Category Archives: Comedy

Personal Foul (1987, Ted Lichtenfeld)

My initial impulse as I sat through the droning minutes of Personal Foul was to give the film a pass. Not give it any stars, but a pass. Also, when I say droning, I mean droning. The film’s music is a set of three or four songs by folk singer Greg Brown (and friends) on repeat. One of them even has a better title in the chorus than Personal Foul. I can’t remember; I was worried if I committed the songs to memory they might never leave.

There’s a lot of use of the songs. Lots of montages. Sometimes the songs are just over leads Adam Arkin and David Morse living their lives, Arkin a dissatisfied school teacher, Morse a very unromantic drifter (he lives out of his truck), and sometimes it’s over the drama as a woman (Susan Wheeler Duff) comes between Arkin and Morse’s burgeoning friendship. And sometimes it’s just over them playing basketball. Because Personal Foul, for the first half anyway, is all about how a bond basketball makes no man can tear asunder.

Duff is one of Arkin’s coworkers; a lot of the film takes place in the school, just because it gives the film something to do. Director Lichtenheld loves the basketball and the montages, but does seem to know he occasionally needs to have scenes. They don’t really have any momentum—the biggest plot thread in the first half no lives school administrator F. William Parker, who Arkin bullies and encourages others to bully, but it’s actually got zilch to do with the eventual story.

Lichtenheld shows a lot about Morse’s current life, making paper flowers to sell on the street, which leads to Arkin bringing him into school to teach an art class and Morse realizing he’s got the potential for real human connection and whatnot (while also introducing Duff to Morse). But we never even know if Arkin realizes Morse is living in a truck in front of his house. Men, even men who play basketball together, do not speak of such things. Though Personal Foul could be a lot more insensitive… well, then it gets more insensitive and it turns out it will be more insensitive. Just maybe not in exactly the ways Lichtenheld forecast he was going to do it.

The third act involves Duff revealing she has some machinations going on as far as the love triangle, which is barely implied in the story—director Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to have an understanding of actor chemistry, especially not since Duff and Morse were (and still are as of this writing) married and have oodles of it while Arkin and Duff have an inverse chemistry thing going.

The machinations are extremely cringe and Lichtenheld doesn’t seem to understand them. He’s taking a story with a terrible female characterization if it were summer vacation crushes and thoughtlessly scaling it up to thirty-somethings. Some of Personal Foul can get a pass. The third act with Duff cannot.

Arkin ransoming information about “friend” Morse cannot.

There’s also some weird thing going on with Duff being from Texas. It makes very little sense, other than to imply she’s just a good country woman looking for a husband or something.

At its “best,” Foul provides some interesting acting opportunities for Morse and Arkin. Not interesting roles or overall performances, but the occasional moment in a scene, you can see the actors working.

Is it enough of a reason to watch Personal Foul? Heavens no.

Though if you’re directing a movie with any basketball in it whatsoever, Personal Foul might be a must watch for things to never ever do when shooting a basketball game.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Ted Lichtenfeld; director of photography, John LeBlanc; edited by Steve Mullenix; music by Greg Brown; costume designer, Elizabeth Palmer.

Starring David Morse (Ben), Adam Arkin (Jeremy), Susan Wheeler Duff (Lisa), and F. William Parker (Lester).


The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

If IMDb is correct, there have been only ten other adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I’m including the modernizations. So it’s not so much Emma is oft-adapted, maybe just it’s got a very memorable story. Memorable enough even I was anticipating how—oh, wow, it’s director de Wilde’s first feature. Like, remember when music video directors were a punchline when they went to features?

Anyway, even with my limited Emma knowledge, I was able to anticipate—gleefully—how de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton were going to adapt the twists and turns. Because once Emma arrives, so to speak, which probably happens with the appearance of Tanya Reynolds as odious vicar Josh O'Connor’s new good lady wife, there’s no longer a question of whether or not the film will be a success. Instead, it’s a question of how successful it will be. And de Wilde, leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Catton, they seem to peak Emma. Like, it’s hard to imagine how you could do the film better given Taylor-Joy is basically a villain for much of the film’s run time. Not exactly and it’s all very complicated, but watching Taylor-Joy manipulate the worlds around her for her own amusement and questionable pursuit of perfection… she’s not a hero.

