The Week in Film: The Decent, The Bland, and The Horrible

By , Columnist

Another week, another batch of movies. This time you can decide between watching a mature romantic comedy, a bland action blockbuster, and an unfunny Eddie Murphy comedy. I know those all sound like oxymorons, but oh no, they’re real. Only one is really worth seeing though. Guess which one? Alright, you don’t have to guess. Read on to find out.

The Good: Friends with Kids

Writer/director/star Jennifer Westfeldt’s new movie Friends with Kids is a mature, knowing comedy about urban friends getting old, compromising for love, and of course having kids. It’s not a masterpiece, but as a comedy about, by, and for adults, it’s a breath of fresh air. Like Nicole Holofcener’s smart and sweet dramedy Please Give, Westfeldt’s movie is deeply indebted to Woody Allen.

It’s hard to watch a serio-comedy about New Yorkers hilariously and articulately discussing their woeful love lives without thinking of Woody and it’s interesting that the two films most reminiscent of New York’s favorite neurotic to come out in recent years are from women directors. The Woodman always wrote some of the best female characters in the biz, so it makes sense that his work would trickle down to talented women filmmakers shooting in Manhattan.

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The film is about a group of longtime friends winding down their 30s and dealing with becoming grown-ups. One couple (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) got on the baby train early and now have to deal with the stress and sexual frustrations of raising kids. Another couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) got married based on their headboard-shattering sex life and gradually discover that’s not the best way to pick a life partner. And then there’s the central couple, single BFFs Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt herself).

With biological clocks ticking, they decide to have a kid and raise him as content single parents. They’ve been friends too long for mushy love stuff and since they live in the same building, raising the kid is a breeze. Then they head out in the dating world and Jason tracks down a sexpot played by Megan Fox while Julie finds a wealthy dreamboat played by Ed Burns. The plan seems to work perfectly until they start to realize that maybe they were meant to have a kid together for more complicated reasons than convenience. Plus everyone else’s lives start comically spiraling out of control as well, as tends to happen in these sorts of movies.

Directing for the first time after writing a couple of screenplays for herself like Kissing Jessica Stein, Westfeldt creates a pleasantly meandering comedy about complicated characters and pleasingly grown-up themes. The cast is ridiculously talented from top to bottom from Westfeldt’s sweet, sarcastic, and tortured lead, to Adam Scott’s wisecracking friend with a heart, Rudolph and O’Dowd's hysterical loving/bickering parents, and Jon Hamm’s attractive douchebag (which he does oh so well). Even SNLer Kristen Wiig gets a chance to show some dramatic chops and shed some tears, proving she’s got some depth as an actress.

The cast is so strong that simply watching them pair off for verbal sparring matches makes the film a joy. There are certainly problems: at times Westfeldt gets lost in letting her actors play a little too much, the laughs aren’t always there, not all of the characters are paid off with equal attention (Wiig in particular just disappears at a certain point), and the final scene feels so awkwardly out of place that it almost derails the entire movie. Thankfully, these issues aren’t too devastating.

In the end, Friends with Kids is a pretty slight movie, but romantic comedies are rarely written with such complicated emotions and realistic characters, nor are they ever actually targeted for an adult audience. Simply getting the movie made and released in the current blockbuster marketplace is a major achievement and hopefully it’s not Westfeldt’s last outing behind the camera. She certainly has talent and only seems to be getting better with each script she writes.

The Bland: John Carter

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character John Carter and the series of novels surrounding him are so legendary in the sci-fi/geek community that Disney is putting the movie out expecting it to be a known entity. I suppose it's fairly easy to see why they are so proud of making the movie given that it’s been in development for decades and served as the founding DNA for such blockbuster hits as Star Wars and Avatar.

In theory, this sucker should be just as big with audiences, if only because those previous movies wouldn’t exist without it. However, there are a few big problems that prevent that from being the case: 1) no one knows who John Carter is outside of the hardcore geek community, 2) the story is over a century old and understandably dated, and 3) the story was such a major influence on filmmakers over the years that all of the best scenes and ideas have already been ripped off elsewhere. Sadly, the filmmakers never overcome those issues and John Carter won’t be the zeitgeist-defining hit Disney is hoping for. It’s not a bad movie though, just kind of a bland one.

