Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reviews from gulag: Komedy round-up!

Two frighteningly bad, one pretty damn good: our catch-up with 2016 continues apace, with a sequel to a pair of romantic comedies, that's worthless even within the context of its half-crappy franchise, Bridget Jones' Baby; a backstage melodrama about comedy, that's even more worthless than that, Don't Think Twice; and one utterly delightful eco-comedy, The Mermaid, which is the sort of miracle that reminds you that comedies don't have to be completely terrible after all!

BRIDGET JONES'S BABY (Sharon Maguire, 2016)
Twelve years on, Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger) is still single, because we're apparently ignoring the living shit out of how her last film ended up, with her engaged to Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), her greatest love.  But where there's life, there's hope, and Bridget manages to get herself impregnated, either by the random (yet implausibly dreamy and rich) tech guru she recently met at a musical festival (Patrick Dempsey), or—surprise, surprise—by one Mr. Darcy.  Can you guess how this all will end?  You can; you almost certainly already have; and therefore there's absolutely no reason for you to waste two hours and two minutes of your life seeing it play out in what amounts to excruciating slow motion.

There are lazy sequels, and then there are lazy sequels.  Bridget Jones's Baby is a dictionary-definition version of the latter.  It is the latecoming third offering in the series which began reasonably auspiciously in 2001 with the success of Bridget Jones's Diary, and continued three years later, with Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.  As such, it had no particularly great expectations to live up to, given that its immediate predecessor was already pretty bad—and the franchise's progenitor, itself, is likewise not any gold-plated kind of good.  Simple mediocrity, then, would have put it completely on par.  BJB doesn't meet even that minimal standard; it is handily the very worst of the lot.  Now, those first two films burned through a whole laundry list of sins—the sins of being instantly forgettable, of being terrifically pandering, of not being especially funny, of calling Renee Zellwegger fat every ten minutes, and (above all) of condescending totally to their target audience with a heroine who is, at best, only vaguely likeable, and, at worst, a mildly annoying nonentity, yet is still somehow the romantic focus of two loosely-drawn dream boys.

But those first two Bridget Jones pictures redeem their sins a little bit, because the farcical, almost magical-realist tone they each whip up manages to serve as a pleasant backdrop to an ongoing romantic triangle that, whether or not it's more than marginally credible, and whether or not it's particularly heartfelt, does still manage to be kind of actually enjoyable.  They did this through the expedient of giving its two wish-fulfillment figures to Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, who performed their one-note roles with capable aplomb.  Grant played up everything scummy about his tantalizing bad boy; Firth, meanwhile, was busy being the Firthiest version of himself he could be—which is more-or-less to say, he looks absolutely miserable that he even chose acting as a career in the first place.  But since this is exactly why we like Colin Firth, you can't say you never had any fun with him here.

Obviously, it would be unfair to say Renee Zellwegger herself had nothing to do with the films' (apparently) tremendous appeal.  And I would be the last person to say it.  To the extent that Diary (and its derivative and racist follow-up) ever wind up featuring a worthy protagonist, it's almost entirely due to her efforts at forging a human being out of the shards of ignorance and ill-judgment that constitute the simulacrum of singlehood called "Bridget Jones," so that what we actually saw was a woman whose major tragic flaw was that nobody had ever bothered teaching her the story of the Scorpion and the Frog.  And this went an awful long way to covering up the films' problems, explaining why she kept getting angry at her two lovers for, essentially, being the vacant romantic comedy archetypes they were.  (And, of course, it also helped explain why she kept stinging Mark Darcy right in his fucking neck—two films running!—when they were already halfway across the river.)  The point is that Daniel and Darcy were very well-opposed forces, and this lent their films a certain watchability.  Well, in Bridget Jones's Baby, the notion of Daniel shows up—while Hugh Grant emphatically does not—only so the screenwriters can savagely execute his character offscreen.

But, because this is a Bridget Jones movie, and because reinventing the wheel at this point would be way too much work, he inevitably does have a replacement.  And this man is categorically unacceptable, on pretty much every level possible, except that "he is an attractive age-appropriate partner for Bridget"; but maybe that's just as well, too, since the premise is even more unacceptable still, for once BJB gets going (it takes something like fifty minutes) every last thing in this film comes to turn entirely upon a question of paternity that, with our science, ought to be answered within a couple of weeks.

