Category Archives: Comedy

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

In 1936 James Thurber published a short story in the New Yorker about a man whose life was so dull he took whatever opportunity he could to disappear into his own, much more thrilling, imagination where, be he a fighter pilot or surgeon, he was always the hero. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947, 110 mins) takes this premise and expands it greatly into a wider narrative.

Danny Kaye stepped into the shoes of Walter Mitty, presumably because his talent mix (acting, slapstick, and patter songs) lent themselves to a role that, come a daydream, could see Kaye do anything, be it dancing, falling over, or knocking out a tune. And this film, as a vehicle for Kaye, let’s him showcase these skills, although this occasionally bleeds into indulgence, the narrative peppered with light entertainment longueurs.

Walter Mitty is a downtrodden fellow. Dominated into adult life by his mother (Fay Bainter); stumbling headlong into an unsuitable marriage with Ann Rutherford‘s naive Gertrude Griswald (with Florence Bates as a dragon of a mother-in-law waiting in the wings); and in the employ of a man (Thurston Hall) who happily adopts Mitty’s ideas while bestowing none of the credit. With all this going on around him it’s no wonder he disappears into regular reveries, his active imagination no doubt fuelled by the pulp magazines he has, for ten years, proofread for a living.

While imaginary worlds are Mitty’s retreat from his henpecked existence it turns out to be the real world that offers him the incentive to be the hero of his dreams. A chance encounter with Rosalind Van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) leads him into a crime caper involving a black note pad and the men (among them, Boris Karloff) who will stop at nothing — even murder! — to retrieve this MacGuffin.

While it mostly works as a story in its own right it’s perhaps debatable whether it should have retained the title given how it departs from the conceit while simply appropriating the imagination element. Admittedly, a story spanning a few pages was never going to form a script in and of itself, however the expanded story could at least have remained true thematically. Instead, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty delivers a story about a man discovering, in the real world, the ability to overcome the dreamy nature that has both comforted him and held him back. It’s a big step from the original, where, regardless of the heroics explored he was, in the end, Walter Mitty, and no amount of dreaming would ever change this dull fact.

Themes aside, it does work as a story and the film happily plays for laughs. Repetition is key, with the same situation approached time and again, each instance developed further to enhance its comedy, such as meetings at the boss’s office. And when Mitty disappears into dreams he suffers the consequences of the world going on around him, be it others’ frustration at him for not following the conversation; or the juxtaposition of dreams and reality, such as when his riverboat gambler heroically scatters a deck of cards everywhere while, following this through into the real world, the result is anything but heroic.

In Thurber’s story the only way out of such a lack-lustre life was to turn and face an imaginary firing squad and hope for something better beyond. That is perhaps a reaction to the times, the story reflecting on the years of Depression that had preceded it. However, director Norman Z. McLean, is able to bring colour and joy to a post-Depression (and post-war) world, with Danny Kaye’s Walter Mitty given the chance to enjoy life. In the movie he has a favourite song — Stephen Foster‘s Beautiful Dreamer — which closes with a command to “awake unto me”. When Walter awakes once and for all things are looking up and the likelihood is that he’ll need never dream again to live an exciting life.

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We’re The Millers (2013)

We're The Millers (2013)

Take four disparate people, dress them up as a family unit, and send them off to Mexico for a spot of drug smuggling. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of We’re The Millers (2013, 110 mins), and for a comedy it need not be more complicated than that. However, in order to get around the simple story what a comedy does need is plenty of laughs to drive it along. There are laughs to be had here, but this ham-fisted tale of crime not paying (much) is more likely to split opinion than sides.

Jason Sudeikis plays David Clark, a small-time self-centred drug dealer. One day he gets involved in a street scuffle and sees both stash and cash stolen so when the local drugs tsar (Ed Helms) provides an opportunity to make far greater amounts if he does a drug run over the border he accepts. His only problem is how to make himself inconspicuous to border guards. When the eureka moment comes he is lucky to have three reluctant accomplices to hand. Neighbour Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper struggling with money; the virginal and naïve teenager Kenny (Will Poulter), and runaway Casey (Emma Roberts), whose struggle with David’s muggers started the whole farce. Driving an RV and becoming the Millers (after their street) they set off for Mexico.

