By summer movie standards, this is a pretty slow week at the box office. The reason is obvious — The Dark Knight Rises just opened last week and is guaranteed to topple this weekend as well.
The only major studio release is The Watch and the fact it’s been issued the post-Batman death slot is a sure sign that the studio has a feeling it will be a bomb anyway and is shipping it off to certain doom. It’s actually not that bad and even better are the two wildly different American indie flicks coming out this week: William Friedkin’s dirty, deep-fried Southern thriller Killer Joe and the charming and magic quirky rom-com Ruby Sparks.
So, all things considered, it’s not a bad weekend at the movies after all. Chances are that you’ll still go see that Batman movie this weekend, but if not at least you’ve got three excellent substitutes without a single rubber costume in sight okay, maybe there’s one in The Watch. I’m not revealing anything.
The Good: Killer Joe
Killer Joe is only the second movie that William Friedkin, the director behind The Exorcist and The French Connection, has made in the last five years since he’s essentially transitioned into being a full opera director (something that I doubt anyone saw coming, least of all Friedkin). However, those two movies have also been easily the best he’s made since the 1970s. His last movie was the 2006 insect infestation/paranoid delusion thriller Bug based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name. Now Friedkin teams up with Letts again for an adaptation of Killer Joe, a darkly comic and deeply twisted “southern gothic” thriller.
The movie is about a none-too-bright father and son team (Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch) who decide to have the mother of the house killed to collect the insurance money and pay off some debts. Aware that they are too incompetent to pull off the murder themselves, they hire the titular Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a local law enforcement officer who moonlights as a contract killer. With no money to make a down payment, the deflowering of Hirsch’s virginal sister is offered to Joe as collateral and, as always tends to happen in these sorts of stories, nothing goes as planned. Cue bloody beatings, betrayal, and fried chicken fellatio (you’ll understand that last part once you see the movie).
Killer Joe starts as a fairly conventional, if well-executed, dark thriller before spinning off into some absolutely insane territory. For the sake of avoiding spoilers I won’t go into details, but rest assured that the film will divide audiences into the disgusted and the enthralled with little room for fence-sitters. It’s a dark, claustrophobic, paranoid thriller where every character comes off as at least somewhat reprehensible before the credits roll. In other words, it’s vintage Friedkin and one of the best films that he’s ever made.
With poetically filthy dialogue provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts coming out of everyone’s mouth, the cast all create rich and compelling characters, but special notice must be given to McConaughey. Though primarily known for a decade of lazy, shirtless performances in crappy Kate Hudson rom-coms, it’s easy to forget that it was the guy’s acting chops that earned him fame for preying on high school girls who “stay the same age” in Dazed and Confused many moons ago.
He’s absolutely terrifying as the sociopath Joe and carries the film admirably (and along with Magic Mike and Eastbound and Down, he’s in the midst of a mini-comeback). I’d say he has a shot at some well-deserved acting awards were it not for the fact that this film is simply too fucked up for that kind of recognition. Killer Joe won’t be a big hit, but it’s a great 'n' greasy little thriller destined to have a strong cult appeal for all the sick puppy cinephiles out there. As a proud member of the community, I’m pleased to say that it won’t disappoint lovers of depraved entertainment.
The Okay: The Watch
Every few years, someone in Hollywood decides it’s time to recreate Ghostbusters. The formula seems simple enough: take a collection of popular comedians, put them up against a supernatural threat, and watch the magical mix of comedy and special effects-driven blockbuster entertainment unfold. The thing is that no one has ever quite managed to find that magical mixture again, not even the Ghostbusters crew. Men in Black came close, but even that franchise has been ruined by terrible sequels.
Thankfully, this week a dark horse blockbuster comedy has quietly slipped onto screens that managed to beat Men in Black 3 at its own game for what was clearly a fraction of the budget. That movie is The Watch and while I can’t pretend it’s as good as Ghostbusters (that’s just madness — few comedies in general are that good) the movie is definitely worth a look. Though undeniably flawed, this ramshackle flick does at least manage to mix laughs and SFX spectacle with a far higher success rate than should have been possible.
Ben Stiller stars as his usual uptight type-A personality working as the manager of a Costco. However, his true calling doesn’t officially arrive until the night watchman of his Costco is killed and skinned one night and the idiot local police (led by the always hysterical Will Forte) can’t seem to do anything about it. So Stiller decides to start up a neighborhood watch program and ends up finding three guys as lonely and desperate for excitement as he is. There’s Jonah Hill as a mama’s boy with a butterfly knife and obvious mental issues, Vince Vaughn at his most Vince Vaughniest, and little known British cult comedy icon Richard Ayoade as a straight-up weirdo.
Together they hold stakeouts, investigate clues, and of course get trashed and become buddies. One night they discover that the murderer is an alien and everyone in their town could potentially be one as well. (That’s why everyone who is murdered loses their skin. Disguises, people! Disguises!) At that point, there’s only one thing for the group to do — kick as much alien butt as possible and crack a few one-liners while doing it.
Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill all have very well established screen personas at this point and deliver exactly what you’d expect. Unfortunately the shtick that made all three of those gents famous is getting increasingly tired and the hit-to-miss ratio of their never-ending improv sessions can be a little rough. That said, they all reached their star status for a reason and deliver more than enough gut-punch funny scenes (like when they pose for photos with an alien corpse) to justify the misfires.
The real stand-out in the central cast is Richard Ayoade, who brings a unique sense of timing and characterization to the party that the stars just can’t offer anymore. Were it not for the fact that The Watch probably won’t be very successful (it is coming out right after Dark Knight Rises, after all, and nothing will beat that this weekend), it would be the kind of role that would kick off a Hollywood career. That ain’t going to happen, but hopefully he’ll get noticed and plopped into another movie where he can steal some scenes. The guy deserves it.
Manning the director’s chair is Akiva Schaffer of Lonely Island/SNL fame. He was a smart choice for the project since he’s one of those few comedy directors with a knack for visual storytelling. That’s key for a comedy genre mashup, as you have to be able to nail the laughs and generate at least a little atmosphere. Schaffer is predictably more comfortable with comedy than suspense/scares, but can execute those scenes well enough to be effective. “Effective” is probably the highest level of praise that’s appropriate to slather over The Watch.
This isn’t a brilliant comedy (the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg script has so many dick jokes it’s almost as if they had a contest to see how many could be shoved in) nor is it a revelatory work of genre filmmaking. But the talent behind the project manages to deliver competent levels of both, which collectively raises the movie just above average. The movie isn’t Ghostbusters; hell, it isn’t even Men in Black. However, considering how bad special effects comedy movies can be (have you seen Evolution?), this thing squeaks out just enough decent sequences to qualify as a success.
The Quirky: Ruby Sparks
Well, there hasn’t been a quirky faux-indie rom-com this summer yet, has there? Guess it’s time for that to happen in the form of Ruby Sparks. The movie is a fairly stale retread through indie clichés, given that it’s a rom-com with magical realist qualities starring two hip, up-and-coming actors (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, with Kazan earning bonus points for writing the script) and directed by the husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously brought us the gratingly twee Little Miss Sunshine.
It should be a movie practically begging to be disliked for trying too hard to please the pseudo-intellectual hipster set. Here’s the pleasant surprise though — the movie is actually fairly interesting, heartfelt, and personal. There are still a few indie movie clichés in there to distract and a final scene rather blatantly knocked off of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but something about this fantasy examination of awkward romance rings so emotionally true that it overcomes all the flaws to charm and tickle in equal measure.
Paul Dano stars as the typical lead for any such Sundance-ready melancholic comedy: a depressed and lonely young man in search of love. He’s also somewhat of a literary prodigy who wrote a massively successful novel at 18 and has done nothing but produce minor short stories ever since. Dano’s character is in a desperate search for companionship, but has an inability to connect with people, so as a writing exercise for his therapist (Elliot Gould) he writes a little story about meeting his dream girl. This girl literally comes to him in his dream and he’s so enamored by the fantasy that he starts writing a back story for the girl as well as the start of their relationship.
It turns into the start of his long delayed second novel and he gets excited. Then, somehow, one morning his fictional Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) appears in his room as a real flesh and blood person. He’s frightened at first, but is so enamored by the fantasy that he goes with it and continues the relationship. Unfortunately, like all relationships, the early dreamy days pass, Ruby starts acting like an actual person with needs, and Dano panics. He tries to rewrite her to suit his needs and it works, but it just never feels right.
Discussing any further would be unfair, but it’s in the second half that Ruby Sparks becomes more than the indie comedy of the week. The love affair with an impossibly perfect magical dream girl makes for an amusing first half with Dano at his awkward best. Then when things get real, the movie matures beyond being a quirky love story and the fantasy girl becomes a metaphor for all relationships that eventually hit a point where the dreams and fantasies of love must die so that two humans can find the compromises and compassion necessary to have a mature relationship. There’s also a loose element of meta-commentary in the movie of the absurd fantasy of such dream girls in most movies as well as the way an artist’s creation can so quickly spiral out of his or her control. That may sound a bit pretentious, yet Ruby Sparks never feels pretentious for second.
Kazan’s script is goofy, smart, and deeply heartfelt, thankfully feeling more like personal expression than an attempt to show off how clever she is as a writer. The central performances by her and especially Dano are honest and grounded, regardless of how fantastic the situation can be, while Dayton and Faris shoot things simply and focus on the performances rather than over-stylizing the characters and worlds in a way that would have been all two easy (well, except for a brief episode at Dano’s parents' home with Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas playing goofball hippie caricatures for easy laughs).
In many ways, it’s a movie you’ve seen before, just one clever enough to recognize the clichés and limitations of the genre to allow real emotion and characterization to sneak in. That’s a hard balance to strike and one that Ruby Sparks accomplishes so effortlessly that most viewers might not realize just how complex the movie was until it’s all over and they find themselves walking home suddenly overwhelmed with unexpected emotion.