Review: “The Vicious Kind” (2009)

“All women are whores.” Caleb (Adam Scott) is not a man to avoid making gross generalizations about women — even after his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), tells him he’s met his first love. Especially not then. Sleep deprivation has made Caleb unpredictable, but it’s his recent heartbreak that’s made him such a bitter, vicious opponent of love, or anything that looks like it. He tells his hooker she probably was molested as a child. He is hatred personified.

This bottomless pit of rage and bile, of course, makes Caleb a fascinating person to watch. He’s not at all likable, at least not at first, but because he is so damaged and volatile it’s impossible to predict his next move. He must seem an even bigger boon to an actor like Scott, who has paid his dues playing various thankless parts (the jerk older brother in “Step Brothers,” a sleazy teacher in an episode of “Veronica Mars,” a male nurse in “Knocked Up”). Even though “The Vicious Kind” is an independent film, this is a plum role, one that requires an enormous amount of versatility because Caleb has to be both hateful and congenial, both mean and well-intentioned. Scott, through sheer force of mostly untapped talent, deftly juggles all these aspects of Caleb’s personality. He spews convincing diatribes about the opposite sex while seeming as though, on some level, he doesn’t really believe every word he says.

Hard cases like Caleb usually come from families repressing a mess of secrets. As expected, “The Vicious Kind” operates on a familiar but effective formula: Take a family unit mired in secrets and petty grievances, introduce a newcomer who knows nothing about this messy history and let the squirming begin. This approach has worked in similar indie family dramas, including “Junebug” and the lesser-known “Dreamland,” and it works here too because of the strong cast of performers. (The film, however, does veer perilously close to weepy melodrama at points.) The interloper in the case of “The Vicious Kind” is Emma (Brittany Snow), the slightly mysterious girl Peter brings home for Thanksgiving. Caleb, who gives the couple a ride home, is flustered by Emma, who resembles his ex-girlfriend. He does not expect to see her again because he won’t be at Thanksgiving; he hasn’t spoken to his father, Donald (J.K. Simmons), in years. Then Caleb starts popping up unexpectedly wherever Emma is, his behavior ranging from scary (he verbally assaults her at the grocery store) to bizarre (he lunges across the diner table to kiss her while Peter’s in the bathroom). She agrees to hide this from Peter, but it might not be out of love; it could have something to do with her growing attraction to Caleb … which Donald silently notices. Simmons is aces at silently noticing things.

Krieger’s script never makes it clear if Caleb and Emma’s attraction is genuine or based on a shared love of chaos and making things harder than they have to be. Both characters are suppressing walk-in closets full of demons; the tricky part is that Emma only hints at hers. Snow doesn’t have the luxury of shouting matches or raving tangents. She must communicate her feelings — sadness, anxiety, lust, fear — in very small ways. The character is somewhat underwritten, but she’s certainly not unnecessary. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: without Emma, Caleb would not face up to the truth about his father’s break-up with his mother; Donald would not muster the gumption to make amends with his estranged son; Peter would not know the exuberance and exquisite pain of first love. There would be no story without Emma, so Snow, however unassuming, is vital. So is Frost, whose Peter is the figurative innocent Donald and Caleb go to great lengths to protect — from pain, sadness, life. His naiveté is a nice contrast to Simmons’ silent wisdom and Scotts’ volcanic tantrums. Peter is the one who leaves home at the movie’s conclusion completely misguided about what has taken place. He’s not unlike Ben Braddock in his misunderstanding of his girlfriend’s reaction during the final moments of the film. His innocence is both the ultimate triumph and tragedy of “The Vicious Kind.”

Grade: B+

“Jennifer’s Body” a witty, surreal teen comedy

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

I knew it. I knew it. I knew that if I hoped and prayed and wished and waited a long, long time that the Bizarro Alternate World would take over and the unthinkable would happen. And in “Jennifer’s Body,” the unthinkable has become reality: The brunette’s dicing up male hearts like room-temperature butter, and her mousy blonde friend — who wears tortoise-shell glasses! – is nothing but a mopey, fraidy-cat sidekick.

(Sigh.)

It turns out this is not Bizzaro Alternate World so much as just the warped plot of the Diablo Cody-penned wittier-than-thou “Jennifer’s Body,” a pointless but way fun horror comedy that lampoons teen movie cliches with wicked glee. And since this is, you know, Diablo Cody, all the fun is wrapped up in dialogue so sharp and self-conciously urbane that you have shredded murder victims described as “lasagna with teeth” and an indie band frontman (Adam Brody) who yearns to “reach out to fans in the shitty areas, too.”  

