Slightly longer "director's cut" of a review in today's Oregonian....
Are Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay getting tired of their own shtick?
The two previously collaborated on "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and that FunnyOrDie.com skit where McKay's 2-year-old daughter plays a foul-mouthed landlord. These are all minor (and highly quotable) classics of absurd comedy, or at least they go well with beer.
So it's a little disappointing to report that the latest Ferrell/McKay outing, "Step Brothers," is only fairly amusing -- with a couple of inspired minor characters and nary a gag or wacky wrestling match that can't wait for DVD. Frankly, the whole thing feels like a coast.
"Step Brothers" is less ambitious than "Anchorman" or "Talladega," and taffy-stretches a sketch-comedy premise. It's about two nearly identical unemployed 40-year-old man-boys (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) whose clothing style and bedroom décor ossified somewhere in the late '70s. They each live with a long-suffering single parent (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen).
Jenkins and Steenburgen meet at a conference. They bond over their idiotic, remora-like spawn and their desire to sail around the world. They marry. Everyone moves into Jenkins' house. The result is a pathetic, mirror-universe "Brady Bunch": Ferrell and Reilly battle, bond, test their folks' new marriage and contort with Bikram-like skill to avoid adult responsibility.
The big joke here is that much of the McKay/Ferrell script would actually play pretty straight if Ferrell and O'Reilly were replaced with actual child actors. But an hour-and-a-half of Ferrell and Reilly grappling with one another and reasoning like 7-year-olds gets tired -- especially when, for whatever reason, neither actor sticks his hand quite as far into the improvisational genius jar as he has in films past.
The movie succeeds in fits and starts, though. It finally goes joyously, absurdly off the rails in its final scenes. Adam Scott is perfectly loathsome as Ferrell's hyper-successful, condescending, smarmy, name-dropping younger brother -- and Kathryn Hahn is even better as his desperate nut-job of a wife. (The best scenes in the movie involve Hahn sexually fixating on Reilly.) I also liked that the parents aren't mere foils; Jenkins is hilariously fed up, and Steenburgen is a coddler, prone to praising the boys for their "enthusiasm and inventiveness." I just wish the filmmakers had brought a little more of each to the table this time. ____
C-plus; 95 minutes; rated R or crude and sexual content, and pervasive language.
I can see how "Mamma Mia!" might be a fun stage musical. As a movie musical, it's a train wreck.
The story (loosely adapted from the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida comedy "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell") concerns the tortured machinations of young bride-to-be Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). She secretly invites three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) to her wedding, to be held at the crumbling Greek inn run by her aging-bohemian mother (Meryl Streep). The locale allows the British and American lead actors to be surrounded by a Greek chorus that’s authentically Greek. Get it?
Anyway. One of these men is Sophie's father; the bride isn't sure which. She wants her real dad to give her away at the altar, you see -- but neglects to tell her mother or her fiancé about the invites, for fear of angering them. Because they certainly won't be angrier later.
But really, the story's just a series of flimsy excuses to sing the preexisting ABBA hits that make up the musical's score -- pretty much the band's entire greatest-hits album, near as I could tell.
And, again, I can see how this might play like gangbusters on a live stage, where it's been raking in unholy piles of money since 1999. The sloppiness of the story could easily be masked by a party atmosphere in the theater and big bold actors with a flair for camp. I have no doubt audiences tend to sing along.
But remove all that live-theater energy by putting it onscreen -- and hand the director's chair to original "Mamma Mia!" stage director Phyllida Lloyd, who apparently hasn't got the foggiest idea where to put a camera -- and the whole thing falls apart.
The problems are these, and they are major:
Problem 1: Sophie is apparently insane. Seyfried is a talented actress with a wide-open face. But her Bridezilla-lite character has an idiotic plan, and she nonsensically changes personas from moment to moment, depending on what song the movie's trying to set up. Sophie might have the worst case of Princess Day Syndrome I've ever seen onscreen, and I found it impossible to root for the little twit. She brings every problem on herself.
Problem 2: The songs are inserted at random. Ideally, songs in a musical should underscore key emotions and intelligently further the story. Just because the songs in "Mamma Mia!" previously lived on "ABBA Gold" doesn't mean you can just drop them in at emotionally unimportant moments, grinding the story to a halt.
But the filmmakers do -- early and often.
For example: An entire show-stopping number is devoted to one of Streep's cougar sidekicks (Christine Baranski) and her relationship with a horny young kid on the island. The kid has roughly one line before the song, and pretty much disappears afterward, and I had no idea why he warrants more than a couple of notes of music. For Christ's sake, Firth's character comes out of the closet and he doesn't get a song.
Poor Streep, who does her level best, is the worst victim of this songs-over-coherence approach. She's secretly thrilled to see her three exes one moment so she can sing one ABBA hit -- but then she's totally mortified seconds later so her friends can comfort her with another ABBA hit. She's also worried about money for a single scene so she can sing, you guessed it, "Money, Money, Money." And she's only worried for the duration of the song.