It is not answered, however, because Bridget is squeamish and refuses an amniocentesis.  (And she really shouldn't be squeamish about it, because not only is Bridget herself getting old, both of her prospective sperm donors are a lot closer to their graves than they are the maternity ward, too.  Incidentally, the only person to escape BJB with honor is Emma Thompson, as Bridget's OBGYN.)  But, of course, "responsibility" and "consequences" and "agency" have never been tremendously big issues in the Jones universe.  And never less so than now, when the script commits fully to its conceit of not one but two possible fathers, neither one of whom so much as raises an eyebrow, let alone a voice, over the fact that Bridget is willfully refusing to disclose which one of them is the guy who knocked her up.  And so the pandering has reached, in this third installment, the level of crazed pornography.

The worst of it is, it's the sort of thing that could be effortlessly handwaved away—Bridget tries! there's complications! and now she's legitimately afraid—and the writers would have actually made the melodrama tighter for their effort.  But effort is the last thing anyone was putting into this.  Even Firth is just on Firth Autopilot—which is still kind of funny, but it's not that funny.  Especially not when BJB's sense of humor can be summed up by its trailer-ready "setpiece," a lamaze class with two men, wherein Dempsey's watery billionaire and Firth's stolid super-lawyer are (gasp!) mistaken for a gay couple—and this is supposed to be amusing, for despite all the wear-and-tear you can see on the actors, it's pretty clearly going to be 2001 forever in Bridget Jones's boozy bourgeois rendition of the hellhole called London.

But, you know, at least this gag has the decency to have a punchline, even when that punchline is not really anything more profound than Firth in a reaction shot, easing us back into laughing at some unpalatably stale homosexual panic, with a look that's (cunningly enough) a lot more weary than it is actually anxious.  Unfortunately, most of BJB's efforts at comedy only get to the set-up, before they stop.

So, behold: there are vile hipsters running Bridget's tabloid media show now, and, boy, do they ever have some stupid facial hair!  (That's the joke.)  Thrill, as Bridget goes into labor and must hitch a ride with a pizza delivery truck, which is itself delayed by a feminist protest, and isn't that some value of ironic!  (That's the joke.)  And laugh, I guess, when BJB goes completely out of its way to set up a potentially delightful farce, wherein our heroine must doublespeak to both her men at once—and to a perfect stranger, too!—in order to keep the uncertain paterntity of her baby a secret, but then, presumably because good farce turns out to be hard to write, just has her vomit out the truth, about thirty seconds after she's told the brown guy to buzz off, because, sadly, he won't be needed for this bit.  (And, yes.  That is the joke.)

Finally, then, just die a little bit inside, as the screenplay tries quite desperately to convince you that the billionaire's utter lack of personality and charisma—these are replaced by his invention of a dating website and a so-called "love algorithm"—is supposed to have the mildest thematic value.  (Should I have mentioned that the billionaire's name was "Jack Qwant"?  Why, do you think that's funny?)

Well, in case these examples don't make it entirely clear, this whole movie is obnoxiously tilted toward some of the flimsiest and most hypocritical generational warfare you'll have the chance to see this whole damn year.  (Not enough examples?  How about "Bridget gets fired by her hipster bosses, which is bad, somehow, even though she was fired for being demonstrably unethical and bad at her job"—and, obviously, this seemingly-important plot element has virtually no plot ramifications.)  Now, it is never once as labia-out offensive as Edge of Reason's third act detour into a Thai prison—mostly because almost no movie is, up to and including The Temple of Doom—but it is one whole hell of a lot more consistently grating, in its general disdain for Millennials as well as the year it's supposedly set in.  I half-expect the editor's working title for this film was Bridget Jones's Snide Insert Shots of Trendy Beards.  This fucking movie voted for Brexit.

