People Like Us
Smart dialogue intersperses a by-committee soap opera plot in a movie made better than the sum of its shaky narrative by three terrific actors. Elizabeth Banks, Chris Pine, and newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario exude old-fashioned movie magic, which keeps you hanging on their every word. Every time another forced plot point threatens to make you wince, the actors add in emotional beats to snap the unwieldy material into believable shape. Their intuitive sense of comic timing helps.
Pine plays Sam Harper, the adult son of an L.A. record biz maverick whose sudden passing Sam doesn’t give two shits about. He’d rather stay in New York with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) than fly home for the funeral. Still, Sam’s legal troubles at work are worth escaping. Once in L.A. at his mother Lillian’s (Michelle Pfeiffer in a thankless supporting role) house, Sam receives a mixed-bag inheritance that keeps him confused for a good long while about how to execute his dead father’s wishes, which include a sizeable chunk of secretly furnished cash. Enter Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom working as a bartender. Frankie is an AA member who attends regular meetings to avoid the pitfalls of her occupation. Frankie’s 11-year-old son Josh (exquisitely played by D’Addario) has a knack for getting in major trouble at school. Josh does a massive amount of damage to school property with a single act of vandalism that results in his possible expulsion.
Unbeknownst to them, Sam and Frankie share a familial relationship that demands some serious effort on both of their parts if it is to lead to any kind of shared future. Sam’s mother is none too pleased about her son’s recent discoveries.
Television writer-turned-director Alex Kurtzman co-wrote the film’s script with Roberto Orci (“Star Trek”) and newcomer Jody Lambert. The writing team doesn’t so much create a storyline as hammer away at pet plot points — as with one involving Sam’s looming run-in with the New York court system. Note to screenwriters: telephone conversations are an inherently dull way to provide exposition or create dramatic suspense. That the script team never bothers to resolve Sam’s worrisome subplot, involving his questionable business practices, leaves a crater in the film’s coda. Miraculously, even such glaring omissions become forgivable in light of the emotional connection between the main characters. The actors’ fluid choices — involving intentionality, physicality, and phrasing — help mask such clunky plot mechanics. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Frost/Nixon”) also contributes to the film’s success with evocative compositions that expand the harmony of the narrative with precise visual touches.
“People Like Us” is a conundrum. Objectively, it’s not an exceptional movie. Nonetheless, the story has a wealth of compelling emotional hooks, rooted in complex family issues, which more than a few audience members will relate to. As a tearjerker, the drama works like a charm. The real reason to see “People Like Us” is for the positively masterful performances that Banks, Pine, and D’Addario deliver. Modern-day Hollywood has some bona fide movie stars on its hands.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Gosling and Williams Go the Distance
By Cole Smithey
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams credibly play a young married couple--Dean and Cindy--whose relationship is falling apart in director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's heavyweight romantic drama. Housepainter Dean (Gosling) is a caring father to the couple's young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The pressures of working as a nurse constantly on call have made Cindy deeply unsatisfied with her marriage and role as a mother. The filmmakers use a flashback motif to show a series of events and adventures that led to couple to marry under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh ("It's Kind of a Funny Story") creates a beguiling compositional scheme that incorporates extreme close-ups of the actors' faces for most of the current-period sections of the dueling narrative. In the flashbacks we discover how Dean wooed Cindy when he worked as a professional mover. In the film's most charming scene Dean plays a ukulele and sings while Cindy tap-dances in the doorway of a closed shop at night. The emotional and sexual vibrancy between Gosling and Williams is unavoidable. Sex is a significant ingredient in the film. The emotionally honest scenes of lovemaking are exquisitely executed to give depth and meaning to the relationship.
