Monday, May 24, 2010

AWAY WE GO


Release Date: December 2009

Starring: John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, with brief appearances by Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Screenwriters: Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida

Pitch: Expecting their first baby, a couple contemplates how their lives will change and searches for the right place to call home.

Rating: *** ½

What works: This began with a crisp screenplay and was only enhanced by strong performances by the leads and the supporting actors who pop up during different legs of the journey. It is the acting, more than the writing, that ultimately stands out. What a compliment to Eggers and Vida! Krasinski is geeky good as Burt and Rudolph blew me away with a seemingly effortless performance as Verona. She delivered her lines so naturally I felt her character was real and I was just listening in. O’Hara chews up her brief part as Burt’s mother. I’ve never been a fan of Allison Janney, but she had a delectable part, over the top yet realistic. We all know women like this who have no boundaries with what they say and do. (I’m hoping Janney gets more comedic roles.) Gyllenhaal had a tricky part as a grating Mother Earth character, yet she pulled it off. Again, it’s a sign of good writing that the quirky roles work so well.

The natural dialog between Burt and Verona is lovely. He’s na├»ve and she is guarded. She accepts him for the odd duck he is. They came across as more defined, more real than what you see in most rom-coms of today. I’d put the film right up there with “(500) Days of Summer” and “Flirting with Disaster”.

As a film that begins with an unorthodox discovery that Verona is pregnant and focuses on a time when she is six months pregnant, I was relieved that the film ended without Verona giving birth. We’ve seen so many delivery scenes. This movie is not really about the baby. The pregnancy is a catalyst to get Burt and Verona to examine what they’ve (not) accomplished and to look ahead.

Where it fumbles: It’s tricky to have the movie switch to so many locations (original home, Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal, Miami), with all characters other than Burt and Verona only appearing in a single leg of the couple’s journey in search of a new place to call home. Each new location comes off as a separate vignette and this makes the film uneven. You can’t have each leg equally strong. The fact that the strongest scenes are the opening ones with O’Hara and Janney hurts the pacing as well. Rather than building momentum, there is a feeling of fizzle midway. To be clear, Burt and Verona never lose their appeal; it’s just that the supporting character storylines don’t snap like the early scenes.

Still, it’s a movie well worth seeing. I’m left scratching my head as to why the film only grossed $9.5 million at the box office. While not blockbuster fare, its earnings should have been + $25 mill. Sad when you think that “The Proposal” earned $163 million and even “Did You Hear about the Morgans?” grossed $29 million.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

THE BOYS ARE BACK



Release Date: 2009

Starring: Clive Owen

Screenwriter: Allan Cubitt

Pitch: An uninvolved father must parent his two sons while grieving the loss of his wife.

Rating: ** ½

What works: Not sure if Clive Owen in the lead helps or hurts the film. He oozes machismo out his pores in a way that appeals to women viewers, but for this script he rarely shows us anything more than a brick wall as his character grieves quietly, privately. And the frustration of having to take the helm as a single dad never fully comes through. Owen has a physical presence that is hard to look worn down. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) would have been a better choice in the role of Joe War, unfiltered emotions shown completely and without distraction.

The younger son’s part is well written and acted although I would have liked to have seen a bit more early on about the “comatose” state Artie lapses into for thirty minutes at a time, presumably as he struggles with his mother’s death. We see his father join him on the floor, but it’s unclear what is happening in the moment. Joe has seen his son in this condition before. It would seem more dramatic for an earlier scene when this happens for the first time, giving more impact to the scene actually in the film as Joe has learned how something about is son and how to offer support.

The older son’s story is compelling. Aside from holiday visits and occasions when work brings Joe to England, the boy was abandoned by Joe ten years ago when Joe ran off and married Katy. Things should be tense from the moment of his arrival, but his initial growth also seems to happen off camera. We see him react with annoyance at a pillow fight between Joe and Artie and he storms off when they try to include him. But then he’s happily playing soccer in the house with Artie. How did he change? I also have no idea how he suddenly hooked up at a bonfire with a group of partying teens. Seems it just happened. Makes me wonder what was lost on the editing room floor. While Harry later confronts his father about leaving Harry behind, there is a lot of drama lost in this plot.

Where it fumbles: Once again, I seem to have discussed some of the flaws above. It’s hard not to. The film is frustrating. The harder Clive Owen as Joe tries to contain his emotions, the more peeved I get with what could have been a more intense drama. Is it the actor, the director or the screenwriter who bares the brunt of the blame? If I cared enough, I’d read the book upon which the movie is based, Simon Carr’s The Boys Are Back in Town.

I was put off from the opening scene as Joe drives along a beach with Artie riding recklessly on the hood. This shows the two fully united in the rules-be-damned parenting style that Joe develops after Katy dies. We see that, while his parenting style is unorthodox, he has bonded with Artie. That siphons away much of the potential drama as the scenes that follow flash back to life with Katy and her painful death. Yes, there are initial challenges in caring for Artie alone, but the opening scene is a spoiler and should have been deleted or played just prior to Harry’s arrival. (Just as Joe’s figured out Artie, he now has to get to know his older son.) Harry should be resentful from the outset, perhaps even relieved Katy died. In his eyes, she was a big part of the reason his father walked out of his life. Such a revelation would have built more conflict and perhaps allowed Joe to let out some of his grief, albeit inappropriately, at Harry’s expense.

The biggest problem is that the script and the acting fail to break down the mighty wall to Joe Warr’s soul. The scenes with Joe and Katy’s mother convey zero warmth. Even when he hugs her, it’s a stoic gesture. I kept thinking back to Tom Hanks’ grieving father role in “Sleepless in Seattle”. In one phone call to a radio talk show host, Hanks showed more heart than Owens does in an entire movie.

This movie’s potential is never achieved.