Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Quick Takes: Cyrus, Another Year, How Do You Know

This crop of films played with my expectations. Appearances can be deceiving. Most often, a film looks better than it is actually is (thanks to snazzy, shiny trailers and/or its attached pedigree), but what about when the film is actually better than it looks? That happened with me and Cyrus last week, but moreover, I had my expectations met and defied in all different ways with the rest of this batch.

When I saw the ads for Cyrus (2010) last year, I dismissed it. I had very little desire to see it. Jonah Hill never did anything for me, and the film's plot seemed familiar and one-note. So what changed my mind? Well, two things: the reviews were mostly positive, which led me to believe that perhaps there is more to the story that I didn't see. I was intrigued - could it be a smarter film than it looked? The other thing that swayed me was my viewing of Get Him To The Greek back in the spring. That movie drastically changed my opinion of Jonah Hill for the better.

I'm very pleased I gave Cyrus a chance. It's a delightful human comedy about a lonely fuck-up (John C. Reilly, king of the lonely fuck-ups) who falls for a single mom (Marisa Tomei, who never fails to shine). Finally, he catches a break. His years of wallowing in self-pity and relying on his ex-wife for comfort can finally come to an end. Of course, as with dating all single parents, they come with baggage. In this case, it's her adult son who has quite a bit of trouble escaping his mother's womb. In a shallow film, it would have been easy to go for cheap laughs as Reilly and Hill butt heads to win the affections of Tomei, but Cyrus digs deeper. The script's pacing allowed time for these skilled actors to bring nuances and neat little touches to their characters. It's an awkward, sitcom-ish setup (which turned me off to the film in the first place), but thankfully, it was given the deft, thoughtful indie-film treatment. 4/5

Of course, you almost always know what you're getting into when you watch a Mike Leigh film. Another Year (2010) has been on my must-rent list since it came out last fall, and when I finally sat down and watched it, I instantly fell for its charm. It's a simple story centered around a couple in their 60's (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). They are near retirement, but they seem to be in no rush to quit their jobs. They love what they do and they are blissfully happy with their life together. The film unfolds in the course of a typical year where friends and family stop in, stay a while, drink some tea, chat up a bit and carry on. On paper, it doesn't exactly provide goosebumps but its execution is truly and utterly delightful. Broadbent is as good as he's ever been (and that's saying a lot because, well, he's always good), but Sheen is a sight to behold. I'd never seen her before and she presents herself with such a relaxed, assured demeanor. She's a strong woman, her beliefs and opinions held tightly, her loved ones held even tighter. Lesley Manville received many accolades for her performance here as Sheen's flighty coworker and deservedly so, but any time that was spent away from Broadbent and especially Sheen (which, thankfully, was not often), I was aching for more of them. Another Year is a magnificent entry in the ever-esteemed Mike Leigh canon of greats. 4.5/5

As for James L. Brooks, well, you never know what you are going to get with him. He's created such great, indelible films (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) and produced some memorable television (Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore Show), but also has I'll Do Anything and Spanglish on his resume (for the record, I do think Spanglish is underrated, but is still leagues away from the best of Brooks). Thanks to poor reviews and word of mouth, I had my expectations low for How Do You Know (2010) and, frankly, I should have made them lower. This is easily the most lifeless film he's ever made.

Brooks had so much for going for this movie. He assembled a superb cast of actors who are not short on charm or skill. So why didn't it work? The clear answer is the lousy screenplay. It's overbaked and about as deep as your newspaper's astrology section. Everything about it just felt completely superficial. Reese Witherspoon plays a successful softball player who finds herself off the team because (gasp!) her age. While I'm sure this inevitably happens to all athletes, I somehow don't think they would find themselves out of a job as quickly as Lisa did. Is she really that deluded? Did she not see this coming? In the meantime, Paul Rudd is the president of a company that is owned by his father (Jack Nicholson), and when a scandal emerges, Rudd completely falls apart. Now, this is why Rudd was cast in this role in the first place -- he plays the "falling apart" credo very, very well. Now, how a character like George ever managed to run a business in the first place is one of the film's glaring mysteries. And Nicholson completely phones this one in. Yes, Brooks doesn't give him anything to work with, but an actor like Nicholson should be able to do something with it. He clearly chose not to. It's a complete waste of talent for all above.

Only Owen Wilson, arguably the least successful actor of this cast, comes out with his dignity intact. He provides some very solid laughs playing a clueless bachelor who thinks he has it all figured it out. It's clear that Wilson is having a good time with this role, while the rest of the cast sleepwalks its way through a screenplay that simply does not come together. 1.5/5

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