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Review: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)

Jason Segel has a face made for break-up movies. Or just break-ups, period. Whether he’s warbling a serenade for the woman of his dreams (the notorious “Lady” scene in “Freaks and Geeks”) or crying naked in front of his just-became-ex-girlfriend, there’s a congenial openness to Segel’s face that is appealing. He may be an actor, but he looks like the down-to-earth sort who would wear Costco sweatpants, eat giant bowls of Fruit Loops in front of the TV and drink grocery store wine. This is a big reason why Segel’s labor of love and humor, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is so enjoyable: it’s funny and perceptive without being pretentious, and it’s endearing but not mushy or overly sentimental. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a realistic romantic comedy unafraid to let everything hang out … figuratively and literally.

Segel’s male perspective also gives the genre a welcome and refreshing twist. While so many rom-coms sing the “good woman done wrong” blues, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” offers a different tune. This time around it’s the nice guy who’s had his heart turned into a smooshed MoonPie. Peter (Segel) loves the blonde, petite and beautiful Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, terrific), a high-profile actress. But there’s a problem: Sarah’s career has turned her life busy and exciting, while Peter is at a dead standstill. When Sarah, frustrated with his homebody attitude, dumps him (in the best break-up scene ever written), Peter’s whole world collapses. He turns wallowing into an art form. Finally, a miserable and slovenly Peter takes the advice of his stepbrother (Bill Hader) and flies off to Hawaii for a break. Enter Life Interruption No. 2: Peter ends up at the same hotel as Sarah … who is there with her new boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) … who is a rich, famous rock star and bonafide sex god in leather pants.

From this point on, Segel puts his own flourish on the romantic comedy formula, providing minor tweaks here and there and adding in a host of comical, unusual, even touching secondary characters. Peter does meet a girl, hotel concierge Rachel (Mila Kunis), but she is not a damsel waiting to be whisked away from her unhappy life. She’s also the antithesis of Sarah Marshall’s spoiled, self-absorbed diva-in-training: Rachel is funny, kind and content with her life. She coaxes Peter out of his drunken, weepy stupor, encourages him to take a few risks, pursue his odd dream — write a puppet rock opera about Dracula — and get on with his life. Kudos to Segel for writing a potential love interest who is no selfless savior type. He deserves some high-fives, too, for crafting minor characters who are as funny as they are interesting. Anxious newlywed Darald (Jack McBrayer) worries himself sick about his lack of sexual prowess. Paul Rudd plays against his usual hyper-sarcastic type as Chuck, a perpetually fried and apathetic surfing instructor who lives by his own slacker credo: “When life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons’ and bail.” That’s fortune cookie wisdom at its most original. 

The real standout, and the clearest indicator that Segel wants to do things his own way, is Aldous Snow. In a less imaginative film, Aldous would be a sneering, six-packed villain of the vilest order, or a brainless moron to be ordered about; in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he’s friendly, witty, charming and often quite insightful. Brand delivers the rocker’s many insights as only Russell Brand can: with a mix of bravado and cheek. He compares vacationing with the demanding Sarah to going on holiday with Joseph Goebbels, and when creepy fan Matthew (Jonah Hill) asks him if he’s listened to his demo, Brand’s retort is killer: “I was gonna listen to that, but then, um, I just carried on living my life.” In fact, Aldous — who later got his own movie, “Get Him to the Greek” — may be the most layered character in the film. Anyone who complains about the small female roles missed the point. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” isn’t about women, much the same way “Sex and the City” wasn’t about men. Segel simply means to tell a personal and painful story from a male perspective, and he does — flaccid penis and all.

Grade: A-

My thought on today

My thought on today

Ix-nay on the ush-may: “Bridesmaids” has bite and heart

Kristen Wiig exercises her “civil rights” in “Bridesmaids.”

Socrates dubbed envy “the ulcer of the soul.” In that case, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is in for some serious, long-term indigestion. With her life in shambles, Annie can’t help but yearn for her oldest friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) good fortune: a steady job, a wealthy fiancée, Dougie (Tim Heidecker), a lavish wedding pending. That’s not the only reason Annie has to be envious: There’s the sleek, impeccably coiffed problem of Helen (Rose Byrne), queen bee wife of the Dougie’s boss who intends to muscle in on Annie’s maid of honor duties. She’s living proof that the politics of high school don’t stop after graduation.