Derek Cianfrance began making films at 13. He's worked primarily in the documentary format since then. His training has given him specific ideas about compartmentalizing narrative aspects that inform his rigorous process here. For "Blue Valentine" Cianfrance crafted a specific list of rules. All of the past, or flashback sequences of the couple, are shot on film. The current period of their relationship is recorded on digital cameras. For the sequences of the pair falling in love, both actors are held inside the frame as much as possible. But Dean and Cindy are captured individually during the waning days of their marriage. It's a methodology that works subliminally on the audience, making us aware of personal aspects of the characters that go far beyond the scripted page. When Dean shows up at the clinic where Cindy works he sees her happy and smiling. "Is this where the smiles happen?" It's as if Cindy becomes a different person at work. His reaction tells us everything about the status of their relationship. The doctor Cindy works for has been flirting with her. He even makes plans to move his practice with the expectation that she will follow him. Although Cindy pretends to be unaware of the doctor's advances, e-mail clues that Dean discovers tell another story.
"Blue Valentine" represents a new generation of cutting-edge filmmaking. The film uses sex not in a pornographic way, although it is fairly explicit. It's not a method that Cassavetes would have approved, but it achieves a similar imprint of tangible emotional reality. We get the full force of the meaning in the universal physical expression at hand. Like Cassavetes's films, "Blue Valentine" is messy about love and heartbreak.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the finest young American actors working in film today. The emotional colors and understated psychological transitions that Gosling and Williams reveal make watching them a pure joy. As the title suggests, "Blue Valentine" is a sad love story, and a very personal one as well.
Rated R. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Love & Other Drugs
Social Satire Comes Up Wanting
By Cole Smithey
Drawn from the same murky well of Hollywood ethical ambiguity that gave us "Thank You for Smoking" and last year's "Up In the Air," "Love & Other Drugs" audaciously defines its slick anti-hero protagonist as beyond reproach. Jake Gyllenhaal's Jamie Randall is a sex-addicted stud whose effortless ability to bed women anytime/anywhere gets him fired from a peppy job selling electronics equipment to women of all ages during a bustling 1996 economy. Jamie's seduction skills are given greater consequence at his new position hawking drugs for Pfizer. Partnered with old-hand Big-Pharma peddler Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt), Jamie utilizes his mythologized appendage to help better place samples of Zoloft on the backroom shelves of doctors all over Pittsburg. Sleeping with doctor office receptionists has fiscal benefits. He has no ethical qualms about posing as a medical intern to "shadow" Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), an especially hard-sell who shares a similar free spinning moral compass. It's a line-crossing stunt that introduces Jamie to Parkinson's disease-suffering patient Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway) via her exposed spider-bitten breast. Jamie and Maggie are commitment-phobes whose combustible sex life together is articulated to preclude any actual devotion of the heart.
Based on Jamie Reidy's memoir "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," the by-committee script--from Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz and co-writer/director Edward Zwick--bounces between comedic, dramatic, and indie genre conventions like a magnetized pinball. The grab-bag satire is so riddled with out of place irony that its artificial characters achieve an "uncanny valley" effect characteristic of robots who too closely exhibit human characteristics. The filmmakers are clearly banking on the allure of nude sex scenes between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway to attract audiences. While some blue-haired ladies might imagine the film's eroticism to possess some radical sensual style of integrity, there is nothing here that scratches at the intimate degree of pornographic expression in "Blue Valentine," which stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.
Jamie is a card-carrying stud to Maggie's status as a would-be-suicidal free spirit, i.e. slut-for-a-medical-reason. We get an early point-of-information alert about Big Pharma's third place on the Fortune 500 List as being worth all of the remaining 497 put together. These are shark infested waters. Jamie starts living the high life selling Viagra from the start of its popular launch. Unfortunately, Maggie's condition demands that Jamie take her on an active search for proper medical treatment.
"Love & Other Drugs" wants to lampoon a corporate milieu of medical industry corruption that promotes and sustains America's ongoing health care crisis. But it does it all wrong. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway look too perfect naked together to be anything other than art. We accept the light-hearted entertainment like drinking a spiked cocktail. So what if Gyllenhaal's character is a reprehensible cad, he looks great and just so happy with that health-challenged Venus of a lass.
