Talking Movies

August 24, 2012

The Watch

Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg rescue a Ben Stiller sci-fi comedy from the intended clutches of lamestream auteur Shawn Levy and the results are a hoot and a holler.

Ben Stiller is slightly boring Costco manager Evan, who sets up various clubs to build community spirit in Ohio, and is horrified to find his store’s night-watchman murdered and skinned. He promptly sets up a neighbourhood watch to track down the killer. Much to his displeasure, the only people who show up are loudmouth dad Bob (Vince Vaughn), wannabe vigilante Franklin (Jonah Hill) and British divorcee Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). (Well, he’s actually pretty pleased with Jamarcus, as Evan’s been looking for a black friend in the name of diversity.) The watch get no respect from slightly crazed police officer (Will Forte), or their neighbours, but when they find destructive alien technology, and then aliens infiltrating the community, there’s only one thing to do. Save the world… And misbehave royally, of course. Who wouldn’t take pictures with a Hawaiian-shirted dead alien?

This movie is Rogen & Goldberg par excellence, so if you don’t like their shtick you’re better off skipping it. I’m one of the very few who appreciated what they were trying to do with The Green Hornet, and this movie confirms the suspicion I first voiced when reviewing Superbad; that hiding behind their scatology is sweetness. I thought then that the scatology might be there purely to get financing but I now realise that it’s an integral if occasionally uncomfortable part of the package, as if Seth Rogen was a big friendly slob of a dog that you just can’t housetrain but you still love him to bits anyway. “She married you, not your dead ****” is the key line of hidden heart as a ruminant Vaughn tries to comfort a depressed Stiller on whether marriage can survive infertility.

The Watch feels exactly like what it is, a structurally sound script rewritten to insert rambling absurdity and profane hilarity. Some elements are familiar: Will Forte’s cop is a close cousin of SNL co-star Bill Hader’s Superbad maniac, while Hill’s lunatic is a riff on Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, and a key final act detail is pure Superbad. Some elements are totally fresh: Richard Ayoade’s equally deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic, Billy Crudup’s glorious cameo as Stiller’s creepily tactile new neighbour, and some serious ballistic overkill with a hard-to-kill alien. The comic invention on display flags in the middle as screenplay structural conventions take over but roars back for a very funny finale; not least because just when you’ve been lamenting Rosemarie DeWitt being underused as Stiller’s wife she gets her own hilarious motif.

The Watch isn’t quite as hilarious as Superbad but it is far better than any proposed PG-13 version could have been and better than any actual Hangover instalment is.

4/5

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October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

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