Director: Dennis Lee
Starring: Jason Spevack, Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, Samantha Weinstein
Over the last decade and a bit the quirky, dysfunctional family ‘dramedy’ has been a staple of the American Indie cinema. With the provocatively titled Jesus Henry Christ, writer and director Dennis Lee again ventures into this familiar territory.
The film revolves around four suitably oddball characters. Henry is a child genius who has the amazing ability to remember perfectly everything he has ever seen. He lives with his over-protective single mother, who he simply calls Patricia, whose cautiousness results from having lost her mother and elder siblings to a series of ridiculous accidents. Henry’s quest to discover the identity of his father brings them into contact with Dr. Slavkin O’Hara, the university professor who is potentially Henry’s sperm donor father, and his daughter Audrey, a stone-faced teenager suitably messed up after having been used as a real life subject in her father’s research on the social programming of gender.
Beneath this surface level of quirky characters and witty dialogue, at the heart of the film is a comparatively straight forward central theme: the importance to family to one’s sense of identity. All of these four central characters are suffering as a result of a missing connection to a father or mother or sibling.
Obviously shooting for a deadpan vibe somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and the films of Wes Anderson, where Jesus Henry Christ falls short is that its relentless pursuit of quirkiness and wit doesn’t allow for any believability. If a film can’t get you to suspend your disbelief enough to accept what you are seeing as being on some level real you simply won’t care about the characters enough to truly empathise, and unfortunately that is what happens here.
Jesus Henry Christ just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It is quirky and oddball without every really being funny and it is thought provoking without ever being really moving.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
When New York lawyer Diane’s husband surprises her with a request for a divorce, her response is to take her two children to visit her mother with whom she has not spoken for twenty years. It sounds like the set up for a tense family drama until you add a couple of details. The mother, Grace, is an ageing hippie living in Woodstock and their estrangement was as a result of her being arrested for selling marijuana at Diane’s wedding.
Thematically, Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is a film about parents and children, specifically the need for children to accept the humanity of their parents. However, Australian director Bruce Beresford chooses not to delve too deeply into these themes, seemingly happy to let the film simply be a charming light comedy.
The film relies on heavily on stereotypical characters and formulaic situations. The fact that Diane, her daughter Zoe and son Jake all manage to meet their respective love interests within 24 hours of arriving in Woodstock is nothing if not convenient. It’s these sorts of things which leave you always feeling like you know exactly where the film is going.
Jane Fonda, who returned to acting in the mid-2000s after a 15 year retirement, here plays the hippie activist Grace, obviously a caricature of her own activist public persona. It’s a character we’ve seen many times before in films, as is Keener’s uptight lawyer, but the fact that it is Jane Fonda playing the role adds a great deal to the character by association.
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is very formulaic and not particularly deep, but it isn’t trying to be anything more than it is. It is a charming picture with some likeable characters. Good harmless fun.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Kerry Washington
Sometimes things can snowball. You can start a series of events in motion and before you realise, the situation has got away from you. For mild-mannered Dr. Jeffrey Lang, this starting point is his decision to go ahead with an extension to his house without the required council permits. Before he knows it his life has spiralled into a mess of cat-killing, infidelity, and ultimately murder.
The Details is a hyperbolic tale of the dark side of suburbia, a place in which not everything is as it seems and you never know what is hiding behind the pleasant veneer of middle class family life. In this regard, Tobey Maguire is well cast as Jeffrey. Maguire’s baby-faced appearance and nice guy persona – which served him so well as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – here combine well with Dr. Lang’s congenial, friendly presentation to disguise and contrast the darker aspects of his character.
Where The Details is most interesting is in the way that it challenges mainstream cinema’s usual dichotomy of good and evil in which bad people do bad things because they are bad and good people do good things because they are good. Instead The Details shows us bad people capable of doing very good things and good people capable of doing very bad things, so that when it all comes down to it no one is bad and no one is good, they are all just people.
What is notably missing from the film, however, is any form of ramification for bad deeds committed. That one thing can snowball into another and Jeffrey can find himself in a worse and worse predicament is one thing, but that there never appears to be any negative consequence or backlash for him personally makes the film unsatisfying.
The Details is a tonally odd film, with a campy style that seems to stifle the effectiveness of its thematic message. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes has given the film a light and breezy comic tone which juxtaposes its quite dark story. The result of this juxtaposition is a film that is quite difficult to know how to react to. You can’t bring yourself to laugh because the events are a bit too tragic, but at the same time you can’t completely empathise because the tone is too campy.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, John Magaro, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Elizabeth Reaser
Plenty of films have been made about nostalgia for the glory days of college, but invariably they are most concerned with partying and responsibility-free living. Rarely do you find a film which considers the university years with the same level of earnest idealism as does Liberal Arts.
Jesse Fisher is a 35 year old liberal arts graduate who is working as an admissions officer in a New York college. He accepts and invitation to return to his alma mater in Ohio for the retirement dinner of one of his favourite professors from his time there. While back on campus he strikes up a friendship and romance with a 19 year old drama student named Zibby (short for Elizabeth), a relationship that at the same time manages to make Jesse feel young and remind him of how old he is.
At its heart, Liberal Arts is a film about growing up, and the college becomes a metaphor for youth, and all the opportunity and boundless potential that entails. Jesse is overwhelmed with excitement to get back to his alma mater and really wants to once again feel like he did back then. However, for all his excitement at getting back to college, we also get, as a contrast, the perspectives of two lifelong academics; one whose passion has been replaced by bitterness and resentment, the other who, facing retirement, is concerned that like a prisoner he has become an ‘institution man’ and won’t be able to function in the outside world.