But, of course, this is the same movie that can't so much as bother alluding to how the ending of Edge of Reason came undone in the first place.  So you just can't claim anything like real surprise when it doesn't wind up putting any of its boundlessly-lacking energy toward being actually humorous or insightful, rather than just being generally blithe and intermittently playful, kind of like a cat that has cancer.

In fact, when the offscreen death of Daniel Cleaver is also the funniest joke BJB ever manages to make land, that should probably serve as some kind of warning in its own right.  Indeed, it ought to have served as a warning to the filmmakers themselves: because if you can't even get Hugh Grant to sign up to your lousy movie in 2016, then why in God's name are you bothering making it at all?

Score:  3/10

DON'T THINK TWICE (Mike Birbiglia, 2016)
An improv troupe in New York undergoes its death spiral when its (apparently) most talented member (Keegan-Michael Key) is tapped by this film's so-thinly-veiled-there-is-no-veil alternate universe version of Saturday Night Live.  Most of the other members of the troupe (Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher) are thrown into naked, all-consuming envy; but the last, his girlfriend (Gillian Jacobs), simply mourns the change, as she intently sets herself to keeping things exactly as they are, in a manner that would register as legitimately, clinically insane, if this movie had any real courage.  It doesn't, so it just kind sits there, limp and twitching, instead.

In the interest of disclosing my biases, I have a deep dislike of improv, to the extent I find improv comedy something akin to morally offensive.  It has its place, obviously: besides being a good form of basic training for acting, improvisation skills can make performances and scripts much better than they were before; and it can be hilariously funny, and sometimes deeply moving, when it's placed inside a basic framework, even if that framework is nothing too much more formal than a simple monologue.  But improv in the raw—the thing you no doubt think of when you hear the word "improv"—that kind of improv slices through my very soul.  It is the opposite of everything I think is actually funny, from the complicated comedic scaffolding that you can build into a prepared script to the calculated weirdness of a thoughtful non sequitur to the wordless poetry of physical comedy.  But improv—my impression of improv—is zaniness, and it is stupid voices, and it is the first damned fool thing that pops into your head.  And while it's a good thing to be quick on your feet, the soul of comedy is the soul of everything else: meaningful communication of ideas.  Even if the idea is as basic as, "It feels good when somebody else falls down a manhole instead of you."

But still, up until this film, I would've thought to myself, "I'm being unfair."  Improv's the easiest thing in the world to make fun of, after all—on the master scale of what most folks would consider too dorky to even contemplate, it ranks somewhere below playing D&D in costume, and somewhere slightly above masturbating in public.  If I'm being honest, most of what I think of, when I think of "improv," comes from media depictions that make fun of improv.  So, hell, maybe I had the wrong idea!  I didn't go into it with an open mind; let's not flatter ourselves.  But, I promise, my mind's door was unlocked.

Well, it turns out that good improv is like a good tarot card reading, except possibly more random.  That's to say this: if you manage to laugh at good improv, in the same way that a good reading manages to predict your future or tell you something interesting about your life, it's still largely by happy accident.  The improv on display in Don't Think is, I dearly hope, not "the best improv."  For the improv in Don't Think represents the psychotic waste of several very good comedians—comedians who, presumably, already did their time in the improv mines, and, having been released from their purgatory long ago, have gone on to do far more socially responsible things with their lives.  The very worst of it, sadly, accrues to Gillian Jacobs, who is 90% irritating inflections in this picture, as opposed to about 10% actual acting.  Sadder still, it turns out that the mighty stores of goodwill she'd earned from me for her excellent turn on that great (scripted) sitcom, Community, are not nearly so infinite as I had always supposed.

The performance scenes are, naturally, excruciating.  They're no better, and maybe worse, than the parody of improv you'd get anywhere else, with the round-robin foundation of the artform immediately swallowing up anything that ever threatens to be amusing.  (How Key's character gets a job after leaping into the middle of a scene with a President Obama impression is, frankly, beyond me.)  I understand these were scripted by writer-director Mike Birbiglia, and, ironically, they involved little actual improv.  That these were prepared sketches comes close to making me physically ill.

