Review: The Other Guys

The Other GuysWhen it comes to the current state of comedies, outside of Adam Sandler and his go to group of director friends like Dennis Dugan and Frank Coraci, filmmaking collaborations are a rarity. Even more of a rarity are pairings that work more often than not—yes that was a backhanded Sandler-Dugan dig. The Other Guys, another outing with Will Ferrell in front of the camera and Adam Mckay, is one of those exceptions. Ferrell plays meek desk jockey Gamble, a forensic accountant who has never shot his gun and is content using his computer to enforce law and order. His partner is Terry Hoitz (Mark Whalberg) a tightly wound could-a-been, bristling at being tethered to Gamble and a desk after accidently shooting Derek Jeter.

Gamble and Hoitz, as well as most of their department, sit in the shadow of supercops Danson and Highsmith (Dewayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson). Even though they can rack up insane amounts of property damage and place innocent bystanders in harm’s way, Danson and Highsmith are revered by the city.  Hot dog vendors offer them free dogs for life—but no cokes, can’t afford that—get decorated with medals, and they party with the rich and famous.

When Danson and Highsmith—in the film’s most darkly comic moment, as well as most pointed jab at buddy cop clichés—are killed in the line of duty, Hoitz, sees his chance to stop pushing paperwork and to finally hit the streets solving crimes like a real cop. However, thanks to Gamble’s lead foot, the Prius’s surprising get up and go, and a ill placed corpse, Hoitz and Gamble’s first attempt to nab a case doesn’t go the way they hoped.

Instead of heading back to the station to sulk and lick their wounds, Gamble forces Hoitz to follow up on the case Gamble’s been working on, which is investigating why financier David Ershon (Steve Coogan)  hasn’t filed any scaffolding permits for any of his building projects. Hoitz, thinks it’s a dud of a case until a security team crashes into Gamble’s prius, seizes Ershon, who begs to not be taken, and in one of the film’s running gags, grabs Gamble and Hoitz's shoes and guns.

Wringing new humor from the Buddy Cop genre is no easy feat. The genre and its variants not only devolved into self parody years ago, but action comedy hybrids like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours have long existed. Ferrell and McKay, succeed where many have failed by crafting a film that’s not just another parody of 80s action films, but an updated take that is more a sly satire and commentary on our current age of Bernie Maddoff, Enron and billion dollar schemes. In the years since drug deals and arms smuggling became front page news, and fodder for Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson to lay waste to a sea of nameless bad guys on screen, it’s become more and more evident that white collar criminals and crimes are just as dangerous. When the average person knows what a Ponzi Scheme is and can describe how it works, you know the world has changed.

At one point, Hoitz and Gamble’s Captain (Michael Keaton) points out that for all of their flash, Danson and Highsmith were actually shitty cops. Shitty cops bad at doing their core job which is solving crimes and not simply arresting perps.

One gets the sense that Keaton’s Captain Mauch wasn’t happy about having to sideline cops like Hoitz and Gamble. But as long as the city and the police brass were behind Danson and Highsmith, and Hoitz and Gamble weren’t producing tangible results that earned the department good press, there wasn’t much he could do. It’s a point of view that share’s more than a few  similarities to The Wire’s own cynical take on real police work losing out to internal police politics and favorable PR.

Ferrell and McKay also score comedic points with their casting. Eva Mendes as Gamble’s hot doctor wife, Steve Coogan as the slimy investment banker, and Keaton as the harried Captain who’s working a second job at Bed, Bath and Beyond to pay for his bisexual son’s dream of being a DJ, fill in nicely. Jackson and Johnson aren’t on screen long, but they leave a lasting impression—literally when you see how they’re dispatched—on the film.

As with their previous films, Ferrell and Mckay also illustrate that they know how to construct running gags that work, such as Gamble’s inexplicable ability to attract women who are 9’s and 10s to his, at best, 6. The dinner scene, when Hoitz meets Gamble’s wife Sheila for the first time, is a comedic master class in how important understatement and timing are just as important as dialogue.  And fans of Anchorman will find that The Other Guy is nearly as quotable. “Pimps don’t cry” is all I’m going to type.

Where the movie falls flat is in the poorly constructed action scenes and length.

In terms of economy and keeping the story moving forward, the action is serviceable, if often visually incoherent. And admittedly, while the film can feel long, considering Mckay and co-writer Chris Henchy built their jokes on a rather involved and credible plot, a plot that could have been the basis of a played for straight cop film, the length is a worthy trade-off.

