Nicholas Stoller’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

This time in 2008, I was studying abroad in Moscow. It was easy to see American movies dubbed in Russian, but there were only a handful of options for viewing them in their original language, and the only one I’m sure was totally kosher was a tiny theater attached to an international business hotel that I didn’t learn about until my last month there. So I saw two films, twice each: Iron Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These films were each enjoyable in their own right (and I’ll be covering the other one for 10YA in a couple of weeks), but they also hold a special place in my heart for being the most high-quality taste of home that I enjoyed while I was across the pond. An American superhero film (that would end up launching a cinematic universe), and a sudden expansion of my interest in the comedic chops of Jason Segel, whom I’d only seen previously in a recurring role as an overbearing boyfriend in the short-lived Judd Apatow series Undeclared (which also introduced the likes of Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen). Given the subject matter of this film, I considered the possibility that Segel may just be uniquely suited for this particular character (which would later be confirmed by my obsessive viewing of How I Met Your Mother). Segel plays the occasionally self-loathing man-child who wears his heart on his sleeve (and occasionally, bears his entire soul – and naked body – for the camera). The opening montage is almost a Children of Men-level class in speedy plausible exposition. As Cake’s “Love You Madly” plays, Peter Bretter (Segel) flexes his pecs in the mirror, literally congratulates himself, then proceeds to eat a gargantuan mixing bowl of Froot Loops while watching Billy Bush on the E! channel explain that his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is an actress on a popular SVU-type show (Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime), for which Peter composes the musical score. A bevvy of personalized calendars and mugs and other crap showcase the insufferability of their long-term couplehood, as the E! channel charges on. The next story is about Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a Bonoesque do-gooder lothario with a content-free, feel-good environmental anthem called “Do Something” which plays as Peter frantically cleans up his apartment and showers (for a second time?) before Sarah gets home. I’ll go ahead and say in advance: All of the original songs in this film are outstanding, and they’re one of the major reasons why I was so pleased to see the Snow character return in Get Him to the Greek. Sarah leads off with, “Peter, as you know, I love you…very much.” He immediately realizes what’s up, and drops his towel in panic. Now it’s time for the naked breakup scene, and Bell and Segel absolutely nail it – this is the perfect mix of awkwardness and familiarity that comes of a long-term couple quarreling. Sarah has already decided that the breakup is a done deal, but she still cares about his feelings. Peter is still acting like this is a snap decision that he can maybe, possibly, desperately talk her out of. Peter leans in for a close hug (again, she is the only one wearing clothes). Sarah gets a pained expression on her face during the naked embrace, as if she’s briefly, painfully enjoying it one last time before revealing…that there’s someone else. She’s been cheating on him. And she tearfully departs.

The next scene finds Peter with his brother Brian (Bill Hader), showcasing his pain and trying desperately to find a stranger to have sex with. He puts some very awkward moves on – holy lord, is that June Diane Raphael? – and then we flash forward to the pair of them in post-coital bliss. He flashes back to happy times with Sarah (more on this later), and cries. We see several more of these dubious hookups (including one with Carla Gallo, also from Undeclared, who offers to let him gag her). And next we’re in the studio, where Peter is scoring Crime Scene, and proceeds to freak out and bust several gashes into the projection screen with a music stand. As a friend of several former movie theater employees, I happen to know this is several thousand dollars’ worth of vandalism. The producer assures him he’s not getting paid for the day. Later, Brian checks in with Peter, who is burning Sarah-memorabilia, and starts with “Look, Look, Liz and I, we think the world of Sarah…”, before kindly suggesting that Sarah was “always acted, you know, like a little bitch”. Peter nearly cries before pushing back hard in defense of his ex, insulting Brian’s wife, and Hader’s ensuing monologue (“I have no qualms with stickin’ you!”) is thoroughly quotable. With the exception of the music-stand freakout, is all pretty classic post-breakup stuff. For people hung up on their exes, their friends and family serve a singular role – to try and help them move on, even as they’re stupidly trying to live in the past… And also not push too hard, because these idiots might get back together like idiots, and it’ll be awkward if you said too many horrible things about their prior relationship before that happens. Having been on both sides of this exchange during my 20s, I can relate. Anyway, Brian suggests that Peter take a vacation, and Peter decides to go to Hawaii (to an Oahu resort that Sarah told him about).

And now comes the character that drew me to writing this as a 10YA review: Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis). At the time, praised Kunis’ performance in my year-end awards, describing her as follows:

“I’m surprised to be putting Mila Kunis on a best actress list, being that I only knew her previously as that hot, dumb girl from That ’70s Show. Jason Segel’s script casts Rachel as his version of the perfect rebound girl. The wrong spin on this character could have turned Rachel into the random front-desk hottie (a role that anyone could’ve believed Kunis in), but her performance completely elevates this character.”

Ouch. As I’ve previously noted, my standards for female characters have grown up a bit in the past decade, and I realize now that calling someone “the perfect rebound girl”, even as a conceptual description, is – at minimum – damning with faint praise. Will this character, and Kunis’ performance, hold up? Or was I just praising a character who was designed to be an object of shallow and situational appeal? After rewatching the film, I have an answer: Rachel is still a good character, and this is still a good performance. There is a lot of depth to Rachel that we plumb over the course of the film, but what really elevates her is the character’s level of self-awareness, and the script’s level of self-awareness about who and what she is. Rachel works in customer service, so much of her politeness and cheer toward Peter is simply what’s expected of her as a condition of her employment – and the same behavior that we see repeatedly her exhibit toward other random guests. But she lets her humanity slip through immediately during their first interaction, as Sarah approaches the desk, and Peter confesses that to her that Sarah is his ex-girlfriend, and they just broke up three weeks ago. And all of a sudden, what was purely a transactional interaction becomes a real human moment between the two of them. Rachel responds by not only covering for him, but also doing the utterly insane thing of comping him the $6,000-per-night Kapua Suite for 4 nights. She does him this kindness because – even having just met him – she thinks it’s pretty fucked up that Sarah is already at the resort with some other guy. That guy, of course, is Aldous Snow, one of the best parts of this film. More on him later.

And so the zany sitcom premise of the film is set: Peter is vacationing at the resort where his ex-girlfriend is shacked up with the guy she was cheating on him with. And the film really piles it on in the next scene, as Matthew the Waiter (Jonah Hill) sets Peter up at a table at the hotel restaurant…right next to Sarah and Aldous. An awkward and hostile chat ensues, and Sarah icily tells him that she hopes he has a really good time, and he should stay. And lo, Peter hits the bar and gets hammered. He meets his new vacation-friends: Dwayne the Bartender (Da’Vone McDonald) and Darald, a recent ex-virgin newlywed (Jack McBrayer). Rachel shows up and mocks him a bit for crying in his room, and sweetly tells him that Sarah’s show sucks. Smash-cut to Peter in his room, playing a drunken (and prescient) rendition of The Muppet Show theme. A double breakfast-cocktail later, Peter hits the beach for a surfing lesson with Kunu (né Chuck) (Paul Rudd). Chuck gives him a series of fairly useless pointers that he go against his instincts and do nothing. As a veteran of several years of snowboarding and exactly one surfing lesson, I can relate to this nonsense. If you’re considering surfing, just know that your arms and shoulders will be noodles before you’re done, and it’s 80% paddling and 20% falling off your board. But Chuck is at least good for a few quotable knowledge-bombs. “If life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons!’ and bail.” Sure, Paul.

Peter has a Skype call with Brian and his wife Liz. Let me just pause here and note: Movies in 2008 still treated video chats as some sort of wild, magical future tech, and accordingly, cinematic depictions of these were always A) faked, and B) 100% clear, hi-res, and latency-free. In the ensuing decade, Skype (or Facetime or Hangouts, if you will) are essentially just as crappy as they were then, and I’m officially annoyed by this fakery. This is some good improv, but oof – the tech did not age well. But Liz encourages Peter to ask out Rachel. Peter hits the hotel luau and compliments Rachel’s dress, but chickens out before going any further. Then Matthew the Waiter pulls a move that would absolutely, 100% get a resort employee fired in real life: he calls out Aldous Snow and asks him to come up on-stage and sing them a song. Snow obliges (after briefly whinging that “this is like work for me…”, which – it is). Then he performs a downright invasive sex ballad called “Inside You“. Quick aside here. For the past decade, including during the most recent viewing, I understood the first two lines of this song to be,

“Oh, these ancient skies,
Avec these wandering eyes…”

Avec is French for “with”, and it seemed in keeping with Aldous Snow to randomly drop in a word of French just to sound très chic. But it turns out I was wrong. The actual lyric is something even more insipid:

“Old as Ancient Skies,
I’ve had these wandering eyes”

Old. As Ancient Skies. Aldous Snow is a sex poet.

Peter wanders off to cry on the beach, and makes another vacation-friend, Kemo (Taylor Wily), a tower of a man (the actor was a sumo wrestler for three years) who informs him that the whole resort knows about the Sarah Marshall situation (since he won’t shut up about it). Kemo offers him a hug, then invites him to help the kitchen staff slaughter a pig for the night’s luau. Peter goes through with it while weeping profusely. This is one of many rapid-fire escalations of violence in the film (a weirdly common trope in 2000s comedy), and while this sort of beat is hit-or-miss for me, they all pretty much land here. Butchering an animal apparently stoked Peter’s courage, and he charges off to ask out Rachel. And she’s into it! She invites him to a nighttime beach party, he starts some awkward back-and-forth over whether or not it’s a date, and she tells him it’s all good – you either want to go or you don’t, now just change your shirt and come on. There’s an awkward beat as he realizes his shirt (which is somehow not covered in pig blood) sucks, but on the other hand, Rachel telling him to change his shirt is a total girlfriend move! But…then they’re on the beach together, so whatever.

They chat (alone) about what brought her to Oahu from the mainland – the answer is a surfer dude who ended up cheating on her. Now she’s in a hospitality career rut that she doesn’t feel any urgent need to resolve. They discuss his career – and she immediately cottons onto the fact that he hates his job as the composer for Crime Scene. This is teetering on the edge of Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but honestly, they both sell this level of untoward familiarity with their performances. She can tell he hates it because…he’s making it obvious that he hates it. Peter then pitches the film’s finale, a Dracula puppet musical that will ultimately serve as Segel’s (and director Nicholas Stoller’s) audition for The Muppets. This was apparently a real-life passion project of Segel’s that predated this film by a decade, and all I can say is, I’m so happy that this made it into the film. In the same way that 2008’s Role Models ends with an epic LARPing battle between cosplaying elves and wizards, comedy is best when it it incorporates the kind of weird, fun real-world stuff that comedians and theatre people [read: nerds] are into. I know a lot of people in this community in Seattle, and while they’re hardly monolithic with their interests, I can assure you there are few among them who wouldn’t be excited by the words “Dracula puppet musical”. No people like show people.

“Why Dracula?”, Rachel asks.
“Because he’s a man like anyone else,” says Peter, “He just wants to be loved. And every time he gets close to a human woman, he ends up smothering and killing her, which is a feeling…I am familiar with.”