After a fashion, however, the performance scenes never end, because our dire comedians are always on.  I guess it turns out the most impressive aspect of the comedians' art is tolerating your idiotic coworkers' antics in the first place—which means the second most impressive must be the amazing ability to swallow down your self-loathing, at your own childlike need for endless attention.

Anyway, the improv is the reason why Don't Think isn't funny, and it's also the reason it's so unwatchably obnoxious.  But the reason that Don't Think isn't insightful or interesting, however, is that it does so very little with the thing it's actually about, which isn't its weak-tea comedy (its comedy, as you've no doubt guessed, is only a blind).  And what it's actually about is the idea that comedians are sad, desperate people who are "always on."

To the extent we need a(nother) story about this theme in the first place, Don't Think is unfortunately not the movie to give it to us.  It is untalented people pursuing a dream irrationally, in the face of a world telling them, "Please!  Stop!"  Sometimes that's the reverse-underdog story you wanted.  (If you want tales about people who shouldn't be doing what they're doing, and fail gloriously in the process, you have Birdman, and its operatic tragicomedy, or Monsters University, and its ever-so-slightly lower-impact tragicomedy.)  But, strictly speaking, these are not underdogs, anyway.  For the most part, they're privileged, coddled douchebags, and the one who isn't is simply so deluded that her blind allegiance to what amounts to one sad-ass ragamuffin adopted family turns out to be the funniest thing in the whole film, albeit in the bleakest possible way.  I'm also not entirely certain that this was an intentional joke, at that.  So Don't Think plays with the idea of our cast's misery and broken ambitions, and that's fair enough, but it never does this with enough focus or anywhere close to enough perception—not even with enough bare empathy!—to ever compel one to care.  Someone's always telling a joke.  A bad one.

There's a line, something close to, "In your twenties, you pursue your dreams.  In your thirties, you realize you never should have bothered."  It's the line that convinced me to see the movie—it's in the trailer.  It comes, in the film itself, almost out of any context, and when it's uttered, everyone else in the movie ignores it.  Well, it's almost commentary—in just about the same way that improv is "almost comedy."  Thus Don't Think winds up an exercise in enduring these inveterate jokers' consummate inability to be serious or sober for more than five seconds at a stretch, and, at the end of that exercise, you will find neither a lesson nor any form of real entertainment—except maybe in the sense that Don't Think serves as a vague cautionary tale, with the moral being, "Get a real job."  If only, eh?

And, in case you thought insult came without injury, it's terrifyingly poorly-made as a motion picture, too.  Credit where it's due: the camera captures the intuitive flow of the improv scenes probably better than the performers themselves do, which isn't much, but it's something.  Yet as a rule, it's either prosaic, or it's just full-tilt incompetent.  I could spend ten minutes talking about the hilariously awful framing and focal choices the cinematographer winds up making in this long-take conversational two-shot, which would probably be a lot more dramatic and meaningful, if only Jacobs and Key did not also appear to be stuck floating in the U.S.S. Enterprise's transporter buffer for the entire duration of it.  But even that's really nothing compared to the worst of Don't Think, because I swear to God, there's actually a shot in this movie where the wheels on a car move backwards, since apparently it's 1899 and we haven't figured out how framerates work yet.

But I'll be scrupulously fair here: maybe that last bit was merely an illusion conjured by my brain, in order to rescue it from shutting down in the face of 92 minutes of the sourest, most abiding blandness that I've seen so far this whole year.

Score:  2/10

THE MERMAID (aka Mei ren yu, Stephen Chow, 2016)
An amoral real estate developer named Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) has, in the name of communism with Chinese characteristics, set his sights upon reclaiming a certain group of islands offshore from their status as a protected ecosystem, by means of driving all the dolphins that inhabit it away with a potentially-deadly sonic weapon.  But what he doesn't know about these islands might actually kill him: for this archipelago is also the last refuge of the merpeople, and they will not vanish into the night.  To this end, they deploy their most beautiful warrior, Shan (Yun-Lin Jhuang), to the surface worldalthough, in fairness, she's probably the slightest bit less beautiful now, given that her fin has been surgically modified into a bifurcated pair of barely-functional legs.  Her  mission, and she has chosen to accept it, is to seduce the rapacious capitalist who threatens her people—and, having earned his trust, destroy him.  But what happens when she humorously fails, buying this man and this merwoman just enough time to actually fall in love with each other instead?

