“Secrets are like margarine.” A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

“Secrets are like margarine. Easy to spread but bad for the heart.” – Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), A Simple Favor

“What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.” – Rick Wershe, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), White Boy Rick

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ah, American hustle and the dark truth of the Horatio Alger myth: you can be anything you want to be in America and have as much success as you can stand as long as you deny your true nature and, arguably, your humanity. If there is a through line in A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick, this weekend’s two big “fall films” (movies that lean into Oscar season and don’t star an alien Predator), it is that very truism and the resultant deception and self-loathing that accompanies it.

 

A Simple Favor is stylishly directed by Paul Feig, whose previous efforts Bridesmaids, The Heat, Ghostbusters, and Spy demonstrated a sure-handed understanding that women are, you know, people too. Based on a novel by Darcey Bell (think Postman Always Rings Twice author James M. Cain writing for The CW), Feig gleefully pulls a Brian DePalma (minus the gory misogyny) in an unrelenting homage to some of suspense cinema’s greatest hits: Vertigo, Charade, Diabolique (actually name-checked by one of the characters), Gaslight, and, yes, Cain’s Double Indemnity, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. Blessedly, Feig embraces the black comedy of it all, and the film is less Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and more Mel Brooks-spoofs-Gone Girl.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For her work in this film, Anna Kendrick now and forever will be my hero as her performance drives a stake into the heart of the insufferable DIY, cupcake-baking, Pinterest-stalking mommy vlogger (that’s vlogger with a “v” … as in “video blogger”). Her Stephanie Smothers is a hoot, one bad PTA meeting away from a nervous breakdown – a young widow whose  fixation on “home and hearth” may belie a darker (trashier) past.

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into Stephanie’s life breezes fellow elementary school mom Emily Nelson, an icy Hitchcock blonde in divine Lauren Bacall-pantsuits. Blake Lively reminds viewers she’s more than “Ryan Reynolds’ wife” in a crackpot performance that is one part Carole Lombard, one part Veronica Lake, and one part Barbara Stanwyck … that is if those women were showboating, day-drinking, pansexual PR executives addicted to painkillers and stainless steel appliances. Oh, and she’s got secrets too … some doozies.

 

Emily and Stephanie meet cute in the rain, picking their sons up from school, and strike up the unlikeliest of friendships. The best parts of the movie are watching these two circle each other, realizing their respective “hustles” are as artificial as the day is long. Pretty soon, Emily disappears Gone Girl-style, and hunky husband Sean Townsend (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding who is suddenly everywhere) is the chief culprit, which is compounded when he and Stephanie strike up a romance.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil the twists and turns as they come fast and furious, but Feig and his stars have a ball indulging in and skewering the excesses of the genre. A fabulous supporting cast of pros like Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, and Andrew Rannells all deliver zippy character turns. By the final twenty minutes, I will admit, I began to sour on the improbability of it all as the film veers into farcical War of the Roses territory. Nonetheless, for Lively’s gonzo performance alone, the film is essential viewing.

 

Across the aisle from A Simple Favor‘s flawless Dwell Magazine production design is the rough and tumble scruffiness of White Boy Rick, set in the nadir of Mayor Coleman Young’s mid-80s Detroit when the entire city looked like the back lot of a Mad Max movie and stopping to grab a Slurpee at 7-Eleven was a death-defying act.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the true story of Rick Wershe, Jr., the longest serving juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan, White Boy Rick details Wershe’s descent into crime, his ascent as both FBI-informant and drug kingpin, and his eventual arrest and conviction. Along the way, Wershe (a haunting Richie Merritt) and his gun-smuggling papa (McConaughey in one of his best and most understated performances) meet a host of dodgy characters from the mean streets of the Motor City and in the mayoral Manoogian Mansion. (Legends Piper Laurie and Bruce Dern pop up as McConaughey’s parents – they are dynamite, and the biggest crime is that they don’t get more screen time.)

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty much Jennifer Jason Leigh (which is fine) as an FBI agent using the boy to infiltrate the Detroit drug scene, and Brian Tyree Henry spins gold from his underwritten part as a Detroit cop in on the deal.