Rachel doesn’t respond, and instead puts on a thousand-yard stare as she realizes her ex is walking toward them on the beach, and a hilarious, foul-mouthed group melee ensues, complete with Peter getting sucker-punched in the face by the cocktail waiter from the breakfast buffet, because everyone on this island knows each other, and they all work at the same resort. Rachel and Peter – who are now absolutely, 100% on a date – end up at a tiki bar, Lazy Joe’s, where the men’s room includes a wall of photos of topless women, Rachel among them. “I hate it so much,” she says bemusedly, “[My ex] made me do it.” Which is…a minor plot hole, I suppose? Whether or not she thinks this is a date, I’m not sure why Rachel would bring Peter to this bar, knowing what awaits him as soon as he heads off to pee. But whatever. Chekhov’s wall tit photo will be important later. At Rachel’s urging (and public volunteering), Peter steps onstage and plays a song from his Dracula puppet musical, and it’s amazing. Back in the car at the resort, a debate ensues as to whether or not this was a date. Peter’s opening statement is to say he had a really good time and lean in for a goodnight kiss. Rachel’s rebuttal is to skillfully dodge, telling him she doesn’t want to complicate things. Rachel wins. Every single one of Peter’s vacation-friends at the bar agree, including Dwayne the Bartender, who flat-out tells Peter that Rachel works in customer service, took him out for charity, and that he probably thinks strippers like him too. All of this works nicely. It’s pretty clear to me as an audience member that Rachel is crossing some personal lines here that go beyond customer service. But at the same time, Peter and his friends are wise to have a bit of humility about the whole situation, because not only is he fresh out of a relationship and in possession of some very poor judgment, but Rachel is a resort employee, and he is hitting on her at work. Play. It. Cool.

The next day, Peter runs into Sarah and she shares some news: Crime Scene has been canceled. She initially repeats the same line of peppy bullshit that she had fed to Aldous: that this is what she wanted, that she’s been waiting for the right moment to break into features, etc. Peter tells her this isn’t The View, and they can have an honest conversation about this if she wants. She confesses that she’s pretty freaked out and afraid of being forgotten if she steps out of the spotlight. Bell really sells this moment – perhaps because the actress went through something similar post-Veronica Mars – but also because it’s once again immediately clear that these two used to be a couple, and are still in each other’s heads and can speak frankly when needed. Buying the intimate history of these two is a huge part of why this movie works so well, and these actors repeatedly pull it off. Bravo. A few more amusing, rapid-fire comedy moments ensue – a crass Skype chat with Brian and Liz, Aldous giving sex lessons to Newlywed Darald with some giant chesspieces (and honestly, Aldous seems like someone who gives unsolicited sex tips to everyone he meets, so Darald has picked a natural tutor).

Peter greets Rachel at the front desk, and she asks him out to Lazy Joe’s. He responds awkwardly (thinking things were still romantically ambiguous between them), but instead invites her out to hike at Laie Point, which…Rachel has heard it’s a pain-in-the-ass, but she leaves the desk to go do immediately? What exactly is her work schedule? Whatever. They wander up to the cliff’s edge overlooking the surf, and have a romantic moment. Rachel asks whether he’s going to finish the Dracula musical now that his TV show is kaput. He says he’s not sure. Then he attempts to relate to her breakup situation, suggesting that she hurt just like she was, and perhaps that’s why she hasn’t gone back to school. But maybe it’s good that they were hurt like that, he suggests. “Like there’s nothing left to be afraid of?” she asks. Again, these two are being excessively familiar with each other, but it works in that rom-com sort of way, since they’re both crossing each other’s personal lines at about the same pace. Anyway, it’s all leading up to them both jumping off the cliff, as we know they will. She tells him (metaphorically) to jump, and that he’ll be fine. He leans in for a kiss approximately 12 hours after previously being declined, and she…jumps off the cliff into the water. He flips out, botches his own jump, then (after much frantic coaching from below) leapfrogs off the rock. Nice editing note here: While the music is remaining rather tense throughout this, the moment he leaps, we get a quick shot of Rachel cackling in the water. We know he’s made it. The tension is defused and we can chill out for a second or two before they swim up to each other and share an adrenaline-fueled kiss. As I watched this, I thought the actors had done the jump for real, but…nope. Stunt doubles. I should mention, however, one of the other things I’ve done in the past decade is get married, and while on my honeymoon in Hawaii, I did perform two similar jumps (one from an oceanside cliff, one from a waterfall into a freshwater pool), partially inspired by this movie. It’s great fun, although like Peter, I only did each one after watching someone else survive it first.

The next day, Kemo wakes Peter up to tell him he’s being booted from the Kapua Suite for then 14-year-old Dakota Fanning and her entourage (which is kind of a hilarious image), but that they’ve found him another room. And…more sitcom hilarity ensues, as it’s the room right next door to Sarah and Aldous. Sarah goes to the front desk to inquire about a sushi place (Rachel responds purely in customer-service mode), and then the two share a bit of intense dialogue about Rachel keeping Peter company (and also about who’s prettier). This whole interaction is a bit odd, and Sarah completes the scene crying. Rachel clearly “wins” the moment, but she also intensely exhales, realizing what an awkward work-life knot she’s tied herself into. Meanwhile, Peter runs into Aldous on a surfboard, and Aldous reveals that he’s heard one of the Dracula tracks amid the “interminable dross” on Sarah’s iPod, and says it reminds him of “a dark, gothic Neil Diamond”. Peter shudders as he realizes he likes Aldous, despite hating him on so many levels. And Aldous casually reveals that he was sleeping with Sarah for a year while she was with Peter. Peter has a tantrum and splashes Aldous until he paddles away, and then proceeds to catch a wave and crash directly back into him, impaling his leg on some coral. Peter passes out, and the trio wakes up in Sarah’s hotel room, with Aldous sleeping off some anesthesia. And now it’s time for some real talk.

This scene is magnificent, because up until this point, Sarah has been the villain of this romance. She cheated! She dumped him. This breakup is her fault and how dare she! But the fundamental truth that this scene highlights is that while every breakup has a concrete list of relationship crimes that can be pinned on either party (and a yearlong affair is a big one), no relationship ever dissolves in a way that’s completely one party’s fault. It takes two…to stop a tango? Sarah initially tries to spare Peter’s feelings, then finally lets him have it.

“Fine. Cutting the bullshit. It got really hard to keep taking care of you…when you stopped taking care of yourself. I tried to get you out of the house. I tried to get you off your little island you loved so much, the couch. You didn’t wanna see the light of day…”

“I’m sorry that I didn’t end up being who we thought I was gonna be, you know? I think if you had just, maybe tried harder.”

“I TRIED. You have no idea how hard I tried, Peter. I talked to a therapist. I talked to my mother. I read every book possible. I took love seminars. I took sex seminars. None of it worked. None of it made a difference to you. And I couldn’t drown with you anymore.

Don’t you dare sit there and tell me that I didn’t try. I did. You were just too stupid to notice.”

Bell’s performance is merciless in this scene, and what’s clear, as with all asymmetrical breakups, is that Sarah has had plenty of time to reflect on how dysfunctional their relationship was becoming even as she was seeding its dissolution. Meanwhile, Peter is scrambling to figure out where it went wrong after years of apathy and neglect that he clearly didn’t bother reflecting on until this moment. He hid inside his bitterness and jealousy and used it as an excuse not to examine his own behavior. We only saw hints of this at the beginning (the giant bowl of cereal and TV-binging), but as I hear Sarah’s assessment of Peter, and watch her words strike his face like a hammer as he stays silent, I know she’s speaking the truth. These two shouldn’t be together anymore. But they both made this breakup happen.

They could just part as friends and go figure their own shit out, but this wouldn’t be the rom-com classic that it is without some proper self-destruction. So the two couples head out to dinner at the only restaurant at the resort, and naturally run into each other. Peter casually invites Sarah and Aldous to join their table, and before either of their dates can object, Sarah accepts the invitation. Aldous muses in disbelief – “This is actually happening. We’re going to let…this…happen”. The four proceed to have a fourth-wall-breaking argument that seems to be about the movie Pulse (about a murderous cell phone), which Bell actually starred in, and is – as the characters agree – a terrible horror film. Then the party gets hammered (minus Aldous, who is 7 years sober), and Aldous preaches about the merits of casual sex (which he literally describes as “Lose yourself in fuck”), and a very drunk Sarah starts biting him with withering sarcasm. Peter and Rachel are making eyes the whole time (and miming mockery of Aldous’ endless repartée), and end up flirting over a slice of chocolate cake. And then it gets a bit nasty. I won’t recap every line here, but Aldous delivers the killing blow to Matthew the Waiter, who asks whether the rocker has gotten around to listening to the demo tape he not-so-subtlely dropped off earlier in the film (“Oh, no. I was gonna listen to that, but then I just carried on living my life.”) Ouch. Jonah Hill does a decent job with the waiter’s creepy obsession, but Matthew was literally rubbing club soda on Aldous’ crotch a moment earlier, and he should definitely be shitcanned for all of this. Meanwhile, Peter and Rachel head back to his room to have sex, and more R-rated sitcommery ensues as Sarah hears their moans of ecstasy through the wall. She wakes up Aldous for a quick sleepy romp, and proceeds to give a ridiculous, screaming performance of an orgasm. Peter and Rachel quickly yes-and this and start hollering back, and finally the only one who’s sick of this is Aldous, who pushes Sarah off him and chides her for her “ghastly performance”. They throw some more barbs at each other, and a somewhat pained Aldous says he’s leaving her in the morning.

“I hate your music,” says Sarah.
“Yeah, well, I fucked the housekeeper…the other day,” Aldous retorts, and wins. As much as I expect I’d hate Aldous in real life, he is pretty freaking cool.

Peter and Rachel have a nice moment before she leaves for work, and he proceeds to have a delightful day by himself at the resort. He runs into Aldous in the lobby and bids him farewell – and Aldous reveals that he and Sarah broke up, incepting a terrible idea into his head. And off he goes. Cut to Peter and Sarah sitting on her bed, and – I’ll cut to the chase. She says she’s made a terrible mistake and weepily throws herself at him. Clothes start coming off, and the two have some awkward breakup fellatio before he realizes this is all a mistake, and screams in her face that she’s the “goddamned devil”. This scene rang true, and it’s an unsettling parallel to their argument above. As with the breakup, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to have self-destructive breakup sex. On his way out, he screams at a wedding party for their lack of originality, then heads to the front desk to face the music. He tells Rachel that “some stuff happened” with Sarah. Kunis’ face becomes more and more intense as she demands he tell him exactly what he did. He awkwardly explains, and she sends him on his way, thanking him for staying at Turtle Bay (ouch). They have an honest moment.

“Listen to me, Peter. I was a mess, too- I understand that, okay? But it does not excuse you acting like a complete asshole…You should not be with anybody, right now. Anybody.”
“I know… I know that there is something here. I know I wasn’t wrong about that. And yes, it’s only been four days, but I know you feel it, too.”
[beat]
“I need you to leave. Do not write me, do not call me, do not email me. Peter, I need you to go.”
“I won’t bother you anymore…I’m sorry.”

Peter leaves. But first, he heads over to Lazy Joe’s and steals the topless photo of Rachel, getting his ass kicked by Joe for the trouble. He walks back in to an objecting Rachel, slaps the photo down on the front desk, then goes on his way. Rachel is visibly shocked. Her resolve is steady, but she softens a bit in spite of herself as she watches Peter hug his vacation-friends goodbye across the lobby.

