19) – The gang devises a list of shit they’re too old for. Barney decides to do everything on the list. It’s juvenile, and a little bit boring.
  • “Mosbius Designs” (Episode 20) – Shut up, Ted. You’re not going to have your own architecture firm, and we all know it. You know it. Stop hiring a dumbass assistant for Robin to have sex with. This episode’s only meaningful contribution is the “What’s the difference between peanut butter and jam?” joke that explains Alyson Hannigan‘s pregnancy-related absence for the next four episodes. Google it.

Season 5

  • “Robin 101” (Episode 3) – Robin’s ex-boyfriend (Ted) teaches her current boyfriend (Barney) how to date and have sex with her. It’s creepy and weird, and Robin is understandably pissed. And lo, it stops. Given the course of their prior relationship, some of Ted’s ideas about Robin (stroking her left knee gets her off!) are hilariously bad, but they just aren’t worth the time and trouble.
  • “Duel Citizenship” (Episode 5) – Robin has an identity crisis about whether she’s American or Canadian. Spoiler alert: She’s both, and it doesn’t matter. The B-plot isn’t bad – it concerns Ted, Marshall, and Lily trying to recapture the joy of a former bros’ roadtrip to Chicago (minus Lily) for bad pizza. But there are certainly better takes on the same formula during the series run – i.e. Single-Ted + Married Couple = Sad Ted + Wistful Future-Pining. Long live Tantrum.
  • “The Window” (Episode 10) – This episode is borderline, as it tackles an interesting moment of self-doubt in Ted’s return to the serious dating scene. But ultimately, the love story at the heart of it isn’t quite as sweet as the episode makes it out to be – it’s basically just There’s Something About Mary, with all the creepy zaniness that implies. This episode also introduces the concept of time travel. Do with that what you will.
  • “Girls vs. Suits” (Episode 12) – The 100th episode is nothing but a giant, gimmicky misdirection. Sure, we learn a thing or two about the Mother (Cindy’s unseen roommate),  but it’s really nothing that will matter until it reappears in Season 9. And that freaking Urkel-worthy dance number. Is it catchy? Emphatically, yes. But do I believe that Barney would consider getting rid of his suits for one more dubious conquest? Not even a little. What’s more, everything surrounding this plotline was a complete misfire, whether Marshall and Lily’s pointless argument about the bartender’s hotness, or the equally pointless stunt casting of Tim Gunn. The musical number is worth a look on YouTube (Neil Patrick Harris is a wonderful singer), but the rest of the episode is not.
  • “The Perfect Week” (Episode 14) – Barney tries to bang seven chicks in seven nights. And succeeds. And here’s the thing about this episode – it is quite entertaining, but it is ultimately a guilty pleasure, and it wallows in the worst excesses of Barney’s character without the sort of self-awareness that is present in, say, “Right Place, Right Time” (wherein Barney has sex with his 200th woman). All of the sports commentary with Jim Nantz is gold, as is the revelation that the entire group has accidentally used the same toothbrush, but this episode also leans hard on a throwaway racist joke about a student named Cook Pu. It does a few things well, but ultimately can’t justify its excess.
  • “Rabbit or Duck” (Episode 15) – This episode belabors a metaphor involving the rabbit-duck illusion for whether or not Robin is in love with her co-anchor, Don. While the episode has its moments – there’s a hilarious montage of the group violently arguing over which is the better option between the two animals – the metaphor really doesn’t work, because we know almost nothing about Don except that he’s a crappy news anchor. There’s also some nonsense about a perpetually ringing cell phone (a result of Barney holding up his phone number on TV at the Superbowl) that always has a different attractive woman calling. It’s a mildly amusing concept, but quickly falls apart if you think about it for more than five seconds. How long would this phone’s popularity persist? What would be the ratio of women in New York City to, say, prank-calling 14-year-olds from literally anywhere else in the world? Like the rabbit-duck metaphor, it’s a bit tedious, and it doesn’t really work.
  • “Of Course” (Episode 17) – If you must, just watch the last 5 minutes of this episode. Robin has been upset at Barney’s parade of post-breakup conquests, and he does something nice for her to make up for it. Robin gets together with Don. Everything else is just a lackluster episode with a lackluster musical guest star (J-Lo) – following right after a surprisingly strong one (Carrie Underwood) in the previous episode. There is also a fairly elaborate visual effects shot in the bar booth (complete with Ted…singing?), and I do give the show credit for pulling it off, given my criticism of some of its later attempts. But the rest of the episode is a slog.
  • “Zoo or False” (Episode 19) – This episode isn’t bad, but we get enough reminders that everyone on this show is an unreliable narrator without an entire episode devoted to the concept.
  • “The Wedding Bride” (Episode 23) – Pretty much undoes any goodwill that I had for Stella and Tony from “As Fast As She Can” last season. And this may just be my film critic sensibilities talking, but I find the idea of The Wedding Bride as a Love Actually-caliber critical and commercial hit to be offensive and stupid. Recycling the real Love Actually score was a nice touch, but this episode also recycles a joke from last season’s “Murtaugh” about accidentally helping burglars “move” everything out of an apartment that isn’t theirs. But on a positive note, Judy Greer and Jason Lewis are excellent here.

