New releases: Fast & Furious, Observe and Report, Sunshine Cleaning



The best part of Fast & Furious is its tagline -- "New Model. Original Parts." -- which means that the studio wonk who created it deserves the big bucks more than anybody who actually appears in the film. It's a catchy line because it advertises the fact that all four stars of 2001's The Fast and the Furious -- Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster -- have reunited for this fourth entry in the series (only Walker appeared in 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, and all were AWOL for 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Unfortunately, this is one star vehicle that seems permanently stuck in "reverse." The best performer of the quartet, Rodriguez, disappears from the proceedings fairly early, as director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan apparently decided to make this even more of a Toys for Boys romp than its predecessors -- Brewster's character is, as before, an utter stiff, while the other women (occasionally seen making out with each other) are merely decorative props. That leaves more time for Diesel (as outlaw hot-rodder Dominic Toretto) and Walker (as lawman hot-rodder Brian O'Conner) to engage in competitive bouts of piston envy, each trying to prove to the other that only he has a crankshaft large enough to take down the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of a close friend. The opening vehicular set-piece is a doozy, but subsequent racing sequences resemble nothing more than video game sessions. Diesel tries to recapture the brooding brand of charisma that made him a star earlier in the decade, but he seems to be losing his grip on that elusive quality. As for Walker, he's more boring than ever: His acting is so somnambular that even his car's steering wheel stands a better chance at grabbing an Oscar nomination.



Observe and Report, writer-director Jody Hill's sophomore effort following the no-budget, no-laughs farce The Foot Fist Way, valiantly tries to combine the twisted trappings of a black comedy with the more accepted slapstick shenanigans of a mainstream outing. It's extremely difficult to synchronize these approaches into one fluid viewing experience -- Terry Zwigoff largely pulled it off with Bad Santa, but Hill never locates the proper balance that would make this more than just a hit-and-miss curio. Seth Rogen, no stranger to controversial comedies, stars as Paul Blart -- excuse me, Ronnie Barnhardt, a schlub who takes great pride in his work as the head of security at a popular mall. Unlike the congenial Blart, however, Ronnie is a disturbed individual, required to remain on his medication lest his destructive tendencies take over. But Ronnie is largely oblivious to his own inner demons -- he's too busy lusting after a makeup counter tart (Anna Faris), cluelessly overlooking a sweet fast-food employee (Collette Wolfe), attempting to apprehend a flasher who's been terrorizing the mall, and engaging in a war of words with a real detective (Ray Liotta). Much of Observe and Report is aimless and lackadaisical -- a whole burglary subplot could easily have been dropped without affecting the overall product -- yet the script's biggest problem rests with its decidedly non-PC content. There's nothing wrong with ruffling a few feathers here and there -- a little vulgarity is good for the soul, as Mel Brooks used to prove on a regular basis -- but the material needs to be funny as well as potentially shocking, and almost none of the film's targets -- alcoholism, racial profiling, date rape, etc. -- are skewered in a fashion guaranteed to elicit laughs. The exception is the rampant male nudity seen during the bloody climax; I won't ruin it here, but let's just say this might mark the only time that a movie manages to go limp and out with a bang at the same time.



Sunshine Cleaning's ads trumpet that it's "from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine," and like that Oscar-winning hit, it often belies its cheery title by exploring the darkness that descends on the lives of decent, ordinary people just trying to get ahead. Yet while it may not be as sharply written as its predecessor, it contains enough fine moments -- to say nothing of a strong central performance by Amy Adams -- to make it a worthwhile endeavor. Adams stars as Rose Lorkowski, once a popular high school cheerleader with a quarterback boyfriend, now a struggling maid-for-hire with a troublesome son (Jason Spevack). When her married lover Mac (Steve Zahn), the former QB who's now a police detective, suggests that more money can be made by providing cleanup services at crime scenes, she jumps at the suggestion, convincing her reluctant sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to join her in this new endeavor. Obtaining the proper license proves to be almost as challenging as the actual cleanup duties (which often include removing body parts and swarming insects and always include mopping up copious amounts of blood), but Rose is determined to carve out a better existence for herself and her family. First-time scripter Megan Holley relies on too many familiar conventions and character types to flesh out her story: Here's yet one more indie effort in which Mom is involved with a married man, Junior is a social outcast, and Grandpa is crusty yet kind (Alan Arkin virtually reprises his Little Miss Sunshine role). Yet other aspects of her screenplay are refreshing: The relationship between the sisters feels natural, the cleanup service angle is inspired (more scenes of them on the job would have been appreciated), and the character of a one-armed janitorial store proprietor (nicely played by Clifton Collins Jr.) emerges as a complete original. Sunshine Cleaning's positives don't completely eclipse the tired material, but they do suggest that Holley might have a bright future ahead of her.

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