It takes you a while to get on board with Jesse and Zibby’s relationship. Initially, it doesn’t quite seem plausible. You don’t understand her interest in him. It just seems to happen. But once it is established it starts to make more sense. With the sixteen year age gap being so prominent – there is a great little scene where Jesse tries to get his head around their age difference by working out how old she was or will be at different stages of his life – Jesse and Zibby’s relationship also ties into this theme of growing up. He sees her as a way back to the hopeful young man that he was, someone with whom he can have the lofty, intellectual conversations which were once so important to him but have since become absent in his life. For her, frustrated by the calibre of male in her peer-group, he is a chance to fast-forward into adulthood.
The film also contains a few subplots, the most interesting and authentic of which is Jesse’s relationship with a manic depressive boy he meets on campus – another relationship Jesse just seems to fall into. The two bond over reading, and Jesse becomes a surrogate father figure for this brilliant but troubled young man.
Liberal Arts is written and directed by its star, Josh Radnor. It is Radnor’s second film as a writer/director after 2010’s Happythankyoumoreplease, another film about growing up. Radnor would be most familiar to viewers as Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, and viewers of that show will struggle not to see him playing a version of the same character here. Elizabeth Olsen – the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley – is quite good as Zibby, and is definitely one of the young actresses to watch over the next couple of years.
At times Liberal Arts can briefly cross the line into pretentiousness, but no more than you would expect from a screenplay trying to capture the vibe of young, faux-intellectual liberal arts students. But despite this, the film is quite charming, will appeal to people who have had that particular experience of college, and does enough to suggest that Radnor could develop into quite an interesting filmmaker.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segal, Chris O’Dowd
In the last ten years, Judd Apatow has really established himself as the comedy auteur of the moment, through both as a director and as a producer (his most recent success being backing Lena Dunham in the production of the HBO series Girls which just cleaned up at the Golden Globes). One of the defining features of Apatow’s work as a director, and what differentiates him from, say, Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover, Due Date), is that Apatow’s films combine big laughs derived from sexual and sometimes stoner humour, with a real human sincerity. Apatow’s best films, namely The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are surprisingly heartfelt and honest and you really care about the characters. Interestingly, when Apatow is slightly below his best, as he is in This is 40, it is the laughs which tend to be missing rather than the sincerity.
The film was marketed as the “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their supporting characters from Knocked Up. It’s a few years down the track, Pete and Debbie’s little children are a bit older, their marriage is a bit more dysfunctional and they are both on the cusp of turning forty. That’s the scenario and it is all you really need to know because this is not a film about narrative and plot, it is a film about characters. Rather than a structured storyline we just get a series of vignettes, some funnier than others, taking place over a period of a couple of weeks.
In Knocked Up Rudd and Mann were fantastic. While they were only supporting characters, the little glimpses we got into their lives were fantastic and funny because they seemed so real. For Allison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen) they represented everything that was terrible, but at the same time everything that was appealing about the prospect of having children. The problem that This is 40 has is that while Debbie and Pete become the focus of the film, we don’t really gain any further insight into their characters. Instead, the shtick which was funny for the 30-40 minutes of screen time they got in Knocked Up is just dragged on and repeated, stretched over 135 minutes which is half an hour too long.
This is 40 is a bit one-note. Because there isn’t a storyline as such, we don’t get real character progression and development. The fights and arguments you see at the 90 minute mark of the film are very similar to the fights and arguments you saw 15 minutes in. This lack of progression, lack of sense that either character is learning from their experiences means they actually start to become very frustrating in certain situations. This is quite an achievement given Paul Rudd has to be the most likeable man on the planet.
The “sort of sequel” thing is problematic too, because it raises certain questions. Primary among them is where are Ben and Allison, our protagonists from Knocked Up? In reality we know that there was a massive falling out between Apatow and Katherine Heigl which meant that there was not chance she was ever going to appear in the film, but still, at a narrative level it is an awkward absence. Particularly as Alison is supposed to be Debbie’s younger sister, which makes her unreferenced absence from the birthday party at the end of the film notable. Jason Segal is back, again playing a character called Jason who I think we are supposed to assume is the same character as he played Knocked Up, though he has progressed from being Ben’s stoner housemate to being a personal trainer.
This has all sounded a bit negative so far, but This is 40 isn’t that bad. As has been the case in much of his previous work, it is the supporting characters which really bring this film to life. You have great supporting performances from Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers. Brooks in particular is a treat as a mooching father. I love when Judd Apatow uses his daughters, Maude and Iris, in his films. He writes really funny dialogue for them. While Maude’s character Sadie suffers a bit from being a one-dimensional angry teenager, Iris’s Charlotte is lovely and the one character that you consistently side with and feel for. There are also great cameos from Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segal and Lena Dunham.
This is 40 feels much closer to Funny People than it does to 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which is a shame. It probably suffers a bit from audience expectations that it is going to be a riotous comedy, which it isn’t trying to be. The humour in this film doesn’t come from gags or crazy situations. It comes from recognising some element of our own lives on the screen. There are a number of laugh out loud moments in This is 40, but most of the time they are jokes that make you smile or jokes that make you nod rather than jokes that make you laugh.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean