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 like its politics, 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 have 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 also tried to have its ending both ways in a similar way, 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

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #104 – “The Wall” (dir. Doug Liman) vs. “Buried” (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

Poster for "The Wall" (2017 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the latter days of the Iraq War with a lean thriller from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman, The Wall, and we revisit the 2010 Rodrigo Cortés thriller, Buried. It all looks a bit grim, and while there may be an ending in sight, we’ll figure out which flick handled that ending best (47:15).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Buried"

The Wall is in theaters this Friday, 5/12, and will be available on Amazon video later this year.

FilmWonk rating (The Wall): 7/10 (Daniel); 6/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Buried): 6/10 (Daniel); 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: The Wall/Buried
  • [24:02] Spoilers: The Wall/Buried
  • Music for this episode is the opening title theme from Buried, composed by Victor Reyes.
  • Check out Glenn’s 2010 review of Buried.
  • Clarification: We stated a figure of 500,000 deaths from the Iraq War, and this appears to be on the high end of estimates, based on a 2011 study in PLoS Medicine, which relied on census-style household surveys, and had an extremely high uncertainty interval (95%), meaning that the study’s casualty estimate was anywhere from 48,000-751,000. The Iraq Body Count project, which relies largely on media reports (and thus may be underestimating), puts the figure at closer to 120,000. The overall point notwithstanding, there does not appear to be a single, agreed-upon figure. See Wikipedia: Casualties of the Iraq War for more information.
  • As promised, according to RF Cafe, the density of dry sand is 100 lb/ft3. A standard coffin is approximately 7 feet long, and 2.333 feet wide at its widest point. If Paul was buried under 3 feet of sand, this amounts to approximately 49ft3 of sand above him, weighing just under 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). With all respect to The Bride, Paul’s not punching his way out of this.

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #76 – “Self/less” (dir. Tarsem Singh)

Poster for "Self/less"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel reflect on another mediocre genre thriller. It’s really been a rough week, for Ryan Reynolds and us alike (31:28).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is the track “No Limit (Sencit Remix)” by Wiz Khalifa, from the film’s trailer.

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

2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Rodrigo Cortés’ “Buried” – Masterfully uncomfortable

Poster for "Buried"

Buried is viscerally unnerving from the very first frame. After a lavishly-scored, Hitchcockesque title sequence, we begin the film in complete darkness, hearing the confused and muffled grunts of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), an American civilian contractor in Iraq who has been kidnapped and buried alive in a coffin. His hands are tied, his mouth is gagged (for some reason), and his only immediate light source is a Zippo lighter from his pocket (surely not the best item to be using with a limited air supply!).

The film’s premise seems to be a real-world expansion on a brief sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 2 – a character is buried alive, and we live the entire experience from his perspective. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but even I was getting physically uncomfortable by the end of the film. However, it is to the film’s credit that I wasn’t feeling it even sooner. The film lasts 100 minutes, nearly all of which is spent in the coffin. But by way of a borrowed cell phone and some masterful sound design, Buried feels almost like an old-time radio play, crafting the illusion of a much larger world. For a locked-room thriller with an even more confined scope than Phone Booth, this film’s expansive feeling is an impressive achievement.

Speaking of achievements, this may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING, RIGHT NOW, TO GET ME OUT OF HERE?!”, Paul screams into the phone at Dan Brenner (voice of Robert Paterson), head of the coalition military’s Hostage Working Group. Brenner is easily Paul’s closest ally, working tirelessly to find his captors before it’s too late, but he ends up working a surprising amount of hostage negotiator voodoo on Paul himself. Brenner has to try and calm Paul down and preserve his air supply, which includes trying to protect him as much as possible from the true horror of the situation. The tense dialogue between these two is some of the most effective in the film, and Paterson’s vocal performance certainly helps carry it. He casts Brenner as a caring but pragmatic ally – like the proverbial starfish-thrower, he’ll save as many hostages as he can, despite knowing that he won’t be able to save most of them.

Still from "Buried"

There was also a shining performance from veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as the voice of Alan Davenport, the company’s head of personnel. His scene very nearly took me out of this film with its utter hopelessness, and yet the whole thing seemed depressingly plausible, owing a great deal to both the screenwriting and Tobolowsky’s eerily calm demeanor. The indifference of the outside world was a resounding theme throughout the film, and this scene made for a shocking bookend to that theme. Rather than being taken out of Paul’s plight, I was very nearly weeping for him.

