Zoe Kazan Q&A for “Ruby Sparks”

Written by on August 14th, 2012

Playwright, actress, and screenwriter Zoe Kazan has been seen — or not seen — in blink-and-you-missed-them indie films such as “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Happythankyoumoreplease” as well as in small roles in more mainstream fare such as “Revolutionary Road” and “It’s Complicated.” But the 28-year-old Los Angeles native is also the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) and daughter of scripters Nicholas Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), which just about makes her Hollywood royalty.

And now, perhaps inevitably, she’s written her first movie, “Ruby Sparks,” a romantic comedy directed by “Little Miss Sunshine”’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in which Kazan co-stars with her longtime beau, Paul Dano. She plays the title character, a young woman who is literally dreamed up by Dano’s previously best-selling but now struggling writer, Calvin, and comes to life once he commits his dream to a page. An instant love affair is born.

But there’s a hitch: Whatever Calvin types, Ruby becomes, a convenience that tempts him when their romance isn’t rosy. The film is both magical and realistic, lovely and heartbreaking — a noteworthy debut.

Kazan talked to me about melding fantasy with reality, the tough parts of relationships, and how sometimes you just want a big piece of red meat.

Olszewski: What’s interesting about the film is that it’s clearly a fantasy, yet its themes are so grounded in the routine challenges of relationships.

Kazan: It was really important to me that the movie does have its fantastical elements. It’s basically all a big metaphor, so we just wanted it to feel real. That was something that Jonathan and Valerie and I talked about really early on, to feel absolutely that Ruby was a real person.

Olszewski: Not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Kazan: That’s not my favorite term. I was never looking to do that. I wanted her to feel real so that when he starts to tamper with her, [you] feel the moral impact of that.

To me, the magic in the movie is just a way of talking about what really happens between men and women in terms of control in a relationship, and how do you love the real person and not just the idea of a person? I think that when you meet someone, you necessarily fabricate all kinds of ideas about them because you don’t know them yet. And then sometimes you have a rude awakening.

I think that is a really hard lesson to learn. When you realize I can’t pick and choose. I don’t get a multiple-choice person. The person they are is like this pearl inside of an oyster shell. You can’t discard the shell and take the pearl.

Olszewski: This is your first screenplay. How much control did you have over it once you started filming?

Zoe Kazan: Paul and I are both executive producers on it, and I think Jonathan and Valerie were really open to us collaborating and having a lot of input, which was great. Once we got them to say that they would direct it and got their enthusiasm on board, then I didn’t need to retain any control because they were making exactly the movie that I wanted to make.

Olszewski: Obviously Calvin’s typewriter is a noticeable prop. Was that important to you?

Kazan: It was important to me. I really wanted to tie him into his house. I wanted to isolate him as much as I could, and the typewriter you can’t bring out into the world the way that you can bring a laptop.

Also, a typewriter is only for writing, while a computer is an outlet to the rest of the world — Facebook and the Internet and porn. People can spend their whole lives in front of the computer and they’re not lonely. But in front of the typewriter it is just you and the page. So I really wanted that physical thing, and I wanted Ruby to come out of paper and not gigabytes.

It’s also a romantic writing instrument. It’s what Hemingway wrote on. And there’s this [theory], I forget where I read it, but the way people think changes based on their writing utensil. You can actually see the difference in the meter and how long sentences are. And there’s something so percussive about the typewriter. You’re hearing its voice come back at you as you write in a way that’s just not true of a computer no matter how hard you hit those keys.

Olszewski: Did you feel any pressure with your family background to get into film?

Kazan: You know, I think if anything my parents wanted me to do something else. That seems to be the common line in Hollywood, like, please don’t go through what we go through. My parents are really successful and they still go through bouts of not being able to get their movie made, or having things fall apart or the wrong director comes along, and they take their name off the movie because it is unrecognizable to them. It’s actually just a really terrible profession. I wouldn’t want my kids to do it. But at a certain point you’re, like, compelled. I’ve written from the time I could hold a crayon, and as soon as I knew what acting was, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I’m a pretty single-minded person, so it really didn’t feel like a choice.

