StopSmiling

Buy + Browse Back Issues

ONLINE EXCLUSIVES

eMailing List

  • Name
  • Email
EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Film Roundup: Observe and Report + Adventureland + I Love You, Man

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Clockwise from Top: Adventureland, I Love You, Man, Observe and Report

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Observe and Report
Directed by Jody Hill
(Warner Bros.)

Adventureland

Directed by Greg Mottola
(Miramax)

I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg
(DreamWorks/Paramount)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

***

Observe and Report
Directed by Jody Hill

Recently picked up for a second season, the HBO miniseries Eastbound and Down, about a washed-up former pro pitcher trying to make sense of his wreckage in North Carolina, is some kind of perfect. Its episodes have an easy-to-sink-into quality, like an old hammock, even though the rampant ego they’re capturing is sick with cruelty and delusion. Star/co-creator Danny McBride gets the most credit, but it’s the direction by talent like David Gordon Green and Jody Hill that gives the star and the story’s action their crucial leeway.

Hill’s Observe and Report, on the other hand, is never calming. Telling the story of a bipolar mall security guard’s struggles against perverted flashers, burglars, and his own illness, he’s made a film that is itself bipolar, swinging from Clerks-style “this job sucks” comedy to amateur police procedural to intense vigilante violence. The movie’s an acknowledged riff on Taxi Driver, but the actor chosen to go through this rollercoaster ringer is Seth Rogen, who lacks charm and charisma during the sweet stuff and any range whatsoever during the meltdown. His Ronnie Barnhardt’s calculator watch and denim shirt/white sneakers casual-wear go some way toward defining a character, but Rogen can’t nudge him into anyone memorable.

There’s a general overbearing unpleasantness to Observe and Report, and you get the feeling this was the intention — in order to make it more “like life.” Funny players like Patton Oswalt and McBride are squandered; a ramped-up battle of screaming “fuck you’s” between Barnhardt and Aziz Ansari’s lotion salesman drags, becoming a “fuck you” to the audience, and then just becoming numbing. As the actual cop on the flasher case, Ray Liotta arrives and brings more of the same pointless vulgarity, haranguing the out-of-his-element Barnhardt with “faggot!” and “retard!”

Diluting laughter with verbal and physical violence is a potentially interesting idea, but not when the first part of that equation is substituted with Michael Pena butting in on conversations with a depressing lisping Latino routine. Later, the Pena and Rogen characters go on an alcohol and drug binge, the heaviness of the poison escalating until finally they’re shooting heroin, a direct rip of a scene in Wet Hot American Summer. After Barnhardt essentially rapes ditzy cosmetics counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris), who’s zonked on tequila and Ronnie’s Klonopins, you really start to search for the breaks in this apparent psychodrama during which the filmmakers thought they were sneaking in comedy. Every scene in the sprawling Eastbound and Down seems to naturally find its unique voice; during its hour and a half, Observe and Report never finds a voice of its own.

***

Adventureland
Directed by Greg Mottola

With a soundtrack stuffed with both rock gods (the Stones, the Velvets, Big Star) and Eighties college radio staples (the Replacements, Nick Lowe), and with characters whose bedrooms are festooned with Buzzcocks and Bowie posters, Adventureland romanticizes a stage in life when the music you listen to isn’t just a facet of your identity — it is your identity. At the titular amusement park where most of it takes place, the maintenance dude Connell (Ryan Reynolds) is defined by claiming to have once jammed with Lou Reed. At a house party, Em (Kristen Stewart) is careful to display her copy of Big Star’s Radio City (with its William Eggleston cover shot) prominently, and the camera is careful to linger long enough for you to notice. “You’ve got cool stuff,” Jesse Eisenberg’s James lets her know as he looks through her albums. Joel (Martin Starr), who has less fervor for music, must compensate, and does so with a morbid interest in Gogol (he gives a copy of Dead Souls to a puzzled crush) and by smoking a pipe, which he admits is a “revolting affectation.”

Young people of college age or just after in the mid-to-late Eighties were certainly not the first, but may have been one of the last generations to identify with bands and albums to the point of claiming ownership of them. Seeing Adventureland in 2009, with things like record collecting, listening parties, and the album format dead or dying, there’s an added level of melancholy to its nostalgia. Not that Adventureland plays as a lament. Writer/director Greg Mottola’s third feature is more emotionally rich than his The Daytrippers and Superbad, but it’s still more interested in the comedy than the woe and anxiety of the transition into adulthood. It follows James, a recent college grad in Pittsburgh whose plans to attend Columbia in the fall are jeopardized by his half-drunk parents’ financial stress. Knowing that a liberal-arts nebbish who reads “poetry for pleasure” can’t take his pick of jobs, James gets a crap one at the park, where he’s soon calling races at the squirtgun horse track and being warned by his boss (Bill Hader) to let nobody win the “big-ass pandas.” It becomes more than a summer to simply get over with when he starts bonding with the acerbic Em. As in Twilight, Stewart’s lip-biting and squinting hint at a defensive vulnerability afraid to give too much away; Em’s secret is she’s sleeping with the older, married Connell. Reynolds plays the latter as an insecure but sympathetic phony whose indiscretions are never malicious. When James puts on “Satellite of Love” in the car and Connell asks who it is, we know he’s lying about the Reed jamming. As James is humbled and receives lessons in adult failings, his shell of arrogant undergraduate narcissism slowly softens.

