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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

Coming Up In This Column: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, What’s Your Number?, A Single Man, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Whitney, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes, David, I am definitely trying to take Hero’s Journey Soup off the menu. And you will get no argument from me about Jean-Claude Carrière’s status as a screenwriter. As far as I can tell, his nonfiction book The Secret Life of Film has not, alas, been translated into English.

50/50 (2011. Written by Will Reiser. 100 minutes.)

Tone, nuance, restraint: When Casey Robinson researched cancer for his script for Dark Victory (1939), he became determined to make it as medically accurate as he could. Between Warner Brothers and Bette Davis that didn’t last very long. The film ended up being probably the first in which the leading character gets Movie Stars’ Disease: they look great until late in the picture when they cough once and die. See Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) for later variations. And all the thousands of television movies that have come along since. What makes 50/50 so fresh is that it avoids all, and I mean all, the cliches of the genre.

Part of that comes from the fact that Reiser, a writer and producer, got a particularly bad form of cancer when he was in his mid-twenties. So he is writing about it from the inside (see the comments below on The Playboy Club for an example of a show that is researched rather than felt), but with a very clear eye about the experience. He owns this world in the way Hecht and MacArthur owned newspapers when they wrote The Front Page. His surrogate, Adam, is a NPR producer working on a story on volcanoes when he gets the diagnosis. Reiser does not beat the volcano symbolism to death, and the volcanoes have a great, quiet payoff later in the film. The diagnosis comes from a doctor who seems to be unable to look him in the eye. Who of us have not had a doctor who is not very good at delivering the bad news? The cancer is a tumor on the spine, which is tricky to operate on, so Adam begins with chemotherapy. At this point the film could go the traditional way.

But Adam’s friend Kyle is a different sort of best friend. Kyle is based on Reiser’s friend Seth Rogen, who plays him in the film. Like a Seth Rogen character. Kyle is raunchy, with all kinds of semi-inappropriate ideas for Adam, like using his cancer to attract women. Kyle is not above using his helping his friend to score with women. Kyle’s function in Adam’s life and in the film is to bring a raucous counterpoint to the illness, which keeps the film from getting too maudlin. When my wife had breast cancer in 1987 (don’t worry; she is 24 years cancer-free now), I was put In Charge of Hugs and Humor. And the humor was very, very dark. Generally films avoid that, and this one doesn’t, which helps both Adam and us get through this. The tone of the film is serious, but not solemn, and you never know what outrageous thing Kyle is going to say or do. For a long time in the film we assume Kyle is behaving this way because, well, he’s Kyle, but look at the small detail of a book Kyle has that tells us he is consciously doing this.

Kyle and Adam are great roles, and Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt act the shit out of them. This is Gordon-Levitt’s best performance; he runs with all the little nuances that Reiser gives him. Look at his reactions in the scenes with his counselor Katherine the different times she touches his arm. One thing I particularly like about Reiser’s script is that unlike a lot of male writers, he does not underserve his women characters. Katherine is not a middle-aged maternal figure, but a 24-year-old student just working on her Ph.D. Adam is just her third patient (and look how Reiser tells us that), and she really doesn’t know how to do all this yet. She’s also not yet completely clued in on the professional ethics involved in the question of how much she can get emotionally involved with Adam. One element I have grown to hate over the years is the storyline where the professional falls in love with his/her client/student/patient. (How I Met Your Mother has a nice running storyline now about Robin’s involvement with a therapist she was seeing that deals with the issues in a nice, if more sitcomy way.) In Reiser’s case, making Katherine a beginner makes her scenes livelier than just the standard shrink/patient scenes. It also helps that they have the great Anna Kendrick to play her.

But she’s not the only well-written woman in the film. There is Adam’s mother, who seems when she learns about his cancer that she has stepped in from a more melodramatic cancer movie. Not true. That is just her character, and we see more sides of her as the film progresses. It also helps that they have the great Anjelica Huston to play her. Adam’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film, Rachael, tells Adam up front that she is going to stick with him, which we know means that, no, she won’t. But she’s not as awful as Kyle describes her in one of his foul-mouthed tirades. It also helps that they have the great Bryce Dallas Howard to play her.

It of course helps keep the movie from being a tearjerker that Adam does not die. He eventually undergoes surgery, which gets all the cancer, and he resumes his life. The emotional restraint of the writing and acting pays off beautifully. At the risk of sounding like I am turning into a quote whore by writing a blurb, this is one of the best original screenplays of the year.

