Schumer leaves her mark on raunchy rom-com

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)
Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

By Richard Ades

We knew Amy Schumer was funny. Likewise, SNL alum Bill Hader.

But who knew LeBron James could slam-dunk a joke almost as easily as he does a basketball? That’s just one of the revelations crammed into Trainwreck, a raunchy rom-com that’s awash in hilarious surprises.

Written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), Trainwreck is tailor-made for the current queen of provocative comedy. Schumer even plays a New Yorker named Amy who, like her stage persona, indulges in a life of bed-hopping abandon.

That is, she does until she meets Aaron Conner (Hader), a sports physician who volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not keeping James and other athletes in competition-worthy shape. Assigned to interview Aaron for the aggressively hip magazine that employs her, Amy soon finds herself questioning the prejudice against monogamy that she learned from her cynical father (Colin Quinn).

Incidentally, the scene in which Dad imparts that advice to an adolescent Amy and her little sister is the first of the flick’s hilarious surprises. But since comedy is always better when it catches you unawares, I’ll say nothing more about that moment except to advise you to get to the theater on time.

Throughout the movie, Schumer is a delight, whether Amy is having her way with a one-night stand or trying to convince Aaron she really does know something about sports. Schumer even handles the rare detours into pathos with aplomb. Maybe she’s not quite as versatile as Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, but she’s no one-trick pony, either.

Even more surprising is screenwriter Schumer’s ability to make the most out of the film’s innumerable supporting players, including prominent sports figures.

Appearing as himself, James generates laughs whether he’s arguing over a check or talking up the hometown that welcomed him back after his sojourn in Miami. Fellow NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire also is effective, playing himself during one of his bouts with knee injuries.

Funniest of all is the WWE’s John Cena, who plays the pre-Aaron Amy’s closest thing to a steady guy. A particularly funny bedroom scene even finds a way to utilize Cena’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

Non-sports-related players include familiar Saturday Night Live faces such as alum Quinn and current cast member Vanessa Bayer. Also prominent are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s blithely nasty boss and Brie Larson as her happily married sister.

Is there anything wrong with Trainwreck? Well, some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, if you want to be picky. I also could have done without the “homage” to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Not only does it remind us of an even better film (never a good idea), but it includes a humorless dig at Allen himself.

A more welcome detour consists of scenes from a fictitious avant-garde movie about a dog walker played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Trainwreck is so full of such throwaway moments that it’s one of the few flicks that would benefit from a second viewing, just so you can catch the subtle jokes you missed the first time.

In recent weeks, Schumer has been criticized for making supposedly misguided jokes about racial and ethnic matters. After initially explaining that the comments were made in the guise of the clueless chick she used to play in standup routines, she vowed to do better.

Let’s hope Schumer doesn’t censor herself too much. Her first big-screen vehicle demonstrates that we’re all the winners when Amy is free to be Amy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Trainwreck, rated R, opens Friday (July 16) at theaters nationwide.

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‘Sex Tape’ is a case of comedius interruptus

Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

By Richard Ades

Sex Tape actually isn’t terrible until they decide to do it doggie-style. Comedy, I mean.

It all starts promisingly enough. Like many longtime couples, Jay and Annie (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz) have seen their sex life whittled away by familiarity and the demands of parenthood.

The solution they come up with is to record their lovemaking on Jay’s iPad. The resulting three-hour marathon has its desired effect on their libido, after which Annie feels it’s served its purpose and orders Jay to erase the evidence.

Unfortunately, Jay doesn’t. Instead, he accidentally shares the video with previous iPads that he’s given to family members and acquaintances. They include Annie’s mom and Hank (Rob Lowe), a corporate executive who could become Annie’s new boss. Panicked, the couple set out to recover the devices.

The real trouble—for them and for us, the viewers—begins when they arrive unannounced at Hank’s mansion. Rather than thinking of a logical excuse for getting their hands on the iPad, they come up with the most absurd plan imaginable: Hank asks to use the bathroom so he can search the house while Annie keeps their host engaged in conversation.

That’s when the canine antics get under way. A vicious guard dog begins chasing Jay from room to room, taking a bite out of him whenever he catches up. Meanwhile, Annie reluctantly accepts Hank’s invitation to indulge in a little cocaine.

The concurrent chasing and snorting do result in a few laughs. In the process, though, they completely derail the flick’s original premise. What had been a lighthearted look at a racy anecdote to marital boredom becomes a scattershot affair that misses its target because it can’t decide just what that target is.

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) has a game cast, especially in his butt-baring leads. But they’re all stymied by the three-person writing team, which consists of Kate Angelo (The Back-up Plan), Segel and Nicholas Stoller (co-writers of The Muppets).

Like a stereotypical committee, they’ve concocted a mess that lacks a unifying structure. Rather than building on the theme of marital ennui, they’ve thrown together a hodgepodge of unlikely and unfunny developments.

They can’t even decide on a proper tone, ricocheting from The Hangover-style raunchiness to pure mush. At its mushiest, Sex Tape actually has the head of a porn website preaching to Jay and Annie on the importance of remembering the love that drew them together in the first place. Good grief.

Great title, great premise, likable cast and enough nudity and sexual shenanigans to justify its “R” rating. It’s just too bad the script didn’t rise to the occasion.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Anderson lets his eccentricities get the better of him

M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and Zero (Tony Revolori) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and Zero (Tony Revolori) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

By Richard Ades

Some of my favorite filmmakers of all time are among the most distinctive filmmakers of all time.

Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, with his camera calmly observing life from a stationary vantage point. Spain’s Luis Bunuel, with his surreal and wryly satirical take on society. France’s Eric Rohmer, with his chatty discussions of romance and philosophy.

I’m not quite ready to add Wes Anderson to my list of favorites, even though his style is as distinctive as anyone’s.

He can be charming, as he was in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. The flick had its share of Anderson’s usual eccentricities, but they didn’t overwhelm the central tale of two underage lovebirds who run away together.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

It starts out with an engaging setting, an Eastern European hotel that was once a fashionable haven for the well-to-do. It also features two engaging characters: M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), its refined and demanding concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his friend and disciple.

When an aging patron leaves the hotel and subsequently dies in 1932, Gustave is simultaneously named the heir to her most prized possession and a suspect in her murder. It seems likely that greedy family members are the real culprits, but Gustave is imprisoned before he can prove his innocence. Unless Zero and his girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), can come to the rescue, the truth may never be uncovered.

It’s a potentially engrossing tale, but it’s constantly upstaged by director/screenwriter Anderson’s playful shenanigans.

Start with the fact that the film is a story within a story within a story and that it all takes place in a fanciful and made-up place and era. Add frequent incongruities, such as coatless characters comfortably walking around in a wintry landscape, or dialogue that ricochets between stilted politeness and earthy cussing. Throw in landscapes that look like paintings and action scenes that were filmed with deliberately unconvincing miniatures.

It all adds up to a concoction much like the airy pastries that frequently turn up on characters’ plates: pretty and delectable, but not very filling. There are so many distractions that it’s impossible to take the characters or their travails the least bit seriously.

Anderson’s imaginative visuals and all-star cast—including F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray and host of others—do make the flick fun to watch. But it would have been so much more rewarding if Anderson had forced his signature style to serve the plot rather than overwhelming it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24, next Thursday (March 27) at the Drexel Theatre and March 28 at the Gateway Film Center.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

How do you spell ‘comedy’? C-R-I-N-G-E

Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)
Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Back when I was arts editor for Columbus’s now-defunct The Other Paper, one of our ace critics turned in a review of a horror flick with a grisly scene: The heroes dispatched an attacker by sticking his head in a microwave oven and holding it there until it exploded.

Puzzled, I asked the critic how the filmmakers got around the fact that microwaves don’t work when the door is open. They didn’t care about such technicalities, he replied gleefully. “They just wanted to make someone’s head explode!”

It seems like an odd comparison, but a couple of scenes from Bad Words reminded me of that incident. Smart but antisocial 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has wormed his way into an adolescent spelling bee, and he proceeds to launch underhanded and exceedingly nasty psychological attacks on two of his competitors in an attempt to undermine their confidence.

Like the microwave offensive, the attacks make no logical sense. First, Guy’s spelling skills are so advanced that the kids pose no real threat to him, so why bother? And second, if his dirty tricks were exposed (and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be in the real world), he would be ejected from the competition faster than you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

So why did the filmmakers include the attacks in their sordid comedy? Because, to paraphrase that wise critic, they just wanted to see Guy act mean to two defenseless kids.

Another comparison between the microwave scene and the spelling-bee attacks: You have to have a sadistic streak in order to enjoy them.

Well, maybe that’s too harsh. A cross between 2003’s Bad Santa and the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bad Words seeks the kind of laughs that grow out of shockingly inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. Now, I’m as susceptible to this kind of comedy as anyone—I loved Bad Santa, for example—but Bad Words inspires more cringes than guffaws.

A key weakness is that scriptwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Bateman don’t sufficiently explain Guy’s motivation for crashing a contest that’s meant for kids. We surmise that it has something to do with his own failure as a bee competitor when he was an eighth-grader, and possibly with the recent death of his mother. But when we learn his real reason for entering the contest, it’s hard not to think, “That’s it?” His ultimate goal doesn’t begin to explain his actions.

Another weakness is that, despite its hard-edged sense of humor, the film eventually gets stuck in a sappily predictable rut. As soon as a lonely 10-year-old spelling whiz named Chaitanya Chopra enters the scene and tries his best to befriend the eccentric adult, we know it’s only a matter of time before Guy’s icy heart begins to melt.

If Bad Words remains marginally palatable, it’s due solely to the strength of its able cast. Besides the understated Bateman, the players include Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who sometimes shares Guy’s bed, Allison Janney as an angry bee official and Philip Baker Hall (known to Seinfeld fans as no-nonsense library detective Mr. Bookman) as the bee’s founder. But no one contributes more to the film than young Rohan Chand, who is consistently adorable as the indomitable Chaitanya.

Without Chaitanya’s lovable presence, Bad Words would be simply an exercise in misanthropic excess.

Bad Words opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

‘Gravity’ named best of 2013 by Columbus critics

 

Sandra Bullock in Gravity, which Columbus critics named the year's best film (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Sandra Bullock in Gravity, which Columbus critics named the year’s best film (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 12th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2013. The film also claimed two other awards. Cuarón was honored as Best Director, and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki won for Best Cinematography.

Columbus-area critics recognized these screen performers: Best Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave); Best Actress and Breakthrough Film Artist Adèle Exarchopolous [Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle)]; Best Supporting Actor James Franco (Spring Breakers); Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle); and Actor of the Year Matthew McConaughey for his exemplary body of work in Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Other winners include: American Hustle for Best Ensemble; The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Terence Winter for Best Adapted Screenplay; Her’s Spike Jonze for Best Original Screenplay and Arcade Fire for Best Score; Best Documentary The Act of Killing; Best Foreign Language Film and Best Animated Film The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu); and Short Term 12 as Best Overlooked Film.

Repeat COFCA winners include: Jennifer Lawrence (2012 Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook); Matthrew McConaughey (2012 Actor of the Year for Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike and The Paperboy); James Franco (2010 Best Actor for 127 Hours); and Emmanuel Lubezki (2011 Best Cinematography for The Tree of Life).

