Ivy League Tina Fey
Higher Learning Gets Schooled
An above-average romantic comedy, “Admission” profits considerably from Tina Fey’s reliable comic efforts as Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer approaching an unforeseen midlife crisis. Sending up Ivy League practices for attracting and, mostly, rejecting desperate young college applicants is all part of the film’s canny satire. If the American college system is one big scam, Ivy League schools are shown as the worst offenders. It’s especially droll that the real Princeton University is used rather than a fictional school. In an age when the cost of higher learning comes with potentially bankrupting student loans, “Admission” is about how the process of learning is an ongoing activity that never stops. Having the ability to work inside the system means having the aptitude to move beyond it.
Fey’s upwardly motivated Portia anchors the film’s personal aspects. She’s engaged in a catfight struggle with her African American co-worker Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to take over the soon-to-be-vacant Dean of Admissions post currently held by Wallace Shawn’s Clarence character. Portia’s NPR-approved home life marriage to a pretentiously highbrow college professor — Mark (Michael Sheen) — is going down the drain quick. Tina Fey’s quirky-but-sexy-librarian manner makes her an ideal protagonist ripe for ethical challenges. She receives a doozy.
Recruiting road trips to high schools come with Portia’s job description. Her canned Princeton pitch doesn’t go over so well at New Quest, an alternative high school run by one-man-show educational visionary John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a world traveler committed to bringing up his adopted son. Assembly-line learning isn’t what the students at New Quest have in mind. Here are a group of informed kids capable of reading between the lines of a collegiate educational system built on capitalist ideals of greed, racism, and sexism. There’s comic satisfaction in seeing intelligent — rather than intellectual students — speaking truth to bravura. Portia gets stung.
John has an ulterior motive. He introduces Portia to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) a young man John has reason to believe is Portia’s biological child that she gave up for adoption nearly two decades ago. John is a helper. He also has the hots for Portia, a fact that her feminist mom (Lily Tomlin) is none to pleased to endorse. She’d rather point her shotgun in his direction.
Paul Rudd continues his winning streak of amiable comic post-hippie characters. A more congenial romantic comic pairing — Fey and Rudd — you are not likely to find.
Portia takes up the insider cause of insuring Jeremiah’s entry into Princeton at any cost. However much Jeremiah has blossomed academically at New Quest — he’s something of a prodigy — his educational past isn’t so impressive on the printed page.
Crosscurrents of romance, drama, and comedy flow through one another. The movie hits its stride during a roundtable admissions process whereby each officer defends his or her picks for applicants. Comic suspense builds as Portia plays her best game of political strategy on Jeremiah’s behalf.
“Admission” is a “talk film.” Shifts in comic tone come without warning. The audience gets caught up in the battle for pent-up hopes between the film’s three main characters. We want the best for them, but understand that the status quo will never fill that gap. We’ve all still got a lot to learn.
Rated PG-13. 117mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Silver Linings Playbook
Spinning pap from mental illness, “Sliver Linings Playbook” is more entertaining than it should be. It is still a mediocre movie. That it arrives at the same time as Jacques Audiard’s brilliant convention-breaking romantic drama “Rust and Bone,” bares the gulf that exists between Hollywood’s kneejerk watered-down formulations and a truly gutsy approach to weighty subject matter.
Director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) is slumming it here. It’s disheartening to watch such trivialized material coming from the same visionary filmmaker who made his name on “Spanking the Monkey,” a groundbreaking independent movie about incest. Perhaps Russell is merely taking a paycheck so he can make a real movie the next time around. Only time will tell.
There isn’t a single role that’s appropriately cast here. Bradley Cooper’s highly technical acting style is at diametric odds with his flawed character Pat, a manic-depressive presently released from an extended stint in a mental hospital after attacking the man he discovered sleeping with his wife to the strains of a Stevie Wonder song. Coincidentally, the song was the same tune Pat and his wife danced to at their wedding. Oh the maddening irony. Pat’s violent response to catching his wife committing adultery is the kind of response that used to be considered appropriate behavior the world over. Evidently, Americans are no longer allowed to go ballistic when they discover their spouse in flagrante delicto, lest they be shipped off to the funny farm. The narrative soaks in this kind of soporific thematic message. I suppose it isn’t enough that most public water supply systems in America contain the equivalent of a dose of Prozac per single-glass portion. Hollywood wants to give you an antidepressant dose to boot.