The Mill and the Cross (2011. Screenplay by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson. 92 minutes.)

The Mill and the Cross

Sunday in the Park with Pieter: One of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals is Sunday in the Park with George. In the first act we follow artist Georges Seurat as he completes his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette. We see the people who become the figures in the painting and get their stories. The first act curtain is the painting coming together in its final form. Majewski, who also directed, and Gibson are doing something similar with Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. But without, alas, Sondeim’s hummable tunes.

Majewski has been combining art and film for some time. He wrote the original story for the 1996 film Basquiat, and he wrote the novel and screenplay for as well as directed the 2004 Garden of Earthly Delights, which includes references to Hieronymus Bosch, among others. His 2000 film Angelus tells multiple stories, each one beginning with a room designed like a painting, from which the stories come to life. So he knows his way around this sort of thing.

The writers begin with a scene that lets the audience know what they are up to. Bruegel and a village dignitary, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, are walking through the landscape of the painting. The film is using CGI as effectively as I mentioned Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) did in US#82, but here it is to provide the background of the painting as a semi-real backdrop for the action of the film. In this opening scene we see several of the village characters who will show up in the rest of the film. We also get Bruegel explaining what the painting will be about. We are in Flanders at the time of the Spanish occupation, and Bruegel is using the subject of the Crucifixion to comment on the brutalities of the Spanish. The painting is political, but we still get some of the earthiness we expect in Bruegel’s peasants.

We do not get their stories in the way Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday, give us stories. After the titles, the film begins by showing us the daily activities of the peasants: getting up, starting the mill at the top of the mountain, taking care of the kids, etc. But there is no dialogue among the peasants. OK, I love silent films and telling the stories visually makes sense in this context. Especially since the dialogue we do get is awful.

The few major dialogue sequences are with Bruegel and Jonghelinck, played by Rutger Hauer and Michael York, respectively. Their scenes are in English, and are not well written. I assumed in watching the film that the English dialogue came from Gibson, but Majewski has worked in English before both as a writer (Basquiat [1996]) and director (Flight of the Spruce Goose [1986]). Whoever wrote the dialogue here did a very bad job of it. Jonghelinck has a long monologue near the beginning in which he explains, in the baldest way possible, the political situation in the village. Michael York is not as bad an actor as you believe from listening to him in this scene.

Fortunately there is not a lot of the English dialogue, and as we follow the peasants, the film begins to make connections between them and their roles in the painting. We can see them, and we don’t have to hear about them. The filmmakers are tying together the threads of the story, going in and out of the details of the painting, so we can see how the painting is built up. The final shot of the film starts on the painting itself in a museum and pulls back to capture the whole paintings and the others paintings nearby on the walls, suggesting there are many other stories to tell about them. I’d be in favor of that, assuming they get somebody who can write English dialogue better.

What’s Your Number? (2011. Screenplay by Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden, based on the novel 20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak. 106 minutes.)

What's Your Number?

Guess again Tad: Way back in the April 11th issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend had a long, thoughtful piece on the issue of whether women can be funny and raunchy in movies. His focus was on Anna Faris and this movie. Here’s why trying to predict the future will kill you, especially in the movie business. I assumed, like Friend, that Anna Faris would be the star to break through the “woman can’t be raunchy” wall. She was sensational doing just that in 2008’s The House Bunny (see US#3), and I had high hopes for her and for this film after reading the article. Unfortunately…

If you go back and read my comments on The House Bunny, you will see that I pointed out how smart the script was. Shelley, Faris’s character, only seems dumb, but she turns out to be the smartest person in the room. She relates to the other characters well, and we are rooting for her all the way. Ally Darling, Faris’s character here, is stupid at the beginning of the film and only gets stupider as the film goes along. She gets fired from her job in the opening minutes. She doesn’t even look for a new job whereas Shelley went from getting kicked out of the Playboy Mansion to becoming a sorority housemother in nothing flat. Instead Ally becomes obsessed with an article she reads in a magazine that suggests that women who have twenty or more lovers will not find husbands. As written, Ally believes this. OK, I know we are in the old Johnny Carson land of “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” but her belief in this nonsense does not do her or Faris any favors. You could write Ally so that she sort of believes it and sort of doesn’t, but is bothered enough to do what she does in the movie: track down her ex-boyfriends in hopes that one of them is the man she was meant to marry. The writers and Faris’s Ally is just frantic. Mark Mylod, the director, does not help by pushing Faris’s frantic qualities, especially in the opening scenes when we should just be getting to know her. But then Mylod’s direction is frantic in other ways. The opening shots have him whirling his camera all over the place. The film takes place in Boston, but you would hardly guess it from the opening shots. Mylod has directed mostly television before, so he may not yet feel the difference between television and film. The Friend article begins with Faris and Mylod watching the film. He notices she isn’t saying much and asks, “Is there anything you’re cringing at?” and she replies, “My face.” Friend reports Mylod broke into laughter. But Faris was right: she is as badly photographed in this film as I have seen a star photographed in years.