Mottola’s only mistake might have been in making this holdover summer job too meaningful, in the way that The Breakfast Club’s one detention attempted to diagnose everything that was wrong with authority and the kids. Even when it’s not co-opting the built-in emotion of songs like “Bastards of Young” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” Adventureland’s ambient Yo La Tengo score twinkles along so gorgeously that even transitioning scenes are given life-defining importance, which feels insincere. A bumper car scene set to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and a shot of James looking meditatively out of an NYC bus to the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” feel almost pornographic in their flagrant appeal to certain viewers’ music-nostalgia sweet spots. You get the feeling Mottola’s unpacking every one of his twentysomething self’s favorites.

Even if he can’t show restraint with the soundtrack, Mottola’s success here is one of tone. Where unslaked hormones and a profane, screaming Jonah Hill define Superbad, Adventureland is a quieter, more contemplative thing (except when James’s friend Frigo is repeatedly punching him in the testicles). It rarely goes for cheap or scatological laughs. Refreshingly, there aren’t even any gay jokes. Reynolds’s likability means there’re no villains, and when James finally does blow up at the confused, two-timing Em, it’s an understandable jolt. “Lisa P” (Margarita Levieva) is the amusement park’s resident hottie, and the male employees’ fixation on her captures the kind of blowing out of proportion that happens in a behavioral petri dish.

The real Adventureland in Farmingdale, New York, where a young Mottola worked while attending Columbia, is gone, but the movie’s suburban Pittsburgh setting is palpable and at times elegiac in a Trees Lounge or Diner-like way that doesn’t always work in comedies. Visually, it shames a clumsier boys-to-men movie like Kicking and Screaming, although that’s partly a budget matter (tiny-budget The Daytrippers is pretty gangly). The nicest restaurant in town has a great name — The Velvet Touch; it’s where you take a date when you want to avoid the sleazy local strip joint, Razzmatazz. The local Stardust bar hosts cover bands like the Stones tribute act Tumbling Dice, spelled with missing letters on the neglected marquee. For the young people feeling either trapped or safe in their hometown, these distinctions and details, like the bands they listen to, take on a symbolic, identity-defining significance, a lack of perspective that Adventureland celebrates.

***

I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg

More than a tired rehash of Apatowian manbabies-at-a-crossroads comedy, I Love You, Man still isn’t the definitive masterwork one might have half-jokingly hoped for. If there awaits a kind of bromance Unforgiven, a movie that questions and indicts the pseudo-genre’s blithe assumptions and built-in prejudices, it should arrive before audiences’ tolerance for the same barely-tweaked product comes to a head. I Love You, Man is about platonic male affection, stars Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, and was directed by John Hamburg, who has three episodes of the Apatow-produced Undeclared on his resume. If nothing else, it’s laudable for being more than it needed to be; despite the assumable box office appeal built into its makeup, it (usually) opts against autopilot.

Most importantly, it’s funny, thanks mainly to Rudd’s inspired clowning. There’s nothing more than “dude with no male friends” to his Peter Klaven on paper, so it’s up to Rudd to supply him with believable charm and fallibility. The movie’s biggest laughs grow out of his extreme awkwardness, but it’s not the same uncomfortable pause, “that was weird” awkwardness now standardized to the point of redundancy by The Office and nearly every commercial (not just the Mac ones) targeting young professionals. Rudd’s Klaven just doesn’t quite know how to hang; the glasses of root beer he serves to his wife’s friends come with chocolate swizzle straws. When newfound bro Sydney (Segel) nicknames him Pistol, Klaven counters with “Jobin,” and he’s a font of such ridiculous non-clichés as “Totes McGotes” and “later on a sanjay.”

The writer/director, John Hamburg, seems unsure how to fill in gaps in characterization and plot. His Safe Men had so much “space to breathe” that it broached tedium (though it has passionate defenders). Here, he gums up the cracks with lazy camp-culture oddments like Lou Ferrigno, whose very presence is supposed to be amusing, and instantly timestamping references to movies like Chocolat and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Sydney’s “man cave” is a shrine to male selfhood, somewhat insultingly boiled down to Marshall stacks and a masturbation station. Confusingly, it’s a near-recreation of Nick Andopolis’ basement, complete with drum kit and elaborate Rush homage (Andopolis was Segel’s high school character on Freaks and Geeks). It’s further evidence that the “Apatow universe” is a real, growing thing, and not some myth born of countless culture-rag think pieces.

Even with its pop reference = funny reliance, disgusting vomit gags, waste of Joe Lo Truglio as a guy whose voice squeaks (that’s the whole joke) and predictable wedding ending that looks shot on the same set that backdropped Step Brothers’ wedding ending, I Love You, Man is still a movie that contains Rudd mimicking James Bond saying “I’ll have a margarita,” and is hard to hate. That movies from this brand will have “heart” is now a given, but the variety Rudd provides here is singular.

 

 

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

© 2010 Stop Smiling Media, LLC. All rights reserved.       // Site created by: FreshForm Interactive