Olszewski: Do you have a preference between writing or acting?

Kazan: To me it feels like two sides of one coin. Though for a long time I thought that I didn’t want to write professionally. It was just something I was doing for myself. And at this point, obviously, that is no longer the case.

I think doing both sort of takes the pressure off both. If an acting job doesn’t come along for a while, I have something else I can do. Or if I decide that I don’t want to write for a while I just don’t have to, I don’t have to make my living doing it.

Olszewski: You were born in L.A. and now you live with Paul in New York. I remember your character in “Happythankyoumoreplease” was really anti-L.A. Do you feel that way?

Kazan: Definitely not. I’m with a veteran New Yorker. Paul was born and bred and probably will die in New York. He loves it, and I really like it, too — don’t get me wrong. But I really get homesick for L.A. and I don’t get to spend a lot of time there. I keep saying I think I shot the movie in L.A. partially because I was homesick.

I feel like L.A. gets a really bum rap the way it’s depicted in movies. It’s this place where it’s all about the movie industry and everybody is so shallow. I grew up in a very normal L.A. I feel much closer to nature there than I do in Brooklyn. The beach is right there, and the mountains, and there are great hikes. I find myself living in a healthier way there.

Olszewski: In the movie, Calvin repeatedly bristles when he’s referred to as a genius. Is that something that’s happened to you?

Kazan:Oh, no! I just really hate that word. I think people have gifts, but I feel [success] has so much more to do with what you love and how hard you’re willing to work at it. I really believe in self-improvement. My own feeling about myself is I know that I’ve gotten better the more work I’ve put in. The whole concept of “genius” is, I think, a way of actually belittling what somebody accomplishes, like, “They were just born with this genius.”

It’s a word that was thrown around with my grandpa, and I always felt, yeah, but he was also incredibly hard-working and incredibly driven and passionate. It feels like a way of excusing people’s success. And [in the movie], it’s another way of isolating Calvin. It’s another way to make him feel lonely, by praising him, putting him on a pedestal.

Olszewski: Was it challenging to work with Paul?

Kazan: We met doing a play together five years ago, so the first Paul I met in some ways was “Working Paul.” So I knew how it was to work with him as an actor and I had a lot of confidence in him and a lot of excitement to do that again. But it was much more tense to play a couple. Having the whole movie resting on our shoulders. I think we were very tired and like underfed and overworked for two months. You do 12-, 15-, 16-hour days and you get to this point where you think, “I need steak.”

Interview: Steven Soderbergh on Magic Mike

Written by on July 3rd, 2012

Steven Soderbergh knows what women want — and, conversely, what most dudes don’t. His latest feature, Magic Mike, is an, ahem, intimate look at the world of male strippers. Obviously, the very subject potentially alienates a large segment of the population. Obviously, this is not what a director aims for.

And yet: “I think it’s not for men,” Soderbergh admits in a deadpan voice. “We have edited together the full-length versions of all the routines [for the DVD]. They’re pretty disturbing…it made me really uncomfortable to watch them.”

He’s aware of the possibly box-office-eating problem. “It’s been a concern that…the movie was so driven toward the female audience, that there would be nothing in it for [men],” the director says. “And of course I knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Some of the issues the male characters are going through are issues that all men confront. Men tend to define themselves by what they do. And so if you’re dealing with the characters trying to figure that out, then there’s something there for guys, too. The trick, I think, is getting them to come.”

Thong-rocking aside, fumbling your way toward your path in life — while avoiding the subversive pitfalls of the club scene — is Magic Mike’s predominant theme. The film, based on the real-life experience of star Channing Tatum (who shares a producer credit), is about Mike (Tatum), a 30-year-old stripper/”entrepreneur” who works odd jobs besides taking off his clothes in order to save money to start a custom-furniture business. Other than sleeping around a bit (Olivia Munn co-stars as his regular booty call), Mike is generally on the straight and narrow, focused on his future even if he’s the star at Tampa’s Club Xquisite and has perhaps worked there a tad too long.

