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

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009)

It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m here to say that I like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Sqeakquel. I’ll even go so far as to say that this movie improves on the first one, which I’ll also admit to enjoying. And while this isn’t going in the pantheon of kids flicks, it’s funny and engaging enough for those little people who would get a kick out of singing, dancing forest rodents.

One noticeable improvement is the sidelining of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a major character in the Chipmunks tale. He is the adoptive father to and occasional manager of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney). When we last saw him, he was a struggling songwriter who sheltered the brothers from Ian (David Cross), an evil record producer with no respect for child labor laws. Lee has a genial onscreen presence and balances out his hyperactive costars, but he’s also as exciting as a bottle of cold milk. It’s not that he seems unhappy to be here; it’s more like he’s not really sure what he’s doing here.

Enter Zachary Levi, giddy nerd and actual Disney prince. He plays Dave’s irresponsible nephew, Toby, who comes into the picture after Alvin’s concert stunt lands Dave in the hospital. Toby becomes the boys’ temporary caretaker, which is to say the guy who happens to live in the same house for a short while but who spends most of his time playing video games. It’s not a challenging role and though he has a minor romantic storyline, the character’s largely underused and underdeveloped. Levi makes up for this where he can and is instantly comfortable with the goofy, childish tone and material. He doesn’t play down to the under-10 crowd but right to them.

The real stars of course are the Chipmunks, and they decide to take a break from their music career to get an education. They quickly find that navigating West Eastman High is harder than navigating an arena tour, and Simon and Theodore have an especially rough time fitting in. Even with the support of their school principal (a perfectly game Wendie Malick), they endure a good amount of bullying; they are tiny chipmunks, after all. Alvin deflects some of that negative attention when he joins the football team, but this only creates a rift between the brothers. Further rivalries appear when the Chipettes (Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler) enroll and steal the Chipmunks’ thunder. The boys are upset that the girls have gained their own fanbase, and they must resolve their differences with a sing-off. The winner gets bragging rights and the chance to represent the school in a competition for more school funding.

When it comes down to it, the story is not unlike the average Disney Channel Original Movie about teens trying to be cool and true to themselves. The difference is some truly adorable CGI chipmunks. Say what you will, the animation and the voice acting are all wonderfully realized, and nothing makes me smile like tiny Theodore wanting to curl up next to whatever human happens to be his guardian. It’s not all saccharine stuff though, and the series has an unsettling mean streak. Putting them in a high school environment allows the writers to get away with jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing, but why the hell do you need jokes about makeout trains and pole dancing in a movie about animated chipmunks? Kids will love the physical humor, but the snide retorts don’t serve anyone. Theodore and Eleanor are mocked for their weight and Ian threatens to barbeque the Chipettes. Sure, the little guys win in the end, but the bullies don’t change their ways; they just get caught.

Released: 2009
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Betty Thomas
Writer: Jon Vitti, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast: Zachary Levi, Jason Lee, David Cross, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Wendie Malick, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, Anjelah Johnson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

I’ve concluded that one’s enjoyment of a movie has a lot to do with expectations, and Get Him to the Greek is an example of this. At first glance it looks like a mindless Judd Apatow production, a portrait of arrested development on the pop-rock circuit. Netflix recommended I make a double feature out of it and pair it with 30 Minutes or Less, which I saw the day before and hated, or Accepted, which I had also seen and disliked less. But the movie turns out to be more, by degrees, than either of its cousins.

On the one hand, it is what the poster suggests, a film about a hedonistic rock star and his slightly clueless friend who indulge in all sorts of irresponsible behavior that writer-director Nicholas Stoller then twists into something more juvenile. It’s not just drug use; it’s a baggie of heroin up the bum that’s popped out like a pellet of baby powder. On the other hand, it also dips into more meditative territory, allowing its characters room for self-reflection. This surprised me, so much so that I found myself imaging a better indie version of the film, maybe something along the lines of meandering John Carney picture (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street).

For better or worse, it is not that. Apatow and his stars are firmly in the driver’s seat and steer it in the direction you’d expect. British radio host and comedian Russell Brand reprises his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and plays Aldous Snow, a rock star at the top of his game when he releases a song called “African Child.” An ugly anthem of white liberal guilt and white savior complex, the song is a critical and commercial failure and sends Aldous into a downward spiral. He breaks up with his partner, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), relapses into his various addictions, and stops making music.

Cue A&R man Aaron Green (Hill). He works at a record company headed by Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), who is as emotionally abusive as he is clueless about nurturing talent. Aaron hopes to earn points and Sergio’s good favor by proposing a tenth anniversary concert for Aldous at the Greek Theater, an event that will mark the singer’s iconic performance there and set the stage for his comeback. But first, Aaron must coax his reluctant star out of his London penthouse.