Peter goes home to L.A. and has a brief funk, but then continues working on his Dracula musical. After a weeks-long creative montage, we cut back to Rachel on Oahu, receiving an invitation in the mail. No note – just a flyer. With some encouragement from Dwayne the Bartender, she appears to be considering it. The musical goes off without a hitch (including some hilarious scream-acting by Bill Hader), and of course, Rachel is in the audience. Peter and Rachel reunite afterward, and she reveals that she’s back on the mainland for good, to go back to school. There’s a bit more accidental full frontal dong, a sweet reunion kiss, and that’s the show.

What I said about this film at the time is that it has entered my canon of classic romances alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What was unclear to be until now was just how much these films had in common. Beyond merely exploring a relationship through the lens of a breakup, peppered throughout both films are flashbacks to the relationship itself as some ironic or contrasting twist occurs in the present day, reframing either moment with the benefit of hindsight. In FSM, these are mere flashes (seconds at a time), each tied to a realization. Peter realizes that Sarah never liked or understood his puppet musical. Sarah realizes Peter didn’t like any of the tacky crap she made him wear. Peter realizes he was always shuffled to the side to accommodate Sarah’s fame (“ANDRE THE GIANT: OUTTA THE SHOT, PLEASE!”). Even as we’re watching the pair of them come to terms with their breakup (which is, at its heart, what this film is about), we’re learning along with the characters exactly why their relationship didn’t work. And when their rebound blows up in their face, the audience feels every bit of it. These two don’t belong together. And even amid a lot of funny and uncomfortable stuff, here’s why. The movie also really nails a rebound romance in a way that feels human. Nobody asks to be somebody else’s rebound, and yet, anyone who dates a new person is running this risk. Some rebounds are just a distraction, some turn into the next big thing, and in either case, both people involved have lives outside of the other person’s relationship baggage. Kunis’ performance here is outstanding, but she’s not enough on her own to make this film work. That comes from just how thoroughly this film takes a madcap sitcom premise and manages to tell a weighty, emotional story of three relationships (exactly what Definitely, Maybe failed to do!) while remaining unrelentingly hilarious. This film is still a delight. And now I’m off to listen to some puppet songs.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

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“I Feel Pretty” (dir. Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein) – Body-unswapping.

I Feel Pretty earns a lot of points for good intentions. It is a fundamentally well-meaning and goodhearted film, centered on a lead character, Renee (Amy Schumer) who – through the lens of magical realism – is learning a lesson about self-acceptance and self-esteem that the world could surely use more of. It’s just a shame that it used such a banal, low-stakes filter of capitalism and high fashion to tell that story. Renee works at an haute cosmetics company, Lily LeClaire (whose retired eponymous founder is played by Lauren Hutton). LeClaire’s granddaughter Avery, played by Academy Award winner Michelle Williams (along with her My Week With Marilyn voice) is taking the reins of the company as it makes a push to expand to the Target and Walmart crowd with some lower-cost makeup. And in comes Renee, who previously worked in a Chinatown basement as part of the company’s ramshackle two-person website team, who decides that her greatest dream is to work as a receptionist at the company’s Fifth Avenue skyscraper. I have a number of credulity problems with this setup, but let’s move on to Renee herself.

Renee is a woman who is deeply insecure about her appearance and body. This is illustrated in classic “show, don’t tell” fashion with an opening montage that starts with an awkward first-time sortie to SoulCycle, climaxes with a pants-ripping, vulva-bruising fall, and finishes with Renee standing in her underwear in front of the mirror (framed as an unblinking stare almost directly at the audience), nary a drop of makeup on her face, looking dejected and disgusted with herself. I’m coming at this film as a follow-on and attempted modernization of innumerable body-swapping and slapstick comedies of the turn of the century (everything from Shallow Hal to The Hot Chick) that frequently used or abused the bodies of women – especially women considered overweight or Hollywood-overweight – as comedy fodder. I’d call it a qualified success in that arena, but even as a straight drama about a woman struggling with her body image and self-esteem, Schumer also performs admirably in this film. As she debates with her friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips) about the efficacy of profile details in online dating (which they’re somehow doing as a trio) as opposed to merely taking a sufficiently hot profile picture, it feels like the film is posturing, certainly, but it also feels like a genuine expression from Renee’s experience through Schumer’s sincerity. Online dating is a frustrating experience until the moment it isn’t, and it’s something women and others alike bitch to their friends about. Fair enough.

And then Renee smacks her head. Really hard, during a second fall at SoulCycle (which is getting a lot of injuries in return for its product placement buck). And suddenly, she is suffering from a traumatic delusion that she has transformed into a gorgeous, unrecognizable version of herself. To be clear, Schumer is still playing Renee at this point – there is no actual body-swap happening here. But the film essentially acts like a body-swapping movie from this point on, with Amy acting like the “hot chick” that she now sees in herself, and the world delivering some impressive (but not, like, The Secret-level) return on her confidence. She gets a new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and of course she gets the new job at Lily LeClaire, because she wanders into the lobby-adjacent conference room where Avery the CEO does all her most important work in full view of the public, and decides that she has to have it. To be fair, she offers a few tangible pointers on what “real women” will think of Lily LeClaire’s new product line, soon to be slumming it at the big box stores – but this is essentially a simplified version of the fictionalized Vogue from The Devil Wears Prada  – literally everyone working at this place is a model, and she’s the fish-out-of-water amongst them. And on that note, let’s cut back to reality for a second.

Lily LeClaire is a ridiculous company. It is possible that between The Devil Wears Prada and certain, other family-owned real-world companies headquartered on Fifth Avenue (and/or Pennsylvania Avenue), I’m simply unprepared to believe that this collection of Manhattan elitists perched amid the stacks of pane glass and oozing, gaudy pastels could be led by anyone other than a high-functioning sociopath. This is high fashion and high finance. These people have investors to answer to, marketing teams and focus groups that don’t bend to personal whims or hunches, and even if they didn’t, these people grew up among New York’s pampered elite, and they aren’t “just like us”. And for a movie to not only breathlessly argue that the opposite is true, but also stake its entire emotional climax on it, was such a severe leap from reality that I almost dismissed the movie for it. There’s one fictional person that ultimately prevented me from doing so, and that was Tony Stark. Because if I can accept a weapons’ manufacturer CEO going on a personal journey that ended with him promising not to build weapons anymore – and in the process, become a superhero – I suppose I can accept a woman going on a journey of self-acceptance that has the minor hiccup of briefly derailing a product launch. They both exist in the same world of magical realism and wish fulfillment (in one instance, Black Widow literally resets Hawkeye by smacking him in the head), and if nothing else, the home-game version of this journey is a bit more doable than the superhero stuff. You can’t be like Iron Man, but you can certainly feel a bit better about yourself. And that’s enough complaining. In the end, the logic centers of my brain quieted to a dull roar, and I felt every note of tension as Renee persisted in her delusional hotness, with the audience faintly dreading the painful moment when the spell must break (or when someone would get Renee some medical attention, because seriously, her condition is literally a sign of dementia or traumatic brain injury okay shut up now Glenn). Because as long as she only likes her own appearance because she believes it’s been magically altered (to a standard of beauty that is equally arbitrary, cruel, and unattainable), then she doesn’t really like herself, does she? The film expends some clever dialogue in order to maximally delay this moment (including one particularly poignant scene with Boyfriend Ethan), but fundamentally, we need to see the other shoe drop. The movie doesn’t work without it.

Still from "I Feel Pretty"

And we do. I don’t mind spoiling that, because honestly, if we didn’t, then – like Shallow Hal, which ends with Jack Black pretending that he finds a literally inhuman-looking Gwyneth Paltrow in a terribly-rendered fatsuit attractive – I Feel Pretty would be a profoundly cruel and cynical exercise. For the audience, for Renee, and for the woman at SoulCycle to whom she repeatedly compares herself (real-life model Emily Ratajkowski), who has just as much right to feel dejected, unattractive, and unwanted as anyone else. For all of its flaws and oddities, this movie fundamentally understands the point it’s trying to make (even if the trailer made it look like the just the sort of material that it was trying to transcend). It ends with Schumer standing up and making a TED-talk (or Kyle from South Park)-style speech explaining what she learned today. And what she learned is, “You know what? We’re all okay.” She makes nice with her friends, she sells some cheap cosmetics, and we all go home feeling a bit nicer. The execution is a bit ridiculous, but the message really is alright.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” – A bold, beautiful, simple mix

I enjoyed just about every moment of Ava DuVernay‘s bold, relentless, and optimistic film, A Wrinkle in Time, despite a few cracks, which I’ve struggled to define since I saw it. The film is based on a 1962 novel by the late Madeleine L’Engle – a book that I haven’t read, but which I understand owes some affinity to the Christian-inspired fantasy of C.S. Lewis. This was a curious thing to know going into the film. As the young Meg (Storm Reid) gets whisked away on an adventure to far-flung dimensions/planets/wherever, the whole thing definitely had a bit of a Narnia vibe, but lacked the more explicit Christian imagery that appeared in those books and films. Reese Witherspoon‘s Mrs. Whatsit (one of the trio of space wizards that help to recruit Meg) clearly owes a bit to Mr. Tumnus, constantly making awkward jokes, flitting around like a pixie, and generally being delightful. There’s also a scene where Meg and the other kids – Meg’s brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and neighbor boy Calvin (Levi Miller) – are offered delicious food that isn’t quite what it seems by an unnamed devilish figure (Michael Peña), and it all feels terribly familiar. And yet, there is nothing resembling an Aslan here. That’s to say, there is no Jesus-figure coming to save these kids from the evil they must face. They – and Meg in particular – need to figure out their place and save themselves. The space wizards – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) – feel quite as outmatched by the big evil thing as Meg is. The only difference is that Meg, who initially knows far less about what’s going on than the rest of her companions, is essentially the audience surrogate. And in that sense, this film owes far more to the likes of Harry Potter. Meg is special, the movie assures us, for reasons that she will discover along with the rest of us over the course of the film.

And so it begins in Meg’s bedroom, that iconic cradle of adventure at the top of the house that’s just a bit too big for the kid inside, with a rainstorm raging outside. This imagery is common because it works. It’s the stuff of wandering childhood minds that dream of launching into the dark sky and soaring into whatever lies beyond. And there Meg sits, pondering the four-year anniversary of the day her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), vanished without a trace or explanation. Meg wanders downstairs to find Charles Wallace pondering the occasion (and the absent father that he barely remembers), and heating up some milk for the two of them. And it’s all very nice. The first 15-20 minutes of this film are all character setup, and this cast pulls it off quite well. This is a family that has suffered some trauma, but they all mean well and care deeply for each other. Alex cared about his children before he vanished. Charles Wallace is a precocious little scamp, at once dressing down a pair of teachers (literally shouting “Shame on you!” in their faces) for chatting about the pair of troubled siblings behind their backs. Precocious is also an apt word for McCabe’s acting, which requires a great deal of the young actor over the course of the film – it really is an outstanding performance.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Alex Murry and his wife Dennys (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – also a PhD of some sort – discovered a means of traveling great distances throughout the universe. We see Murry showing the younger Meg (Lyric Wilson) some basic science at the start of the film – just long enough to provide an emotional and intellectual connection between the two for us to care about – when later that night, he vanishes. And that’s about as far as the movie’s dalliance with science goes. It makes a few vague references toward space-time curvature, before Murry explains – to an assemblage of NASA officials – that no spaceship will be required for the method of interstellar travel that the Murrys have discovered. You’ll just need to use your mind and reach out with love…or something. They rightfully chuckle and murmur and look worried, but that’s really about as specific as the film’s conveyance gets. The way it’s rendered on-screen, images just kind of warp and twist around each other, until the character steps into a translucent opening that doesn’t seem to even be there, and then reappears somewhere else. And that’s where Dr. Murry went – 91 billion light years away (almost the diameter of the observable universe!) – and that’s exactly how his daughter Meg will follow him, somehow. All of this starts out vague and is never clarified, and honestly, that’s another similarity to Harry Potter which is bittersweet in retrospect. The first Potter film sets up an elaborate world of magical powers, but assures us that the main character will have some uniquely powerful command of that world – an assurance that is essentially an article of faith, not well justified in text or screen. Potter – and Meg – are important because the script says that they have to be. But this is actually intended as a roundabout compliment – Reid’s performance really sells the notion that Meg needs to figure out her place and importance on her own, through the course of events. Her father is out there, and she wants to find him, so she’s highly motivated. People tell Meg that she’s special, and Mrs. Whatsit trades knowing banter with Charles Wallace about what his sister can do, but she never really reveals that they’re correct until the critical moment, when she has to save the day. But all of the ill-defined powers in this film feel as if they’ll eventually be explained, and I never felt any doubt that Meg would eventually come out of her shell.

