Talking Movies

October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

kutj-gallery3

Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

January 2, 2015

Birdman

Michael Keaton makes a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s major change of pace from fractured chronology and introspective misery to faux-classical unities and backstage shenanigans.

birdman

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was Birdman. In his own mind he still is. The film starts with him levitating in his dressing room while a growling voice in his head argues with him. But Birdman III was released in 1992. The aged Thomson is trying to salvage some respectability by staging his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ on Broadway. A happy accident sees his leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) introduce her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) to the cast; and ticket sales take off – to the joy of Thomson’s attorney/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). All Riggan has to do is keep his drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) on the straight and narrow as his PA, negotiate the hurdle of an unexpected pregnancy with girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), raise extra money to pay for the star attraction that is Broadway legend Mike, oh, and try not to murder Broadway legend Mike…

It’s not often a movie gets released on New Year’s Day that looks to be the best movie of that year, but Birdman is a good bet to pull off that feat. There is a lot to talk about with Birdman that’s unusual: whether it be Antonio Sanchez’s exclusively percussion score that quickly becomes adorable and only yields to strings when Keaton becomes Birdman, or Inarritu’s conceit of filming the movie as one single long-take that collapses time at certain points in order to trace some crucial days leading up to opening night of Riggan’s play. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work is spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion but the time-lapses make you wonder why doing one long-take made more sense than simply four long-takes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the need to show off so spectacularly in cinematic terms is because it hides the theatrical concerns of the script.

Inarritu and his co-writers Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, and Nicolas Giacabone have constructed a back-stage tale that mixes comedy and drama with aplomb. Keaton and Norton are transparently playing with their own personae, and having the time of their life doing it, but the hilarity of Mike’s preening self-regard and Riggan’s crises of confidence are balanced by their arguments over the nature of what they do. Lindsay Duncan’s ridiculous critic Tabitha wants to take Riggan down to score off Hollywood fakes who can’t act and aren’t interested in learning the technique needed to triumph on Broadway. And yet, for all Riggan’s critique of her reviews as being lacking in any dissection of technique, Riggan himself shares many of her concerns that cinema has left him behind because he is interested in exploring truth and the human condition. He fears maybe Mike is right that such concerns now only exist in the theatre, and only if someone like Mike is there to attract crowds and provide protection against poison-pen reviews.

Birdman is interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time is enough to overcome any quibbles.

5/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.