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The film stars theoretical Hollywood It Boy Taylor Kitsch (according to posters and magazines we’re supposed to be excited about this guy, despite his deeply uncompelling screen presence) as the titular John Carter. He’s a Civil War fighting rogue searching for gold who mysteriously ends up transported to Mars via an amulet. Once there, the red planet’s unique atmosphere gives him super-human strength and jumping abilities and he quickly meets up with a feisty princess who thrusts him into an ongoing war amidst Mars’ two humanoid colonies and the eight-foot tall, four-armed natives.

I won’t delve any further into the mythology because we could be here all day and that’s the major problem with the movie. Based on a series of space fantasy novels, John Carter has a massive, convoluted backstory and the bulk of the running time is dedicated to characters in ridiculous costumes discussing it endlessly. Burroughs’ work has been deemed impossible to adapt into a film for years and while special effects limitations were blamed for that before, seeing the film I think it’s more that the story is just too dense and vast for a two-hour running time.

Now all that said, the movie isn’t a Razzie-sweeping disaster. After all, it is the live action directing debut for Andrew Stanton, who already owns a pair of Oscars for making Finding Nemo and Wall-E at Pixar. The guy clearly knows a thing or two about making movies and has apparently dreamed of bringing John Carter to the screen since childhood.

Stanton does the best he can to condense the narrative and balance the complex story with spectacle. He does craft a handful of stunning sequences and made a film that can certainly be described as an epic adventure. However, the mythology and backstory are simply too overwhelming for even Stanton’s zippy filmmaking style and it doesn’t help matters that all of his major action scenes feel a little too reminiscent of previous blockbusters. Granted, that’s not Stanton’s fault, the John Carter stories did do them first. But the popcorn munching public needed to make this film a blockbuster won’t know that and I find it hard to believe it’s going to attract Avatar-sized crowds as hoped.

John Carter will do well with the target 12-year-old boy audience and make some money, but there’s no way this thing is going to launch a new summer movie franchise as planned.

The Horrible: A Thousand Words

Well, Eddie Murphy has made another terrible comedy. I know what you’re thinking. No surprises there, right? True, but this one is particularly bad. Bad enough that it has been collecting dust in a vault in Paramount since 2008. Meet Dave and Imagine That were somehow deemed worth of release, but not this one. The studio finally decided to release the movie when Murphy was supposed to host the Academy Awards. They were hoping that there might be a little renewed interest in the comedian following his Oscar gig that A Thousand Words could capitalize on. 

Of course, he ended up dropping out of that gig and now the worst movie of his career is coming out without even any fanfare. It’s just making a cursory run in theaters before disappearing from existence. The studio should have just locked this one in the vaults. No one is going to appreciate it, even ironically.

So what’s it all about? Well, Murphy plays a literary agent desperate to land the first book by a popular spiritual guru. Following an embarrassing meeting where he lands the book (that is unbeknownst to him only five pages long) a tree inexplicably appears in his yard. Every time he says a word, a leaf falls off the tree and once those leaves are gone, he will die.

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So the movie silences one of the finest verbal comedians in the world, limiting him to embarrassingly bug-eyed and arm-flailing silent acting. To make matters worse, the movie has aspirations of being a pseudo-spiritual drama and not just a comedy. Well, that aspect certainly doesn’t work. Truthfully, nothing about the movie works. This thing is a boring disaster from start to finish.

It’s really quite sad what’s happened to Eddie Murphy. The guy used to be one of the funniest people on the planet, but over the last decade he’s limited himself exclusively to trite family fare that might be filling up his bank account, but is completely wasting his talent. So many years have gone by since Murphy could even be bothered to try that it’s hard to say if he’s even capable of creating a classic comedy like he used to spit out at will in the '80s. He’s clearly talented, so maybe he’ll snap out of it eventually. However, I’m not holding my breath. Anyone who could read the script for A Thousand Words and see any value in it has to be doubted.

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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