Movie Monday: “New Year’s Eve” in wide release

A very sappy New Year’s Eve… but still fun

In New Year’s Eve, the wattage is high: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron (pictured), Halle Berry, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank and Michelle Pfeiffer join more than a dozen of their Hollywood colleagues in this quasi-sequel to director Garry Marshall’s previous celebfest, Valentine’s Day.

Like VD, NYE involves multiple story lines that converge in some way or another by the end of the movie — in this case, culminating around the stroke of midnight. Predictable themes of fresh starts and the letdown of holidays populate the various love stories and there are moments of genuine emotion and heartfelt humor.

For the entire review, click here.

DEETS: Rated PG-13. In wide release.

—  Rich Lopez

First person shooter

An old-fashioned Western with modern FX, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ rides roughshod

CRAGGY CRAIG | Daniel Craig projects the right amount of swagger as a gunslinger fighting ETs in 1873.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

2.5 out of 5 stars
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Adam Beach, Olivia Wilde.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins.
Now playing in wide release.

……………………………

Movie adaptations used to be based on literature and theater and even magazine articles. Nowadays, they are based on cartoons, video games, toys (the “Hasbro Presents” credit still gets a laugh during the opening credits of Transformers movies) and comic books. Such movies usually feel so pre-fab: Meta-cultural, with Hollywood navelgazing into a state of catatonia. (The games and comics are often inspired by trashy action movies, perpetuating the Mobius strip assembly line of dreck.)

But while Cowboys & Aliens’ source material is, sadly, a graphic novel about settlers and scalawags in 1873 New Mexico, its real progenitor is the movie Western of yore: Black hats versus white hats. Lasses and scoundrels in saloons. Gunslingers and cattlemen.

And extra-terrestrials. Yeah, it still is a sci-fi film.

The sci-fi, though, doesn’t overwhelm the tale, which has the plainspoken good-and-bad dichotomy of the genre, anchored by a humanity lacking in movies like Transformers. Daniel Craig (looking ripped, god bless him) plays an amnesiac bandit who apparently has successfully fought off the aliens with their own weapon, a metal wrist corsage that shoots laser blasts (but only when it needs to). He’s posse’d up with the local oligarch (played brutally at first by Harrison Ford, later cuddly as a kitten) to hunt down the aliens who are stealin’ our gold and rapin’ our women. (Actually, it’s not clear why they take people — one of many plot holes best ignored if you wanna get through the film.)

Director Jon Favreau added much-needed humor into the Iron Man movies, an element all but absent here, but cinematographer Matthew Libatique more than makes up for it with gorgeous landscapes and moodily underlit tableaux. Craig is well-suited to the craggy, silent loner: He’s brimming with testosteronic swagger … at least until the clusterfuck finale, a convoluted mess that overwhelms everyone involved, including any sense of logic in the storytelling.

Until then, though, it’s a kick-ass summer film with excellent production values — War of the Worlds with six-shooters and arrows.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Green energy

It’s hit & myth with ‘Green Lantern’

‘TRON’ WITH ALIENS | Ryan Reynolds is ripped as the Green Lantern — who cares if he can act?

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

…………………

2.5 out of 5 stars
GREEN LANTERN
Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins.
Now playing in wide release.

……………….

They are debates familiar to most comic book fanboys: Who would win a foot race — Superman or the Flash? Who’s smarter: Batman or Brainiac? Can Mr. Freeze make a beam so cold … well, you get it. It’s pointless fantasy-stuff — a script for The Big Bang Theory played out in real life dozens of times a day.

Add to that this conundrum: Is the human will stronger than the sense of fear? That’s the ultimate premise of Green Lantern, the latest DC Comics hero to nab his own film franchise. And if you don’t know the answer right now, well, you’ve never read a comic book. Or seen a summer movie.