Stop Blaming the Actors for Poor Box Office

When PRINCE OF PERSIA underperformed, a few articles and blogs popped up asserting that Jake Gyllenhal was the weakest link. Last week THE A-TEAM got stomped by THE KARATE KID, trailing it's fellow remake/re-imagining by $30 million. Already one piece has materialized laying partial blame on Bradley Cooper. It's true that the current crop of Hollywood's stars have no where near the pulling power of their predecessors. Even powerhouses like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington have seen their prowess wane over the last decade plus.

So when a movie fails to break wide, would different casting choices have made the difference?

That's a question that only has merit when you're talking about a film where a majority of the other factors are clicking. On point direction, a tight script and a premise or story that the public gravitates to.

By no stretch of the imagination would PRINCE OF PERSIA have been a better movie with Vin Diesel as the lead. The A-TEAM could have been made 30 years ago with Harrison Ford and the script would still be problematic.

In a front loaded, opening weekend matters most world, maybe the films would have had larger grosses with a different faces. Eventually though, an audience still has to decide if a movie is worth recommending or not when they walk out into the light.

Unless you're filming a one man show, no actor by their lonesome has the power to mystify audiences into ignoring plot-holes, poor scripting, confused direction and an underwhelming premise. If that was so, then there's a host of actors whose records should be damn near spotless. However, in the history of film, no actor has escaped having a few duds on their resumes. No one.

Review: The A-Team

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

It's been 27 years since THE A-TEAM premiered after Super Bowl XVII in 1983. Featuring Dirk Benedict as Faceman, George Peppard as team leader Hannibal, Dwight Schultz as "Howling Mad" Murdock and Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, the show went on to become a pop cultural phenom, spawning catchphrases and a merchandising bonanza.

Although the show was a hit, THE A-TEAM wasn't known for having sophisticated plots or, with its baddie of the week storytelling, intriguing villains. With most of each episode’s budget going to explosions and stuff to go boom, the settings for each episode were so generic and nondescript, the writers rarely bothered to tell you what town the A-Team was supposed to be in.

What THE A-TEAM did have was a memorable theme, even more memorable characters, a bloodless and deathless approach to violence that made the show kid friendly, an ensemble whose chemistry others have tried, and mostly have failed, to replicate in other properties, and a sense of fun.

Question is, would a big budget feature survive the transition, retaining the elements that made the show a hit, or would the jump in size magnify the show's weaknesses? The answer is yes and yes.

In casting, the creative team overcame the most difficult task, finding actors who could emulate what Peppard, Benedict, Schultz and Mr. T did without devolving into mere imitation.

Among the new recruits, Liam Neeson as Hannibal and Bradley Cooper as Faceman are the standouts and seem to be enjoying themselves the most. Lacking the natural charisma Mr. T brought to the role, Quinton Jackson still makes a good B.A., proving that the shoes weren’t impossible to fill. The last time we saw Sharlto Copley he was in last summer’s blockbuster hit DISTRICT 9 and now sans mustache and rocking an American accent, he’s amped up to 11 and is unrecognizable as Murdock. Collectively, this motley crew is a blast to watch on screen.

When director Joe Carnahan (SMOKING ACES, NARC) focuses on his ensemble cast the movie clicks. Whenever he breaks up the team, as he does during a way too lengthy prison stretch in the second act, the film’s energy dissipates and proceedings turn into a slog.

Adding to that feeling of "can we skip this, it's boring", was the decision to have not one, not two, but three villains, each with their own poorly conceived reason for existing.

Also on scripting duty, Carnahan, along with co-writers Brian Bloom and Skip Woods, attempts to give the feature version of the A-Team antagonists who are just as capable as the quartet to tangle with. Regrettably, the bad guys are still just as inept, clueless and bad shots as their small screen counterparts; they just have better toys and bigger guns.

And the plot?

On one hand, it's understandable why Carnahan chose to open  with a Mexican set prologue. Individually, the beats in the prologue do a decent, to sometimes great, job of introducing us to the characters and their personalities and setting the tone--i.e. please feel free to smile, this is meant to be fun.

