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.
Ever wonder what the Superbad sequel would be? If so, Booksmart is it, except it was unfunny. Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart took the last day of high school through the perspective of two highly motivated, ambitious, intelligent, and involved senior girls – Amy and Molly – who believed in the mantra “hard work pays off.” When Molly (Beanie Feldstein) learned those whom she looked down up academically also had ambitious post – high school plans, she was stunned. A few scenes later, Molly convinced her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) to tag along with her on a carefree night out.
Released in the midst of stagflation and hostage crises, Hal Ashby’s Being There posits a country so desperate for answers that it will turn just about anywhere, even raising up a charlatan who looks the part but doesn’t actually have anything to say. As this empty vessel that people fill up with their own hopes and wants, Peter Sellers is a pleasant center, a simpleton who doesn’t understand what’s going on but is happy to live in the comfort that the heights of business and politics affords a person. Ashby’s social satiric chops and Sellers’ amiable deadpan flesh out a world of privilege and useless nostalgia that’s only slightly more absurd than our own.
Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that only he could make, partly due to the strange rules that he impresses on the worlds that he creates. Whether those worlds are the restricted compound of Dogtooth or the dystopian anti-romance police state of The Lobster, their inherent absurdity doesn’t break the films because the characters within strenuously abide by the rules. Throughout history, few environments had as restricting, nonsensical, and arbitrary rules as a European royal court, making one a perfect fit for Lanthimos. In The Favourite, the Greek director, born in the birthplace of democracy, goes to the eighteenth century English monarchy for an outrageous chamber drama to end all chamber dramas. How can a future wannabe Best Costume Oscar winner dare to pretend that royals and their courtesans had dignity and gravitas when Lanthimos frames them as coddled by legions of servants as they steer the ship of state based on which minister or hanger-on is making the best jokes?
The ‘useless men’ subgenre, best exemplified recently by Elle or Widows, gets more company with Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a film whose punny title is perfect for its setting. Set in a ‘breastaurant’ that’s even more grimy and pathetic than the average Hooters, Support the Girls works as a line that the patrons of the central establishment would chuckle at and as a mantra for its harried but dedicated manager, beset on all sides by the tyrannies of the aforementioned useless men she comes into contact with. Bujalski, best known as an early adopter of mumblecore indie cinema, instills far more life into his latest film than one would expect from a mumblecore devotee, and while that genre has its moments, the success of Support the Girls suggests that he might be better off making films about energetic women instead of introspective men.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.