The Disaster Artist (2017)

They say Hollywood loves movies about movies, so I guess that’s why we the people have been gifted with The Disaster Artist, another entry in the genre of self-validating cinema. Unlike award-winning but limited appeal fare like Birdman and The Artist, The Disaster Artist benefits from its mainstream stars and the growing profile of cult hit The Room to tell the story about the worst movie ever made. It’s done with obvious affection by director James Franco and his usual suspects, brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and stars like Zac Efron, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow, who stand in for cameos.

Franco cares deeply for his characters and admires them not in spite of their wackiness but because of it. The lead oddball is Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself. The mysterious auteur behind The Room is someone who could easily be played for laughs. An aspiring actor of unknown age or origin, Wiseau attacks his art with abandon, always with embarrassing and unsatisfactory results. Whether he is growling his way through the Stella scene in A Streetcar Named Desire or mounting a sprawling production of his poorly written and poorly conceived movie, he is singularly focused on extracting the purest, rawest emotion out of every performance.

I have to wonder if Franco sees something of himself in Wiseau, a fellow truth-seeker willing not just to push the boundaries of convention but to crash through them. The actor has made his own mark with his unconventional behavior and try anything attitude. His off-screen pursuits include university lecturer, multimedia artist, short story writer, and painter of nudes. Adopting Wiseau’s stilted mannerisms and speech patterns and donning a stringy wig and facial prosthetics seem par for course. This may be why, for all its chances to do so, the movie never descends into mockery. Quite the opposite, a joy and earnest humor shine through in the filmmaking.

And yet, that underdog spirit keeps The Disaster Artist from ever maturing as a film. In the end, it doesn’t rise above its characters’ eccentricities. Wiseau remains a mystery, as impenetrable as ever. That might be excusable if Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), his friend and acting partner, were more than a fawning, angsty fanboy. His character is disappointing, not because of Franco the Younger doesn’t deliver; he’s rather charming as a timid actor who gets swept up in Wiseau’s delusions. It’s because the film doesn’t address in a satisfying way why Greg is so enamored with his mentor. You sympathize with his mom (Megan Mullally), and really most of the other characters – the script supervisor cum director (Rogen), Greg’s girlfriend (Alison Brie), the costume assistant (Charlyne Yi), all of whom question Greg’s association, and their own, with Wiseau.

Perhaps I just don’t have the passion for creating art. I certainly don’t presume to understand actors’ motivations for doing what they do. Maybe that’s why I need Greg’s infatuation with acting laid out more plainly. When Wiseau goads a wide-eyed Greg into performing a monologue from their coffee shop booth, I’m inclined to sympathize with the patrons rather than with the artists disturbing the peace. I wish the movie had strained less for authenticity and more for depth of character. It’s an uncritical love letter, which doesn’t make it a bad film but not a great one.

Released: 2017
Prod: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Dir: James Franco
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, lots of cameos
Time: 103 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018


Dirty Grandpa (2016)

I’ll concede that at its most basic Dirty Grandpa has a respectable premise. An elderly man faces some hard truths about his life after losing his wife of over forty years. He comes to terms with his failings as a father. He longs for companionship and sexual fulfillment in his final years. He tries pass some of this wisdom on to his grandson, who is diving headfirst into a miserable life, trapped in a job he hates and with a wife he doesn’t love.

But what the actual hell is this movie? What the hell is Robert I-have-two-Oscars De Niro doing in this movie, which is, let’s be honest, an overturned porta potty masquerading as a film. There are real problems in this world, causes that could have benefited from Dirty Grandpa’s $25 million budget, and instead humanity got this crass, embarrassing, and unfunny piece of celluloid fecal matter that offends at every turn.

Where do I even begin? Perhaps with an early scene featuring Dick, De Niro’s aptly named character, who is masturbating like it’s just another part of his morning exercise routine. His uptight grandson, Jason (Zac Efron), catches him mid-jerk right before they head off to Boca Raton. Dick has guilted Jason into accompanying him, explaining that the trip is one he and his deceased wife made every year. Jason, nervous about his upcoming wedding with the controlling Meredith (Julianne Hough), reluctantly agrees.

Dick goes on the offensive, mocking Jason for everything from his job as a corporate lawyer to his having to borrow his fiancée’s powder pink Mini, which he christens a giant labia. He seems to take it as a personal insult that his grandson isn’t an abusive, profane hornball like he is. When they run into Jason’s old classmate, Shadia (Zoey Deutch), and her friends, Dick immediately decides to have sex with one of them, Lenore (Aubrey Plaza). I don’t know if you can call it a match because the age difference is, well, very large, but Lenore proves to be as sexually aggressive as Dick, so hey, consenting adults. The party ends up in Daytona Beach since bad behavior is apparently the norm there. While Dick is partying it up, Jason gets into all sorts of trouble, the kind that doesn’t usually befall a straight-laced boat shoe-wearing guy who handles LLC agreements and SCC compliance.