And here’s where I, white male film critic, will attempt (with some humility) to discuss the casting of this film. Meg is played by a young African-American girl, and it seems right to acknowledge that casting a young person of color to be the hero of this story is kind of a big deal (even if a few other examples come to mind). There are plenty of characteristics of Meg – her sullenness and guilt over her father’s disappearance, her shy demeanor and anxiety of being a preadolescent – that seem to have little or nothing to do with her race, at least not in any way that is made explicit. And yet, Meg’s situation is racialized in various ways – when she lashes out at Veronica, a [white] girl in her class, for bullying her about her father’s disappearance, she gets called into the principal’s office to be dressed down for spiking a basketball into Veronica’s face. Now, I’m not going to say a basketball to the face doesn’t hurt, but as the principal – also African-American – is telling her that Veronica’s parents “fear for her safety”, it’s hard not to think that these words would be thrown around much less casually for the idle (and provoked) shenanigans of, say, Calvin. [White] boys will be boys. Students of color get suspended or arrested, because identical behavior from these students is regarded as a “safety issue” that can’t be handled through more mundane and short-lived methods of in-school discipline. None of this is explicitly detailed in the film, but using this sort of language to describe such an innocuous event feels like a conscious choice. It also seems deliberate that Meg is repeatedly given grief (and gives herself grief) for her hair, which is…well, natural for a young black girl. In a note of bitter fantasy later in the film, we catch a momentary alternate vision of what Meg “could be” (also played by Reid), and it notably includes hair that has been straightened and hangs past her shoulders. Beauty standards are arbitrary, capricious, and white-centric, and this is not a new observation. I promise, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for wokeness here, but these elements were there, and it would feel disingenuous not to acknowledge them, since they felt as earnest as every other detail about this character. It’s the inclusion of these sorts of details – specific to the experience of being a black preteen, or perhaps being from a mixed-race family – that make it so welcome to see a woman of color with at least one excellent film under her belt finally get the mandate and a $100M+ budget to tell this sort of story. A Wrinkle In Time is a sweet, human adventure about love conquering evil, and this film makes the simple – and in no way provocative – point that a young black girl can absolutely be the hero of that story. Representation in film production is important – not because of any unspoken rule that people need to stick within their own demographic lanes when it comes to the stories they tell, but because people are well equipped to bring earnestness and veracity of details to the stories that they know from personal experience.

So Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on a quest to find Dr. Murry and bring him back home to his family. They get recruited by the trio of space wizards, make a delightful detour to a gorgeous practical set to have their fortune told by the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), and eventually head off to try and rescue their father from the great big ball of evil in the sky, known variably as “It” and “Camazotz”. And honestly, this is the two thirds of the film that I have the shortest appetite to describe in detail, because it was all very pretty and well-rendered and vague. And this vagueness served to the detriment of the characters at times. When one planet begins gobbling up the landscape with a swirling vortex, Meg deduces that the gyre will throw the group up and over a nearby mountain if they just rush into it and hide inside a stump. It is utterly unclear how she figured this out, or how this fridge-nuking method of travel is supposed to help them survive, so when she turns to Calvin to ask, “Do you trust me?”, I almost laughed aloud. I mean, he came this far for no obvious reason besides a crush on Meg. Sure, I guess? Even as I was completely on board with the emotional journeys of Meg and Charles Wallace respectively (which are noticeably distinct), I was simultaneously impressed and aloof from the fantasy elements and locations. They evoked the same sort of feeling as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – a series of well-rendered locales that intrigued me with their storytelling possibilities, but which were individually pretty hard to latch onto, since it simply felt as if anything could happen at any time, and no one was ever in any real danger. The ill-defined nature of Meg’s knowledge and power contributed to this as well. Reid plays the character as an extreme introvert at the start, which is why watching her confidence grow is so electrifying. But the details of each place she ventures to, while gorgeous to look upon, felt fundamentally simplistic and low-stakes. Those are the cracks I referred to at the start. The cast of this film works. The characters and relationships work. The vistas are gorgeous. Even Mrs. Who’s annoying book of quotations (which include one from Hamilton?) worked. And yet, I’d have a hard time describing exactly how this story was resolved, or what any specific character did to contribute to it. The big ball of evil can only be defeated with love (sound familiar?), and Meg shows love for her family and friends, as well as an acknowledgement and acceptance of her own flaws, which Mrs. Whatsit assures her are an asset. It all feels lovely and inspiring, if a little simplistic. It would be a bit of a facile giveaway for me to say that perhaps this is enough for a children’s film. But that’s a mantle that is often used dismissively, and I have no desire to dismiss this film. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I can’t speak to the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation, but this script – from Disney veterans Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) – shows as steady a hand with these characters as DuVernay and her FX team have with the look and feel of these worlds. And I’ll reiterate what I said at the outset: I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film. It’s a grand, self-appointed adventure for the kids of the next generation, as much in the tradition of Spielberg’s E.T. as Rowling’s Harry Potter. Whether through better adaptation, a smarter relationship with science, or a bit more coherence to its system of magic travel, A Wrinkle in Time does feel as if it could have been something more. But it satisfies on its own terms.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial. Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It tried to have its ending both ways in a similar manner, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

2017 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2017)

#11: The Disaster Artist

Directed by James Franco, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

As ever, the #11 slot on my Top 10 list goes to a film that I loved, with some reservations. The Disaster Artist is a thoroughly inessential comic indulgence that is purely for super-fans of The Room. Since I count myself among them, I adored this film (again, with reservations) – but I’ve been doing my very best to discourage others from seeing it unless they fall into that same camp. The original headline for this review was actually, “Fuck it, let’s indulge,” and I went on to say it felt “less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats”. And that’s honestly fine. Let it never be said that we critics are incapable of taking joy in a film that panders to us so effectively (I did make Hugo my #1 film of its year after all). But you should know going in whether or not this film was specifically made for you.

Check out my full review here:

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

#10: Molly’s Game

Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t see I, Tonya until after the New Year, as there’s a good chance it would’ve sparred with this film for the #10 spot. Both films are about aspiring real-life Olympians who get involved in a world of criminality, and Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is easily as fascinating a persona as Tonya Harding, even if her story is a bit less morally ambiguous. This is just an immensely entertaining crime drama that’s equal parts Rounders-caliber poker flick and taut legal thriller. Sorkin, along with DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is a steady hand in his first turn behind the camera, telling a plot-complex and lengthy story in a manner that flies by despite being two-plus hours long, and eliciting four outstanding performances. There are the two you’d expect – Chastain as Bloom, along with Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney Charlie Jaffey, with the pair spending much of the film debating exactly what Bloom has done, and how much truth there was in her published memoir (which has been written, and is directly addressed in the film). There are also outstanding turns from Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, and Michael Cera as Player X, an unnamed Hollywood celebrity who may be primarily based on Tobey Maguire. And all I can say about that is…I hope Maguire wasn’t really like this, because Cera effectively plays the character as a voracious sociopath.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #124 – “Molly’s Game” (dir. Aaron Sorkin)

#9: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh now has three outstanding features under his belt – In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now this – and each of them has demonstrated some maturation of his storytelling. The third act of Seven Psychopaths is almost a rumination on the writer’s own shortcomings, as the characters (including a screenwriter named Marty) wander off into the desert and debate how the story should end. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand) who erects a series of billboards demanding to know why her daughter’s rape and murder have gone unsolved for over a year. And while it does strive for some notes of bittersweet ambiguity with its ending, this is a much more laser-focused narrative than anything McDonagh has done previously. It has something ugly to say about small-town America, and it isn’t going to mess with that ugliness for the sake of facile redemption. Sam Rockwell – in his least likable role to date – plays Officer Dixon, a drunken, violent disgrace of a cop who retains his badge despite a town-wide consensus that he tortured an African-American suspect in custody. His superiors and colleagues at the Ebbing PD never really question this narrative (although they do tiptoe around addressing it directly), and Dixon never expresses any remorse, or explains or redeems himself. This goes beyond “flawed protagonist” for me. Dixon is a terrible person who is on the edge of being the film’s biggest villain unless he decides to do his job. This is alongside Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suddenly dealing with Mildred’s PR crisis while simultaneously dying of pancreatic cancer. Naturally, the town turns on Mildred, because she can’t just accept that her daughter’s rape and murder will go unsolved. They’re all on her side, the town priest assures her, just…not about the billboards. Then Mildred gives a cutting speech likening the Catholic Church to a criminal gang of pedophiles, then shows him the door, and I remember why I love McDonagh’s dialogue so much. All of the film’s acerbic little speeches are crafted with theatrical precision – so much so that I wonder if I should be more critical of McDonagh for peppering in quite so much racism. Is he throwing it in because he thinks it’s funny, or because that’s the real world as he sees it? Maybe both? This is the same question I’ve long had about Quentin Tarantino, but he’s perhaps a bit easier to critique when he literally writes himself into his films to rattle off the N-word like punctuation. I saw Three Billboards with a friend – a Chinese-American, as it happens – and she had a blunt answer to this question: “I think it’s fantastic. I’ve had total strangers call me a [racial slur] out of nowhere, multiple times. It doesn’t feel excessive. This is the real world for me.” Fair enough – and in either case, casual racism certainly isn’t the only way in which these characters are nasty to each other.

This film is uncompromising and clever with its plotting, but there’s nothing about it that I would describe as narratively tidy, and that’s exactly what this sad, ugly story needed. And if there’s anything that occurred as frequently as the gladiatorial repartée, it was the surprising flashes of humanity that shone through despite everyone’s posturing. An early scene of verbal sparring between Mildred and Chief Willoughby is interrupted when the latter begins coughing blood (he’s dying, remember), and everything stops, because suddenly, these are just two human beings dealing with one of them having a serious medical crisis. Mildred is no less enraged or committed to her billboard plan, but there is a sudden moment of grace as she embraces the frightened, dying man in front of her and assures him it’ll all be okay. There are multiple moments like this – of people treating each other decently despite having severe and legitimate beefs with each other, and in many cases, having actively made each other’s lives worse over the course of the film – and then suddenly dropping the pretense and just treating each other with honesty or decency, if only for a moment. Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) repeatedly beats the hell out of her, and they still have multiple semi-cordial conversations. Mildred is strong, but not invulnerable. Willoughby means well, but legitimately fucked this up. Dixon is an almost irredeemable bastard, but manages to do some good. Nobody is a single thing, and everyone in this film retains their flawed humanity – and that’s what makes this story so compelling.

