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1970s’ cheese and goofy showmanship drive the humor in this passable comedy.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell; Talladega Nights) is a very lightly regarded basketball impresario in Flint, Michigan. His Tropics are the joke of the American Basketball Association, and the player/manager/owner is barely keeping his team afloat with the royalties from his one soul hit: “Love Me Sexy.” When he learns his team is being excluded from the NBA merger, Jackie scrambles to save it, stepping up his desperate promotions and bringing in a new player, Monix (Woody Harrelson; No Country for Old Men), to teach his team how to play.

It’s pretty much what you might expect for a Will Ferrell comedy. The movie is full of quick one-liners, a touch of creepy humor and ample slapstick swirled together by Ferrell’s own cartoonish effervescence. Much fun is had in lampooning the cool scene of the ’70s and the early evolution of basketball. Jackie Moon is also billed as the father of modern seat-filling promotions, as his snowballing, desperate grabs for attention make a fine lampoon of modern seat-filling gimmicks.

The movie’s good for laughs so long as you can enjoy stupid humor. Kent Alterman makes his directorial debut with this movie, having executive produced such cousinry as Balls of Fury and Mr. Woodcock. The pedigree shows here, for good and ill. But director seems a strong word, as Alterman basically surrenders the camera to Ferrell’s madness. Fine enough if you’re a fan of the comedian, but if you require a ringmaster to bring focus to Ferrell’s circus, Semi-Pro might prove exhausting.

Basic story structure is there, but execution is inconsistent. Scenes are inserted for the sake of gags but not neatly tied in with the story. They are often funny, as in the jive turkey tangent, but they can muss up the flow. Monix as the battered vet trying to love the game again and Coffee Black (André Benjamin; Idlewild) as the aspiring rough talent promise to deepen story development, but both are upstaged by Ferrell.

Dodge Ball, a classic slapstick in the sports vein, succeeded in part because it developed a solid storyline and shared the camera among several fun characters. It was a team effort. Ferrell proves a ball hog, and complementary characters are elbowed aside with the plot in his maelstrom.

That said, there is fun to be had. As Ferrell vehicles go, this one runs a little rough but gets you where you’re going. If you’re simply looking for something to laugh at, this will fit the bill. But anyone with a low tolerance for Ferrell should pass.

Fair comedy • R • 90 mins.

A Serious Man

This is a film that defies convention. It will have you musing long after you’ve forgotten the latest blockbuster.

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ November 5, 2009

Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats Larry.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg: Cold Souls) is a meek Midwestern physics professor. He lolls quietly along through the 1960s until life spites him but good. He’s cuckolded, bullied, used, blackmailed, dismissed, manipulated, disparaged, burdened and hated. Tribulations mount as he searches for cosmic answers, begging them of everyone from his synagogue’s rabbis to a Columbia records phone rep. He searches for the why while pleading his worth to the wind.

Toward what point? Can’t say there is one.

A Serious Man is an original trip from Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men), a (very) dark comedy that explores one man’s suffering. The fun, or at least the interest, of this film arises from muddling of Larry’s quest for why across science and faith.

The Coen brothers extend this tease into the theater by swift turns, baiting you into searching for a point— only to leave you dangling without closure from a thousand partial bridges. An opening scene that’s never contextualized is followed by such trappings as one rabbi’s pointless dental anecdote and a strange mathematical cat metaphor. Dream eventually invades reality, and the Coens use it to jab at the audience with flashes of Larry’s addled soul.

Answers aren’t the only slippery prey. Larry’s troubles seem to dip and dodge around him, staying just outside his grasp, not attacking him directly so much as steadily eroding away his footing. Offenses are not so much committed against him as in disregard of him. Racism and bribery arrive by inference. There is no climax, just a steady build of unnerving. Trouble mounts and mounts and you wait for the turn — only to discover this is an interminable straightaway.

