Well, folks, it’s Oscar weekend and Hollywood is gearing up to pat itself on the back for putting out another stream of self-important award-bait movies. If you just can’t stomach the thought of going to see another high profile nominee before Billy Crystal’s big night, don’t worry. There are new movies coming out that are in no way connected to the ceremony.
If you enjoy laughter, then Wanderlust is a fantastic Hollywood comedy from the dependably hilarious David Wain. Or if you want to see a crappy melodrama from the inexplicably popular Tyler Perry, then go right ahead and suffer through Good Deeds. It’s terrible, but all his movies are and they somehow make money, so presumably there are a few easily entertained people out there looking forward to it for some reason.
Plus, there’s also the latest release from the remarkably consistent Japanese animation factory Studio Ghibli called The Secret World of Arrietty that is ideal for anyone looking to escape reality for a few hours. Overall, not a bad weekend of distracting entertainment to tide you over before admiring all of the pretty dresses and famous faces strutting their stuff on the red carpet this Sunday.
The Good: Wanderlust
Everyone loves a little hippie-bashing, right? They’re one of the few minorities that we can all agree deserve mockery and the new movie Wanderlust serves up big heapings of it to qualify as the funniest movie of 2012 thus far.
The movie comes from co-writer/director David Wain, a man who cut his teeth on weirdo cult comedies like the TV series Stella and the films Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten before making an unexpected transition into mainstream comedy success with Role Models. Like that film, Wanderlust is on the surface a very mainstream comedy.
It’s about a well-to-do Manhattan couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) whose lives fall apart, forcing them to leave the city and move in with Rudd’s suburban jackass brother played by co-writer Ken Marino. However, along the way they stumble upon a hippie commune and decide to join after a week of awkward abuse from Marino and his alcoholic wife. On a basic story level, the film is very conventional, but the ensemble premise allows Wain to stack his cast with longtime comedy collaborators who improvise up a storm and give the film a slightly surreal comedic bite that’s a cut above what we’ve come to expect from studio comedies.
Wain’s Wanderlast cast is populated with absurdly talented scene stealers. Whether it be Joe Lo Truglio and his uncomfortably displayed penis as a nudist/novelist/winemaker or the perpetually underrated Justin Theroux as the batshit insane hippie leader with an endless supply of pseudo-spiritual ramblings, not a scene passes without a side character popping their head in to make the audience keel over in hysterics.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston work well as the leads, constantly flip-flopping over who is converted by the community’s free love 'n’ drug-fueled ways and who remains a skeptic. Aniston is a bit out of her depth as a comedian compared to her co-stars, so she wisely plays straight man for most of the movie, while Rudd is given more than a few scenes to strut his awkward sarcastic stuff (one scene in which he practices his seduction technique in front of a mirror is the film’s funniest moment and probably the actor’s finest single improv session).
As with any comedy that relies on a large ensemble and liberal doses of improvisation, Wanderlust can feel a little scatter-shot and episodic at times, but it’s never enough to derail the movie. Ultimately this is a fluffy piece of giddy entertainment, so as long as the laughs come fast and furiously, narrative inconsistencies are kind of irrelevant.
Between this and Role Models, Wain has found a way of hijacking crowd-pleasing comedies with his distinctly oddball sense of humor and hopefully Wanderlust will be successful enough to allow him to continue to play with Hollywood’s expensive train set. He’s still doing strange cult comedy work for his fans on his web series Wainy Days and TV shows like Children’s Hospital, so it’s not like he’s gone completely mainstream on us. This is what crowd-pleasing comedies should be, so hopefully there will be enough box office support to encourage Hollywood to take a risk on a few other left-of-center comedy minds rather than simply continuing support for Katherine Heigl’s unfortunate “career.”
The Bad: Tyler Perry's Good Deeds
One of the great mysteries of the last ten years is the inexplicable success of Tyler Perry. Best known for his borderline minstrel show drag act Madea, Perry has become a one-man entertainment factory. He started out with small plays in church basements and now writes, directs, and stars in two or three movies a year while supervising several TV shows.
It’s an inspiring story and one that would suggest the guy is some sort of Orson Welles-style prodigy and genius, but nope. That’s nowhere near the case. Perry specializes in the lowest level of comedy drivel and melodrama so arch and clichéd that it should be relegated to made-for-TV hell. Yet, somehow he’s created a multi-billion dollar empire of mediocrity that simply won’t go away. If anything, he’s only getting more popular.
