The kids are alright in Superbad; it’s the adults who prove to be a drag. Coming from some of the same talents involved with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this can’t match the impact of its predecessors, despite its best intentions to (slightly) set itself apart in the “teen sex comedy” genre. The movie begins promisingly, as longtime best friends Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, both perfectly cast) hope to spend their last couple of months in high school attending cool parties and dating hot girls. With their ultra-geeky pal Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) along for the ride, the boys hope to score some alcohol to bring to a major bash. Using Fogell’s fake ID (on which he’s identified as a 25-year-old simply named McLovin), they set out across town on their holy quest, a mission that turns sour after a robbery spoils their plans and separates Fogell from his pals. Potty-mouthed but true to its milieu, Superbad hums along until two cops (played by co-writer Seth Rogen and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader) come along to spoil the fun. Tiresome characters, they steer the picture away from its mother lode of comic material, and rather than disappear after making their mark, the pair hang around for the remainder of the film. Superbad gets back on track in the late innings, and it’s here that the movie’s true theme -- the fierce and touching bond that can establish itself between two boys suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous high school shenanigans -- becomes most pronounced. So whenever it centers on its teenage characters, Superbad is a likable coming-of-age comedy; whenever it focuses on the tedious antics of the cops, it turns into a bad SNL skit.
The black hole that goes by the name of Josh Hartnett has managed to swallow up many movies, but Resurrecting the Champ is not one of them. For that, we have to thank the force of nature that goes by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. To be fair, Hartnett isn’t completely awful in the role of a sportswriter who stumbles onto a career-making -- and subsequently career-breaking -- story. But roiling emotions are clearly out of his range, and he’s shown up as a lightweight in his frequent scenes with Mr. Jackson. The latter delivers a formidable performance as a homeless man who calls himself Champ. Raspy-voiced and not all there mentally, he reveals himself to Hartnett’s Erik Kernan as Battling Bob Satterfield, a former boxing great. Erik, stuck covering stories on high school athletics, realizes this could be his ticket to the big time, so he devotes all his energy to turning Champ’s life story into a must-read article. But suspicions eventually surface regarding Champ’s history, and Erik soon realizes that he might have made a huge mistake in choosing his subject matter. The picture’s various themes -- the union between fathers and sons, the importance of journalistic integrity, the ease with which history can be rewritten -- are handled with care, though there’s nothing particularly revelatory on view here (Shattered Glass, for instance, is a far superior film about media misconduct).
I suppose every generation deserves its own sociopolitical take on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, though The Invasion does neither the audience nor the source material any favors. Depending on one’s political bent, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which emotionless “pod people” from outer space take over human beings, was either a warning about Communism or an indictment of McCarthyism. The 1978 version (same title) tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to mock the rampant New Age-y philosophies of the time. And 1994’s Body Snatchers honed in on teen alienation while also examining the splintering of the nuclear family. So what agenda rests on The Invasion’s plate? Hard to tell, given the general muddle of the piece (much of it was refilmed after poor test screenings, and it shows). There’s some talk of eradicating humankind’s intrinsic need to destroy (and plenty of TV sets showing scenes from Iraq), but it’s unconvincing lip service. There’s a hint that this might satirize our nation’s obsession with medicating its populace, but that’s quickly dismissed. Without anything to chew on, we’re left with a straightforward thriller -- and a fairly effective one until the film self-destructs with a wretched ending that had me slapping my forehead in staggering disbelief.
By borrowing from Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and silent-cinema icons like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson managed to concoct his own singularly unique comic creation in the bumbling Mr. Bean. It’s just a shame that the actor has yet to find a feature film to do his character justice. Mr. Bean’s Holiday has some amusing moments scattered throughout (check out his introduction to a seafood platter), but they’re not enough to sustain an entire picture. That the plot is completely disposable (Bean wins a trip to the south of France but has trouble reaching his destination) shouldn’t matter -- after all, the Tim Burton gem Pee-wee’s Big Adventure wasn’t about anything more than a guy looking for his stolen bicycle -- but for a skeletal framework to properly function, the gags need to be as complex as the story is thin.
Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind 2003’s American Splendor, have now returned with an adaptation of The Nanny Diaries, the best-selling (and hotly debated) novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. As before, Berman and Pulcini attempt to embellish their tale with all manner of visual flourishes and eccentric details, but working from a blueprint that doesn’t always lend itself to such touches, the results are more heavy-handed than before. That’s not to say that this doesn’t offer several rewards of its own making, starting with the strong performances by Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a college graduate who, wary of the demands of a career in high finance, ends up landing what she believes will be a less stressful gig as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple known as Mr. and Mrs. X (Paul Giamatti and Linney). Her young charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art), proves difficult at first but over time softens toward Annie, who’s merely the latest in a long line of nannies. Annie’s main grievances are with the boy’s parents, an aloof jerk who’s carrying on with his secretary while away on week-long trips and a trophy wife who’s too busy socializing to spend any quality time with her lonely son. A spiritual companion to The Devil Wears Prada (Nanny preceded Prada in print by one year, and in the film, Mrs. X can be glimpsed reading the fashion industry tell-all), this offers some nicely staged sequences to help gloss over the broad characterizations. Incidentally, a gag involving a George W. Bush mask doesn’t match the brilliant employment of a Nixon mask in The Ice Storm, but it still provides one of the picture’s largest laughs.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see a screen biopic about a musician that focused on, you know, the music? Of course, depicting the act of creating art in any medium is extremely difficult (though not impossible) for a movie to pull off, and most filmmakers lazily opt to wallow in the mire instead, ignoring the inspiration in favor of the vices that render the central character human ... and, as a screen presence, oh-so-predictable. At least Ray and Walk the Line could boast of slick production values and award-winning performances; stripped of those attributes, El Cantante feels minor-league every step of the way. The film purports to tell the life story of Hector Lavoe, the Puerto Rican singer who revolutionized Salsa music and introduced it as a legitimate musical sound across the U.S. His wife Puchi remained by his side over the years, even as his self-destructive behavior and personal tragedies took their toll on the pair. As Hector and Puchi, real-life couple Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez aren’t bad, but their performances rarely elevate the material. And material like this needs all the help it can get: Rather than paying real service to the music, writer-director Leon Ichaso (who co-wrote the script with David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello) reduces a potentially fascinating film into merely another cautionary story about a self-absorbed celebrity-junkie-whore. As expected, the soundtrack is hopping, but as a movie, this one’s tone deaf.
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