On the other, as action beats and taken as a whole, these same moments don't gel to make the prologue a compelling tale in its own right. It means the movie doesn't really start for almost twenty minutes, and double that before we get to see our first bonafide A-Team mission--and what is arguably the best section of the film bar none.

However, that same mission and the frame job that results from it, while great, isn't the most compelling catalyst to build a film around. Hannibal sitting in prison seething for revenge and B.A. trying to decide if he's a man of peace or of war,  contradicts the movie's opening assertion that this is all meant to be a wacky fun thrill ride. More importantly, it betrays the affable spirit of the original, giving the film an unneeded mean streak.

So the final verdict? As a movie, THE A-TEAM isn't totally boring, nor is it entirely engaging. As a potential franchise, let's hope whoever helms the sequel cracks open a few of the DVD box sets and takes better notes.

Review: Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow was one of the best parts of 2008’s FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, the acerbic Snow was the very definition of the Nightmare Next (the a-hole who dates your ex after you). He’s super-awesome at sex, he’s a world famous rock star and worse, he’s likeable. Even as he’s berating all around him with one-liners, part of you wants to punch him in the face the other half hopes he invites you to the after-after party.

A spinoff more than a sequel, GET HIM TO THE GREEK, moves Brand into co-lead with Jonah Hill, who also was in MARSHALL playing an entirely different character. Fortunately, Snow’s mix of ass-holiness, rock star god prowess with an inner-core of regular dude has survived the transition.

By the time of GREEK, Snow has released AFRICAN CHILD, a self indulgent message record so rivaled, considered so offensive, one reviewer calls it “the worst thing for Africa since apartheid.” He’s also had a very public break up with long time girlfriend, mother of his child Naples, and cinematic doppelganger for Lady Gaga, Jackie Q. Now off the wagon, Snow has returned to his sex, drugs and rock and roll roots with a vengeance.

Enter Hill’s straitlaced, but rock knowledgeable, Aaron Green an intern at Capitol Records trying to impress his boss Sergio (Sean Combs aka Diddy). As a way to increase sagging record sales, Aaron, an Aldous Snow fan, suggests that they put on a 10th Anniversary concert of Snow’s LIVE AT THE GREEK. Sergio, looking for sexier schemes, rejects the idea.

However, after obviously crunching the sales numbers, and realizing the ideas his other employees had were just f’n stupid, Sergio decides the concert is not only a good idea, it should be Aaron who retrieves Snow from London and gets him to LA in time for the concert.

Director/Writer Nicholas Stoller, who also directed MARSHALL, earns the most laughs when he concentrates on the juxtaposition between Green’s let the rock star be the rock star so we can get the job done mandate and Snow’s anarchy, chaos, live in the moment ethos. The more Green desperately attempts to appease Snow’s every whim, from hiding heroin in his rectum, to indulging in and succumbing to absinthe’s seductive charms, the funnier the film becomes.

Much like Bing Crosby in the old ROAD TO…pics, Hill gets to be both the straight man as well as the purveyor of a few well timed barbs. It creates a dynamic that not only doesn’t rely on Brand to carry the movie by his lonesome, but also puts Hills’s Aaron in a position to be treated more as an equal by Snow than just a company flunky.

Brand continues to be just as he was in MARSHALL, only now his Snow is under the influence of half a dozen different substances and turned up a few notches. It’s a testament to Brand’s skills as an actor that Snow remains accessible and fun as a character and not just a cipher for jokes. There’s a moment in which Snow is talking to his son Naples that’s both funny and heartbreaking.

Amping all this up is Combs, whose Sergio has some of the best lines of the film. “I’m mind-fucking you right now,” will rightfully become a much quoted line of summer—which also means you’ve got about 7 to 14 days from when the film comes out before it also becomes the most annoying line of summer. One suspects that Combs has dealt with stars like Snow off-screen and he brought that to his Sergio.

As funny as the film is, what doesn’t entirely work are the emotional stakes shoe-horned in to give the movie a narrative backbone. A subplot involving Aaron’s girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss) getting a job offer is not only clichéd, it’s structurally superfluous. It highlights how, taken as a whole and compared to the men, under drawn the women are in comedy. Stoller has an Emmy nominated actress from one of the greatest shows—that would be MAD MEN—of all time in Moss, and the best he can do with her his relegate her to reacting to a phone for most of GREEK’s running time.

