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Out in Theaters: SPY

Like Funyuns, Melissa McCarthy is an acquired taste. In her least delicate projects, she vaults around the frame, sharting and cursing to the apparent delight of squealing audiences that I just don’t relate to. Even in Paul Feig‘s Spy – a film that affords her at least an attempt at a three-dimensional character – a wide margin of the comedy is rooted in McCarthy’s heft and just how riotous it is to see a fat lady try to do normal lady things. Tee-hee. Read More

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SXSW Review: BAD WORDS

“Bad Words”
Directed by Jason Bateman
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Steve Witting
Comedy
88 Mins
R

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Jason Bateman
‘s directorial debut, Bad Words, is aptly congruously to his post-Arrested Development career. That is, it’s no good. Like Identity Thief and The Change-Up before it, Bateman has proved that having his name on a movie’s billing is a blaring warning sign of slow and low-blow comedy to come, a notice of an impending La Brea-sized originality tar pit, a Bat-Signal in the shape of a crotch kick. While some of us may have suspected Bateman of being on the receiving end of some Les Grossman-level manhandling – a puppet maliciously directed into comic obscurity – as the proud director of this comedy clunker, Bateman has shown his wisecracker cards, revealing that he may not be playing with a full comic’s deck after all.

To call him a hack seems harsh but it’s the only description I can find fitting the dreck that he continuously churns out. The pedestrianly crafted Bad Words, for example, earns Bateman his gold standard R-rating with a string of unimaginative and unfunny curse words. Since R-rated comedies have turned into something of a marketable commodity since the first Hangover movie, we’ve seen more and more comedies (which once mostly existed within the PG-13 realm) turn to this “Restricted” hail sign. But rather than employ that R-rating to their artistic advantage, the folks behind the helm of Bad Words simply use it to check mark their way through George Carlin‘s seven dirty words like a record stuck on repeat. In essence, Batman has made the equivalent of a feature film version of the Blink-182 song so sophisticated titled “Shit Piss Fuck”. Charming.

Comedy being as sink or swim as it it, it’s a true tragedy that Bateman has relied on the life raft of obscenity to keep him afloat over the past five year. Subbing in swear words for jokes is a shortcut cohabiting the same hoary level of the time-honored fart. The first time history heard a squeak of gas passing through an actor’s anal cavity and into the light of day, it must have been an uproariously occasion. The first time the word ‘fuck’ was used in the film Ulysses (1967), I’m sure people were gasping “Well I never”s as they minted their juleps, pinkies upturned.

In 2014 though, we’re in a post-Three Stooges-era. Last year, we saw The Wolf of Wall Street drop the infamous f-bomb a total of 522 times. Though Wolf still probably wasn’t the easiest film for the more conservative film-goers to digest, it hardly elicited the “Off with their heads!” outrage that it would have in years past. So even though the crew behind this missed the message, us in the real world are aware of how humdrum and trite swear words in themselves have become. They’re not shocking, they’re not gasp-inducing, and when used as a fill in for comedy, they’re boring, inert and downright lazy. Now don’t get me wrong, I cuss like a sailor but it’s just part of my regular lexicon, not to be confused as a substitute for real comic goods. Batman and crew miss the distinction.

In Bateman and script writer Andrew Dodge‘s out-dated notion that everything needs to be racketed up to the next level, that bigger is indefinitely better, we come to see these bad words transform into snoozy strings of non-sequitors. Again though, it’s nothing more than lazy cliches playing dress up as comedy. If this is Bateman riffing, he needs to enroll in an improv course. If this junk was actually written down, Dodge shouldn’t quit his day job. With Bateman’s rump half-stuck down the farty, sweary rabbit hole, he’s stuck confusing racism, boobies and cussing for something truly funny. When he tells a 10-year old Indian kid to “shut his curry hole,” the writing is on the wall. And that’s only about 20 minutes in.

The premise itself is somewhat intriguing, if not at all profound: 40-odd-year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) enters spelling bee competitions after discovering a loophole that stipulates contestants must have have not yet finished the fourth grade. Being an elementary school dropout and gifted speller, there’s no regulations in place to keep him out of the contest that he’s become intent on winning. At the cost of becoming a national pariah and the target of scorn from hordes of maligned parents, Guy won’t reveal why he in enduring such derision. There’s a $50,000 prize at the end of the tunnel but we’re repeatedly told its about more than that. “Hmmm,” we think, “where could this all be going?” But after stringing us along for 88 minutes of watching Trilby be a flat out bad person, the ultimate payoff is unsatisfying and predictable. Another tired excuse for resolution, another narrative shrug.