“I wanted to make sure there were a lot of conversations in the movie about money and work because I feel like, for most people, these are issues that dominate their lives, especially lately,” Soderbergh says. “So we were always looking for ways to bring that conversation into the film….I think this issue of what you’re willing to do to be paid is interesting. And at a certain point, when Mike starts to feel that what he’s doing is undervalued, he has to make a decision about whether he can accept that.”

Of course, Tatum eventually did quit, though his tenure wasn’t nearly as long as his character’s. He cites the drugs and debauchery that sinks Mike’s protege, the Kid (played by I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer), as part of the reason.

“I was 18 years old,” Tatum says. “I really enjoyed performing — it was my first performing job. I really like to dance. But I didn’t really love taking the clothes off at the end. And the world in itself was just a very dark world. I don’t think we even scratched the surface of really how dark that place can get and how slippery of a slope it can actually be. This was probably the most palatable version of this movie. Otherwise, you wouldn’t want to see it twice. You’d just think, ‘OK, I feel dirty now.’”

“Palatable” doesn’t exactly do the film justice — Magic Mike is pure fun, a testament to the fact that, really, male strippers can’t be seen as anything but ridiculous. (Regarding the difference between male and female strip clubs, Tatum does an excellent impression of a typical customer of the latter, hunched over and emitting a low mutter like “hehhhhhh…”) Soderbergh says that he didn’t sense any sort of competition among his crew of dancers (which also include Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Joe Manganiello), who, it must be said, put on an excellent show. (Though Tatum’s co-stars readily admit his dancing dominance: “Chan’s in a dancing movie,” Manganiello says. “The rest of us are in a dry-humping movie.” Tatum adds, “I just respect these guys for jumping into the thong with both feet.”)

“I think the fear of doing it just bonded [these] guys very quickly,” Soderbergh says. “They’re all sort of jumping out of the plane together. As soon as I saw the routines for the first time, I knew we were going to be fine. Because they were funny. They weren’t dirty. They were fun.” As far as wardrobe malfunctions, Soderbergh says that McConaughey had to improvise a “tuck and roll” after overzealous extras tore the string of his undergarment.

The director also praised his cast’s ability to physically relate to the camera. “In my mind, a movie should work with the sound off,” Soderbergh says. “You should be able to watch a movie without the sound and understand what’s going on. That’s your job, is to build a series of chronological images that tell the story.

“I also like to stage scenes in which you see a lot of people in the frame at once. And so physicality becomes a really important part of that aesthetic. You need actors who understand how to use their bodies….So their sense of knowing how to dance with the camera needs to be pretty pronounced. In this case, I think everybody fell into that very quickly and understood what I was trying to do.”

And was it difficult to work with the costume department in choosing what revealing outfits his dancers would wear? Not really, Soderbergh says. “I know what I like.”

Damsels in Distress

Written by on April 13th, 2012

Violet, the robotlike alpha female in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, wears sweater sets and A-line skirts to her classes at a snooty college. She speaks formally all the time, quickly spitting out well-turned-over opinions such as, “The intelligence line is not an immutable barrier.” She prefers boyfriends who are kinda dumb and not all that good-looking, and wishes to better the world by inventing a new dance craze. In the meantime, she takes new students under her wing and goes to frat parties in the interest of “youth outreach,” believing that the guys are “crying out for help and guidance.”

In short, Violet is unlike you or anybody you know, and it’s a problem.

Stillman’s return to the screen after 14 years qualifies as a disappointment because its characters are unrecognizable and, despite mounds and mounds of dialogue, it ultimately doesn’t have a sticking thought in its pretty head. What Damsels in Distress is even about is a mystery, as it flits from Violet (Greta Gerwig, excellent if elusive) and her two equally stiff roommates (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) taking in a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), to Violet’s heart — who knew she even had one? — getting broken, to Lily’s dalliances, to, fleetingly, an attempt to pull a suicidal student out of her darkness. (Violet does try to help others with doughnuts and tap-dancing classes, but those depressives are even further in the background.)

