“She’s made of salad and Smart Water.” Office Christmas Party

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not always sprung on the big ol’ dumb, vulgar, “high concept” (ironic turn of phrase) film comedy.

There is an army of moviegoers who can quote every line from the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, Airplane!Neighbors, The Naked Gun or Horrible Bosses. I’m not that fellow.

There are exceptions for me – Bridesmaids, the FIRST Bad Santa, Bad Words, Borat. Maybe the naughty movies I like all must start with the letter “B”?

I’m no prude, and I don’t mind seeing some big screen debauchery, as long as it’s in service to a story. And if the ribald flick in question celebrates a misfit or two, giving the marginalized among us a chance to shine? All the better.

Let’s just say I’m shocked how much I enjoyed Office Christmas Party. On its surface, it looks like a frat boy fever dream (and it sort of is), waving the PARTY! bro culture flag from a wobbly pedestal of cheap beer kegs. Yet, something else is afoot in this particular entry of a tired, yet lucrative, genre: kindness.

The narrative is feather weight. A tech company in Chicago struggles to find its footing after the death of its founder amidst the Cain-and-Abel feuding of his two children. T.J. Miller (Deadpool) plays Clay, a Millennial ne’er-do-well with a Santa-sized heart-of-ADHD-gold, and Jennifer Aniston is an arsenic-in-the-eggnog hoot as sister Carol, a Scrooge in training for whom the holidays are a mind-numbing drain on the firm’s bottom line.

With an interest solely in her standing with the company board and with Wall Street, Carol cancels all holiday festivities and threatens drastic job cuts throughout the charmingly dysfunctional organization. (A timely holiday tale this!) Consequently, Clay schemes with his merry band of misfit colleagues (Jason Bateman, Oliva Munn, Kate McKinnon, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Sam Richardson) to throw the be-all-end-all of office holiday shindigs, in an effort to save their year-end financials (and thereby the company) by wooing a potential new client (Courtney B. Vance, simultaneously slumming and classing the film up, a deceptively understated and utterly charming performance).

The titular party itself – ostensibly the centerpiece of this admittedly overlong movie – is perhaps surprisingly not the film’s high point. There are funny bits once the sozzled chaos kicks in, but mostly the soiree itself is cluttered and silly, not particularly funny, badly filmed, and occasionally too gross to be believed. However, I saw the party the way I see the shark in Jaws: a necessarily evil around which to hang the much better and more engaging story elements and performances. You know the shark is coming, but it is the suspense of getting there and the fall-out after the fact that is really interesting.

Aniston fares best in the enterprise, taking what is essentially an extended cameo and ruling the film with a turn of her stiletto heels and a flick of her acid tongue. I never bought Aniston as “America’s sweetheart” – from Friends through the Enquirer headlines to a host of empty-caloried rom-coms. As “America’s slightly wounded, understandably-pissed-off mean girl,” she’s a stitch. She fires off the film’s best lines and moments, from her showdown with a bratty Cinnabon-stealing rugrat in an airport lounge to her Russian-speaking, krav maga throwdown with three mob enforcers in a South Side speakeasy (yes, you read that correctly). Bateman deadpans to her would-be opponents, “Be careful. She’s made of nothing but salad and Smart Water.”

Bateman, as the company’s chief tech officer, is less smarm, more broken-hearted sweet than I’ve ever seen him. That color looks good on him. Munn is world-weary, observant fun as Bateman’s development partner, whose feminist savvy and tech smarts ultimately save the day for all.

As a meddlesome, anxiously PC human resources manager, McKinnon wrings mirth and sparkle from every moment she’s onscreen (of course!), but, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saddling the woman with wigs that make her look like she stepped off an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s part of her gimmick, but it sure isn’t necessary to making her riotously funny.  Funny – edgy and relatable – is just in her soul. About her beloved mini-van, McKinnon’s character opines, “It’s a Kia. It’s what God would drive.”

(And, while we’re at it, let’s cast McKinnon, Aniston, and Munn in a cerebral comedy that doesn’t involve wigs nor an EDM-thumping soundtrack nor body shots nor gratuitous nudity. The three of them have dynamite chemistry together and deserve a better film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This brings us to Miller. I suspect, in part, this film has been engineered as a marketing ploy to jet fuel his minor-key career into the junk blockbuster comedy movie star stratosphere (e.g. Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler, and a bunch of other un-funny men whose careers cause me mental anguish). I don’t think it’s going to work. To his credit, Miller subsumes himself to the ensemble, but he is also really one note. Playing the shaggy-haired, spoiled, left-of-center party boy is a limited run, and Miller may have already overstayed his welcome. Perhaps, not unlike Office Christmas Party, he will surprise us, embracing more of the nerdy sweetness that makes him endearing and losing the raise-the-roof shenanigans that make him obnoxious? Time will tell.

As for Office Christmas Party, underneath its holiday gross-out gimmicks, this is a movie where people care about one another and where the existential threat of losing one’s job has meaning beyond setting up the next joke. Where Miller and company succeed is in the camaraderie and care they show their fellow man. Directed with workmanlike vigor by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, sitcom stupid set-ups abound, but there are lovely quiet moments as well. For instance, Bateman’s office-rounding as he starts his day is filled with gentleness, redirecting various associates as they bully one another or spin perilously out-of-control under the white hot glare of office politics. Furthermore, as the film devolves into broad comic silliness (car chases and the like), the primary characters still worry about each other, and their actions (extreme and cartoonish as they are) still come from a place of compassion. This might be one of the first office Christmas parties where you’ll want to spend more time in the office and less time at the party.

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bluebelllofts2bAnd speaking of Christmas, enjoy this lovely Old Type Writer column by my talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton titled “Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!” (here).

Talk of the Town publishing editor Jennifer Zartman Romano writes in her intro, “Soon, the Historic Blue Bell Lofts, a senior housing facility, will be completed in Columbia City. In the meantime, columnist Susie Duncan Sexton reflects on her memories of the Blue Bell factory.”

Here is an excerpt from the piece: “Observing that impressive restoration feat from afar thrills my very soul. I look forward to grabbing a hard hat and touring the completed facility sooner rather than later. I have driven by the Whitley Street location multiple times. The lump in my throat and the beating of my heart transform into a beaming smile on my old wrinkled, liver-spotted face. Blue Bell, Incorporated has been my life since birth! Happy to have been a part of this metamorphosis!” Read the column by clicking here.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

11 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

…Holy mackerel! For one brief shining moment (probably passed already by the time you read this), Reel Roy Reviews is #1 (!) in sales on Amazon’s list of best-selling movie guides and reviews. Don’t know how long this will last, so check out the photographic proof here!

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of The Butler: “In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’s The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“We turn a blind eye” – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In America, we turn a blind eye to how badly we treat our own, while pointing the finger at other countries’ abuse of their people.”

I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.

The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The movie is good … quite good actually.  While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.

(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)

So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.

The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).

Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.

The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.

I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.

Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.

I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.

In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.