#8: Una

Directed by Benedict Andrews, written by David Harrower (based on his play)

This is a difficult film. Una (Rooney Mara) plays an adult woman who ventures to a remote factory in England to confront her former next-door neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom she had an illicit sexual relationship when she was thirteen years old. The pair ran away together (posing as father and daughter), until he abandoned her in a motel. At which point she was recovered and returned to her parents, and he was arrested and sent to prison. He is now living under a new name, and she hasn’t seen him since that night 15 years earlier, and she wants to know why he abandoned her. Did I mention this is a difficult film? Absolutely no good can come of this interaction, and Mara and Mendelsohn extract every last drop of tension out of it. The journey that Una has gone on as both victim and damaged adult is put on merciless display through flashbacks as the pair verbally spar in a windowed breakroom at the factory. It feels like court without the courtroom, and the film presents Una as both accuser and disruption. She is a smasher of the status quo who would make everyone’s lives a lot easier if she would just shut up, go away, and deal with what has happened to her without bothering the rest of us, thank you very much. And that is every bit as uncomfortable as that sounds. In the year of #MeToo, the year in which an unabashed predator of teenage girls (with no legal or moral right to call himself “Judge”) was very nearly elected to the US Senate, this film forces us to watch a conversation that probably doesn’t happen nearly often enough in the real world, and without any sense of vigilante wish fulfillment (à la Hard Candy). Like I said – absolutely no good can come of this interaction. But there is something socially rotten at the core of this story, and Una seems like just the right person at the right time to smash it to bits so it can be washed into the gutter.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #121 – “Una” (dir. Benedict Andrews)

#7: Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

A pair of fine performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf bring glorious life to indie star Greta Gerwig‘s solo directorial debut, which began its life with the title of Mothers and Daughters. Lady Bird certainly seems a more appropriate title for what this film turned out to be – the focus is squarely on the waning high school days and coming-of-age of 17-year-old Christine, who styles herself as “Lady Bird” – a nickname she enforces under threat of leaping from a moving vehicle if her mother Marion should refuse to call her by it. There is an honest bite at the heart of this film that propels it forward – Lady Bird and Marion flit back and forth between harsh bickering and protestations of love, sometimes multiple times during the same scene. But the tone of the film never feels uneven or manipulative. I’ve seen the coming-of-age film that’s trying too hard, and it’s called The Way, Way Back (or Boyhood if you’re nasty) – this isn’t it. The film feels like a fundamentally honest recounting of Lady Bird’s life and times, even as the character is certainly striving to put on a show, trying out various personas and plans as her life unfolds. Ronan adds some marvelously subtle notes to this performance, right down to introducing herself to multiple characters (“I’m LADY-Bird!”) with an ever-so-slight vocal twinge of, “Don’t you just love this awesome nickname I thought up myself?!”. There are no people like show people, and I could watch this awkward emotional powerhouse of a drama kid come out of her shell all day. A note on the time period covered here… Gerwig and I are around the same age, and it appears that I’m now vulnerable to appeals to nostalgia for the time when I was in high school (I quite liked the soundtrack of this film, for reasons I can’t entirely explain or justify). Noted.

#6: Keep Quiet

Directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin

At this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, we had the immense pleasure of seeing Keep Quiet, a documentary about Csanád Szegedi, a former far-right, antisemitic political party leader in Hungary who discovers that he has a [still living] Jewish grandmother, which causes a sea change in his political and religious beliefs. Specifically, he goes from being an outspoken neo-Nazi to an orthodox Jewish convert, with the help of a local rabbi, and goes on a speaking tour to denounce his former hatred. And…if this all sounds a bit sanctimonious to you, let me just say: if this had just been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, I’m sure it would’ve been rather tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s strength is its ambiguity. How can we ever believe this man has truly changed? Neither his old tribe, nor his new one really seems to buy his conversion, and that’s precisely the tension that’s at the heart of this documentary. And in light of the resurgence of Nazism (even the polo-shirt, tiki-torch variety) in public life in the past year – it couldn’t be more timely. As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #108 – “Keep Quiet” (dir. Joseph Martin, Sam Blair) (#SJFF2017)

#5: Graduation

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

Graduation is the story of a father and his teenage daughter in a small Transylvanian mountain town. The girl, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from high school. She is an excellent student, about to receive an academic scholarship to Cambridge, and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is desperate to see her succeed and leave their town to seek a better education abroad. Eliza, meanwhile, is in a happy relationship with her local boyfriend, and is noticeably ambivalent about her father’s plans for her. Her fortunes change abruptly when she is brutally attacked outside her school, a sexual assault which ends with a sprained wrist that severely hampers her chances of doing well enough on her final exams to qualify for admission to Cambridge. This dilemma, in and of itself, absorbed me straight away and was certainly enough to carry the film. But Mungiu pulls off something far more subtle and complex as the film goes on – an exploration of a deeply corrupt town in which everyone considers themselves to be honest, but regards greasing the wheels and doing illegal favors for one another as just the way the world works.

The generational conflict between father and daughter is essential to this film. All of the greased palms and sly favors are performed between men of a certain age, but the father’s plot (with a local town political fixer) to help Eliza commit academic fraud will ultimately require her cooperation. This is a tale as old as time – Romeo raised his daughter to do what’s right…until the moment it harms her future prospects. And then it’s time to start making exceptions. There are two separate scenes of Romeo attempting to corrupt Eliza in this film, and each of them is as heartbreaking as it is ethically fascinating. He believes in her – believes in her abilities. And yet he thinks her future has been derailed due to an event for which she bears no blame, so she simply must cheat a little to get back on track.

From my review:

They aren’t the corrupt ones ruining life and making the world unfair for all of us regular people. They are us. And for anyone with the power to break the rules for their own benefit, they are making a conscious choice to bend the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. And in the moment, it all feels righteous. Coming back to the film’s American tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future,” I’m struck by how much Romeo seems determined that his daughter will follow in his corrupt footsteps. He’s not safeguarding her future, per se – he’s teaching her the same set of privileged skills that led him to his own place in life. Society only functions if there’s a common rule set for everyone, or at least, if that’s everyone’s nominal goal. And Romeo is the epitome of replacing that standard with, “What would you do to give your children a leg up over everyone else?”. Graduation revels in this contradiction – and confronts the viewer with the assurance that if that answer is specific and situational rather than broad and ethical, then civilization is a fragile experiment that is all but destined to fail.

As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix

Check out my review here:

Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” – An engrossing tale of societal decay

#4: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

The only direct comparison that I’ll make between this film and The Empire Strikes Back is that I believe history will vindicate it as one of the best films of the series.

From my review:

And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill’s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.

[…]

I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for. But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

Check out my review here:

Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

#3: The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

I’m always pleased when I can place a comedy on this list, especially when it’s one that has already held up to repeat viewing. The Big Sick is written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life courtship, which gets derailed initially due to cross-cultural disagreements (Nanjiani’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choosing), and then due to Emily having a serious medical crisis. This kicks off the film’s second courtship: between Nanjiani and his future wife’s parents, a North Carolina couple played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who bond as Emily lies in an induced coma.

From my review:

Her parents arrive and are outright hostile toward him, because they know that (as they see it) he broke their daughter’s heart. And yet, they bond. This is some messy, human nonsense right here. There are no clean lines or definitions to these relationships. It is completely unclear to the people involved whether Kumail and Emily will be together at the end of this, or whether these three will have any reason to ever speak again. But still they bond. Because the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all in the trenches on Emily’s team. The parents are a fine portrait of unfathomable worry, but Holly Hunter is particularly masterful. The three make a reluctant foray to a comedy club where Kumail’s show goes awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and then they find themselves getting hammered at Emily’s apartment. Kumail and Beth decide to drink whiskey and “stress-eat” after Terry passes out on the couch, and they try to talk about anything but Emily’s impending surgery. Later on, Terry sleeps at Kumail’s place and they chat awkwardly in the dark about the struggles in Terry’s marriage. All of this works. These scenes have time to breathe, and ring constantly true. These people grab onto each other –  not without hesitation – in an impossible situation, and they remain raucously funny as they handle it.

If any marketer for this film is looking for my pull-quote, I’ll offer: “This is some messy, human nonsense right here.” This comedy rings true because it is true, and its level of honesty demonstrates a respect and humility for its characters and story that is often lacking in depictions of real-life romance. Nothing about this was destiny, none of the dialogue is perfect, and none of it had to work out this way. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

‘Silicon Valley’ Showdown: “The Big Sick”, “Entanglement” (#SIFF2017)

#2: Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

This is one of the most tightly constructed horror films and works of social satire ever made – every detail of the life and dangers surrounding Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) serves a dual purpose, as both a deft portrayal of the day-to-day reality of racism faced by African-Americans today, as well as a pillar of the horror-mystery that is gradually taking shape around them. As Chris ventures into upstate New York to meet Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), he starts to realize that something is very wrong with all of the other black people that he meets. They don’t quite speak or act the way he expects. They all seem to have a secret. Something has happened to them…or been done to them. The precise nature of this Stepford mystery is certainly a major component of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot more to this film than plot revelations. The performances are uniformly outstanding. Kaluuya and Williams sell the quiet moments within this couple with the sort of humanity that is often lacking in horror characters, who will often scream at each other about an impending threat, but fail to ever sell any prior affection in the first place. Keener and Whitford are quietly menacing, Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, and Stephen Root have outstanding supporting moments, and a particularly hilarious turn from Lil Rel Howery keeps the film from venturing too far into darkness. As a directorial and horror genre debut, Jordan Peele completely knocks this one out of the park, delivering an intense ride that will keep you thinking long after it’s over.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

#1: A Ghost Story

Written and directed by David Lowery

The concept of this film is a bit goofy. A married couple’s life is shattered when the husband – known only as C – (Casey Affleck) is suddenly killed in a car accident outside their rural home. The wife, M (Rooney Mara), is left to fend for herself as her husband lingers on in the form of a ghost. Literally. The actor Affleck (purportedly never a stand-in) stands beneath a floor-length sheet for the duration of the film – invisible to his grieving widow and everyone else among the living. Did I say a bit goofy? The premise of this film is overtly ridiculous. It’s almost a deliberate riff on the very concept of supernatural horror. Ghosts? Pfft. Even if you believe in them, they’re just dead humans standing around in sheets. Who cares?

