Well, folks, I wish I could tell you that this week’s column was dedicated entirely to some strange new movie called "The Efron and The Chimp." Yep, that’d sure be nice, but unfortunately that would also be little more than a fantasy. You see, the two major releases slipping onto screens this week are a terrible Zac Efron-starring love story and a boring Disney documentary about chimpanzees.
Fortunately, not all is lost. One of the great forgotten voices of the '90s American indie film landscape has also returned. If you don’t know the name Whit Stillman, then you’re in for a treat with Damsels in Distress. If you do know the name, then you’re in for an even bigger treat because it’s his first movie in 14 years. Thank god ol’ Whit came back to us this week. The other two releases are enough to make you want to give up on movies in general.
The Good: Damsels in Distress
It’s tough to classify any movie made by writer/director Whit Stillman. The guy specializes in comedies about deeply unhappy but privileged people. They are sophisticated, dialogue-driven movies set in smoking rooms and filled with hyper-articulate discussions about little more than inflating his characters’ egos. His films feel like comedies written in the '30s and '40s that just happen to come out today.
In the '90s, the likes of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco felt like nothing else and unfortunately made very little money despite a passionate fan base of snobs and lovers of snob-mockery. As a result, the guy hasn’t been able to get a movie made for over a decade. Many wondered if he had retired, but unfortunately his absence from screens wasn’t voluntary. However, the recent success of similar movies by filmmakers like Wes Anderson have created a market where a Stillman project seemed miraculously profitably again and now he’s finally returned with easily his most purely enjoyable movie to date.
Damsels in Distress follows a group of impossibly prim 'n' proper college girls at an unnamed campus that recently went coed. Brain dead frat boys rule the school, but Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her team of budding debutantes are here to help. They send colorfully packaged deodorant to frat houses, host a suicide prevention center with free doughnuts and dance lessons, date dirty boys to elevate their social standing, and work on creating a new dance craze. They’re snobs, but well-intentioned snobs, and Stillman always presents them in a silly enough light to prevent that snobbery from becoming grating.
There are subplots involving heartbreak and scandal, but really the movie (like all of Stillman’s work) is more about creating complicated, intellectually brilliant, but emotionally stunted (or vice versa) characters and watching their fragile worlds unravel — you know, the things good comedies are made of.
Stillman’s movies definitely aren’t for everyone. You won’t see any action scenes or grand emotional arcs. No, his movies are about the simple pleasures of well-crafted characters battling and connecting through stylized dialogue. For fans of those often ignored techniques, it’s a joy to watch his eccentric stories unfold. While his previous movies featured a more cynical touch and harsher characters that alienated some viewers, Damsels in Distress is a more purely pleasurable comedy, albeit one written by and for folks who dabbled in undergrad literature courses. It might not be as dark and insightful a film as Metropolitan, but what Stillman loses in subtext he more than makes up for in laughs.
If you’re someone who enjoys Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, or mumblecore movies, Damsels in Distress is a pure joy to experience and a must-see. If those qualifiers meant nothing, it might not be fore you, but it’s definitely worth a shot. As long as you aren’t weaned purely on the Adam Sandler school of comedy, it’s hard to imagine hating Stillman’s long awaited return to literate farce.
The Efron: The Lucky One
Thanks to the success of gag-inducing romantic cheese like Dear John and A Walk to Remember we now have to sit through The Lucky One. Nicholas Sparks’s cornball bestsellers are becoming a bit of a franchise these days and unfortunately for guys in relationships, they make movie date nights almost unbearable. Not a moment of these movies feels real, yet the target audience seems to eat it up. So we keep getting at least one vaguely conservative Sparks melodrama in theaters every year and aside from the changing casts, they are almost indistinguishable.
This one is about a soldier returning from Iraq with a photo of a beautiful woman that he found on the battlefield and used as a good luck charm. He eventually walks across the country in search of the woman, he finds her, and they fall in love. Of course, he never reveals the secret about why he came to town. A jealous ex-husband will have to do that for him, leading to a momentary split for the couple until the woman realizes that she’s pissed over an impossibly romantic act. Ho-hum. Who cares? Not a second of the story is believable or even interesting.
Movies like The Lucky One exist purely to make single women go “awwwww” and make women in relationships irritated at their partners for being human beings rather than soft-spoken, handsome fantasies. It would be nice if everyone could objectively see this movie as manipulative, predictable trash, but sadly that ain’t going to happen. There’s a built-in audience for this swill and it will make money.
The only thing that might help matters is the fact that Zac Efron’s one-note performance is particularly excruciating. He stares off into he distance looking vaguely upset whether he’s in danger, courting the love of his life, or just lazing around the house. The guy does some pretty embarrassing “acting,” but at least he can blame the source material that gave him nothing to work with.
Do yourself a favor and don’t see this movie. Just watch the trailer, get that warm fuzzy feeling, and then dedicate two hours to watching a romantic movie about actual human relationships. All the Nicholas Sparks movies offer are two hours of human mannequins staring into each other’s eyes and expressing love with dollar store greeting card sentiments. Sure, that’s what the Twilight movies are like as well, but at least they’ve got vampires. That ain’t much, but it’s something.
The Chimp: Chimpanzee
Earth Day is comin’ up fast, so that means it’s time for another nature documentary from the good folks at Disney. Back in the ancient days of 2007-2008, that meant theatrical versions of the remarkable BBC series Planet Earth and Oceans. Those projects were lovingly crafted for so long that the filmmakers captured stunning nature photography from around the world practically designed for big screen consumption. They were hits and now Disney cranks out a new nature documentary every damn year. The trouble is when the subject is a single species and the film is produced on a tight schedule, the results are nowhere near as impressive as a glob-trotting romp years in the making.
This year Disney decided to capitalize on the world’s love of monkeys with Chimpanzee. The result is pretty well exactly what you’d expect. Filmmakers shot a bunch of chimps being cute. Some of the footage (particularly of an alpha male adopting an orphaned chimp) is undeniably impressive, but there just isn’t enough material to force a feature length running time. To make up for it, Tim Allen was hired to provide constant voiceover, awkwardly forcing a narrative onto the movie, anthropomorphizing the animals to a ludicrous degree, and adding in a couple of terrible jokes. The end result is about as manipulative as a Disney cartoon, which really doesn’t work in the documentary form.
I suppose little kiddies will probably enjoy Chimpanzee thanks to the forced narrative, but parents will be rolling their eyes. It makes perfect sense that Disney would set their highly profitable, anthropomorphizing sights on nature documentaries now that there’s a doc market at the multiplex, but it doesn’t make it less annoying. There’s really no reason for this movie to be in a theater and not on the Discovery Channel. Perhaps Disney set the bar too high with Earth and Oceans. Their single species docs like Wild Cats and Chimpanzee aren’t even close to being as enjoyable or suited to theatrical exhibition.
Hopefully the poor box office results for Wild Cats and the inevitably poor box office results for Chimpanzee will encourage the Disney Nature doc team to aim a little higher next time. Considering the money and resources at their disposal, they should be capable of more than this.