The duration of the film is not so much about the initial collection but getting an obscene amount of weed back to David’s paymaster. Along the way there’s all manner of obstacles such as corrupt cops, an over-friendly family, and the border itself. But sometimes the biggest issue is their own familial cohesion — they’ll bicker about anything. Not the image David wants to portray if he wants to deflect attention. If all these conflicts aren’t enough, the film also throws in another drug lord intent on catching them before they reach their destination.

The whole thing is horribly contrived. The characters are mostly two-dimensional cartoons given flesh although Poulter by far does the best with what he’s got by virtue of getting the greater percentage of jokes. Roberts chips in some glum teen posturing and Aniston never really convinces as a stripper. Their efforts are passable, however Sudeikis plays David as an all round wise-cracker, emotionally impervious to the threats around him. In something more serious it could be construed as a defence system, but not here. Real crimes to acting come as Ed Helms cranks the ham up to eleven as if he’s performing in some other film. His megalomaniac drug lord spoofs classic James Bond villainy, but comes up shorter than Nick Nack.

The majority of the humour in We’re The Millers can only be described as gross-out light. Body parts and sexual antics see the greater share, helped some way by comic performances, especially Nick Offerman‘s Don Fitzgerald, patriarch of another family coming home from Mexico. The saddest part is that the jokes, far from being laugh-out-loud funny, are barely groan-out-loud funny. Ultimately the film feels like a lazy patchwork of juvenile ideas that don’t quite work as a whole. A bit like its Millers

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Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

When comedy shows reach a peak of popularity, a big screen adaptation can’t be far off. The premise is invariably to remove the situation that makes it popular and to put the characters into new similarly invariable situations. Thus On The Buses went on holiday and Kevin and Perry went large. Borat and Mr Bean went Stateside; The Inbetweeners went to Crete. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013, 90 mins.) is the little piggy that stayed home.

From his first appearance as an inept sports desk reporter in On The Hour over twenty years ago, the character of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) has seen his popularity grow inversely proportional to his broadcasting career. Despite having had his own BBC chat show — the ABBA-flavoured Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge — he is now working at North Norfolk Digital. Despite his ups and downs (downs, mostly) one thing hasn’t changed — he’s still as egotistical as ever. And in this first big screen outing for the character — set, as ever, in his beloved Norwich — this self-obsession makes itself visible throughout.

The aforementioned North Norfolk Digital has now been swallowed up by a media conglomerate and renamed Shape. Through-the-night broadcaster, Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), has bore the brunt of cost cutting and has found himself dumped from the station. His response is to take the station hostage at gunpoint and,  refusing to negotiate directly with the police, makes clear that he will only speak to them via Alan. This situation, as it develops in the media, sees Partridge become its face and in this he senses the opportunity to exploit the goings on in the name of his career.

While the movie is set in an English city, its premise is more Hollywood than Pinewood. However, this being a comedy, the British knack for self-deprecation undermines the convention throughout. A high stakes affair in regional England may not be glamorous, but it serves two purposes. It both provides plenty of opportunities for humour and makes the film’s story more plausible. In the case of Alan Partridge this is important as Coogan’s development of the character has seen him grow increasingly complex; more tragicomic than simple comedic cypher. To put him in a new fabricated situation purely to generate laughs would be to betray the character’s inherent capacity for eliciting them unaided. Thus Alan makes his way through the movie, doing and saying things that are typical Partridge.

There are a perhaps a couple of notable risks in elevating a television character to the cinema. The first is expanding the usual small situations into a feature-length story, where the audience expects a beginning, middle, and end. The second is a question of accessibility. Despite prior successes, a new audience inevitably comes to the character without that knowledge. The first few minutes are their introduction and in the opening credits we see Partridge driving to work, singing along to Roachford‘s Cuddly Toy. Coogan’s delivery is excellently exaggerated, but in each gesture — as Alan — you can see he means it. It’s both comedic and creates some common ground for the audience. Who, after all, doesn’t sing along to their favourite songs or at least know someone who does? And since scant reference is made to Partridge’s past career in the film, whatever baggage he displays on screen comes solely within the movie’s scope.

As adaptations go, the team behind Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa appear to have nailed it. Given that in the past he has appeared on radio, television, and in print, the step up to film seems simply natural. Although it certainly feels as if he’s been toned down for the movie, this doesn’t detract from what makes him a genuinely funny character.  Laughs come thick and fast and there are enough supporting characters given space to breathe and assist in subplots. Alan may be an unlikeable person — awkward, pedantic, oleaginous, tactless —  with ultimate consideration only to Brand Alan, but it’s this brilliant dramatic irony that makes him loveable.

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