The Anglosphere, having failed to give us laughs, compels us to turn our attention elsewhere, to the highest-grossing film in the history of the People's Republic of China.  Stephen Chow's The Mermaid, of course, turns out to be an exceedingly strange bearer of that title.  It's hard to imagine how it could be the highest-grossing film anywhere, let alone in a nation where the sheer number of filmgoers and the variations between regional cultures presumably ought to have prevented a random dark horse hit from winning the box office championship purely because it somehow struck the right chord with the old zeitgest.  (Meanwhile, if you're asking me to believe that The Mermaid was not a random dark horse hit, then you really are asking too much.)  It's not so much because Chow's film is so weird (it is, in fact, pretty weird, but it's not even close to Chow's weirdest).  It's because it's so intentionally trifling and small-scale—not only when it comes to its Big Message, which is Stop Polluting the Earth, You Asshole, but even when it comes to its action-movie climax, which is not in any sense really competitive on the level of spectacle upon which it hopes to compete.  It's not even completely committed to the epic scale of its romance, which is the film's beating heart, as well as the sweetest thing about it.  Still, I'll happily concede The Mermaid this last one: for The Mermaid veers so effectively into sentiment at the end, that you won't even mind too much, that the whirlwind that came before it was only ever convincing in the first place because you were watching it play out within the context of an intensely goofy high-concept comedy.

But don't get me wrong, either: I don't begrudge The Mermaid its success (its overseas success, anyway) the slightest bit.  Actually, it's really refreshing.  Indeed, it's the kind of movie that might've made a real impact in the U.S. in the 1980s, or even the 1990s (I assume, obviously, that it was also an American movie in this particular hypothetical).  But the point is, it would not be a hit now that our cinematic culture has become so ossified, so that only films that have a quarter of a billion dollars behind them (and, probably, an existing IP) can be said to stand a serious chance in our marketplace.  Then again, this summer may have marked a turning point on that—but now I'm really stepping off the reservation, so let's get back to the actual film at hand.

The fact is, The Mermaid's various weaknesses—its intermittent tonal missteps, its occasionally-ramshackle logic, its failure to take its very best jokes to the absolute limit and make them legendary, and (of course) its positively defiant commitment to showcasing a whole heap of B-movie bad CGI, despite telling a tale of occasional enchantment and adventure that would really have been a lot better if it had been made with either a lot more money, a lot more subtlety, or both—well, these weaknesses do keep it standing right on the edge of greatness.  But none of these flaws are even close to fatal for a thing that's this bubbly and wonderful and, yes, joyous.  Even through a language barrier—even through some ear-grindingly obvious ADR, in fact—the film is terrifically funny.

That's probably because Chow's comedy tends toward the visual, and the sight gags spring up with fantastic abandon here, accompanied by some truly flawless comic editing.  (Plus, unlike Kung Fu Hustle, which is my touchstone for Chow's sensibilities, all his sight gags are readily parsable this time around—and they're all actually funny, too.  That film, you know,  had a penchant for sometimes scraping by with mere kineticism and zaniness; but The Mermaid is one significantly more refined iteration of Chow's over-the-top style.)

But leaning on the image explains why he needed to take recourse to economy-grade CGI—the film's like 80% special effects shots—and, let's give The Mermaid its due, the shimmery fake cartooniness becomes such a persevering aspect of its aesthetic that you're a lot more likely to think, "This is actually part of the joke, and sometimes it's kind of legitimately gorgeous anyway," than you ever are, "This honestly, genuinely sucks."  As for the film's highest-flying gags, you can greedily demand more from its best setpieces if you want.  The octopus teppanyaki sequence leaves laughs on the table, mainly by refusing to be quite as outrageously hyperviolent as the scene clearly sets up; and the confusion expressed by the daffiest police in China, over what precisely constitutes a "mermaid," might already be absolutely roll-on-the-floor funny, but it could have been straight-up stop-your-heart funny, if it'd just kept going—because by the point it does end, it's earned every right in the world to go on for, like, five more full minutes of this doltish cop drawing his increasingly-inaccurate representations of what he thinks a mermaid is, then holding them up for display like he thinks he's the new Glen fucking Keane.  Well, they are two of 2016's finest comic beats nevertheless.  And this is the part where I tell myself I can shove my own mild critiques right up my ass.

