Friday, June 30, 2017

Bet Your Life: THE HOUSE

We are at what one can only hope is the straggling tail end of the R-rated bad behavior comedy. The subgenre with such depressingly monotonous recent entries as Office Christmas Party, Fist Fight, and Snatched has become so predictable – shaggy improv roundabouts punctuated by truly nasty sight gags and corrosive worldviews wedded to extremely cynical sentimental self-actualization character arcs – that each new entry makes the days of Superbad or even Sisters seem so very far away. How often must we sit through the montages of consequence-free partying and destruction? This context might lead many to see what screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen (of the more palatable Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) is up to with The House, his directorial debut, as just another version of the same. But this brisk comedy about an in-over-their-heads middle-aged middle-class couple running an illegal small-town underground casino is doing something different, giving its raunchy ridiculousness a chance to escalate in concert with performers interested in doing more than cranking it up to eleven at the first chance. Sure, the movie has four-letter words, scenes of crowds drinking and fighting, and the requisite gross-out gags, but there’s a desperation to the characters’ energy, and a sharp societal commentary running through it. 

The trouble starts when a sweet married couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) faces down their impending empty nest with creeping terror. They don’t have enough money. Their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) is off to college, but, unknown to her, the scholarship they were counting on has fallen through. The folks vow to send her off right, and not break the bank on their shaky mortgage, despite weak-kneed moments. We’ve done everything right, Ferrell wails, confronted with his retirement account nonetheless turning up lighter than he’d thought (his 401k, for example, is several hundred thousand less than his assumption that it was an account with $401k in it) and the first bills for tuition rolling in. Enter their lovably sleazy friend (Jason Mantzoukas, stepping up to co-lead status after years of choice bit parts), a desperate divorced mope in need of financial pick-me-up himself, who proposes the off-the-books, under-the-table casino concept. Make four years of tuition in just a month off the backs of their craven neighbors’ gambling urges! It seems so simple at the start, but the movie smartly allows it to spiral out of control in logically wild ways, tying its economic anxiety and middle-class collapse to their tunnel-vision greed. Its thesis very well might be “capitalism: the cause of and solution to your problems.” By the time the couple have become kingpins of the backyard bacchanalia, equal parts pleasure and guilt, it’s clear that money may be a necessary evil. They lose track of their original goal as they plunge deeper into selfishness (a trait mirrored by the town’s equally crooked council members). 

I’m afraid that might make the movie sound like a screed, or a grating political commentary. No, what’s some sort of genius is the way this all follows from a blast of a comedy, springing up naturally from heightened absurdity rooted in character and situation. It’s hilarious moment to moment, its underlying thematic preoccupations carried off with the lightest of touches because it’s too busy with bouncy quips, brisk sight gags, unexpected line-readings, and a convincingly centered escalation. Ferrell and Poehler play the rare comedy married couple who are given equal billing and equal footing in the shenanigans. Driven by the desire to do right by their daughter and continue the illusion of financial security for their family, they are in complete lockstep, a perfect team. No time for phony divisions or false relationship crises. They’re too busy slowly but surely turning into slick suburban mobsters, self-styled untouchable underground small business owners. All the while they remain adorably committed to each other and to their plan, building each other up and egging each other on. Ferrell and Poehler have the relaxed manic energy of an old relationship enlivened by an exciting new project, a chemistry that feels real and true and sells the insanity to come.

What starts as neighbors around a poker table balloons into fight night, bars, DJs, pool service and more as an honest-to-goodness casino-in-miniature opens up like a dazzling Hellmouth under their cul-de-sac. Surrounded by a stellar supporting cast (a veritable who’s-who of comic character actors, including Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarbrough, Michaela Watkins, and more) who sell the good-natured raunch and escalating panic-inducing comic gross-outs. By the time sweet Ferrell has accidentally axed a low-level mobster’s finger off (and used a Croc in a flailing, futile attempt to stop the bleeding) and Poehler has fashioned a makeshift flamethrower to protect their investment, they’re not simply uproariously wild R-rated shocks, but a totally logical extension of the story’s good-natured cynicism. The lead characters are so sweet and loveable it’s worth a wild and wacky dive into the dark side to see them come face to face with their own greedy failings and rediscover what truly matters. 

It could have simply been pat family-first moralizing dressed up in goofy Breaking Bad-as-a-sitcom clothes, but the total commitment of its makers and leads elevate this into something special. The movie’s finale brings the strands together – family values colliding with small-town corruption in a mad-dash scramble to set things right. But it’s clear that just because this loveable family might be able to save themselves in the end, there remains something tenuous about the whole financial underpinnings of their world. It’s funny watching them flail – it’s the sort of comedy where it’s funny both cumulatively as obstacles pile up, and on a scene-by-scene basis as every glance, aside, and posture contributes to the pleasure – but there’s also a nervous laugh about how deeply messed up our culture’s financial priorities are. Turns out a casino economy is enough to drive a person crazy. The movie is an appealingly outlandish nervous tap-dance over the yawning chasm of distress that is modern America, an escalating desperation in the face of financial despair.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Car Trouble: BABY DRIVER

Baby Driver is the action movie equivalent of an earworm. Wafting in on the summer breeze full of undeniable, unshakable energy, it is as bright, infectious, zippy, crowd-pleasing, sugary, and satisfying as the best pop songs. That it comes from writer-director Edgar Wright is no surprise. In his filmmaking, every cut counts, every aspect of the production – from design and cinematography to casting and staging and everything between – brilliantly orchestrated into one cohesive blast. By timing when and where to move from frame to frame down to the millisecond, his eye as unexpected as it is intuitive, he builds rhythms, forms jokes, reveals character, emphasizes key plot details, and sets the pace with the rigor and flare of a drum major. It’s show-off style of the most casual sort, reveling in the modulating momentum a rat-a-tat marriage of script and sensation movie magic allows. His latest film pushes his style the farthest yet. In his 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead one of the most memorable moments involves a jukebox blaring to life as the heroes attack a zombie with pool cues, each strike of their makeshift weapons keeping time with the Queen song suddenly on the soundtrack. Baby Driver is the feature-length version of that instinct, telling the story of an in-over-his-head getaway driver with special emphasis on the music in his earbuds.