Season 6:

  • “Subway Wars” (Episode 4) – Absolutely nothing consequential happens in this episode. The gang races to a steakhouse. Everyone’s a bit nervous about where they’re at in life, but in the end, they feel comfortable with it. Somebody wins.
  • “Baby Talk” (Episode 6) – Marshall and Lily engage in various bits of Eriksen/Viking lore in order to influence the sex of their future baby. And don’t get me wrong; that stuff is pretty funny – but you know how this episode ends. They’ve got a bit of anxiety about being parents, but they love each other, and they’ll be happy with any kid as long as it’s healthy. None of this is essential viewing, and it’s surrounded by an excruciating plotline in which Ted and Barney debate the merits of adult women who talk like little girls. Ew.
  • “Blitzgiving” (Episode 10) – If you skip this episode, you might miss something awesome… Or not.  Despite Jorge Garcia‘s many favorable years on Lost (which this episode couldn’t shut up about), this – along with Alcatraz – made me seriously question his acting chops. If you can’t deliver the line “Aw, man!” convincingly, that’s a problem. Oh, and Zoey becomes friends with the group.
  • “Oh Honey” (Episode 15) – This one is borderline. It begins with a ridiculous gag wherein Robin burns dinner because she thought the oven was Celsius (a mistake that would result in a lower-temperature oven, not a higher one!), and it’s mostly downhill from there. Katy Perry plays a gullible girl known only as “Oh, honey”, and we hear the various obvious lies to which she has fallen prey. And an alarming number of them were about people taking sexual advantage of her. Until Barney decides to…ya know, take sexual advantage of her. There’s really not enough here for me to speak to Ms. Perry’s acting chops, because this is just an incredibly simplistic character. Also, on a surprisingly positive note, Ted’s in love with Zoey, who is married, but soon to be divorced, and in love with him as well. I had never thought there was a chance that Zoey could be the Mother, but I’m really quite liking this character (and Jennifer Morrison‘s performance) the second time through. This episode is mostly tablesetting, but it’s really not bad.
  • “Garbage Island” (Episode 17) – Okay, don’t actually skip this one – the stuff with Ted and Zoey and the Captain was pretty funny, and fairly consequential to Ted’s character. But the science nerd in me is bothered by this episode. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t look like a bunch of recognizable garbage-y things floating in a harbor. It’s not birds caught in six-pack rings. Those things happen closer to land, and are horrible. This? It’s more like hundreds of thousands of <5mm plastic particles suspended in the top layer of ocean water, amounting to about 5kg of debris per square kilometer. And yes, it’s a big deal, and Marshall should care about it. But “Garbage Island” is not a thing, and neither is the Barney/Nora romance, really.
  • “The Exploding Meatball Sub” (Episode 20) – The only consequential note on this episode is that Ted is sick of being in a relationship with someone (Zoey) who doesn’t support him. And that long-approaching revelation is pretty much covered by the last two minutes of the episode…or the first five minutes of “The Perfect Cocktail” (Episode 22). Marshall and Lily are still the most supportive couple on this show, and none of Lily’s self-doubt in this episode changes that in the least. Beyond that, there’s a totally frivolous long con with Barney and a meatball sub – to that, I reiterate Robin’s line: “What is the matter with you?!”