Frankly, the film is only ever not funny when it's busy doing something else, like making you care about its characters or (admittedly, to a vastly lesser degree) the world's oceans.  Most of the time, even when it is busy doing something else, it's still pretty funny.

I suppose the very worst thing you can say about it is that everything that's going on beneath the jokes is awfully predictable—but a predictable plot has never been all that much of a liability for either a comedy or a fairy tale.  The Mermaid is a tremendous, tremendous example of combining both.  That's not nothing; in fact that's something really special, because American films try to do this exact same thing three or four times a year, and when they do actually succeed, they still never succeed in this register—which is a fairy tale sex comedy, that sets out to charm its adult audience first, and sets out to charm any children in the audience, only to the extent there's still a kid within every adult who is bound to laugh at a drawing of a merperson with a dick on its head when he or she sees it.  Indeed: it is such an effortlessly loveable film, that if you don't love it at least a little bit, then I'd have to assume that there's something wrong, psychologically, with you.

Score:  8/10


  1. Bridget Jones' baby has been getting an alarming set of good reviews, so I'm glad to hear SOMEBODY didn't like it. Haven't seen it myself, because I haven't seen the other ones. Doesn't seem like I should.

    Also, I'm very disappointed to hear you didn't like Don't Think Twice, because although it wasn't high on my priority list, I like the cast and the subject matter. It's a shame they didn't gel better.

    1. Also, American comedy really is hurting this year. The only straight comedy I really enjoyed is Neighbors 2, which wasn't really reaching for anything lofty. And the true funniest movie of the year so far is The Nice Guys, which nobody even saw.

    2. I mean, everyone else likes it. (It has a 99% on RT, with just one negative review, from the WaPo, that isn't nearly as hateful as mine.)

      I guess I wouldn't let me dissuade you, if you were interested. So much of that movie is just me being annoyed by its comedy setpieces and its unlikeable characters and its premise, that if one weren't annoyed by it, I suppose one might easily find it middling good. It is facile and easily-distracted, though; that's pretty much objectively true.

      Thing is, I can understand critics kind of giving it a pass. Meanwhile, I'm honestly surprised that they give Bridget Jones 3 a pass, because it's the kind of film that exists to get bad reviews: a distant sequel that half-heartedly tries to recapture what made the original special but pretty transparently only exists to make money and to revive Renee Zellwegger's career. Anyway, I would mildly recommend the first, if for nothing else on scholarly-historical grounds.

      Finally, it's true: I also still haven't seen The Nice Guys. I really need to correct that.

    3. (Oh, and if you do ever see Don't Think Twice, please confirm or deny that part with the backwards-floating car wheels. It's in the last ten or twenty minutes. They're in Philadelphia, I think. It was so unexpected I'm not sure I can believe my eyes.)

    4. I'll keep my eyes peeled, but it'll probably be a while before I actually get to that one.

      And watch The Nice Guys! Do it! It's one of the only movies this year that feels like it actually earned a spot in my Top 10.

  2. Ide, watch The Nice Guys. It is far more worthy of your time than the films you've reviewed here. While it might have missed its theatrical audience, it's got the makings of a cult hit. I don't go to the theaters as much as I used to, but The Nice Guys was a pleasant surprise on the order of John Wick and Fury Road. It is also my third favorite Russell Crowe movie, behind only the sublime LA Confidential and the beautifully filmed and scored Master and Commander. You know, the nautically-themed Russell Crowe movie where he doesn't go completely insane?

    It's not the near-perfect piece of cinema that is Transformers: The Movie, but it's pretty entertaining.

    1. I like Gladiator more than I probably even should, but yeah, Master and Commander is pretty great. (On LA Confidential, I think we're 100% agreed.)

      The Nice Guys is definitely on my catch-up list.