The two screenwriters have written for television and this is their first theatrical film. Allan wrote for Scrubs and Crittenden wrote for both The Simpsons and Seinfeld, so they at least should have been able to shape scenes and write dialogue better than they do here. The scenes are unfocused and until the end there is not a single memorable line of dialogue (it’s in a phone call from one of Ally’s exes). If all the other dialogue is straight from the book, Allan and Crittenden should have known better and corrected it. I assume the fact that the exes Ally tracks down are not very interesting is the fault of the book, but more could be done with them. The one partial exception to that is Tom Piper, a black politician whom Ally goes to Washington to see. We get a couple of moments of her reacting to the upper class levels of D.C., and the punchline is not bad: Tom’s gay and he wants to marry her to cover it up.

Several reviewers have pointed out that the opening scene (Ally getting out of bed to put on her makeup before the guy she has slept with wakes up) is a direct steal from this year’s Bridesmaids. I would have thought that since Bridesmaids came out in May, they might have reshot that scene, but in the film it becomes a running gag, so they probably couldn’t without a lot of major reshooting. Would this film seem better if it had come out before Bridesmaids? Maybe, since not only the opening gag, but the wedding scenes would not have seemed second hand. Bridesmaids was a big hit, and for all its flaws (see US#76), it is a sharper, funnier and even raunchier movie than this one. As indicated by this: Ally’s sister is played by Ari Graynor, who had the great toilet scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008, see US#10). Here Graynor simply smiles a lot and shows her freckles. I like her freckles well enough, but if you want raunch, this woman can deliver it. As can Faris if you give her the material.

A Single Man (2009. Written for the screen by Tom Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood. 99 minutes.)

A Single Man

Too precious by half: I didn’t get to this one in theaters, but picked it up recently on DVD. George is an English professor in 1962 whose lover Jim died eight months ago. He’s been in an understandable funk ever since, and the day the film shows us is the day he decides to kill himself. At least Ford and Scearce don’t outright tell us that, but let us figure it out as the film progresses. One problem is that George on this day is a very one-note character. Colin Firth does everything he can to bring a little variety to the part, but the writing does not support it. The other characters are shallow as well. We get Jim in flashbacks, but he is just an object of desire. Charley, a woman friend of George’s, is one of those grotesque cliches that show up in too many gay male authors’ works: the straight woman determined to sleep with the gay hero. I suppose the equivalent in straight male writers is the guy who thinks getting a lesbian to sleep with him will turn her straight. Julianne Moore gives what color she can to Charley. The worst characterization is given to Kenny, a student of George’s who seems to have the hots for George as well. Which leads to a lot more mooning-around scenes than you need. Kenny is also a very one-note character, and Nicholas Hoult, the actor who plays him, is not experienced enough to do more with the part, unlike Firth and Moore. Late in the film Kenny shows up at George’s favorite bar and they go back to George’s house. At one point Kenny says that he is worried about George. There is nothing elsewhere in the script or Hoult’s performance that would make us believe that. It would have been easy enough to write that Kenny is truly concerned while also attracted to George, which would have given their scenes a little texture. It would also give the scene where George discovers Kenny is sleeping with the gun George intended to use to try to kill himself a lot more impact.

Tom Ford is primarily a clothing designer, so as you can imagine, the film is art directed to within an inch of its life. George’s house is neat and gorgeous, which works against the story. When George tries to shoot himself, his fumbling attempts to get in the right position simply look silly in his perfect house. Ford has made the film look like a television commercial, which makes it seem shallower than it needed to be.

The Playboy Club (2011. “Pilot” written by Chad Hogue & Becky Mode. “The Scarlet Bunny,” teleplay by Chad Hogue, story by Chad Hogue & Karyn Usher. 60 minutes.)