Back at home with his parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), Pat takes up a compulsive reading habit when he isn’t going for long daily running sessions. Pat desperately wants to reconnect with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Never mind that she has a restraining order against him. He’s so intent on reinventing his expired marriage that Pat is oblivious to the romantic opportunity that stands in front of him. Pat’s damaged-goods neighbor Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is also a manic-depressive. Like Pat, Tiffany knows her way around every psychotropic drug known to modern medicine. If anything, Lawrence is even more miscast than Cooper. The worst thing you could say about her ostensibly mentally scarred character, is that Tiffany suffers from an excess of hotness. Her greatest transgression was to sleep with every co-worker at her last job. Like I said, hot. The fact that Tiffany is a crucifix-wearing believer signals the audience not to judge her too harshly. Blame the script, the direction, and the actress. There’s nothing messy or unpredictable — read authentic — about Lawrence’s portrayal. Without putting too fine a point on it, Marion Cotillard would have been a far more appropriate choice for the role — reference her vulnerable performance in “Rust and Bone.”
I get it. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a Hollywood romantic comedy made to mask the horrific downside of mental illness while still giving the audience a little sense of superiority as they walk out of the cinema. We’re not supposed to be allowed inside these characters. They are comic constructions. To that end, “Silver Linings Playbook” satirizes where it pretends to examine. As a genre exercise, the film wears its convictions on its disposable sleeve. Crazy people belong together. With any luck, they are all as bright and attractive as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. If not, you’ll just have to watch the movie again.
Rated R. 120 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Writer-director-actor Josh Radnor follows up his debut feature (“Happythankyoumoreplease”) with a compact romantic comedy that almost works, but not quite. Radnor does his best John Krasinski impersonation as Jesse, a 36-year-old example of stunted adulthood — by way of a liberal arts education that has kept him in the hallowed halls of academia. Coming off a break-up with his girlfriend, Jesse muddles through his days working as a college admissions councilor in Manhattan.
Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse’s “second-favorite” teacher at his alma mater — Ohio’s Kenyon College — extends an invitation for Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner. Hoberg has picked his own expiration date, but is not completely sold on his own idea to leave behind his comfy existence as a tenured professor.
Jesse’s visit to his collegiate stamping grounds introduces him to 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a cute liberal arts major with a daddy complex. Olsen’s estrogen–simmering performance dominates the movie. That’s a good thing. Elizabeth, the younger sister to the famously overrated “Olsen Twins” continues to prove she received the lion’s share of the family’s talent gene. Her persuasive performances in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Silent House” were no fluke.
Zibby’s sincere appreciation for classical music and literature follows Jesse after his return to New York. Romance multiplies via an old-fashioned exchange of hand-written love letters. Cheesy as it sounds, the narrated dispatches of hyper intellectual and emotional aspiration do a nice job of anchoring the story and shedding intimate light on the characters’ newly rose-tinted world views.
A reunion at Kenyon College puts the age-inappropriate pair on a journey of mutual discovery that involves some humorous criticism of the “Twilight” novels. Jesse is unreasonably prejudiced against the teen vampire books considering that he has never picked one up. Still, he’s up for the challenge of engaging in a little instant book-club interaction with Zibby. Jesse spends an afternoon reading one of the notoriously worst books of all time, only to confirm every one of his suspicions. Needless to say, Zibby takes umbrage at Jesse’s condemnation of the books she loves to read as mindless entertainment. More than a critical thinker, Zibby judges Jesse to be a snob. All of this happens as part of the romantic circling the would-be lovers are doing to decide if they should jump in the sack together. The deliberation engages the audience to figure out which way they hope the action will go. The filmmaker savors a nearly masochistic suspense of passion. Will he or won’t he? — Will she or won’t she?
Zac Ephron stinks up the movie as Nat, an annoying new-age hippie kid who wears one of those dumb knit hats with the ties that hang down on the sides. Written into the script as a ghost-in-the-machine narrative facilitator, Ephron’s rudderless character derails the movie whenever he shows up to drop bombs of idiocy. “Fortune favors those who say yes,” Nat tells Jesse. Meh. Another pet-the-dog ploy comes in the guise of Dean, a hyper-cerebral but a mordantly depressed student who Jesse counsels. The movie would be greatly improved if Radnor had excised these two insultingly superficial subplots.
For its all-too-obvious navel-gazing machinations, the movie plays its adult character cards better. Allison Janney is drop-dead funny as Judith Farichild, Jesse’s beloved literature professor from his days as a student. Janney’s delivery of her character’s withering sarcasm during a post-coital tête-à-tête is the comic highpoint of the movie.