Season 7:

  • “The Naked Truth” (Episode 2) – Tablesetting. Marshall strives to keep an embarrassing college video from his future employer, who (spoiler alert) sees it anyway and doesn’t care. Barney delivers a humorless verbal rehash of “The Bracket”, spilling all of his horrible, rakish pickup scams to Nora so she’ll date him, and (spoiler alert) she does. In an even more pointless subplot, Ted tries to decide between taking Random Girl A or Random Girl B to the Great Big Architecture Thing. He takes Robin, and (in the only consequential note of the episode), he spots his ex-girlfriend Victoria, from Season 1. And Marshall’s future boss, Garrison Cootes (Martin Short), is just an unfunny rendition of the Literal Doctor from Arrested Development.
  • “Field Trip” (Episode 5) – Remember Garrison Cootes, from three episodes (and lines of text) ago? Yeah, he’s still not funny. Neither is Barney’s Ewok theory, which is pretty inconsequential to this episode’s outcome. Barney is still dating Nora, and Robin is dating her former therapist, Kevin. It would be creepy, but Kal Penn is just so darn charming. Marshall’s still trying to save the environment, and Bob Saget‘s narration weirdly reassures us that he succeeded by 2030. Tall order, Marshall.
  • “Mystery vs. History” (Episode 6) – They’re having a boy. That is all.
  • “46 Minutes” (Episode 14) – The group loves each other. This love persists despite a slight train commute between them. The alternate versions of the title sequence were pretty good, but there’s not much here.
  • “The Burning Beekeeper” (Episode 15) – A bunch of zany stuff at a housewarming party. More unfunny Martin Short. That is all.
  • “The Broath” (Episode 19) – Barney and Quinn are a dynamic duo of evil who move in together. Robin and Ted have each been having a hard time (as we saw in previous episodes), but they’re good now. Albeit not really. There is a lot of character development in this episode, but everyone ends in roughly the same place they started, and all of these feelings are fleshed out in greater detail in the episodes that follow.
  • “Now We’re Even” (Episode 21) – This list and this episode are both proof positive that not every night can be legendary, despite Barney’s protestations to the contrary. We also learn that he can’t really get past Quinn being a stripper, which is pretty well covered in the next episode. The only other significant note here is that Robin becomes famous by way of a helicopter incident, which is…problematic. She’s already an NYC journalist with occasional national media exposure, but she only gets famous when a crazy, random accident turns her into the poor man’s Sully Sullenberger. It’s a realistic – albeit depressing – take on fame. But this incident is literally never mentioned again, and as the series goes on, we get plenty of other allusions to Robin getting famous on her own journalistic merits. The rest of the episode just feels like filler, legendary or otherwise. And the less said about Lily’s sex dream about Ranjit, the better.
  • “The Magician’s Code, Part I” (Episode 23) – Ah, the standard sitcom unnecessary two-parter. Budgets need to be spent, baby-birthing needs to be stretched out to real-life proportions, and a series of amusing and inconsequential anecdotes must be told, as all of our characters are inexplicably delayed from getting to the hospital set down the hall. Everyone makes it, and it’s a beautiful baby boy with an awesome middle name. Watch the last two minutes if you want the sweet moment. No judgment here.