Hal Jordan, the Earthling who became part of the Green Lantern Corps of protectors of the cosmos, was always one of my favorite superheroes. By day he was a test pilot — a test pilot! — but by night he could fly without an airplane or a cape, and got to wear a cool-ass ring and tights. Magic jewelry and camping equipment: It tapped into every gay pre-teen male’s competing desires to be butch and fabulous.

There’s a lot of mysticism and mythology in this cosmically scaled fantasy, and director Martin Campbell has settled on a phantasmagoric style more Bosch and Giger than Jack Kirby. Many of the scenes, especially those on the planet Oa, have the pearly, soft focus of ‘70s porn. It makes for a unique look, especially as populated by thousands of alien species (humans are the poor green trash of the Corps), but it also makes you constantly aware that you are watching a CGI movie. Avatar made you believe in a different world; Lantern makes you believe only in the rampant use of green screen. It’s TRON with aliens.

Which is not to say it’s terrible. In fact, I tried, at various times before, during and after the movie, to want to love it or to hate it; I could do neither.

The script, co-written by Brothers & Sisters creator Greg Berlanti, isn’t humorless, but lacks the razor wit and comic pacing of Iron Man. (The best line comes when Hal’s girlfriend, played by Blake Lively, notes that the mask does not hide his identity very well: “I’ve known you my whole life, you think I wouldn’t recognize you because you covered your cheekbones?”)

Ryan Reynolds has always been so pretty, that not being much of an actor has been inconsequential. It’s not that he can’t act, it’s that no one cares much about seeing him try. With his chiseled face and ripped, lean body, he’s nice to look at. But his puppy dog eyes and a toned-down bad-boy attitude make him somehow more appealing here.

At least Reynolds registers some personality; I practically had to consult my notes to recall that Lively was even in it. One of the weaknesses of the plot is that there are so many extraneous characters: Hal’s best friend; his fellow Lanterns; the seems-to-be-the-villain-at-first senator (Tim Robbins); the turns-out-to-be-not-much-of-a-villain nebbish (Peter Sarsgaard, who’s so weird he’s good); and the CGI villain, a Lantern run amok called Parallax. It’s a classic case of franchitis: The filmmakers are so concerned with trying to create a franchise series, they forget to make the movie in front of them.

Well, maybe not forget, but they could do a better job of letting the story play out in more epic fashion. (Berlanti writes for TV, and the script has a tendency to tie up issues in the space between where commercial breaks would go.) Stay to till after the end credits to fully appreciate where Green Lantern 2 will start.

Or don’t. It hardly matters.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Flight of the bumbling B-movie

LET’S ROLL, KATO  |  A PG-13 Seth Rogen, far left, is as toothless as his incompetent ‘super- hero’ Britt Reid — it’s Kato (Jay Chou) who does all the work.

Rogen’s soft, muddled ‘Green Hornet’ is a noisy mess of 3-D nonsense

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The first question you have to ask yourself before going to see The Green Hornet is: “Do I really want to see a Seth Rogen movie that’s rated PG-13 instead of R?” (Actually, the first question is, “Do I want to see a Seth Rogen movie, period.”) Let’s face it: Rogen’s style — cultivated in Superbad, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express — is of the joint-toking, foul-mouthed slacker. It’s not even fair to call it “frat boy” humor, as Rogen exudes the air of someone who never even took the SAT, not to mention applied to college. Nope, if Seth doesn’t get to say “fuck” or “pussy” every eighth word, there’s really not much to keep you interested. And even then…

While his script for The Green Hornet shows familiarity with its source material, it doesn’t know how to update it in any way that makes for a competent movie. Britt Reid (Rogen) is the roustabout son of a newspaper magnate; when daddy dies, Britt inherits the publisher’s job and dad’s driver, a martial artist-auto mechanic-techno wizard-barista savant called Kato (Jay Chou). They come up with a cockamamie plan to become superheroes who pose as villains. Only Britt has no heroic skills: No speed or brains or bravery or strength. It’s the Kato show, and he takes all the credit.