 

Director Yann Demange does an exceptional job capturing the sheer ugliness of this hardscrabble place and time without ever condescending to the moment nor its denizens. These characters are people who view the “land of opportunity” through a fun-house mirror where the only choices for financial stability are felonious. I will admit that I found the film’s point-of-view regarding its central figure problematically slippery. Are we to sympathize with him and his failings? Is he some kind of martyr figure? What does the film mean to imply about race in these circumstances? I’m at sea about the answers to these questions, and that leaves me just shy of fully supporting the film. White Boy Rick is well-done with a crackerjack cast, but I walk away with a bit of unease about what it is ultimately trying to say about race and class distinctions in America.

Matthew McConaughey (Finalized);Richie Merritt (Finalized)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regardless, both A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick (especially taken together) do an exceptional job holding a cinematic lens to the artifice of “success” in America: its false promise of fulfillment, its ephemeral nature, and its intrinsic heartache.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

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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.

“I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.” Ghostbusters (2016)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This summer’s Ghostbusters reboot/reimagining/sequel-non-sequel/whatever-it-is benefits and suffers from the wobbly foundation of opportunistic Gen X nostalgia upon which it is built. If, like me, you saw the film in 1984 as part of Mike Babbitt’s birthday-sleepover extravaganza – one of your first memories of feeling like a “grown-up” and seeing a movie in a communal glow a bunch of your farting, burping, snickering, supremely immature buddies – the original Ghostbusters is a classic. However, if, like someone else in my house (ahem, John), you view the original film from a different lens as the messy, self-indulgent, hammy ground zero for a whole host of similarly inept high-concept fantasy comedies that continue to infest multiplexes to this day, Ghostbusters is, well, meh. I suspect John is in the right, but don’t tell him I said so.

Paul Feig (BridesmaidsThe HeatSpy) has assembled an A-list crew of comedy dynamos for the 2016 outing: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and, yes, Chris Hemsworth (Thor is funny, y’all!). The plot – or what lightly resembles a plot – is more or less the same as the original Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis/Ernie Hudson version. At least from what I recall … to be honest, I think the only time I actually saw that movie was at the aforementioned birthday party.

In the original film, someone is unleashing spectral Armageddon on Manhattan and a ragtag band of misfits in jumpsuits with laser guns overcomes their condemnation to a life of marginalia in order to save the day. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver all put in appearances doing … stuff. There’s a skyscraper-sized menace made of marshmallows and a big purple swirly cloud above the Empire State Building. As the credits roll, that ubiquitous Ray Parker, Jr.-led theme song (sounding copyright-infringibly close to Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”) trumpets the arrival of a new breed of hero to NYC: The Ghostbusters. Pre-9/11, seeing Manhattan torn to ribbons and healed by the power of pop music was a more entertaining enterprise.

Feig’s version is pretty much the same damn movie, which is both bold and kind of lazy. Without a doubt in my mind, Feig’s cast is sharper, more incisive, and a helluva lot more identifiable than the original band. Fanboys, I don’t care what your social media cronies believe. It’s the truth.

This version of Ghostbusters was rife with such opportunity to import the anarchic, political raunch of Bridesmaids into a PG-13 manifesto on the power of diversity, individualism, and being funny as hell. Instead, it’s a bit toothless. A bunt when it could have been a home run, to mix my metaphors.

That said, I laughed. I laughed a lot. (John…laughed once. I think.) I thought the comically queasy uncertainty of characters fighting for a world that didn’t much want them in it was a pip. McKinnon (literally) chews the scenery as the group’s wild-eyed weapons master. And that was fine by me. Jones, who seems a bit out-of-her-depth (or maybe just bored) with sketch-acting on SNL, is dynamite here – crisp, zippy, focused. As she jumps into a metal-head mosh pit, expecting to be crowd-surfed on her way to exorcising a winged demon, she, instead, is unceremoniously dropped to the ground; Jones nails one of the film’s best and most timely zingers: “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”

McCarthy, believe it or not, is impressively understated as the team’s whip, and only Wiig seems to get lost in the shuffle as a the mild-mannered heart of the group. She may have played one milquetoast too many at this point in her storied career. Hemsworth, as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist, is comically objectified for his Aussie sparkle in a welcome role-reversal. And, no, that is not “reverse sexism” – which is not a thing. It’s satire of the rampant and insidious male gaze…which is a thing.