Season 8:

  • “The Pre-Nup” (Episode 2) – Quinn, who was actually a fairly interesting foil for Barney last season, is ridiculously and unceremoniously written off the show by way of a series of competitive and outlandish prenuptial agreements. Barney and Quinn don’t trust each other, and we’ve already been told that he marries Robin, so that’s that. We also learn that Ted’s relationship with Victoria will implode within the month.
  • “Nannies” (Episode 3) – Marshall and Lily struggle to pick a nanny, then they pick Lily’s dad Mickey (Chris Elliott), who was a crappy dad to Lily except when he wasn’t. Given that the next episode features a much more consequential plot of Marshall and Lily reconnecting with the group to select godparents, this just feels redundant. On top of that, Robin and Ted’s relationships are each suddenly terrible for really shallow, sitcommy reasons, and it has already been revealed that both relationships are soon going to end soon, so it just feels like marking time.
  • “Twelve Horny Women” (Episode 8)  – This is an amusing episode with all of the courtroom realism of an episode of Law and Order: SVU, and it makes excellent use of Joe Mangianello. But that’s about it, and this episode is held back by a boring B-plot about the rest of the gang debating who was the biggest teenage badass. The clear winner is Lily, with an amusing reference to The Wire. And Marshall wants to be a judge, which is a nice reveal, but it doesn’t really make sense that he would tell this particular story (of himself being duped and defeated) to the New York State Judicial Board as evidence of his good sense and judicial acumen.
  • “Ring Up!” (Episode 14) – This is a funny episode, to be sure. And Robin’s invisibility-ring is an amusing concept. But there’s really not much substance here, apart from Robin and Barney getting used to their new reality of being engaged. And Ted’s proxy-bang of Barney’s half-sister goes to a weird place. Shotgun-wedding weird. Given how long we have until the big wedding of the series, and given that this is the third one-off sibling for the group that is never seen or heard from again, this is hardly essential viewing.
  • “Bad Crazy” (Episode 16) – This is just a straight-up terrible episode. We all know that Crazy-Ass Jeanette is not the Mother, and this episode ends with her and Ted still together. The reveal that she’s a certifiably insane NYPD officer who barricades herself in Ted’s room is mildly entertaining, as is the montage of Robin and Lily getting wine-drunk repeatedly over the next 20 years and Robin gradually revealing more and more of an incident that occurred when little Marvin was an infant. But the punchline of this story is that retired professional ear-biter/boxer/convicted rapist Mike Tyson held the infant Marvin, and advised Robin about the nature of “crazy chicks” who are driven crazy by a guy sending mixed signals. This is a dubious message in any event, since Jeanette was clearly mentally ill before she met Ted, but coming from a source like Tyson, it’s just cringe-inducing and gross. Oh, also, in the HIMYM-verse, Tyson will become a US Senator. So that happens.
  • “The Fortress” (Episode 19) – The fate of Barney’s Wonka-worthy magical apartment is revealed. There’s a Downton Abbey parody, some Wendy’s product placement, and a mildly amusing litany of ridiculous artwork from The Captain. This is not a bad episode by any means, but it’s completely inconsequential and a bit silly. By Stinson.
  • “Romeward Bound” (Episode 21) – Lily is offered an awesome job in Rome, and she briefly dithers about accepting it because she fears failure. Then she accepts it. Given the way this conflict hangs over the next season, this episode doesn’t really resolve the issue in any final sort of way. And the main plot, involving a wedding planner with a giant trenchcoat and a “redonkulous” [hidden] body, is mostly worthless. There’s also some awkwardness between Ted and Barney about who really knows Robin better that feels downright bizarre – and again, it’s nothing that isn’t broached again in detail during Season 9.
  • “The Bro Mitzvah” (Episode 22) – I suspect this episode is what going mad feels like. Absolutely no one acts in a believable way for a moment except for Ralph Macchio. On a curious note, Macchio is credited as “Himself”, while William Zabka is credited as “Clown/William Zabka”. And while I was glad to see Quinn again, I don’t buy her reappearance in the least. Other odd note: Becki Newton is a “Special Guest Star”, while the two Karate Kids are merely “Guest Starring”. The mysteries of Hollywood.