Once he does, the movie is a road trip of sorts, a plane trip really, and each leg is marked by escalating chaos that threatens to derail the concert. There’s a visit to the Today show that goes wildly offscript, as evidenced by Paul Krugman’s (yes, that Paul Krugman) bewildered look. A detour to Las Vegas similarly goes haywire. Aldous tries to make amends with his estranged father (Colm Meaney) while Aaron gets kite-high and inadvertently torches a fur-lined lounge. Those are the tamer moments though. The film also does its best to provoke with a threesome that ends in stereotypical homophobic anxiety. Also Aaron gets raped, and it’s a joke.

These are the reasons I’m not generally a fan of Apatow and company, and I suppose why others are. There’s a great film in here about a musician seeking redemption and a talent scout seeking his way. It’s not an original storyline, but these are two characters who, when stripped of the excess, reveal some depth. Brand is a revelation to me. I’d only known him to be a provocative radio and entertainment personality, someone who appeared on end-of-the-year quiz shows in Britain. He readily deploys that persona but also shows restraint and doesn’t play his character’s more touching moments with any cynicism. Some of my favorite scenes are when Aldous tries to reconcile with Jackie Q (Byrne clearly having a ball as a chavy pop star) and his son, proving that indeed, rockers are real people. Hill has similar moments; Aaron needs to figure out if he’s willing to sacrifice his dignity and his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) now that he has his dream job. It’s too bad then that the emotional arc of the story is propped up by an overabundance of frat house humor.

“Little Bird” by Infant Sorrow (Russell Brand):

“Ring Around the Rosie” by Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), just NSFW:

Released: 2010
Prod: Judd Apatow, Joshua Blake, David Bushell, Rodney Rothman, Nicholas Stoller
Dir: Nicholas Stoller
Writer: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Elisabeth Moss, Rose Byrne, Sean Combs, Colm Meaney
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

The Heartbreak Kid is not a good movie, and it deserves to be thrown into the Hall of Shame alongside Adam Sandler’s oeuvre. Plenty of films are tedious, populated with grating characters, some are dull and infuse no life into routine plots, and still others overestimate an audience’s tolerance for whatever shtick they’re trying to peddle (see every Adam Sandler movie). The Heartbreak Kid, based off a Neil Simon screenplay and corrupted by the Farrelly brothers, combines all these into one steaming pile of dung.

After San Francisco sports store owner Eddie (Ben Stiller) is humiliated at his ex’s wedding and then berated by his father (Jerry Stiller) for being single and forty, he runs into Lila (Malin Åckerman) while trying to stop a purse snatcher. He doesn’t get the guy but he does get a date with her. A mere six weeks later, he proposes, partly because she’s hot and partly because her job wants to relocate the single people to Rotterdam. Despite reservations, he decides it’s the right decision and starts to look ahead to his honeymoon in Cabo.

The first twenty minutes are, like the characters, deceptively normal if a little dull, but things go downhill in a flash. The script draws from a wellspring of misogyny that Eddie dips into immediately after taking his vows. He and his friend Mac (Rob Corddry) balk when they see Lila’s overweight mother, a sure sign that this relationship is going to end in disaster. His father only adds to the shameful behavior with a mouth that would make Donald Trump proud.

Lila though is hardly a model of maturity and compassion either. She’s even more self-absorbed than her husband and possibly one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen. The wife from hell, she earns the title several times over. Some of her habits can be reduced to harmless personality quirks – she’s a little overenthusiastic about carpool karaoke, for example, but much of her behavior would be grounds for annulment. Lila’s tortured relationship with the truth means that she’s lying even if when she thinks she isn’t. She’s not upfront about her troubled finances, the nature of her environmental research job, or her former coke habit. Moreover, marriage seems to make her feel more entitled and demanding, thus confirming all of Eddie’s fears about long-term relationships and reinforcing multiple stereotypes in the process.

In most cases, I’d be side with Eddie, but Stiller doesn’t give much reason to warm up to his character. He plays the guy he usually does, a beleaguered everyman trying to make the most of a bad situation. It’s not very compelling and he lacks the charisma to justify sticking it through with Eddie. Åckerman, on the other hand, gives Lila an abundance of personality; unfortunately it’s the kind that makes you want to throttle her character.

There’s not one sympathetic soul until Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) breezes in. She’s vacationing with her family, good, sensible Mississippi folks, and is too pure for this mess. But Eddie gets involved anyway, adding yet another layer of deception and hysterics. At one point, Miranda rightly decides she’s had enough, which is that attitude we should all take with this movie.

Released: 2007
Prod: Ted Field, Bradley Thomas
Dir: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly
Writer: Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Kevin Barnett
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Malin Åkerman, Jerry Stiller, Rob Corddry, Carlos Mencia, Scott Wilson, Danny McBride
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017