Josh Radnor has his heart in the right place, but can’t help putting his feet on cliché landmines. Flawed though it is, “Liberal Arts” provides a couple of significant lessons about emotional responsibility regarding dating within one’s age-range.
Not Rated. 97 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
If it weren’t for its outdated music video segues, “Hope Springs” could just be the best romantic comedy about marriage ever made. Television writer Vanessa Taylor’s terrific debut feature script provides an ideal stage for two of cinema’s finest actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. Convincingly playing off one another as a married couple of 31 years, Streep and Jones create an onscreen chemistry that runs the full gamut of emotional colors. The actors never share a scene that doesn’t resonate with energized drama and humor. This aging pair of master thespians are golden together.
Arnold (Jones) is a grumpy Omaha tax consultant who has lost romantic desire for his doting wife Kay (Streep). The movie opens with a telling scene of Kay making a sexual overture to Arnold in his separate bedroom. Arnold demurs, explaining that he “ate pork for lunch.” Kay retreats to her room. Kay and Arnold haven't communicated much since their children flew the coop five years ago. Kay looks into a couple’s therapist in the appropriately-named seaside Maine town of Great Hope Springs whose calmly romantic setting is idyllic without giving into cliché. Getting Arnold to come along for a weeklong therapy session under Steve Carell’s exquisitely played Dr. Feld, however, is no simple matter. But Streep’s Kay is a resourceful woman whose twinkle in her eye hasn’t gone out.
As anticipated, the therapy sequences in Dr. Feld’s comfortable office energize the story with exacting wit. In what might be Carell’s best performance to date, the mannered actor never strays from his character’s pure intentions. Dr. Feld is on the up-and-up. That’s not to say Dr. Feld is shy about probing into the couple’s sexual proclivities and fantasy lives. A good deal of narrative movement comes from the daily exercise Dr. Feld gives Kay and Arnold to experiment with in the privacy of their hotel room. Although the text never gets quite as racy as it seems it might, Streep and Jones commit to plenty of daring intimacy that ranges from humorous to excruciatingly authentic.
Meryl Streep’s trademark naturalism is on full display. Her gift for comic timing comes through in the tiniest of gestures. A slight head-tilt or a devilish grin speaks volumes. The ever-seeping joy in her performance is catching. Kay is an American everywoman for a generation of budding grandmothers. For his part, Tommy Lee Jones enjoys more of a revelation as a comic presence thanks to his character’s broader demands in the growth department. An actor of carefully modulated emotions, Jones works in a micro-scale that is tremendously effective, as during a lovemaking moment when his facial expression “unconsciously” tells too much. Streep and Jones operate on an elevated level of acting precision that bounces gently above every dramatic beat. The sensual tension and suspense between Kay and Arnold is simultaneously eccentric and universal.
Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) has made a terribly sweet movie that will speak to generations of married couples. It’s amazing to witness big Hollywood stars throwing themselves into roles that demand such a challenging level of emotional expression and investment. “Hope Springs” is a romantic comedy with the potential to actually save some marriages.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
To Rome With Love
Woody’s European Tour Jumps the Track
By Cole Smithey
Woody Allen hasn’t made a memorable movie since “Match Point” in 2006, when he began his current series of European-based films. He showed a brief spark in 2008 with his Spanish installment, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but the aging director is sadly less than a pale shadow of the auteur/performer who enthralled audiences in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the early ‘90s with masterful comedies such as “Annie Hall,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Husbands and Wives.”
It would be an insincere compliment to call “To Rome With Love” a piecemeal comic reverie. The film’s construction is so shabby that it continuously warrants confusion about its disjointed subplots. “To Rome With Love” could easily be construed as more of a “French letter” than a love letter to Italy’s Eternal City.
Allen’s shaky storyline jockeys between four underdeveloped subplots involving couples whose relationships are tested by external — and distinctly Italian — circumstances. Fleeting postcard images of Rome’s landmarks fade behind a movie with little substance, much less an adequate amount of cognitive cohesion.
Allison Pill enjoys barely any screentime as Hayley, an American in Rome who has a love-at-first-sight experience with a leftist attorney-of-the-people, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Hayley’s parents Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive in Rome to meet the family of their future son-in-law. Jerry can’t help insulting Michelangelo and his parents in the time-honored manner that many crassly entitled Americans implement when visiting foreign lands. Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s undertaker dad Max (Fabio Armiliato) singing opera in the shower. Neurotic Jerry becomes obsessed with the idea of coming out of retirement to act as Max’s manager for an avant garde-styled approach to stage an opera built around Max’s magnificent voice.
