“Life is about putting it out there … and then swatting it away.” Sisters (2015)

Sisters_movie_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest movie yukfest Sisters is more of a yuckfest. Ever since the seismic arrival of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Hollywood has been smitten with this arguably unremarkable, though infinitely profitable, thesis: “Hey, women can be raunchy too!”

Yup, anybody can act like an 8th grader, regardless of one’s gender. The problem is that notion, in and of itself, is just not terribly interesting and, for anyone over 40 in the audience, can just seem kinda sad.

People forget that Bridesmaids and subsequent films like Anna Kendrick’s Pitch Perfect (the first one), Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, or Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck embraced debauchery with an anarchist’s glee and a feminist’s humanism. These films suggest that the great equalizer – across any number of markers: race, age, socioeconomics, faith, ethnicity, and, yes, gender – is our fundamentally base nature alongside our desire and ability to rise from the muck occasionally and do something kind or profound or, well, witty. You can poop in a sink, but you better make it matter.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls was an early blueprint for these flicks, a sharp-edged, warm-hearted comic bottle rocket of a film in which gender meant everything and nothing, depicting the killing fields of the high school cafeteria where reductive reasoning and shallow judgment form the principle power currency. It’s a perfect film because it is a) gut-bustingly funny and b) discomfortingly trenchant.

Unfortunately, Sisters is only intermittently both, and it never fully gels. It has a lazy feel about it, as if old pals Fey and Poehler watched Risky Business and Sixteen Candles over a box of wine and thought it would be a lark to mount a Gen X mash-up tribute with middle-aged burnouts in the central roles.

As ideas go, that’s not the worst (nor freshest) high concept to come down the pike (see Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), but it sure as heck needed more work before hitting cinemas this past weekend, aspiring as Sisters did to serve as Force Awakens’ counter-programming.

Fey and Poehler play against type as the titular siblings, with Fey as a “brassy” (her words) and hard-partying beautician/single mom and Poehler as a straight-arrow and newly divorced nurse/animal rescuer. Fey exclaims at one point, “Life is all about putting it out there,” to which Poehler mutters, “And then swatting it away.”

The Poehler/Fey dynamic has always been natural and warm if dangerously “in-jokey” – and that is true here as well. They have some sparkling moments, notably as they learn that their parents (a wry and believable Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold the family home and moved to a pastel-hued, swingin’ yuppie condo complex without any warning to either daughter. With the kind of cracked passive aggressive logic that only occurs in movies like this, Fey and Poehler, unbeknownst to their folks, decide to have one last raging blow-out party (with all their former high school cronies) in the old homestead two days before its sale closes.

So, of course, the house gets completely destroyed in a simplistically escalating Rube Goldberg series of party hijinks. The kind of absurd crap that. does. not. happen. in. real. life. Has anyone actually ever witnessed a washing machine fill an entire home and its surrounding yard with copious bubbles because someone poured a whole bottle of detergent in the drum? No.

A rogues’ gallery of SNL and Comedy Central alums puts in appearances, to varying degrees of success. Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Parnell all suffer from underwritten roles with lame jokes and even worse ad libs. Bobby Moynihan is just plum obnoxiously unfunny as a past-his-prime class clown. The character is supposed to be moronic, but in Moynihan’s hands he is teeth-gratingly so.

Maya Rudolph has a Teflon-like ability to rise above (and rescue) just about any material, and she soars as a suburban doyenne who at first glance seems to be an assured Queen Bee bully but whose inner life is more longstanding adolescent alienation than smug superiority. John Cena continues to surprise with comedic home-runs, after this summer’s Trainwreck, as a stoically cerebral drug dealer with a soft spot for Dirty Dancing. John Leguizamo shows up as a skeezy former high school boyfriend of Fey’s, and, while he is always a welcome presence, his talents seem wasted here. Mad TV‘s Ike Barinholtz gives the movie its sweetness as a bemused potential beau smitten with Poehler’s quirky, self-conscious charms.

The film stumbles toward a resolution that is as forced as it is predictable. Fey’s character has a daughter (a painfully mincing and whiny performance from Madison Davenport) who hates her mother’s arrested development and is forced to couch surf from friend’s house to friend’s house since Fey can’t manage to keep a roof over their heads. The inevitable confrontation of mother and daughter and sister and parents is utterly contrived, borrowing equal bits from an episode of Lassie, Animal House, and The Family Stone.

Ultimately, Poehler fares best in the film, bringing poignant bite and rag doll charm to her role. It’s a shame that she and Fey (with director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell) couldn’t have worked out a better movie to feature Poehler’s character, focusing less on the shock humor and the messily filmed bacchanalia and more on the tricky web of love and fear shared between siblings, sisters trapped by the hollow promises of high school juvenilia – two emotionally stunted Gen X Americans for whom those scruffy, mixed-up four years of public education are the alpha and omega of intellectual and social development.

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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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.

