Wednesday, April 8, 2015

While We're Young Review

Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” begins as an entertaining drama/comedy, exploring the intersection between Gen X and Gen Y but eventually drifts into an annoying, rather obvious critique of Gen Y. Or, as we’re called these days: “Millennials.” In other words, half of the movie is a funny, nuanced look at a mid forties married couple in mid life crisis as they interact with a free spirited mid twenties couple, while the second is a humorless, heavy-handed chore that reveals nothing fresh or insightful. The film basically asserting that, while young people may appear to be cool and in the moment, we’re actually just selfish entitled brats who freeload. And we won’t get off our phones.  Yeah? What else is new?

 Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are that mid forties married couple in a mid life crisis. Both are documentary filmmakers; Josh has been working—well, more like stalling—on his latest project for eight years, while Cornelia can’t quite escape the shadow of her famous documentary filmmaker father. They’ve missed the boat on having kids and they’re afraid of becoming boring old people. Have they done enough with their lives? This all changes when they befriend hipsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Young, wild and free—Jamie and Darby represent everything Josh and Cornelia aren’t and everything they want. Well, more what Josh wants. He’s insistent on hanging out with them, trying to recapture his youth and Cornelia eventually warms up to it. Jamie is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, while Darby makes her own ice cream. They listen to both vinyl and cassette tapes and have a typewriter, which are used solely for kitsch reasons. They also attend weekend retreats where they consume the hallucinogen Ayahausca.

They’re so cool. So carefree. They’re not worried about the future or finances or their mortality. They simply exist in the moment.

There’s an aura of smugness surrounding Jamie and Darby and I constantly rolled my eyes at their activities and antics. A reaction Baumbach probably wanted. At times it can feel like Jamie and Darby are exaggerated caricatures, but having lived in Seattle my whole life and currently attending college in Bellingham, Washington, I can comfortably say I’ve been acquainted with people like them. In this respect, Baumbach’s characterization is mostly spot on.

So OK, Baumbach is clearly mocking the hipster subculture and as the movie goes on we begin to see, in subtle gestures, the selfish and inconsiderate nature of Jamie and Darby become more apparent--such as Jamie never picking up the check when he and Josh go out to eat (moocher!). Yet, what makes the first half of “While We’re Young” good is that it not only mocks Jamie and Darby but Josh and Cornelia, Josh in particular. He’s just as self centered and ridiculous as Jamie but in different ways. He thinks very highly of himself and his work. The documentary he’s been working on is dull and pretentious. He’s stubborn and doesn’t like to collaborate. The reason he decides to hang out with Jamie and Darby in the first place is because they gush over an early documentary he made. In short, he’s insecure and shallow.

Cornelia isn’t as arrogant or self-centered as Josh but she’s just as insecure. And it’s their awareness of this insecurity that causes them to continue hanging out with Jamie and Darby. They too consume Ayahausca. Josh begins wearing similar clothes to Jamie, and Cornelia tries her hand at a hip-hop dance class. Watching them imitate young people is embarrassing but that’s precisely why it works. Josh and Cornelia’s pathetic need to adapt their life style to Jamie and Darby’s, and their refusal to accept that they’re getting old, provides the main source of comedy in the picture. In the end, this first section seems to suggest that while Jamie and Darby may be selfish inconsiderate freeloaders Josh and Corneila are no better. And that everyone grows up the same way. Jamie and Darby may be carefree now but chances are they’ll become just as square and insecure as Josh and Cornelia.

The second half is where the picture collapses on itself. It stops being a balanced look at the dynamics between Gen Y and Gen X and becomes a more narrowed comedic attack on Millennials. Not only are people like Jamie and Darby selfish and inconsiderate, they’re part of some elaborate scheme to screw over and take advantage of people like Josh and Cornelia. Their relaxed, hipster attitude is only a guise used to get what they want.  When Josh catches on to this “conspiracy” he launches his own mini investigation to try and expose Jamie for the “fraud” he is. The movie turns into a hipster mystery and the climactic sequence somewhat resembles the final scene in a classic Film Noir where the detective elaborately explains the mystery. In this case, Josh is the detective and Jamie is the criminal. Josh goes from being a loser to “hero.” He even gets to proudly state that Jamie isn’t evil, “he’s just young.” I’m sure Baumbach felt really good about that line. The problem is, none of this funny and it feels extremely heavy handed.

Baumbach also throws in a scene where Josh complains about Twitter and how everything’s “recorded” nowadays (there always has to be a Twitter jab). And when Josh goes in to meet a young potential investor to complete the rest of his movie, the guy’s an idiot who keeps getting distracted by his phone and completely ignores him. These jabs are painfully obvious and have been seen numerous times before. The entire second half of the movie is full of regurgitated insights and complaints about youth culture. To hammer its obvious point home even further, the movie ends with the image of a toddler texting and emailing on a cell phone. Ha! Those crazy kids, you can’t stop ‘em.