Comedy, it’s worth reminding, is there, though it is subtle. It largely lies in characters’ attempts at waxing philosophical and moments of sincere strangeness; wife-stealing widower Sy’s overwarm attempts at reconciliation come to mind. Rich character helps bring out a deep vein of eccentricity and color that, for the right mindset, will coax amusement.

This film also has a distinctly Jewish flavor, as the Coens deftly weave fable, tradition and faith. Even a goy can appreciate this richly atmospheric context. Roles are smartly populated with largely unknown actors. Front man Stuhlbarg, a bit actor elsewhere in his resume, excels in the role of discombobulated victim Larry. Fred Melamed is great as the strangely serene and self-righteous Sy.

Further dissection is better served over drinks on a Friday night. All said, this is a film that defies convention and will have you talking and musing long after you’ve forgotten the latest blockbuster.

Great dramedy • R • 105 mins.

Sex and the City

This flick is all bright, quick and scrappy escapism dolled up with designer labels and hunky man babes set against snazzy locales

reviewed by Mark Burns

I’m no longer a manly man (if I ever was) for having been able to spell Manolo Blahnik correctly from memory. Blahnik? The designer’s famously red-soled shoes are revered gems in the high-fashion world, some creations standing out with such extravagant touches as chinchilla fur rosettes.

But in this theater, I am but an interloper in girls’ night out. But here goes.

Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker: Smart People) is a writer for Vogue magazine who’s made her name and success with a column about love, sex and the single woman. But she may soon be out of material. It seems her search for love may finally be finished, as she’s suddenly set to wed her on-again-off-again squeeze, Mr. Big (Chris Noth: Law & Order).

To bring in the conflict, reality bites back hard. Carrie’s New York City fairy tale hits a wrenching snag. Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon: The Babysitters) marriage is on the rocks; Samantha (Kim Cattrall: Ice Princess) finds herself suffocating in the anathema of functional monogamy; and Charlotte (Kristin Davis: Deck the Halls) is cheerily empathetic. But she’s left out of the dramatic stew except as supportive friend: That ditzy brunette pepster is offered but one mild trouble that just won’t stick.

So the friends struggle through crises of the heart, mojo, and questionable wardrobe choices against the chic backdrops of New York.

Honestly, it’s a little fun. At its most basic, Sex and the City muscles up yay, shopping! and grand romance clichés to high fashion and flashes of sex bordering on soft porn. (The latter is scarring to see in a theater amid at least 43 of your delighted moms.) But the setup benefits from more wit and substance than a newbie might expect.

These material girls are infused with enough depth to make them interesting and sympathetic. But they’re not entirely relatable: My eyes rolled at the notion of cementing a deep emotional bond over an ugly (perceived fashionable) handbag.

Sharp one-liners and candid sexual humor prove charismatic. The laughs range from bathroom humor to gasps at high fashion gaffe. At best, the humor thrives in the reversal of sexual objectification and the bantering pursuit of A-list happiness. Samantha steals most scenes as she tries to cope with false inhibition.

At worst, there is thinly penned borrowing, such as a snappy gay wedding planner who’s less edgy than Martin Short in Father of the Bride.

Michael Patrick King, assembler of the original HBO series, directs a film that relies on quick summary to avoid hashing out the hairier details. Carrie’s narration most often serves as a cue for an awkward lurch in the timeline. The telling is too hasty, as the film cools its stilettos only for the immediacy of the central crises, then scrolls with increasing velocity through rebound and resolution. Such haste winnows new character Louise (Jennifer Hudson: Dreamgirls), brought in for Midwestern perspective on love and pulling together the pieces.

Essentially, that’s beside the point. This flick is all bright, quick and scrappy escapism dolled up with designer labels and hunky man babes set against snazzy locales. Its purpose is not to nourish the mind but to pleasure the senses, like some fruity cocktail. In this sense, it succeeds. Sex and the City fans will probably dig it, though I for one have no clue how it measures up against the series. Stag men, on the other hand, would do better to queue up early for Mongol.

Good comedy • R • 148 mins.