That might actually be a good movie — the sidekick does all the work and gets none of the credit, a la Wallace & Gromit — but Rogen and director Michel Gondry are afraid to go full-tilt that way. Instead, they clutter the film with comic bits (half of which fall flat) and 3-D effects (whose cheesiness distracts from the action more than intensifying it).

Maybe — maybe — if the action sequences weren’t edited with buzzsaw freneticism and Gondry hadn’t devolved into fast-motion scenes that looked lame in noisy farces back in the 1960s, we could appreciate more his bravura split-screen montage (a dazzling bit of flamboyance) and the performance of Christoph Waltz (the best scene in the film is one with Waltz doing a cameo with James Franco). But Gondry has a skewed take on Americana — low-brow and filtered through pretentious European sensibilities — and the result here is as clumsy and unpredictable as Rogen’s perpetually fluctuating girth.

The Green Hornet’s release was long delayed, reportedly to work out the 3-D effects, but what they really needed to do was work on the screenplay: Ditch the extraneous Cameron Diaz as a love interest and explore more the suggested homoerotic longings between Britt and Kato. That could give the phrase “getting stung by the Green Hornet” a whole new meaning — and a lot more comic momentum.

This appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 14, 2011.

—  John Wright

Movie Monday: Get your Cher fix with ‘Burlesque’ in wide release

If we could turn back time … we’d still want to see Cher in this campy hoot

In Burlesque, pop diva Christina Aguilera plays a small-town girl with a big voice who leaves the heartland to chase a predictable dream in L.A. She lands a job as a cocktail waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, meets a couple of hot guys (Cam Gigandet and Eric Dane), builds a friendship with one dancer (Julianne Hough), makes enemies with another (Kristen Bell), and learns a few life lessons from Tess (Cher), a broke, weary, but totally hot burlesque goddess with a heart of gold.

Big surprise: It’s not a great script. The mortgage is due and the moneylenders lurk and gosh, the lounge needs a miracle to survive! But who will go see it for the plot, the hokey dialogue or the not-so-great acting from Aguilera (her character is hardly full-bodied, with a backstory that is even slimmer than her hips).

But do go see it, because the movie is exactly what its audience is looking for: A campy, sexy hoot. It struts. It’s fun. It’s funny. There’s some serious eye candy with Gigandet and a box of cookies. There’s Stanley Tucci, playing Sean, the surly gay manager of the lounge.

And of course, there’s Cher. Cher still has the glam to pull the clichéd Tess off — and she still has that voice. The ups and downs of her life (both Tess and Cher) can be summed up in one show-stopping number: “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”

Burlesque is not supposed to be Cher’s movie, but she steals it anyway — along with Tucci, whose one-night stand with a potential life partner is heartwarming and real. Tucci may be playing a gay BFF to a burlesque queen, but Sean is not some kind of gay caricature. He’s the heart of a film that has no brain.

Three and a half stars.

— Angela Wilson

DEETS: Burlesque, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane. Rated PG-13. 125 mins. Now playing wide release.

—  Rich Lopez

Dance 10, smarts 3

If we could turn back time … we’d still want to see Cher in this campy hoot

QUEER DELIGHT | Stanley Tucci as the gay BFF and Cher imbue ‘Burlesque’ with crazy camp appeal.

3.5 stars
BURLESQUE

Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins.
Now playing wide release.

………………………………………

In Burlesque, pop diva Christina Aguilera plays a small-town girl with a big voice who leaves the heartland to chase a predictable dream in L.A. She lands a job as a cocktail waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, meets a couple of hot guys (Cam Gigandet and Eric Dane), builds a friendship with one dancer (Julianne Hough), makes enemies with another (Kristen Bell), and learns a few life lessons from Tess (Cher), a broke, weary, but totally hot burlesque goddess with a heart of gold.

Big surprise: It’s not a great script. The mortgage is due and the moneylenders lurk and gosh, the lounge needs a miracle to survive! But who will go see it for the plot, the hokey dialogue or the not-so-great acting from Aguilera (her character is hardly full-bodied, with a backstory that is even slimmer than her hips).