Yep, “Jennifer’s Body” is that kind of movie, another hip reinvention of the teen horror movie that ends up completely farfetched but also completely enjoyable. Part of that trashy fun stems from Megan Fox’s rather impressive performance as Jennifer Check, the resident hottie at Devil’s Kettle High School who spends her post-cheer practice time consuming male flesh. (She’s not killing people, you understand; she’s “killing boys.” There’s a difference.) There’s Brilliant Subversion No. 2 — a girl who’s not the victim, who is, in fact, making mincemeat out of boys? Love it. Standing petrified on the sidelines is Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (the insanely talented Amanda Seyfried), who suspects her more socially desirable B.F.F. — “sandbox love never dies” Needy offers up as reasoning for their unlikely friendship — is a killer. Too bad Needy can’t get her sensitive, Strokes haircut-sporting boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to believe her. But she has to try real hard because if not The Big Dance will become (he he) an “all-you-can-eat buffet.”

That’s what I love most about “Jennifer’s Body,” lines like that. These words bear no resemblance to the way people actually talk, though if they do it’s probably because everybody saw “Juno,” figured it was the new “Clueless” and started a flip pad of jargon. (Come to think of it, that isn’t a half-bad idea, starting a log of Diablo Cody-isms. She’s so hot these days.) There are other killers so funny it’s nearly impossible to laugh at them. Needy and Jennifer’s pet names for each other? Monastat and Vagisil. Jennifer is “actually evil, not high-school evil.” When Chip’s mom begs him to carry pepper spray to the dance, he responds: “I can take care of myself. I’ve been using the Bowflex.” And there’s a bit about Thai food and sex that might cause public consumption of pad Thai to go up or down depending.

This whimsical absurdism bleeds (pardon the pun) into much of “Jennifer’s Body,” which means there’s not much substance — unless you count the characters. Fox does more than what’s expected of her — she proved she had comedic chops in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” but, really, who saw this coming? — and has a lot of fun with Jennifer. Her delivery’s just right, though it’s doubtful any man in attendance will notice. With the way Fox fills out her teeny heart hoodies, ushers should have buckets handy to catch the drool. But enough about Fox. Why use too many words for her when there’s a better, meatier part played by a better actress with more range? Given her own fair looks, it’s shocking to see Amanda Seyfried plain-Jane it up as Needy, but she looks every inch the meek friend. There’s a sadness to Needy that Seyfried’s not afraid to explore, and later a looming darkness that’s unnerving, not the least bit cutsey. This is why Seyfried will become a household name — she’s got such talent you can’t help but like her in anything.

Jennifer may be the body, see, but Needy’s the soul. And hey, someone’s got to do the real heavy lifting while Megan Fox makes sexy.

Grade: B-

Judge dials down the savagery in kinder “Extract”

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?

Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.

In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.

Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.

All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?

Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.

At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.

Grade: B-

Quick Pan: “New in Town”

“New in Town” (Renee Zellwegger, Harry Connick Jr., J.K. Simmons, Siobhan Fallon)

Jonas Elmer’s “New in Town,” the poppy soundtrack-happy rom-com equivalent of a frontal lobotomoy, has all the staying power of rapidly dissolving toilet paper, and it’s about that interesting, too. The plot is as formulaic as a paint-by-numbers kit: A ball-busting Miami careerwoman (Zellwegger) moves to the country — in this case, Minnesota — to salvage a production plant. There’s (gasp!) a culture clash involving lots of “aw, shucks” dialogue — most of it uttered by avid scrapbooker Blanche Gunderson (Fallon), who heals all wounds with her tapioca — stolen from the “Fargo” cutting room floor. And, of course, there’s the good ole’ mountain man (Connick Jr., who’s on auto-pilot) who falls hard for the city girl and teaches her the joys of country life, don’t ya know. Yawn. There’s nothing new here, from start to finish, which wouldn’t be so unforgivable if the acting was good. Oops. The former Bridget Jones tries for cute but ends up being “cute,” while Connick Jr. just looks bored (or is that his normal expression?). As for J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. plant foreman Stu Kopenhafer should know better — withering sarcasm or bewildered one-liners he can do; down-home folksy he cannot. But the whole business gave me a great idea for a bumper sticker: I’d rather be scrapbooking. Because that’s exactly how I felt watching “New in Town.” Darn tootin’.

Grade: D

Crazy plot, performances elevate unfunny “Burn After Reading”

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Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt stumble upon some "top-secret CIA shit" in the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading."

A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.

Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.

Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre “Intolerable Cruelty.”

Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”

Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.

Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.

Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)

Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.

How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.

Grade: B-

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