They Came Together (2014)

With 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter made a name for themselves in genre parody, and where that dealt with the 80s teen summer camp genre (a largely forgotten straight-to-VHS phenomenon), here they go after the enduring success of the romcom itself. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are the ever familiar faces at the centre of this one, and both are delightful at sending up all the genre trappings and narcissistic self-involved characters, while also imbuing them with real warmth and likeability. The plot is essentially a retread of The Shop Around the Corner via You’ve Got Mail (an underrated classic from the pen of Nora Ephron), except instead of bookstores we have candy stores, with Paul Rudd being the Hanksian corporate, and Poehler the Ryanesque indie. There are any number of cameos from familiar faces, and lots of big laughs — well at least, so I thought, so I’m surprised to see a number of lukewarm-at-best reviews around the place. It’s hardly substantial, and much of the detail has already passed through my head in the week since I saw it, but it effortlessly pleased me, so if you like any of the creative talent involved, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

They Came Together film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain and Michael Showalter; Cinematographer Tom Houghton; Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 22 July 2015.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

A friend loves this film, and somehow it had passed me by when it was made, but there’s a Netflix series coming up soon, so I thought I’d better catch up with it. Perhaps I overlooked it because, as I recently discovered, it was loathed by critics at the time. I’ve no idea why. Sure it’s silly, and maybe it’s true, as one critic avers, that it’s impossible to really satirise 80s teen films. Having grown up with dreck like Revenge of the Nerds (1984) — one of the better titles — I was hardly keen to revisit the territory. However, it’s certainly possible to have fun with the genre, and in ways that are less sleazy and exploitative than some of those straight-to-VHS entries seemed at the time. Well, this film has fun with the genre. Janeane Garofalo plays the director of a summer camp, and a range of comedians (some established, some like Elizabeth Banks and Amy Poehler who would go on to further success later on) play her staff. The film’s focus is mostly on everyman Coop (played by the film’s co-writer Michael Showalter), but it’s in the surrounding ensemble that the comedy is found. To me, the comic highlights seem to be Paul Rudd as the obstreperous and childish yet unlikely ladies’ man Andy, and Christopher Meloni’s Vietnam veteran chef Gene. Hopefully, it’ll translate well to series-length television, but the breadth of talent and the likeability of the cast should be in its favour.

Wet Hot American Summer film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain and Michael Showalter; Cinematographer Ben Weinstein; Starring Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 11 July 2015.

Role Models (2008)

I may have had a little bit of trepidation going into this comedy, mainly because it looks like something that could so easily be so badly (and unfunnily) generic. The premise — two rather childish men, to avoid jail time, are sentenced to community service, which involves mentoring two fatherless misfit boys; hilarity ensues — could fit easily into the oeuvre of, say, Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn without any problems, and I’m not the biggest fan of the resulting ‘hilarity’ in those situations. However, it turns out that Role Models is for the most part pretty well-judged, and most importantly it has laughs. I’d say it fits in most clearly with the gently ‘bromantic’ comedy of, say, Judd Apatow along with the improvisational work of Will Ferrell et al. (which of course is rooted in Saturday Night Live) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

The two guys in this situation are Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott), driving from school to school peddling a terrible energy drink called Minotaur, while the latter is dressed in a furry Minotaur costume. It’s reasonable to say that their lives are at a dead end; Danny, in particular, is sarcastically bile-filled and consequently is, quite reasonably, dumped by his long-time girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). A sequence of nicely underplayed lashing-out leads to a criminal conviction, its commutation to community service, and thereby to a mentoring programme run by Gayle (Jane Lynch) where they meet their respective charges. Danny must mentor Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is heavily involved in live-action role-playing (LARP) games, while Wheeler gets the potty-mouthed and largely uncontrollable Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, channelling Tracy Morgan, which is appropriate given that he’s played Morgan’s son in 30 Rock).

Sure, it’s at this point that we get a pretty thinly-veiled morality story about two men trying to work through their own issues via the healing power of connecting to another human being, which is why I’d put this in the ‘bromance’ category. But none of this is really layered on like you might fear (well, it generally avoids schmaltzy musical cues, in any case, which is my own pet hate), and the focus is firmly on the relationships between the two men, and between the men and their mentees. This leads Danny to get more involved in Augie’s LARPing activities — which is where most of the comedy cameos appear, including a wonderful Ken Jeong as the self-appointed ‘King’ of the LARP group, as well as Joe Lo Truglio and Matt Walsh. This of course could be the cue for much mockery, and though some individuals are the butt of jokes, it’s not in the end because of their choice to dress up as faux mediaeval knights and play make-believe war games, but rather because of the insecurities of Danny’s character.