The Playboy Club

Relax Gloria, it’s already been cancelled: Gloria Steinem first gained fame by going undercover as a Bunny in the New York Playboy Club and writing about it in a 1963 article called “A Bunny’s Tale.” She wrote about the long hours, hard work, and ridiculous costumes the Bunnies were required to wear. It made her reputation, so you can understand that when the new series about the glamour of Bunny life in the early ‘60s was announced, she condemned it sight unseen. After all, she has a reputation and a movement to protect.

If she had seen it, she would have been even more upset for one obvious reason and one less obvious one. The series was created with the help and support of Hugh Hefner. He does a voice-over narration, going on and on about how liberating it was for women to work at the Club, how freeing it was for them, and how it was in its own way the forerunner of women’s liberation, although he never uses that term. That is historical revisionism of the worst sort, a false nostalgia for a world that only exists in Hefner’s head. His magazine and his clubs did help America free up sexually, which I am sure Hefner assumes that women’s liberation was all about, but it still presented the women as sexual stereotypes.

The less obvious reason Steinem would hate the show is that it presents the material from the Bunnies’ point of view rather than hers. The local NBC channel in Los Angeles had an interview with a former Bunny in which she talks about the experience not in unpleasant terms. OK, local network news often does promo news stories on network shows, but getting an actual Bunny? To speak positively about the experience? I was surprised, though, that the news did it, but not that she spoke positively. Several years ago Kathryn Leigh Scott, who before she was an actress in everything from the original Dark Shadows to Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence, was a Bunny in the New York club. At the same time Steinem was there. And was profiled in the piece. She and the other women in the club felt betrayed by Steinem, who had not told them what she was up to. But it was more than that. Scott felt that the article was condescending to the other Bunnies, since Steinem had made no effort to get to know them. So in the ‘90s Scott set out to track down not only the other Bunnies she worked with, but as many others as she could find.

Guess what? Not only did they have some good memories of their experiences, but they went on to be not only actresses (Susan Sullivan, Lauren Hutton) and singers (Deborah Harry), but also doctors, lawyers, and scientific researchers. Scott’s book of interviews with them came out in 1998 under the title The Bunny Years, and it is a fascinating read. If Gloria Steinem didn’t have a dog in the fight, she would love it, since it shows that women can go beyond the stereotypes men like Hefner have of them.

Now wait a minute. I previously said that Hefner took credit for liberating women and then I am saying the women went out on their own and did well. Doesn’t the latter prove Hefner was right? No, because there is no indication that in the early ‘60s Hefner (or nearly anybody else other than the Bunnies themselves) conceived the possibility that would happen. So The Playboy Club gets caught between a rock and a hard place: it has to be nice to Hefner and his memories and it has to be nice to the Scott view of the Bunnies. In the first two episodes, it never quite manages that. The bits that seem to have come from Scott’s book (she appeared in a photo with the show’s Bunnies in the September 26-October 2 issue of TV Guide) sound more researched than felt.

Aren’t you impressed that I have written this much on this show and not yet mentioned Mad Men? A lot of the hype over this show and Pan Am (see below) is that since they are both set in the early ‘60s they are ripping off Mad Men. Yes, they are, and they are doing it badly. As you may remember, one element I love about Mad Men is that it captures the tone of the era so beautifully. The sexism of the men in Men is casual and believable. The sexism of the men in The Playboy Club is obvious, again researched than felt. Even though Club is focused on the women, and they are not particularly well drawn, the lead is Nick, a Chicago lawyer with mob connections. He is written and cast to remind us of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Yes, Nick could lead to mob stories, as the killing of a mobster in the pilot episode does, but what does that have to do with the Playboy Club?

So much for the idea of sex selling: NBC cancelled the show after three episodes. Don’t worry, Gloria, you reputation is safe.

Pan Am (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Jack Orman, developed by Nancy Hult Ganis. 60 minutes.)

Pan Am

Humming the luggage: Like The Playboy Club, we are in the highly glamorized version of the early ‘60s, back when flight attendants were called stewardesses. The show’s developer, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a stewardess, but from 1968 to 1970. Hmm, why move the show back… ah,well, you’ve guessed, Mad Men. Ganis had the idea for the series several years ago, but it took her this long to get it on. Part of the problem is that it took a while to convince the company that owns the Pan Am brands (the airline went out of business in 1991) that the show could be a marketing bonanza for them. So we get the stews’ carry-on bags shot loving detail. See how many little girls come trick-or-treating to your house this Halloween in Pan Am stewardess costumes. This is the sort of commercial for Pan Am that Don Draper would have rejected as too simple-minded by half.