I’m not saying the complaints and criticisms aimed at youth in the movie are necessarily wrong. It’s just that the movie becomes so narrow-minded while at the same time revealing no fresh insights or observations. And because Baumbach thinks he’s revealing new and clever insights, the attempts at humor become unbearably smug and oppressive. At a certain point, I stopped caring about what was happening.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Danny Collins Review

In the 1970’s and 80’s legendary actor Al Pacino had the impeccable ability to disappear completely into every one of his roles—immerse himself into the world of Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” movies. Reemerge. And then immerse himself into the world of Frank Serpico in “Serpico” or the bank robber Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon.” In other words, his range was astounding.

However, around the late 1980’s and through the 90’s—in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Heat”—he began delivering over-the-top, scene chewing performances often involving lots of yelling. It’s not to say he was bad but he stopped being the chameleon-like actor of the seventies and became more recognizable from movie to movie. He developed an onscreen persona of sorts—“the guy who yells”—which would occasionally drift into caricature. Not only that, the quality of his film roles began to decline pretty rapidly. Looking at his filmography in the 2000’s, “Insomnia” is the only film that comes close to being great.

“Danny Collins”—written and directed by Dan Fogelman—represents a slight step in the right direction for Pacino, who gives a soulful, funny and overall three-dimensional performance. Too bad the movie itself is a cliché ridden mess that never quite finds its footing.

Pacino plays the titular Collins, a once talented singer-songwriter now making the casino rounds. Singing his greatest hits to a room full of old ladies wearing oversize t-shirts with the names of his popular songs on them. Meanwhile, off stage, he’s tired and depressed, snorting lines of cocaine and hanging out with his much younger girlfriend. On his birthday, however, he discovers that John Lennon wrote him a hand written letter in 1970. A letter he never received. This startling discovery motivates him to make amends with his bastard son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) who he’s never met.

As that plot recap suggests, “Danny Collins” can be painfully by the numbers and dull. While the “Lennon letter” hook is interesting Fogelman doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. Instead, it’s simply used to tell a bland, sentimental story of family and a washed up star’s quest for redemption. A story we’ve seen a thousand times. And all the usual clichés associated with the “washed up artist” sub genre are on display.

Yet, Pacino is entertaining to watch. After finding out about the letter, Collins’ disposition goes from tired and self destructive to upbeat and peppy. He clumsily flirts with Mary (Annette Benning), the owner of a hotel he stays at, cracks corny jokes whenever possible, is naïve about technology, tries to budge his way into Tom’s life and be chummy with his wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). With his long combed back hair and tendency to wear old tacky suits, Collins’ appears to be stuck back in time, with all self-awareness seemingly out the window. While this shtick can be a little too cloying at times, it at least shows signs of life in Pacino. He never looks bored, like he’s just there to collect a paycheck. He puts energy and enthusiasm into the role; makes the most of the generic material. And eventually he sort of drops the corny grandpa shtick and settles into whispery voiced solemnity. Not surprisingly, Collins’ talky high-energy attitude is mostly a guise, masking deep seeded feelings of regret. Cannavale is equally strong as the defensive embittered estranged son and the one-on-one scenes between Pacino and him are the best, most authentic scenes in the whole movie.

The rest of the cast--Garner as the supportive wife, Benning as the uptight and snarky love interest and Christopher Plummer as Collins’ grouchy manager and loyal friend—all do fine work, making you wish the movie were better.

There’s a great movie buried somewhere in “Danny Collins.” You can see it in those raw, intimate exchanges between Pacino and Cannavale, and Fogelman--to his credit-- shoots those scenes as straightforwardly as possible, forgoing  any overbearing music, or other flourishes to try and amp up the emotions. Otherwise, the movie is close to being a disaster. The script doesn’t cut deep enough and resorts to cliché too often. The threat of cancer is introduced halfway through and plays a major role in the rest of movie. It’s established that Hope has ADHD, leading to a scene where the family visits a high end ADHD school. However, like the “Lennon letter” Fogelman doesn’t explore this particular issue in any great depth, making it feel tacked on in order to generate more emotion from the audience and justify Hope’s presence as annoying-noise-maker-who-won’t-shut-up.

Tonally the movie is all over the map—moving back and forth from authentic drama, to schmaltzy drama to comedy. The full on comedic portions, in particular, can be utterly painful to endure, coming off forced most of the time. Pacino and Benning are supposed to have a banter-y dynamic but try as they might, they simply don’t. They don’t have good comedic or romantic chemistry in the slightest, causing most of their interactions to divulge into sheer awkwardness. And not the good kind of awkward either.

In the end, “Danny Collins” is more frustrating than bad. Pacino’s legendary status is still in tact—despite a decade of mostly dud movies—and this picture is proof that he has great performances left in him. Now he just needs to find a better script. I remain hopeful that Pacino—now in his seventies—will star in at least one more great film before he dies.