Category Archives: Comedy

The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Armstrong, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


Grumpier Old Men (1995, Howard Deutch)

The first half of Grumpier Old Men is such an improvement over the original, it could be a paragon of sequels. Director Deutch knows how to showcase the actors amid all the physical comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy and sight gags in Grumpier. There’s Walter Matthau doing the Saturday Night Fever strut while in his mid-seventies and in a bathrobe in rural but probably not that rural, they just never talk about it, Minnesota. Grumpier has a lot of laughs. It’s learned from the experience of the previous one; screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson has, as far as setting up scenes for this particular cast, learned.

And Deutch has just the right take on the material, just the right balance between laughing at the characters and with them. And it’s sometimes hard to laugh with Matthau and fellow septuagenarian rascal, Jack Lemmon. They’re dicks to new girl in town Sophia Loren, who’s just an Italian bombshell with a heart of gold trying to find the right man even though her mama (Ann Morgan Guilbert) thinks she’s cursed in love. Grumpier definitely never feels like an homage to an Italian melodrama from the late seventies, but you can at least imagine Loren and Guilbert having these arguments for the last forty years. You can’t really imagine Lemmon and Matthau when they’re not in the middle of a movie adventure; this time they’re planning their kids’ wedding—Lemmon’s daughter, Daryl Hannah, is marrying Matthau’s son, Kevin Pollak—then Loren comes to town and there’s the whole run the new girl out of town because she isn’t going to sell live bait in the boys’ old bait shop. Frankly, it’s a disappointment Ossie Davis doesn’t show up as a ghost. It’d be a bad move, but a likable one.

Because halfway through Grumpier Old Men, the film runs out of energy and then realizes it hasn’t been doing much with the story. The first half is Matthau mugging for the camera and fight-flirting with Loren. Lemmon’s the sidekick; outside a couple solid laughs, Lemmon and Ann-Margret are entirely support in the first act. They come back at the end of the second, when we get a preview of the spin-off melodrama where Capulet Hannah and Montague Pollak discover they can’t make the marriage work because their bloodlines hate each other. Actually, a divorce melodrama with this cast would be amazing. And might be a more appropriate use the Alan Silvestri score.

Because the third act solution to the kids’ relationship problems, manipulate Daryl Hannah. For her own good. With the help of her child. Because Grumpier Old Men isn’t older adult empowerment as much as it is the Little Rascals with Lemmon and Matthau. There’s the preview of that eventuality when they pull pranks on Loren before she opens her restaurant because they want to run her out of business. Loren’s solution? Cleavage, a red dress, a Monroe wiggle, and trying to seduce Matthau in the depressing town bar. Some of its optics distract from other of its optics and Loren and Matthau are really funny so… it gets a pass but it was probably foreshadowing for the second and third act problems.

Especially since they also get themselves out of every subplot’s narrative pickle in the laziest, most manipulative way possible—particularly taking into account the target audience, White grandparents and their grandchildren, stuck together on a holiday afternoon. Deus Deus Ex: Grumpier Old Men and BLANK: For now they kill me with a living death. But no spoilers. You can guess, though, if you’re familiar with the actor. Nudge nudge.

All those complaints made… it’s kind of a lot of fun for a while. Matthau’s schtick is great. Loren’s great. Burgess Meredith—as Lemmon’s foul-mouth-and-minded ninety-five year-old dad—is hilarious. Lemmon’s fine. Turns out he’s funnier in the outtakes, which is a weird way to end the movie, showing how much funnier it could have been if you weren’t going for so bland. Ann-Margret gets the worst part, outside Hannah. And Pollak, because Pollak’s unlikable. Especially when he gets stale, scene-ending one-liner observations about the human condition in middle class nineties America, especially with aging parents; part of Deutch’s lack of personality is his obvious inability to say no to bad ideas; it makes him a tragic figure in the Grumpier mess.

It’s kind of worth it for the cast.

It’s also definitely more successful than the first, even if it ends up disappointing. Matthau gets a solid part. Loren’s got a much better part than anyone else in the movie besides him… which is a qualified compliment but… it’s cute. In an absurd way. Especially given it’s appropriate for all ages but wants to keep everyone in the audience awake.

So maybe the droning, simplistic, brain-addling Silvestri score sends subliminal messages to knock out anyone who’d be offended by all the dick jokes. They were going to have fart jokes too—because it’s a theme in the outtakes—but apparently someone decided fart jokes would be too far.