Not just a great gimmick, the nonstop diegetic soundtrack serves the character. Baby (Ansel Elgort), orphaned in a car accident years ago which left him with constant lingering tinnitus, is a wunderkind driver under the thumb of a smarmy gangster (Kevin Spacy, oozing confident snappiness). His driving is like Gene Kelly’s dancing: muscular, fluid, graceful, dazzling. He makes it look easy to be so excellent. Forced to chauffeur the man’s bank-robbing teams at a moment’s notice – “They call, I go,” Baby says – he focuses narrowly on the task at hand. He blocks out the ringing in his ears using a cool playlist he keeps handy in one of his may iPod classics (technology already as nostalgic as the records and cassettes that are also key factors in the plot). This allows him not only to alleviate his ailment, but to help distance himself from the real criminals. Though he’s one of the team (the various robbers played with great personality by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, and Flea, an ensemble of scene-stealers), he views his situation as that of a frustrated goodhearted youngster. He loves driving, but hates his job. 

The boss has engaged his services through a mixture of blackmail and intimidation. Baby thinks they’ve just about completed their arrangement – the movie starts with the typical One Last Job formulation – but just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Trying to protect his new girlfriend (Lily James) and his ailing foster father (CJ Jones) from danger, he finds he must crank up the tunes to drive or die. Scenes with his loved ones are a tender oasis against the prickly criminals he carts around and the hurtling action that erupts from them. Baby is a nice young man in over his head, and there’s a fine tension between the sense of control his driving skills affords him, and the careening lack of control in his larger situation. It helps that Wright has Elgort to surround with this high-stakes frivolity. The young Fault in our Stars actor’s face can from some angles look placid cool, and from others nothing but unformed sweetness. The soft, subtle malleability sells his intensely sympathetic character, the sublime heightened heist melodrama he’s in, and the smooth skill with which it’s all pulled off.

The rare car chase movie that’s as alive outside the action as in, it’s nothing but good fun visual flourishes and great sudden surprises from beginning to end. Wright approaches his sturdy action movie setup with the grace and skill of an expert plate-spinner. The screenplay flows with funny, syncopated patter and chatter; the plot crackles with unforced setups for payoffs that are always deeply satisfying, even (and especially) when they spin away from the expected. The characters are quickly sketched and consistently engaging, from a cast exuding not only great relish for the fun lines they get to speak, but for the tempo and style with which they swagger. For Wright has choreographed the entire film (the cuts, the words, the angles, the action, and the gestures – from a flick of a wrist to the bat of an eye) to the soundtrack. With a backbeat of only the catchiest songs – an eclectic mix of rock, R&B, hip-hop, and pop that are the sweet spot of not too obvious or too obscure – the production becomes the action film as musical. It takes the assumption both forms are story hooks on which to hang sensational set-pieces to its logical conclusion. There’s never a down moment, only crescendos and fermatas, tension and humor stretched and strung. Like the best song-and-dance, the film does the complicated – thrilling stunt driving, shootouts, and foot chases at a screwball pace – with a big darling grin on its face. It’s a great time at the movies.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bad to the Bone: THE BAD BATCH

Ana Lily Amirpour’s second feature, The Bad Batch, is an extension of her cool sense of iconography and obvious love of genre playfulness, as displayed in her 2014 debut, the slick, black-and-white, Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. This new film is a dirty, sweaty, grimy post-apocalyptic western, with grifters and drifters eking out survival in a sun-blasted stretch of desolate Texan desert. It creates a vision of America in tune with these pessimistic and absurd times. In this near-future world, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the undocumented immigrants, and the convicts are tossed without a safety net to live discarded in this wild patch of land known as The Bad Batch. (I wondered if this was just one of many such locales, but the film has too narrow a focus to get into that.) On one side of the desert is a trailer park full of cannibals (among them glowering muscle Jason Momoa). On the other is a town called Comfort, run as a cult of personality by a man (Keanu Reeves, in another of his unusual and mesmerizing roles of late) who preaches from the giant neon boombox in the center of town which houses a DJ. Stuck between them is a pretty blonde (Suki Waterhouse) who quickly pays an arm and a leg for the privilege of sticking around, then stumbles around looking for...something. (There’s also Jim Carrey as a mute homeless man, so weather-beaten as to be nearly unrecognizable.) 

As you can see, this is the sort of movie that sounds like a lot of fun when you hear its eccentricities explained flat out like that, but for all the imagination that went into creating this world – like an appealing low-budget Mad Max prequel vibe run through a Robert Rodriguez emulator – there’s far too little narrative interest. It’s a compelling, visually striking environment. Lyle Vincent’s woozy sun-baked cinematography perfectly cooks the grubby, dirty, displays of dried blood, heat-blasted landfills, and craggy survivor’s peeling complexions. The imagery is so matter-of-factly bizarre that a cult attachment to its dutifully flat-faced oddity is inevitable. But all this creates a movie which never arrives at a reason for being. It’s not fun enough for sick kicks, or smart enough for a trenchant allegory. It simply rides its grubby cool, coasting to a dead end.