Friday, July 17, 2015

Small Wonder: ANT-MAN

The lightest and slightest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man steps away from the main Avengers for a pleasant diversion introducing a new superhero. It does so without the belabored setup, grindingly monotonous effects, and constipated cross-pollinated plotting that encumbers so many of its kind. Instead, it gives most of its runtime over to a simple, straightforward plot, embracing goofy comic book technologies and funny supporting performances. Turns out locating the inherent silliness in this material is exactly the right approach, even if it gets tangled up from time to time in its larger expanded franchise and caught flat footed with the creeping sameness in the flavorless look infecting all of these MCU projects. Still, for a big budget summer spectacle, this one passes by surprisingly quickly and does its best to avoid lumbering.

Perhaps Marvel has realized their best films in the franchise steer towards the casual and comedic. That’s why the best parts of the Thors, Iron Mans, and Captain Americas (not to mention Guardians of the Galaxy, which has yet to be Avengersed) take themselves lightly, with quipping banter and nice sight gags, and the worst parts are the endless bland action and portent. Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed (of Bring it On) and written by Edgar Wright (The World’s End), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Adam McKay (Anchorman) and star Paul Rudd, maintains its sunny tone and brisk high spirits, never giving itself over to thundering exhaustion. Rudd, one of the most charming actors working today, centers the movie on a tone of easy-going amusement, even when confronted with peril. It’s a nice change of pace.

Rudd plays a burglar whose attempts at going straight are halted when a wealthy retired tech genius (Michael Douglas) persuades him to help steal his shrinking technology from a cold capitalist (Corey Stoll). To do so, the inventor will let his new thief friend borrow his old top-secret superhero suit, a portable shrinking device that’ll turn its wearer into Ant-Man. The following is a loping heist picture as the two men look over blueprints, and engage in brisk training montages. But what good is it to be so small? Well, it gives Ant-Man super-strength, plus the ability to slip into a maximum-security research facility undetected. Rudd casts an amused skeptical gaze on the proceedings, quick with a fumbling everyman charisma. He interacts with Douglas’s stern mentor, as well as Evangeline Lilly as the old man’s no-nonsense daughter, by pinging off their seriousness with an irreverence obviously masking bewilderment.

By playing up the strangeness of being thrown into these circumstances, the movie finds an appealing groove. After all, it’s not every day you see the world from a bug’s-eye view. Reed has good fun conjuring the look of the everyday world towering over the miniaturized Ant-Man. It’s a likable callback to The Incredible Shrinking Man or Fantastic Voyage or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. There are immense blades of grass, cavernous vents, vast puddles, and, of course, large, lovable, trainable herds of ants. It has a chintzy matinee spectacle appeal togged up with digital gloss. Plus, it’s funny to see big, booming adventure intercut with humdrum still life. When Rudd first tries on the suit, he ends up hanging onto a groove in a record as it spins on a turntable. In sweaty close-up he grasps and gasps. Cut to a wide shot as the needle skips. There’s some wit to the staging, and it only escalates as the danger grows.

Even more so than in the similarly mildly flippant Guardians, Ant-Man’s comedic tone is maintained throughout. It’s stuck in rigorous franchise making, with the worst scene a shoehorned cameo from an Avenger. But it’s still just loose enough to accommodate the pleasures of letting the cast’s chemistry simmer. It helps that supporting roles are filled by the likes of Michael Peña (a delight), T.I., Bobby Cannavale, and (an underutilized) Judy Greer. Reed keeps the plot – a limber heist laced with family issues – hopping along, trusting this ace cast to maintain high levels of appealing personality. By the time we arrive at the inevitable climactic battle, it’s tweaked with real levity – actual funny throwaway lines and teasing use of effects – and allowed to end before overstaying its welcome. Sparingly and creatively deploying the unusual superpowers in clever ways for fast, lean setpieces, its motions don’t grow tiresome. There’s simplicity to this movie that allows it to remain light on its feet. Sometimes thinking small pays off.

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