But A Ghost Story manages to pull off two stunning tricks. The first is that it occasionally makes its goofball supernatural horror genuinely frightening. As C hangs around his former house, he gets to watch his wife engage in the ugly process of grieving, and eventually move on. And then the house moves on. Other people live, laugh, and love there – and all the while he waits for something that he can’t quite remember, only occasionally getting angry and breaking things. Life goes on for the living, and this film really highlights for the first time what a conceptually sad existence that the ghost myth really posits. Being ignored, forgotten, cuckolded… These things only matter if you’re alive. The idea of a dead person (even as a dude in a sheet) bearing witness to the world moving on without him is incredibly sad, and this is the most thoroughly I’ve ever felt this sadness woven into supernatural horror. This ghost only occasionally startles its audience, but it never stops being frightening. The second trick is that A Ghost Story is really an existential horror film in disguise. At the tail-end of an insufferably brilliant speech by an unnamed partygoer (Will Oldham), the music swells and time rages on as the ghost stands alone to bear witness. This sequence – which I won’t describe in detail – made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack in the theater as I watched it. And that’s not a phrase I use lightly, as I have friends who have experienced them in a more diagnostically sound fashion. It felt wrong, and too much to bear – and when it was over, my companion and I left the theater in silence as writer/director David Lowery did a Q&A in the theater behind us. It was nearly midnight. Empty lobby, empty sidewalk, empty block. Thunderstruck, we didn’t speak a word until we reached the car. This film hit me like a ton of bricks and hasn’t left my head since.

When Lowery introduced this film to our SIFF audience, he began by invoking the work of the late, great director Abbas Kiarostami, and said that he found the man’s best work to be like a dream – a free-flowing stream of consciousness that you could easily drift in and out of without losing its appeal. He then said he didn’t mind if we fell asleep during his film. This ominous and cryptic introduction made me glad of the Americano I grabbed on the way in, but I’m not sure what to make of it in retrospect. This is a film that lacks a conventional narrative structure, and I suppose is not for everyone in that respect. It’s framed in 4:3 with lengthy scene edits, which didn’t seem like an arbitrary choice, but rather an invitation to get sucked in and share in the characters’ grief and experiences. Life is for the living, and this film’s essential appeal is in watching life go on. The only unwelcome guest is the ghost standing awkwardly in the corner – essentially watching it along with the rest of us. This film will flow over you like a river, forcing you to feel the fullness and enormity of time and life. I’ve long believed that a primary purpose of art is to distract you from your impending demise, and this film makes a deliberate and merciless choice to direct your attention towards it. How dare it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #110 – “A Ghost Story” (dir. David Lowery), “I, Daniel Blake” (dir. Ken Loach)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Call Me By Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
  • Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
  • It (directed by Andy Muschietti)
  • Colossal (directed by Nacho Vigalondo)
  • Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins)
  • Crown Heights (directed by Matt Ruskin)
  • Logan (directed by James Mangold)
  • Glory (directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
    I really hope I’m not getting too old to appreciate Edgar Wright‘s mad music video hijinks. His previous film, The World’s End, demonstrated some definite growth as a filmmaker and storyteller, and I was really hoping to see that evolution continue. Instead, this film was a mixed bag of solid gangster performances (probably the last one I’ll ever watch from Kevin Spacey, and grand turns by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), wasted and one-dimensional female leads, a boring soundtrack with a very high opinion of itself, and action that wasn’t particularly well-choreographed, filmed, or plausibly conceived. This was a fine dance film, but it barely resembles the sort of gangster movie I was hoping Wright could muster, and I found the experience of watching it to be physically exhausting. Check out our podcast for more.
  • mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
    From my review:

    These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)
    Turns out my limit of self-indulgence for a Marvel film is 90 completely inconsequential opening minutes before the actual plot begins. And this is easily one of the least visually impressive Marvel films. Nothing about Ego’s planet worked for me, because I never bought for a second that the characters were standing anywhere besides a soundstage. More on the podcast here.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
    Confession: I’m a meat-eater, and I avoided this film not precisely out of low expectations (although Snowpiercer started out middling and has aged poorly in my memory), but because I didn’t want to feel bad about eating meat, and the film’s trailer suggested this might be little more than cute fantasy-animal torture-porn. Nonetheless, this perhaps suggests that I’m aware there’s something to feel bad about, whether it’s the horrors of factory farming or the environmental impact of raising livestock. And yet, the measure of an effective satire cannot solely be its ability to prod the existing insecurities of its audience, and Okja largely succeeded at being a well-made action-adventure blockbuster on top of its subject matter, about a world in which a big evil agribusiness giant (which might as well be called Bonsanto) creates a huge, grey elephantine creature they call a superpig, in order to feed millions at a lower cost and environmental impact. Their CEO(s), both played by Tilda Swinton, sell this as a miracle of nature, born mysteriously on a farm in Arizona after some careful selective breeding (this is a lie that barely attempts to pretend otherwise). Each superpig is sent to live with a small, local farmer around the world to be raised using whatever method they see fit, and the winner – the one that thrives the most under its farmer’s care – will be crowned “Best Superpig”, an award whose value in unclear, and likely comes with a trip through the meat grinder. Okja is raised on a Korean mountaintop, enjoying a carefree life with its human companion, Mija (played by marvelous newcomer Seo-hyun Ahn). Mija’s adventure in pursuit of Okja is beautifully rendered, and the story retains Bong’s signature darkly comedic streak throughout. Who knew that Paul Dano as an Animal Liberation Front paladin would be so compelling? Ditto Jake Gyllenhaal as a drunken sell-out of a wildlife TV presenter. A vegetarian friend asked me how I can call Okja an effective satire if it failed to make me want to change my diet, and I think this is a fair question…My answer was honestly that I don’t think the film is arguing its point effectively for anyone that doesn’t already have ethical qualms about eating meat. A vegan probably sees a 15-minute sequence in which we learn that Okja is beautiful and compassionate and intelligent and a great friend to humans, and thinks, “Yes! That’s why eating meat is bad!”. I suppose a meat-eater sees the same scene and thinks, “Okay, let’s maybe not eat that particular animal.” There’s a bit of criticism of the consumer for this ambivalence – wanting all-natural, cruelty-free meat production without recognizing that such a thing is impossible. The two Tilda Swintons address this in various ways – the “nice” one saying that it’s the consumers’ fault for being ignorant and paranoid about GM foods (which is certainly true IRL), and the “evil” one stating flatly, “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” while not particularly caring about the animals except for their value as commodities. I don’t think we’re meant to take the plausible words of either of these overt psychopaths at face value, but this film’s third act is a hard watch regardless. The slaughterhouse horrors are large-scale and well-rendered, and their production apparently had a profound effect on Bong himself – he says he became a vegan while making it. This is worth a watch and will stick with you – one way or another.
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
    An incredibly fun hip-hop musical featuring a career-making performance from Danielle Macdonald as an up-and-coming Jersey rapper. This is a better movie about would-be performers than La La Land, and unlike that film, its array of original songs didn’t leave my head the moment I finished listening to them. Great supporting cast as well, including Mamoudou Athie as a weird, awesome dude named Basterd Antichrist.
  • Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
    j/k, this movie is not good. But Sigrid‘s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows” is hauntingly beautiful and worth a listen.

Daniel’s Top and Bottom Films of 2017

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year (we did a record 29 episodes in 2017), and we sometimes disagreed!
Here are Daniel’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 films of 2017.
Top 5:

  1. Molly’s Game
  2. Victoria & Abdul
  3. Keep Quiet
  4. Get Out
  5. A Ghost Story

Bottom 5:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  3. Justice League
  4. Fifty Shades Darker
  5. Wind River

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

For someone whose birthdate, nationality, and endless source of funds are an enduring mystery to this day, Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of the 2003 self-financed film The Room strikes me as essentially guileless. What you see is what you get. And what you get is…quite strange. From his pallor to his dyed, jet-black hair to his uneasy laughter in an ineffable accent, Wiseau is a living cartoon vampire whose most enduring mark on the world has been to make his very best impression of a Hollywood film, which ticks every box that he thinks a film needs to tick. Johnny (Wiseau) is a young bank manager who seems to have it all. Great friends like Mark (Greg Sestero), a great girl like Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a great betrayal when the two start sleeping together behind his back, and a series of additional random high-stakes subplots that are introduced and dropped without further ado. This is pure melodrama, and I must emphasize that what makes this film work so well is that – with the singular exception of Mike Holmes, who mugs horribly at the camera about his “underwears” – all of these actors are playing this horrendous and overwrought material completely straight. When criminal Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) threatens wayward, youthful creep Denny (Philip Haldiman) at gunpoint in a dispute over missing drug money (on a rooftop for some reason), they play it as straight as day players on Law and Order hoping to put together a convincing highlight reel. When Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) pauses a monologue about a real estate dispute with her brother with a surprise announcement that she has breast cancer, you feel it as surely as daytime TV. And you continue to feel it when the credits roll, along with a nagging realization that these events are never resolved or discussed again in any way. The Room is a bizarre, meandering film, and its saving grace is a lead and script whose ineptitude is only matched by its sincerity.

So what do we make of this film, in which young actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) becomes friends with Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), and – in the act of writing the book that inspired this film – repeatedly violates Wiseau’s oft-spoken admonition not to discuss him behind his back? Is this a memoir, or a polemic? Is it a tribute, or a betrayal? After I watched the film’s trailer, which consisted of repeated attempts to film a wonderfully bizarre rooftop scene, I went in with a question in mind: who exactly is this movie for? Would this be a mere celebration of Hollywood and filmmaking, like The Artist or Hugo or [literally hundreds of other films]? Or is it an exhibition of nostalgia, intended purely for superfans of The Room? I’m thinking here of something akin to Cary Elwes’ memoir, As You Wish, which consists of 273 pages of saccharine anecdotes from the set of The Princess Bride (including the time he and the entire cast got the giggles from André the Giant cutting a thunderous fart during a scene that they had to play seriously) – less a cutting exposé, and more a parallel novel with a likely dollop of fan-fiction, neither offering any grand insights on the filmmaking process, nor particularly sullying the nostalgic glow that surrounds a beloved film. Something nice, but thoroughly inessential. The answer I came up with is that it pretends to be the former, but it is definitively the latter. This is an indulgence akin to Ed Wood, a thoroughly entertaining film which holds little appeal without prior familiarity with the featured director. It ends with a completely unnecessary credits sequence of side-by-side comparisons between Wiseau’s film and Franco’s recreations, which we’ve already seen throughout the film. I didn’t need this, but I wanted it. Make no mistake, I was delighted by this film, but it is fundamentally a parasitic – or perhaps symbiotic – work that feels less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats.

The early scenes between the brothers Franco – attending acting classes, acting out a scene in a diner, discussing their frustrated dreams of the silver screen – are easily the film’s strongest. Wiseau’s bizarre antics are nearly indistinguishable from those of his character Johnny, and the elder Franco’s performance, as well as his burgeoning friendship with the younger Franco’s Sestero, is simply outstanding. It is this friendship that forms the sole emotional core of the film that is not nostalgia-driven, and it largely works throughout the film, as do both performances. The only time that James Franco’s performance crosses over into imitative, SNL territory is during the recreated scenes from The Room, where he is no longer playing a character, but rather, trying his very best to match the exact cadence and camera-work of Wiseau. This duplicative puppet show plays a bit like a pair of Highlights for Children pictures where I’m invited to spot the differences. James Franco matches the closest, but some of the others are eerily spot-on as well. Dave Franco’s version of Sestero is such a close, and yet slightly wrong match for the actor that he looks like a mo-capped video game cutscene – uncanny valley territory. That weirdness is less of a problem with the other actor-characters, such as Juliette Danielle/”Lisa”, Philip Haldiman/”Denny”, and Dan Janjigian/”Chris-R”, played by Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron respectively. The 2017 actors are nearly unrecognizable in their wigs, and have much less to do in the film, and as such, they don’t seem to feel quite so much pressure to be carbon copies of their 2003 counterparts. Efron-as-Janjigian-as-Chris-R (still with me?) is a particularly delightful psychopath.