As awful and desperate as this movie is, and it takes raunchy to stratospheric levels, it’s most disappointing because there are genuine, heartfelt moments lobbed into this mess. This was the sixth in my “Zac Efron is a good actor” movie marathon, and I rather like serious, anti-frat boy Zac. He plays bemused and emotionally fragile very well, maybe because it contrasts with the image of a supposedly dim, cocky pretty boy. Even De Niro and Plaza find a way, albeit at the very end, to make their relationship seem real, or at least more than an accident of overcharged libidos.

But none of this excuses the humiliation, homophobia, racism, and sexism that the writers fling with childish joy and that mostly De Niro delivers with reckless abandon. I thought a gag with a penis swastika and a rabbi was pretty bad, but I’m going to say the worst is Dick’s treatment of Bradley, Shadia and Lenore’s black, gay friend. Dick hurls insult after insult, but the writers have the nerve to make him come off as the enlightened one when he protects Bradley from some bigots. Um, no points for Dirty Grandpa.

Released: 2016
Prod: Bill Block, Michael Simkin, Jason Barrett, Barry Josephson
Dir: Dan Mazer
Writer: John M. Phillips
Cast: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Aubrey Plaza, Zoey Deutch, Julianne Hough, Dermot Mulroney, Jason Mantzoukas, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Baywatch (2017)

It is a truth not universally acknowledged, but one that damn well should be, that Zac Efron is a good actor. He may not be in the Oscar Isaac league of millennial thespians, but Malibu Ken, as he’s been called in several movies, can hold his own with or without his shirt on. After falling under his spell in The Greatest Showman, I used my Easter holiday to dive into Efron’s back catalogue, a holy pursuit indeed. I’m constantly surprised by how he manages to turn a mediocre character from an even more mediocre movie into someone worth rooting for.

Case and point – Baywatch. Savaged by critics and largely ignored by the masses, the movie failed to live up to expectations, those being a TV-to-film reboot in the 21 Jump Street mold. Like the successful and hilarious 2012 film starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, this movie also catered to a younger generation, one that probably didn’t grow up watching Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff flit half-naked across the beach. Baywatch makes clear attempts at self-aware humor; you can tell the filmmakers want to take an old hit show about hot lifeguards and repackage it into a new hit movie about, well, hot lifeguards but ones with a heart and smarts.

Retro has its limits though. Like its lead character, Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), the movie is at times too self-righteous. It wants to show off the Baywatch enterprise as something more than large, bouncy anatomy. These guys aren’t just sexy lifeguards; they are also medical professionals and police detectives. They can save lives and bust up a drug ring, which is their main work in this movie. After entrepreneur Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) muscles in and buys up all the beachfront businesses, the Baywatch team link her to several deaths and a wave of drug use. Rather than waiting for Sergeant Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to take the lead, they begin their own investigation.

A little mystery is all good and well, and so is a bit of raunchy comedy to help things along. But there’s a line between poking fun at the source material and three minute scenes about getting one’s junk stuck in a beach chair, or harassing coworkers in a coed shower, or digging into a dead man’s privates. Shock does not in and of itself equal funny, and there are precious few laughs to be had.

Character development is also lacking, if anyone was expecting that. Most of the lifeguards show themselves to be compassionate people, and I wouldn’t mind them patrolling any beach I was on. But I was disappointed that Ilfenesh Hadera, who plays Stephanie, Mitch’s second-in-command, disappears for stretches. She’s competent and beautiful but isn’t partnered with anyone, so I guess that means no extra sexy screen time for her. To my surprise, Johnson did not add anything positive to the film. Mitch is eye-rollingly sanctimonious and kind of a bully.

Which brings us back to Zac Efron. His character, Brody, is a disgraced Olympic champion experiencing a bit of a rough patch. Brody shows up to Baywatch having been promised a job in order to raise the team’s profile, and because it’s part of some plea agreement. Everyone is quick to dismiss him as the pretty boy swimmer, especially new boss Mitch, but no one wants to cut him some slack even though he is clearly going through some issues. Efron outdoes everyone in the movie though by actually making me care about his cocky, self-absorbed character. He opens up by drops, never really milking the drama of Brody’s backstory, which only makes it that much more effective. Sometimes it’s like Efron is acting in a different movie, one that is worthier of his dramatic talents.

Released: 2017
Prod: Ivan Reitman, Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Gregory J. Bonann, Beau Flynn
Dir: Seth Gordon
Writer: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass, Hannibal Buress, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Fun Size (2012)

What a holy mess of a Halloween movie. I’m not sure who the filmmakers were targeting here. A little too risqué for the kids and entirely too stupid for older teens, its most natural audience would probably be single women on a Netflix binge hoping for something easy to review. Actually, scratch that. This movie is horrible and should be condemned to the bottom of the K-Mart bargain bin for all eternity. Here I am though, using precious brain cells to share my thoughts.

Fun Size is a Nickelodeon production that takes the general premise of a Disney television movie and dips it in a light batter of raging hormones. Things start off sweet and benign. Wren (Victoria Justice) is the average movie teenager – a plain Jane brainiac who hopes to attend NYU in the fall but who must sort out a few personal issues before she gets there. Her dad’s recent death has left the family adrift, and she must play second mom to her now mute little brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll), since her mom (Chelsea Handler) has shirked her duties to cozy up with sexy coed Keevin (Josh Pence). Still, Wren hopes to have some fun with her friends and perhaps catch the eye of hot dude Aaron (Thomas McDonell) at a Halloween party.