An example of where it will but it won't comes when Maggie attacks Jamie in the hospital parking lot after pegging him as an opportunistic drug sales rep rather than the intern he pretended to be during her physical examination. She pulls out a Polaroid camera and takes his photo as if prepared to litigate against him for his illicit activity with Dr. Knight. But nothing comes of the dangled plot-thread. So it is that the movie is laden with such absurdities that work against the eventual love story that the movie shakes out to be.
The film's worst transgression is the inclusion of a nerdy-but-filthy-rich younger brother for Jamie in the guise of a completely inappropriate Josh Gad. A masturbation gag involving a personal amateur sex video drops like a sack of sand on the film's lumpy tone. It's sickening to see such layers of irredeemable gloss shellacked over a story that should infuriate its audience.
With Pfizer coincidently in the headlines for corruption involving doctors paid enormous paychecks to lecture on specific drugs, "Love & Other Drugs" may have an unintended consequence of prompting a forum for people to discuss a medical system hamstrung by pharmaceutical companies. More likely however, it will do its ostensible purpose of acclimating citizens to the idea that we should like, respect, and lust after corrupt people, or at least embrace them for being people--yes even horny--people too.
Rated R. 113 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Lake House
Reeves And Bullock Make Homey Romance From Afar
By Cole Smithey
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn ("Proof") performs the repellent task of drafting a Swiss-cheese script for "The Lake House" based on Lee Hyeon-seung's original 2000 South Korean film "Il Mare." While the movie isn't as awful as its dubious trailer portends, it suffers terribly from a truncated narrative puzzle device that connects two lovers from different eras via an old-fashioned mailbox at an improbable lake house. From the quaint but unique house that his father (Christopher Plummer) built, journeyman architect Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) finds himself in a love letter romance across time with Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock). The time-cursed lovers exist two years apart. Yet they are able to communicate as if they were carrying on an immediate interactive conversation. Split-screen visuals frequently veer the drama into comedy. Still, Reeves and Bullock do a commendable job of masking some of the plot's glaring potholes with their intrinsic onscreen chemistry.
Director Alejandro Agresti ("Valentin") will not be accused of being a visionary director. In a movie where the main character is a house, Agresti never takes the time to properly introduce the viewer to its finite interior spaces that hover ten feet above the water. Designed and built specifically for the film, the house is an enchanting piece of iron, glass, and wood architecture. It's a Swiss cross design with all-glass walls surrounding a center area occupied by a large tree that links the interiors of its four equal-sized rooms. The center roof opens to allow sun and air to bathe the home's interior tree. Yet the director makes an incalculable mistake by constantly returning to an attic that clearly doesn't exist. Agresti is too selfish with his camera to disclose intimate details of the home's interior spaces. It's in keeping with this refusal of logic that the filmmaker obscures the love story at the heart of the film.
Alex is a dog-loving architect who functions as a contractor boss at a suburban building site where his crew completes a 40-home community. He's been out of touch with his brother Henry (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his father Simon because Alex has been unsuccessfully attempting to either "forgive or forget" his father for unspoken sins. The subplots here, as with Bullock's character Kate, feel cobbled together. None of the subplots shed light on the intangible romantic connection between Alex and Kate.
Early in the story, Kate attempts to save the life of a man struck by a bus across the street from Chicago's Daly Plaza where she eats her lunch. Although we only see him from the back, we realize this is Alex. We sense that his spirit invades Kate's body. The story flips back on itself. Alex, circa 2004, moves into the house after Kate moved out, circa 2006. He lived there before her, as witnessed by his dog's paw prints on the entrance deck. This kind of irritating flip-flop syllogism plagues the story in which Alex and Kate attempt to schedule a 2006 meeting at the homage-titled restaurant "Il Mare."
"The Lake House" finally arrives at a certain romantic inertia in spite of its overstrained narrative puzzlement. But it wraps up before the long-awaited resolution can take hold. There's no coda. The impact of the movie rests on one scene between Alex and Kate where they meet and dance together at a birthday party thrown for Kate by her former fiancé Morgan (Dylan Walsh). The couple strike up a secluded conversation. They relate on a romantic level that leads to a gentle dance and a meaningful kiss. It's the one time their relationship feels real.
Rated PG. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)