Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gynocomedy fails in post-Juno world

A movie can’t survive on uterine humor alone. Baby Mama is proof in stirrups.

All it had to do was last 90 minutes. That’s 10 minutes for every month of a character’s pregnancy. It made me wish Baby Mama was about African lions or pot-bellied pigs, whose babies gestate for about three months before birth. That movie would have hit the target jokes, found a nice stride and then, before it had too much umbilical cord to hang itself with, ended. But there I go, reviewing the movie that wasn’t even made.

The movie that was made is one of those One Truth Movies: The entire plot is held together by a lie so monumental that, should it be revealed, the cosmic forces holding the movie together would collapse, leaving us to pick the popcorn off our laps and trudge out to the parking lot.

The liar is surrogate mother Angie (Amy Poehler), a loony-ball redneck carrying the unborn seed of Kate (Tina Fey), who, at 37, is hopelessly single and listening to her biological clock grinding to a halt. Apparently, Kate has a T-shaped uterus, which is no good for babies since they haven’t learned their ABCs yet. And neither, it should be added, has Angie, whose taste in men explains Darwin’s theories in four different dimensions. Angie’s current guy doesn’t work because he’s trying to win arena football tickets in a radio station promotion — he has winner written all over him, but it’s spelled all wrong.

At first Angie lies that she’s pregnant to mooch off Kate’s kindness, and her $10,000 mommy-to-be checks. Then, when Angie actually does get pregnant, another lie swells with her tummy: “Is this Kate’s lab-fertilized baby or is it my deadbeat boyfriend’s?” She plays it fast and loose and Kate learns the truth at the worst possible moment — the baby shower, the only place a baby-comedy this vapid could possibly end.

A better movie would have developed Kate a little better, maybe suggested that she wasn’t as ready for mommyhood as she thought. Tina Fey, a feisty and refreshing force on 30 Rock and a former head writer on Saturday Night Live, is more expressive than Baby Mama gives her credit for. She and her movie could have been very funny, and possibly meaningful. Instead they’re just mildly humorous.

Then there’s the issue with Kate’s single status. You have to wonder what’s inherently wrong, on an emotional level, with a movie character as attractive, smart, sassy, sexy, intelligent and inventive as the one Fey plays who is unable to find a responsible and willing mate to help her produce offspring. Either she’s entirely too picky, or maybe she has a horrible foot odor or questionable, deal-breaking hygiene. Juno, last year’s big pregnancy movie, would have the answers, but Baby Mama just uses its star’s emotional well-being, and her baby, as a vehicle for a series of disposable jokes.

And then there’s Poehler, Mama’s preggo floozy who plays dumb the way Beethoven wrote sonatas. I see crazy in her eyes, and I like it, although she’s required to play dense to such a degree that it becomes distracting — come on, she doesn’t understand how her reproductive system works? In birthing class she asks if Pam, the household cooking spray, could be used to make a baby Slip ’N Slide during delivery. She then holds breast pumps to her eyes like goggles. Her timing and delivery are perfect, but viewed as a piece of the whole, Poehler unbalances an already unbalanced picture. Ditto for Fey. It’s as if the characters would have been better on their own than together.

Joining them in irrelevance is Sigourney Weaver, some kind of birthing expert who works out of an office that has probably been an Oval Office set on dozens of other movies, and Steve Martin, the great comedian who plays a hippie who apparently traded his LSD stash for an organic foods market. The pony-tailed windbag, with his aura-examining nuttiness, rewards staffers with five minutes of unbroken eye contact and expensive Tibetan prayer smoke. In a role not far removed from his dirtball in Bowfinger, Martin is either the best thing about Baby Mama or the worst depending on how you react to cervix gags, call it gynecomedy.

Women might appreciate Baby Mama. Men … not so much.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lost mini hoax revealed

April Fool's Day is not celebrated enough. So to celebrate I thought I'd create a fake Lost script, throw it on a page and see what happened. It ran on this page April 1. Some people within my circulation area in West Phoenix, Ariz., totally believed it, and those that didn't found it amusing. Somehow the page made its way to several Lost blogs, all of which knew it was a hoax but admired its spirit. Lost Rumours picked it up, and so did Doc Arzt and Friends' Lost Blog. But the comments were harsh, more harsh than I was expecting. "This one wasn't even convincing." "The script was clunkier than most fan fiction." "Not even close." "The dialogue gave it away. Yeesh!" "Sounds like it's from a soap opera." "Boy, that was awful."