But do go see it, because the movie is exactly what its audience is looking for: A campy, sexy hoot. It struts. It’s fun. It’s funny. There’s some serious eye candy with Gigandet and a box of cookies. There’s Stanley Tucci, playing Sean, the surly gay manager of the lounge.

And of course, there’s Cher. Cher still has the glam to pull the clichéd Tess off — and she still has that voice. The ups and downs of her life (both Tess and Cher) can be summed up in one show-stopping number: “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”

Burlesque is not supposed to be Cher’s movie, but she steals it anyway — along with Tucci, whose one-night stand with a potential life partner is heartwarming and real. Tucci may be playing a gay BFF to a burlesque queen, but Sean is not some kind of gay caricature. He’s the heart of a film that has no brain.

— Angela Wilson

………………………………

Diva-licious

It’s unfortunate that Cher and Christina Aguilera don’t get a duet on the Burlesque soundtrack. Wonder who was the bigger diva voting against that. But we digress. Fact is, yes, Aguilera has the voice and uses it with all its might on eight of the 10 tracks. Playing with soulful rock, jazz and ’50s throwback a la Back to Basics, she’s in fine form.

Opening with “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” Aguilera sets the tone, belting out a strong intro and morphing into something from a Jerry Lee Lewis album. In “Tough Lover,” she does her best Little Richard with the high-pitched “whoos,” but still growls her own signature.

When the songs go more contemporary, they deliver some radio-ready tunes. “Express” and “The Beautiful People” are fun highlights and she delivers  in the ballad “Bound to You.” She’s reliable that way.

Cher contributes only two tracks: “Welcome to Burlesque,” a cliche opening weirdly recalling Aladdin’s “Arabian Nights,” and “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” This one’s a beautiful gem for her. Oscar nom? Hard to say. But maybe. While never earthshattering, there is a lot of fun to be had on the album. Just hearing Cher again has a queer appeal all its own.

— Rich Lopez

Three stars

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Face to Facebook

‘Catfish,’ a documentary about online relationships, is a gripping true mystery

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer stevencraiglindsey@me.com

4.5 out of 5 Stars
CATFISH
Rated PG-13.  90 mins. Now
playing at the Angelika Film
Center Mockingbird Station and AMC NorthPark Center.

……………………………..

If you’ve heard any spoilers for Catfish already, shame on the person who told you. This is a rare opportunity to be surprised in a movie theater in a time when studios are opting for marketing tactics that gets people into the theater without concern for truly entertaining them once they get there. To be sure, Piranha 3-D wasn’t a great movie, but did they have to show the final shocking scene in the trailer?

The last time an onscreen secret deserved to be kept by audiences and critics alike was probably The Crying Game. The mystery at the center of this film, thankfully, isn’t the entire thrill. Really, it’s the way filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost structure their documentary.

Capitalizing on the do-it-yourselfability of modern filmmaking — where anyone with access to digital HD cameras and editing software can be an auteur — they weave animated sequences from Google Earth, instant messages from Facebook and videos from YouTube with the same frantic browsing experience of anyone who’s ever attempted to multi-task online.

The method of storytelling, which would’ve been thoroughly confusing to just about anyone even as recently as three years ago, intuitively plays to the way our brains now function.

The story starts out innocently enough. Schulman’s adorably cute (and distractingly hairy) brother Nev has begun an online friendship with Abby, an eight-year-old girl who sent him a painting of one of his photos. Soon, he’s developed a friendship with the girl’s mom, and eventually, a crush on her 19-year-old half-sister, Megan. The family begins sending him frequent care packages filled with more and more paintings and intimate glimpses into their family life.

After exchanging hundreds of text messages and chatting endlessly online and over the phone, Nev begins to slowly uncover inconsistencies in Megan’s story. Blinded by the possibility of love and curiosity, he and the filmmakers head to rural Michigan to surprise her in person. At this point, the mystery begins — utterly compelling and nothing my sick imagination had predicted. The result is a story that’s at once heartwarming, frightening, unsettling and vivid.