No matter how adorable little Rohan Chand is as Guy’s unsuspecting sidekick, the chemistry to develop between the two feels like it was cooked up with all the artistry of a bowl of instant ramen. We’ve seen it before but, in the past, we’re at least lead to like the curmudgeonly protagonist by the end of it all. Here, it feels like we’re dealing with Holden Caulfield who’s bigged himself into Jason Bateman. Immature and unlikable throughout are not admirable traits in a main character. But in its attempts to be Bad Santa, its always more Bad Teacher. I guess if you find humor in being racist and borderline sexually abusive towards kids, you’ll probably get a kick out of Bad Words. Otherwise, it’s probably a good choice to avoid this one.

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Out in Theaters: MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Starring Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Stephen Colbert, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
92 Mins
PG

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“If a boy can adopt a dog then I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy,” goes the logic of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a tale (tail?) of accomplished, anthropomorphic pooch, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted carrot-topped son, Sherman. With a time machine called the “Way Back” at their fingertips (pawtips?), Peabody and Sherman bound through time to learn history lessons first hand. From witnessing Marie Antoinette spout her infamous cake one-liner to rubbing elbows with an unmummified King Tut through getting up close and personal with Agamemnon and his Trojan horse, Mr. Peabody’s field trips really can’t be topped. Being along for the history-hopping ride makes for some quality, light-hearted entertainment and offers a chance for colorful characters and backdrops of various aesthetic quality. Although the magic comes apart in the third act, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a mostly witty and endearing spectacle that will please kiddies and adults alike, with extra points for slipping in a few abridged history lessons.

Dating back to the late 1950s, Sherman and Mr. Peabody first appeared on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” becoming a bit of a cult sensation. Here in 2014 though, the dog imbued with human qualities is somewhat commonplace what with the cultural reach of Seth McFarlane. In many ways, Peabody is a less crude version of Family Guy‘s Brian. With Peabody’s witticism, his deadpan delivery and bottomless charm, he’s a PG concoction of sassy booze-hound Brian and literature-lovin’ Jack Russell Terrier, Wishbone. Though history makes the argument that Brian is a knowing riff on Peabody, many ignorant of his historical context won’t see it for that.

Director Rob Minkoff may be responsible for the dreadful likes of The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little but he also has one of Disney’s greatest under his belt: The Lion King. And though we wonder how much of his time spent on such commercial dreck as the aforementioned may have rubbed off on Minkoff, his tenure with Disney during their animation Renaissance mostly shines through. Characteristically, the digitally animated visual landscape pops, the characters are inoffensive but never unbearably so and, in a way that only animation can really achieve, everything is larger-than-life. This is Minkoff’s gift and his curse. Accordingly, he’s never able to make the affairs feel quite real enough so even when the world’s end is threatened, we’re never really thinking that things could actually tip that way. As Peabody once comments to a pun-oblivious Sherman, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The voice acting, for one, is as hammy as Christmas leftovers. Work from Patrick Warburton, who you likely know as Elaine’s on-again-off-again beau Puddy on Seinfeld,  stands out as the symbolic ring leader of a band of actors goofing off in the sound booth. His take on Agamemnon is overbearing as his profound commerical work for M&M’s or Honda. His character, like the movie at large, would have worked better had he toned it down a little bit and found the character beyond the caricature.

Ty Burnell, the beloved patriarch of Modern Family, is suitable as the know-it-all Peabody (I would however have loved to see the original casting, Robert Downey Jr., in the role) but his stiff accent tends to keep him from ever feeling much deeper than a cartoon character. If there’s anyone who’s able to pull at our heartstrings through his casual voice work it’s little Max Charles, offering an earnest and rounded portrait of adoptee Sherman.

The unassuming duo manage to win over pretty much any historical figure their time machine lets them come across just as they manage to win over the goodwill of the audience. Their unorthodox father-son relationship is the anchor of the film but often dabbles in oft-tread territory. Take for example, the fact that many of the themes explored here are abundantly familiar to the genre – the challenges of parenting a maturing child, students adjusting to new roles at school, bureaucratic bullheadedness sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, and trepidatiously relinquishing autonomy to your children. They do a fine job when treading the straight and narrow but it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, which would have been more interesting to see them navigate.

A through line for the piece emerges as Sherman becomes the target of a full-blown tease assualt. Classmate and eventual crush, Penny, labels him a “dog”, with all the negative connotations that come along with such. Throughout the film, Sherman fights against this label, proving to himself and others that he’s more human than dog. It’s when Sherman finally realizes that maybe being a dog isn’t such a bad thing after all that we witness a sigh-worthy, ramble-rousing, Spartacus moment: “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog.” Typical. But within this third-act revelation comes cleverly disguised potent thematic elements that poke at xenophobic tolerance and breaking the inbred stigma of seeing the “other” as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And that’s at least something.

C+

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