Perry’s latest cinematic atrocity is Good Deeds, a ridiculous love story that got about as many laughs at the screening I attended as one of his comedies, but unfortunately none of them were intentional. Perry plays an uptight businessman about to wed a woman he barely knows and seems to be living a dream of success. Then there’s a down-on-her-luck single mother played by Thandie Newton who works as the night janitor at Perry’s office. She’s impossibly broke and just got kicked out of her apartment with a daughter whom social services are threatening to take away. They meet one day and suddenly Perry falls for the woman. He realizes that maybe there’s more to life than money and it just might be that pretty lady with the absurd dangling earring in the shape of Africa.
Sound familiar? It should. The uptight rich guy falling for the poor beautiful mess is the oldest love story trick in the book and Perry makes no attempt to change the formula. It’s such a naïve, clichéd, and embarrassingly familiar tale that it’s impossible not to cringe and squirm in your seat while this nonsense painfully plays out on the screen.
Perry is about as drab as an actor can possibly be in the lead role, while Brian White’s portrayal of his drunken brother is so one-note you’d think it was written and performed by third graders introduced to the concept of drama for the first time. Thandie Newton is such a beautiful, charismatic, and talented actress that she manages to be a compelling screen presence even in this drivel, while every other character and performance is completely forgettable.
The movie is a giant waste of time, not even worth the energy necessary for criticism because anyone who has seen more than five movies will consider it trite. Yet, somehow it’s going to make money and Tyler Perry will continue making movies. (He’s already got two more scheduled to come out this year. Aren’t we lucky?) Perry is a force of nature at this point and impervious to criticism. Pretty well every movie he’s made deserves a thrashing this harsh, but he’s got a loyal audience of undemanding fans who stick with him for reasons I’ll never understand.
My only hope is that he cranks out so much garbage every year that eventually his fans will have to get exhausted from the same tired gags and Hallmark card sentiment. This train wreck can’t possibly go on forever, can it? Surely someone else as marginally talented is capable of stepping in and making a few crappy movies in Perry’s place, right?
The Anime: The Secret World of Arrietty
The Japanese animation empire Studio Ghibli has been responsible for some of the most magical and entrancing films of the last 25 years. The level of artistry and incredible imagination the studio is known for puts them only second to Pixar in terms of the hit-to-miss ratio of their projects. Every time a new Studio Ghibli movie like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro slips across the ocean is a cause for celebration.
Unfortunately the company’s latest release, The Secret World of Arrietty, isn’t their greatest achievement. For a studio known for wild imagery and complex subject matter, the film feels worryingly conventional. It’s not even the first time this story has been brought to the screen, with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers novels having previously been adapted into several TV shows and a rather good 1997 film. The Secret World of Arrietty is still a sweet and pretty slice of Japanese animation, but something that has to be considered a disappointment for any longtime fans of Studio Ghibli.
If you’ve never encountered a previous incarnation of The Borrowers before, the series is about magical four-inch-tall people who secretly live in everyone’s house, “borrowing” their food and supplies from their unsuspecting hosts. This new iteration is focused on a young Borrower named Arrietty who just reached the age where she’s allowed to help her father borrow from the house. Unfortunately she breaks the cardinal borrower rule and is spotted by a human, but he turns out to be a terminally ill young boy looking for a friend (even of the four-inch variety). His guardians don’t take so kindly to their longtime guests though and soon the borrowers must flee their home.
The story is strong as far as light children’s entertainment goes and certainly the Studio Ghibli animation team create some stunningly realized worlds where the mythical beings can feel completely natural. Sadly, the film doesn’t have much going for it other than the central idea and the enthralling visuals. The rich humor in Mary Norton’s story has been practically sucked dry, while the narrative delivers very few surprises.
Disney has been responsible for the English language version, hiring an all-star voice cast who are wasted on soft material not suited for a Western style of performance and adding even more sentimental music to the soundtrack. This Disney-fication of already bland material only makes matters worse.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that Disney is releasing the Ghibli movies wide now after years of buying the North American rights simply to bury the American release and eliminate the animation competition. However, it’s a shame they’ve picked the most boring film the studio has made in years to release this wide.
Thankfully, The Secret World of Arrietty is far from a disaster. In fact, if you’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli movie before, you might find it enchanting. It’s just that the studio has set the bar for Japanese animation so high that anything less than another masterpiece feels like a disappointment. That’s a good problem to have, I suppose, and I’ll eagerly await their next release even if my expectations will be slightly lower next time.