The film is, admittedly, a farce. You’re not supposed to entirely believe that, for instance, one of the oh-so-dim frat boys has to study his colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten, and everything ends with a song-and-dance number. And, true to form, it is often funny, with Stillman veering from dry (regarding party attendees: “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work”) to silly (when Violet skips town for a while, she stays at a Motel 4, cheaper than a Motel 6).

But too much of Damsels is inscrutable. (Violet, for example, is a fervent fan of cliches, “a treasure trove of human insight and knowledge.” She tells Lily, “During these formative college years, we should try to learn as many cliched and hackneyed expressions as possible. Furthermore, I think we will!” Er, OK.) It bops along too randomly to really compel. (A subplot involving Charlie/Fred — don’t ask — played by The O.C’s Adam Brody, trips over itself before going nowhere.) Worse, Stillman seems to want to deify his main characters, twice backlighting them with the sun as they speak of helping others.

But they don’t really help others; in fact, most normal human beings would find the girls’ insistence on inserting themselves into people’s lives downright irritating — even the film’s absurdist angle doesn’t quite warrant grading on a curve. Perhaps the characters’ oh-so-mannered bullying would be forgivable if you could relate to them in any way. But if you do, perhaps you could use an intervention yourself.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope

Written by on April 13th, 2012

Back in 1970, the first San Diego Comic-Con catered to, duh, comic-book fans, and its organizers hoped to attract a few hundred people. Forty-two years later, thousands attend the annual event, and, according to a commentator in Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, the audience comprises “people who’ve never read a comic book and [people who’ve] never left their mom’s basement, like, mixed together.”

Now more a haven for nerds of pop culture than nerds of the printed word, the convention is often treated as a launching pad/church for movies and television shows, and being at the Con is cool. As frequent attendee and star geek attraction Joss Whedon says in the doc, “Are we not dope? Are we not amazing for being so obsessed with something?”

If you even have a passing interest in the ‘Con — regardless of whether you feel dope about it or not — you likely will watch much of Episode IV with a smile on your face. It’s hard not to grin when, for instance, you watch a montage of Spurlock’s famous interview subjects (Kevin Smith, Whedon, Eli Roth) talk about their star-struck moments or whom they’d most like to meet, or see The Man himself — Marvel’s Stan Lee, of course — high-fiving fans or making an already excited kid’s day with an autograph and some conversation. You see people in costumes and bigger-than-God stars interacting with them. The film (shot at 2010’s convention) is one big valentine.

Spurlock, who mercifully stays out of the picture (we’re all a bit Spurlock’d out, aren’t we?), does impress some sort of organization onto the multiday chaos, mainly by focusing on a handful of attendees. There are a couple of guys, one middle-aged, who are trying to break into comics (and get cringe-inducingly honest feedback). There’s an aspiring costume designer whose team is getting to put on a skit based on the video game Mass Effect. And there’s a young couple in love who started dating when they met at 2009’s ‘Con and may deepen their relationship at 2010’s, during a Kevin Smith Q&A in the massive Hall H.

Episode IV isn’t all fairy dust and fan fidelity, though. A writer for DC Comics calls Comic-Con “the world’s largest focus group.” Whedon even gets cynical, speaking from the organizers’ point of view: “We must mine this extraordinary love, because inside of it, there might be money. So let’s dig into this love and get the money out!” One of the other commoners Spurlock highlights is a gray-ponytailed comic-book purveyor who’s betting his financial welfare on selling a $500,000 Red Raven No. 1 — or at least bucketloads of his regular collection. The stress as his sales go up and down over the convention’s four days is palpable, particularly when he has to check in with his more glass-is-half-empty wife.