What is so amazing about “Bridesmaids,” co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is the many ways the film explores the rivalries, disappointments and nuances of female friendship yet still manages to be wall-to-wall funny. Even in its most awkward and earnest moments, “Bridesmaids” uses laughter — albeit with a serrated edge — to offset the very real emotional turmoil of its heroine. The edge, the rawness make “Bridesmaids” more than a splendid, side-splitting answer to the likes of “The Hangover” or “Wedding Crashers”; they transform Wiig’s movie into a treatise on what it’s like to be a woman crashing headlong into adulthood.  “Bridesmaids” comes off as uncomfortable reality. It’s refreshing to see a comedy that understands, on a deep and often painful level, what it means to be a 30-something woman who doesn’t have everything under control.

Actually, Annie’s life — from the nonsensical rom-com perspective — is a mess. To the rest of us, it’s just … life. Wiig plays Annie as a woman who’s about as close to the bottom as she can get. Her Milwaukee bakery collapsed during the recession; her business partner/boyfriend ditched her; she shares a house with two intrusive British roommates (Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson); and her sex-only arrangement with sleazy Ted (Jon Hamm) is decidedly unfulfilling. Wiig’s reaction to news of her best friend’s engagement says it all; her artificial smile and nervous giggle show she’s inches away from hysteria. Even more difficult than keeping her cool is wrangling all the bridesmaids, a queer bunch: Dougie’s sex-crazed sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy, sensational); the prim Becca (Ellie Kemper); Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), harried mom of three sons; and Helen, the 2011 version of Heather Chandler. From the start, the broke maid of honor’s plans go spectacularly wrong, starting with a ghastly food poisoning fiasco and ending with Annie, wasted on Scotch and benzos, getting kicked off a flight to Vegas (“there’s a Colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”). Annie’s fall from grace is epic, and Wiig spins humiliation into comedy gold.

Gross as it is, the now-infamous bridal shop fiasco, which runs a bit long, is not the best “Bridesmaids” has to offer. Wiig’s meltdown on plane is screamingly funny, as is her wedding shower toasting duel of one-upmanship with Helen. Later, Wiig truly outdoes herself trying to catch the attention of good-hearted Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), the would-be suitor she rejected. The sequence of Wiig driving past his cop car repeatedly, breaking different laws — going topless; texting; swigging a 40 of malt liquor — is a work of loony genius. Wiig’s go-for-broke approach sells this madness brilliantly. She also supplies an undercurrent of anguish that tempers but never dilutes the hilarity.

But “Bridesmaids” as a whole isn’t perfect. Annie’s bizarre roommates don’t serve much of a purpose, and the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, isn’t given much to do. Plus, with a running length of more than two hours, the film could benefit from much tighter editing, not to mention a less hurried third act. With grade-A material and acting like this, though, who cares? The butched-up McCarthy runs away with every scene she’s in (just wait for her “sex tape” bit during the credits). Byrne taps a core of loneliness in the vicious Helen, and O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) has an understated nice guy appeal. But it doesn’t get better than Wiig. Since her stellar cameo in “Knocked Up,” she’s blossomed into a fully formed actress. She could be just the one to give “chick flicks” the makeover they so desperately need.    

Grade: A-

Review: “Step Brothers” (2008)

There will be two distinct reactions to Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers”: the guffaws of people who think two 40-something men acting like prepubescent boys is hysterical and the horrified silence of those who think that’s painfully idiotic. Anyone who belongs to the latter camp should not see “Step Brothers,” which delights in juvenile humor — the juvenile-er, the better. This is a movie where a pre-teen bully opens a full can of whoop-ass on the 6’3″ Will Ferrell, then makes him eat a petrified dog turd.

If your heart leapt at “petrified dog turd,” read on, kindred spirit. “Step Brothers” is a smörgåsbord for fans of scatalogical/penis/fart humor, all-out absurdity, inventive one-liners like “Holy Santa Claus shit!” and wild pratfalls. That’s because of the magic that happens when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly show up on the same set. There have been a few genuinely great comic duos in history, and Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are one of them. Apart, they’re certainly capable comedians, but together? Together they’re a lit stick of TNT. Bank on an explosion; just don’t think you can predict when it will happen or what the fallout will be. It’s that element of surprise that makes Reilly and Ferrell so very good together.