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is composed of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 20 print, radio, television and Internet critics. COFCA’s official website at http://www.cofca.org/contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on Thursday, Jan. 2.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Gravity
2. Her
3. American Hustle
4. Frances Ha
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
6. 12 Years a Slave
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Before Midnight
9. Upstream Color
10. Nebraska

Best Director
-Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
-Runner-up: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor
-Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
-Runner-up: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
-Adèle Exarchopolous, Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle)
-Runner-up: Brie Larson, Short Term 12

Best Supporting Actor
-James Franco, Spring Breakers
-Runner-up: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
-Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
-Runner-up: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Ensemble
American Hustle
-Runner-up: The Wolf of Wall Street

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street
-Runner-up: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Adèle Exarchopolous, Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle) (for acting)
-Runner-up: Brie Larson, Don Jon, Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now (for acting)

Best Cinematography
-Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
-Runner-up: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Her

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
-Runner-up: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay
-Spike Jonze, Her
-Runner-up: Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12

Best Score
-Arcade Fire, Her
-Runner-up: Steven Price, Gravity

Best Documentary
The Act of Killing
-Runner-up: Stories We Tell

Best Foreign Language Film
The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)
-Runner-up: Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle)

Best Animated Film
The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)
-Runner-up: Frozen

Best Overlooked Film
Short Term 12
-Runner-up: Mud

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: WALL•E
2009: Up in the Air
2010: Inception
2011: Drive
2012: Moonrise Kingdom

For more information about the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, please visit http://www.cofca.org/or e-mail info@cofca.org.

If only the script were as profound as the photography

 

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska
Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska

By Richard Ades

Director Alexander Payne fills Nebraska with black-and-white images of desolate landscapes and all-but-deserted small towns. Above them, the skies appear bleak, even on the rare occasions when the sun is shining.

The photography is beautiful and evocative, but it’s a mixed blessing. It can’t help reminding film buffs of that devastating portrait of small-town America, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. And Nebraska is hardly The Last Picture Show.

Payne’s very name is another mixed blessing, as it leads us to expect more than we get. He’s the director behind such memorable films as The Descendants and (my personal favorite) Sideways. And Nebraska falls well short of both of these predecessors.

Indeed, it’s a tale that fails to live up to either its photography or its potential.

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a semi-senile old man who thinks he’s won $1 million and is determined to journey from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect it. Since he has long since lost his driver’s license, he’s willing to walk there if necessary.

SNL alum Will Forte plays David, one of Woody’s two sons, who tries to explain to him that the “prize” is merely a gimmick to sell magazines. He finally agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, if only because there seems to be no other way to convince him. Besides, David’s girlfriend has finally tired of their stagnant relationship and moved out, leaving him eager to get away from his suddenly lonely apartment.

Will Woody and David arrive at a better understanding of each other during the long road trip? Will they come to terms with Woody’s lifelong addiction to alcohol and the problems it created for his wife and sons? One expects such issues to be addressed, and to some extent they are, but not nearly as effectively as they might have been. One explanation is that director Payne has uncharacteristically relegated screenwriting chores to someone else—namely TV veteran Bob Nelson.

What are the script’s shortcomings? For starters, it’s not clear that the Grants’ dysfunctional household was all that destructive. Yes, David seems to be drifting a bit, but his brother (Bob Odenkirk) has a family and a modestly promising career as a TV newsman.

The real hindrance to profundity, though, is the script’s devotion to superficial humor and characterizations. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is the main culprit, as she quickly turns into a shrewish caricature who doles out malicious insults and TMI revelations with equal abandon.

Later, after Woody and David stop to visit relatives in their Nebraska hometown, male communication is depicted as a ritual revolving around two subjects: cars and sports. A few humorous moments ensue, particularly when David’s cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) razz him about his conservative driving habits, but this is hardly groundbreaking material.

Perhaps the ultimate barrier to meaningful character development is the fact that Woody is so far gone. The former mechanic shuffles around in an age- and alcohol-fueled stupor, seldom giving any indication that he understands what’s going on. Dern’s portrayal is physically convincing and may give the 77-year-old actor a shot at winning a major award (he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe), but the character has almost zero depth.

As for Forte, he handles the pivotal role of David well, particularly considering his background is in comedy. Also making a good impression is Stacy Keach as a family “friend” with a mean streak and a long-held grudge.

Haunting photography, good acting: Nebraska has most of the makings of a great Alexander Payne film. All it lacks is a great Alexander Payne script.

Nebraska opens today (Dec. 13) at Columbus’s AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)