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by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008


Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being restructured to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness. 

In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.

Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race (new to DVD in an “Unrated” version from Universal) taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the year’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.

Don’t think this was some project pulled out of a bored executive’s yoga-toned behind, however. As part of the Unrated DVD experience (note, of the five added minutes of material, very little do with sex and/or violence), Anderson is one hand to provide a fun and spry commentary track. He indicates that he’s wanted to tackle Death Race ever since famed indie producer Corman bought the rights to his first film Shopping. That it’s taken 14 years from greenlight to gear box is something Anderson laments, but he’s also glad that it took this long. The special effects necessary to realize his over the top aims would have been far less spectacular than in 1994.

Speaking of Roger Dodger, all those with fond memories of the Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less give away all the possible plot twists, what happens during the each and every race is fairly obvious.

Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage that Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.

Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.

Equally out of place, for different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - make dat mon-ey - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.

Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) turned into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lighting and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. For someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.

The DVD itself spends most of its bonus feature cache on the aforementioned commentary. It also plans to get a lot of digital context goodwill be offering the Rated and Unrated versions. Again, don’t be fooled by this plot - studios often inject unimportant material back into a movie to thwart the original MPAA determination, even if the new stuff is just boring exposition. Here, we get a few more seconds of human combustion, but that’s it for the gore score. Everything else is added plot ticks. The two making-of featurettes are fun, since they give the cast and crew an EPK-lite ability to wax poetic about a big, dumb car crash film.

Thankfully, most of the major quibbles with this film drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a year of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. Death Race refuses to take itself seriously - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 

by Bill Gibron

19 Dec 2008


Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.

For Randy “The Ram” Robinson, eternal stardom came quickly and burned very, very bright. As one of the ‘80s premiere wrestlers, he was a title holder and a public draw. He was so popular he even had his own action figure. Now, two decades later, he is battered, bruised, and broken. Taking menial matches on the weekends to supplement his food service, trailer park existence, he’s desperate to reclaim his past glory. While in remarkable shape for a man of his age, life is apparently set to beat him down one last time. A literal busted heart, a grim diagnosis, and it looks like The Ram’s career is done. But for this former fan icon, an anniversary rematch may be the very thing that keeps his legacy and hopes alive. It may also kill him outright.

Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.

It’s impossible to explain how amazing Rourke is here. Bulked up beyond recognition, wearing his own battle spoils from a decade of debauchery and failed plastic surgery, he stands as a warning to anyone who thinks the acting profession is all red carpets and E! News Daily. Sure, most of the damage is of the self-destructive and inflicted variety, but in the chew ‘em up and spit them out world of Hollywood, that someone like he survived is stunning enough. Now take The Ram’s similarly styled story - early instant fame, a life in pursuit of ever increasing success (and the harmful perks that come with same), the inability to recognize the need to slow down, a current situation marked by dishonesty and despair. Together, this amalgamation of persona and performance marks the kind cinematic synergy that makes movies truly magic.

But amazingly enough, he’s not the only great thing here. Proving to those who questioned her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei continues her own reclamation of her career (after last year’s similarly spectacular Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) with her turn as sensible stripper Cassidy. While she definitely shows off her incredible post-40 physique, there’s a naturalness and nurturing quality to her character that’s warm and inviting. As the other main female in his life, Evan Rachel Wood is an interesting enigma as The Ram’s abandoned daughter, Stephanie. Though she only has a few scenes here, the combination of hurt and longing is more than memorable. There is one moment in particular where her little girl feelings are forced to confront a man whose still capable of great compassion - and great disappointment. It’s just one of several sensational scenes.

Clearly, working outside his comfort zone inspired Aronofsky. Known for his flashy, in your face directorial flare, The Wrestler is miles away from his formalized work on such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. Instead of going for bright lights and auteur-ish bravado, Aronofsky strives for authenticity. The background is loaded with former and current wrestling notables, and when the supposedly “scripted” elements of each match are discussed, there’s no elaborate storyline or set-up. A quick shorthand regarding moves and potential weaponry (including barbed wire and a stapler!?!?) is all these seasoned veterans need. The matches are magnificent, each one presented in a unique and uncompromising manner. Even better, Aronofksy sticks around to show the aftermath - the blood, the sweat, the stitches, and the wholly professional clannishness and camaraderie.

There may be those who think the medical crisis subplot is to formulaic and manipulative for this kind of movie, and when the advertised rematch turns into a kind of Death of a Salesman send-off (though no clear resolution, good or bad, is offered), some may sense a bit of a heavy hand on the script (expertly put together by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel). But thanks to Rourke’s sensitive, well observed turn, the rest of the dominating cast, and Aronofsky’s courageousness and artistic risk taking, The Wrestler overcomes all clichés to redefine the sports film for a post-millennial audience raised on the very subject being explored. It may be hard for some to watch their heroes take a fall, but until you reach the bottom, there’s no way to possibly come back up.