The fact that the filmmakers stumbled onto this bigger narrative completely by accident has caused many critics to accuse them of faking the whole thing. But I tend to believe them.

Catfish ends up as one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in quite awhile. Just make sure to stay for the closing frames where even more shocking truths are revealed in simple white text on a black screen. Then head home and decide whether or not you should keep your Facebook account.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Satan’s little helper

‘Blair Witch’ can go to hell — ‘Last Exorcism’ puts fright in the pseudo-doc

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

The Last Exorcism
CAST OUT | A charlatan exoricst (Patrick Fabian) encounters the real deal in Nell (Ashley Bell) in this Eli Roth shocker with a gay twist.

3.5 out of 5 Stars
THE LAST EXORCISM
Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell,
Caleb Landry Jones.
Rated PG-13. 90 mins.
Now playing at wide release.

Pseudo-documentary horror movies seem to succeed in inverse proportion to their quality: the totally unwatchable Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity made gazillions, while the far superior Cloverfield was only a modest hit. So expect The Last Exorcism to sink like a stone.

Produced by Eli Roth and directed by Daniel Stamm, Exorcism has serious flaws, including an ending that won’t please everyone, but when it’s good, which is most of the time, it’s terrific.

Patrick Fabian stars as Cotton Marcus, the subject of the documentary-in-progress. He followed in the footsteps of his preacher father from age 10, and the style, incorporating card tricks, and exorcisms, is the family sideline (his father has done about 150).

The premature birth of his son triggered a crisis of faith for Cotton, who continued to function on automatic pilot. He felt his exorcisms benefited people psychologically — as long as they believed actual demons were leaving their bodies they were cured — but following an incident two years ago where a child died during one in Texas got Cotton out of the business.

As a parting gesture, he’s making a documentary to expose exorcism as a scam. For his last one, Cotton and a two-person crew head to Ironwood, La., where superstitious drunk Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) thinks his 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed and has been killing their livestock.

Cotton turns on his oily charm for Louis, Nell and Nell’s hostile brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), while privately exposing his tricks to the camera. He performs the exorcism, taking the alleged demon into his own body and freeing Nell from possession. Happy ending — except the movie is only half over.

As strange things start happening for real, The Last Exorcism becomes a whodunit, with Satan one of the suspects. There’s even a gay twist along the way to an ending that doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. I would have liked a few more questions answered before the perfect final shot, but it’s still a hoot.

One major drawback is the lack of accents on the major characters, especially those who live in the Louisiana backwoods. Even in Baton Rouge it’s unlikely the congregation would trust a preacher who sounds like a Yankee — even if he is second-generation and turns it on a little in the pulpit.

With that exception, the acting is very good, especially that of Bell, who will erase Linda Blair from your memory for all time with her physical and emotional performance as Nell.

While there are some of the requisite shaky-cam shots, the fact that professional filmmakers are supposed to be behind the video camera keeps The Last Exorcism from causing nausea or otherwise being hard to watch. (Cat lovers will have a problem with one scene.)

The wit and subtle satire of the first half and the mystery and suspense of the second combine to make this a pleasant late-summer surprise that deserves to stay around until Halloween.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Love at adjustable speed

The campy comedy ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is whiz-bang fun, while the studied romanticism of Julia’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ lacks passion

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Scott Pilgrim
POW! BAM! | Combining the campy fun of a gay comedy with the frenetic editing of an action film and stylized look of a graphic novel, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ may be the sleeper of the summer.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

Michael Cera’s progression from endearingly awkward teen into young adulthood has made him decidedly less endearing. The halting, fumbling shtick that served him so well in Arrested Development, Juno and even Superbad established a unique style — he is his own adjective: Cera-ish — but it has grown old, and quick. Gimmicky stuff, that, like a magician with only one hat trick.

It doesn’t help that, as a 22-year-old dime-store lothario with superhero powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his body is shapeless, with the muscle tone of an 11-year-old girl. His awkwardness is now downright ugly, like a weird hybrid of Stephen Hawking and some severe flightless waterfowl. It gets to the point were, if he were to stand on one leg and bury his head in the sand, everything would seem to make more sense.

But — and, as with Oprah, it’s a big “but” — you somehow manage to get beyond the uncomfortable feelings of watching him and enjoy director Edgar Wright’s quirky, high-speed fantasy romance. All despite Cera. Even though he’s kinda good in it. I know. It’s complicated.

So is the film, which is one of its many delights. Wright co-wrote and directed the Simon Pegg comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the latter of which may be the best genre film of its kind in the last decade. (It helps that there are few “of its kind:” It’s a bucolic cop-buddy-horror comedy, and completely brilliant.) There, Wright used Weed Whacker editing to highlight but also undermine the extreme violence. Scott Pilgrim, by contrast, takes its PG-13 rating and stylized action to look like a mild, mid-‘80s video game. It’s just as frenetic, but so whimsical as to be cartoonish. The entire film has “cult status” written all over it. Think Heathers for guys. Think Judd Apatow without the fart jokes.

Cartoonish isn’t far from true: This may be the best film yet based on a graphic novel. Scott (Cera) is a Toronto kid reveling in his post-high school status as a would-be Wooderson, romancing teenaged girls while pining for his ex, who went from nobody to Gwen Stefani superstar overnight. Scott has now set his sights on Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a punkish girl with a past. That past includes seven exes (including a lesbian dalliance), who unite in an evil league to fight to the death anyone who tries to date her. And that’s Scott.

All of the battle sequences take on their own tone, from Bollywood production number to Battle Arena Toshinden showdown to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? catfight. Are all these events real or imaginary? Is the action, a la Ally McBeal, all inside Scott’s head or are ordinary folks vested with magic powers? Best to forget the logic of the film, which toggles breathlessly between fantasy and reality, and enjoy instead its giddy, camp energy.

This may also be the most mainstream teen comedy with off-handed gay-positive content to emerge from Hollywood. As Scott’s best friend and roommate Wallace — a gay predator who “converts” straight boys (and who platonically shares his bed with Scott) — Kieran Culkin may be the most well-adjusted and reliable character in the film, a testament to the abiding normalcy of homosexuality today.

Call it progress, call it funny, but call on it. Scott Pilgrim takes on the world and wins. And we are better for it.

Eat Pray Love
ALL YOU NEED | The romance feels formulaic in the lovely, glowing travelogue ‘Eat Pray Love’ with Julia Roberts and an uber-sensitive Javier Bardem.

EAT PRAY LOVE
Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco, Richard Jenkins.
Rated PG-13. 140 mins.
Now playing wide release.

There’s nothing high energy about Eat Pray Love, although it is a fantasy of its own kind nonetheless. Throughout the film, light enrobes Julia Roberts’ flaxen hair like a perpetual halo, softly caressing her dewy skin, in virtually every shot of this romance, directed and co-written by Glee creator Ryan Murphy from the best selling memoir. After half a dozen years in which she’s done mostly ensemble and supporting work, this is the chick flick that could have reintroduced Roberts as a viable leading lady.

Could have, but probably won’t. Murphy can’t really escape his TV sensibilities — despite woozy photography, luscious settings and Roberts’ star power, it still seems bound to the small screen. And with the Carrie Bradshaw-style narration, upper middle class angst and a preoccupation with exotic locales, it tips its hand another way: It’s Sexless and the City.

Eat Pray Love uses a Goldilocks plot: Liz (Roberts) isn’t happy in her marriage (who would be, if your husband were a dud like Billy Crudup?), so she sets off on a world tour to find herself: First through hedonistic pursuits in Italy, then in spiritual privation in India, and finally the “just right” beauty and peacefulness of Bali. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: It’s the definition of formulaic.