Mostly, though, the vibe is a cheery one. If you’ve never been to Comic-Con, this doc will make you want to go. If you’re a veteran, it will remind you why. As Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles (one of the film’s producers) says, “This is mecca.”

Thin Ice

Written by on April 6th, 2012

Thin Ice is about an asshole who gets into deep trouble with another asshole because of their collective assholery. Sound fun? It’s torture. In addition to the oily, cheap, thoroughly unlikable main character, an insurance salesman named Mickey (Greg Kinnear), there’s the nagging fact that the film, directed by Jill Sprecher (Thirteen Conversations About One Thing) and co-written by her and her sister Karen, is a blatant Fargo rip-off, set during a Wisconsin winter and centered on a desperate man with money problems. The only things differentiating Thin Ice from the Coen brothers’ gem are 1) a lack of Midwestern accents and 2) a lack of entertainment value.

Mickey is illogically drawn as an award-winning salesman and convention speaker who nevertheless can barely keep a staff and has to siphon funds from his business for personal use. When a new hire tells him about a prospective customer, Mickey steals the sale, talking a senile retiree named Gorvy (Alan Arkin) into buying more insurance than he needs. He also discovers that Gorvy owns a rare violin that’s worth quite a chunk of change. Let the conniving ensue.

The first half of the film progresses almost episodically, with scenes such as Mickey getting robbed by a seductive drunk or trying to win back his ex-wife (Lea Thompson) really having little to do with each other. It’s not until he meets a shady locksmith (Billy Crudup) at Gorvy’s place that an actual plot kicks in. Theft is on each of their minds, but when they’re almost caught, things grow much more dire fast.

Kinnear is admittedly good at playing an unethical jerk, but that’s actually a problem: It’s difficult to root for a guy to wriggle his way out of a bad situation when he’s intolerable. Crudup’s Randy, meanwhile, is too much of a loose cannon to be taken seriously, and Arkin’s Gorvy is more demanding-old-man irritating than pitiable. The film’s worst sin, though, is its resolution, which is needlessly complicated and relies on way too many coincidences to be believed. It’s also probably nonsensical upon closer inspection, but it’s doubtful that any viewer will want to inspect Thin Ice more closely.

Declaration of War

Written by on April 6th, 2012

Declaration of War is the hippest kid-with-cancer movie you’ll ever see. The parents of young Adam go to clubs and parties. They dance. They ride a motorcycle. They smoke. (Um, not that smoking’s hip.) They embraced this lifestyle before their son was born, but throughout the film they don’t quit it, so that they have a means to funnel the stress of having a 2-year-old with a brain tumor.

The film, directed and co-written by star Valeri Donzelli, is a weepie and it isn’t. It’s devastating to see a tiny toddler being wheeled off to surgery, confused by the bright white and strangers around him. And Romeo (co-scripter Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliette (Donzelli) — yes, those are their names — receive as much bad news as good. But the tone of the film, aided greatly by an ever-present soundtrack that ranges from classical to house, is relentlessly normal, verging perhaps a little too precariously on the upbeat. It’s more about survival than death — the survival of a handsome couple’s love-at-first-sight, their devotion to each other through sickness and health even though they never exchange wedding vows.

What’s most remarkable about the eminently watchable film is that the stars had a seriously ill child together themselves, so Declaration of War is essentially autobiography — how difficult must it have been to live through their ordeal twice? It opens with a near giveaway of the end, then flashes back to the charged moment Romeo and Juliette met. They soon had Adam, but his constant crying, vomiting, and other issues made them miserable — and then terrified — fast. “The kid is tyrannizing us,” Romeo barks, though eventually he’s the one who turns a bad mood into concern.