There is an endless parade of self-referential cameo appearances. I found them all unnecessary, distracting and, worse, unfunny. Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong – as the oily mayor and his obsequious assistant – can stay. Everyone else? You gotta go!

That Love Boat-load of guest stars would be an example of where nostalgia bites this production on its collective behind.  I wish Feig had been liberated by the corporate powers-that-be at Columbia Pictures to make the itchy, twitchy film that is lurking under the surface of this new Ghostbusters. Alas, all the product placement – from Papa Johns to Bill Murray – might suggest Feig was in servitude to a paycheck, not an artistic vision. That’s a shame.

Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon as the Ghostbusting quartet are clearly having a ball playing summertime action figures. Yet, their fun never quite becomes our fun. The ad-libbed scenes have crackling moments but never quite add up to coherent narrative. The stakes never seem that dire (perhaps because of the familiarity of the plot), and consequently the film has no urgency or agency. In the year of #ImWithHer, Ghostbusters is serviceable allegorical escapism, when it could have been timeless, seismic revelation.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you. Tammy (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedic opus Tammy is like a crass redneck cousin to Barbra Streisand’s/Seth Rogen’s similarly themed The Guilt Trip. That may seem like a slam. It’s not. I enjoyed both movies, flawed though they are, particularly given that exceptional performers can sell the thinnest of scripts.

Where McCarthy stumbles a bit more, however, is that she helped write the slight script for her starrer. Ouch.

What other movies are in Tammy‘s DNA? If Nebraska and McCarthy’s own Identity Thief had a cinematic baby, it wouldn’t be that far afield from Tammy, which depicts a shaggy dog heroine (McCarthy, natch) on the lam with her bewigged and besotted (as in drunk) granny (Susan Sarandon!). Heck, throw in a touch of Sarandon’s own twenty-five-year-old summer blockbuster Thelma and Louise for good measure.

Tammy’s life is a mess. She nearly totals her jalopy when she hits a deer on the way to her crappy fast food job. (In one of the movie’s more touching moments, Tammy lays down on the highway, gets face-to-snout with the deer, and talks the little fellow back into sprightly, white-tailed-scampering-across-a-field life. I liked that part. A lot.)

Tammy gets fired from said crappy job for being late (because of the deer miracle), throws ketchup packets at her now-erstwhile boss (McCarthy’s real-life husband and the film’s director Ben Falcone), comes home early to discover her hubby (a suitably golf-caddy skeezy Nat Faxon) serving a romantic dinner to her neighbor (Toni Collette, wasted here), and runs home (two doors down) to her mother (Allison Janney, dependably ringing gold from nothing).

Sarandon’s character, who lives in Tammy’s mom’s spare bedroom, already has a suitcase packed and can’t wait to provide the ancient Cadillac and limited funds ($6700) necessary for her and her granddaughter to skedaddle from small-town life and go see the spectacle that is Niagara Falls.

Just like The Guilt Trip (where Streisand’s character wanted nothing more than to see the Grand Canyon), all manner of comic disruptions keep Sarandon’s and McCarthy’s characters from their destination. Like Rogen and Streisand, Sarandon and McCarthy also end up in a barbecue restaurant where Sarandon meets cute with a potential beau (Gary Cole, playing it rather subtle for once). Unlike The Guilt Trip, Tammy heads in a decidedly cruder direction, involving Cole and Sarandon and the backseat of that decrepit Cadillac. Ewww.

(The fact that I’m giving point/counterpoint between two failed comedies released within 18 months of each other is indicative of two things: 1) my relative lack of taste and 2) the fact that Hollywood really has no new ideas. It could be worse. I could be reviewing Transformers.)

Tammy is entertaining. I laughed heartily at McCarthy’s antics (just as I did during The Heat or Bridesmaids). I also found myself moved by her ability to telegraph so pointedly the hurt of someone who lives on the margins, either by choice or happenstance. McCarthy can inhabit a character like no other. Problem is it’s the same character, and, while I like and can relate to this person she plays (and her penchant for wearing Crocs), I’d like to meet someone else … soon.