Shutter Island

© Paramount Pictures

Teddy, Leonardo DiCaprio, investigates the escape of an inmate/patient from a the hospital for the criminally insane, while Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Cawley, the malevolent hospital director.

A U.S. Marshal struggles to unknot conspiracy in this smart psychological thriller.

reviewed by Mark Burns; February 25, 2010

Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio: Revolutionary Road) is a deputy with the fledgling U.S. Marshals. He and his new partner have come ashore on Shutter Island, a rock amid Boston’s Harbor Islands and home to a high-security institute for the criminally insane. One of the patient inmates has managed an impossible escape. Their investigation, however, stirs suspicions of something more wicked as Teddy quests to expose sinister purpose at the institute.

First know this is no horror. Previews have tempted the misconception with images of the stringy haired shushing lady, catacomb stalk and the threat of murderous lunatics. Those promises are here. But this one, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone Baby Gone) is instead a head game.

From the start we learn Teddy has his own tortured past: he’s a war veteran tragically widowed by arson. Flashes of Dachau and his lost wife assail him in visions as he’s drawn into the madness around him, increasing in frequency and severity by the shrinks’ apparent manipulations. Despite his role he’s not in control, seeming ever more the rat in overseer Dr. Cawley’s (Ben Kingsley: The Love Guru) maze.

The maze makes for good story. Martin Scorsese (Shine a Light) weaves a tidy web of intrigue. Convolutions and twists keep the film unpredictable, veering it through detours and strange bends without getting lost in its own head. Even Teddy’s numerous visions are coherent and contextual enough so as not to abandon the viewer to an asylum ward. They instead feed mystery, which Scorsese is adept at nurturing with just enough clues to keep it interesting without tipping his hand.

Flashes of violence bring fine danger but are carefully dosed as crescendo to smart suspense at key moments. It’s enough but not too much, supplemented by Teddy’s own internal conflict and the inhospitable island. Stalk and conspiracy keep the film from going slack, yielding a proper thriller that’s taut and well paced.

DiCaprio excels at playing the damaged hero, and Kingsley is a smart foil. Mark Ruffalo (Where the Wild Things Are) does well as partner Chuck. Their roles play out in rich atmosphere, as Scorsese makes best use of some epic Massachusetts landscapes and locations.

The grand climax is a fascination, but it’s also the film’s weakest moment. Clues snap together snugly enough, but implausibilities may irritate some. Either way, it left a full theater dumbly fixed, with one slow, plodding clap from the rear as tentative appreciation. Judge for yourself in this must-see.

Great thriller • R • 138 mins.

Smart People

This dud is summary recycling.

reviewd by Mark Burns

Intellectual heavyweights slog through emotional doldrums in this self-absorbed movie.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid: American Dreamz) is a snooty grump of a literature professor, sunk deep into a widower’s miasma. The prof grimaces at the world through a tweedy beard, and his students are hip to the fact that they’re despised. Only a chance encounter with former student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker: Sex in the City) promises to snap him into an emotional awakening. Alas, his selfish withdrawal keeps love at bay. Doubly alas, his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page: Juno) proves fiercely protective. But all is not lost, as Lawrence’s slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church: Spider-Man 3) mooches into their lives and massages the family’s humanity.

The film toys with the notion of book-smart people struggling to emerge from emotionally dense self-fixation. While Lawrence gradually learns not to be a jerk to get the girl, Chuck sets out to corrupt housekeeping teen Vanessa away from remaining a stick-in-the-mud Young Republican. On the dramatic end, Vanessa makes a hypocritical effort to make her dad get over the loss of her mom.

Smart People is unique for its charismatic void. Lawrence is too much of a stereotypical, tortured, annoying bore. Janet’s attraction to him is inexplicable and uninteresting. Vanessa, the most interesting character, is a missed opportunity — though she does deliver the one laugh substantial enough that it can’t be vented as simple exhalation through the nose. Character development is limited to what they reveal about themselves in real time (very little), and they are allowed to evidence very few eccentricities of genius. Instead they are given uppity dialogue that reads like Scripps National Spelling Bee edition Mad Libs. Only with less soul. And the camera returns to shots of the home staircase, each time with a different arrangement of books stacked on the steps. See? They read a lot. They must be smart.