Toss some funny actors like Rob Riggle and Richard Jenkins into that mix, and that’s a recipe for one cookie sheet full of great comedy. Dale (Reilly), who lives with his widowed father Robert (Jenkins) and Brennan Huff (Ferrell), still crashing at his mother Nancy’s (Mary Steenburgen) house, are two adults living the carefree lives of 9-year-old boys. They are a pair of jobless freeloaders united, suddenly and unhappily, by their parents’ marriage. Forced to live in the same house (and, to maximize awkwardness, the same bedroom), Dale and Brennan strike up a hellacious and raucous rivalry. Dale calls Brennan and his mom “hillbillies”; Brennan threatens to fill a pillowcase with bars of soap and beat Dale senseless; and down it spirals from there. All the hatred comes to a head when Brennan tea-bags Dale’s prized drumset, culimating in a fierce brawl and the priceless moment where Steenburgen lets loose a string of F-words. Eventually Dale and Brennan form a fragile alliance, mostly in opposition of their parents’ insistence that they find jobs and move out. Ferrell and Reilly’s inventive job interview sabotage — wearing tuxedoes; farting loudly; arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Pam” with one interviewer — are some of the funniest in the movie.

Since “Step Brothers” follows a somewhat traditional romantic comedy (or bromance, more like) storyline, Dale and Brennan’s bond must be broken so they can be reunited. One of the dividing forces is Derek “I Haven’t Had a Carb Since 2004” Huff (Adam Scott), Brennan’s rich and insufferable brother. He’s determined to sell Robert and Nancy’s house so they can retire early, and he’s plainly delighted when Brennan and Dale turn on each other. (This is the kind of brother who’d interrupt your solo at the high school talent competition to announce that you have “a mangina,” then win it by lip-synching “Ice Ice Baby.”) Scott is but one of many side-splitting parts of this crackerjack ensemble cast. Riggle is another, stealing scenes left and right as Derek’s beserk right-hand “POW!” man Randy. Jenkins, a terrific character actor, gets to run amok of his usual sedate roles with physical comedy, and he has a fine time doing it. Kathryn Hahn is kooky and chuckle-worthy as Alice, Derek’s resentful wife who puts Dale squarely in the crosshairs of her lunacy. She wants to roll Dale in a little ball and shove him up her vagina. “No” means nothing to Alice; in another life, she was likely a rapist. 

In spite of all the hijinks, though, “Step Brothers” has an undercurrent of poignancy that might catch the observant off guard. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Dale and Brennan may be the poster children for arrested development, but their childlike refusal to give up on their crazy dreams is endearing. And let’s just say that it takes a special gift to make two grown men beating up a jeering kid bully seem like a triumph worth cheering for.

Grade: B+

My thought on today

“Something Borrowed”: Return to owner, and fast

Ginnifer Goodwin and Colin Egglesfield put a pretty face on wimpiness in "Something Borrowed."

Never, not once, has it failed: Every time I resolve to soften my heart to romantic comedies, to give this fluffy genre one more chance, a lemon like “Something Borrowed” comes down the line and reinforces the distaste anew. “Something Borrowed” is bland. It’s derivative. It’s wimpy. And Ginnifer Goodwin’s wig rivals Kate Bosworth’s “Superman Returns” rug in sheer obviousness.
 
Right from the start, though, the problem is not the wig, or even the plot (uninspired at best); it is the lack of sympathetic or halfway interesting characters. In all of the film’s running time, there emerges exactly one person worth rooting for, and he’s left hanging, written out solely to suit the purposes of the maddeningly unsatisfying conclusion. Here’s the setup: Sensible Rachel (Goodwin) and flighty Darcy (Kate Hudson) have been best friends since childhood. Their old pal Ethan (John Krasinski) has stuck close too, though he long ago wrote off Darcy as a selfish, high-maintenance shrew (yahtzee!). Darcy’s engagement to Dex (a “meh” Colin Egglesfield) presents a rather large problem for Rachel, who’s been in love with him since law school. Neither ever mustered to courage to make a move back then; naturally, now that the timing is lousy, they start a boring affair — boring because both Rachel and Dex are spineless. Rachel won’t force him to choose between her or Darcy, and Dex won’t call off the wedding because — here’s the cherry on the sundae — he thinks it is the only antidote to his mother’s depression. Right. That’s one for the books.
 
Three other characters get sucked into this stupid, pointless love triangle: the affable Ethan, Ethan’s oddball stalker Claire (Ashley Williams) and Marcus (Steve Howey), Dex’s loutish best friend. Claire, who wears rainbow-print dresses and has that Margot-Kidder-in-the-bush look about her, is almost too giddy and clueless to seem human. She’s a caricature. While Marcus is a caveman, at least he’s not a poser: he says what he thinks, even when what he thinks is really, really dumb and offensive. Ethan, thanks to Krasinki’s rumpled regular guy appeal and comic timing, emerges as a likable chap — perceptive, easygoing, funny. He advises Rachel to make Dex to show some backbone. But even Ethan proves himself to be something of a weenie: Instead of taking his own advice, he lies to Claire about being gay and runs away from her every chance he gets. Like all the other characters (except Marcus) in “Something Borrowed,” Ethan wallows and avoids; he can’t muster the gumption to go after what he wants or dismiss what he doesn’t. In actual life, that’s mildly annoying; in a romantic comedy, it’s totally insufferable.
 