Declaration of War unfolds like a thriller, its early scenes intercut with shots of cells and a beating heart. At other times, it’s more like a terrible fairy tale, with random people — not even characters in the movie — narrating the story. Whatever it’s doing, the film keeps your sensibility just slightly off-kilter, particularly when Romeo and Juliette, separated for a day but on their way to reuniting, break out into song. (Forgive them that — it doesn’t happen again.) In addition to the music and the couple’s partying, there’s lots of movement here — Juliette runs through hospital hallways after she hears Adam’s diagnosis, the couple run and play for sport, the family runs on the beach. Taken overall, the effect is a strong life-goes-on vibe. And life, ironically, is one thing this film’s full of.


Written by on April 6th, 2012

As witnessed in Delicacy, Audrey Tautou is adorable (insufferable?) even while she’s grieving. Still, as also witnessed in Delicacy, she deserves more than critics’ and moviedom’s neverending categorization of her as a man-entrancing pixie — say, as an actress, maybe? In directors David Foenkinos and Stephane Foenkinos’ film, adapted by David from his novel, Tautou plays Nathalie, a woman who’s crazy in love with Francois (Pio Marmai). They regularly re-create the day they met at a coffeehouse and eventually they marry, getting along spookily well with their in-laws and talking about kids, though they decide to put that off. It seems like they have all the time in the world.

But they don’t. Francois dies unexpectedly, leaving a huge void in Nathalie’s life that she at first fills with solitude and then with work. And Tautou is terrific portraying the grieving widow,
doleful despite her constant, perky ponytail and occasionally angry about everyone’s attempt to help a process that can’t be helped. It’s a subtle performance that could have been chewed, and it cries for its performer to be taken more seriously.

If only the rest of Delicacy were so deserving. Counterintuitively, the film’s perfect-love first half is more interesting than its after-the-tragedy second, which is dull, illogical, and offensive to all men who don’t look like models. For three years, Nathalie engages in nothing but her job at a even though dudes apparently fall in her wake, particularly her boss (Bruno Todeschini), who straightforwardly hits on her. She’s at first flustered but is eventually just as direct in return, saying that although she may start dating again one day, she’s quite sure it won’t be him because she doesn’t find him attractive. It’s harsh, but you admire Nathalie for her honesty.

And then Delicacy goes off the rails. One day, a colleague of the work group of which she is head, Markus (Francois Damiens), enters her office to take about a problem with a case. Her resolution? To get up and kiss him, never saying a word. He leaves with a spring in his step and an unwipeable smile on his face, attracting the attention of every gorgeous woman who passes him by, even though he’s balding and kinda odd-looking. Markus stays in his reverie until he confronts Nathalie about it. She doesn’t remember kissing him, she says. Let’s forget about it and get back to work, she insists. Of course, Markus can’t, and he sorta-pursues her, himself giving her a kiss out of nowhere one day and asking her out to dinner. And suddenly they’re a couple.

Except when they’re not — each pulls away at least once in the relationship for various reasons. Much is made of the fact that Markus isn’t handsome, particularly in one scene in which Nathalie’s friend invites him to her party and then reacts to him as if he’s a troll: When she opens the door, she doesn’t even think that he may be Nathalie’s date but assume it’s a neighbor complaining about the noise. And then she almost angrily rebukes Nathalie in front of her guests, not-so-disguisedly telling her she could do better. It’s absurd.

However. You never for a minute buy the relationship; why on Earth Nathalie falls for Markus is anybody’s guess. (Much is made of the fact that he’s funny, but he ain’t that funny.) Tautou can beam and giggle all she wants, but even an Oscar-winning actress couldn’t make this alleged love spark. And thus Delicacy’s long slog begins — a dull musing on a relationship that has its ups and downs, but only because the script says so. (There’s a single entertaining moment throughout all this, and that’s when Markus puts on cologne when Nathalie IMs him.) When Markus tries to back off at one point, he says, “I’m going to fall in love…it’s ridiculous!” and runs away. Yes, it is ridiculous, and so is most of this movie.