Performances are understated to a fault, though decent given the lack of available character. Either way, newbie director Noam Murro can’t quite bring them together in rhythm. Thin plot doesn’t offer them much chance.

Ultimately, this dud is summary recycling. Retreat into your own sheltered malaise. It’s probably more interesting.

Poor dramedy • R • 95 mins.

The Soloist

This predictable and hard-to-watch inspirer does nothing of the sort.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A newspaper reporter writes a column about a homeless classical musician and in the process becomes overly involved in his life in the mostly unpleasant and annoying drama The Soloist. Excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. can’t save this predictable and hard-to-watch inspirer that does nothing of the sort.

Steve Lopez (Downey) writes a slice-of-life column for the Los Angeles Times. On a coffee break, he happens upon homeless Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) playing Beethoven on a two-stringed violin. In his rambling Rainman-like remarks, Nathaniel mentions that he once studied at Julliard. Steve does a little research and finds out that indeed it’s true. So Steve not only starts to write columns about the down-on-his-luck cellist with mental illness but also tries to help Nathaniel get back to playing. Lots of learning follows with typically loud and intense scenes and little honest emotional payoff.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement; Pride & Prejudice) tries in vain to bring us into Nathaniel’s mental state, using cinematic devices to simulate some of what is in his head. Whispering voices talking to Nathaniel are played at an obnoxious level with enough repetition that we, too, wish we had medication to make them go away. An elongated scene where colors burst on the screen during a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic feels like an experimental film from the 1960s meant to be enjoyed on LSD. 

The film scores some points for exposing us to the swept-under-the-rug world of homelessness. Wright features actual homeless people as background players in the film. Indeed, Steve’s journey into Skid Row is a jarring one for both him and us. It educates and reminds us of a world we try to ignore. And Downey and Foxx are expert and believable in their roles.

Message films shake us by the lapels to bring home their issues: homelessness is bad; mental illness is difficult. But delivering messages doesn’t excuse ignoring the dynamics of intriguing story.

Fair drama • PG-13 • 115 mins.

Speed Racer

Fans and newcomers alike might just as easily be seduced as repelled by this unreal feast of color and action unleashed with wild abandon.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild) is a racing wunderkind, champion son of the esteemed Racer family. He lives only to race, and at first he seems content to chase the legacy of his brother Rex, who died long ago in a fiery accident. When a major win thrusts Speed into the spotlight, a villainous corporate titan swoops in to profit from him. But when Speed resists, he makes a powerful enemy, so, with the help of the mysterious Racer X and Inspector Detector, he races to protect his family and rescue his beloved sport.

Speed Racer fans will find the film fairly loyal to both the 1967 and 2002 cartoon series. All the core characters are present, from girlfriend Trixie to Chim-Chim the monkey. Writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix) tried to capture the energy of the cartoon, punching it up with copious CGI action, a vivid swatch of colors and cinematic elements that mimic manga and anime graphic devices.

The result is at once odd, disheveled and brilliant.

Most striking is the film’s unrelenting color. The opening scenes alone are enough to make you shuffle through your popcorn and wonder if the butter is psychotropic.

Mild abortive cursing, one rude gesture and touches of above-par violence may exceed the innocence of memory. It’s not overdone, though, fitting within the context of the criminals.

Intrigue serves to move the film and lend body, pairing well with the racing. But too much time is spent in the minutiae, making the movie overlong. Piddling in the details ultimately distracts from the broader storyline, as the Wachowskis fail to organize the film’s aspects into smooth flow.

The story has its hiccups, but the racing action is creative and entertaining. Fantastic cars hurtle, spin and tumble through impossible Matchbox-style suspended tracks, deploying enough crazy hardware to make Inspector Gadget’s hat-copter wilt in jealousy. Physics are ignored for sake of creative mayhem. The Wachowskis toy with a more playful derivation of their Matrix-pedigree time-lapse fight scenes, but it’s behind the wheel that excitement bursts. Automotive acrobatics, tumbling viewpoints, explosives and swirling lights create a nexus of wild flux. The motion-sickened might want to bring Dramamine.

Whatever the gripes, this film is a bold adaptation of the classic anime — an unreal feast of color and action unleashed with wild abandon. Fans and newcomers alike might just as easily be seduced as repelled. I, for one, still can’t decide.

Fair Action • PG • 135 mins.

Star Trek

© Paramount Pictures

The crew of the Starship Enterprise includes Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), McCoy (Karl Urban), an extra crew woman, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Sulu (John Cho).

Boldly go. Twice, even. This is the first blockbuster of the
season to warrant repeat viewings.

reviewed by Mark Burns

The Federation starship Enterprise is sparked to life by original series verve in this bright reboot.

Rebellious (but genius) knucklehead James T. Kirk (Chris Pine: Bottle Shock) has yet to know the shine of legend. But it’s coming. The Starfleet Academy cadet is busy cementing his maverick reputation, much to the chagrin of instructor Spock (Zachary Quinto: Sylar on Heroes), when the cadets are called upon to mount an interplanetary rescue. It’s Kirk who senses the danger for what it truly is, and when they inevitably find the thick of it he will rise to the challenge and assemble his storied crew to save the day.

The 43-year-old Trek universe has accumulated a lot of baggage across five series, 10 prior films and countless fictions. By resetting to origin, Star Trek has managed to slough it all off. And, without such weight, the filmmakers have created an attitudinal antithesis to the starchy Next Generation fare. It’s evident in the brighter script, bolder (and more believable) acting, weirder aliens and Starfleet miniskirts. There’s even a consistent vein of levity (sometimes slapstick) as a nod to the camp fun of Gene Roddenberry’s series.

The story is built on a triple threat: Kirk’s journey to the Captain’s chair; the intertwining of his path with Spock’s; and the struggle against alien menace. These three aspects combine neatly and whirl through copious action — from swift chase to bruising fistfights to explosive starship battles — while picking up and developing the side players on the way.

However performances makes this Trek. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu are all icons defined by the original players. Yet the new cast manage to make the roles their own while offering a little homage. Pine in particular succeeds in interpreting William Shatner’s occasional odd facial expression and rarely inserting that trademark dramatic pause. Favorite catch phrases (“Dammit Jim! I’m a doctor.”) are nicely reintroduced.

Die-hard George Lucas devotees may grouse about a couple of parallels to the Star Wars universe — like a vaguely similar Hoth sequence — but it’s worth getting over. This film is a blast of happy escapist sci-fi fantasy. Boldly go. Twice, even. This is the first blockbuster of the season to warrant repeat viewings.

Great sci-fi action • PG-13 • 126 mins.

© Universal Pictures

Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams and Russell Crowe in the political thriller State of Play.

State of Play

This one won’t save journalism.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Russell Crowe stars as a Washington newspaper reporter investigating the death of a Congressional staffer in the convoluted and disappointing suspense thriller State of Play. Director Kevin Macdonald’s (The Last King of Scotland) attempt at an old-school political thriller falls mostly flat thanks to unthoughtful twists and wasted star power.

Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, an old-school newspaper reporter on the city beat who seems to know everyone: the police, the employees at the morgue, even up-and-coming Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a college roommate. Taken under Cal’s wing is new-school political reporter/blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Their two investigations collide when a connection is discovered between a Georgetown double homicide and a suspicious suicide at a Metro station of a pretty Congressional staffer working for Collins. Cal and Della find themselves in deep waters, with a massive corporation involved, a gunman on their trail and a newspaper editor (Helen Mirren) barking at them the whole way.