Sarandon is a hoot, particularly in her early scenes, also offering us a caustic comic portrait of someone who refuses to be consigned to the periphery. Her performance is derailed mostly by the script,which turns her into a Golden Girls sexpot for no discernible reason at the midway point.

Kathy Bates sparkles as Sarandon’s pet food store magnate/lesbian cousin (yeah, it’s that kind of movie) who lives in one of those beachfront homes that only exist in Hollywoodland. She gives Tammy and her grandma a warm meal, a roof over the heads, and one fabulous July 4th wingding. Despite the improbability of Bates’ surroundings, she grounds the movie just as it seems likely to run right off the rails, as Bates beautifully walks that fine line between satire and heartache that has been her specialty since Misery.

Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty) is also a source of warmth as Tammy’s suitor Bobby, cursed as he is to babysit his philandering father (Cole). The quiet scenes between McCarthy and Duplass are when the film is at its finest (not unlike those charming moments between Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd in the aforementioned Bridesmaids). All the cartoonish chaos stops for a moment, and two believably broken souls connect as kindred spirits.

That is the movie I hoped to see tonight. Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you.

[NOTE: I’ve been suffering from a wicked cold this entire holiday weekend, and this movie was viewed as a late-afternoon matinee while I was all hopped up on DayQuil. Take all preceding advice with a huge grain of salt.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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: The Heat

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

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

“McCarthy seems to be the comedic love-child of Kathy Bates and Jackie Gleason, marrying Bates’ soulful empathy with Gleason’s caged intensity, in a feisty package whose doleful eyes speak volumes, even in the most farcically broad circumstances.”

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.

The comedy of worry: The Heat

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Nobody makes comedy gold from exasperated worry like Melissa McCarthy – the kind of frustration and anxiety about a world spinning out of control that leads one to bold, aggressive, head-busting tough love. She did this to great effect in her breakthrough Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids and does so again in Paul Feig’s follow-up to that film, The Heat, alongside co-star Sandra Bullock.

McCarthy seems to be the comedic love-child of Kathy Bates and Jackie Gleason, marrying Bates’ soulful empathy with Gleason’s caged intensity, in a feisty package whose doleful eyes speak volumes, even in the most farcically broad circumstances.

Unfortunately the script for The Heat includes one or two too many of those big, dumb farcical moments, trying even McCarthy’s (and Bullock’s for that matter) unique ability to weave a higher order of comic social commentary and righteous rage over the indignities embedded in these misogynistic United States of America. (Yes, we even have to suffer through that 80s film throwback: the female-buddy-drown-our-sorrows-in-cheap-beer-at-a-dive-bar musical montage, this time set to Deee-Lite’s admittedly infectious “Groove is in the Heart.”)

Regardless, The Heat is a fun film because the two leads rise above the rather junky, contrived, and, yes, stale premise of a rigid FBI agent (Bullock) thrown into partnership over turf issues with a scruffy police detective (McCarthy) in pursuit of a big bad drug cartel. I feel like we’ve seen this movie a million times, but in the capable hands of Bullock and McCarthy this high concept claptrap has some decent nuance and is pretty d*mn funny. (I suspect the best dialogue did not come from the rather pedestrian script but from some free-wheeling improv between the two leads.)

I don’t always love Bullock. She can come off rather stiff and clunky with an overeager desire to show her aren’t-I-a-zany-dame? schtick. However, partnered with McCarthy who exudes edgy warmth in spades, Bullock becomes a crackerjack, shining a simultaneously acerbic and poignant spotlight on a patriarchal power structure that resents her intelligence and blocks her progress at every turn.

As noted, the script stumbles with some dumb b-movie cliches and gets pretty muddled about two-thirds of the way with some gross-out gags that undermine the overall momentum and message. However, sweet character moments toward the conclusion pull the film back on track.

The Heat is worth seeing, albeit with lowered overall expectations, for the nifty high-wire act that McCarthy and Bullock are pulling off. They deserve a better film…which, in and of itself, may be the most compelling proof point/indictment of the kind of institutionalized sexism the film attempts to critique.