Wes Anderson meets Downfall in Jojo Rabbit, a film that, to its credit, I’m still turning over long after I’ve seen it. Something rankles in Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire about a young German boy who can’t make himself into the perfect Nazi soldier he aspires to be. The balls required to make a film about a member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler himself as an imaginary friend are considerable, but they shrivel up when confronted with a tone that can’t decide on stakes or jokes and in turn undercuts both. Armando Ianucci provided Waititi the way forward with his miraculous comedy The Death of Stalin, but Soviet war crimes have a harder time translating to the Third Reich.
Yorgos Lanthimos meets Fight Club in The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns’ deadpan satire of masculinity amidst a storefront dojo. Stearns constructs a world that could exist anywhere within the last several decades, drains it of any emotion besides repressed rage and dull bravado, and within this odd box, communicates a great deal about the lonely and despairing society so many real people live in. The Art of Self-Defense kicks with its comedic punches and punches with its incisive kicks.
There’s the Matthew McConaughey who travels the galaxy or hawks Lincolns, and there’s the Matthew McConaughey of The Beach Bum, in which he isn’t playing a part so much as inhabiting his true self. A Florida Keys poet and raconteur whose particular aroma of sweat and weed and sunburnt skin can be inhaled through the screen, McConaughey’s Moondog is the crystallization of the actor who portrays him, a man who was once arrested on a noise complaint because he was playing the bongoes too loud. In Harmony Korrine’s beachside adventure, McConaughey is doing the opposite of stretching his talents, but if his persona wasn’t fun to be around, the movie centering it wouldn’t be so entertaining.
James Gandolfini, harbinger of the Golden Age of Television and one of the best actors of his generation, died in June 2013, three months before the release of one of his greatest performances in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. I remember sitting down in theaters to watch this film, fresh with more grief than one would expect after the death of someone I’d never been within a hundred miles of, and loving Enough Said, not only for Gandolfini but for Holofcener’s script and the other performances in a hugely-talented cast. However, how could I not be suspicious of that appraisal, especially when Tony Soprano played such a huge part in my cultural life? On a years-later revisit, unclouded by grief blinders, my initial reaction was correct. Enough Said is one of the great underrated films of the last decade, a high-concept farce with vast wells of empathy for its middle-aged characters.
A famously instructive cultural scenario occurred on NBC in the mid-2000’s, wherein two new shows about sketch comedy debuted at the same time. One, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, made its writers into heroes battling the forces of ignorance, one comedy bit at a time. The other, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, deliberately made its show-within-a-show a badly-rated-and-received series of fart jokes and desperate attempts to create merchandising. Despite having less of a pedigree, 30 Rock ran for seven seasons while Studio 60 was quickly canceled. There were surely dozens of reasons for this divergence, but one was that Studio 60 never had a believable sketch show in its center, especially if it was going to be posited as some central part of American cultural life. A show can’t convince me that their writers or performers are some kinds of treasured icons and then include scenes from the show-within-a-show that make that treasuring implausible. Director Nisha Ganatra and writer/star Mindy Kaling haven’t taken this to heart in Late Night, a film about an inexperienced writer starting her first gig on a revered-but-fading host’s show. All involved need to convince the viewer that they’re good at their jobs, but Kaling may have been too consumed with her excellent work on The Office to pay attention to what was happening in NBC’s other time slots and file that information away for later use.
While romantic comedies are in the midst of a comeback thanks to Netflix’s finely tuned algorithm, Long Shot aims its genre attempt at the world of politics at a time when no script can match the absurdity of the real world. The film not only asks the viewer to imagine something like a return to governmental normalcy, but it also proposes Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen as a credible couple. These are big requests, one of which the film pretends doesn’t exist and the other it constantly interrogates. Jonathan Levine, a deft director who knows his way around the line between drama and comedy, accomplishes some of what he needed to with Long Shot, a film that entertains but doesn’t elevate.
WWE Studios making a biopic about one of its wrestlers immediately stinks of corporate propaganda, and Fighting With My Family doesn’t allay those concerns. Famous past and present wrestlers like The Rock and Big Show make cameo appearances, and there’s little sense of the seamier side of the business as exposed in Beyond the Mat. The film also seems to misunderstand the matches themselves, pretending that they can be won with grit and determination instead of predetermined outcomes based on who management is promoting this week. However, with a strong cast and some subversive moments, Fighting With My Family is nonetheless an entertaining sports flick. The true story of pro wrestler Paige’s emergence from a hardscrabble English life to the lights of the WWE is an amusing charmer that’s more perceptive and warm-hearted than it needed to be.
Liz Lemon from 30 Rock spent an episode traveling back home for a high school reunion that didn’t go as she thought it would. She imagined herself as bullied and overlooked, but her misremembered talent for the perfectly cutting remark meant that she was the bully, pushing her peers into plastic surgery clinics and therapy couches with her emotional brutality. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut finds her own teenage Liz Lemon in Beanie Feldstein’s Molly, a valedictorian who passed on partying to focus on her accomplishments and developed an antipathy towards her less disciplined classmates. With best friend and cohort in teetotaling Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) by her side, who needed all these drunks and skanks who were surely going to peak in their teenage years? Booksmart hilariously follows Molly and Amy as their worldview is turned upside-down in their final days of high school. In this gender and ambition-flipped Superbad for a new generation, the bittersweet emotionality is replicated and the jokes are updated for current sensibilities, losing nothing in their potency.
Paul Feig’s mastery of the female-focused comedy (minus some ghost-busting) continues with A Simple Favor, a tremendously entertaining mystery satire that proves how comfortable Feig is across genres. His successful films have all been funny, but they capably operate within the confines of buddy cop or spy movies. A Simple Favor, based on a page turner one could imagine flipping through on a beach, is at root a credible whodunit, and Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer build on the book’s foundation with snappy dialogue and the extra mustard the cast puts on those lines. This is a return to form for Feig and a career best from co-star Blake Lively. If people still had cable, A Simple Favor is the kind of film that would suck away afternoons after a bout of random channel surfing.
Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is best described as a casting bonanza. Show a viewer whose never seen John C. Reilly onscreen this movie, and they’ll have a thorough understanding who the actor is. This low-stakes comedy about insurance salesman at an annual conference features actors inhabiting roles that only they could’ve played, led by Ed Helms as Tim Lippe, a sheltered man-child who invests his career with the seriousness of a heart surgeon. Still the best part that Helms has ever played, Lippe serves as an audience surrogate into the inert and corrupt world of Midwestern insurance, a racket not unlike the region it exists in, such that innate decency is buried underneath ostentatious religiosity and the appearance of things proceeding as normal. Cedar Rapids knows this world as much as the cast knows their characters, and the result is a film that retains its warmth even as its protagonist’s rosy worldview falls away in exchange for another.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.