21 Jump Street

Written by on March 16th, 2012

21 Jump Street is self-aware. It knows that, for instance, co-star Channing Tatum looks like he’s “40 fucking years old” despite having to pass off as a high-school student. And it knows that it’s just another rehash in an avalanche of rehashes, as a police chief admits to his freshly minted underlings when he’s talking about resurrecting an undercover program from the ‘80s. “We’re completely out of ideas,” he says. “All we do is recycle shit from the past.”

Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and scripter Michael Bacall (sharing a story credit with co-star Jonah Hill) are the puppet masters behind the R-rated comedy’s self-awareness. (Yes, it’s a comedy. Forget what you saw in the decade of neon and big hair!) Hill and Tatum, former geek and cool kid, respectively, play the undercover cops assigned to “Jump Street,” a sorta-precinct run out of a dilapidated church by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) for young-looking (or, in their case, -acting) officers tasked with infiltrating schools to suss out drug dealers. Considering that there are about a dozen dick jokes in the film’s first five minutes, it’s likely that the name of Ice Cube’s character is supposed to be a pretty weak gag, too.

In fact, the entire movie seems to be based on dick jokes and cursing, both prevalent enough to rival Superbad (Hill’s filthily hilarious star-maker). For equal opportunity, there’s a “vagina” punch line, too. (Sigh, aren’t we tired of those yet? Somehow, “My mother is such a dick” is just funnier.) But this time, it’s too piled on (particularly Dickson’s unsoaped mouth) to be a genuine, albeit facile, source of comedy. Better lines come from supporting cast members such as SNL’s Chris Parnell, whose drama-coach character starts off an anecdote with, “I remember doing cocaine with Willie Nelson’s horse….” And Tatum’s frequent outbursts of “Fuck you, [RANDOM THING]!” only get a real laugh when his character spits out, “Fuck you, Glee!”, blaming the show for the “backward and unnatural” hierarchy of “cool” he and his partner find in modern-day high school, i.e. the environmentalists, theater nerds, and A-students ruling the hallways.

Overall, 21 Jump Street proceeds as you expect it to. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are teenage enemies who become best buds at the police academy and are designated brothers to carry out their mission of finding the person supplying synthetic drugs to high-school students. They both live at Schmidt’s house (cue overbearing mommy jokes) and mix up their identities and hence class schedules in front of the principal (cue fish-out-of-water jokes). While there, they make friends, grow crushes, and generally get in too deep. And it wouldn’t be an opposites-attract bromance if one of them didn’t get his feelings hurt by the other!

Because this is, after all, a story about cops, the film morphs into that weird action/comedy hybrid that goes all Pineapple Express at the end, i.e. a little too explicit on the violence. (Though one of the funnier jokes involves things that don’t blow up.) Unlike Pineapple Express, you feel a little weary by the time the credits roll after watching the stars try a lot too hard to win laughs, only a fraction of which really deliver. It’s likely that Hill’s shout-out on the story idea spurred him to put a little extra into his shtick — once more, with mugging! — but when you’re fucking with a classic, it takes more than a parade of penises to get it just right.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Written by on March 16th, 2012

The title character of Jeff, Who Lives at Home doesn’t seem to mind much that he lives at home. Thirty years old and jobless, Jeff wakes up in the morning and dictates notes to himself into a recorder while he’s in the john. They are notes about the movie Signs; they are notes about cosmic signs. Jeff, you see, believes not in happenstance but in destiny. And he’s sure, sitting around his mother’s basement in sweats he probably hasn’t changed out of in days, that his is going to be great.

Jason Segel is perfectly rumpled as Jeff, an oversize adolescent somehow both huge and gangly who gets annoyed when Mom (Susan Sarandon) calls to remind him to fix the blinds because God Mom, I’ll get to it all right?! but at the moment he’s busy trying to rearrange the letters in “Kevin,” whom a wrong caller asked for this morning. (“Knive” is one possible anagram, but Jeff wisely dismisses it.) So, out of possibilities, Jeff takes the bus money his mother left him to go to Home Depot, only he doesn’t quite make it. There’s a kid on the bus with “Kevin” on his jersey, so he follows him. Later, a candy-delivery truck is emblazoned with “Kevin,” so he follows that, too. And so on, until he gets he finally accepts where he’s meant to be and what he’s meant to be doing — and that’s not fixing the blinds.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is writers-directors Jay and Mark Duplass’s furthest venture away from their beloved mumblecore genre — but don’t call it mumblecore! — with co-stars such as Ed Helms and Judy Greer amping up the wattage and likely contributing improvisation skills so finely honed the results don’t feel like the genre’s usual bumbling improvisation. (One irritating tick the Duplasses hung on to: the abrupt in-and-out zoom on actors’ faces. It’s so real, man.) But overall this feels like — gasp — a regular ol’ Hollywood movie. Besides Jeff’s wanderings, subplots involve the tension between his uptight brother, Pat (Helms), and Pat’s wife, Linda (Greer), as well as a secret admirer Mom has at her office. The latter is the weakest of the storylines, as it goes off the rails the moment the twist — which is telegraphed — is revealed, leading to first an upset admiree and then, seemingly an instant later, an ecstatic admiree.

Pat and Linda give the film its real emotional oomph as a struggling couple dealing with possible infidelity. (Even before you even get to know them, you want to strangle Pat when he “surprises” Linda with a Porsche they can’t afford.) Their scenes, as Jeff helps one trail the other, may be semiwacky, but the gist ends up breaking your heart. As far as Jeff, just when you think he’s fulfilled his “Kevin” cosmos for the day, the Duplasses add on a dramatic but-of-course-this-happens climax that isn’t really necessary. Jeff, Who Lives at Home may wrap up a little too neatly, but — despite the downers I’ve mentioned — it’s a fun time throughout, with Segel and Helms playing off each other well and delivering more laughs than letdowns. If this is mumblecore, it’s an example you can shout about.

John Carter

Written by on March 9th, 2012

John Carter is a fucking mess. Let me rephrase that: With all due respect to Andrew Stanton, writer and director of Pixar gems such as Finding Nemo and WALL*E, John Carter is a fucking mess.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) flatlines as the title character, a military captain in 1881 who somehow gets transported to Mars to battle aliens. (You’d think there couldn’t be anything worse in the comedy/action genre than last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. You’d be wrong.) But Mars is known as Barsoom, and its territories and its aliens are known by a whole bunch of hard-to-grasp names, and the only thing that’s clear is that Carter can leap like Superman and the aliens look like green, four-armed Jar Jar Binkses. And their leader thinks Carter’s name is Virginia, which is actually where he’s from! It’s not hilarious.

There are also weird, pudgy alien babies whose purpose is unclear, and an alien dog for further comic nonrelief. And a princess — there’s gotta be a princess — named Dejah (Lynn Collins), who wants out of her arranged marriage to…some evil guy. So John fights everyone, with no obvious indication of who’s bad, who’s good, if there’s a civil war going on, or what. Too many unfamiliar names and a murky deluge of a plot will do that to a movie. While watching it, you long for clarity and excitement of The Phantom Menace. (Star Wars was clearly influenced by the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which the film is based.)

And audiences willing to shell out extra bucks get the privilege of seeing this all in murky and completely unimpressive 3D! John Carter was converted, not shot in 3D, and it shows. Try taking off those damn glasses. Only a handful of scenes actually have more than two dimensions; the rest are blissfully bright and clear. So: especial waste of money.

Throughout the who-knows-what’s-going-on story is an intrusive score that telegraphs every mood you’re supposed to feel. Wonder! Adventure! Menace! Romance! The music is by Michael Giacchino, who magnificently scored Up, so this overkill is a puzzler. Also head-scratching: That this script was co-written by Stanton and Michael Chabon. (And Mark Andrews, but his track record is unproven.) The clearest dialogue that’s spoken is a line by Kitsch, who at one point mumbles, “Good God, I’m on Mars.” Yes, you are. You don’t know what you’re doing there, neither do we, and chances are sleep will grip us before the movie will.