Jennie Snyder’s meandering script and the lackluster acting make the absence of agreeable characters even less tolerable. Snyder seems determined to make sure the characters spend as much time floundering as possible. Whining and pining must be used sparingly to create romantic tension; Rachel and Dex flounder so long in “Something Borrowed” that by the conclusion we’ve all but lost interest. How can two people this indecisive possibly generate any heat, much less build a lasting relationship? Darcy and Rachel’s supposed “sisterhood” is just as baffling because Darcy is a self-serving flake, and Rachel is blind to her narcissism. Goodwin and Hudson don’t have much chemistry, either. (Note to Kate Hudson: Please stop taking these vapid parts.) Egglesfield isn’t given much of a role to work with, but he’s vanilla — a leading man in looks only. Howey gets some laughs with his neanderthal behavior, though he’s not given enough to do. Goodwin, who’s far too talented an actress to keep doing derivative drivel like this, tries hard and occasionally tugs at our hearts (barely).
 
It’s Krasinski whose wisecracks and amusing facial expressions brighten the film. Whatever part he takes, Krasinski can’t put a lid on his laidback charm and sincerity; it breaks up the dullness in “Something Borrowed.” And any film that makes the choice between the lively, funny, attractive guy and the model-hot but gutless one look like a hard choice is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Worse, it’s a waste of time. 
 
Grade: D-

“Thor” a welcome addition to character-driven Marvel canon

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns the pain and value in being humbled in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor."

Natalie Portman was so astonished that Kenneth Branagh signed on to direct “Thor” she decided she had to be involved with the production. How many people, I wonder, saw the movie for that very same reason? Because let’s call a spade a spade and say that idea of a “serious actor” like Branagh directing a Marvel film is wacky and weird (or just weird). But in taking that unexpected leap, he’s joined other directors (Jon Favreau, Sam Raimi) who made Marvel adaptations about more than special effects and fight scenes. “Thor” takes a strutting peacock (Chris Hemsworth) and strips off his feathers to see what he’s really made of.

“Thor” doesn’t match the emotional depth of “Spider-Man 2” or possess the crackling wit of “Iron Man,” but the film has enough heart and dazzling visuals (a bit of advice: see them in 2D) to make it feel right at home alongside its Marvel predecessors. Branagh, just as fans might suspect, has more in mind for Thor than a blonde beefcake who wields a big hammer. While the director never skimps on the scenery (particularly the Bifröst Bridge, the stunning, resplendent gateway between Asgard and the other eight realms, including Earth), he makes sure Thor emerges from his trial a changed man. It’s the muscle-bound Hemsworth who makes the transition believable, even poignant. He may look like Australia’s answer to Fabio, but Hemsworth is not light on talent. He demonstrates a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t seem possible in a man with such meticulously sculpted abdominal muscles. 

Hemsworth, of course, is Thor — son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgar, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo). Arrogant and short-tempered, he seems less suited to take the throne than his quieter adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Odin’s doubts about his eldest son’s leadership capability are confirmed when Thor ends a long-standing truce between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, led by the malevolent Laufey (Colm Feore). Stripped of his hammer, Mjolnir, Thor is exiled to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert and in the lives of scientist Jane (Portman), her bumbling assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and fellow researcher Erik (Stellan Skarsgård). With his bizarre manners and formal speech, Thor seems like a certifiable kook; however, Jane wonders if he knows something about the interdimensional wormholes she’s researching. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir, he catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, droll as ever). Back in Asgar, Thor’s band of Warriors Three — Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Joshua Dallas) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) — and longtime friend Sif (Jaime Alexander) begin to suspect that Loki isn’t as harmless as he appears. 

As origin stories go, Thor’s fall from grace is more interesting than most purely because of the costumes (kudos to costume designer Alexandra Byrne) and stellar design and effects. “Thor” rivals “TRON: Legacy” in terms of scenes that inspire awe and wonder — it’s marked by a terrific use of fluorescent colors and lighting that render Asgar the kind of mythical kingdom told of in Norse mythology books. The sinister Frost Giants and Heimdall (Idris Elba, for once correctly cast), the gruff gatekeeper of Bifröst Bridge, are striking as well. There’s something emblematic about the image of Heimdall, with his piercing yellow eyes, horned helmet and formidable staff, presiding over a bridge that connects the worlds. Heimdall, even more than Odin, seems possessed of a calm certainty in his purpose that Thor is unable or unwilling to seek out.