It’s not perfect by any means. Wheeler’s crudity leads to plenty of rather weak ‘boobie’-based observational bonding with his filthy-minded young charge — but at least this isn’t dwelt upon. What instead we get is a rather fond and unsentimental portrait of wayward men learning to be better, and even if the set-up is hardly original and the pay-off hardly a surprise, it still provides plenty of enjoyment along the way.

Role Models film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain, Timothy Dowling, Paul Rudd and Ken Marino; Cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook; Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 January 2014.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

It’s surely the most trailered and hyped-up release of the season. There were few places to turn where Will Ferrell’s Anchorman persona, newscaster Ron Burgundy, has not popped up at some point ever since he announced the return on US late-night TV talkshow Conan well over a year ago. The original film of 2004 has found an ever more committed fan base since being released to DVD and remains familiarly quotable. With the sequel, the setting has moved forward a bit from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and from the West coast of San Diego to the Big Apple of New York, meaning all the period references have been overhauled. There are a huge number of additional cameo appearances, and all the core cast have returned. So maybe that explains why the feeling of finally sitting in a cinema to watch this return was so deflating for me. I can’t say it entirely lacks laughs, but it does lack cohesion. I don’t doubt the cast had fun making it, but the experience of watching it is a little wearying, especially for a comedy film that nudges two hours in length.

I don’t in all honesty have much energy for getting into it all in detail. It just felt fairly slipshod, like a series of only barely-linked skits, held together by the character tropes so familiar from the first film. Ron remains a media dinosaur, unable to keep up with social changes that threaten to relegate him to a racist, misogynist relic (and yes, we get a bit of both here, presented within a context of media satire — after a fashion, considering it’s about thirty years late). Paul Rudd’s Brian is a woman-chasing lothario with indifferent success, David Koechner’s Champ is filled with barely-repressed feelings for Ron not to mention very little knowledge of the sports he reports on, and finally there’s Steve Carell’s weatherman Brick, still with a very low IQ but now with an incipient love interest (the well-matched Kristen Wiig, who manages to remain a charming screen presence for all the brief time she’s on). Finally, there’s Ron’s on-again off-again love interest Veronica (Christina Applegate), who basically plays the straight man to all of Ferrell’s comedy stylings.

The film’s central thesis is that news has become a vapid attempt to secure ratings, which is not exactly a groundbreaking idea, but at least it’s put across with some gusto. The bad guy is a blatant mashup of Rupert Murdoch (Australian media mogul) and Richard Branson (blond goatee and an airline) as the owner of the 24-hour television station which recruits Ron and his team, and needless to say, Important Lessons Are Learned by the film’s close, both for Ron, for his friends, and for the mogul. There are good scenes and funny ones too (and I did laugh at the dinner Ron shared with his black female boss and her family, for example), but the individual pleasures all feel so very transitory. Stylistically, it feels like something that will work much better on a TV-sized screen, but here comes across as cheap-looking and rather flat.

Still, it’s a comedy and it has some laughs. It will no doubt make many of its viewers pleased, especially those who’ve come to enjoy these fashionably retro characters. I like the first film, and I liked this one too, just not enough to want to think too hard about it, because every time I do it makes me feel less warmly towards it. Perhaps that’s the key though. Try not to think too hard. It seems to work for Brick.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers Will Ferrell and McKay; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.

Admission (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Paul Weitz | Writer Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) | Cinematographer Declan Quinn | Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen | Length 97 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 14 June 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Focus Features

This new film pairing Tina Fey and the seemingly unaging Paul Rudd has come in for some fairly disappointing reviews since it was released in the States earlier this year, but I rather liked it. It certainly isn’t a spectacular example of the romance genre (terrain familiar to both lead actors), but its virtues are solid and it has a good supporting cast of characters to enliven proceedings.

As it happened, I saw this back to back with Stuck in Love, another film set amongst bookish intellectuals inhabiting the cynical north-east of the United States, and if it’s possible Admission is even less nuanced with its character arcs. Fey plays Portia, a cynical, uptight and childless middle-aged admissions clerk at Princeton University, while Rudd is John Pressman, a free-spirited progressive educationalist with an adopted family whose star student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) wants to go to Princeton. So far, so predictable, and in truth there’s little that shakes the viewer from that early assessment. Portia shelters herself from family commitments within her protective Ivy League enclave, while Pressman flits around the world engaging with developing communities to much the same end, so there’s little surprise in way their journey progresses. It’s never quite clear why Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton or whether this kind of elitist education is genuinely worthwhile, but it allows for some gentle comedy at the clash of cultures between the Ivy League and the liberal do-gooding of Pressman’s academy (which incidentally doesn’t seem to be at all academically rigorous in its methods).

Whatever its merits, it is worth noting that Admission is a comedy only in the broadest sense: there are few laugh-out-loud moments. In keeping with its pretentious milieu, the comedy in it is far more about wry smiles and occasional embarrassment such as at Portia’s ineptitude with the younger generation. Continue reading “Admission (2013)”