The movie’s set-up is intriguing enough, and we are initially interested as we see the killings and start to speculate on how it might all connect. But as we meet the main characters, we start to think there might be less here than meets the eye. Each character is introduced as a cliché: Cal is a typical smartass, Della is typically Bambi-eyed but intelligent, the Congressman is typically handsome and full of himself, the editor is typically loud and demanding: On and on the cardboard cutout characters go.

As the movie goes on (and it does go on), the plot, which at first strings us along, unravels. As viewers, we become bored but feel that we should hang on for what must be a big climax. Maybe we’ll even get something about the changing role of newspaper journalism. No such luck.

The impressive cast is mostly wasted in trite roles, and one wonders why Robin Wright Penn’s character as Collins’ wife is in the film at all. The only one who stands out is Affleck, who is awful and not believable. It’s not just that he isn’t believable as a Congressman; he isn’t believable as a human being. We haven’t seen Affleck in anything in a while, which makes me wonder if this isn’t just the way he has aged ungracefully into his older roles. Not good.

Fair suspense thriller • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Step Brothers

Will Ferrell thrives here, at the corner of Ridiculous and Dumb.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Dale (John C. Reilly: Talladega Nights) is daddy’s little man. Brennan (Will Ferrell: Semi-Pro) is mama’s boy. Both are 40 and still mooching strong as the special boys of two uniquely tolerant single parents. Coddle comes under threat, though, when homes merge after mom and dad marry. Newfound fraternity proves unwelcome, and immediately the man-boys battle for superiority. They won’t learn to appreciate the new family situation before the parents make a move to kick them out of the nest. So the pair overreact their way through trying to resolve familial crisis.

Ferrell in particular thrives here, at the corner of Ridiculous and Dumb, where humor is defined by a rampage of physical idiocy. This is, after all, his forte. The premise lets him unleash his inner idiot child to tangle with Reilly’s, and both actors delight in mad regression. Slapstick is the rule as the brothers slug it out; it succeeds grandly in the film’s funnier moments of rivalry.

At best, the humor cajoles a healthy guffaw or two. Perhaps there is even topical relevance in lampooning the modern phenomenon of twixter adults who can’t quite wrangle themselves away from the shelter of home to join the real world.

The slapstick is predictable, and shock gags veer from an amused omigosh to an appalled what-the-fiddlesticks?! at the drop of a crass proposition. And I swear I thought there was going to be a cliff-jumping suicide. It seemed the natural place for this flick to go.

The movie also lacks for a decent straight man/woman as anchor. Parents Nancy (Mary Steenburgen: The Brave One) and Robert (Richard Jenkins: The Visitor) come close to Dick van Dyke or Dean Martin turns. But they can’t handle the onslaught, merely serving as victims to the chaos.

Honestly, Step Brothers can be fun if you can open up to the sheer ridiculousness of it. But it will make you dumber.

Fair comedy • R • 95 mins.


For all its salty dialogue’s onslaught, this one’s a smart feast — and not just for fans of Judd Apatow.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Marginalized high school oddballs adventure for glory and girls in this smart adolescent comedy.

Seth (Jonah Hill: Knocked Up) and Evan (Michael Cera: Arrested Development) have been best friends since elementary school; now it’s senior year and they’re confronting the prospect of separation. They have only one summer left before they must peel themselves apart to different universities.

But college has other concerns as well, and Seth in particular is panicked that they must chase away the specter of virginity before they leave for the great beyond. So, when cool-girl Jules (Emma Stone) needs a hand bootlegging booze for a party, Seth seizes the opportunity. In one grand scheme the pals aspire to deliveryman glory, by which they might impair the judgment of their crushes long enough to snare them for summer-long committals that might in turn, eventually, whisk away said specter. To that end, the pair tap friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as their fake-ID-toting procurer and stumble into desperate misadventure.

Superbad’s premise is enough to tempt comparisons to American Pie. But they’re very different movies. American Pie thrived on a simple recipe of gross-out gags and humiliation. Superbad, on the other hand, is ambrosia.

