Thursday, February 14, 2013

Celeste and Jessie Forever (2012) ***½

Who knew Rashida Jones was such a talented screenwriter?  Apparently she got tired of waiting around for great scripts to come her way, so she and her friend, character-actor Will McCormack, penned this pleasant little, indie, rom-com.  The film is based loosely on their own experience of trying out romance but winding up fitting better as friends.
 “Celeste and Jessie Forever” tells the tale of the two title characters, played by Jones and Andy Samberg, trying to remain best friends while getting divorced.  Celeste is a successful media executive, a “trend forecaster” in fact, who has her shit together but is maybe wound just a little tight.  Jessie is a slightly under-motivated, unemployed graphic artist.  They are childhood sweethearts, but one can imagine how their differing approaches to life might have created friction over time, even between people who genuinely love each other as they do.  The movie begins with the pair separated, but with Jessie living in the guest house and hanging out with Celeste daily.  The arrangement is very modern and cool, but that sort of thing just can’t go on forever.  You can imagine the sort of complications that ensue when they start dating other people, and so on.
What I liked about the movie is that while many of the plot turns are fairly predictable for this sort of tale, the point of the story is not the standard “true love wins in the end” bromide.  It is that people can actually change.  Celeste and Jessie are both really good people, and the film does not yield to the temptation to exaggerate their flaws.  Nonetheless, Jessie’s lack of responsibility and Celeste’s overabundance of it are barriers to their happiness, and the story gives them a chance to grow.
I vote that Rashida Jones and Will McCormack continue writing together if they can continue to produce stuff this good.  “Celeste and Jessie Forever” is funny and human.  The characters feel very natural, and they mostly avoid the annoying extravagances that usually populate these romantic comedies.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Role Models (2008) ***

Pay attention, alchemists, I have found the formula for comedy gold.  “Wet, Hot, American Summer” cast reunion?  Check.  Jane Lynch?  Check.  Stiffler?  Check.  A little Judd Apatow flavoring, including Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from “Superbad”)?  Check!  Mix well and poof!  Start laughing your ass off.  This little gem from director David Wain (“Wanderlust” “Wet, Hot, American Summer”) isn’t exactly movie-of-the-year material, but it is plenty of hilarious fun.
Paul Rudd plays Danny,  a salesman who spends his day ironically giving anti-drug speeches and promoting an energy drink while his co-worker Wheeler (Sean William Scott) cavorts in a minotaur costume.  Despite having a gorgeous lawyer girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), the uselessness of his career has Danny in a slow-burning depression.  When his girlfriend gets sick of it and dumps him, Danny flips out and winds up getting himself and Wheeler in legal trouble.  They are given a choice: 30 days in jail or “volunteering” in Sturdy Wings, a Big-Brother-type program.  Obviously, they go with the mentoring program.  Danny gets paired with Augie (Mintz-Plasse), an odd teen who is obsessed with a fantasy-role-playing game.  Wheeler gets stuck with a foul-mouthed little badass named Ronny.
What happens after that?  You can probably guess.  Things start out stand-offish, then the guys and the kids gradually warm up to each other, and eventually everyone learns a lesson about life.  The plot is not the point.  The point is an entire herd of talented comics being hilarious.  The movie features several actors from the old MTV show “The State,” including director David Wain, and I love those guys.  Jane Lynch is excellent, as usual.  Bobb’e J. Thompson is an excellent little, foul-mouthed child actor.  Ken Jeong, from the show “Community,” puts in a appearance as a smarmy king.  Really, everyone in the movie cracks me up.  “Role Models” is not quite up to the standards of “Wanderlust,” but it’s still a great time.

3 stars

Saturday, February 02, 2013

OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009, french) and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006, french) ****

The film world is full of James Bond spoofs, but I think I have found my new favorite.  “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” feature Jean Dujardin as a clueless, dim-witted version of the international super spy.  The films would hardly be described as subtle, but they have an edgier satire than, say, the Austin Powers films, and they contain a sly social commentary that the Powers films lack.  Dujardin plays French spy Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath as a handsome, dashing man of the 1950’s who has no idea how offensive his casual racism and sexism appear in the 1960’s.  He cruises through life sporting a tailored suit and a smile, taking the appreciative looks from women as his due and muddling his obtuse way through each case mostly through luck.
While I immediately took these movies as James Bond spoofs, further research reveals they are, in fact, spoofs of the original OSS 117 movies from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, which were apparently serious spy flicks.  Indeed, the original OSS 117 novels, by author Jean Bruce, predate Ian Fleming’s excellent 007 novels, and the first OSS 117 movie was released in 1957, five years before “Dr. No,” the first Bond film.  Nonetheless, these movies play well as critiques of Bond, who does sometimes seem like a man about a decade out of his element.  As OSS 117 tells one hippie in “Lost in Rio,“ “Why do you want to change the world?  The world is fine.”  Indeed, these films tend to point out that the Bond films are really one, big testimony to how fine it is to roam the world as a tall, handsome, white male.  The effect is enhanced by Jean Dujardin’s similarity in appearance and style to the young Sean Connery.
The social commentary in these films is used like a subtle spice, enhancing the flavor of the dish without dominating it.  In both films, it would be possible to focus on the comedy and completely ignore these undercurrents, but they are there.  OSS 117’s complete inability to engage with the Arab Muslims in “Cairo, Nest of Spies” is reminiscent of America’s misadventures in the region.  In “Lost in Rio,” the satire is turned on France, as OSS 117 is sent to retrieve a list of French Nazi-collaborators from WWII.  His initial response to the assignment is, “What collaborators?!  All of France resisted completely.  De Gaulle said so.”  It may seem odd to an American audience for a 2009 film to reference something from so long ago, but the movie was made in France, where the wounds of occupation have perhaps not completely healed.
I have not said much about the plots of these films because, as with the Bond films, there is little that needs saying.  In the Bond films, the storyline is clearly just a vehicle for Bond to BE who he is, and the same is true for OSS 117 in these films.  The comedy is absolute gold!  OSS 117’s dashing cluelessness crashes repeatedly into the unsmiling disbelief of his female co-spies, to delightful effect.
Director Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin didn’t see much international success with these films, but you may have heard of their 2011 collaboration, a film called “The Artist.”  This silent film was a joy to watch, and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor.  One could only hope that this success might prompt them to bring back OSS 117 to once again save the world.

4 stars out of 5