Season 9:

  • “Last Time in New York” (Episode 3) – Ted bids farewell to New York in flashback. Translation: He does absolutely nothing in this episode that you haven’t seen him do already. Swordfight included. This is also the first of what I expect will be many skippable episodes chronicling Marshall and Daphne’s Boring-Ass Roadtrip. Also, Barney and Robin are desperate to hide from a shambling grey mass of zombie old people and find a room to have sex in. Amusing, but not essential viewing. That said, the abuse of the bottle of [fictitious] 30-year Glen McKenna scotch is a hilarious and horrifying crime. There is a minor bombshell in the last 10 seconds of this episode, but it’s repeated and explained at the beginning of the next one.
  • “The Broken Code” (Episode 4) – Yeah… About that bombshell… We really don’t need to hear any more about the fake history of The Bro Code. Also, Tim Gunn is not an actor, and he has no business being on a sitcom. Yes, Ted and Robin had a weird moment in the park in “Something Old” (Episode 23 of last season), and yes, Barney is aware of it. End-result: Everyone’s cool, and Ted’s still the best man. The issues raised in this episode are real and lasting, but they’re also broached repeatedly over the course of the season.
  • “Knight Vision” (Episode 6) – Utterly disposable. It could not matter less which rando girl Ted tries to hook up with on the weekend he meets the mother of his children. And it’s actually a bit sad how much Barney – and the episode – think we should care about this. They compare this random (and ultimately doomed) hookup to the Holy Grail, and as much as I love an appearance by Anna Camp (who is great as always), this plotline could be excised completely and affect nothing. Also irrelevant: Marshall and Daphne rehearse his impending gigantic fight with Lily. This is literally an in-show rehearsal for a scene that will take place later in the season. What the damn-hell? Also-also irrelevant: the minister might decide not to solemnize the marriage, because he’s a bit conservative, and has somehow missed the gargantuan amount of debauchery surrounding this couple at all times until the weekend of their wedding. Then the show takes a cue from Entourage and creates a no-win situation with a character who solves the problem by conveniently dropping dead. Lame.
  • “No Questions Asked” (Episode 7) – Okay. Contrary to what I initially typed here, this is not the worst episode of the entire series. But No Questions Asked commits an even more cardinal sin than the previous episode. It doesn’t just contain redundant plot… It contains anti-plot. The characters are literally conspiring to prevent the plot from advancing. Marshall enlists the gang’s help to prevent Lily from seeing a text sent from his phone (by Daphne) – a text that confesses that he took the judgeship without talking to her. And it’s pointless. She will find out, they will have this fight, and they will have to come to terms on this. This show can rightfully be accused of spinning its wheels during this season, but this episode actually tries to shift the plot in reverse, and it’s inexcusable.
  • “The Lighthouse” (Episode 8) – More boring roadtrip crap, with the unwelcome addition of Ted’s stepfather Clint. And a scrambled egg cookoff. Just let that simmer for a minute. There’s also more delightful (but still unnecessary) use of Anna Camp as Ted’s awful date for the weekend. There are some nice moments here (and one extremely important one with the Mother), but they’re all mercifully in the last five minutes of the episode – bad greenscreen and all.
  • “Mom and Dad” (Episode 10) – This is a fine episode, and Barney’s mother Loretta (Frances Conroy) is actually a favorite side character of mine. But in a season that drags a bit, this episode doesn’t drive the plot or advance the characters in any meaningful way. It also features the final appearance of Daphne (Sherri Shepherd), who I must admit isn’t bad here. This is as close to a real character as she ever becomes, and her acting caliber deserved slightly better than a tedious roadtrip plot. But this still isn’t necessary.
  • “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra” (Episode 14) – Upon second viewing, now that I’m no longer angrily awaiting the end of the story, this is a fun episode. It’s also purely optional. This is a 22-minute story about a slap that takes less than a second, and it’s fictitious even within the context of the show. It’s a fun exercise, but you’ve been warned.
  • “Sunrise” (Episode 17) – This episode should not be skipped. It’s strong overall, and it is essential viewing for both Marshall’s argument with Ghost-Lily, and for Ted and Robin’s pow-wow on the beach. But it has two serious problems. First, everything to do with the drunken, wandering Barney passing off the bro-mantle to Britanick (whom I love otherwise) was terrible. That entire subplot can and should be skipped. Second, everything to do with Ted’s balloon metaphor. And I’m dead serious here… You do not put Cobie Smulders on a harness and have Ted watch Robin fly away into the sky like a balloon to the overwrought tones of “Eternal Flame”. And if you insist on doing that, you sure as hell don’t start the next scene with the two of them sitting side-by-side again. This is an important episode, but it goes way too far.