Roberto Benigni suffers the indignity of playing a working-class man made famous overnight by a fickle media infatuated with turning every bit of minutiae about his grooming habits into editorial hyperbole. Fame proves a marginalizing force even if it delivers a plethora of sensual perks to Benigni’s one-dimensional character. You’ve never seen Benigni less funny than he seems here.
The most promising story thread involves John (Alec Baldwin), a commercially successful — read sell-out — architect revisiting Rome for the first time since his college days, when he lived there for a year. In a page torn from Allen’s last film (“Midnight in Paris”), John is transported to an alternate reality. While walking around looking for his old stamping grounds, John is befriended by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young aspiring architect. Jack invites John to his apartment — coincidentally on the street where John used to live. Jack is busy living out a modern version of the romantic ineptitude John experienced in his youth. Baldwin’s character becomes an advising apparition to Jack, who develops a romantic attraction for his live-in girlfriend Sally’s (Greta Gerwig) best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Needless to say, Jack does not listen to any of John’s sage advice. The only time the movie comes to life is when Ellen Page lights up the screen as an affection-hungry actress ready to wreak havoc on the personal lives of anyone around her.
Finally, there’s Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi). The Italian newlyweds are visiting Rome on their honeymoon. Shy and nerdy Antonio gets a crash-course in lovemaking from a high society prostitute (Penelope Cruz), while Milly takes her own amorous diversion with one of Italy’s most popular actors. The amount of gratuitous fantasy on display is suffocating.
“Midnight in Paris” was a fluke in that it became Woody Allen’s highest grossing movie in America. The film’s success is a strange commentary on the movie business considering that “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t hold a candle to a dozen of Allen’s earlier films. With the release of “To Rome With Love” it’s too late for Woody Allen to quit while he’s ahead. That still doesn’t mean there isn’t time for him to retire while the blush of success is still bright upon his cheek.
Rated R. 95 mins. (C-) ( Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
This Means War
Spy vs. Spy vs. Romance
Tom Hardy and Chris Pine Cross Swords for Luv
By Cole Smithey
Daft competitive seduction is at the heart of this scattershot romantic comedy that veers woefully into uncultivated screwball territory. The movie tries too hard to titillate perceived notions of what both sexes of audience members might expect from a love story where two males with a military arsenal compete for the affection of a woman who is more shrew than honeypot. Said audiences are more likely to be amorously anesthetized by director McG’s jarring quick-cut spasms of explosions than coerced into feeling any emotional sensation.
A skyscraper penthouse—complete with helicopter landing pad—supplies the film’s opening shoot-em-up action sequence. Best friend CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) bungle their assignment to capture a Russian kingpin who makes a remarkable escape from the incredibly high rooftop. The tone here is all gloss with no tooth.
Cinema’s latest do-it-all-action-star Tom Hardy (“Warrior”) slums it. Situated opposite relative newcomer Chris Pine (“Star Trek”), Hardy consumes all the oxygen in the room whenever the two CIA partners share a scene. Their characters are single playboys whose lavish bachelor lifestyles are the product of a fetishistic male fantasy dreamt up by a committee of aging frat boy screenwriters. Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and Timothy Dowling struggle with a story by newbie writer Marcus Gautesen.
Tuck is separated from his wife. He has a seven-year-old son whom he takes to martial arts class. With three vintage motorcycles and room to free spar with his trainer in his posh living room, Tuck doesn’t seem to mind the single life. FDR lives in a lux pad with a lap-pool glass ceiling in his hallway from which he can watch the underside of untold females swimming the breaststroke. If working as an underhanded CIA agent paid this well there would be a permanent chain of males stretching twice around D.C.’s National Mall trying to get hired.
An idea for online dating opens up Tuck to a plethora of romantic options that immediately narrow down to Reese Witherspoon’s Lauren Scott. She’s a stereotype of blonde Los Angeles womanhood who runs her own business and likes to prance around her apartment singing to out of date rap songs—witness a cringe-inducing sing-along to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do it.” Lauren’s—and the film’s—only redeeming quality is her irreverently saucy best friend Trish (exuberantly played by Chelsea Handler). If only the screenwriters had given the lusty Trish entree into the romantic fray, the movie might have had a chance. Even swapping Handler to play the lead, with Witherspoon as the supportive best friend, would have given the movie some umph where it needed it most. One thing’s certain; Chelsea Handler is primed for a leading comedic role in a film with a better script.