At the film’s core is awkward candor and naïve, curse-filled, bravado-puffed bluster delivered as intelligent banter. Screenwriters Seth Rogen (lead actor of Knocked Up) and Evan Goldberg started penning this script when they were 13, and it shows in their adolescent empathy. Well-placed comic violence and absurdity keep the story rolling briskly along, while the dramatic angle of the friends’ separation anxiety deepens the story just enough to keep it smart and earnest.

Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks; 40 Year Old Virgin) has a hand in this movie as producer, and much of the talent are vets of his past projects. Director Greg Mottola runs with the Apatow aesthetic of unflinching absorption of the awkward and strange, playing uncomfortably realistic situations for cringing laughs. There are scenes of drugging and drinking, but they aren’t glossed. Rather, the scenes are almost confrontationally realistic: ugly and a little bit dangerous. Juxtaposing the naïve teens amid this, putting them in way over their heads, makes for a shock of extremely effective holy-*bleep* humor.

Measured slapstick, one tremendous gross-out gag and scads of humorously crass material shine as well, but nothing gets funnier than the determined corruption of Fogell. Spindly and flailing as a spring fawn, the geek aspires to hip-hop excess even as he stumbles through his own nervous fear. His evolution is the most dynamic of the movie and easily makes him the best character in it; newcomer Mintz-Plasse steals every scene.

Anchoring all is the film’s dramatic underpinnings. The two best friends of the film are struggling with the break up their lifelong codependence and must deal with a little bit of hard soul-searching. From their own little world, this one crazy night serves as their induction into the big world outside. It all proves realistically overwhelming, and their buddy drama blends seamlessly among the goofiness, giving substance to the story.

While Mintz-Plasse steals the scenes, everybody’s spot-on. The film never misses a beat, neatly pacing a consistent blend of the slapstick, strange and sincere throughout.

Fans of Apatow et al. will definitely dig this film. Those shy of crass material might wilt at the dialogue’s salty onslaught, but this one is a smart feast regardless.

Great comedy • R • 114 mins.


© Walt Disney Pictures

Bruce Willis stars as both a grizzled lawman and his younger avatar surrogate.

This one’s a waste. Send a surrogate.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Human masters come under attack via their robotic avatars in this dim sci-fi thriller.

It’s the not-so-distant future, and humanity has become a ghost in the machine of surrogacy. Homebodies lay back in far-out Sharper Image recliners and link up to sophisticated robots called surrogates, experiencing life through the safe filter of prettified and amplified avatars. It’s all Stepford sunshine until a “meatbag” revolutionary murders a couple by shorting out their alternate selves. Thus FBI agent Tom (Bruce Willis: Live Free or Die Hard) is stirred to action, though he’ll have to abandon the shell and put his own agoraphobic butt on the line if he’s to solve the murder and unveil a more sinister scheme.

Surrogates takes an implausible premise and plods stiffly around with it, never losing the what-if factor. For instance: You’d think a society of people operating entirely through superhuman robots and disconnected from consequence would be rocketing around with freewheeling abandon. Really, where are the teens behind the helm of their first surrogate experience? Instead, humanity has filed into line to form a civil society of Scandinavian stillness. Their extremes? A pleasure seeker jumps on a dance floor from a mildly precarious height and proceeds to dance like a white guy.

Wow. Cue up Ace of Base.

The story is an insubstantial summary, doing little more than setting up spindly stilts of context and wantonly tossing a non-gripping whodunit on top. Holes abound. There’s some run-of-the-mill time-wasting intrigue with a couple twists, but even the most promising plot turns are blank summary. These filmmakers don’t have focus on spectacle as an excuse, either. Action is equally uninspired, laying waste to vast numbers of robo-people while never fully toying with the possibilities of superhuman cat-and-mouse.

This one’s a waste. Send a surrogate.

Poor sci-fi • PG-13 • 88 mins.

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