As he stalks the counter behind the deli of the grocery store where he works at, desperately trying to avoid recognition while serving the customers with the kind of charm and grace that made him a wrestling champion, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim - unstuck in time and having difficulty dealing with the passage of same. There’s only one place he wants to be and he can never really return there. Still, the lure of the crowd is unnerving to those addicted to its trappings. As the last gasp of someone who has had more than a few of those life leaking final breaths, The Ram is nearing the end. Thanks to this sensational motion picture, we have the opportunity to watch him struggle yet again…at least for as long as it lasts. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008


As the end of the year approaches, there is a flood of new films entering your local Bijou. Sure, some have been out for a while, but only in limited release. As awards consideration becomes key, the studios are finally letting the mainstream see many of their very best. For the week before Christmas, 19 December, here’s the films in focus:

Gomorrah [rating: 8]

Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.

It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking. read full review…

Synecdoche, New York [rating: 7]

Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion…and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse.

Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?read full review…

Slumdog Millionaire [rating: 10]

(T)his is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.read full review…

Yes Man [rating: 6]

With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore **** up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only.

It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb. read full review…

Seven Pounds [rating: 6]

Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film.

If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…read full review…

The Wrestler [rating: 9]

Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general.

Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.read full review…

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008


We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.

While appearing on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jamal is arrested by the police and charged with cheating. He is only one inquiry away from the jackpot. After a severe and rather brutal interrogation, the cops discover some interesting facts about the boy. Born in the slums of Mumbai, he recalls his life as an urchin while proving that he knows the answer to every question asked. We learn of his mother’s death at the hands of anti-Muslim protestors. We see his tenure as a part of an orphanage as organized crime begging scheme. We meet his hotheaded trickster brother Salim, and the girl he has loved ever since he first laid eyes on her, Lakita. After a stint as a faux tour guide at the Taj Mahal, and his current trade as a coffee boy in a cellphone call center, he appears streetwise, if not particularly educated. Still, Jamal does indeed know the answers. They’re just so happen to be the landmarks in his otherwise unexceptional life. 

There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

But Slumdog Millionaire is different. It uses a clever plot contrivance (each answer on the game show inspires another flashback to a point in Jamal’s life) and within said individuals stories, Boyle gets to experiment with tone, approach, and creative syntax. The early scenes are the funniest, as they featuring incredibly endearing child actors illustrating the spunk and determination that drives many a dead-end Indian kid. While some of the humor can be scatological (little Jamal literally crawls through shit to see his favorite Bollywood hero), Boyle never flinches. This is especially true of the pivotal moment when our hero loses his mother. Shot and edited in a highly stylized, kinetic manner, we get caught up in the riots, and are resolved to the devastation that results.

Boyle then switches gears, giving us life from a little one’s perspective. The trip to the orphanage has a real Oliver Twist tone, especially when your substitute Fagan shows his incredibly cruel disposition. Later, after rescuing Latika from a brothel, the brothers hole up in an abandoned hotel, the implied luxury countermanding their previous dirt poor survival. At this moment, Slumdog Millionaire transforms from a travelogue (complete with compelling moments at the world famous Taj) into a personal story about dignity and self-reliance. Within the framework of a craven, criminal underworld, the boys are made to chose. Jamal becomes an office flunky. His brother, like so many before, lets the allure of easy money and quick trigger violence overwhelm him.

By breaking up the story into these two halves, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who loosely adapted the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup) gives us the whole post-colonial Indian experience in a nutshell. On the one end is the seething tide of humanity, an overpopulated mass unable to do much except exist and expire. Then there are the wealthy, the new millennial millionaires and business impresarios who literally rape their homeland, utilizing interchangeable slave-like labor to make their money. Within this set-up Jamal sees a way out. All he has to do is appear on the country’s favorite game show, rack up the cash, and he’ll have everything - including Latika.

The romance between the two destined lovers can be seen as Slumdog‘s sole weak link, an unexplained obsession that’s too old school Hollywood to be anything other than fantasy. But because Boyle gets such compelling work out of his mostly newcomer cast (including remarkable turns by leads Dev Patel and Freida Pinto) we forgive the narrative contrivances and simply believe. In fact, a lot of Slumdog Millionaire reminds us of why we love movies in the first place. It whisks us away to locations exotic and new. It introduces us to people and life experiences far beyond our own daily sphere of influence, and delivers both in a way that excites our senses, stirs our imagination, and satisfies our basic entertainment needs - and then some.