There’s no telling how much better the movie would have been if all of Handlers original scenes had been left in. The filmmakers cut some her bawdier dialogue to convince the MPAA to downgrade the film from an R to a PG-13 rating. Downgrade: check.
Love-at-first-sight occurs between Tuck and Lauren on their initial date. That doesn’t prevent Lauren’s wandering eye from catching FDR’s attention when the two bump into one another in a video rental store mere steps from where she just ended her brief meet cute with Tuck. Choosing to play her options, Lauren dates both men. The CIA partners apprehend the emotionally charged situation. They agree to refrain from sexual conduct while allowing Lauren to choose the best man for her. Let the best, or most motivated, man win.
A series of increasingly sloppy dates finds Tuck and FDR using their CIA surveillance resources to follow each other’s romantic efforts with Lauren. They also spy on Lauren to discern how best to mollify her personal tastes, which include a love of Gustav Klimt and a soft spot for doggies. The men act appropriately as sycophantic puppies whose idea of leading a romance means pandering to Lauren’s fairly shallow interests. This is fifth grade romance at its most heavily armed.
Considering the film’s association to the superior, but still dismal, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “This Means War” is doomed from the start. It’s another example of everything wrong with Hollywood. January and February are always the worst months of the year for new releases. This dog just confirms the maxim.
Rated PG-13. 120 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Crazy Stupid Love
A Solid Cast and a Good Script Bring Adult Romantic Comedy Back
By Cole Smithey
For the first time in a long time Hollywood offers up an energetic adult romantic comedy that's equal parts substance and comic spice. A generational divide between old-fashioned romantic sensibilities and the cultured mechanics of modern dating tactics bubble up for deeply satisfying laughs.
Steve Carell's suburban family man Cal gets hit by a ton of bricks when his childhood-sweetheart wife Emily (Julianne Moore) asks for a divorce so she can pursue a relationship with her smarmy co-worker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). The perfectly cast Steve Carell is a picture of middle aged male frumpiness. He wears his dirty New Balance tennis shoes as if they were a birthright. Carell uses everyday mannerisms to convey an abandoned dog attitude for his disheveled character. Cal needs to be adopted, and we as the audience want to help.
Cal's brain is stuck on a short loop connected directly to his mopey mouth about how his adulterous wife "slept with David Lindhagen." Every patron and bartender at Cal's newly regular watering hole knows his sad sack story all too well. The posh venue also serves as the frequent hunting ground for Ryan Gosling's Jacob to ply his well worn trade of catch-and-release fishing for a steady stream of "fancy face" females who fall for his polished game 99% of the time. Jacob responds to something in Cal's naive nature. He generously offers to tutor Cal in the fine art of cocksmanship at no charge. Still, the sensei/student lessons come with face-slaps and a head-to-toe make-over that liberally drains Cal's credit card for the "16 items" he needs to reinvent his wardrobe. The filmmakers stumble during a couple of poorly calculated nude scenes between Cal and Jacob that briefly expose the screenwriters more than they do their characters.
Ryan Gosling isn't just convincing in the Don Juan role, he's magnetizing. Watching Gosling's super confident Jacob flirt and charm women galvanizes the script's assessment of modern day maleness.
Jacob tells Cal, "The battle of the sexes is over, and we won. Women lost when they started taking pole-dancing classes." The screenwriters are overflowing with such ideas about how male/female relations have changed in the age of internet porn, sexting, and YouTube instruction videos for everything.
Little does Jacob realize he's fated to meet his match in the guise of a young redheaded woman named Hannah (Emma Stone). There's real fire in the onscreen chemistry between Gosling and Stone. Their scenes together anchor the film's emotional aspirations.
"Crazy Stupid Love" is directed and filmed with such overall precision that when it slips under the heavy hand of commenting musical choices, such as a certain overused Talking Heads song, you can't help but groan at the cliché. There's also a little gear-grinding that occurs between the second and third act before the story finds it's escalating glide toward a family crisis of epic proportions.
Ironically, the film's theme lines are carried by Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie (well played by Jonah Bobo). Robbie has a major crush on his 17-year-old babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is busy trying to get Cal's romantic attention. Robbie views Jessica as his soul mate. Nothing will dissuade him. Robbie's persistence of romantic vision knows no boundaries. By the end of the movie neither do we. Anything seems possible with the right amount of heart.
Rated PG-13. 118 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)