Still from "How I Met Your Mother" - Future Ted

Conclusions

Careful readers will note a couple of things. First, there are 52 episodes on this list. Even more careful readers will note that the real total is 50, since I included two episodes that shouldn’t actually be skipped. But it’s cleaner with 52, because that’s exactly 25% of the series’ run. In this critic’s opinion, 1 out of 4 episodes of How I Met Your Mother can be safely skipped without affecting the outcome of the series.

But the second thing you’ll notice is that I only truly disliked a handful of the episodes listed above. And it is my sincere belief that this is one of the finest sitcoms on television. As I write this conclusion, the series finale aired exactly six weeks ago, and I breezed through nine seasons and 208 episodes of this series during that time like it was nothing. It was an absolute pleasure watching this series again, and I did not create this list to suggest otherwise.

In fact, I learned one additional lesson while re-watching the series, and it was something that was lost on me the first time through. It is a common vice of sitcoms to overstay their welcome, and HIMYM is no exception. But this is generally accompanied by an early peak and a steady run of increasingly lousy episodes with no clear end or trajectory in sight. I believe How I Met Your Mother thoroughly avoided this pitfall, and to demonstrate this, I’ve composed another list to finish out this article – three episodes from every season that are unquestionably among the best of the series.

“Best Episodes of the Series” in each season:

  1. “Pilot”, “Purple Giraffe”, “The Limo”
  2. “Slap Bet”, “Swarley”, “How Lily Stole Christmas”
  3. “How I Met Everyone Else”, “Slapsgiving”, “Sandcastles in the Sand”
  4. “Benefits”, “Three Days of Snow”, “The Front Porch”
  5. “The Playbook”, “Last Cigarette Ever”, “Robots vs. Wrestlers”
  6. “Natural History”, “Last Words”, “The Perfect Cocktail”
  7. “Disaster Averted”, “Symphony of Illumination”, “Trilogy Time”
  8. “P.S. I Love You”, “The Time Travelers”, “Something New”
  9. “How Your Mother Met Me”, “Vesuvius”, “Gary Blauman”

This is a show that understood and reinforced its themes right to the end – a show whose grand mystery about life and love was constantly dropping clues for any lost and lonely twentysomething viewers – to say that even though you might go through myriad struggles and false starts, you’ll eventually figure out your life. It advanced and repeated the idea that true love is worth pursuing because it’s simply the best thing we do. And yes, as Ted Mosby acknowledges when he states that theme aloud in “The End of the Aisle” (S09E22), that is a cheesy message. But like most cheesy messages, it’s one that we desperately want to believe is true. And it’s worth repeating.

Done watching the series? Check out our special HIMYM finale episode of the FilmWonk Podcast right here!

Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors” – A raucous ode to the ethical fratboy

Poster for "Neighbors"

My worldview as I approach my thirties can probably be summed up like this: I realize I don’t know everything about everyone, and I’m a bit more willing to dismiss the annoying behavior of people in a different stage of life than me. Whether a crying baby or a drunk reveler in public crashing into me, I total up the minuscule degree to which they’re actually affecting my life, slip on my noise-canceling headphones, and think to myself, “Well, that’s just what they do.” It won’t last, I’m sure. But it’s certainly the correct mindset to enter Nicholas Stoller‘s latest comedy, Neighbors, driven as always by a cadre of well-defined, occasionally sympathetic, and constantly hilarious characters. This is a film that is driven by the right kind of central conflict – one between two sympathetic sides with mostly legitimate grievances, who take turns pushing things way too far. This is full-bore comedic warfare between a frathouse, led by metaphorical brothers Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), and their neighbors, new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).