I’m not sure at what point this movie starts to go off the rails. You’re not going to convince me that someone who looks like Victoria Justice is anything but the popular girl, even if she does want to dress up like Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. Maybe the movie begins to lose its way when Handler’s character dons her “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” era Britney Spears costume to party with Keevin, leaving Albert in Wren’s care for the night. Her decision results in Albert getting lost and spending the evening with a convenience store clerk named Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch) and a sexy Galaxy Scout, which I take to be like a Girl Scout but, you know, sexy and out of this world. For good measure, a giant metal pirate chicken ends up humping an old station wagon, and Wren’s mom chats to strangers about her mammogram. This is that kind of movie.

If I’m generous, I would say that there are the makings of a better film here. Had the writers had stuck to a more consistent tone, either kid-friendly or not, there would at least have been a sense of cohesion. But the movie really ping pongs between a wacky Disney movie of the week and a slightly raunchy teen flick. In addition, the three storylines – Wren finding her place in the world, Albert overcoming his muteness, and their mom grieving her husband’s death – are quite removed from each other.

A tilt towards quirky coming-of-age, cliché as that may be, would have been the best choice. Justice isn’t a strong actress but she’s earnest enough and still has me feeling for Wren, who in addition to the challenges in her home life also comes into conflict with her social climbing best friend (Jane Levy) and sweet but not hunky friend (Thomas Mann). Handler has about a minute of good work as a truly bereaved woman, and Nicoll and Middleditch are a surprisingly affectionate odd couple. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t capitalize on any of these and instead chooses to judge people for listening to Josh Groban on blast. I’ll give them points for having the foresight to let Osric Chau rock an Aaron Burr costume pre-Hamilton though.

Released: 2012
Prod: Stephanie Savage, Josh Schwartz
Dir: Josh Schwartz
Writer: Max Werner
Cast: Victoria Justice, Jane Levy, Thomas Mann, Thomas McDonell, Jackson Nicoll, Chelsea Handler, Osric Chau, Josh Pence, Johnny Knoxville, Thomas Middleditch
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!! (2009)

You pretty much get what you expect with a movie titled Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!! The film works in broad stereotypes – about Jews, gay men, Italians – with occasional moments of surprise and reflection. The most interesting thing though may be the way this movie, released in 2009, comments on our own times. I won’t say that society has come a long way (see all of 2017), but it is reassuring that a gay couple wanting to adopt a child generally does not provoke raucous street protests. At the same time, the central conflict, first of a son coming out to his parents and then of their struggle to accept him, remains.

John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys fame plays the titular son, Nelson Hirsch, a cherubic business type who lives with his artist decorator boyfriend, Angelo (Jai Rodriguez). Since Nelson hasn’t come out to his parents, his pushy mother, Shirley (Lainie Kazan), assumes he just hasn’t found the right woman. She tries to set him up with every Jewish girl she can find, and when she mistakes Nelson’s decidedly non-Jewish centerfold model neighbor (Carmen Electra) for his girlfriend, she thinks her biggest challenge will be accounting for the mixed relationship to her congregation and friends. Of course, Nelson kiboshes all that when he comes out to his parents during his cousin’s wedding.

I admit that Young was the reason I watched this movie, and that I was disappointed that his role was so limited. He and Rodriguez don’t have much of a relationship on screen. They share a few intimate moments but mostly cycle between states of exasperation and forlornness as they deal with Nelson’s reluctance to come out to his parents and the Hirshes’ less than enthusiastic embrace of them. They sneak in some sweet smiles, but not enough to satisfy this rabid fangirl.

Neither is Shirley the main focus. Her outsized personality, thanks to Kazan’s presence, dominates the first half of the movie, but once reality sets in, it’s father Martin (Saul Rubinek) who struggles. Rubinek puts in the film’s best performance, a diligent associate at his uncle’s business who you sense would rather be concerned with the line of succession at work than with his son’s sexuality. But since the latter weighs so heavily on everyone else’s mind, he gets caught up in ridiculous battles over manliness. First he and his wife argue over which family line carried a dominant gay gene, and then he tries to one up Angelo’s father (Vincent Pastore) over who had the more macho childrearing skills.

The exchanges are cliché and rarely get at real feelings of pain and acceptance. The characters don’t break out of the generic box they’ve been put in so there’s no one to faithfully carry the emotions forward. The movie finally stumbles into an unnecessary adoption plot to tidy things up, but that comes on a bit sudden and out of left field. The resolution feels like a cheat. Then again, so does the rest of the movie.

Released: 2009
Prod: Evgeny Afineevsky, Svetlana Anufrieva, Rich Cowan
Dir: Evgeny Afineevsky
Writer: Joseph Goldman, Evgeny Afineevsky, Martin Guigui
Cast: Lainie Kazan, Saul Rubinek, Vincent Pastore, John Lloyd Young, Jai Rodriguez, Bruce Vilanch, Carmen Electra, Shelly Burch
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017