Problem 3: Phyllida Lloyd doesn't know how to direct for film. This, finally, is what kills the big-screen "Mamma Mia!" dead: Lloyd directs her actors like they're still on a stage -- loud and laughing and clowning around in big ways that don't really translate to the screen -- and then does those actors a disservice with choppy, uninteresting camera work and sloppy, dull choreography. (Men wearing flippers line-dancing on a dock? Seriously? Is that the best you could do?)
Oh, and when Brosnan sings, he sounds like he's gargling a cactus. Studios used to routinely dub actors' singing voices in classic Hollywood musicals; could they please start doing it again? _____
D; 108 minutes; rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments.
I also go out of my way to praise Fatboy's absolutely brilliant "geek : remixed" -- in which he adds dance beats and off-the-wall mashups to some film-score classics. I've been listening to it obsessively for a week, and you can download the whole thing here.
In the latest CulturePulp comic, the comics version of Hellboy and the movie version of Hellboy team up to explain the history of Mike Mignola's graphic-novel series (and how it differs from the films).
(Also, good grief check out Bill Mudron's color work in the cover image above. He came up with that undead-army/tentacle background all by his lonesome; I just drew the two Hellboys, then asked him to put "some flames in the background or something.") _____
Getting critically worked up over "Journey to the Center of the Earth" would be a bit like getting critically worked up over a Six Flags rollercoaster. Both are expensively engineered rides. Both pretty much work as designed.
"Journey" was designed to showcase state-of-the-art digital 3-D technology. (If you're going to see it at all, see it in the nicest 3-D theater you can afford.) It sets up its ride with the barest fundamentals of family-friendly story and dialogue. A professor (Brendan Fraser, in the first of his two Indiana Jones knockoffs this summer), his nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and an Icelandic guide (Anita Briem) find out the hard way that Jules Verne's 1864 novel "A Journey to the Centre of the Earth" was actually a non-fiction guidebook.
What follows feels like watching someone play an exceedingly high-rez game of "Pitfall." Director (and veteran visual-effects supervisor) Eric Brevig sets up situation after computer-generated situation to show off how cool 3-D tech looks these days. There are tons of vistas and runaway mine-car rides and dinosaurs and killer plants and in-your-face shots where water is squirted or spit at the camera. It's inoffensive and shiny and competent and kids will dig it, and I can already barely remember a single thing that happened. _____
C-plus; 92 minutes; rated PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments.
You can argue (and many have) that superheroes are our modern-day mythological heroes, and John Hancock (Will Smith) would fit right in with the worst of the Greek gods: He's a drunk, mean, reckless, self-pitying lout who's mostly annoyed by a human race that hates and fears him.
For some reason, Hancock is compelled (through a boozy haze) to commit heroic acts, but they always cost more than they're worth. He stops a trio of gangbangers in a shootout the L.A. freeway, but incurs $9 million in collateral damage. "He's using our city to beat himself up for reasons known only to him!" rages one city official. His rough landings are probably keeping several paving contractors in business. He saves a struggling publicist (Jason Bateman) about to be hit by a train, but derails the train when he doesn't think to simply lift Bateman's car above the locomotive.
And it's here that "Hancock" takes the first of many very strange turns -- when the desperate Bateman offers to help turn the antihero into a real hero, "to turn this power into willpower," rehabbing Hancock's image with voluntary prison time and counseling.
In a film marketplace where even the best superhero movies tend to do a lot of the same stuff -- origin stories, winky self-reference, somber mythmongering, scenes set at charity balls -- I really admire Will Smith and bad-boy director Peter Berg ("The Rundown," "The Kingdom") for trying something different here. "Hancock" has a surprisingly rude sense of humor, an improvisational vibe, immediate camera work and rawer-than-usual music on the soundtrack.
Smith's performance continues his work in "I Am Legend," in the sense that he works a lot of flaws born of loneliness into the lead character in a nine-figure blockbuster. He's at his best at the beginning of the film, when Hancock's at his celebrity-on-a-bender worst; there's something giddy about watching a train wreck with superpowers speak this bluntly, and I loved his horrifying attempts at smiling in the early stages of Bateman's career-rehab effort. And Bateman is, of course, hilarious. Imagine his "Arrested Development" character's throwaway comic timing transplanted into the mind of an image consultant, and how that might mock every self-loathing superhero cliché.
All that said, I'm not sure "Hancock" is 100-percent successful. The problem (and "problem" feels like an overly strong word here) involves late-film decisions about plot complication and tone.
Part of Smith and Berg's subvert-your-expectations gameplan involves a major mid-film shocker -- one that takes the movie to larger mythological places unrelated to Hancock's self-improvement quest. It's a genuine surprise, which is appreciated, but it also dilutes the film's previously tight sense of humor, character and focus, preventing the filmmakers from diving as far into their promising early ideas as maybe they should have. Bateman takes a back seat to the action, and Hancock's self-examination takes a back seat to Berg putting him through some serious new paces.
In fact, I don't want to ruin it, but the twist is vast and high-concept enough that it probably would have made a decent starting point for a separate sequel. You'll see what I mean. _____
B-minus; 92 minutes; rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and language.