For Snow’s character, the quest to reconnect with his family renders the movie more episodic than need be. With an itinerary that includes stops in New York, Las Vegas and L.A., the repeated utterances of we need to get to the airport become tiresome. Stoller’s largest misstep comes when instead of mining two huge revelations for deeper truths and character development, Stoller opts for the easy-bake ending. It all makes for a rather lackluster 3rd act and predictable coda.

Even with those flaws, GET HIM TO THE GREEK is still hands down one of the funniest films of the year and so far one of the better films of the 2010 summer.

Review: MacGruber

Kristen Wiig, Will Forte and Ryan Phillipe in MACGRUBER Thirty years have passed since The Blues Brothers hit theaters. In that time 10 more Saturday Night Live movies have gone from sketch to screen. It goes without saying that the critical and box office track record has been abysmal. The assumed mediocrity of SNL movies has now joined the likes of Star Trek's Odd Numbered Movies Bad/Even Number Movies Good, and Multiple Villains ruin Superhero Sequels theory, as recognized Pop Culture law. MacGruber, SNL film number uno uno, does little to correct that thinking.

A spoof on the 1980s action show MacGyver, MacGruber the SNL sketch features Will Forte donning a stringy mullet, plaid shirt and jeans to play a bumbling super agent who begins each roughly 60 to 90 second sketch asking his assistants, usually including that week's SNL guest playing a role, for random items to help him defuse a bomb. Instead of completing his mission though, Macgruber's personal issues and faults get in the way and the bomb explodes anyway. In a recent sketch he proposed to his grandmother, played by Betty White, after admitting he never found a woman as good as her. If you’re wondering, she accepts, and the bomb explodes just as they are about to commemorate their future union with a bit of incestuous snogging, as the Brits would say.

In the film version, after his wife (Maya Rudolph) was gruesomely killed right before his eyes on their wedding day, MacGruber has retired from a life of missions and intrigue, and for 10 years he's lived a monastic life South of the Border. When the X-5, the most dangerous nuke ever built, is stolen by Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), MacGruber is recruited by his old boss Col. James Faith (Powers Booth) to bring down Cunth who happens to also be MacGruber’s long time nemesis.

Forte, along with co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone, who also directed, have expanded the MacGruber universe, turning the title character into a legend whose exploits in world saving have earned him, among other accolades, 16 Purple Hearts and a Presidential Medal of Honor. What Forte, Solomon and Taccone didn't do is explain how such a bumbling, self-absorbed ass earned all that shirt salad and became one of the United States most feared warriors. Nor, other than using his name as an ironic joke, do they demonstrate why Col. Faith would put so much trust in MacGruber to save the world.

It would be hard enough in a straight action film to root for a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger AND Green Beret trained hero, that’s so bad at his job that a headline asserts that on one mission alone, his actions resulted in the deaths of over 200 innocent people. For MacGruber this paradox is the main source of the film’s self-inflicted comedy wound, a gaping one so large, it bleeds the premise of many potential jokes.

As primarily a send up of 80s action characters and tropes, Macgruber, who refuses to even use a gun—the 80s action hero default weapon of choice—doesn't actually do anything, other than rip out throats during the climax, that's remotely action-y. If MacGruber’s in-film-legend had been built on the fact that he’s the anti-action action hero, whose wacky methods illicit results, more jokes would have probably hit their mark. It would establish why military brass would believe ruses like sticking celery stalks up your bum, or equipping yourself with bottle caps, thumb tacks and dental floss, rather than grabbing an M-16 and a handful of grenades, are actually effective tactics, and not the designs of an egotistical loon.

When Ryan Phillipe’s Piper, a recent military graduate who becomes MacGruber’s second in command, quickly recognizes that MacGruber is not the real deal before the first act has even come to an end, it puts into question the entire basis of the movie.

What made MacGyver so ripe for parody was the absurdity that one man could travel the world defeating any number of heavily armed baddies using only his fists, a near encyclopedic knowledge of scientific principles and whatever odd bits of material were conveniently lying around at the moment. A MacGruber that had pushed this one-man army conceit even further, having the title character create even more fantastic, improbable gadgets from nothing and creating a swath of unholy destruction to rival Rambo’s using 10 fingers and 10 toes, would have made for a potent entry in the 2010 Summer Blockbuster sweepstakes. Instead, we’re left with a tepid entry in the SNL film cannon, that isn’t horrible, but whose only real achievement is “being better than the average SNL movie.”