Carolyn Minnott/”Claudette” (Jacki Weaver), who has just passed out due to a lack of air conditioning or water during a particularly hot and egotistical day on set, makes a trite observation that the worst day on a film set is still better than the best day anywhere else. This may well be an authentic quote, but it’s also the closest that the film comes to acknowledging that “magic of Hollywood” fluff from the other films I mentioned. And there’s perhaps a bit of intended irony here, because Wiseau is certainly depicted as abusing these actors a bit. Hitchcock abusing Tippi Hedrin, this is not – although that relationship does get a shout-out in the film – but there’s definitely a minor, timely depiction of actors (particularly female actors) being sacrificed on the altar of their director’s ego. The conflict comes to a head as Wiseau is about to film a bizarre and overlong sex scene with Danielle, and he struts around naked (wearing only the standard-issue Hollywood dick-sock), defending the need to show his ass in the film (“to sell movie!”), and screaming that Danielle’s body looks disgusting (because he spots a bit of acne that will probably not be visible to the side-by-side film and HD cameras). DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) engages in a bit of masculine bravado, threatening that Wiseau is “a dead man” if he should ever disrespect Danielle again. Smadja is fired, then not fired, Sestero tries to calm his friend down, and Danielle – consummate professional, or perhaps just afraid of getting fired herself – says repeatedly, “I’m fine – can we just do the scene, please?” This scene was a monkey-fight at the zoo, and honestly, I have no idea if I believe it went down this way or not. This is about as unlikable as the character Wiseau ever gets in the film, and while it has a lasting impact on his relationship with Sestero, I honestly found it too shallow a conflict to really affect my image of Wiseau as an earnest and mostly amiable weirdo. Much of the conflict with Sestero stems from a “best bud vs. girlfriend” dynamic featuring Dave Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie in an utterly insubstantial role, and despite how well the Franco brothers play this friendship, none of this felt like it mattered all that much. James Franco can get into multiple shouting matches with every guest-starring comedian in this film, and all the while, I’m just thinking, Franco – and Wiseau – are the bosses of their respective sets. They are the money, they make all of the decisions, and we’ll get a movie out of this no matter what. We don’t spend enough time with any of the other characters to know or care about their feelings on the situation, and there’s fundamentally very little at stake here. In retrospect, my judgment of Wiseau as guileless starts to feel more like a cop-out, designed to avoid admitting that I learned very little of substance about the man from a film that is supposed to be his biopic.

Perhaps I’m asking too much here. I took two full weeks to write this review, partially because of a Thanksgiving vacation, and partially because I was unsure if it’s okay to enjoy an indulgent, pandering film if I’m the one that’s being pandered to so effectively. The film ends with Wiseau at his premiere, Sestero back as his reluctant friend, and the audience giving a biopic-standard round of applause for the film and its subject (perhaps not for the reasons he intended), and of course, my real-life audience did the same. Wiseau drives past the premiere twice in a limousine full of an excessive amount of The Room swag (the very same swag was in the theater with us as well) – his ideal red carpet premiere containing a generous sidewalk crowd, as one more box that his film needs to check. And in the end, I’m happy to acknowledge that any love I experienced for this film is inextricably tied to my love of The Room – love that I at least believe that Franco shares on some level. If The Disaster Artist feels like anything, it’s a sequel and spiritual successor, and perhaps that’s enough. And as the credits roll, and I watch the two films side-by-side like the post-modern, tech-addicted weirdo that I am, my inexorable conclusion is: Fuck it, let’s indulge.

Hi doggie! You’re my favorite customer. I did NAHT.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual. Further, it contains candid discussion of kidnapping, child abuse, and sexual assault as it pertains to the film’s subject matter. 

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, but this is the second 10YA film and review that I’ve began with that clause, so it’s as solid a framing device as any. Or at least better than what I feel obliged to start with, in light of the past few weeks. Gone Baby Gone is a film that I remember fondly. It’s a compelling detective story with a provocative ending, it launched the surprisingly laudable directing career of Ben Affleck, and it helped to launch the lead-acting career of his younger brother Casey (which includes one of my favorite films of this year). It continued a long collaboration between the elder Affleck and Miramax, the production company co-founded by the ignominious [alleged] sexual predator Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob (who had already departed for The Weinstein Company by 2005, and had no involvement with this film). Meanwhile, Casey Affleck was sued in 2010 for alleged abuses of his female co-workers on and off set (the suits were settled under terms of confidentiality), Weinstein has been revealed to be a rapacious creature on par with Bill Cosby or Donald Trump, and a litany of actors and producers (including Ben Affleck) have lined up left and right to excoriate Weinstein out of one side of their mouth, and grouse unconvincingly that they didn’t know a thing about it out of the other.

These 10YA retrospective reviews are meant to showcase how my thinking on a film has changed since I first saw it a decade ago, and one belief has certainly not changed: Art must stand on its own. It’s the inanimate product of a thousand decisions by a thousand people. While I still occasionally nod to my auteurist leanings by referring to a film as the possession of its director (as I’ve done in the headline above), I recognize that it neither exists in a cultural void, nor is the product of a single voice. I can’t judge art retroactively by the artists that created it, no matter what happens afterward – although it’s a fine argument for expanding the pool of artists. That said, all of this sucks. My awakening to the hardships of sexism, discrimination, harassment, and assault that women are categorically more likely to face is older than the past few weeks, but its latest hashtag iteration (#MeToo) is a grim reminder. I still believe that art must stand on its own, but it is equally true that art can have a cruel human cost that taints it in retrospect. And I’d be lying if I said that this feeling of disappointment wasn’t on my mind while re-watching this film. I’ve been writing about film for over a decade, and right now, Hollywood and its margins give me an icky feeling, just as surely as the casual outspoken racism, sexism, and homophobia of older films. Society will move on, and some of these people – who either did wrong, or knew about it – will have their misdeeds ignored, or experience tepid, PR-friendly redemption narratives, or win Oscars (some already have). And we’ll be judged by history accordingly. Now on with the film.

The missing little girl is Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), and she’s understandably not present for much of the film. She is stolen from her bedroom in a dank apartment ill-maintained by her mother Helene (Amy Ryan), and as we begin the film, her disappearance is a known quantity, and Lionel and Bea (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan), Helene’s brother and sister-in-law, are in the market for a pair of detectives to supplement the police investigation. There’s no love lost in this family – Helene openly mocks Bea for her infertility, and Bea refers to her as an abomination. “Helene has emotional problems,” says Lionel. “It’s not that, Lionel… She’s a cunt,” says Bea. Ryan is simply marvelous as Helene, flitting between disinterested party girl, casual Boston racist, and broken, prideful parent with incredible ease. Her television career runs the gamut from The Wire to The Office, and all of her range is on display here. Helene is…not a charmer. And her unreliability and unfitness as a mother is essential to the film’s ending.

The detective couple is Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). If I might rave about Monaghan for a moment, this is an actress who spent much of the 2000s in do-nothing love-interest roles, and is frankly a talented enough performer to deserve better. This film, along with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is one of the few opportunities she’s had to do something interesting on-screen. Angie and Patrick have several private chats about how to proceed over the course of the film, and her reluctance to take on the case is key. She’s a skilled detective who doesn’t want to take on a missing kid – not because she’s afraid they won’t find her, but because she’s afraid they will – either dead in a ditch, sexually abused, or both. As police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – whose backstory includes a murdered child of his own – puts it, “I don’t care who does it. I just want it done.” In light of the film’s ending, it’s hard to make sense of these initial reactions as each character joins the investigation, but the film does thoroughly sell the notion that anyone who willingly investigates a kidnapping is performing an important duty, but also welcoming abject horror into their life.

Patrick and Angie head for a local haunt and interrogate some barflies, who quickly reveal that Helene was not across the street for a quick sandwich when her daughter was taken, but rather pounding rails of coke and getting busy with her boyfriend Skinny Ray in the bathroom. This is where we first learn of a violent Haitian drug lord named “Cheese” Jean-Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), for whom Helene is occasionally employed as a drug mule. Then it gets nasty, words are exchanged, all of the barflies get aggressive and start threatening the pair with violence and sexual violence respectively. Patrick pulls a gun, and they leave to meet their fellow investigators assigned by Captain Doyle: Sgt. Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Detective Nick Poole (John Ashton), who introduce a possible suspect, convicted pedophile Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), who’s known to hang out with a couple of cokeheads. Not much to go on – and Remy and Patrick have great fun throwing barbs at each other. “You got something to contribute, be my guest,” says Remy, “Otherwise, you can go back to your Harry Potter book.” At which point Patrick gives up the goods on Cheese, and they go to interrogate Helene (after briefly pausing to hand off the pedophile info to a shady acquaintance, played by Boston MC Slaine). 

This is all an odd sort of mash-up between a police and private investigation (which seems to be author Dennis Lehane‘s specialty). Helene is confessing to multiple felonies in the course of this, and Remy vacillates between mocking her obvious half-truths (“No. It don’t ‘sound familiar’, Helene. He’s a violent, sociopathic, Haitian criminal named ‘Cheese’. Either you know him or you don’t.”), and demanding whether she even gives a fuck about her kid. This is all terribly convincing, perhaps because both Remy and Lionel already know where Amanda is at this point, and their disapproval of Helene’s lifestyle is the one sincere detail of the scene. Regardless, it plays brilliantly. Helene confesses that she and Skinny Ray conspired to steal drug money from Cheese (under cover of the police busting their contact and seizing the drugs), which makes all of the investigators in the room presume aloud that Cheese kidnapped Amanda for ransom. They all drive over to have a chat with Skinny Ray.

Helene rides with Patrick and Angie, and they bond over some casual “faggot” talk about a mutual high school acquaintance. This is how blue-collar Boston talks. Got it. Helene is still not taking this particularly seriously, but she does lay out her self-inflicted dilemma: She couldn’t just call Cheese and confess to ripping him off, and she couldn’t just tell the cops that she ran drugs. Amanda disappeared, and she had no recourse but to report the disappearance and hope for the best. She also reveals that she hid the money. From everyone, including poor Skinny Ray, whom they find tortured and shot to death. And this is when Helene finally loses her shit. As soon as she sees Ray, it suddenly becomes real for her. She knows Cheese must’ve taken Amanda. She knows it’s her fault. She remembers that when she left Amanda alone at bedtime, the last thing the child said was that she was hungry. Helene wonders whether they fed her – begs Patrick to tell her that her daughter isn’t still hungry. I was prepared here – this is the part of the film that I expected to bother me more, as one of the things I’ve done in the past decade is have a child of my own. And it’s fair to say, I did find these scenes (and the whole concept of a kidnapped child) a bit more upsetting than I did the first time. But…not as much as I expected to. Perhaps because this time through, I knew Amanda wasn’t in any real peril, and perhaps because she’s little more than an offscreen MacGuffin for most of the film. Helene’s emotions are real (and Ryan renders them brilliantly), but she’s such a selfish and unfit parent whose feelings are so fleeting that I had a hard time internalizing them. Sure, she wants her kid to be fed, warm, and safe – and these are feelings I can relate to. But she didn’t bother to feel them until a half-day past the coke wearing off, and I assume another quick bump will sort that out. The team digs up the money (which was buried in the backyard, 20 feet from where Ray was being tortured – poor bastard), and makes a gameplan. Remy and Nick acknowledge that if this is a kidnap for ransom, they have to bring in the FBI. Patrick and Angie volunteer that they can do what the cops cannot: negotiate with Cheese for a clean swap – the money for Amanda (no one seems overly concerned with avenging Skinny Ray). So off they go.