 

“Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” Muppets Most Wanted

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]

I suppose Jim Henson’s Muppets are dusty, musty artifacts of the hippie dippy 1970s in which I grew up. However, they are artifacts for which I have much affection… and charity.

The latest effort by Disney (the current owners of the Muppet franchise) to reboot this sentimental throwback for a modern era’s more cynical tastes is Muppets Most Wanted. Does it work as a film? Not totally. But it reinforced for me as a film-goer that my predispositions seem to color my enjoyment of whatever I view.

Whether how unfairly I may have judged American Hustle or how generously I may have assessed Monuments Men, Muppets Most Wanted demonstrated for me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I walk into a film with prejudice to like (or loathe) it will impact how I judge the work.

So, be warned, I definitely had a corny, soft spot in my Gen X heart for this one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a slight improvement over its predecessor, 2011’s The Muppets, which I found cloyingly self-reverential and too cute by half. I suppose part of the blame rests with that film’s screenwriter Jason Segel who likely had too much adoration for the source material to modernize it in any discernible way.

In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted, the second installment in the Muppets film franchise(or actually eighth if you include all the Muppets’ cinematic output from the 70s on) has a darker, more lightly satirical edge, even spoofing Ingmar Bergman at one point. It shamelessly riffs on what is arguably the best Muppet film The Great Muppet Caper, with its refreshingly acerbic vibe (but alas no Diana Rigg this time around).

In essence, this edition in the Muppet saga is a road picture wherein the Muppets tour Europe;  and, unbeknownst to the scruffy band, head frog Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious jewel thief named Constantine (whose only physical difference is a black mole on his visage). Constantine’s plot to use these hapless performers as a comic distraction for his heists is abetted by a fairly wry, though disappointingly tame Ricky Gervais.

The movie is predictably episodic, but the various European locales allow for some silly sight gags and typical Muppet hijinks across Germany, England, Spain, Ireland, and Russia. Human cast member Ty Burrell fares best as an Inspector Clouseau knock-off. Tina Fey, as a gulag matron who falsely imprisons Kermit, never quite rises above the Herculean task (for her) that a faux Russian accent requires.

What saves the film ultimately is a very catchy musical score written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie (who won an Academy Award for the prior Muppet flick). I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever these dirty, scruffy puppets launched into song. In fact, I suspect the enterprise would have been markedly improved if sung throughout.

Also, as in any Muppet adventure, there is great joy for adults in the audience for the insane array of cameos – from Tom Hiddleston to Miranda Richardson, Christoph Waltz to Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci to Lady Gaga, Celine Dion to Chloe Grace Moretz.

I will always have warmth in my heart for The Muppets, a gang of felt creatures who helped teach my generation the importance of acceptance and kindness and understanding and tolerance. At one point, Fozzie and Walter exclaim of their best pal Kermit, “Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” For that reason alone, I hope Disney continues to crank out fair-to-middling films, spotlighting these characters who have never lost those precious Me Decade values from their over-stuffed DNA.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

Self-serious harmonizing…mildly irritating and always amusing: Pitch Perfect

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]

I have always found the self-serious harmonizing of college glee clubs mildly irritating and always amusing – I mean any genre that yields a group called “The Whiffenpoofs”…seriously? Come on!

So I was thrilled that new collegiate comedy/musical Pitch Perfect approaches its a cappella subject matter with a healthy dose of irreverence. (My favorite episodes of Glee use, as a skewed lens through which to view our zany/imbalanced/unhinged society, the inherent absurdity of a vocal group treating, say, Britney Spears as if she were Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Yes, the film has Glee‘s pop satiric edge in its DNA. It nicely marries that concept to a sort of junior, higher ed version of Bridesmaids, with a grounded, just left-of-center enough approach to its central female characters. To their credit, the filmmakers even include Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids‘ roommate Rebel Wilson in a very funny supporting role…and to their discredit, they have shamelessly stolen the conceit of once-fresh Bridesmaids‘ poster art (see above).

Carrying the film, beyond the fun and funny (though not groundbreaking) musical mash-ups, are leads Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin. Like baby-faced versions of Tina Fey and a less obnoxious Dane Cook, Kendrick and Astin, who got their starts in Broadway musicals High Society and Spring Awakening respectively, are winning and believable as sweet, slightly dorky college kids who just really dig music. Kendrick, probably best known as George Clooney’s wide-eyed, wise-ass sidekick in Up in the Air, brings authentic wit and warmth to an at times riotously funny but also wildly uneven script. You can tell she is one of those luminous and generous actors whose mere presence has the gift of improving the ensemble around her.

NOTE: One of my personal faves, Elizabeth Banks serves double duty (off screen) as the film’s producer and (onscreen) as a sardonic fembot a cappella contest commentator who makes Entertainment Tonight‘s Mary Hart look like Mother Teresa. She is a delight!

The film does not ever stray from it hackneyed underdog structure (one of the characters even invokes Rocky at one point), but the sass and smarts of the leads and supporting players offer the enterprise a joyous uplift.