It’s what makes her eventual friendship of social cruelty with Callum Turner so effective. He’s encouraging her worst compulsions and doing so for his own benefit. The film sets Taylor-Joy and Turner up as alter egos of sorts, with him using his powers of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth for selfish purposes, Taylor-Joy uses hers for altruistic ones. But she gets to determine the altruism. The film doesn’t emphasize these parallels and inversions, it just presents them plainly, unspoken. The young, rich, and unmarried in nineteenth century England are have their lane and they aren’t going to deviate. I suppose there’s also a parallel with Flynn, older than Taylor-Joy and Turner, who was once young, is still rich and still unmarried.

Did I just describe the obvious themes of the novel, because when I was watching the film, I finally “got it.” Taylor-Joy’s arc is fantastic in this film. De Wilde and Catton have this very rich backdrop for her to act in. It’s not just getting to see her in the gorgeous production—production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and set decorator Stella Fox do exquisite work. There’s a scene where notoriously private Flynn gives a tour of his house to his friends, showing off his various art treasures and the camera can never be slow enough on the pieces, with de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt so gorgeously showcasing. As the characters are all reacting to this art around them, being able to see the art so beautifully rendered makes for an entirely different scene than if it were just the drama of the characters.

But the film is a comedy of manners. The narrative twists and turns are only consequential because of the strict cultural norms the cast finds themselves in. It’s very layered, with the characters being very constrained in what they can do and stay. Again, de Wilde and Catton do an excellent job of establishing the rules without any big exposition dumps. Instead, we pick it up from Taylor-Joy’s friendship with latest matching making victim but also apparently first real friend, Mia Goth, or from Taylor-Joy’s dad (a truly wonderful Bill Nighy) in his whining about their social obligations, or from the supporting cast as they fret to one another; Flynn has, of course, the most to say about the cultural norms but also the most restraint. If Flynn’s going to say something about how people are behaving, it’s going to have to be egregious. He’s got all the wisdom and knows it, whereas Taylor-Joy thinks she can bend wisdom to fit her knowledge.

Taylor-Joy and Flynn are the most important performances. They make the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this material than Taylor-Joy and Flynn. Taylor-Joy becomes sympathetic through Flynn’s approving eye, but her character development is all her own. Outside that approval, in fact. The ending does something really lovely—and lightning fast—reorienting how to read that character development throughout too. de Wilde and Catton always keep some distance from Taylor-Joy, even when we’re seeing her in distress, and are then able to move in for the ending and really leverage the work Taylor-Joy’s done along with some narrative echoing to earlier in the film.

Who’s better, Taylor-Joy or Flynn? It’s a toss-up. Taylor-Joy’s always excellent but she gets more material. Until all of a sudden Flynn gets more material and it seems like he’s even better. But with the third act, the scenes functionally depend on Taylor-Joy and her performance so… Taylor-Joy. Flynn’s still great (and contributes the end credits song, which is adorable).

The supporting cast is all outstanding. Turner’s an excellent rich heel, Goth’s great as the friend; Goth gets a great third act showcase. Nighy’s great as the dad, who’s a hypochondriac. Lots of laughs for Nighy with that detail. Including Chloe Pirrie as Taylor-Joy’s married with children older sister, who’s caught the “bug.” Suffering husband, Oliver Chris (also Flynn’s brother), is hilarious with all his reactions. Then there’s Gemma Whelan as Taylor-Joy’s former governess, first matchmaking victim, and only friend. She’s good. Not in it a lot, but when she’s in it, she’s really good. The baked-in character relationships, the established ones, they’re all really well-done. Rupert Graves is good as her new husband. Miranda Hart’s great in a really important and complicated part. Amber Anderson, as the analogue Taylor-Joy rejects, is good. O’Connor and Reynolds are wonderful.

De Wilde’s direction—composition, performances—is superior. All the technicals are great—wonderful music from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge—Blauvelt’s aforementioned photography and Nick Emerson’s editing are superlative.

Emma is an absolute delight.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Autumn de Wilde; screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt; edited by Nick Emerson; music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse), Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Callum Turner (Frank Churchhill), Gemma Whelan (Mrs. Weston), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Myra McFadyen (Mrs. Bates), Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Connor Swindells (Robert Martin), Chloe Pirrie (Isabella Knightley), Oliver Chris (John Knightley), and Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse).


The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).