And as always, Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) – along with comedic editorial alumnus Zene Baker (This Is the End) – has a brilliant sense of pacing, spending just enough time with each group initially to establish them all as sympathetic characters before the mayhem begins. This is Animal House by way of “Game of Thrones”, and I don’t make the latter reference lightly. The film’s script is sprinkled with subtle nods to the George R.R. Martin series, including plying the smallfolk of the neighborhood with the labor of an army of pledge-slaves. The frat brothers also spend several minutes expounding on the dubiously-sourced history of their group (which includes the invention of beer pong and the toga party), then recite an oath fit for a raunchier version of the Night’s Watch. They’re even desperate for their exploits to earn them a place on the Wall. And President Teddy is the consummate ethical fratboy. He refuses to abuse his power and simply place his group’s picture onto the wall until they’ve done something legendary to earn it.

Still from "Neighbors" movie

The dynamic between the Radners is equally complex – Kelly is a tailor-made excuse for Rose Byrne to use her native Aussie accent, as well as a brilliant undermining of the typical dynamic between irresponsible husband and henpecking wife. Rogen’s character has the audacity to call out Kevin James films as the chief offenders in this regard, but let’s be honest – this is just a slightly less dysfunctional sequel to Rogen’s own Knocked Up (notwithstanding the sequel it actually spawned). In a way, this feels like a 90-minute apology for every film in which the wet-blanket wife is relegated to sensible interference with the hero’s insane antics – and as an aside, it’s also an apology for every movie in which the sole black member of the fraternity is relegated to dealing nothing but inane catchphrases. It’s not as if Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) is a main character within the frat (any more so than Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) or Assjuice (Craig Roberts)), but he at least has a personality, a few lines of dialogue, and some desires of his own. In terms of racial dynamics within a college comedy, it’s a modicum of progress.

But back to the Radners for a moment – Rogen is funny as ever, but he’s not straining himself here. If you like the way he drops F-bombs, consumes narcotics, and takes off his clothes, there’s plenty to enjoy. But Byrne delivers the latest in an impressive run of comedic performances, following Bridesmaids and Get Him To the Greek, proving more than a match for Rogen as they gradually escalate the situation. Mac’s plans start off gross and destructive – smack a water pipe with an axe, and flood the basement. Kelly’s are manipulative and borderline sociopathic – infilitrate the group and subtly sabotage the interpersonal dynamics. And occasionally, they swap strategies. It’s some pretty demented stuff – and it’s executed brilliantly. Speaking of demented, Ike Barinholtz was as strong and disturbing as ever. Best known for his breakout role on The Mindy Project, Barinholtz seems to specialize in characters with a skewed sense of reality, and he’s a ton of fun here. Carla Gallo isn’t bad either, and Lisa Kudrow gives a crack-up performance as the college’s deadpan dean.

Efron’s character is charming, but not quite as well-defined as the rest. This is essentially a more likable version of Van Wilder – a party monster who isn’t quite ready to graduate and face the real world. The film introduces this conflict with Teddy, Pete, and other members of the frat, but doesn’t do much with it, and semi-optimistically brushes the issue off at the film’s end. Despite acknowledging the imminent responsibilities that these college grads will soon have to deal with, the film doesn’t seem interested in addressing them in any real way. And I suppose that’s fine. The film is certainly funny enough to justify itself otherwise. Some of the raunchier gags (like “Standing here with our dicks in our hands”) worked nicely; others (like a dubious parenting gag involving some fake-looking breasts) did not. By and large, this film is a fun, refreshing take on the college gross-out comedy – easily the strongest since Old School.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10