Gathegi plays a marvelous cartoon gangster in this scene. This is an actor I’ve seen pop up all over TV and the occasional film over the past decade, and he’s always a pleasure. He plays up the Cheese shtick for a bit, declaring that, “Bitches love the cheddar.” I turn to my wife and ask, “Do bitches love the cheddar?” She considers a moment, and says, “Yes.” Good. That’s why I always keep a loaf of Lucerne Sharp in the fridge – as true a decade ago as now. Meanwhile, back on the screen, Cheese is not happy. If we believe the Haitian, not only did he have no idea he’d been robbed, he doesn’t know anything about a kidnapped girl, and is offended by the suggestion that he’d ever mess with a child. He pulls a gun, demands that Patrick lift his shirt to reveal any wires, demands the same of Angie a bit more aggressively, says the title of the movie aloud, and insists that he’s not involved. Patrick stares him down and issues an extremely elaborate threat to ruin Cheese’s life and business if he’s lying. Cheese points the gun in his face and offers to get “discourteous” if they should ever return. Patrick doesn’t blink. Man this scene is great.

The cops don’t buy it, and start surveillance on Cheese, who promptly calls into the police station offering to make the trade – Amanda for the money. Captain Doyle has a transcript of this call, and is pissssssed that his officers have involved him in an illegal ransom exchange without his knowledge or consent. And he agrees to make the deal anyway – nice and quiet. At this point, Angie is the voice of reason in the room, asking whether keeping the deal quiet is better for Amanda…or better for them. Doyle promptly shuts her down with the my child was murdered card, which is…admittedly a pretty good card. He insists he cares as much about Amanda as anyone in the room, and believes that this is the best way to keep her safe. Freeman…sells this deception well. We don’t learn until later that the whole point of this farce at the quarry is to fake Amanda’s death and throw Patrick and Angie permanently off the trail, but Doyle is speaking the truth when he says he believes this is what’s best for Amanda. And so it plays out. We see a gorgeous flyover of the flooded quarry at sundown. Then cut to darkness. They take their positions on opposite sides, in accordance with Cheese’s “instructions”, and all hell breaks loose. Shots are fired in the distance, and Patrick and Angie run around to the scene to find Cheese dead on the ground. There’s a splash – someone or something went into the water. All of the dudes stand around dumbfounded, and Angie jumps the fuck off the cliff into the water to rescue the girl. It’s downplayed, but this is an awesome and quite dangerous piece of heroics. Angie is the one who didn’t want to find a dead child, and she’s the first to leap for that possibility – good on her. But it’s all for nothing. We cut to Angie in a hospital bed, where Patrick tells her that divers are searching the quarry. Nothing is found – Amanda is presumed dead, and Angie blames herself. Captain Doyle takes official responsibility, loses half his pension, and retires. Helene gets a death certificate and a donated casket, and life goes on. I honestly can’t recall how I felt watching this a decade ago. I asked my wife afterward how she felt at this point, and it all seemed familiar: Hopeless. Aimless. Disappointed. Unsure how there could still be 40 minutes left in the film.

Two months pass, and a boy has gone missing. I’m going to TL;DW this sequence: Patrick’s contact tells him he’s located the pedophile from earlier, Corwin Earle. Remy and Nick show up for backup, an extremely well-staged shoot-out ensues, and Patrick enters Earle’s upstairs room to find him whining on the floor that “it was an accident”. A series of horrific montage shots: the missing boy is dead in the bathtub, Patrick vomits, Earle begs for his life, and Patrick executes him on the spot with a shot to the back of the head. I don’t want to write any more about this, because frankly, this is the part that disturbed me more as a parent. I’m with Angie on this. I know that a dead child is a necessary plot element in this film. I know that murdered children exist in real life. But I don’t want to see it. I don’t want my lizard brain to become terrified of every stranger and dark alley, when the people I know, and who have a pre-existing relationship with my kid, are statistically more likely to kidnap or harm him – and the overall risk of such an event is extremely low compared to more mundane harms. I know that. But I also know that I don’t want to ponder that scenario, because I’ll want to lock my child indoors and hold him in my arms and never let him go. As I recall my reaction from a decade ago, I was as baffled and disturbed by this sequence as my wife was this time. She said afterward that she was wondering what the point of all this would be – just an extended Law & Order: SVU episode? And then, finally, it all comes together.

In the next scene, Remy – whose partner Nick was fatally shot – drunkenly comforts Patrick about the summary execution. I haven’t said much about Ed Harris, but he also gives a fine performance in this film. In the fundamental conflict at play in this film, he represents the side of vigilantism, and he argues his case well. Many years earlier, he and his soon-to-be-dead partner received a snitch tip from Skinny Ray about a minor criminal, and they raided his house. And in that house, they found a disgusting hovel with pair of strung-out criminals, but no drugs – and an abused, neglected child in an immaculate bedroom who just wants to tell Remy all about how he’s learned his multiplication tables.

“You’re worried what’s Catholic? Kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. And what do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride. Seven-to-nine.”
“That was the right thing?”
“FUCKIN’ A. You’ve gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. If you see me coming, you’d better run, because I’m gonna lay you the fuck down! … Easy.”
“It don’t feel easy.”

This exchange, right here, is what this film is all about. It’s imperfect, grandiose, and both of these men have violated the principles that they claim to believe in. It describes the War on Drugs in myopic, moralistic, clash-of-civilizations style terms, and I’ll be honest – a decade ago, despite leaning college-libertarian at the time, I probably would’ve taken this at face value. Jack Bauer spent a decade popularizing torture in the War on Terror. These guys – along with every cop flick since the 1980s – justified vigilantism in the name of a war on a convenient other – “drug-people”, who aren’t like us regular, law-abiding citizens. It’s only the reluctance, and the moral complexity of the film’s ending, that makes this a better treatment of this issue than most. Because we know now what comes of fighting a war the way that Remy describes. More war. Mass imprisonment. An ouroboros of societal decay. And at the same time – you ask me what I’d like to do with someone who harms a child (which the film is keen to associate with the war on drugs, not entirely unfairly), my lizard brain says the same thing as Remy: Lay him the fuck out. It’s not a rule to run a functional civilization with, but it’s sure as hell satisfying. But more importantly, it causes Patrick to realize that Remy has been lying to him – he pretended not to know Skinny Ray during the investigation, but the dead man had been snitching to him for a decade.

This isn’t the last great scene in the film – there’s a tense moment back at the Fillmore bar, where Patrick confronts Lionel about his involvement with Amanda’s disappearance, Remy shows up in a mask to stop Lionel from telling him the truth under cover of a fake armed robbery (and the movie makes almost no effort to hide his identity from us), leading to a shootout and chase in which Remy dies on a rooftop proclaiming that he loves children. The exposition of this conspiracy (between Lionel, Remy, Nick, and Captain Doyle – without the knowledge of Bea, who hired the two detectives) feels a bit rushed, but is probably one of the tightest and most coherent reveals this side of Gone GirlIt’s a great sequence, but as I often say of falling action, I don’t have much more to say about it. At this point, I was just waiting for the consequences. Patrick and Angie wind their way down a wooded lane and arrive at the home of the retired Captain Doyle, only to find Amanda McCready, alive and well, where she has been the whole time.

And Patrick faces another choice between law and vigilantism. Does he do his duty, telling his client that he’s found her missing niece, and send Captain Doyle and the surviving conspirators to prison? Or does he leave her there? Angie’s answer is clear – leave that child where she is, in that safe, affluent house where a nice couple makes her sandwiches. I do wish the conversation between Patrick and Angie had been a bit longer – all that we gleaned of Angie’s point of view was that she was so glad to see Amanda alive that she was willing to do anything to see her safe. She warns Patrick that she’ll hate him, he does the stoic detective thing and calls the cops, Angie leaves him, and that’s that. All the conspirators go to prison, and we cut to Patrick visiting Amanda and Helene on any given Friday, with Helene about to go out for the evening. And Patrick realizes that Helene is still a terrible mother, and by making this choice, he has essentially volunteered to be Amanda’s babysitter until adulthood. This is a fine ending – it seems to be a marginally less disturbing version of a village raising a child than the conspiracy of Amanda’s relatives and the police to steal her away. Kids forgive. Kids turn the other cheek. But they still need meals and blankets and hugs and rides to school, and once a grownup – any grownup – has decided to take on that responsibility, they have a duty to keep it up for as long as the kid needs them.

But let’s talk some more about that moral choice. When Patrick arrives at Doyle’s house, he has to decide whether to continue – and become an accomplice to – Amanda’s abduction. While this dilemma prodded my incredulity a bit, I was willing to accept it on its own narrative terms, because it’s fundamentally the same question about vigilantism that he and Remy had discussed regarding the shooting of a criminal or planting of evidence. It’s about going outside the law to pursue your own definition of justice. The state holds a monopoly on deprivation of civil liberties for a reason (whether we’re talking about executions or forced forfeiture of children), and while our system of social services is an imperfect, underfunded mess that’s rife with abuses and due process violations of its own, it’s hard to imagine a situation where carrying out a life-long extrajudicial disappearance ends well. Not even a state could do this – I mean, it’s literally a crime against humanity for a reason. Amanda may well need to be taken away from her mother – at least one of the anecdotes was of Helene leaving her in a hot car and nearly killing her. But denying a mother closure on her child’s fate is a cruel and unusual punishment. That’s not my opinion – it’s legal fact, even as applied to a mother as execrable as Helene. For a film that strove for some ambitious moral complexity, I’m inclined to think that making Amanda a 5-year-old was a misstep. This is a girl that’s old enough to remember her former life. When we see her at Doyle’s, she seems to be treated well – but when you really think about what she’d have to look forward to in this scenario, she would be a phantom, hiding her true name and face in public, and only living half a life.

This ending forcibly called to mind the story of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted as a teenager in 2002, forcibly “married” to a religious extremist (who horrifically abused and raped her over the course of nine months), until she was found on a public street with him and an accomplice. I don’t imagine that Doyle and his wife would dream of hurting Amanda – but I have to believe that the mere act of plucking her away from reality is still an act of abuse. Morgan Freeman was 70 years old when this film was made. Did Doyle expect to hide this girl from the world until his mid-80s, when she presumably found her true identity on Google or while applying for student loans? How would she even go to school? Have friends? What would she say to any of them about her upbringing? How long could this charade really last without some serious brainwashing of Amanda to keep it all nice and quiet? A “happy” ending for this story seemed implausible to me even in 2007, which is perhaps why the film doesn’t dwell on it – in 2017, when mass surveillance is a known quantity, and even children’s toys are spying on them, it’s hard to imagine a film even attempting that version. The audience simply wouldn’t accept it. Unless Doyle means the child harm, he simply couldn’t keep her a secret forever. If I were in Patrick’s place, I think I’d have a hard time living with either outcome, especially if Helene continues her reliable track record of being a terrible mother – but at least in this version, he can stop by every once in a while, call Amanda by her real name, and let her know that someone cares about her. And perhaps that’s enough.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10