The creator and writer of the pilot, Jack Orman, was a writer-producer on ER and other shows, so he knows his way around a big, multi-cast show, but he runs into a problem many pilot episodes do: he is trying to get in too much in one hour. The episode deals with the first flight on a new jetliner from New York to London. We are introduced to Maggie, a grounded burser, who is called upon to fill in for a stewardess who has gone missing. Another stew has to deal with her lover, who is on board the plane with his wife. We assume the wife does not know about her husband and the stew, but she does and gives the stew a hard time at the end of the flight. There are two sister stewardesses, one of whom is a runaway bride. There is a stewardess who is, or at least will be, involved with the C.I.A.. There is a weird matte shot of London when they get there that suggests Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral are a lot closer than they are in real life. I did not see a kitchen sink, although there may have been one in Maggie’s first scene. Yes, we get a kid looking up adoringly at crew members, not once, but twice. The showrunners may sort out the overplotting, but it will take a little more work to scrape off the sentimental look at the ‘60s. Mad Men is about as unsentimental as you can get.

Prime Suspect (2011. “Episode One” developed and written by Alexandra Cunningham. “Carnivorous Sheep” written by Alexandra Cunningham. Based on the British television series developed by Lynda LaPlante. 60 minutes.)

Prime Suspect

No, it’s not Prime Suspect: Prime Suspect is the great British television series created and mostly written by Lynda LaPlante, beginning in 1991. It stars Helen Mirren as a tough Scotland Yard Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. She puts up with the casual sexism of the men she works with, she drinks more than she should, and she has been known to have an affair or two. And did I mention she’s played by Helen Mirren?

I love Maria Bello. She’s been wonderful in nearly everything I have seen her in. But she’s not Helen Mirren. And Cunningham has not developed a character for her to play. Yes, we get the generic stuff: tough, hard charging, but we have had a lot of women detectives who have had those qualities and more: Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer, Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace, Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And those women have dealt with the occasional sexism aimed at them. Like the sexism in Mad Men, it is part of the culture they work in. In this show, it is obvious and relentless, and for the supporting characters, such as Detective Duffy, that seems to be their only defining characteristic. Also, Bello’s Jane Timoney does not seem to be as in charge as Jane Tennison was. In “Episode One” she seems in charge, but not in “Carnivorous Sheep.” This may just be a difference between NYPD and Scotland Yard, but it throws the dynamics of the show off.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2011. “Scorched Earth” written by David Matthews. 60 minutes.)

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Where’s that old L&O inventiveness?: One of the great joys of the Law & Order franchise is not that they did “stories torn from the headlines,” but they always gave them ingenious plot turns. I remember one episode that began what was obviously a ripoff of the Anna Nicole Smith death, but had twisted it away from that before the first ca-ching of the credits. As might have occurred to you as you followed the news accounts of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, it is a perfect case for L&O:SVU: sex, power, diplomatic immunity, a flawed victim. It had it all. Well, it may have had too much. Matthews’s script follows the real case almost to the letter. I kept waiting for one or more of those great L&O twists. The problem is that the case already had all the variations you would expect from L&O. The only change is that the diplomat was actually tried at the end and found guilty, not of rape, but of unlawful imprisonment. Well, that’s no fun. Especially since Matthews set up a potential twist early on in his script. The diplomat in the show’s version was Italian, not French, and he says at one point that he thinks he may be set up by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to prevent him from running against Berlusconi in the next election. So I kept expecting that would pay off in an interesting way, but it does not pay off at all.

Whitney (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Whitney Cummings. 30 minutes.)

Whitney

She’s no Kat Dennings: This is the second show that Cummings had a hand in creating this fall. The other, and better one, is 2 Broke Girls (see US#82). In that one, we have a story and characters. The “Whitney”-like character in that one is Max: tough, smart-mouthed, take no prisoners. But she has to deal with Caroline, the rich girl, who comes to work in the diner and who stays in her apartment, with her horse. So Max has stuff to do, and as written and played by Kat Dennings, she is not just a smart-mouth, but her comments have to do with the other characters and the situations she finds herself in. The character relates to the other characters, including the horse. In the “And Strokes of Goodwill” episode (written by Jhoni Marchinko) Max takes Chesnut, the horse, out for a walk to do his business, and delivers a nice monologue to him.