Formulas can work, of course, and in an inoffensive way, this one marginally does (as did Under the Tuscan Sun). It’s best with the “eat” part of the triumvirate. Certainly it captures the sensuality of eating in a way that made me instantly hungry.

But there’s sensual and there’s sensuous, and this movie is lacking in the latter. Most of the “love” component seems no more authentic than it did in Valentine’s Day, Roberts’ last film. James Franco, as a charming rascal who woos Liz after her breakup, seems rotely charming, as if tossled hair and a crooked smile do all the work. It’s programmatically romantic, which isn’t really romance at all.

“Pray” is even worse than “love:” The scenes of spiritual enlightenment are no more illuminating than an introductory yoga class, and Richard Jenkins, as a gruff Texan with plainspoken wisdom, merely annoys.

The most authentically delicious of the men (aside from the eye candy of a brief fling with a gigolo) is Javier Bardem as a crunchy Brazilian living in Bali. Bardem cries when he kisses his son and makes grand gestures with a full heart and you believe it in a way nothing else comes close to. He strikes the right tone: You don’t need to be teary to be heartfelt.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

La cage aux fools

Remake of Veber farce a showcase for Carell

DINNER PARODY | Paul Rudd and Steve Carell spiral out of control in laugh-filled French farce remake.

3 out of 5 stars
DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS
Steve Carell, Paul Rudd.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins.
Now playing wide release.

With the one-two punch of Despicable Me and now Dinner for Schmucks, Steve Carell will be hard to beat as the summer’s King of Comedy.

Schmucks is based on the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons by Francis Veber, writer of La Cage aux Folles. With typical American excess, it’s half an hour longer than the French version (about 15 minutes too long) and includes the eponymous dinner, which Veber left to the imagination. Still it’s a top screen farce featuring moments of inspired silliness.

A farce by its nature requires lots of expositional set up, so your patience is tested at the beginning, but the payoff is worth it. Tim (Paul Rudd) is a hard-working analyst for Fender (Bruce Greenwood). With a connection to a wealthy Swiss wastrel (David Walliams of Little Britain) and the help of his secretary (Kristen Schaal), Tim may advance from the sixth floor to the seventh: Moving into the company’s inner circle gets him invited to a monthly dinner party where idiots are invited and mocked.

Tim has begun making frequent proposals to his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), an art curator promoting the career of pretentious painter Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement). Tim promises not to participate in the dinner until he meets socially awkward Barry (Carell), who fits the idiot profile so perfectly it seems like fate.

Tim invites him to the dinner, giving him a license to cling. Barry sets about systematically but inadvertently destroying Tim’s life, hilariously involving his own boss at the IRS (Zach Galifianakis) and a stalker (Lucy Punch) with a near-fatal attraction to Tim.

Because the p.c. police are watching, the dinner guests not only have to have some kind of alternate intellect, but must be extraordinary people with specialized skills or hobbies they engage in obsessively. We’ve already seen Barry’s work in a fascinating opening montage: He dresses up dead mice and poses them in elaborate tableaux.

In classic fashion, it’s always clear where Dinner for Schmucks is headed but not how it’s going to get there. Each of Barry’s blunders is just a bit more outrageous than you think it’s going to be. Carell, skillfully delivering malapropisms like “the fecal position,” can take over the late Ed Wynn’s title of the Perfect Fool. Rudd makes an equally perfect straight man, though the character and situation may be too close for comfort to what he played in I Love You, Man.

The supporting players overact appropriately, with Szostak and Punch likely to raise their profiles significantly. It’s a treat for Flight of the Conchords fans to have Clement and Schaal in the same vehicle, even if they don’t get to interact.

Director Jay Roach almost makes up for those dreadful Austin Powers movies here. A moment when Barry’s backstory is told in three photos is surprisingly subtle and touching, reminiscent of the marriage montage in Up. If you like to laugh, you’d be a schmuck to be late for Dinner.

— Steve Warren

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 30, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas