[3 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hey traditional Spring film season - glad to see you haven’t truly changed your subpar stripes. It’s just like the good old days - you remember, don’t you? The times we used to spend together? We’d take four months out of every year and just hang out, your weekly selection of Summer/Awards cast-offs and long delayed failures clogging up the local Cineplex with nothing but shoulder shrugging mediocrity. This is the way it used to be, the way we film fans remember the span between January and May - before the blockbusters move in and take over the ticket line landscape. There’s no popcorn fare in your past - just lots and lots of ideas that got really, really lost in the tepid translation. Oh sure, you tried to pad your rep, resorting to surprise hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to change your image. But for the most part…things are back to the way they used to be, and the feeling of familiarity is intoxicating.
Indeed, Spring 2010 was fairly abysmal, the overall perspective more mind-boggling than just mediocre. This was the time of vomit-inducing RomComs, of a Valentine’s Day so inert and inane that it, alone, could contribute to a rise in lovelorn, lonely hearts suicides. It was the quarter of failed future shock (Repo Men) and even worse cop drama dreariness (Brooklyn’s Finest). It was the period that gave us The Joneses, the lame Legion, The Back-Up Plan, and the rotten Romero retread The Crazies. Not every offering was so horrific, but we did have to suffer through more Nicholas Sparks than any human being should have to endure, and another set of Harry Potter wannabes. Things were so bad this time around that John Travolta riffing on his previous Pulp Fiction success was more satisfying than most of what came out of the tainted Tinseltown factory.
Still, there were five that really stood out, five that made their limited running time in the theater the cinematic equivalent of being seated next to a sober Kevin Smith on a cross-country flight. Some of them were obvious from the minute they were announced - right, Jackie Chan? Others snuck up on you like unwelcome relatives at a social occasion. Eventually, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. While we still have an astonishing nine more months until this year is officially over, one wonders how high up some of these turkeys will land come final annual aesthetic tally time. More disconcerting is the notion that, indeed, things can and WILL get worse. Let’s begin with:
5. Date Night
There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from this limp, languid attempt at anarchic comedy. First, never, ever, ever let Shawn Levy near your material. The horrid hack director is like crap kryptonite to even the most super-manageable script. Next, if you hire certifiably funny people (Steve Carrell, Tina Fey) and surround them with solid actors (Mila Kunis, James Franco, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner), give them more to work with then clownish gestures, endless mugging, and ridiculous Roadrunner/Wile Coyote level action. Finally, recognize that loud does not equal laughs, nor does chaos ensure chuckles. Everything, from the cleverest punchline to the most outrageous bit of physical humor has to be handled properly - and with his half-assed hamfists, Levy was not the man to make this work. Frankly, nobody probably could.
4. Death at a Funeral
Hopefully, Peter Dinklage is in the process of firing his agent and looking for new, more knowledgeable and rational representation. After all, the diminutive actor must have got some really bad advice when he agreed to reprise his role in this forced family farce. Sure, he was in the original, but that was set in the UK and had a seasoned spoof veteran - Frank Oz - behind the lens. This time around, it was all urban, with former indie fave Neil “Pass the Paycheck” LaBute sitting in the director’s chair. He should have ran screaming, not signed up. This movie was almost destined to fail from the moment it started. You know you’re in trouble when Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence are your featured funnymen, and yet neither one manages a single significant laugh. Ouch.
3. Our Family Wedding
What’s worse that a funeral featuring a predominately African American - and humorless - cast? A lame lampoon in which said minority group takes on Hispanics for the title of least tolerant in-law to be. That’s right, a mixed race couple wants to marry and they head off to LA to confront each other’s parents. The results? Reprehensible. The message? No matter how far we’ve come since Martin Luther King and Malcolm X demand social change and individual equality (and accountability) for all, ethnicity is still a go-to gag for sloppy, semi-illiterate satires. And you know what makes things even worse? The entire cast should know better, from Oscar winner Forest Whitaker to Ugly Betty‘s America Ferrera (race-baiting comedian Carlos Mencia? Not so much). It’s sad when a goat strung out on Viagra is your most potent pratfall.
2. The Spy Next Door
For a while, he was considered the Buster Keaton of martial arts films, a deft physical comedian who could also kick some major league ass along the way. Now, Jackie Chan appears ready to soil every ounce of his considerable reputation, what with the tacky trifecta of The Forgotten Kingdom, The Karate Kid remake, and this abysmal attempted family farce. As an Asian agent working in the US, he must put up with George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus in unnecessary numbskull mode, as well as some Central Casting bratlings who do little except scream and whine and make life miserable - and that’s just for the audience. Brian Levant’s dreary direction sucks all the adrenalin out of the action and Chan is obviously too old to do ALL his own stunts. The CG and other trick F/X are obvious.
1. Furry Vengeance
Skunks endlessly spraying a puffy overpaid actor in the face, white clouds of comic stench replacing the animal’s actual abilities. This is just one of many affronts to taste and talent that Furry Vengeance heaps upon unsuspecting viewers. But it’s not just the critters that turn craven. Famous faces such as Brendan Fraser, Brooke Shields, and Ken Jeong drop their dignity to jump around like jackasses all in the service of a script that offers absolutely nothing original or inventive. About the only intriguing element here is the casting of stand-up comics Patrice O’Neal and Jim Norton as construction workers. No, they don’t get to crack wise. They don’t get any lines of dialogue at all. That’s right - NONE! Perhaps the producers felt their crude curse-laden jibes wouldn’t gel with the intended demo. What’s offered instead, however, is even more offensive.