In a world which is rampantly turning multicultural, the innate pleasures of Slumdog Millionaire reflect this growing global concept of acceptance. It’s miles away from other movies set in India, it’s belief in all facets of the society - good, bad, rich, poor, corrupt, innocent, camp, cruel - helping to turn the mysterious modern country into a combination of Oz and some interplanetary rest stop. You have truly never seen backdrops like those featured in this miraculous film. And through them all, a young man runs - to catch up to his destiny, to find grace within his lowlife circumstances, to snag the elusive girl he always loved. Jamal may not become a millionaire, but in the process of leaving his past behind, he will become his own man. Thanks to Danny Boyle’s undeniable genius, it’s a trip well worth taking. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008


It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb.

Carl Allen is a painfully unhappy man. Miserable ever since his divorce and lost in a dead end job, his friends feel he’s headed toward an interpersonal crash. One day, he runs into an old buddy who appears exceedingly vibrant and alive. He’s just come back from a seminar run by self-help guru Terrence Bundley, and the advice he’s been given is simple - just say “Yes” to everything. No negatives. Just positives. Reluctantly embracing the philosophy at first, Carl soon learns that constantly agreeing has its drawbacks. It also has its benefits, as he starts seeing a free spirited rock chick poet named Allison. Soon, life is wonderful for the former loser. He gets promoted, he reconnects with his pals, and his relationship with Allison is going gangbusters. But you can only agree with everything for so long before it comes back to bite you, and Carl soon discover the pitfalls - mostly personal - of being so agreeable.

With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore shit up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only. Jokes are made, funny things are said, and yet director Peyton Reed (slumming once again since making the oddly enjoyable retro gem Down with Love) can’t get things to gel. Carrey isn’t really to blame. After all, he’s working with a script that gesticulates wildly from clever RomCom meet cutes to old ladies giving blow jobs. This is humor as hodgepodge, everything but the crapped in kitchen sink tossed together in hopes that something satiric, or silly, or slapstick will occur. For every quasi-inventive moment (the ultra naïve New Zealand co-worker Norman is a nice touch) and rock solid emotional sentiment (Zooey Deschanel’s quirk girl damsel in distress is wonderfully winning), we are treated to pages ripped off and out of our lead’s book of formerly guaranteed laugh getters.

Yet now, they don’t work. Carrey was once the king of embarrassing behavior, unafraid to push the limits of likeability and realism to make his character’s click. Look back at his work in such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Cable Guy, Me, Myself, and Irene, or Dumb and Dumber and you’ll see someone going ape to try to make a maniac mountain out of a minor motivational molehill. Even when he’s taken it down several notches and gone serious (The Truman Show, The Majestic), he’s rooted his performances in a stylized reality. Not anymore. Carrey wants to be an average schmoe, albeit one who can still riff on Red Bull and go a drunken one-on-one with a pumped up bar patron. But in the interim between project delays and flops, comedy has passed Carrey by. What worked a few years ago seems as passé as the late Chris Farley’s fat guy goofballing.

That’s not to say that Yes Man completely fails, but there is a much better film to be found inside all the mugging and high concept contrivances. The notion of one man finding himself with the power of positive thinking and the newfound hope in the acceptance of life could be played for both humor and the handkerchiefs. Give us a strong enough protagonist, a philosophy that doesn’t feel ripped off from a dozen EST offshoots, and a relationship we can root for, and something like this would work and work well. But Reed can only manage one out of three, and even though it’s supposedly based on a book by Scot Danny Wallace, everything here feels false. Even when we buy into the budding kinship between Carrey and Deschanel, it’s because of the natural ease between the actors, not anything offered within the narrative.

Indeed, Yes Man takes a fast track into tedium the minute a spontaneous trip to Lincoln, Nebraska becomes a skewered spoof of the War on Terror. Allison misunderstands Carl’s motives, the Feds fall into familiar patterns of arrest first and ignore the answers to their questions later, and everything hinges on a hospital stay, a borrowed street bike, and that most hamfisted of ‘80s third act answers - the chase. That’s right, when all else fails, but your star in a butt-revealing hospital gown, get him on a physics defying vehicle of some sort, and watch as the editing and shot selection try to make things exciting and nail-biting. While we want to see a resolution to the last remaining plot threads, tying things up with some stuntwork seems unimaginative at best.

Perhaps Carrey is a concept whose time has truly past. Maybe he needs to go back to making family fare and the occasional oddball curveball choice (any calls from Tarantino you haven’t taken, Mr. Jim?). If films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Role Models have proved anything, it’s that a successful comedy in 2008 has to rely on more than just pratfalls and forced outrageousness to win over audiences. For someone who has traded almost exclusively in the world of brazen cinematic clowning, Jim Carrey can no longer hang. Had Yes Man embraced this and gone for something sensible, we might have a clever and inventive effort. As it stands, we are treated to the same old material filtered through a wit worn out since before George W. Bush took power.  That’s a little too long to be adrift inside the laughfest landscape.

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