Ouch, everyone. Ouch.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Meatheads is more like it

Not that there’s anything wrong with Leatherheads — George Clooney’s long and arduous look into pre-NFL football via the screwball comedy — it’s just that there’s nothing really right about it either.

It’s all very bluuuuuuuhhhh.

The laughs are mild and camouflaged amid 1920’s anachronism. The dialogue channels Clark Gable and Cary Grant, but rarely succumbs to their spirits. The antics are whacky and purely madcap — like when George and his girl play Keystone Cops with stolen police uniforms — but they go flat, then sour, when left out of the icebox too long. The costumes were great, but when that’s all there is to say that can’t be a good sign.

It all takes place in 1925. Prohibition is well established. Flappers own the night. The Great Depression is on the horizon. And college football is a beloved sport, while professional football is seen as a joke, a dead-end career path for pathetic old timers who didn’t go to college because they were either too poor or too stupid. Adding to their stupidity, by way of brain-scrambling head injuries, is the unforgiving football uniform: minimal padding, lightweight cotton garments and a leather moccasin that goes on the head, thus making the players leatherheads.

The movie is only half sports, like when the football hero must recruit, and then later play against, a person who becomes his friend. The middle section is barely sports at all as the young friend becomes embroiled in a war scandal invented to keep the action off the field. Neither story is very interesting.

The football hero is Dodge Connelly (Clooney), who runs a rag-tag group of knuckle-crackers in the Midwest. Dodge is the unofficial coach, the star player, playmaker, quarterback and also the team’s press spokesman — after every game he dictates the story to the scotch-soaked reporter sent with the team on road trips. With the league in the lurch, it gets financing from a rich sports agent determined to make football the new American pastime with Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), an ex-college star and a veteran of the Great War. As a soldier, Carter was involved in the capture of a large German force; his heroism creates a scandal when it comes out the whole story may have been fabricated. Carter, an all-American boy with a doughy all-American face, seems innocently caught up in something he’s unable to control.

Krasinski, who plays beloved paper salesman Jim on the American version of The Office, is a likeable enough guy, but, like the movie, he’s very bland. He overacts a tad, but then again, everyone in Leatherheads does. Clooney, who embodies his free-riding debonair with a classical Gable-like swagger, has some good lines that twist and turn on provocative double entendres, but his performance is lost in the period. Or maybe it’s just lost in his directing (yes, Clooney directed Leatherheads).

In trying to imagine his character in a screwball comedy like It Happened One Night, he’s made it incomprehensible. The twitches, the soggy faces, double glances, goofy eye movements … these things might have worked with Cary Grant, but here they’re just outdated and lost in time and space. By referencing other works — mainly It Happened One Night — Clooney has not made an homage, but a series of jokes that now don’t work in two time periods: now and during the screwball period of the 1930s and 40s.

The film does find a nice rhythm with Lexie Littleton (RenĂ©e Zellweger), who is a hard-charging reporter sent to unmask Carter Rutherford for her yellowish newspaper. Zellweger, facial contortions and all, is charming enough for me to mention that she’s does very well in roles set in the 1920s — first Chicago and now this. But her character’s war scandal threatens to derail the real story, that of Dodge and Carter’s football teams, which meet in muddy calamity by film’s end.

The football scenes are like every other football movie ever filmed — lame — albeit in period football uniforms, which provides a fun new twist. But if you want to see it done better, please check out Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, a film that uses the same football outfits but not because the costume department had a large budget — The Freshman, one of comedies forgotten gems, was filmed in 1925, the same time period Leatherheads claims to represent.

Leatherheads is not a terrible film, although it is terribly disappointing and terribly plain, and also terribly frustrating to see George Clooney flounder on something that had so much more potential as a modern-day comedy than a throwback to screwball comedies.