With scenes like this in mind, the tone of the film is a bit hard to pinpoint. The direction is very reminiscent of Hitchcock – Cortés and cinematographer Eduard Grau were able to compose a remarkable variety of shots in such a cramped space and dismal lighting, occasionally cheating the outside of the coffin and moving the camera outward to further showcase Paul’s isolation. Many of the phone calls were punctuated with axial cuts (in which the camera jumps closer and closer to his face with each statement), along with sharp, jarring musical cues… Indeed, the direction and score kept the film’s feeling very light, even as Paul’s situation deteriorates. There is a sequence in the second half in which Paul has to deal with [an unexpected spoilerific difficulty – but trust me, you’ll know what I mean]. This scene and its resolution were utterly ridiculous, but very well designed and shot. If I were watching a more cartoonish thriller, this moment of levity would certainly not have bothered me, but it just seemed completely out of place in light of the more dour scenes that follow.

But perhaps a mixed tone is exactly what this film needed… In many ways, Buried came out at just the right time. Imagine this film seven years ago… At the onset of war amid an economic boom, shortly after the “Mission Accomplished” banner, we all heard about the lavish, six-figure civilian contractor jobs available for reconstruction in Iraq. Every war has its profiteers, and whether or not these contractors qualify, I could certainly see people both here and in Iraq regarding them with (at the bare minimum) complete indifference. You takes the job; you takes your chances, and that includes the possibility that criminals will kidnap and murder you. This mentality is rarely so black-and-white in the real world, but the film’s presentation of it feels authentic. Now that the war and economy have both wound down a bit, it’s much easier to see Paul as a sympathetic everyman, just trying to do right by his family. He knew this was a possibility, but he didn’t ask for it, and he certainly didn’t deserve it.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

2009 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Ryan Reynolds – Mike Connell, Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland"

From my original review:
I must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in…

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

#4: Jackie Earle Haley – Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley in "Watchmen"

I am quite fascinated by geekdom and alternate history, but I must admit, I was not too excited by this film. Zack Snyder delivered a long, grueling, mixed bag of a film that seemed to split even the most die-hard fans of the graphic novel (and I do not count myself among them) right down the middle. But if there’s one thing it effectively conveyed, it’s that the only people who would voluntarily become superheroes are those with severe social or mental issues.

And so we meet Rorschach, the unrepentant, masked psychopath played to absolute perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. Like I said last year, there’s just something great about a well-played psychopath. Haley took what could have been a one-note, gruff-talking slasher and imbued him with some fascinating personality, giving the finest comic performance I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.

#3: Denis Menochet – Perrier LaPadite, Inglourious Basterds

Denis Menochet in "Inglourious Basterds"

Denis Menochet only appears in one scene of this film, but it was a doozy (see Viola Davis from last year). He plays the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected by the SS of harboring a Jewish family. What ensues is a masterful interrogation scene between LaPadite and the SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As with many other scenes in this film, the tension gradually increases as the scene goes on. LaPadite is a physically imposing man, but he has everything to lose, and Menochet lays all of his vulnerability bare as Landa closes in on the truth. Menochet deserves every bit as much credit as Waltz for how well this scene played, and it is certainly one of the most memorable in the film.

#2: Jim Broadbent – Prof. Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jim Broadbent in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

David Yates brings another strong entry to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Jim Broadbent is the finest example yet of the franchise’s reliably strong casting. Like so many of Rowling’s characters, Horace Slughorn is a well-written blend of familiar tropes – a grand old wizard, a collector of the ambitious and famous, a well-meaning man with a terrible secret – but also greater than the sum of his parts. Broadbent’s performance is absolutely delightful in many scenes, and downright somber in others. When his secret is inevitably revealed (as cinematic secrets must be), we are treated to a heartbreaking soliloquy in which Slughorn reminisces about Harry Potter’s dead mother, who was one of his favorite students. This scene features some of the best acting in the film by both Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe, and is almost certainly the film’s emotional climax.

