Friday, December 24, 2010

Max Gross sees movies so you don't have to

Yes, you know that the holiday season is fully upon us when the movies that might as well have the words "Oscar bait" sprawled across the poster start coming out...

This year's crop has been mixed. But here's my December roundup of what this schlub has been watching -- from best to worst.

Barney's Version. Not without its problems, but this Paul Giamatti picture (taken from a Mordechai Richler novel), is probably the most fun of all the movies I've seen this month. If you've ever seen (or read) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, you know that Richler can present less-than-sympathetic jerks in a jaunty, carefree way that makes you root for them. Giamatti is the jerk in question, and while he hasn't lost his patented sad-sack quality, you can also see exuberance behind his dark eyes. He plays Barney -- a philanderer, a schlemile, a bundle of cruelties, a possible murderer -- who is also lusty and ravenous for experience. We follow him from his first youthful romances until his final one. Dustin Hoffman has the best role he's had in at least a decade, as Barney's gleefully crude father. Minnie Driver is great as Barney's spoiled second wife. My quibbles with it: Giamatti's third wife (Rosamund Pike) was, I think, miscast. (She is very not Jewish.) Likewise, Barney's best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman) is incredibly not Jewish. And, finally, Giamatti's rival, Bruce Greenwood, was too pure and earnest to be taken seriously, (or liked). But I can't say I didn't enjoy this flick.

True Grit. I sort of wanted to hate this movie for two reasons. (1) I thought it was a dumb idea to try to replace John Wayne in one of the best roles he's ever had. And (2) my parents hated this movie ("True shit," my father called it,) and I generally trust their aesthetic taste. But I can't say I didn't like this Coen brothers remake. While I agree with my father that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne, he did a good enough job and I admit this new "True Grit" was very well done. It is a darker western than the kind Hollywood used to churn out in John Wayne's days, but that's not a knock against it.

The story is about a 14 year old girl (Hallie Steinfeld) who must hunt down the killer of her father, and enlists Bridges to do the hunting. He's a one-eyed drunkard. Steinfeld is truly spectacular. She plays this no-nonsense 14 year old with a kind of jarring competence. Schlubs who watch this movie might realize that they'll never be as together and in control as this adolescent. (It's sort of maddening.) "True Grit" is really Steinfeld's movie. Matt Damon does a pretty good job as a Texas Ranger, also on the hunt for her father's killer, and while Bridges certainly doesn't embarrass himself saying the same lines as the Duke, he almost tries to make Rooster Cogburn too dark. I also thought Barry Pepper was great in his five minutes of screen time as Ned Pepper. But overall, it was lively, entertaining and a very solid picture. (I'm planning on re-watching the original. I might have to post again on this film.)

How Do You Know. Can anyone explain why this movie doesn't have a question mark at the end? I thought there had to be some purpose behind it, that it might be some relevant plot point. After all, a movie company doesn't churn out tens of thousands of posters and ads and trailers without spellcheck or grammar-check, right? But after thinking it over, I'm pretty sure it was just an oversight... and the reason is because I think a lot of this movie was sort of carelessly thrown together. How Do You Know is a romcom with Reese Witherspoon as a professional softball player trapped between two guys, an easy-going major league pitcher (Owen Wilson) and an earnest businessman who might be going to jail for fraud (Paul Rudd). What did Paul Rudd do? Nothing. Or so we can believe. The filmmakers don't take the time to really explain what he's being accused of.

Writer-director James L. Brooks (whom I'm a great admirer of) sort of painted himself into a number of corners with this movie. Rudd is faced with an impossible choice -- go to jail for a couple of years, or send the guilty party to jail for the rest of their life. Rudd's either an incredible sucker, or a selfish dick. How can this be resolved? It can't. At least not in the way Brooks set it up. The end feels enormously unsatisfying. Moreover, Paul Rudd (who I also like immensely) tries too hard to be winning. (I felt like cringing on a number of occasions.) He doesn't have the necessary chemistry with Witherspoon to make this movie fly.

Which isn't to say there aren't some good parts. I laughed out loud on several occasions. The dialogue is good and the characters interesting (Witherspoon in particular had the most depth and grit of the bunch). But this is one I'd wait to see until it came on TV.

I Love You, Philip Morris. This is a movie about a cop (Jim Carrey) who realizes that he's (1) gay, (2) patently crooked, (3) in love with Ewan McGregor. Carrey leaves his wife and children, moves to Florida and starts living the life of a con man charging his spending sprees on phony credit cards. (The movie does contain the immortal line: "Being gay is really expensive.") When he goes to jail for his transgressions, he meets and falls madly in love with McGregor, the eponymous Mr. Morris, and when he gets out he goes all out to keep his lover in style. (There was nothing in this movie about the cigarette company -- much to my disappointment.)

Carrey goes all out in this role. And ILYPM is a rarity: an unapologetic, mainstream gay comedy. (There's no message, no great battle, nothing to interrupt its hedonistic ethos.) I wish I liked it more than I did, but the story jumps over the place and began feeling pretty dull by the middle. Although, I will say that it's worth watching for the plot twist at the end, which almost made the whole thing worth while. Almost.

All Good Things. Not so good. The story of Robert Durst, the heir to one of New York greatest real estate families, is a truly fascinating (and truly weird) story. Lord only knows what happened, but some time in the '80s, Durst's wife disappeared. Almost 20 years later, Durst's best friend, Susan Berman (daughter of gangster Davie Berman), was murdered. A year later, Durst turned up in Texas, wearing dresses and living with some old Jewish guy named Morris Black who later turned up dead and dismembered in Galveston Bay. What the hell was Durst wearing dresses for? What was the relationship between him and Black? Was it sexual? Did he have a hand in Susan Berman's murder?

All of these questions would make for an interesting picture.... but for some inexplicable reason, this part of the action comes up in the last 20 minutes or so of Andrew Jarecki's lightly fictionalized version of the Durst story (the name here is "Marks.") Instead, Jarecki made the bizarre decision to focus on the unhappy marriage and the disappearance (read: murder) of Marks' wife. Talk about burying the lede...