In Whitney, Cummings plays the title character. She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex. They make jokes. They are afraid of marriage. They go to a wedding and make jokes with their friends. Whitney dresses up as a nurse to seduce Alex and he ends up in the hospital. They make jokes. Most of the jokes are variations on material from Cummings’ stand-up act, and so the show falls into the trap of a lot of sitcoms based on a comedian’s act: all jokes, no story, no characters. Half an hour of this just gets tiresome. Stick with 2 Broke Girls.

The Good Wife (2011. “A New Day,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Meredith Averill. “The Death Zone,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Leonard Dick. “Get a Room,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Julia Wolfe. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Patience: As you may gather from this column, the previous column, and the next one, I have been watching a lot of the new television season. That includes a lot of pilots (yes, there are some I have not written about). As was the case with both The Playboy Club and Pan Am (see above), many pilots are just stuffed to the gills with plot, character, and everything else. That’s why it was so nice to come across “A New Day,” the season opener for The Good Wife. You may remember from US#77, the last episode of the previous season ended with a great sequence in which Will and Alicia manage, slowly, given the complications, to get into the Presidential Suite at a hotel for what we assume is going to be great sex. “A New Day” is just that: what happens the next day.

How do we know it’s the next day? Alicia comes to work smiling. Will is nowhere to be seen. Work begins as she is assigned a case of a young Muslim accused of a hate crime. The prosecution in a pre-trial hearing gets him to admit he was driving a car at the time of the demonstration. So he has an alibi—the car was used later in a murder and how he is arrested for that.

And what about Will? He arrives in the office a little bit later, but he is not smiling. Hmm. Did something go wrong? When the secretary says Alicia was looking for him and does he want to see her, he says no. Ouch. At 18 minutes in, Will goes into Alicia’s office and we see them talk seriously, but we do not hear the conversation. God, what happened at the hotel? Diane notices that Will is being a “little hard” on Alicia and asks if anything is wrong. He says he is worried that she is a third year associate acting as if she is their equal. At 36 minutes, we cut from that scene to Will and Alicia. Together. Somewhere. Having sex standing up, mostly clothed. They both laugh when Will tells her about Diane’s question, then he asks her is he is being “too hard” on her. And she comes. Is this the first female orgasm on American network television?

Now you understand why CBS has changed its advertising campaigns for the show. The ads have featured Juliana Margulies with her head thrown back looking like she is in the middle of fun with Will. Now that they are actually having sex, CBS figured they could play that up, but I think their ads just cheapens and diminishes the show. As always, there is a lot more going on in The Good Wife than just sex. Not that there is anything wrong with sex. Although an irony-challenged woman wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying she could not understand why the show is called The Good Wife, since Alicia is having sex outside or marriage, etc, etc.

In “The Death Zone,” the State’s Attorney, i.e. Peter, is asking for law firms to bid on the gig of being outside counsel for his state office. Lockhart-Gardner applies, but Peter wants them to submit to an independent audit, a requirement he has not made of the other firms applying for the job. Is Peter trying to get back at Alicia? Or the firm? There are hints of all of those in various episodes and will undoubtedly play out in future episodes.

“Get a Room” gets us involved in a case where Eli, whose specialty is crisis management and is now part of Lockhart-Gardner, has to deal quickly with a food poisoning case. He jumps in to action in the way that only Alan Cumming can do. My guess is that this is the episode Cumming will submit for his Emmy bid next year, and with good reason. The Kings have given him a great showcase.

This episode also introduces us to a new character, Celeste. She is the opposing counsel on a case where Will and Alicia are representing a woman harmed by a medical device. The case in mediation and the groups of lawyers are more or less sequestered in a hotel until the mediator can get them to agree. It becomes obvious that Will has dealt with Celeste before. Will and Celeste play cards at the hotel and she suggests that whoever loses the card game should concede the mediation. Will’s not buying that. It’s only after that we learn that she and Will were “together for two years.” Together how? Not clear. Later she mentions to Will that her firm is going under and she is looking for a new professional home, suggesting she could maybe come to Lockhart-Gardner. And we end the episode (our guys win the mediation) without learning what will come out in the next couple of episodes: Celeste is Will’s ex-wife. Hijinks will definitely ensue.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

2

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

2

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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