#1: Christoph Waltz – SS Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

From my original review:

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. [Quentin] Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

In addition to a fantastic performance of a complex character, Waltz seemlessly flitted back and forth between onscreen languages. We’ve seen plenty of cinematic polyglots before, but what separates Waltz from, say, Jennifer Garner, is that he sounds as much at home in one language as another. Without him, this film could not have been the same… Indeed, it might not have even been made. Tarantino has praised Waltz publicly for making this film possible, and he will quite deservedly be remembered for playing one of the finest villains of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Martin Starr as Joel in Adventureland
  • Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation
  • Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds
  • Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

My entirely over-long review of Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland”

adventureland
Kristen Stewart, budding teenage heartthrob, fresh off her role in the critically acclaimed epic vampire romance Twilight, returns to the screen alongside comedic greats and Judd Apatow alums Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Adventureland, a hilarious and carefree new comedy from the writer/director of Superbad.

…or not.

Adventureland was filmed in October of 2007 and sat on the shelf for a year and a half while Miramax figured out how best to release it. I can only speculate as to why they held onto it for so long. Eventually, it seems, a combination of residual favor from Greg Mottola’s previous film and Kristen Stewart’s increased profile following her turn as teenage vampire-lover Bella Swan in 2008’s creepy stare-fest, Twilight, was enough to get the film a release.

This film defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience. It is the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent graduate who was all set to head for Europe on a post-college jaunt when his parents painfully admit that due to money problems, they will not be able to pay for his trip. Without warning, James is presented with the insurmountable task of finding a job with his liberal arts degree.

This aspect of the story was rather apropos for me – the poli sci major currently working in IT. But even the various absurdities of a helpdesk employee seem tame in comparison to an exciting career in crooked carnival gaming.

“You can do better, son,” says James’ father when he announces that Adventureland is the only place he can find employment. And yet, James can’t do better. He’s quickly realizing that his parents can’t help him, and that he has to take whatever job – and whatever life – he can find. It is this desperation and sudden, reluctant thrust into grownup life that the film captures so well.

Throughout the film, there’s a persistent feeling that these kids aren’t ready for their situation. They live with their parents. They’re old enough to drink legally, and yet they sneak around hiding liquor. They sit in their parents’ cars and make out in their driveways. They gossip, spread rumors, and weave a tangled and overlapping web of ambiguous relationships. They engage in whimsical, self-destructive behavior at the drop of a hat. These kids are not alright. They’re college graduates acting like high school students.

And yet, not a single moment in this film rings false. The story is a parable of modern life, and a ruthless exploration of modern relationships. The film’s treatment of romance, evoking sympathy for all manner of relationship fouls, reminds me greatly of last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And in much the same way as that film, you just have to stare resignedly at the characters and shake your head in bewilderment.

You know you shouldn’t do that, you’ll say. You know you’re just doing it because you’re in love and heartbroken and stupid. You know you’ll feel worse afterward. And you know you’re going to do it anyway.

The principal romance in this film was between James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Emily (Kristen Stewart). In a rare reversal of the usual pratfall of casting young characters, the then-17-year-old Stewart plays a seemingly 21-year-old college graduate.

kristenstewartAs much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!” is the conciliatory message of this romance, as delivered by James in the final romantic speech at the end of the film. This scene was obligatory, as it is in most romantic dramas, and yet (without giving too many details) Mottola’s take on this scene manages to ring truly unique. Jesse Eisenberg’s acting definitely deserves some of the credit for how well this scene (and the romance) plays, but it is Stewart that truly shines in this film.

ryanreynoldsI must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in. You’ve probably met someone like this character in real life. Someone who evokes two simultaneous reactions – amusement and unsettlement. Someone who might be good for a laugh or two, but would probably toss you aside the moment he no longer needed you for something.

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

Adventureland is a poignant film with a lot to say about our generation. And I say this as a current twenty-something who is more than happy to coopt and internalize the lessons of this film. And yet, the story is actually Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical take on his experience after college in 1987. Does this indicate that the film’s message is at least somewhat timeless? Or that Mottola has merely spun a tale of modern twenty-somethings and added a bit of weird hair, outdated music, and a lack of cellular communication for ambiance? Impossible to say. But the result is well worth seeing.