Herein lies the rub, where Branagh aligns “Thor” with other comics-based movies that don’t skimp on development. That extends to secondary characters. Portman gets to step away from her tortured “Black Swan” persona, and Skarsgård brings his trademark low-key humor (though it’s Dennings and Hemsworth’s stranger-in-a-strange-land antics that provide most of the comic relief). Hiddleston is subtle but effective as the diabolical and tortured Loki, chameleon-like in his ability to assess his circumstances and change accordingly. His devolution makes him a fitting foil for Hemsworth. Hiddleston is the stronger actor; Hemsworth, though, provides more perceptiveness than he has to. He lets us see the flaws behind the beauty.

Grade: B+

No. 45: “Sideways” (2005)

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
~~Miles Raymond

Alcoholism has many faces in film — Tommy Basilio (“Trees Lounge”), Dixon Steele (“In a Lonely Place”), Joe Clay (“Days of Wine and Roses”), George and Martha “(“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), to name a few. Alexander Payne’s sharp, touching “Sideways” makes a strong case for adding failed novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) to that list. He can stagger along with these boozers; actually, he could put them to shame with his frightful pretentiousness. He’s too busy appraising wines as “quaffable but far from transcendent” to consider that he’s tasting his liver to an early grave.

“Sideways” has a bit of fun at the expense of self-appointed sommeliers like Miles. On paper, he is unappealing: aloof, condescending, persnickety to the nth degree. Miles steals cash from his mother’s underwear drawer. He is that dinner party guest who will march right out the door — hurling insults all the way — if he spies one bottle of merlot in the wine rack. Giamatti has played such men before, so he knows how to suggest the painful vulnerability underneath all the snobbishness. The humanity sneaks out in the little moments, like Miles’ drunk phone call to his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht), or his sadly beautiful speech about Pinot (really a veiled description of his own neuroses and nuances). It becomes more evident, too, the more time he spends with his slick, womanizing old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church). The duo jaunts out to Santa Barbara County wine country for Jack’s bachelor party weekend, which Miles tolerates mostly because there will be wine, and lots of it. Otherwise, these two would have nothing to hold their friendship together but a few years of communal showers and keggers. It’s an Oscar-and-Felix partnership that’s long past its expiration date. But Church and Giamatti are a formidable comedic duo.

Jack’s libido is the cause of many of the hijinks in “Sideways,” most involving slapstick, plenty of enthusiastic sex and nudity. Out to sew his wild oats while the sewing’s good, Jack ends up romancing Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a local winery. That leaves Miles to play the part of the wingman. He doesn’t grumble about that because he’s been quietly in love with Maya (Virginia Madsen), Stephanie’s friend, for years. Giamatti communicates this wonderfully in several scenes, particularly one late night when Maya drives Miles home. As she watches the road, the normally timid Miles gives himself permission to look at her, really look at her. Giamatti’s face and eyes are so revealing that dialogue is superfluous. Rare is the actor who can say everything with a lingering look. Bogart accomplished this feat in “Key Largo”; here, Giamatti matches him. This kind of talent doesn’t come along every day.

“Sideways,” based on Rex Pickett’s novel, might well be a full-blown character study if not for the comedy the Church/Giamatti pairing provides. Their differences are never more obvious, or hilarious, than when Miles tries to teach Jack the art of wine tasting. Jack’s more of a fill-my-glass-to-the-top kind of taster with no nose for subtleties. He’s an actor who’s accustomed to instant gratification, so when he decides he wants to ditch his gorgeous, rich fiancée (Alysia Reiner) and live with Stephanie, he can’t understand why Miles thinks it’s a bonehead move. “Sideways” is jam-packed with those kinds of stupid choices, the funniest being Jack’s dalliance with a waitress that sends him running naked back to the hotel when her husband gets home. Church has a grand ole’ time playing the vapid pretty boy (Church is a good enough actor that he bends our sympathy to Jack) to Giamatti’s oversensitive, smug overthinker. The Giamatti/Madsen pairing fairs even better, with Madsen hitting a career high as the intuitive Maya. Her careful response to Miles’ speech on the merits of Pinot marks one of the film’s most honest moments. For all the comedy, this is what we take away from “Sideways”: that there are people out there willing to coax us to our fullest expression. And when we meet then, we’d better hold on tight.

My thought on today