Grumpier Old Men could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Maryann Brandon, Seth Flaum, and Billy Weber; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Sophia Loren (Maria Sophia Coletta Ragetti), Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Ann Morgan Guilbert (Mama Ragetti), Ann-Margret (Ariel Gustafson), Daryl Hannah (Melanie Gustafson), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Katie Sagona (Allie), Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


Grumpy Old Men (1993, Donald Petrie)

If Grumpy Old Men weren’t so scared of its ribald humor—giving almost all of it to dirty oldest man Burgess Meredith, who’s just there to make sex jokes and serves no other purpose in the film—you could probably just as well call it Horny Old Men. At least in Jack Lemmon’s case. He hasn’t gotten horizontal since 1978, which might be when his wife left. Grumpy’s pretty vague with its backstory, maybe because writer Mark Steven Johnson is far more comfortable with Lemmon and nemesis Walter Matthau bickering; or maybe he’s just not good at consistency in the exposition. Given the general ineptness of the narrative, it seems more like the latter.

Because even though the film’s principal cast is entirely AARP eligible, it’s not some empowering story about older adults living full lives; if it weren’t for Ann-Margret moving in across the street and reminding Matthau and Lemmon to perv at her through their windows, they’d be just as happy sitting around alone doing nothing. Sure, Matthau’s got his TV and Lemmon plays chess against himself, but their lives are just waiting for their kids to need them. The kids—Kevin Pollak is Matthau’s son, Daryl Hannah’s Lemmon’s daughter—are the only supporting characters with a full arc. Though… arguably, Lemmon is the only of the the main characters with a complete arc. Once the third act hits, Matthau and Ann-Margret act entirely for Lemmon’s benefit, even as he’s offscreen for a bunch of the finale.

Lemmon’s arc mostly involves him dodging IRS guy Buck Henry—who’s well-utilized and quite amusing in an otherwise bland little extended cameo—because (we learn) he wasn’t paying enough back when his ex-wife was working so he owes a bunch of money and they’re going to take his house. He’s not telling anyone about these problems—and the film isn’t telling the viewer either so it can double-up expository impact when Matthau finds out about it late in the second act—so it’s hard to take the problems seriously. You’re obviously not supposed to take Grumpy Old Men very seriously, from vulgar nonagenarian Meredith to Lemmon and Matthau’s mean-spirited bantering slash full-on slapstick physical comedy; Lemmon’s money problems, despite being the biggest plot (sorry, Ann-Margret), don’t make much impact. Lemmon’s great at fretting but fretting solo can’t compare to he and Matthau going thermonuclear. Especially since Matthau’s got zip to do except go thermonuclear.

Because they’re not really Grumpy Old Men in general, just specifically as it relates to the other. They’ve hated each other since childhood; despite being pals until puberty, the first girl to come between them broke the friendship early, which must have made it awkward when Lemmon then married the girl, had a couple kids—a son died in Vietnam to remind everyone it’s actually kind of serious but in a “this was very serious thirty years ago and not since” way—and was miserable with Matthau’s dream girl. Matthau meanwhile married a good woman—the way they talk about Lemmon’s ex-wife is… problematic. Though the script’s often problematic with its female characters. The boys initially suspect Ann-Margret is a free-love type, for example, and it’s impossible to fault them because her writing is so bad for most of the first act. She’s supposed to be a passionate literature professor living her best life as a widow, which involves snowmobiling a lot. And a sauna so they can show fifty-two year-old Ann-Margret can still cheesecake.

It’s also unclear why Ann-Margret’s only three options, dating-wise, are Lemmon (sixty-eight), Matthau (seventy-three), and Ossie Davis (seventy-six). Especially since she’s not just drawing stares from the oldest guys. Of course, the film’s not really interested in fleshing out the setting. Besides Lemmon, Matthau, Ann-Margrets’s homes, the frozen lake where the men all icefish because it’s Minnesota (Davis runs the bait shop and lunch counter), a bar, and a pharmacy, Grumpy Old Men doesn’t go anywhere.

The best performance is probably Matthau, just because he doesn’t get too much to do, whereas the script fails both Lemmon and Ann-Margret (mostly her). Davis is cute, Pollak is good, Hannah’s fine. Technically it’s competent. Petrie does fine showcasing the physical comedy and the banter. Johnny E. Jensen’s photography is better than it needs to be. The Alan Silvestri super-saccharine score is a tad much though.

Grumpy Old Men has got some solid laughs and not much else.

Oh, and listen fast for John Carroll Lynch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Johnny E. Jensen; edited by Bonnie Koehler; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, David Chapman; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Ossie Davis (Chuck), Buck Henry (Snyder), Christopher McDonald (Mike), and Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).